Here’s why the decision to strip Zara Holland of her title perpetuates victim blaming of women who are sexually assaulted 

Here’s why the decision to strip Zara Holland of her title perpetuates victim blaming of women who are sexually assaulted 

Written by: @Jessicae13Eaton

This week saw Miss GB, Zara Holland, stripped of her title for having sex on the (apparently) popular TV show, Love Island. 

The official statement read: “Following recent actions within ITV2 show ‘Love Island’ it is with deep regret that we, the Miss Great Britain Organisation, have to announce that Zara Holland has formally been de-crowned as Miss Great Britain.”
“As an organisation we have not taken this decision lightly, we are close to all of our winners and wherever possibly stand by them during their rein. That said, we feel we have no choice but to make this decision under the circumstances.
“The feedback we have received from pageant insiders and members of the general public is such that we cannot promote Zara as a positive role model moving forward.
“We wholly understand that everyone makes mistakes, but Zara, as an ambassador for Miss Great Britain, simply did not uphold the responsibility expected of the title.”

This blog post will discuss why the move to remove her title as a beauty pageant winner is hypocritical at best and reinforcing victim blaming of women who are sexually assaulted or raped at worst. 



#1 She won her title for being desirable and now she’s lost it for the same reason

One of the most ironic issues the decision raises is that an entire culture and community of beauty queens, pageant fans and judges who have pushed, helped or forced girls and women through this process to be more and more desirable and sexy and attractive to win a competition based solely on desirability are now shunning Zara because what she did was perceived as ‘irresponsible’ and she is now a ‘negative role model’. How they have come to this conclusion without realising how hypocritical they sound, truly escapes me. 

I am attempting to consider the logic behind this decision. So, it’s literally your bread and butter to have women wearing as little as possible, in the highest heels possible, in the most make up possible, with the biggest hair and best nail possible, parading around a stage, posing for sexual images, competing with each other for the best bikini body and the best figure, best skin, to be the most desirable, have the most sex appeal and the most ‘beauty’ (ignoring a holistic definition of beauty completely) – but it’s not okay for her to have consensual sex with a man on a dating program because that would make her a bad role model? 

Where exactly are the beauty pageant boards drawing the line here? So judging women on a stage solely based on a male-centric definition of desirability and then having them parade around like prize cattle would make her a great role model, but demonstrating the same sexuality you have been exploiting for years makes her a bad role model?

Ah, I get it. The answer to this is #2.

#2 It reinforces the age old sexist notion that women should be ‘sexy but not a slut’ 

It has become very clear that the message we are all receiving from society at large (mainly perpetuated by the media and then absorbed and relayed by both men and women) is that we need to be sexy – but not a slut. We should aim to be seen as desirable and sexy and attractive to men – but not too desirable or sexy or attractive because then we cross some invisible line created by the patriarchy that means we no longer conform to the rigid gender roles and we will now be judged for whatever we do. 

The other way of explaining this is that we are allowed to ‘look’ sexual and ‘illustrate’ sexuality – but we are not allowed to ‘be’ sexual and ‘demonstrate’ sexuality. You have likely had a conversation in which you say ‘I want to look sexy but not too sexy’ or ‘I love this dress but do you think it makes me look a bit slutty?’ 

In my opinion, one of the most concerning factors is that people seem to think it is men that are doing all of the judging and controlling of women’s sexuality but that isn’t quite true anymore. It certainly started out that way when we look at the history of the genders and both of their roles in society over the centuries – but men don’t need to be the driving force of sexism and control of women’s sexuality anymore. They have a new ally. 

Our sexuality has been created, maintained and controlled for so long that we now employ these absorbed messages about how a woman ‘should’ behave and then beat each other (and ourselves) over the head with them. 

There are women blasting Zara for ‘being a slag’ or ‘letting herself down’ or ‘acting like a slut’ and my personal favourite: ‘she should have kept her knickers on then, the tart’ (all taken from comments left under news articles on Zara Holland dated 22/06/2016). 

It’s pretty safe to say that patriarchy and sexism has succeeded in playing divide and conquer with us as a gender and we now wage war on each other rather than work together to support each other when we are victims of this type of judgement about our sexuality.

What perplexes me more is that the beauty pageant board (and the general public that are chastising her now) seemed to have no problem with the tonnes of lingerie shoots, bikini shoots and sexualised poses directed to her in her photo and promo shoots. It’s as if they have drawn the line at actual, physical sex but everything up to that is fine. It’s okay to ask her to pose in lingerie and bikinis in sexualised positions that scream sex appeal but god forbid she actually has real sex. 

Which brings me nicely to #3. 

#3 It demonises the normal, consensual sexual appetite of women 

So, she had sex on TV. It’s not the first time that has happened on a reality TV show. You know what though? She didn’t have sex with herself, on her own. She had sex with a willing and consenting adult partner. They flirted and found each other attractive and they both wanted to show that attraction by touching each other and being sexually intimate with each other and for it to feel pleasurable. I was worried I was missing something here, because I didn’t really see the problem with this. 

I shouldn’t have worried however, because lots of people have made it clear what their problem is with her having sex with someone on TV and some of those comments are above. The word ‘slag’ and ‘slut’ tend to be used when people are talking about females who are seen as overly sexual or overly sexually active. 

‘Overly’. Like there’s a limit. Didn’t you know there was a limit to the amount and types of sex you can have? Silly you. Of course there is! You’re a woman. Duh. 

So the first issue seems to be that people are finding it irresponsible, disrespectful and uncomfortable that she has chosen to have sex with someone for pleasure and wasn’t scared to do it on the TV show (which by the way is pretty much about people hooking up on an island called Love Island). We have to consider our responses to this. Why do so many people have a problem with this? Why are so many people aiming their problem at Zara and not at the guy she slept with? I’m pretty sure he was just as involved as she was. He’s being virtually high fived by a tonne of people on social networks whilst she is being demonised for partaking in the same sex act. 

Is this because sex is seen as a male act that is done to women? Well, unfortunately, the answer to this is yes. Porn, and increasingly, the mainstream media is overwhelmed with scenes in which women are depicted as submissive sex objects used for the pleasure of men. The pleasure of the woman is only really depicted whilst a man is slamming into her from behind or cumming all over her face (not to judge here, but I’m not that sure that all women tend to orgasm from having cum splatter all over their face the way they do in porn). The rest of the pleasure and servitude is shown from the perspective of the man who uses and abuses the body of the woman throughout the scene. Sex becomes about the woman serving the man and delivering pleasure to him. It’s easy to see how the sexuality of women is owned, policed and controlled by men when a very large proportion of the sexual materials in the world are created and produced via the male perspective. 

What the board are saying in their statement is: “You can perform our rigid version of sexuality when we want you to and how we want you to, but you are not to perform your own version of your own sexuality at any time because we will find that to be highly offensive behaviour.” 

Zara having control of her own sexuality and sexual activity really pushes against this rigid expectation of how she should perform sex (coy, submissive and when she is expected to). 

#4 It allows people to reframe her as unworthy and unable to be respected as a woman 

Zara has swiftly been repositioned as an irresponsible woman and a poor role model by the board of the beauty pageant and unfortunately, the general public have blindly followed this viewpoint. By having sex when she wanted to and controlling her own sexuality, she is now no longer conforming to their twisted boundaries of an acceptable and desirable woman. She has crossed the line. She has gone past sexy and into the realms of slutdom. She can’t be Miss GB anymore because she is no longer just looking sexualised and being looked at, but is acting sexualised and being touched by someone. This is somehow unnacceptable. Her sexuality is for them, not for her. 

The board apparently imposed a contract on Zara that she could only go on Love Island if she agreed not to partake in any sexual acts in order to uphold her title. Again, who are they to police her sexual activity based on the fact that she is a ‘beauty queen’? 

She has gone from being a well known and famous beauty queen to being labelled a slag or slut for having consensual sex with one person. If we compared that to men who have been in positions of power or authority or fame, I cannot think of a comparable example in which a man has had his role or title stripped of him for having consensual sex with an adult. I mean, we struggle to strip their titles and roles from them when they have non-consensual sex with children let alone adults. Usually because the same thing happens, the sexual behaviour of the women or girls are demonised. 

#5 How all of the above relates to the victim blaming of women and girls who have been sexually assaulted or raped 

To summarise and pull these (ranty) ideas together, I am going to link them to victim blaming. Victim blaming happens when a woman or girl is blamed for someone else choosing to target and abuse, assault and rape her. This is alarmingly common and embedded. Despite the need to focus on the behaviour and choices of the perpetrator, the focus is shifted back to the behaviour and choices of the woman or girl so she can be blamed for why it happened to her. 

Why would the act of de-throning Miss GB have links to victim blaming? 

Well, if we go back through our points, we have that a woman is supposed to be desirable but not too desirable otherwise she has broken her gender role norms and is acting like a slut. We also have that her sexuality and sexual desirability is not owned or policed by her and it is seen as irresponsible and disrespectful for her to own her sexuality and make her own sexual choices. We have talked about the way women are depicted as submissive sex objects for the pleasure of men to look at or to touch or to have sex with. 

And when you put all of these things together and then add in the fact that if a woman ever steps outside of these very strict expectations of her dress, her character, her sexuality and her behaviour; she is quickly demonised, outed as a bad example or poor role model and made to feel shame and guilt about her actions, we have fertile ground for victim blaming to be planted and to grow quickly. 

Twitter: @Jessicae13Eaton

Email: Jee509@bham.ac.uk 

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