Sexploitation: Helpful or Harmful for Female Athletics?

The rapid increase in popularity of female athletics has affected the entire society in a variety of ways. On one hand it is wonderful that little girls are growing up with the opportunity to be involved in athletics, but on the other hand there are new added pressures and stereotypes that are applied to female athletes that must be faced on a daily basis.

As female athletics increases in recognition, large agencies have begun marketing female athletes in a more provocative manner. Some advertisement firms believe that any media attention a female athlete can get will benefit the sport overall. Others have different views regarding how a female should market herself and the sport. Sexuality is playing a larger role in society and has bled into many other facets of life including sports. The question of whether it is morally right for a female athlete to remove her clothes for a photo shoot has caused a division in the sporting arena, the marketing field, and the advertisement industry.

Sexploitation in context with women's athletics is defined as types of marketing, promotion or attempts to gain media coverage which highlights the sexual attributes of female athletes, especially the visibility of their bodies. Many people believe that this has a negative affect on women and athletics because it does not send a valuable message about athletics and highlights a woman's body rather than her athletic abilities. Dr. Murray Phillips, an author who wrote a book on media coverage and women's sports, argues that there are several flaws in sexploitation. In his book he states, "It excludes many female athletes who do not fit into the appropriate body types, it glorifies certain female shapes and sends messages about what is appropriate and inappropriate for aspiring female athletes. These images fit neatly into stereotypes that have historically prevented women's sport from being accepted on par with men's sport."

Women have fought hard to gain acceptance into the arena of sport and, the opportunities provided to women are more level to the opportunities provided to men. But by supporting sexploitation in female athletics, the separate treatment of male and female athletes is still very distinct. Unlike female athletes, a male's athletic worth is not based on his attractiveness or his sexual appeal, rather he will be judged by his athletic skills. Some supporters of women's athletics believe that showing skin to sell something is simply immoral because it is demeaning to the individual. The executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, Donna Lopiano, voiced her opinion in the Sports Foundation newsletter, "any exposure in a sports magazine that minimizes athletic achievement and skill and emphasizes the female athlete as a sex object is insulting and degrading." Despite the strong opinions of those who oppose sexploitation of female athletes, there are others who are in favor of this marketing tactic.

Some athletes support the elimination of clothing in photos not because they want to be turned into a sex object, but because they want to celebrate their lean and muscled ideal athletic body. Showing skin can be extremely empowering for some women and it helps them to show the public that female athletes can be feminine and sexy. Some athletes want to eliminate the common stereotype that women who are involved in sports are either extremely masculine or homosexual.

By presenting themselves in a softer more sexual light, they are hoping the public will start to develop a different view of women athletes. For example, Swimmer Ashley Tappin, who was shown on the cover of Maxim wearing a skimpy red sweater that was unbuttoned from the waist to the collar, supported the photo to a local news reporter stating, "We're healthy. We're fit. And we're not just cute; we do good things with our bodies. They are functional. Why not show them off?" It is also important to look at the marketing agencies that are giving women the chance to pose on the cover of magazines such as Maxim. These magazines are looking to make money any way they can and one way to do this is to sell sex.

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The role of sex in society has increased in popularity as television shows, movies, advertisements, and magazines all show more sexually provocative and explicit material. It makes sense that as women's sports gains recognition and certain athletes become more recognizable by the public, different forms of media are going to try and capitalize on the athlete's popularity to sell their product. Some media companies openly admit to using sex as a foundation for selling their item to the public. Specifically, Maxim, a magazine designed to target men, does not deny how it shows off female bodies and writes about sex. The executive editor, James Kaminsy, explains the magazine's marketing agenda, stating in an interview, "Let me put it this way, if Janet Reno (US Attorney General) were a babe, we'd put her on the cover in a second." Marketing agencies do not see the person they place on the cover as a sexy female athlete; they only see her as a sexy female. There is no difference to them what the woman does professionally, if she is physically attractive and can help sell their product, then she is going to be used.

Women have been trying to find a balance between sports and femininity for the past few decades. Since sports and masculinity complement one another, it is difficult for women to determine where femininity belongs in the sporting arena. Many female athletes have started to think of themselves differently depending upon the environment they are in. For example, a woman may be rough and aggressive on the court but will also be elegant and graceful at the evening party. Sue Toye, a female athlete and writer, explores the relationship between femininity and sports stating, "There is a strong perception that athleticism and femininity are separate issues and that being an athlete does not preclude a woman from also being feminine: she simply expresses her femininity side outside of her sport."

This idea of split roles is not visible in male sports because masculinity and athleticism are traditionally seen as compatible. The dual roles that women play usually do not conflict or contradict one another; rather the ability for a woman to be both athletic and feminine is extremely empowering. Being athletic is what separates a female athlete from other women. This in turn gives her more self esteem and enriches her character. A current junior high physical education teacher, Chris Woodbury, believes that there should always be a separation between an athlete and sports. She argues that, "In order to be a healthy person, balance is necessary and showing sexuality is a way to gain more personal balance because it allows the athlete to see herself as more than a jock." A person's identity cannot only be based on sports, so it is vital that athletes understand who they are without the sport. Division of interests should not be frowned upon because it makes for a more dynamic person. Dividing oneself between an aggressive player on the field and a delicate woman off the field may not always be bad; instead it can have a positive effect on many women athletes and may help them understand their unique place in the society.

It is interesting to learn about the variety of complex stereotypes that all people must face at one point in their life. In the situation of female athletes, they are fighting to find a balance between athleticism and femininity while also making money and supporting their sport. The marketing world has offered women the opportunity to pose for magazines and photo shoots in a manner similar to actresses and models which draws attention to the sexuality of the woman rather than focusing on her athletic feats. Some female athletes are proud to have capitalized on this blending of sex and sports and hope that their marketing decisions will promote themselves as well as the sport. Others disagree that selling sex is not the way an athlete should endorse herself. Both sides present a strong case and in the end it comes down to one thing: the individual athlete's decision.