The Realities of a Global Epidemic: A Closer Look at Women’s Sexual Health
Robert Jesky, Dip.Ac, BHSc, MMed, BCIH
Women’s sexual health ranks as one of the most prevalent health issues of the 21st century. Social norms founded on precepts dating back centuries have shaped current and degrading views of women, and this has led to exploitation so severe and embedded in the social fabric that it is tolerated and considered almost normal. While, in certain societies, some changes have come in the way of gender role adjustment, the real nature of the issue is as pertinent as ever before, with more ingenious methods continually employed to maintain dominance over women and their bodies. Women’s sexual health is interwoven into the sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic environments, which means that devising methods to improve it requires examining how it is linked with these environments. As the incidence of sexual violence against women continues to escalate, we must expose and examine the environment of women’s sexual health and determine the stakeholders involved in order to determine a plan for policy change. Currently, the situation is grave, with the mental, physical, and social well-being of hundreds of millions of women (young and old) at stake as they are subjected to sexual coercion, discrimination, and violence. This epidemic has reached epic proportions and has strong causal associations with mass media and other sociocultural factors that arise from the milieu of modern existence. The required courses of action include a large-scale social awareness campaign of acceptable and inappropriate conduct, a deconstruction of social norms, and new policies to regulate how women and girls are portrayed in the mass media. This should first be conducted domestically (North America), with possible inclusion of other G8 members thereafter. It is only through clarifying the environmental factors and cultural norms that perpetuate this issue that violence and sexual objectification of women can be rectified.
Keywords: Sexual violence, mass media, women’s health, sexual assault, sociocultural norms, sexualization, rape myths, gender equality
Imbalances in the social statuses of men and women have long been an issue dictating life events. Many of these imbalances arise out of social norms that have been constructed around male-dominance. Over the course of the last few centuries, the role of women in society has fluctuated little. Women have been, and continue to be, the subject of exploitation. What has changed, however, are the ingenious methods males use to continually exercise dominance over females. With the professionalization of medicine came a new, unprecedented prestige that allowed for the phallocentricity of society to label natural, physiological functions of the female body as medical syndromes (i.e., menopause) or create new ones through disease mongering, predominately in the name of profit (Moynihan, 2003). An example is the invention and promotion of female sexual dysfunction (FSD), a condition not based on scientific or medical evidence, but rather, a campaign popularized by the world’s pharmaceutical companies (Tiefer, 2006). This “medicalization” of women’s bodies is a matter of public health, and it is one of many ways society exerts control over, and harms, women. The issue has been under the microscope for some time, which has helped facilitate considerable discourse. Yet aside from small changes in gender equality (like equal employment opportunity empowering some women in Western countries), there has been no significant change in society’s views of women, and things like objectification, discrimination, and physical and sexual assault are actually worsening.
In North America, sexual violence has been considered a criminal offense for a relatively short period of time. As a case in point, sexual assault has only been seen as a criminal offense since the 1980’s in Canada (SIECCAN, 2015). All over the world, mass media objectifies women. Commonly, women are portrayed as submissive and sexual objects, unequal to men (Wood, 2005). This portrait is affecting girls and women of all ages. It is thus not surprising to find that huge efforts are being made by researchers and advocacy groups to address the issue. Nearly all research being conducted calls for further exploration of causal relationships, as well as offering potential strategies and intervention means, which require efforts from all levels of society. However, while various suggestions have been made, and the number of studies investigating this issue continues to grow, there is a shortage of legislative action to increase protection and reduce incidences. To address this epidemic, a twofold approach is required that calls for: (1) a metamorphic education campaign aimed primarily at the secondary level (including post-secondary education) and cultivating an accurate awareness of female sexuality, beauty, and inappropriate behavior that will help quell the current and age-old myths about gender; (2) the monitoring and regulation of mass media’s objectification of women, coupled with a corrective and more accurate depiction of women.
Since the early 70’s, academics have been critically analyzing concepts of health and the body. Early definitions of health revolved around the body’s functionality and performance in the context of capitalism, especially an individual’s ability to effectively perform tasks for which s/he had been socialized (Parsons, 1964). Such a characterization of health points to congruence with the work of social theorists (i.e., Michel Foucault) who directed their critique towards expanding the definition of the body as an instrument of materialistic exploitation and a means of production (Foucault, 1979). This definition was initially inclusive, but over time, capitalist focus has shifted largely to the exploitation of women’s bodies for profit and the allowance of dominance.
Sexual health has to do with one’s psychological and physical health. It is more than just having a positive and respectful sexual relationship. According to the WHO (2012a), sexual health should encompass a state of physical, mental, and social well-being in conjunction with safe and pleasurable sexual experiences free of coercion, discrimination, and violence. The pervasiveness of this health issue throughout much of the world constitutes a major issue of public health, as this issue affects women’s health in a multitude of ways. These range from depreciating women’s self-worth, and being objects of marketing initiatives, to the development of eating disorders, as well as the effects of being sexualized.
Currently, the majority of the world’s population exists in developing nations. Between 1950 and 2008, the number of people living in developing countries increased from 68% to more than 80% (Population Reference Bureau, 2008), and by 2050, that number is expected to exceed 8 billion people (Population Reference Bureau, 2012). What this means is many women reside, and will continue to reside, in impoverished conditions. Importantly, developed countries are not excluded from impoverished conditions. As of 2014, around fifty million people were living below the poverty line in the US, where children and single mothers were at a greater disadvantage (Mattingly, 2015; Short, 2014). Poverty, a significant determinant of health, tends to place a higher burden on women and girls by reducing their availability to a range of essential social, cultural, and economic opportunities, and predisposing them to additional sociocultural discrimination (WHO, 2012b).
Indeed, women’s sexual health can be linked to nearly every key determinant of health:notably, income and social status, education and literacy, social and physical environments, healthy childhood development, health services, gender, and culture (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2011). This combination of issues suggests that there is not one single or easy solution. We must start by changing male attitudes about women and girls, especially in regard to sexual behavior.
Exploration of the issue
A simple Google search on sexual violence against women, sexual violence, and sexual violence in media reveals the widespread nature of this issue with links to everything from news stories, to YouTube videos, to scholarly articles and organizations. Refining that search by limiting results to news produces a closer look at current media stories that range from sexual assaults in United States military academies, to gang rape by British Navy sailors, to ongoing civil strife in India over sexual violence. Taking the search a step further to include the terms news stories about sexual violence produces terabytes of information on sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual violence news stories.
Sexual violence is an issue that permeates every culture and exists within all social classes. Within the news, the issue of sexual violence is mostly centered on victims and perpetrators. What comes to light from the endless list of Google hits is that within developed countries, the issue of sexual violence is expanding, and to such an extent that teenage girls are starting to consider sexual harassment and assault a normal part of growing up (Hlavka, 2014). Although issues of gender inequality, unequal power, discrimination, and male dominance exist in developed countries, they are more pronounced in developing countries (i.e., India, Haiti). Two germane examples are the prevalence of sexual violence against Haitian women and the absence of police protection in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake, and how within India’s rural areas, all-male village councils still dictate social hierarchy and control sociocultural norms. In such male-dominated societies, women are viewed as unequal, which leads to a dangerously high incidence of sexual violation (Berton-Hunter, 2011; Majumder, 2012).
A variety of research has found that those who frequently enjoy pornography are likely to have attitudes supporting sexual violence against women (Malamuth, Hald, & Koss, 2012). Hald, Malamuth and Yuen (2009) investigated links between pornography (media) and various scales of violence against women (i.e., sexual aggression, rape), and concluded that all pornography leads to changes in attitudes supporting violence against women. By objectifying women and furthering rape myth ideas, men may come to believe that women deserve and/or enjoy such treatment. Similar studies have found that adolescents exposed to sexually explicit media tend to believe gender role myths and experience earlier sexual engagements, leading to higher risks of contracting STDs and less frequent use of contraception. Among males, such exposure additionally increased the likelihood of perpetrating sexual harassment (Brown & L’Engle, 2009). Another harmful influence is video games, primarily mass exposure to violent video games. Sexual objectification of, and violence against, female video game characters has been found to be associated with a higher tolerance of sexual harassment and a significant increase in the acceptance of rape myths (rape-supportive attitudes) for males, while for females such exposure leads to decreased tolerance of such behavior (Dill, Brown, & Collins, 2008; Beck, Boys, Rose, & Beck, 2012). This shows that the male attitude toward sexual violence is altered upon exposure to, and consumption of, different forms of media, and that the media acts as a vehicle for the perpetuation of harmful ideas about women. This is consistent with Huesmann’s (1986) theory of how media affects sexual behavior through the acquisition, activation, and application of cognitive scripts.
Outlining the environments
At the micro-level, sexual violence threatens individuals in all age demographics and challenges schools, communities, and health services to increase awareness through educational programs, as well as to implement intervention strategies. The micro-level is often referred to as the organizational level and has to do with the internal environment. In the context of sexual violence, it is better understood as the immediate surroundings, such as family, schools, neighborhoods, and forces that affect the internal, more personal environment. Without action taken at this level, women and girls will continue to be victimized in ever more serious ways. Likewise, considering the fact that sexual violence is occurring even in primary and middle schools (Stein, 2007), such overwhelming prevalence will lead to unprecedented social degradation through a number of means (i.e., psychological harm, including detachment from society and suicide, learning and memory impairments, fear, distrust, etc.). With increased exposure to violence, and victimization by perpetrators, the harmonious nature of a healthy society falls apart. The meso-environment is what shapes the framework of an organization and can be considered infrastructure: policies, procedures, rules, and guidelines (Shaw, 2011). Without proper acknowledgement of the issue at the micro-level (i.e., creating educational pamphlets and new sexual health syllabi, holding community awareness meetings, and drafting guidelines for protection/intervention), the awareness needed to effect change at the macro-level could fail. The macro-environment, broadest of the three, is tied to changes in the social, technological, economic, environmental, and political (STEEP) sector (Morrison, 1992). Such an environment should promote female equality. A failure to offer financial security through rights, freedoms, and equality in society leaves females highly susceptible to illness by lacking essential control of key determinants of health, most notably control over sexual and psychological well-being.
Creating a policy
A large-scale social awareness campaign is a first, and essential, step. Men of all ages should be educated on what is inappropriate and illegal sexual conduct, on how to appreciate female sexuality, and on the equal rights and freedoms women have. Women of all ages should receive this education as well, but with an emphasis on the fact that the responsibility to uphold a positive and equal view of women falls to both women and men, especially potential male perpetrators of sexual assault. This would help reduce any shame, guilt, and blame that women may feel in regard to being objectified, discriminated against, or assaulted. Next, within the macro-environment, policies could be established to regulate how women and girls are portrayed in mass and social media, in conjunction with a ban on advertising aimed at children and involving anything even remotely explicit. If children are exposed to positive messages regarding women early in life, then those positive messages will stay with them throughout adolescence, and, ideally, into adulthood. Prevention, therefore, is key to tackling this issue. In order to facilitate this change, parents, schools, communities, organizations, social institutions, and governments need to be involved in carrying out the necessary changes.
What’s at stake?
Many individuals and groups are involved in women’s health and equality: females of all ages; governments and agencies, like the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Health Canada, UN, and WHO; healthcare organizations like Medicaid; schools and education systems; law enforcement; social welfare programs; women’s health advocates; NGO’s; human rights groups; the medical profession and its associated professionals (i.e., physicians, and healthcare providers), the pharmaceutical companies; and mass media. With so many entities involved, it can be hard to tell who is responsible for managing this global health crisis. What is primarily at stake is women’s health and well-being, which encompasses a myriad of things: menstruation, reproduction, STD’s, sexual abuse, violence, eating disorders, mental illness, etc. At the same time, we must consider the commercial interests of media conglomerates (i.e., corporate advertising), the fashion industry, pharmaceutical companies, and their associative large pecuniary rewards. Surely, for corporations and pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, who partake in the medicalization of women’s sexual health, the likelihood of large pecuniary losses is high. Likewise, media conglomerates would potentially face sizable losses due to the paucity of remuneration for ad placement and display of such pharmaceuticals.
With top brands investing hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising (Taube, 2014)., some may say that implementing policies aimed at prohibiting the sexualization of females creates too great a risk of large pecuniary losses in advertising, and is thus not feasible. Such concerns would certainly be warranted, but any monetary gains and losses are speculative, at best. Ad campaigns don’t have to decrease, but rather, modify their messages. Companies can find new ways to reach their target audiences to avoid financial losses and continue to promote their products. Indeed, any antithetic arguments about financial losses for mass media are simply, to borrow a phrase from Theodore Levitt, a form of marketing myopia. Various aspects of mass media can be considered art, whether they be fashion design, the modeling industry, glamour magazines, photography, or the conceptualization and creation of advertisements and video games. For artists, brands, and corporations to remain successful, they have to continually recreate themselves. Such a practice is not only pertinent to remain competitive, but also requisite for continuance. Mass media is capable of painting a new portrait of women, and in fact, is obligated to do so. It is important to note that perceptions of women’s bodies are always evolving and malleable – in the 17th through 19th centuries, men tended to seek women with pale complexions, plumpness, and beautiful minds. These are in contrast to the twentieth century’s view of the slender figure as the ideal of beauty and the foundation of a new standard (Stearns, 2002). Mention of these points holds credence to the powerful role mass media plays in establishing fads – hence the significant impetus behind the fashion/modeling industry – which correlates to a high degree with the construct of an acceptable appearance.
In a parallel manner, although there are countless studies already demonstrating a causal relationship between mass media and violence towards women, any arguments about mass media’s inculpability can be additionally addressed as follows. If we entertain the idea that violence towards women is the product of epigenetic algorithms, then we must ask: how could violence against women be related to a greater chance of survival and reproductive success today? The answer may be found in behavioral epigenetics. Research in epigenetics and behavior offers evidence of how signals from the environment trigger molecular changes that lead to short- and long-term effects on neurobiology, physiology, and behavior (Powledge, 2011). Studies demonstrate that one’s environment largely affects one’s social behaviors. The degree of influence can be strong enough to alter regulatory factors of genes to such an extent that the individual’s physiology (i.e., metabolic activity in brain nuclei) and behavior (i.e., reproductive, agonistic, and emotional) changes (Crews, 2010). Similarly, epidemiological research has shown that genotypes play an influential role in a person’s sensitivity to environmental insults (Caspi et al., 2012). In short, early social and developmental experiences can trigger neurobiochemical changes that ultimately influence both behavior and health throughout life (Jašarević, Geary, & Rosenfeld, 2012; Miller, 2010). These studies highlight how the interplay between genes and the environment is critical within the process of development and individual behavior.
Technological advancement has amplified mass media’s environmental presence and furthered its influence on one’s upbringing. Thus, its long-term effects on people’s attitudes and behaviors cannot be overlooked. A disturbing example is Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine that used every medium possible to manipulate people, from the most obscene articles or the latest hit song, to the radio scripts of the wireless commentators (Sington & Weidenfeld, 1943). Since at least WWI, well-crafted propaganda messages have been disseminated through news stories, films, photograph records, speeches, books, sermons, posters, flyers, rumors, and billboard advertisements to the general public (Garth, O’Donnell, & O’Donnell, 1992). Notably, application of the propaganda toolkit awards the power to (re)educate, modify opinions, adapt persons to a particular society, and create disbelief (Ellul, 1973). The medium that ultimately maintains this power is the media. A more current illustration of how mass media is tied to government propaganda comes by way of the US government’s recent contracting of Sony pictures to produce anti-Russian sentiments (Sputnik, 2015). In Wikileak’s release of Sony emails, there is evidence of leading figures in the LA/NY film, TV, media, digital, and theater communities scheming to influence world affairs through said mediums (Wikileaks, 2015).
Western governments know all too well how powerful the mass media is in swaying the opinion and mood of the populace. They use the media in every political campaign to launch attack ads against opponents, to present aggrandized representations of themselves, and worse. More directly, mass media plays a paramount role in transmitting information to large audiences, which, for many, is the sole source of information for political decision-making (Fog, 1999).
Taken together, this shows that mass media has an irrefutable impact on the existence and formation of views within the sociocultural sphere. Attempts to absolve the mass media’s influence on the perceptions of women and girls that have contributed to the sexual violence epidemic is surely spurious, and an effort to obfuscate the truth.
Capitalizing on resources
What is needed is a paradigm shift, perhaps similar to that of the Victorian era, where the beauty of one’s mind is held in the highest esteem. By reverting attention away from curves and cleavage, society may be better able to appreciate the intelligence and talents of women. Abolishing parochial views that undermine females will help unleash their massive potential. In doing so a wealth of new resources will come to light and society may be better positioned to tackle some of today’s most challenging issues.
The prevalence of sexual violence against women and girls is increasing worldwide, and can be considered an epidemic. Studies have demonstrated that sexual violence is largely precipitated by misleading sociocultural norms/attitudes about gender and sexuality. Mass media plays a highly influential s role in popular culture, and causal relationships have been found between attitudes towards females, sex, violence, and the sexualization of women in the entertainment and sex industries. Yet, its existence as a principal element of gender inequality goes unchallenged. In light of the fact that individuals are greatly affected during sensitive life stages such as adolescence and puberty to novel experiences, which markedly influences how the individual responds to social and sexual cues later in adulthood (Crews, 2011; Romeo, Tang, & Sullivan, 2010), appropriate intervention during juvenility is pertinent to ameliorating behavioral dysfunctionality; notably sexual violence directed towards females. Mass media could and should therefore revolutionize how it depicts girls and women, and with its far reaching educational capabilities work together with public health bodies and educational institutions to help transform the views of boys and men.
In a parallel manner, to combat the growing prevalence of sexual violence worldwide the federal government should initiate a nationwide prevention strategy involving the removal of sexualized portrayals of women in media. In conjunction, a nationwide re-education program should be put in place to correct misleading sociocultural norms, promote gender equality, and explain legal, safe, and healthy sexual practices. Such a policy would contribute to the protection of hundreds of millions of females around the globe by setting the precedent whereby other nations could follow. This policy would also help re-balance the power dynamic between men and women, decrease discrimination in educational and employment settings, and help prevent violence.
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About the Author:
Robert Jesky’s academic background includes a diploma of acupuncture (Dip.Ac), a Bachelor’s of Health Science (BHSc), and Master’s of Medicine (MMed) in Integrative Traditional Chinese and Western Medicine from Dalian Medical University, Dalian, China. Outside of these academic accomplishments, he is recognized as an Acupuncture Detoxification Specialist; a designation granted by the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association. The use of such techniques aids in the effective treatment of persons with drug addiction and its associative effects. Arguably, this is something that is important in helping address one of modern society’s biggest afflictions.
Aside from engaging in ongoing studies, he is currently a Professor at Huizhou University in Guangdong, China. As a faculty member of the Life Sciences department, he develops and instructs courses in Biology and Health Science. As a Professor, he aims to provide evidence-based lessons to enhance students’ abilities to make educated decisions as they pertain to healthy lifestyles and academic advancement. While his interests are in a range of scientific fields and academic disciplines, he is most passionate about neuroscience. Broadly speaking, his interests revolve around neurogenesis and regeneration (i.e., oligodendrogenesis and neuritogenesis), cognition, and the cellular and molecular pathways that comprise the biological systems responsible for learning, memory, and neurodegeneration.