Various terms have been used to describe the sexualising of athletes, of which the most common is sexploitation.
While it is a term that can be applied to both men and women, the form of promotion identified as sexploitation is primarily of concern to female athletes.
Sexploitation applies to forms of marketing, promotion or attempts to gain media coverage which focus attention on the sexual attributes of female athletes, especially the visibility of their bodies. In a context of sexploitation, the value of the female athlete is judged primarily in terms of her body type and attractiveness, rather than for the qualities that define her as an athlete.
This creates an ironic situation for elite athletes. In order to attract media and sponsor interest, many female athletes resort to marketing themselves or their sport for their ‘voyeuristic potential’. However, if this approach is successful, the increased interest is not on their performances and successes, but on their sex appeal.
It is acknowledged that both sexploitation and a need for sponsorship are not limited to (elite) female athletes. However, the issue is less contentious for men’s sport as it has far greater media coverage, greater sponsorship, and society in general still views sportsmen in a different light to sportswomen.
Why is sexploitation of concern?
Viewing female athletes primarily in terms of their sexual attributes rather than their athletic endeavours has the potential to denigrate the individual both as an athlete and as a woman.
Sexploitation is not simply a matter of skimpy costumes on female bodies. It is also the inappropriate portrayal of female athletes either in their sporting apparel or in alternative situations.
In athletics, track and field athletes of both sexes wear body-hugging outfits of lightweight material. These costumes are designed, and understood to be so, for technological and functional purposes: to go faster and higher with the least restriction and wind resistance.
In swimming, long associated with tight and revealing costumes, the uniforms are publicly viewed as a ‘tool’ of the sport. Ironically, the new trend to fast-suits or skin-suits has led to even more revealing costumes but with less exposure of flesh.
Women’s beach volleyball, on the other hand, has introduced uniforms intentionally to focus attention on the athletes’ bodies rather than for any technological, practical or performance-enhancing reasons. Women must compete in bra-style tops and bikini bottoms that must not exceed six centimetres in width at the hip (men compete in shorts and singlets).
Revealing uniforms are not the only method used to sexualise women’s sport. The calendar produced by the Matildas, the national women’s soccer team, presents another example of sexploitation – albeit a voluntary one by the athletes. It was primarily motivated by the team’s need to gain more media coverage and increase their public profile.
Intentionally sexualising female athletes to increase media coverage requires careful consideration to ensure that the safety and long-term credibility of the athletes involved are protected.
Focusing on an athlete’s physical attributes in an overtly sexual manner can create anxiety and embarrassment for the individual. In younger athletes, whose self-confidence may be less secure, the increased focus on the body because of sexploitation can lead to a poor body image. There is a wealth of research linking poor body image with increased risk of disordered eating behaviours.
Using sex as part of a promotional strategy may limit the potential of a sport to attract a diverse range of talented girls and women. Such promotion is reason enough for some girls and women to choose another sport or even no sport at all.
Sexploitation also puts athletes at greater risk of harassment, from persons within and outside their sport. The overt sexualising of female athletes undermines current efforts to ensure no athlete, of any age or level of participation, is subject to behaviour that is unwelcome, inappropriate or harmful.
What are the alternatives?
The ASC considers that, in conjunction with the sport and recreation industry, it has a responsibility to ensure that images of female athletes are positive, are not sexualised and represent the diversity of women involved in sport. There also is a responsibility to ensure the sporting environment is free of harassment and that athletes are not made to feel uncomfortable when involving themselves in any sport. The ASC therefore discourages the introduction and use of policies and promotional activities that lead to female athletes being exploited.
As a result of continued great athletic performances, programs to provide athletes with media skills and initiatives to increase the involvement of women and girls in sport, there is a growing public and media interest and more widespread corporate sponsorship of women’s sport. The onus is on Australia’s female athletes to add value to these arrangements so that partnerships are reinforced and companies realise the benefits they receive from such sponsorships.