For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2011.

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You often hear that everything is sexualized nowadays, and not just women but men too. In the September 2011 issue of Sexuality & Culture, we examine this idea in an analysis of Rolling Stone magazine covers.  Specifically, we wanted to know if men and women are equally sexualized, and if they have become either more frequently or more intensely sexualized over time.  To do this, we analyzed every cover from the first issue of Rolling Stone in November 1967 through 2009, minus a few (such as those that featured cartoons rather than people, etc.). You can read more about our methods in the article here.

In order to analyze these 1000+ images of men and women, we developed a “scale of sexualization.”   This scale was composed of 11 different variables to measure different aspects of sexualization.  For instance, a cover model was given “points” for being sexualized if their lips were parted, if they were scantily clad (more points if they were naked), if the text describing them used explicitly sexual language, or if they were lying down on a bed or otherwise posed in a sexually suggestive way.  Images could score anywhere from 0 points (and 176 did) to 23 points (though 20 was our highest score).

Once all of the images on all 43 years of Rolling Stone were scored, we divided the images into three groups:  those images that were generally not sexualized, those images that were sexualized, and those images that were so sexualized that we dubbed them “hypersexualized.”

The graph below shows our findings:

Looking first at images of men (represented by dotted lines), we see that the majority of them– from 89% in the 1960s to 83% in the 2000s — were nonsexualized.  Men are sometimes shown in a sexualized manner (about 15% in the 2000s), but they are rarely hypersexualized (just 2% in the 2000s). In fact, only 2% of the images of men across the entire dataset — all 43 years — are hypersexualized.

But, again, the vast majority of men — some 83% in recent years — were not sexualized at all.  So, if you were to pick up a copy of Rolling Stone in the 2000s, you would most likely see men portrayed in a non-sexualized manner, such as in these images:

In contrast, women, especially recently, are almost always sexualized to some degree.  In fact, by the 2000s, 61% of women were hypersexualized, and another 22% were sexualized.  This means that, in the 2000s, women were 3 1/2 times more likely to be hypersexualized than nonsexualized, and nearly five times more likely to be sexualized to any degree (sexualized or hypersexualized) than nonsexualized.

So, in the last decade, if you were to pick up a copy of Rolling Stone that featured a woman on its cover, you would most likely see her portrayed in a sexualized manner, since fully 83% of women were either sexualized or hypersexualized in the 2000s. Here are a few examples of hypersexualized images:

In our article, we argue that the dramatic increase in hypersexualized images of women — along with the corresponding decline in nonsexualized images of them — indicates a decisive narrowing or homogenization of media representations of women.  In Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, journalist Ariel Levy (2005:5) describes this trend in this way:  “A tawdry, tarty, cartoonlike version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular.  What we once regarded as a kind of sexual expression,” Levy writes, “we now view as sexuality” (emphases in original).  In this article, we offer empirical evidence for this claim.

So what explains this trend towards women’s hypersexualization?  We don’t think it’s just the idea that “sex sells.” If that were true, we’d see many more images of women on Rolling Stone’s covers (only 30% of covers feature images of women) and we’d also see more sexualized and hypersexualized images of men.  We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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Mary Nell Trautner and Erin Hatton are Assistant Professors of Sociology at SUNY Buffalo. Trautner is the author of many articles on the relationship between law, culture, organizational practices, and social inequality (and has written a fantastic Soc Images Course Guide for Sociology of Gender courses).  Hatton, a sociologist of work, is the author of The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America.

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