Sex still sells in the great outdoors. Why?

"Surfing has always been sexy. But it’s never really been about sex. Instead, people aspire to a ‘strange, asexual sexiness"...


Surfing has always been sexy. But it’s never really been about sex. Instead, people aspire to a ‘strange, asexual sexiness’. A sexiness born from being young and care-free. Of living beyond the realms of day to day drudgery, the 9-5, the mortgage, the marriage, the kids, and the two cars on the driveway.

Weekends are beaches and waves not taking the kids to ballet practice, football matches, or any of the other ways in which we live out our own, sometimes failed, aspirations vicariously through our kids. At its most basic level, surfing is an experience that gets under your skin, that pulls you back, that pervades your thoughts during the day and sometimes keeps you awake at night wishing you could be out on the water.

It’s about the draw of the ocean, pitting your wits against the power and wonder of nature. It’s about that first euphoric rush of catching a wave and feeling like you’ve been kissed by Poseidon, when, perhaps, in reality you’re simply wobbling along on a beach break slightly smaller than the 8-inch-thick chunk of pink polystyrene you’re standing on.

Surfing is about freedom. And freedom in itself is kinda sexy.

Surfers of course, don’t have mortgages or material possessions. They possess nothing but a battered VW van, a pair of flips flops for evening wear, a tin of baked beans, casually ruffled sun bleached hair and a loyal, if slightly rag tag, dog.They don’t wear suits or go to work in offices like you or I – Instead, to fund their continuing sexiness, they rob banks (ethically of course), spend their spare time skydiving and seducing undercover FBI agents into their cabal with their bewitching ways. That kind of thing.

OK, so now we’ve in-arguably established that surfing’s inherent sexiness stems from this aspirational and wholly realistic lifestyle, rather than any actual sex appeal of the participants. Why is it then that brands are trying desperately to sell us surfing based on actual sex?

Case in point, if you’ve got five minutes, search the term ‘female surfer’ online. (Not at work perhaps and remember; I was doing this purely in the interest of research.) To do so is to be beset by any array of thonged buttocks, salacious displays of long, bronzed limbs and various lists of ‘The (insert arbitrary number) hottest female surfers in the world right now’.

Can it be that we’re not as enlightened as we like to think? Are we still unable to recognise women for their athletic achievements, viewing them instead purely as objects for the lustful gaze? In the interest of balance and fully prepared to be outraged by the blatant sexism on display, I duly searched ‘male surfer’. Primed and ready to take offence at the contrast of covered up, winter  wetsuit-clad male surfers on display, I was instead assaulted by an array of six packs, rippling muscles and bulging board shorts. 

You can imagine my disappointment. I really expected the male surfer to be depicted purely as an entirely wetsuit-clad Action Man, ready for adventure, but essentially devoid of genitalia. Although perhaps we shouldn’t judge too harshly, it is pretty cold in the water after all.

The imagery created and distributed by surf brands, companies, magazines and most other people using surfing to punt their products is sexualised, objectifying and graphic.

Surf Thong.

Why did Surfing become so sex-driven?

When did this become a thing? Are surfers, and surfing as an industry, being empowered or exploited by big brands? Is the increasing sexualisation of surfing and the outdoor industry generally just something we should accept and move on with our lives?

Surely sexiness should be incidental. A nice to have but not a nice way for brands to shamelessly flog merchandise. But instead of being offended when it comes to overt displays of perfectly pert bottoms, perhaps we should butt out, turn the other cheek, stop trying to get the bottom of a non-existent problem? Is the sexualisation of adventure sports marketing a genuine concern or are we simply desperate to be offended?

Perhaps should we applaud these empowered young people for combining hard work and entrepreneurship, for using their social media profiles to grow their fanbase, attract sponsors and inspire more people to take up their chosen sports? Maybe we should admire the way in which they combine success with sex appeal to reap their just rewards, as some athletes freely admit to doing. Maybe we should just let them get on with it?

There is a serious point to be made here. I’m just no longer sure what it is, or if I’m the man to make it. I set out thinking I would prove that sexism was rife within the marketing of outdoor sports, particularly surfing. I discovered at least one instance to back up my theory.

Former British champion Sophie Hellyer accusing the industry of sexism, and claiming that since ditching revealing swimwear she has suffered a drop in press coverage and sponsorships.

“I definitely get a lot less coverage in the media now I’m wearing a 5mm wetsuit all year. Is that linked? Probably. When was the last time you saw a woman in a full wetsuit in a surf mag? I wish it weren’t a big deal, but it does need to be talked about”. – Sophie Hellyer

Sophie Hellyer Surf Simply Tom Shaw pink surfboard believe in equal pay fullwidth

So what have I proved or learned exactly? That sex sells? So what? Thank you. Next. Happily, my research wasn’t totally without success, I was able pick up some excellent genital care tips for surfers. So, thanks

Fortunately, in Britain we don’t have to worry too much about being too sexy. As anyone who’s ever tried surfing in our fair isles can attest, British surfing is a lot of things, but sexy isn’t one of them. Our shorelines are NOT awash with scantily-clad beautiful people posing next to a surf board. Thankfully as a 5mm wet-suit is de rigueur 12 months of the year, we don’t have to cope with any distracting sexiness, or indeed being distractingly sexy to other people.

See you on the outside.


31 December 2018 by Ben Lewis

Is sexualisation and objectification used to advertise outdoor clothing, equipment or brands? Is that a problem? Why is it a thing? Should we try and stop it?

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