Who buys sex and whose can’t be sold?

Sex sells.

How many times has this philosophy been shoved in our faces through any number of social experiences?  From movies, to advertisements for food to clothing, and even books, we can not get past this historical moment where EVERYTHING (just about) is sold with sex.  Even the diaper advertisements in this country are sexualized!  Surely it has always been like this, right?


In “Theoretical Perspectives” (NSS 5-6) Seidman teaches readers about Marxism and how even sexuality is affected by the economy.  According to Marxists, the economy, above all else, shapes human behavior including sexuality.  The United States has been a capitalist country since the beginning, but that does not mean it has not seen dramatic changes.  In the 19th century, capitalism was market-based meaning that the goal was to produce enough goods to meet the people’s needs.  To achieve this goal, the labor landscape in this country changed.  The labor force had to adapt and become more disciplined, more  mechanical, and highly regulated in order to reach maximum productivity.   Anything which could disrupt this order and productivity had to be eliminated which led to the rise of the repressed personality type.  The worker in a market-based capitalist economy is performance oriented and controls all emotions and desires as they may interfere with performance.  If sexual impulses threaten the productivity and success of a society, then they too must be systematically controlled and repressed.  This led to a cultural moment of sexual repression which avoids any pleasure to maintain self-control.  In this moment, sex was viewed as a duty whereby married couples reproduce for the greater good.  Sexual pleasure, in any form was deviant.

That all changed in the 20th century.  Small businesses were overshadowed by large corporations and production was no longer the main goal.  Now, with technological advances making mass production of goods possible, the goods had to be sold. Selling became the new focus in this high-tech cultural moment.   But how can you sell goods in a society where self-control, restraint, and productivity have been expected for many years?  You gradually change the values.  Now, people became highly concerned with material possessions.  Advertising emerged as one of the most important industries for selling; the tool of choice?  Sex.  Sex became synonymous with pleasure, self-expression, freedom, individualism, and self-fulfillment.  It became a marketing tool for selling goods by promising happiness, through sexual prowess and freedom.

Sex has not always been a primary marketing tool for EVERYTHING you can think of, even this disturbing advertisement for hamburgers, but it is now

Sex is everywhere.

Marxism provides us with an important understanding of how sex may have become central to marketing in our current society.  However, this theory fails to acknowledge some very important aspects about social interactions such as individual differences and preferences, class  dynamics, race, and gender differences.  While economics are an important part, it seems impossible that it is THE MOST IMPORTANT driving social force.  This argument focuses on the middle class while ignoring the very poor and the very wealthy.  In addition, race is not mentioned and this aspect of identity is flattened and ignored in this argument.  Gender differences are not addressed and a heteronormative assumption is upheld.  Stereotypical gender roles are assumed whereby men are the primary providers and women are at home taking care of the family. While sometimes true, these stereotypes break down in single parent homes, poor families, and other nontraditional experiences.  Essentially, Marxism assumes that individual differences like class,  race,  and gender do not matter when economics are involved.  That being said, it does help to explain some of the overall social shifts we have seen in the past one hundred years.  It does explain that sex sells due to changing social expectations.

However, not all sex is created equal in this capitalist economy.  As most mainstream advertisements reflect, heteronormative sex sells. Taking that a step farther, female heteronormative sex sells. Why you might ask?  Because men are viewed as the consumers of sex while women are merely the sexual objects.

In Tolman’s article, “Adolescent Girl’s Sexuality (NSS 153-158) the double standard between girls and boys is vividly drawn.  “Good” girls are not supposed to have sexual feelings of their own, but are supposed to incite desire in others.  In this case, sexy does not mean sexual.  Instead of having sexual subjectivity which resists this double standard by asserting that a woman has the right to have sexual feelings and to make decisions which could translate into sexual behavior, they are supposed to be sexual objects.

By this logic, women are not sexual agents, just objects.  Sexual objects who do not desire sex or have sexuality themselves would have no interest in buying products sold with sex (because they are not interested in such things).  So, sex is marketed toward men as the active consumers of products in this country.  Take the hamburger commercial for an example.  It is not logical to assume that men like hamburgers more than women, so that is not why it is marketed primarily to heterosexual men.  It might actually make more sense to market to both men and women, because women do indeed eat hamburgers.  However, I almost guarantee you that a similar commercial casting men instead of women will never be released to engage heterosexual female audiences.  The reality remains that gender inequalities in this society still exist.  Men are seen as dominant and active in their sexuality while women are seen as passive.

I wonder what an advertisement would look like if it sold a different kind of sex?  How would people receive non heteronormative sexuality?  Would “deviant” sex still sell?



2 thoughts on “Who buys sex and whose can’t be sold?

  1. It’s interesting how you bring up that when sex is used to sell, it is usually of heterosexual women who are being objectified. Have you looked into American Apparel ads? A lot of them do more than just objectify women. They go beyond and use women in advertisements to be seen as vulnerable. However, at the same time, they are huge proponents of the gay community and even use gay, non-heteronormative sexuality to promote their products. Using both these tools of the objectification of women and non-heteronormative sexuality, I believe that American Apparel has been pretty successful thus far.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t seen the ads for American Apparel before tonight, but a quick google search reveals you are correct. Women are put in sexually vulnerable positions. I find this odd because, doesn’t that company pride itself on being different? Their ads featuring women look pretty typical to me.


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