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Interview with Dr. Susan Edelman: Women, Sex and the Media

I have a treat for you…two blogs this August! Actually, this is a continuation of the previous blog, “Man Telling Women’s Stories”. I had the pleasure of interviewing psychiatrist and adjunct clinical associate professor at Stanford University, Dr. Susan Edelman, regarding the effect she is witnessing on women with our life-long exposure to media created primarily by men.

For example, since we see a chick-flick as a woman’s film, we naturally feel women are at the helm of this genre. But, as of this 2016 post, close to 96% of films are directed by men including the chick flicks! While watching these films, we can be conditioned to go against our best interests, because we feel there must be something wrong with our reaction, when things being normalized in the film don't sit right with us. If our screen “sisters” are fine with the choices and behaviors that seem to bother us, then we must simply not be normal and need to start changing our behavior to fit the norm.

There’s great power in the media. It can be enlightening or manipulating. Whether this manipulation is intentional or not, for women it’s been an unhealthy, life-altering distortion. (And for men too…upcoming blog on that topic soon). There are countless areas women are affected by the media, but today we’ll focus on sex and self-worth. Dr. Edelman, what are you seeing in your practice in regard to girls/women, sex and the media?

Dr. Susan Edelman: Sylvia, I’m so glad you’re addressing the problems women face when films and TV shows are written and directed mostly by men. This is a very serious problem.

When women aren’t very involved in the production of this media, the range of female characters that is portrayed is quite narrow. The majority of these characters are young, they are willing to casually hook up with men, and they look like they belong on the cover of a magazine. But in real life, all women are different, so many of us don’t completely identify with those characters. Many women watch these TV shows and movies and think, “What’s wrong with me that I’m not like that?” They feel pressured to conform to those images and behaviors, because it seems like that’s what a “normal” woman looks like and does. This creates problems in two major areas:

First, the media is teaching women that their value is tied to their external beauty and sexuality. Disturbingly, what the media considers “sexy” has become increasingly more unrealistic and unattainable. We’ve been hearing for years that this causes problems with body image, eating disorders, and the desire for plastic surgery. This isn’t just happening to a handful of women. The New York Times reported that 56% of women are unhappy with their appearance. As the media’s standards become even more impossible for women to meet, the problem gets worse and worse.

The second problem area is that these media images pressure women to be sexual and to be casual about intimacy. We see so many scenes where couples hop into bed together that many women begin to see the feelings of attachment they experience with sex as a problem. In my psychiatric practice, women often ask, “Why do I get so attached when I have sex? What’s wrong with me?” There’s nothing wrong with feeling attached after intimacy. Science shows that we’re built for attachment. The current hookup trend is at odds with our biology, because it pressures us to dismiss our emotional needs. When a woman believes casual sex is the norm, it often becomes harder to say “no” to sex if she isn’t ready, for fear of losing the man.

This is not female empowerment. Real power comes from knowing what works for you and having the courage to stand up for yourself. When we let the media dictate our feelings about ourselves and how we “should” act, we forget the meaning of liberation: the freedom to choose for ourselves. Instead, I’d like to see the media include a wider variety of women on TV and in movies—women of all shapes, sizes, ages, and ethnic backgrounds. I’d like to see strong, assertive, intelligent women. But we can also learn a lot from female characters who grapple with all the real issues women face today, like how a woman can get her needs met when she is so pressured to take care of others, how she can have it all, and how today’s dating and relationship norms simply might not work for her.

Sylvia Binsfeld: Thank you Dr. Edelman. It would be easy for filmmakers to show passage of time before a character decides they are interested in engaging in sex and intimacy with someone. It adds more dimensions and layers to the story as well. I appreciate your input.


Board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Susan Edelman has spent 30 years as a practicing therapist in Palo Alto, California specializing in women’s issues. In addition to her private practice, Dr. Edelman is an Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor at Stanford University in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. She’s the author of the award-winning book, “Be Your Own Brand of Sexy: A New Sexual Revolution for Women” and has been a guest on dozens of radio shows, including Jenny McCarthy’s “Dirty, Sexy, Funny”.

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