Guest blog: Mighty modern Aphrodite

Today is the SPARK Summit, a day of discussion and education aimed at ending the sexualization of girls in the media. In the lead up to the summit, we’ve been featuring voices of young women who feel particularly strongly about this issue. It’s my pleasure today to welcome a guest blogger, 17-year-old Juliana Bello from Flemington, NJ. Juliana is an aspiring activist (who, I hope, will start her own blog some time soon!) and a member of Girls Learn International. She has a few things to say about a Powerpoint presentation that you might have heard mentioned around the internet in the last few weeks…

What if Aphrodite had compiled the names of every man and god she had ever slept with into a “sex list?”  Let’s say archeologists unearth an ancient Greek ruin inscribed with a list of names that’s headed by the title “An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics—Mount Olympus Edition.”  Alongside the names are ratings, size comparisons, and other observations.  When you see the story on the news, you think it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard—and you give serious props to Aphrodite for being so upfront!  You know her character pretty well—you know she’s the goddess of love and beauty (some also say sex), and you know she “gets around.”  But it’s always of her own will—she chases after men, or allows them to chase after her.  You’ll never see her succumb to the will of an undesirable suitor.  This power over men sets her apart from other goddesses—she’s got it and she flaunts it, taking advantage of her sexuality and playing into the “bimbo” stereotype, while still maintaining her self-worth (or so it seems.)

I use Aphrodite as an example because she is well known—Karen Owen, the creator of the real life Duke sex list called “An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics,” has not been studied quite as extensively—so she’s a little more difficult to analyze.  My opinion of her has changed as I’ve examined her “research” (cough, cough) more closely, but my initial reaction to her sex list was similar to the one I would expect from Aphrodite’s sex list: I was very amused by the project, and found Ms. Owen’s openness to be at least noteworthy, if not impressive.

When I read through the PowerPoint presentation and learned that the study compared thirteen different subjects (meaning Karen Owen had slept with thirteen men over the course of her four years at Duke), I did not immediately think of her as a “slut.”  My brain thought something more like “man-eater.”  Which is interesting, because back when I was just an awkward young’un whose mouth was filled with more metal than Lil Wayne’s, whispered answers to my innocent query “What’s a slut?” confirmed my suspicion that a “slut” was a girl who “did the nasty” with a lot of boys.  Well, according to the dictionary, a man-eater does the nasty with a lot of boys too (well, men, I suppose), but she is dominant in those sexual relations.  So Karen Owen appears to be dominant, and Aphrodite was definitely dominant—but what exactly does that even mean?

I don’t really like the word “dominant” in this context – what, now sex is some sort of competition, in which one person is the conquistador and the other is meant to be a conquest?  I’m sorry, but even if Antonio Banderas himself wants to be my conquistador I’m going to have to refuse.  I’m not a trophy.  The problem is that in the world of media, sex is a competition because it sells—the more trophies, the better.  In popular culture especially, women’s sense of sexual identity relies entirely upon men’s approval, which is counterproductive to the goal of women being comfortable and confident in their sexuality.  To allow yourself to be sexualized is one thing—to allow yourself to be objectified is another.  A sexual object is a replacement of a woman that cannot value itself nor its contributions to society.

I’ve heard many comediennes combat the constant requests found in most popular songs for girls to “bend over to the front and touch their toes” or to “shake, sh-sh-shake that ass” with their own requests to men, like…showering, maybe?  I love those sorts of rebuttals because they show that men aren’t perfect, and while every teenage girl may think the boyfriend who will break up with her if she doesn’t put out strongly resembles a sixteen-year-old Brad Pitt, it’s just silly for her to compromise herself for him because she thinks he’s hotter or funnier or cooler than she is.

Now, obviously a song called “Kindly Take a Shower” wouldn’t sell the way songs like “Hotel Room Service” do, because it seems like popular culture just isn’t at that point.  But here’s the best part: we create popular culture, pop culture does not create us.  So you can make changes in it just by being yourself.  If you’re opposed to the sexual objectification of women in the media, and you share your views with others who then discover they agree with you, you’ve already created a small ripple of change that can’t do anything but spread.  And all it took was a little self-confidence and advocacy.

People criticize Karen Owen for taking the idea of reverse sexualization too far, and that’s a valid point.  It’s never safe to fight fire with fire—in fact, I say we forget the idea of fighting, or dominating, altogether.  We can just wear fire suits and carry megaphones with us wherever we go—we’ll share our opinions with everybody who will listen, and even those who won’t.  But Karen Owen reminded me that an empowered woman is a force to be reckoned with.  Women of the developed world who empower themselves are so much more effective in helping the women of the developing world defeat their obstacles (the least debilitating of which might be a lack of self-confidence) and achieve that same self-empowerment.  Is Karen Owen an activist?  No.  Is she a goddess?  Not really.  But she had an impact on me, and hopefully I’m having an impact on you.  The ripples have just begun…

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

Read more about Chloe

Join the Conversation