This article was written by Harley C., an Essex County, NJ Middle School Student.
The following article is a part of a new series, “Listening to Youth Voices in the New Year.” Each Sunday, articles written by Essex County Middle School students will be published, each week relating to a new topic. You can learn more about this series here.
When I first realized I wasn’t straight, I was an eleven-year-old in sixth grade. Despite living in a bubble town where almost everyone is liberal, I was terrified. I had no idea what this realization entailed, but I knew sooner or later I would need to find out. I had only ever known what media and the adults around me had told me: to be gay was to be different.
I tried to do some research of my own, or at least as much as I could do without my parents knowing, which wasn’t much. Every media depiction I found of queer women, however, portrayed them as dirty, emotionless, and most of all, lusting after straight girls almost constantly. I didn’t care when my friends changed in front of me, and I didn’t think it meant anything more than friendship when we cuddled, but I still felt dirty with my secret. I was terrified to tell them. I now understand that I felt this way because that’s what the media had told me.
In today’s society, more and more people are feeling comfortable enough to come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) at younger ages, as well as expanding the definitions of many LGBTQ related subjects. This is also causing an increased request for LGBTQ representation in the media. Unfortunately, while they put in a little effort, the media doesn’t pull through.
A growing problem is that lesbians and Sapphism, or the concept of women feeling attraction to other women, are hypersexualized by the media. Due to this, the media continues to treat romantic feminine relationships as synonymous with sexuality and sex, which leads members of society to view these relationships as some sort of taboo. Some may say that this isn’t a fair statement because gay men face sexualization. Yes, there are lesbians in the media that aren’t sexualized, but sapphic women face much more sexualization than queer men, and they receive much more overall representation.
An example of this is the TV show The L Word. This TV show is meant to be about a friend group made up of lesbians, but doesn’t pull through, focusing mainly on sex, whereas a show such as Friends has a much smoother balance involving romance and emotion. Overall, the media abuses its power by refusing to give sapphic women realistic representation and hyper-sexualizing them.
In the media, lesbians and sapphic girls and women are often hyper-sexualized. According to Pornhub, a popular website for pornography, the most commonly searched topic in the U.S. is lesbian porn, including in many states that have historically opposed issues such as gay marriage and refused to outlaw conversion therapy. This essentially expresses the message that they don’t believe lesbians are humans and don’t deserve equal rights, but are merely sex objects for the pleasure of men. However, the sexualization of lesbians in the media doesn’t end in the porn industry.
As an out young member of the LGBT community, I often try to find movies and TV shows with LGBT characters. Recently, my mother and I were looking for death-free LGBT movies that were teen-friendly that we could watch together. Unfortunately, this was much harder than it sounds. It took a long time, but finally, we managed to find a handful that were sex-free. Not one had a female or person/people of color (POC) protagonist, and only one had a protagonist who wasn’t able-bodied, called “The Way He Looks.”
Very few TV shows and movies have queer female protagonists, and those that do often enforce extreme stereotypes, hyper-sexualize them, kill them off in unrealistic ways, and display unhealthy relationships without acknowledging that it is unhealthy. This sets a negative example for younger queer girls, as well as give society incorrect and harmful expectations about queer women.
Such sexualization creates many issues, including sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. For instance, due to this, woman on woman (w/w) rape is often ignored and denied, especially when the victim is a queer woman. A common issue in the sapphic community is homophobic rape (more commonly known as “corrective rape”), or when a man rapes an LGBT female in hopes to “turn her straight.” Hyper-sexualization of LGBT women can lead to these types of traumatizing experiences, especially since this type of sexualization, being targeted at straight men, allows them to believe that women (including queer women) exist for their pleasure.
“In 2014.. .commissioned a 2,000-person national survey in the USA with surveying firm GfK. The survey found that 65% of all women had experienced street harassment,” states Stop Street Harassment (SSH), an organization created to raise awareness on sexual harassment and provide resources for those who have experienced it. On top of that, according to an article published in The Atlantic by Shannon Keating, a queer journalist, an alarming 70% of the LGBTQ community had experienced some form of street harassment by the age of 17. Additionally, SSH also stated in a national study report that LGBTQ people were affected disproportionately by overall harassment. However, nothing like this is ever spoken about in the media, and the hyper-sexualizing carries on.
In recent times, many parts of the media have been using a tactic called “queer-baiting.” This is when writers, to draw in a queer audience, either hint at a character being queer for a long time then refuse to confirm it, or build clearly strong romantic bonds between two characters of the same gender. They then pass it off as “fan delusions” or “friendship” when asked about it, while often times forcing at least one of the characters into a straight relationship that was clearly rushed. LGBTQ girls and women aren’t an exception in this case. The media will often show friendships between two girls that have very strong emotional bonds and almost constant physical contact, then pass it off as “just gals being pals!”
One of the most well known instances of this is the popular anime, Sailor Moon. In the original version of the show, there was a lesbian couple. However, when the show was subtitled and dubbed into English, the script was changed to say that the two were very affectionate cousins. Despite this, when a man and a woman have the same type of chemistry in a TV show, book, or movie, it is seen as a deep romance.
Because of how this is presented in the media, two women, so long as they don’t look like stereotypical “butch” lesbians, in a relationship are often times seen as close friends by the general public, even when they do things such as hold hands, go out together, or even kiss. Many people will also pass off girls who experience multi-gender attraction as straight girls with a sense of “experimentalism,” which boils down to stripping the relationship of all emotion, similar to pornographic depictions of w/w, and passing it off as a sexual curiosity.
This causes many people to then view the relationship as inherently sexual and will consider any displays of affection, even handholding while being open about the relationship, inappropriate. Overall, this is very degrading and creates more and more stigma.
Many will try and claim that this is an unfair argument due to the fact that LGBTQ men experience these types of negative things as well. While they’re correct, the issues that LGBTQ women face are much more extreme, as well as spoken about less.
In an Entertainment Weekly article, it was stated, “Male LGBT characters [in film] outnumbered female [LGBT] characters 64 percent to 36 percent.” As well as that, in the LGBTQ section of Netflix, there is an extremely large amount of movies and television shows featuring LGBTQ women with sex as the main focus. There is also a significant gap in teen-appropriate media with LGBTQ protagonist that are men compared to women. Also, queer women face intersectional oppression, for being both women and LGBTQ. Therefore, while LGBTQ men do face stereotyping and don’t receive as much non-sexual media representation as they should, they have come much farther than LGBTQ women in the media.
Overall, the world still has a long way to go. While our society is progressing, both sexism and homophobia still exist. LGBTQ women face a lot of hyper-sexualization due to this. The media dehumanizes LGBTQ women by treating a majority of their relationships as though there is sexual desire at the root, rather than emotion. People then have prejudices and internalized homophobia, including queer women. The hyper-sexualization also leads to an increase in the sexual harassment, abuse, and assault of LGBTQ women. All of these factors prove that the media abuses its power by refusing to give sapphic women realistic representation and hyper-sexualizing them. That doesn’t mean it is always going to be like this, however. With enough demand, we can make a change. With the right education and representation, the lives of so many young LGBTQ people can be changed for the better.