Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sex, lies and gender roles

Who knew I’d have some serious archives when I just started this thing?! Really, though – today I’m posting this “essay” (sounds academic, eh?) I wrote a year ago after I finished reading Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy. I cleaned it up and made some edits to reflect acquired knowledge…

She addresses what she calls the "raunch culture" of today: Girls Gone Wild, Playboy, strip clubs, the porn industry, etc. and how women are embracing it all. It's more acceptable (and even considered “cool”) for women to go to strips clubs and be into porn. Stripping and posing nude don’t even carry such a stigma anymore. In fact, it's just the opposite - strippers and porn stars have a huge fan base that includes a large number of women. Back in the day, if a celebrity had a sex tape surface, it would destroy their career - now, their popularity increases tenfold (i.e. Paris Hilton). Posing in Playboy used to be something you had to bounce back from - now, it's something stars do to boost their careers.

With all these changes in the acceptability of the sex industry on the female front, one would say, “Hell yeah we are finally sexually liberated!” But Levy says, not so much.

I think what she’s trying to convey is that women simply acting like men in this regard is attempting to spread sexual liberation with the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!" mentality – which is self-defeating. And she says that supporting this "raunch culture" is still degrading to women even if the supporter is female. This tells women that they need to be "sexy" (adhering to the examples of the perfectly airbrushed role models), but not necessarily derive any sexual pleasure for themselves. Sex has become commodified; packaged and able to be sold. Now, to be "sexy" there’s a slew of stuff you have to buy and procedures you have to sit through in order to meet the standard. Sex is becoming less about mutual pleasure and more about accumulation. What’s disturbing is her chapter on high school students, who had said in interviews that "putting notches on their belts" is what popularity is built on. Sex isn't a source of enjoyment for them, but almost like shopping for new clothes to look better than their peers. Add to this abstinence-only sex education, which tells hormonal adolescents to "just say no" and leaves out information about contraception, birth control, STDs, pregnancy, abortion and good old fashioned masturbation. School is telling them one thing, yet they step outside into the real world and sex is everywhere.

Prime example – The Fox Network. Studies have shown there to be more sexual content on its prime time programs than any of the other biggies (ABC, NBC, etc.) – yet, they REFUSE to run any commercials for condoms. I don’t think I need to explain the pure stupidity of this.

Now, I've never held a stance strongly for or against porn - it can be a handy-dandy tool (wink, wink) and I always kinda figured if a woman wants to strip, be in porn or pose nude – and that's how she feels powerful – then great for her. If we want to break down archaic gender roles, wouldn't that include women exhibiting characteristics that were traditionally thought of as "male" and claiming them as their own? And if that's the case, then why is it such a negative thing for men to exhibit traditionally "feminine" characteristics?

I’m going to sidetrack here and mention some words of wisdom from’s Jessica Valenti. Her book Full Frontal Feminism addresses this very question: What is the worst thing you can call a man? A woman. Think about it: girl, pussy, sissy, bitch – aside from being called a gay man (fag, homo, etc.), why is being called female an ultimate insult? Please discuss.

I would say we are a hell of a lot more liberated sexually then, say the 1950s – but in 2004, half the country voted to ban gay marriage. That doesn't exactly exude sexual liberation to me.

I think it's important to remember that there are so many ways for one to express themselves sexually and different people find different things sexy and appealing. It's part of who we are; no one had to teach us how to feel. But, what's considered sexy in society is very limited. And where’s the fun in that??


Branden VanAuken said...

Part of the problem with this type of discussion is that treats each individual as some sort of spokesperson for an entire group. Especially in the case of women and discussing whether their sexuality or actions are degrading to women as a whole. It seems as though Levy is implying that women should act in a way she approves of because she feels their individual actions are degrading to the female gender. But it's a nonsense argument because it's only degrading by her subjective opinion. Feeling degraded is a personal thing, it is not an easily definable or empirical thing. If a woman personally feels good about the way she carries herself and the things she enjoys, then why should she alter that because some other random woman doesn't approve? If anything, women like Levy seem to define themselves and their worth by their gender which is separatist and self-defeating in it's own right. If she truly wants to be taken seriously then perhaps she should try defining herself as an individual and quit worrying about the inevitable generalizations that strangers are going to make about her.

If you have something to offer the world, then intelligent people will see that. I'm not going to deny that it is occasionally frustrating to be generalized as white man or by the music I enjoy, or whatever, but I certainly wouldn't expect every member of those groups to act a certain way as if they are a representative of that group. Instead, I continue to act in a way that I feel good about and when someone comes along and recognizes that, it tends to be someone else that is worth associating with. People worry to much about other people. Ultimately each person can choose to define who they are as an individual... and if some members of society don't see that, i'm not going to lose sleep over it.

Lisa said...

Thanks for your insightful comment, Branden. I agree that calling something "degrading" - or labeling anything, for that matter - is all relative. I think this is the root of many problems within different social movements - there are those who believe supporters should follow a certain belief system and lifestyle, and if they don't, then they're not being true to the cause.

And people wonder why it's so difficult to unite a group, a movement, a country...

Levy's book pissed me off at some points because she seemed to be scolding us from the soapbox - and what a great way to discourage young women from learning more about feminism! I've experienced the "age gap" within the women's movement; some (not all) women are just not open to change or new ways of experiencing empowerment - and that's a damn shame.

That being said, I'm going to reference Jess Valenti again (because I fucking adore her): if women want to use their bodies to feel empowered, that's fantastic - providing they know WHY they are doing it. If it's coming from a personal place and this is how they really feel a sense of power, great. But, are they doing it because they know that's what men want to see and that's how they will get the attention of men? And really, how empowering is that?

Branden VanAuken said...

Your Myspace link kept taking me back to the main Myspace page. Took me forever to get back here. heh.

But yeah, I think you make a good point. Context means EVERYTHING. I especially run into this when dealing with free speech issues as well. People can say or do similar things, but their motives can be completely different. WHY they act a certain way matters a lot. I know I've personally done some things that would sound ridiculous and "fratboyish" if I explained them but that certainly doesn't mean I'm that sort of person. I think the same applies in this case. As long as the motive makes sense, then I don't think the individual should be concerned how others perceive them.

I tend to believe that as a person, as long as you are self aware, you should act accordingly. Sometimes that is going to annoy people who have an agenda, but that isn't your problem. If they don't understand that "why" you do things is as important as "what" you do, then that is their problem and they're the no different than the generalizing pieces of shit they are complaining about.


Excellent post Lisa. I'm going to respond to it in my own blog entry in Lesbiatopia.



very well said, Lisa.