11/03/2014 12:57 GMT | Updated 11/05/2014 06:59 BST

Stop Misusing the Term 'Empowerment'


Image created by Helen Reeves

According to the Oxford English Dictionary to empower is to "give someone the authority or power to do something", or "to make someone stronger or more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights".

It will be a word many of us are most familiar with in the context of talking about women and women's rights. But in my view, the term is now being misused and overused and it's really starting to annoy me.

In fact, it's getting to the point where you rarely hear the word empowerment used to describe anything that doesn't, at least on some level, involve sexual relations between men and women.

Here are some of the contexts I've heard the concept of female empowerment applied to recently:

  • The on-going debate about the Sun'sPage 3.
  • In discussion about a recent BBC Three documentary about women who make money performing on sex-cams.
  • Beyoncé's new album.
  • The furore around Miley Cyrus, and, well, everything she does at the minute.
  • On a Channel Four documentary called Strippers.

In terms of Page 3, anyone who has ever engaged in a debate about it, about what it symbolises in terms of women's role in society, will have come up against the following argument:

"It's empowering, the girls are making their own money!" (It's normally 'girls' not 'women' here).

But women working and making money is hardly a novel concept.

The Married Women's Property Act - which allowed married women the right to keep her own wages for the first time - was passed in 1870. If that's the criterion, then I'm sorry, that's not good enough. I want a bit more.

It often seems to me that what people really mean why they say 'empowered' is: relatively more agency in a profoundly unequal context.

Yes, on a continuum of empowerment, exposing your breasts for a fairly decent - albeit insecure - wage probably affords relatively more power than some of other occupations women tend to disproportionately dominate in a profoundly unequal, capitalist marketplace.

Posing for Page 3 may well feel more empowering than say a low paid cleaning job on a zero hours contract.

You might well ask: "If a woman says she feels empowered, who are you to dispute what she thinks and feels?" And that would be a fair question.

But that's really not my intention at all.

All I ask is this: is it ridiculous to think that perhaps if women were really empowered - "controlling" and "claiming our rights" as the definition above goes - there might not be a market for getting our breasts out at all?

There isn't a market for men to do the same with any of their body parts, not in the same way.

Would breasts in particular even have that kind of cachet? They might well just be another sometimes handy, sometimes troublesome, squishy body part.

Likewise, in terms of current pop music and videos, a great majority near consistently portray women in ways designed to showcase their bodily and sexual desirability. Again, this in a way that men are not.

For instance, I'm a big Beyoncé fan, but her supposedly 'feminist' new video album seemed to be a lot more about her arse than this elusive concept of 'female empowerment'; I was disappointed.

With the common mantra that "sex sells" and the idea that we have now reached a cultural peak of sexual openness and opportunity, a so-called 'post-feminist' outlook might argue that women today are now more sexually empowered to make a broader range of sexual choices. But whilst it's laudable that women are allowed to be sexual and openly enjoy sex; surely empowerment would be doing that on our own terms?

Sex in itself is not a bad thing for women. Often, it is the dissonance that surrounds sex for many women that is problematic, and the lack of freedom to choose and define one's own sexuality.

While women are increasingly expected to be attractive, sexually available, to be 'sexually empowered' - not to be 'frigid' or 'prudish' - women are nonetheless chastised for behaviour that would otherwise be celebrated in male counterparts.

Women must be just the right level of sexually available. She must be 'up for it', but not too 'up for it'; enjoy sex, but not too much sex, or the wrong kind of sex. It doesn't take long for the label to turn from 'sexy' to 'slut' in one fell swoop.

As becomes clear, the right or acceptable way to be - a permissible sexuality - is very hard to attain indeed.

Is this empowerment? No, no it's not. It's just really, really bloody frustrating.