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The Spornosexual: Should Beckham Keep His Shirt On?

Society is quick to condemn the hint of sexuality…yet we still look

According to UK journalist Mark Simpson, metrosexuals—a term he originated to describe single, urban young men with disposable income, hair gel and designer duds--are boringly normal and spornosexuals, the new, second generation metrosexuality are stealing the scene.  A ‘spornosexual,’ a mash-up of sports and porn, is a hypersexual, body-obsessed man who want to be desired for his body.  Labeling super fit guys without shirts as porn speaks volumes more about society than the guys in the photos. 

Society is very quick to condemn and pathologize new trends that push the boundaries of social norms.   I congratulate Mark Simpson for a cleverly sticky label, but I question the link between sports and sexuality and porn.  Or even a public display of fitness and porn.  It’s really more a question of celebrity than sports but that doesn’t make as good a label and besides, how does it necessarily follow that these men want to be desired only for their bodies and not their minds?  That reveals rather more about our assumptions than theirs. 

It’s entirely possible that these shirtless men want attention as a way of monetizing their brands and the posturing and flexing is the means of enhancing brand value.  In fact, brand equity is the only way monetize this trend.  But, nowhere in this demeaning (and stereotypical) label is the recognition that these guys work their butts off to put muscles on.  And as athletes (hence the ‘sp’ from sports in spornosexual), they’re doing it over a foundation of talent and skill.   David Beckham may want people to like him for things other than his football skills, but without the football skills, no one would care about his abs, his haircut or if he wore Posh Spice’s panties.  We’ve had body builders for years, but calling this ‘body-obsessed’ because we now have cameras with flip lenses seems a bit harsh.  The Old Spice Guy was funny, but when reality star Dan Osborne takes a bare-chested selfie it’s morally problematic?  Kim Kardashian, among many other celebrities, has been sharing her body across the media, pushing the limits of social norms.  We don’t have very nice things to say about that either, but agree or disagree, why should this be a gender-specific behavior to get attention?   Is this a great way to showcase people who are undeniably role models because of their accomplishments or celebrity?  (See a companion post on turning this into a teaching moment for kids.)  Not particularly, but what’s with the demeaning assumption of “they only want one thing”?   

The human brain is wired to notice outliers, things that are new and out of the ordinary.  It’s also wired to respond to sex.  The athletes called out in this trend have bodies in peak condition that represents serious effort.  From an evolutionary psychology perspective, we might argue that part of the appeal is the apparent health and presumptions of virility.  Great, so it got our attention.  How long will they keep it?

We live in a visual culture where sharing is a normal event, particularly among those who benefit from visibility and attention.  Social media has created an environment where celebrity status is a brand.  As such, these ‘spornosexual’ mass media images communicate brand-relevant information—strength, desirability, and pride—all the things you would expect to reinforce the archetype of a champion.   Instagram and selfies create the sense of intimacy and unmediated contact with fans. Both are ways of creating brand differential.  The shirtless thing, however, only has real value to the ‘early entrants’ who will cash in via endorsements. When everyone is flexing repeatedly for the public, it will be less interesting and less valuable, no matter what the gender.  

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Photo credit: People.com by Stefano Rellandini /Reuters/Landov

Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., M.B.A., is Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and teaches media psychology at Fielding Graduate University and UCLA Extension. more...

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