On the Rise of Sexual Crimes Against Women

January 22, 2014 12:00 pm

Society has normalised an image of women that cannot be without repercussion. When Martin Luther King said that his dream was to see a society where content of people’s character would be the yardstick to measure them, not the colour of their skin; he knew prejudices, discrimination, violence and other hate crimes eventually result when human beings are reduced to mere body parts. The army of race activists that followed knew that you cannot fight for a fairer and equal society without combating the pervasive images of black people everywhere in the media as criminals; because it is entrenching the view that black people are not more than crime.

And so, when advertising a handbag you add cleavage. To sell a show, parted lips covered in lip red lipstick have to be added to its advertisement. To produce musical videos, numerous erogenous zones of female bodies dominate the scenes. The view being entrenched in the society is that women are no more than devices of sexual excitement and relief, whose availability is automatic.


Because these demeaning images are so pervasive and rigorously unchallenged, they inevitably become the benchmark for measuring all women; just like how the consistent negative portrayal of some black people became the benchmark for measuring all black people. That a few symbolise the most represents the beautiful and enduring power of an image. However, it is also the beginning of stereotyping.

Any man can turn into a rapist once he discountenances the importance of the woman’s consent. Consent is what determines availability. The subliminal corollary of those images that heighten awareness of women as erotic utilities; suggests that women’s consent is already implied since the images are everywhere unchallenged; and women themselves willfully, glamorously, and even thrillingly compete to participate in them.

A rapist does not set out to rape, he simply wanted to have fun; but in believing that the availability of the woman is automatic as the image in his mind lectures him, he commits an ignoble crime.  A sexual harasser, like other perpetrators of sexual crimes against women, is not too different from a rapist. He could not understand why the woman is not cooperating, given the fact he has fixed in his mind the disrespectful image of the woman; existing as an object of gratification; whose availability is unambiguously certain. And so he tries and tries. To him, he is not harassing the woman for sex at all; he is simply asking her to use her body and her mind to fit the part constructed for her in the media.


Am I calling for a curtailment of women’s right to freedom to express themselves? No. Am I calling for us to bring back the era where women have to be told what to wear or how to behave? Not at all. Am I blaming the victims for the crimes of the perpetrators? Not at all. But I am blaming those who are often overlooked in policies of tackling sexual crimes: those who produce, or who are mainstreaming ‘sexed-up’ images of women. They are feeding reprehensible stereotypes of what women exist for.  And stereotyping, as we have learnt in race relations, is the cornerstone of hate crimes. The mistaken arrest of Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates and the murder of Trayvon Martin may be different kinds of wrongs, but they were motivated by the same thing: stereotyping. The rise of different varieties of sexual crimes against women follows the same paradigm as other hate crimes, they should be designated as such.

Indeed, while perpetrators of crimes against women have to be punished with stiff sentences, action has to be taken on the widespread media use female images that make them appear less than they are or only fit for certain purposes. This is inevitably spreading through the sexualisation of young girls.


Damola Awoyokun is an historian and philosopher.

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