Sexualisation of Women in the Music Industry

*Content Warning: Extensive discussion of sexual assault*

Women are often hypersexualised within both traditional and new forms of media, from Curley’s wife and her red lipstick signifying danger in Of Mice and Men to Kim Kardashian’s rapid rise to fame often being accredited to her sex tape. The hyper sexualisation of women often involves women being depicted in a light of sexual objectification, the emphasis is placed on the sex appeal of the female body. No matter what the industry, one thing can be agreed upon: sex sells.

Often within the music industry, women are objectified by male singers or used in videos to attract an audience. ‘Video Vixens’ are often used: scantily clad women who are used by men in videos as an accessory or a trophy. The music industry is a huge part of society, and many people look to musicians to idealise – so if men look to these people as their idol, what lessons will they learn from them? That women are there for their benefit? That the less clothes they are in, the more attractive they are? If this is the case, what messages are being translated down to women? We get told to prevent sexual assault, we should wear more clothing – but if we want to be attractive to men, then we should wear less. The emphasis here being that women have no autonomy over they choose to present themselves without being “victimised” by men.

No matter what the industry, one thing can be agreed upon: sex sells.

A highly controversial example of this was the song Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams; the song was heavily criticised for the use of non-consensual language within the lyrics and with Thicke and Williams being surrounded by ‘Video Vixens’. The song contained lyrics, “I know you want it”, “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”, and “Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you/ He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that.”

It was considered so provocative in glorifying rape and inciting sexual violence towards women that 20 universities banned the song from being played within university-owned social areas. The song was banned from being “played on SubTV, a channel broadcast in over 100 universities”.

Emily Ratajkowski, who was propelled to fame after her appearance in the Blurred Lines video, claims that Robin Thicke groped her on set of the video. In her book, My Body, she wrote about how, one day, Thicke arrived on set seemingly “a little drunk”. She writes, “suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt the coolness and foreignness of a stranger’s hands cupping my bare breasts from behind. I instinctively moved away, looking back at Robin Thicke”.

(Image: Vevo)

She discusses how originally, she felt empowered on set due to the video being directed by Diane Martel whilst being amongst an all-female set. She further added, “With that one gesture, Robin Thicke reminded everyone on set that we women weren’t actually in charge… I was nothing more than the hired mannequin”. The Musicians’ Union said that ‘over four in five (85%) victims of harassment did not report it, primarily due to the culture of the industry’. This is shown in Emily’s example as she did not report her sexual assault against Thicke due the underlying sexual culture within the industry.

With that one gesture, Robin Thicke reminded everyone on set that we women weren’t actually in charge… I was nothing more than the hired mannequin – Emily Ratajkowski

Sexual assault is rife within the music industry and, quite often, young aspiring female artists are manipulated or forced by music producers into performing sex acts. A survey conducted in 2019 by the Musicians’ Union found that 48% of union members have experienced of sexual harassment at work of this 48%, over 85% did not report the sexual harassment they suffered. When asked for their reasoning as to why they did not report it, some of the main reasons was as simple as the workplace culture or they were scared about losing work, ‘some members were threatened that their career could be damaged if they pursued their complaint’ (Musicians’ Union, 2019).

These sexual acts are just happening on high-profile acts that we know, female acts who are trying to fulfil their life dreams of performing music, often must work freelance and these people could be more at risk in order to forward their careers. 90% of the MU members are freelance based and over ‘two-thirds (61%) of musicians feel they are more at risk because they work on a freelance basis’. With this large amount of female musicians living in fear, ‘the MU is calling on government to extend the protections relating to discrimination and harassment in the Equality Act 2010 to freelancers, so that they are entitled to the same protections as many individuals in the workplace who are already protected’.

Further statistics from the Musicians’ Union can be found here.

 The most publicised case in recent history is the court case between Kesha and Dr. Luke. She claimed that shortly after she was signed to Dr. Luke’s label in 2005, at the age of eighteen, he laced her drink with GBH and raped her whilst she was unconscious. In fear of losing her record deal and not being able to be musician, she kept quiet. This was until 2016, when Kesha went to rehab for an eating disorder where she disclosed and a lawsuit against Dr. Luke in which Kesha claimed that Luke’s treatment had caused her “severe depression, post-traumatic stress, social isolation, and panic attacks.”

(Jefferson Siegel/NY Daily News via Getty)

She decided not to file criminal charges, but simply requested to be released from her record deal. In 2016, the judge rules that ‘there has been no showing of irreparable harm’ and therefore, she has no conditions to be released from her contract. Eventually, Kesha dropped the lawsuit entirely after many attempts to silence her and shut her out of the industry.

Lady Gaga also came forward in Oprah Winfrey’s Apple TV show, The Me You Can’t See, where she revealed that she was raped by a male music producer. In her interview, she broke down in tears as she describes her assault:

“I was 19 years old, and I was working in the business, and a producer said to me, ‘ Take your clothes off’. I said no and I left, and they told me they were going to burn all of my music.

“They didn’t stop asking me, and I just froze and I… I don’t even remember.”

The assault left her pregnant and suffering with PTSD until this day, she even recalls at one of the highest points of her career, during the press tour for A Star is Born, where she earned an Oscar for Best Original Song, she suffered “a total psychotic break”.

Gaga discussing her assault: Source: Apple TV/The Independent

Hopefully with such high-profile icons coming out and discussing stories of sexual harassment, will empower other women to tell their stories without fearing destruction of their reputation. However, the music industry remains to be dark place filled the secrets and fear but these powerful female artists will help shine a light in those dark corners and eradicate these acts from happening.

If you have suffered any form of sexual assault and harassment and wish to seek advice or help, here is some organisations that are available to you:

Leicester and Leicestershire:

  • Juniper Lodge (Sexual Assault Referral Centre) offers discrete medical, emotional, and practical support to anyone that has been subject to sexual assault. You do not have to report to the police if you contact the SARC but they can help you with this process if you want. They also offer a examinations for forensic evidence depending on when the incident took place. Contact them on: 0116 273 3330 9am-5pm, Monday-Friday. If you would like support in travelling to Juniper Lodge, call University security on 0116 252 2023.
  • United Against Violence & Abuse (UAVA) provides co-ordinated sexual and domestic violence services across Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland for any male or female over the age of 13. You do not need to report to the police to access this service. Call 0808 80 200 28. For text support: 07715 994 962 (This is for text support only, calls to this number will not be answered) 8am – 8pm, Monday to Saturday.
  • Jasmine House is a safe space where women and girls can access free and confidential services following any form of sexual violence either recently or in the past.
  • First Step is a free confidential service for male rape and sexual abuse survivors & their supporters living in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland to enable survivors to make the “First Step” towards feeling less isolated through increased personal power to make choices.
  • Survivors UK offers a helpline and online advice for male survivors of sexual assault and rape.
  • Galop provides emotional and practical support for LGBT+ people. They are able to give independent advice to those who have experienced sexual assault, violence or abuse.  Call 0800 999 5428 10am-5pm, Monday to Friday (open until 8pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays).
  • For further information, self-help tools and to find support outside of Leicestershire please visit the Rape Crisis website.
  • For online information and guidance related to Revenge Porn, stalking and sextortion:
  • Qwell– Online support service offering online support as well as 1-1 chat based counselling with a qualified counsellor. Counsellors are available from 12noon to 10pm on weekdays and 6pm to 10pm at weekends, every day of the year on a drop in basis. No referral is required- please visit their website to register. 
  • Togetherall– a free online mental health support community, available 24/7. Access a variety of courses and resources to help manage mental health. The platform is ran by trained professionals and allows users to share anonymously and receive support from others.  No referral required- please visit their website to register. 

Part one in this series (Female Representation in the Music Industry) is available to read here.

Sophie is a first-year student studying BA Media, Society and Culture from Birmingham. Her biggest areas of interest in media and journalism are breaking down stigmas surrounding feminism, mental health issues and sex positivity. She also enjoys writing and painting. Find her on Instagram: @soph_mouzakitis and on her blog, The Periodical:

Feature Image: Youtube

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