Friday 25 September 2009

For modest liberation?

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, by Ariel Levy (Pocket Books, 2006)

’What a woman was criticised for doing yesterday, she is ridiculed for doing today.’
Edith Wharton, 1915.

We might adapt Edith Wharton’s sage observation to read: ‘What a woman is criticised for doing today, she was ridiculed for doing yesterday’. In Ariel Levy’s lightweight polemic (a slim 200 pages, written in an accessible, sometimes friendly, sometimes geeky prose style), she argues that ‘raunch culture’ has hijacked the project of feminism and now it is women who are subjugating themselves. As the blurb reads, ‘[Levy’s] polemic explores the myth of this new brand of empowerment and refuses a culture-wide obligation for young women to look and act like porn stars’. That’s a heady statement, and one which has faced little counter-argument from newspaper reviews here in the UK or in the US. This new brand of empowerment, or in other words, guiltless sexual enjoyment, really a myth? Is it not one of the achievements of feminism that woman are freer to pursue sexual behaviours rather than stick to traditional gender roles? Is the obligation to act like a porn star really culture-wide?

There is a myth, certainly, but it is a myth that our current generation are ‘pornified’ wholesale, with porn being somehow inherently corrosive and making people exponentially more sexually permissive than before. In America there’s a popular movement toward abstinence; and in the UK, many young people are involved in loving, trusting, mutually respecting and long-term relationships. Levy is right, however, to argue that a process of pornification is going on; that popular culture, at least, is becoming increasingly comodified and that previously hidden, previously encountered on top shelves, or passed samizdat round schoolboys’ dorm rooms, are now in mainstream culture. In a moment of startling observation, Levy notes that the word ‘sexy’ has become a byword for anything exciting, dangerous or good and is fast becoming ubiquitous. She rightly points out that children as young as 12 or 13 are performing sexual acts on one another with the intention of broadcasting them to their friends on mobile phones and other such media. The effect of this could injure and deform the development of a young person.

Levy tackles the excesses of the porn industry, and shows how female role models in popular culture like Samantha in Sex and the City are oblivious consumers (‘I don’t believe in the Republican party or the Democratic party. . . I just believe in parties.’) and that too strong a focus on cultivating a designer lifestyle can encourage a population of happy consumers rather than civically aware citizens. And her aim is far reaching, too far: Girls Gone Wild, Olympic athletes posing in playboy, sex parties, blokey lesbians, Paris Hilton, pole-dancing classes and women who go to strip shows. It’s often difficult to see how Levy equates such disparate strands of behaviour: what brings such targets together for Levy doesn’t always read like concern that women have become ‘female chauvinist pigs’ so much as a deep-seated dislike of promiscuity, hedonism and sexual permissiveness.

Female Chauvinist Pigs could easily be seen as a call for modesty, as Levy energetically chastises raunch culture and then struggles to put the positive case for sex forward without sounding prudish, vague or obtuse. ‘If we are going to be sexually liberated, we need to make room for a range of options as wide as the variety of human desire.’ Tellingly, ‘the variety of human desire’ doesn’t include the many acts of promiscuity lambasted throughout the book

The biggest obstacle for progressive and sententious feminists may not be pornography and consumerism, but the dark edges of human sexuality, harnessed and propagated by new communication media. While political and women’s movements have doubtlessly had an impact on society at large, it has been the market that has driven radical cultural change. In true Ballardian style, technology is not necessarily leading us to more enlightened lives and toward greater social good; it has unleashed the private, subconscious, and beastly urges that manifest in pornography. Such material that was once kept hidden away and stigmatised as seedy has now streaked into the mainstream: on mobile phones, on laptops, in children’s bedrooms and making mega-millions for respectable banks, hotel chains and even funding political lobby groups in Washington.

We have to acknowledge the damaging affect porn can have on people, particularly young people; giving caricature examples of sex, and worryingly, being more influential a sex educator than teachers. But the sexual liberation has happened, freedom is unpredictable, and using crypto-conservative approaches to such problems won’t give women the ‘freedom and power’ Ariel Levy demands. 


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