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Sex Sells: The Self-Sexualization Pressures on Female College Athletes and the “Othering” of Women in Sports

Posted: December 14, 2022

On November 8, 2022, the New York Times, “The NYT, ” published an article titled New Endorsements for College Athletes Resurface an Old Concern: Sex Sells discussing the implications that social media has on female college athletes.

The article discussed how young women have navigated and utilized the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) new Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) policy to skyrocket their careers via social media. The NCAA NIL policy, unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court in NCAA v. Alston on June 21, 2021, dictates that a student-athlete has a “right of publicity,” or the ability to profit off their popularity. The article explored the idea of whether athlete’s utilizing their sexuality to amass a social media following and significant earnings upholds or shatters sexist notions. The NYT highlighted LSU gymnast, Olivia Dunne, “a petite blonde with a bright smile and a gymnast’s toned physique,” as the archetype female college athlete and social media star. Dunne currently has over six million TikTok followers and two million Instagram followers. She is currently making over seven figures.

Dunne, a gymnast, must rely on endorsements and sponsorships to gain income. These endorsements depend on her personal branding – her name, image, and likeness. This is the case for most female athletes. Of the top five highest-paid female athletes in the world in 2022, the percentage of earnings that come from endorsements, rather than salary or winnings, range from 87% to nearly 100%. Athletes looking for substantial earnings must respond to the demands of the market, and for women that often results in posting content that emphasizes sexuality over strength.

The NYT article recognized young female athlete’s ability to leverage their social media popularity pursuant to NIL rules. Although the article acknowledged Dunne’s self-governance and empowerment, The NYT questioned how much autonomy is really at play when female athletes post pictures and videos showing off their physique and conventionally attractive looks. As articulated by The NYT article, “sex sells.” Posts that cater to the male gaze, or portray women in a sexualized way, often generate the most engagement through accumulation of “likes.” The like feature on Instagram allows users to press a heart button to signify to the user who posted the content that they liked their post. The more likes a user acquires, the more brands are inclined to work with the user as they can promote their product or service to a larger audience. The NYT warned that social media posts that spotlight attractiveness can be seen as regressive for female athletes as it impacts how society perceives the legitimacy of female sports.

The Defector, a sports blog founded in September 2020, passionately countered The NYT article, criticizing the “woke NYT” and “a hateful hag” for “attacking a pretty young woman” (in reference to Dunne), and questioned: “why would women’s sexual self-possession be at odds with equity in women’s sports?” The Defector article grounded its critiques of The NYT article by fixating on autonomy and took issue with The NYT’s assertion that “the tension among body image, femininity and the drive to be taken seriously as athletes has been part of the deal for female athletes for generations.” The Defector disagreed, and posed the question: who exactly is The NYT suggesting female athletes are seeking to be taken seriously by?

As articulated by Akilah Carter-Francique, the executive director for the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San José State University, “sports are often a microcosm of our society“. Thus, the broad, and yet irrefutable answer to the Defector’s question is that women in sports are striving to be taken seriously by society as a whole. Women in sports have been extremely limited, criticized, and policed throughout their participation in sports. Notably, women have not always been allowed to participate in professional sports, and throughout their participation in professional sports, women’s successes have rarely been celebrated to the same extent as men’s successes.

Women’s sports do not receive the same viewership as men’s sports – a study done by GWI in 2022 showed that both men and women prioritize men’s only matches: 69% of men and 42% of women watch men’s only sport competitions whereas 25% of men and 32% of women watched women’s only sports competitions.

“Othering,” or making a group out to be fundamentally different from the norm leading to marginalization, is a commonly seen phenomenon in women’s sports. This often portrays women as the weaker sex. One of the main methods of “othering” women has been through policing women’s clothing and requiring women to wear uniforms that lead to further sexualization. For example, in 2021, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team refused to wear the required revealing uniform, complete with bikini bottoms, and were each fined 150 € (or around $175) after wearing shorts during a game in protest.

The problems that female athletes often face are illustrative of general societal issues that value women’s sexuality over their athletic or intellectual prowess. The sex positivity justification of this content, as emphasized in the Defector article, tends to neglect the market pressures creating the economic incentives for women to post suggestive content. By inexplicably tying female athletes’ income to physical appearance, it puts women in a position where they feel pressured to succumb to self-objectification. This can often lead to “disordered eating, negative body esteem, and negative effects on psychological well-being.” This practice exposes the exploitative nature of companies and sponsorships who benefit from female sexualization as a means to a commercial end.

Exploitation shows its face through the business practices and pressures accompanied with policies based around the image and likeness of women. Exploitation is not limited to sex trafficking, but can be seen through companies and the digital marketplace at large using women’s sexualization as commodities of the commons. The NIL policy promotes the commodification of women’s bodies as young female athletes feel the pressure to sexualize themselves to maximize their profits. According to UNICEF, “the objectification and sexualization of girls in the media is linked to violence against women and girls worldwide.” When the media reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and depicts women as objects of pleasure, biases against women are strengthened which tends to legitimize violence, harassment, and anti-women views and behaviors.

The CSE Institute applauds The New York Times for speaking on an issue of growing concern for the college sport industry as the NCAA’s NIL policy urges young female athletes to utilize their social media popularity for profit. The voices of young female athletes shed light on the sociological and industry pressures to meet traditional beauty standards and post sexualized content. As noted above, this can also contribute to gender-based violence in online spaces. The exploitative business practices and policies that profit off and contribute to the commodification of women’s bodies only continue the objectification and othering of female athletes in the digital age.

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University. 

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