The Shocking Sexualization Of Female Politicians In Porn

Google the names Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Bernie Sanders and the word “porn” and the results are benign lists of links to articles and images that do little to degrade perceptions of the candidates’ competence or morality. Do the same for Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, or Sarah Palin and you’ll surface page after page of actual porn sites, using the women’s names and photographs of their faces to portray them in bestial and brutally sexually objectifying videos and photos. Additionally, and even more disturbingly, women politicians’ daughters are also made into the subjects of non-consensual pornography, sometimes simultaneously, as consequence of their mothers seeking office.

“These images treat female politicians not as individuals, but symbols of the idea of womanhood, which must always be subjugated to manhood,” explains Jaclyn Friedman, author of What You Really, Really Want and host of “Unscrewed,” a popular podcast on sexual politics. “We can’t seem to criticize female political candidates on their merits or lack thereof.”

When Porn And Political Strategy Collide

In an essay in The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy and Reputation, philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes about the misogynistic cultural drive to degrade powerful women by reducing them to body parts and sexual instrumentality. She describes widespread cultural endorsement of the desire to give outspoken women “a stigmatized, spoiled identity.” Everything from the gendered and racialized slurs of Internet commentary to non-consensual porn and impersonation illustrate Nussbaum’s point.

What’s worse, sexualized representations of women politicians are generally thought of as funny, giving a pass to discriminatory outcomes. For example, two weeks ago a colorful illustration of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders showed up on Instagram. It showed a photograph of Clinton’s smiling face on a cartoon body. She was propped up, her face down by her hands, legs held open by a seated, similarly Photoshopped Sanders, penetrating her from behind. On the same day, a viral video on Facebook featured a scantily clad Clinton pole dancing, singing about her “Hillary Humps” and being called a “White House Ho.”

“Saying ‘it was just a joke’ is an attempt to keep aggression invisible, even if the aggression was not intended,” explains Professor Shira Tarrant, author of the recently released, The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know. “Online sexual depictions of female politicians are insidious when people try to sweep it away as if it’s satire or ‘just a joke.’ One way we can understand jokes or satire is to look at the effect of the joke instead of the intent of the person telling it.”

Arguably, these sexist words and images are part of a long history of political satire employing sexualization. However, while male politicians have been and are sometimes skewered in similar ways, it happens relatively rarely and with very different outcomes in terms of potential voter perceptions. Sexualization affects men and women, and ideas about them, differently. Women and girls, who are far more likely to be hypersexualized, are pervasively dehumanized by objectification. Just seeing a woman in a bikini deactivates men’s medial prefrontal cortex, where thinking about people and their intentions, feelings, and actions happens. After exposure to images of sexually objectified people, viewers are more likely to associate them with animals, and sensitivity to subjects’ feelings or expressions of pain are measurably reduced.

When women are perceived as “slutty,” — which is one of the primary effects of pornified images of women politicians — people rate them less able and emotionally stable. Further, sexually objectified women, but not men, are evaluated by viewers as less moral, less warm (read: less human), less intelligent, and less competent. Lastly, after watching mainstream porn, people are more likely to express adversarial beliefs about sex and gender, hold more negative beliefs about sexual harassment, have higher rates of acceptance for interpersonal violence, and are measurably less likely to support policies and programs designed to meet women’s needs. Neither political party affiliation, nor the fact of a woman’s consent in representation, mitigates these effects.

Using graphic sexualization to comment on a woman candidate’s worthiness for office isn’t pornography, it’s political strategy. During her gubernatorial campaign, former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, who rose to national prominence after her marathon filibuster to protect women’s rights to abortion, was portrayed as a naked “Abortion Barbie” and depicted by opponents as hypersexual. She believes that suggestive images were part of active efforts to delegitimize her accomplishments and leadership. This coded messaging, which she calls “dogwhistling,” encouraged voters to see her “not as someone who had a lot to offer in terms of policies.”

Her assessment aligns with the results of a study conducted after the 2009 release of the hardcore “parody,” “Who’s Nailin’ Paylin?” Researchers found that voters who focused on Sarah Palin’s appearance (not even on her pornification) demonstrated reduced confidence in her abilities and that prior willingness to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket declined. Thus when The Onion runs a piece about Hillary Clinton, in which she is manipulated to appear fully frontally nude — as it did last week — it erases the enduring effects of historic discrimination, legitimizes biases against women as leaders, and misrepresents and distorts the purpose of satire.

Telling Trends In Porn

Years worth of research show that pornography viewers are more likely to hold a variety of “antisocial attitudes towards women” and resist steps taken to improve women’s status. Nine out of ten young adult men report using pornography, compared to one third of women. And American men make up the largest segment of the 76% of Pornhub’s customers who are male, 60% of whom are Millennials. Two weeks ago, Pornhub released the findings of a Presidential Election survey of 371,000 customers that showed self-described Democrats preferring Sanders 73.4% to Clinton’s 26.6%. (A January USA Today/RocktheVote general population survey showed Sanders with 46% of Millennial support.) Donald Trump got 60.5% of Republican support on the site, far outpacing his opponents.

Despite emerging feminist and indie production, mainstream porn has grown more, not less misogynistic, and continues to reinforce, rather than debunk, traditional and conservative gender schemas. Researchers believe this is the reason a 30-year gender gap in approval for porn continues to grow. Pornography remains, according to Tarrant, a “predominantly male adult pastime.” Three quarters of men between the ages of 18–35 making more than $75K report watching or sharing porn while at work, a practice that came to startling light last year when Philadelphia Attorney General Kathleen Kane, in an episode dubbed #Porngate, released hundreds of pornographic sexist and racist emails exchanged by state employees, including prosecutors and a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, on government servers. One, for example, was a photo of a woman on her knees, pantless, performing oral sex on a man, with the caption, “Making your boss happy is your only job.” As the Washington Post reported last fall, the incident “produced little uproar among state residents.”

Men tend to be especially resistant to the idea of women with power, and non-consensually sexualizing women is a traditional and culturally acceptable way of expressing male dominance and putting women “back in their place.” Consider that four of Millennials’ top six searches on Pornhub are “mom,” “stepmom,” “MILF,” and “lesbian.” While these areas of sexual interest can be thought of as predictable taboo violations, they can just as easily be understood in terms of how men are thinking about women either with authority over them or, interestingly and contrary to popular narratives about the appeal of girl-on-girl sex, those who reject them outright.

Pornification And Political Ambition

There is nothing inherently wrong with pornography, which has many positive aspects. However, the effects of treating women leaders this way are particularly notable in the United States, which produces 80% of the world’s pornography, ranks 95th in the world for women’s national legislative political representation, and has never had a woman president.

Jennifer Lawless, a professor at the American University Department of Government and Director, Women & Politics Institute, School of Public Affairs, studies gender, ambition, and political participation. “While it’s true that women who run for office win their races as often as men do, raise just as much money, and receive similar media coverage — both in volume and substance — few people know this to be the case,” explains Lawless. She goes on:

“Instead, high-profile examples of sexism and discrimination shape women’s perceptions of what it must be like for women on the campaign trail. If you see Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin depicted in sexualized and pornographic ways, it makes sense to think that if you, as a woman, were to run, you’d be portrayed in much the same way.”

It is telling that one of the only male politicians with similar outcomes, perhaps predictably, is Barack Obama, a black man in a country with a legacy of hypersexualizing black men to justify public violence against them.

“We need to understand that posting sexual images of women online without their agreement is a form of attack intended to degrade and silence women,” says Tarrant. “Especially women with authority, opinions, and a strong public voice.”

Becoming the subject of debasing non-consensual porn shouldn’t be the cost American women pay for participating in the political process.

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Listen to Soraya talk more about the sexualization of women in politics with Jaclyn Friedman below, on “Unscrewed.”

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Lead image: Wikimedia Commons

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