FEATURE: Sexual Expression and Exploitation in the Music Industry


IN THIS PHOTO: Nicki Minaj

Sexual Expression and Exploitation in the Music Industry


WE are living in a time where there are more cracks and…


issues in the music industry than any other time in recent memory. Few can argue against the fact there is sexism and inequality in music: this is a known thing and something that needs to be addressed. I am not sure why, in 2017, it is challenging getting festival organisers to change practices to allow more women to headline. In fact, the word ‘allow’ seems very condescending – like they are children/animals that live in permissive and submissive boundaries. That is, actually, what is happening. There are female performers filling festivals’ lineups but there are so few headliners. I don’t buy the fact it is a case the best female artists were busy when this year’s lineups were announced – one of the rationalisations from Glastonbury’s organisers – or there are few ready for the challenges and responsibilities. I do not buy into that shared lie: why are the boys more ready and able to shoulder the pressure of a festival headline?! I think there is an indoctrinated and deep-set sexism that does not exclusively extend to men. Maybe music, for years now, has operated as a boys’ club.

The only way we can make changes – something everyone wants now – is to start NOW and inspire others. The seeming unwillingness to compromise and open a dialogue is infuriating. It seems, alongside the sexism we find in music; there is a degree of sexual exploitation that has been evident for years now. Maybe it is not a new phenomenon but, with the visibility of musicians and the fact social media/music-streaming makes it easier to get one’s face/body on the screen – are we heading down a very bad road? Before I bring my own thoughts into the debate; I want to source a couple of articles written a few years back. In the first piece, by The Huffington Post in 2014; Laura Duca’s article added a unique perspective on the debate:

The discussion surrounding the hyper-sexualization of the music industry is much more complex than pointing out that everyone is wearing thongs now. Things have certainly gotten sexier. But there’s a fine line between defending the artists and slut-shaming them. The precarious divide between sex-positivity and pandering to the male gaze is a challenge all female performers face. With her upcoming film, “Beyond The Lights,” Gina Prince-Bythewood has found possibly the closest thing they have to a solution: authenticity.

“I have two kids, so the normalization of the hyper-sexualization is troubling to me,” she told HuffPost Entertainment. “I thought that it was important to talk about that, the underbelly of the industry. All we see are the fun parts of job and all of the great shots on Instagram. There is another world that we’re not tweeting about. It’s tough for female artists, there’s a blueprint they are forced to follow.”


In writing “Beyond The Lights,” Prince-Bythewood was very interested in the way personas are formed, especially for young female artists. That “blueprint” refers to the way they are turned into brands, forced to throw away any sense of self in pursuit of an image.

“If you are not fully formed yet and you come out with a specific persona, you lose your sense of self,” she said. “You don’t feel that who you are is good and enough and worthy of love. You’re fearful that if you ever drop the persona all that love is going to go. I mean, it is like a drug.


Another article, written by Australia’s Daily Telegraph in 2014, talked about the contemporaries videos/artists seemingly showing an unhealthy amount of flesh:

WOMEN’S bodies sell. We all know that, but perhaps no industry understands this, and uses this knowledge to its advantage, more than the music industry.

In the last few months there seems to have been a feminine flesh-fest, full of twerking tooshes titillating their prepubescent viewers.

The sexualisation and exploitation of women’s bodies is all-encompassing.

Nicki Minaj’s hit Anaconda features dozens of women gyrating their exposed flesh to the lyric, “My Anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns hun.” Classy, isn’t it?

Miley Cyrus created waves as she swung, completely nude, on a wrecking ball. Robin Thicke pushed beyond normal boundaries of decency with his pornographic and pro-rape Blurred Lines. This week controversy is swirling around Jennifer Lopez’s collaboration with Australian superstar Iggy Azalea after their Booty clip was released. The star of the video? Women’s derrières.

The clip features steamy, sexualised images of the two women in a puerile, porn-inspired dance — rubbing their backsides together.

Come next week will there be another artist trying to make money by selling women’s bodies?

They might be masquerading as empowered femininity, but what are they selling?

These female artists are selling the message that women are nothing more than accessories. Women are only of value as sexual objects. My daughters and your daughters are taught to conform to this narrow sexualised, unhealthy norm.

The message is incessant. Our boys grow up believing girls are really only here to be a boy’s “new thang”.

In fact, one more piece - http://humanhuman.com/articles/women-in-the-music-business -, written by Hannah Thacker a few years back adds another dimension:

That is not to dismiss the existence of artists who have taken control of their sexual identity (cue respectful nods to Laura Marling’s phoenix-like return and FKA twigs’ challenging ideology), but as KATE BOY’s front woman, Kate Akhurst, highlights, there’s “a confusing message of power” surrounding the female body, and we should all strive to clarify this issue. Evidence of this disorientation in the responses seem to focus on one symbol, Beyoncé; for some she’s an inspiration, a teacher, a source for quotes, but for others her less-is-more dress sense leaves them feeling perplexed as to what equality actually means.

That being said, Beyoncé is more than aware of this misdirection as illustrated in her internet-breaking feminist essay, “Gender Equality Is A Myth!” I just hope that statements like “Humanity requires both men and women, and we are equally important and need one another” (Beyoncé) become a reality, so that gender inequality will be the myth. Many of our contributors feel very strongly on this matter:

“I hope that the over-sexualising of female artists will die down or just become irrelevant to music buyers. It’s been encouraging to see artist like Haim and Lorde grow just based on their talents and not by how much skin they show.”

— Niki Roberton, IAMSOUND Records

IN THIS PHOTO: Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea in the music video for Booty

That is enough of other people’s interpretations but one sees a correlation and consensus. Reading more of the piece above; the discussion about sexism looked at festivals and the reasons few women, even a few years ago, were being robbed. Thacker argued (there is an assumption) few girls have the talent to deserve a coveted headline slot: there was a surfeit of talent among female artists that meant they were going with the tried-and-tested make option. I will come back to sexism and festivals but, alongside sexual exploitation, it is a side to music that need to be eradicated. There are, I warrant, women in the music industry who showcase sexuality and the feminine form. Let us draw a distinction between the expression and womanly: against the salacious, seedy and semi-pornographic. Artists like, say, Laura Marling, Björk and Bat for Lashes will, in videos and album covers, present versions of themselves that show their wiles, femininity and sexuality. It is this kind of ‘sexualisation’ that is completely natural and understandable.

They are not selling their bodies and offering something unseemly and provocative. It is the artists that weaponise sexuality that is causing offence. The articles I have sourced are largely from the 2013-2014 era: a time when certain music videos – from the likes of Miley Cyrus and Run the Jewels – were presenting the female form as objects. Being a man, I am one of a small band of journalists actually addressing the topic. That is not to say, by omissions and silence, the male race is culpable by association. There are plenty that shares the same revilement and concerns as me: it is, however, the case it is men, and male executives, dictating this disturbing practice. It is quite distressing, for me, being one of those men who, when presented with a very sexual and alluring video, will watch with interest. Does that mean, when one is interested (aroused, in fact) by these videos, they are as much a part of the problem? It is a complex debate that extends to industries like film and T.V. It is not quite as rampant there – and there is stricter censorship – but, if one saw a film with an age rating; they are forewarned there will be a certain degree of sex, violence and bad language.


It is a great omission – in the pejorative sense, you understand – that there are not the same restrictions and prohibitions as one finds with films. The argument concerning sexualisation in music rears its head when certain videos make their way onto the news. There has not been a slew of outraged voices and articles for some years which suggest the issue is not as prevalent. I argue it is no better than it was but, worryingly, people are becoming immune and there is a greater sense of detachment. As part of my job; I have to watch a range of music videos every week. I look at the new Pop, Rap and Indie videos and, largely, the videos are not that offensive or memorable. You get quite a few, mind, that still treats women as objects as appendages. One might see a Rap video where the hero is cavorting with three/four scantily-clad women atop a BMW. One can say that has been part of the culture for decades but, given that view, should we be imposing controls and limitations?!

IN THIS PHOTO: Run the Jewels

Maybe certain genres are more synonymous with sex and exploitation but even saying that seems ridiculous. It is the case there is a large chunk of ‘Urban’ artists who use derogatory and sexist language in their music and, as a continuation of their lexicon, conceive music videos that continue this narrative – curvaceous and shapely women writhing around the hero. It is not reserved to genres like Rap and Hip-Hop. I know full well there are certain bands that employ women in their videos, in effect, to get their rocks off. I see so many videos that are, basically, the male lead getting off with a woman for an unnatural amount of time – seemingly, a vicarious way of indulging that Rock star fantasy. If kissing/sex is integral to a video plotline, that is fair enough – many treatments are doctored to include needless sex and sexualisation.

IN THIS PHOTO: Zara Larsson

There is an argument that suggests there are double standards at play. If a man were, say, very good-looking – and they were cavorting with a woman – that has appeal because the parties are attractive. If a less-than-appealing man were doing the same thing, then is that much worse?! Perhaps there is the flip-side that feels it is okay for sexually desirable people to indulge in hyper-sexuality because there is aesthetic value and a currency that does not offend the senses. I know there are men who expose their figures for videos; there are women who are happy to use their bodies to sell music but, even if someone is comfortable doing that, does it make it right?

It is everyone’s right to have their say and do what they want (to an extent). If a female group/performer wants to strip or expose parts of her body – why is it down to other people to be self-appointed moral guardians?! Again, one must draw the line and be consistent with judgement. One case-study of a woman whose sexy and memorable video has been a source of inspiration and empowerment is Kylie Minogue’s Spinning Around. One need only read that song title and one’s mind goes to the video: Minogue shot close-up in those now-famous gold hot pants; gyrating and alluringly dancing in time to the song. There is no doubt that video provoked dancing, copycat videos – and, yes, attraction and arousal – but is that an exception that proves the rule? Why is that video empowering and fine whilst a Rihanna video offensive and morally suspect?

IN THIS PHOTO: Nicki Minaj in the video for Regret in Your Tears

Can we divide and compartmentalise without contradicting and obfuscating? It is important not to accuse and blame certain answers: we are not exonerating or assuming any form of sexual expression is bad. I am an advocate of free expression and sexuality. There are women, as I say, who feel empowered and rebellious when they show their sublime figures – whether there are slim or plus-size). Artists like Beyoncé do not have marketing men telling her how to dress and what to do in her videos. She takes control and, as such, has used her body and femininity to convey the strong messages in her songs. How is that kind of sexuality fine and others wrong? It is about rationality and looking at the wider picture. It is perfectly fine for the occasional/appropriate use of sex/the sexual in videos – the same way it is in T.V. and film.

The young generation is impressionable and exposed to more of the world than in any other time in history. My concern relates to the mainstream where there are certain genres/artists who use each video as a chance to see how far they can push themselves – how much controversy they can create. Even if acts like Katy Perry and Tinashe pose in bikinis without portraying a sexual message – songs about L.A. and the beach requires the artist to be dressed for such occasions – is it sending out positive messages? It is important to teach a young woman to be proud of their bodies and not to be repressed and cowed. I have mentioned Beyoncé who, since her Destiny’s Child days, has used music as a pulpit of empowerment, equality and girls’ rights – showing they are a lot stronger than they are given credit for. These positive messages are being undercut by a wave of artists who are using their bodies to get streams/views. It is hard policing and patrolling the borders of YouTube without impinging on someone’s creative and human rights.

IN THIS PHOTO: Jason Derulo

YouTube and other sites are getting better at ensuring videos are not too exploitative, explicit and offensive. It is hard drawing lines and providing rationale. Madonna’s video for Like a Prayer caused a huge stir in the 1980s: there are older videos where the artist has caused a stir by flaunting too much flesh or engaging in behaviour not deemed appropriate for younger tastes. A few years back, the music video Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines caused a stir for the images and scenes it depicted. Is there a validity and demand for sexually expletive videos? Are we in a time when the more salacious and controversial the video; the greater number of people will view it – and, as such, more money and press is generated? I will bring this to a close soon but I worry it is seen as acceptable and profitable for female artists to get their bodies out in order to shift records.


I have mentioned double standards and we must be clear of the times when there is fun and empowering videos where the amount of sexual content is acceptable and, often, inspiring. It is the needless and crass degradation one sees in many contemporary videos that need to be curtailed. It is not only female artists but extras and actors used in videos that are part of the issue. Women are judged as being perverse and shameful if they express their sexuality and prowess: men are congratulated and seen as sexually assertive. There is a double standard and I am hugely supportive of women showing pride in their bodies. Whether they are plus-sized or not: being proud of their form and physique is a wonderful thing – in an age where there is stigma and judgement levied at women who do so. One cannot escape the litany of adverts who ask whether a woman is beach-ready and sexy.

It is now so integrated into everyday life that there is desensitisation in music. We can compartmentalise so that the acceptable/empowering videos; those where there is fun and harmlessness are put into one corner: those that perpetuate this idea as the woman as a chattel/object is put in another. When one divides the two, it is shocking to see how many examples of the latter are evident. How does one restrict the sexual exploitation in an industry where there is so much pressure on artists boasting viewing figures and making their videos visually engaging?! It is a vicious circle but it is clear there needs to be impositions and infractions. It seems sexual exploitation is becoming normalised and rationalised to a large extent. I shall finish by bringing in an argument/article by The Guardian – again, around the time of Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball video – that raises questions and adds new input. Kitty Empire was the first journalist (in this piece) to have her say:

Most adult pop consumers ought to be able to roll their eyes at Miley Cyrus's antics. But it is incredibly distressing that young girls' idols are constantly teaching them that their willingness to "party" is a girl's strongest suit: not their brains, or their sense of humour, or their own unique way with a key change. And as a feminist who is also a music critic, it depresses me deeply that female pop performers find it difficult to market their songs without licking mallets in the buff (as Cyrus does in the video for Wrecking Ball).

Pop performers – male and female – are often exploited by managers and record companies, but I don't believe that Cyrus is being forced to twerk by her handlers. She knows what she is doing – although any grudging respect I had for Cyrus as a businesswoman evaporated when she turned on Sinéad O'Connor in such a repellent way.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett gave a balanced view when drawing lines – if the sexual content is empowering (and ordained and suggested by the female artist) then how is that worse than the same level of sexual explicitness in a different context?

There's no doubt that women have become more and more sexualised in music videos in the last decade or so. I remember my mum being horrified at Christina Aguilera's Dirrrty video – the one where she's wearing those crotchless leather chaps and gyrating in the boxing ring (pretty tame by today's standards), but at the time I couldn't see what was wrong with it. I remember the argument, during which I protested that if Aguilera said that her half-naked dance was empowering, then who was anyone else to take exception?

Of course, I didn't really realise then that the music industry is mostly run by men, and that no matter how empowered an individual woman may feel about nudity, the apparent need for female artists to take their clothes off to sell records isn't exactly a good thing for our gender. Watching the recent Miley Cyrus documentary, I was of no doubt that this was a woman in control of her own personal destiny, but that doesn't mean that I don't feel sad that the male to female clothing ratio is so obviously off-kilter. That said, I really don't like the "put it away, love" comments Rihanna's new video has been attracting either. I don't have an issue with the naked body – it's the fact that women always seem to be the only naked one”.

Around this time; provoked by Miley Cyrus’ video; Alex Macpherson addressed Sinead O’Connor’s slut—shaming open-letter that followed the furore:

For Sinéad O'Connor, the best way to dismantle male dominance was not to go after any actual men in the industry but to rev up that noted vehicle of genuine concern, the open letter, and use it to deliver a torrent of slut-shaming that was so feminist that it repeatedly used the term "prostitute" as a derogatory insult.

Cyrus hardly emerges a heroine herself. Certain racial aspects of her latest incarnation, such as using black female dancers as anonymous on-stage props, go beyond pop's usual magpie approach to appropriation into uncomfortable territory.

Despite being a capitalist patriarchy, though, the music business can also be a terrific vehicle for the voices of women and minorities – and what's unfortunate about this kerfuffle is that the most interesting aspect of it, Cyrus's latest album, Bangerz – a glorious record of freestyle-influenced club tracks, overblown theatrical ballads and hoedown country raps – has been overlooked.

IN THIS PHOTO: Miley Cyrus

There were voices in the piece that argued a song like Wrecking Ball did not warrant that level of revelation and nudity. Is it a case of imposing limits and discussing sensible boundaries for artists? Does this take away that idea of empowerment and free choice? VV Brown offered her thoughts:

Her talent is obvious and there is something about her new direction that propels an idea of rebellion and control. But is she empowering herself as she becomes the artist she wants to be? I question empowerment expressed in this way but I also ask why we, as women, can't be proud of our sexuality? It's a strange pendulum of morals and liberation.

As an artist, I appreciate the naked body. I have even done a naked fashion shoot. However, all artistic statements are judged contextually. Perhaps the controversy is in the delivery of her statements and the context of her past?

Despite all of this, feminism should be about solidarity first. And what's wrong with being naked anyway?”

Bim Adewunmi, in the same piece, highlighted how there is no such Cyrus-like outcry if the female in question is black. That equivalent sexuality is seen as racial empowerment and advancing racial equality. Is it a sin that is reserved to white artists?! That is another aspect to the debate but, in concluding, it seems past discussions like Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball fall-out are relevant today. The so-called age limits imposed on certain videos can be easily subverted and hacked; the Internet is not secure enough to prevent all impressionable/young artists from seeing explicit content. There are moral arguments we can throw around all day but I feel there is a greater prevalence of sexual exploitation in videos tha ever before. Do we place the blame of record labels who look for big figures and infamy or those responsible for safeguarding us – and imposing guidelines on sites like YouTube? It seems like there needs to be greater vigilance and, in a wider sense, less reliance on the idea we need to use sex to sell music. It is 2017 and, with many tackling the plight of sexism in the industry, are these revealing and provocative videos…

MAKING the possibility of sexual equality impossible?!