Friday, January 1, 2010

I Have a Bone to Pick with You, Ariel Levy

If we look around at popular images in television, magazines, billboards, we can see that the objectification of sex runs rampant in American culture.  Women in particular have been influenced by a surge in what has been coined “stripper culture”, or the glorification of pornographic, sexually explicit representations of females.  This phenomenon has created quite a bit of controversy and, for some women, raises the question: “How far have we come in our feminist struggle?”

In her book, “Female Chauvinist Pigs”, Ariel Levy talks about this phenomenon but uses a different phrase to define it: Raunch Culture.   According to Levy, examples of America’s inundation of Raunch Culture include the popular video series “Girls Gone Wild”, porn star Jenna Jameson’s success as an author, the recent upsurge in popularity of X-rated books in the publishing world, the increase in plastic surgery procedures, Reality TV, Olympic athletes posing for racy magazines, Victoria’s Secret Lingerie Show being aired on primetime televisions, and, last but certainly not least,  the surge in popularity of all-female erotic dance classes.  Says Levy, “Because we have determined that all empowered women must be overtly and publicly sexual, and because the only sign of sexuality we seem to be able to recognize is a direct allusion to red-light entertainment, we have laced the sleazy energy and aesthetic of a topless club or a Penthouse shoot throughout our entire culture.”

Have we determined that as a culture all empowered women must be overtly sexual?  This would suggest that the Madonna-Whore dichotomy, which has run rampant in our culture for centuries, is no longer an issue in America.  It would suggest that we, as a culture, embrace the whore in all of her overt sexual power and allow her to be as much a part of the sisterhood as the Madonna.  It would suggest that we no longer refer to women who choose to explore and possibly share their sexuality with the world as “whores”.  But as is evidenced by Levy’s scathing words towards women who choose to play with the whore archetype, we are far from having reconciled that deep split in our psyche.  In fact, the judgments that Levy tosses at women who choose to explore their sexuality through overt means demonstrates that the Madonna-Whore dichotomy is in fact alive and well and that we are still shaming women for overtly displaying their sexuality.  Says Levy about Olympic Models choosing to pose for FHM magazine, “Bimbos enjoy a higher cultural standing in our culture than Olympians right now.”  Is it possible that these women were choosing to share their sexuality for pleasure or for profit or both?  And why would we condemn these female athletes for wanting to be seen as sexually desirous?  Female athletes work in an extremely masculine environment where their feminine sexual essence is tightly reigned in.  Does it not make sense that they might want to experiment with being seen as hyperfeminine representations of sexually desirous beings? 

Levy goes on to say that “some version of the scantily-clad temptress” has always been around and there has always been a demand for “smut”. But this was once a guilty pleasure on the margins, she protests, and the province of males.  Today it has thoroughly penetrated the mainstream and that mainstream includes women.  Levy wonders why this is happening and what women could possibly be getting out of all of this objectification.  Her answer is simply that smut is trendy and women want to be “cool”.    This dismissive and derisive critique of striptease culture as “smut” overlooks the crucial point that sex can be a ground for exploration and experimentation for both men and women.  In a culture where women have always had tighter moral constraints than men in the realm of sexuality, is it not important to begin to value forms of sexuality that lay outside the traditional, acceptable norms of heterosexual monogamous fidelity?  Should we not be willing to embrace a more diverse practice of sexual behavior, including sex work and promiscuity, whether or not we choose these practices for ourselves?

When linking “raunch culture” with the swing to the right our country has taken Levy argues that people are voting for how they “wish things were in America, rather than how they experience it”.  A more solid argument would be that the people who reside in the red states are so far divorced from their bodies and so heavily policed in their sexuality that they develop an obsession with the objectification of the body.  That which is taboo becomes an obsession.  Levy also complains about the fact men do not have to parade around in their skivvies to attain power, so why should women?  This is in line with the feminist argument that stripper culture is yet another indication that we exist in a patriarchal culture where women are still viewed as sex objects for men’s gratification. Here she misses another essential point:  Men don’t parade around in their skivvies not because they don’t need to, but because it would never have the same effect.  This is not where masculine power resides.  And that’s NOT necessarily because we live in patriarchal society where only women are exploited for their bodies.  It’s because the essence of feminine power (whether this power is being expressed in a male or a female body) lies in the body.  The feminine represents the sensate, the giving of life, nurturing, the wild and chaotic and she demonstrates these feminine qualities most readily through her body.  The naked woman, says Carrie Roach, conjures up pre-patriarchal goddesses and temple priestesses who proclaim power and honor in the female body.  “In this context, the popularity of stripper culture becomes a testament to the timeless fascination and perennial appeal of the female body:  mysterious, soft and sensuously curved, magically able to create and renew life through the primordial power of female sexuality.  Striptease culture then is one important part of popular culture where women can use their power playfully, erotically – even religiously – for their own financial, emotional and spiritual fulfillment.”   And this is a problem because…? 

It’s a problem because as a culture, we are not quite ready to accept or embrace the idea that women should be able to share their sexuality in any overt manner and still be considered respectable members of society.  The argument that empowerment = overt displays of sexuality=smut is simply another way of saying what “the patriarchy” (as defined by Arial Levy) has been saying to women for years: If you choose to engage your feminine sexual power, then you are a whore.  Overt displays of sexuality=smut=whore.  How fantastic that, after centuries of men telling women that they may not engage in this sort of practice, we now have women telling other women not just that they should not engage in this sort of practice, but that if they do, they are doing the rest of the sisterhood a huge disservice.  As long as women continue to judge one another for their sexuality, as long as women’s beauty and sexuality remains something to be contained, controlled and judged things like misogyny and chauvinism will continue to flourish.  

            Jack Holland, in his book Misogyny, makes the argument that if choice is central to women’s evolution, then so to is her sexuality, and her right to display it.  He goes on to say that one of the characteristics of a society where misogyny is “the common sense” is that they seek to suppress that right.  Items that invoke any aspect of female sexuality create a tremendous amount of fear, and are therefore banned.  This fear is associated with confining a woman’s sexuality to the procreative role, and they often have problems relating to a woman at any other level than the mother.  This opposition is disguised as wanting to “protect” the women from male chauvinism, but the actions reveal their own inability to relate to sexually mature women.  Ambivalence towards women’s beauty remains as part of the Judeo-Christian hostility towards the body and is echoed in many of the feminist writings that call on women to give up the frivolousness of beauty and prove through their minds that they are equal to men.  The solution is not to jettison beauty or pleasure or to place constraints on women’s sexuality or their bodies.  The solution is to change our attitude towards all of these things and to reconnect with our bodies.

Levy’s biggest bone to pick seems to be the use of the red light industry as a role model for sex. One of her arguments against this is that the women are “acting”.  They are playing at being sexy and presenting unrealistic models of female sexuality.  While the sex industry may present unrealistic models of female beauty and sexuality, it could also be argued that the women who are acting in these films are better equipped than the average woman to teach people about sex.  They are paid professionals.  Their job is to have sex.  They must then be able to differentiate between the sex they have at work and the sex they have in their private lives.  They, more than anyone, must know the difference between sex they enjoy and sex they are having for a paycheck.   I am also quite sure that these two things overlap quite a bit.  The idea that porn stars are “always acting” is naïve – in the same way that assuming most strippers are abused or don’t like what they do is naïve.  But it is much more comfortable for most people, I suppose, to assume that the woman participating in a sex act for money is there because she has no choice or is being victimized in some way than it is to realize that some women just really enjoy sex and fucking.  Because of course, that makes her dangerous. 

            Nina Hartley is a porn star/educator.  She has been making porn for at least twenty years, has written books on sex and also teaches workshops on things like blowjobs, spanking and anal sex.  In her classes, she covers technique and anatomy but she also talks about some of the stigmas surrounding these activities.  While Ms. Hartley has a made a career out of “acting” in pornography, she isn’t teaching other women how to pretend to enjoy giving blowjobs, she is teaching them how to truly enjoy giving them primarily through increasing their knowledge, skills and confidence.  Ms. Hartley is in an excellent position to do this because she has s great deal of experience both on the job and off, and she knows what works. 

            With that said, I don’t think that the red light industry even begins to cover the spectrum of sexual exchanges that can be had and that the exclusive use of pornography as a role model for sex for Americans falls tragically short of providing a solid sexual education.   Levy and I even agree that having this be the only access Americans have to sex education is in fact, quite detrimental.  But Levy falls short of offering any solutions.  Which is where I come in.  Stay tuned, my pets.


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