Stacey Hust with graduate students Chunbo Ren, left, and Ming Lei. (Photo by Tim
Marsh, WSU Today)
“People just think sports is sport,” Hust said. But once you start looking critically at how women athletes are portrayed in the media, she said, it begins to look like women’s sports is really about their sexual bodies. The focus isn’t on athletic abilities as much as on sexual attraction.
Don’t believe it? Just look at the list of top female athletes as chosen by the ESPY awards from 2000 to 2010, starting with skier Lindsay Vonn. Here’s the February 2010 cover of Sports Illustrated featuring Vonn:
And here’s a photo of Vonn that ran inside the issue:
When ESPN decided to feature Candace Parker, winner of the 2008 ESPY top female athlete award, on its magazine cover, this is the photograph that was used:
PULLMAN – When the media focus on women in sports, attractiveness trumps athleticism. That’s part of the reason why Anna Kournikova is a household name, but Jelena Jankovic is not. It may be disrespectful, but is it dangerous?
According to a study by Stacey Hust, assistant professor in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, the answer is yes, in some cases. Increased viewing or reading about sporting events and the advertising that accompanies them predicts that women will be more likely to believe myths about rape and both men and women will be less likely to intervene in a sexual assault.
“I don’t actually think sports is the problem,” Hust said. “It’s how it’s being portrayed in the media.”
Other researchers, notably sociologist Michael Messner of the University of Southern California, have documented the sexualization and objectification of women in sports – as athletes, as spectators and as media commentators or field reporters. So, Hust decided to look at whether there is a measurable difference in attitudes regarding sexual assault between those who view a lot of sports media and those who observe very little.
Hust and her research group surveyed 352 WSU students to determine how much sports programming they watched or read. Then researchers asked respondents to read a series of statements from the Illinois Rape Myth Scale and indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the statements.
Later in the survey respondents were asked a series of questions to indicate how likely they were to intervene in a possible sexual assault situation. For instance, one question was, “If I saw a drug being slipped into someone’s drink, I would warn that person.”
According to the study, women who watch more sports programming are more likely to believe rape myths that blame the victim for sexual assault. And those who believe rape myths are less likely to intervene in a sexual assault.
Among men, there was no association between watching sports and believing rape myths, but there was a direct association between watching sports and not intervening in a sexual assault.
When women athletes are portrayed as sexual objects, “that opens the gate” to other things, said Ming Lei, a third-year graduate student who works with Hust.
Lei is the second author on the study, which was presented at the 2010 WSU Academic Showcase and at the 2009 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication national conference.
Hust and Lei are quick to point out that they are not saying people who watch sports are unlikely to intervene in a sexual assault. They believe watching a lot of sports programming is one factor that could influence whether a person decides to intervene.
“Even if you watch a lot of sports, if you are a person who values helping others, you are still likely to intervene,” Lei said.
This study is a small part of the puzzle, Hust said, but it is an important one. Yes, people see sexualized and objectified images of women in many different formats to sell a variety of products and values. But, she said, “sports is just so important to our culture that it warrants investigation.”
Parents of young children often preview or block access to certain movies, magazines or music, Hust said, but watching sports is often viewed as value-neutral entertainment.
“People know not to let their 10 year old watch R rated movies,” she said, “but who tells their 10 year old not to watch a football game?”
Hust said she doesn’t want to block 10 year olds from watching their favorite sports program either, but she does believe parents should use the opportunity to talk with children about what they are seeing and help them understand how the media can shape perceptions.
And it’s an important lesson not just for 10 year olds, she said, but for everyone.
“If people are more media literate – that is, if they understand that sports uses sexualized images of women to sell the audience – then people could approach the messages more critically,” Hust said.
Very few people commit acts of sexual violence, but all of us are part of a culture that either tacitly accepts sexual violence or passively accepts not-so-subtle media messages that men are powerful and dominant and females are not, she said.
“You can’t prevent sexual assault,” Hust said, but you can give people information that helps them create and support an environment that doesn’t tolerate sexual assault. Successful intervention, Hust said, requires a community approach.
In a followup study, Hust and her research team would like to determine if attitudes toward sexual assault vary according to whether a person views high-contact supports such as football or basketball, or low-contact sports such as swimming or gymnastics.
Hust, S.J.T., Lei, M., Ren, C., Chang, H., McNab, A., Marett, E.M., & Fitts, J. (2009, August). Sports programming and beliefs related to sexual assault. Presented at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Mass Communication & Society Division, Boston, Massachusetts.