Sex, Power and Feminism

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Kira Cochane published this interview with Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture,” in the Guardian, below is an excerpt:

… “When you talk to people about raunch culture in terms of a specific company or corporation they just say: ‘Oh, well, sex sells.’ That’s our justification for everything.” And Barbie-doll images of women – long legs, fake breasts, blonde hair – are a glossy advertising shorthand that simultaneously appeals to everyone and no one, shifting units in a way that more complex, varied and substantive sexual images never could. “My book is not an attack on the sex industry,” says Levy. “It’s about how the sex industry has become every industry.”

Levy isn’t a prude or a scold, arguing for women to be less sexual – in fact, quite the opposite. Her point is that the single form of sexuality on offer to women – “this spring-break variety of thongs-and-implants exhibitionism” – is largely unfulfilling. And that buying into this, either by stripping yourself, or by ogling strippers, is a way of currying male approval and propping up male culture and power. (The obvious problem being that, by doing so, you undermine women, and, implicitly, yourself.)

“When it comes to raunch culture, a lot of people say: ‘Well, we’re living in a post-feminist age, women have won the [sex] war, and so it’s OK for all this to happen. It doesn’t actually threaten women’s social position.’ But when did we win the war? We don’t have equal pay for equal work, we don’t have equal representation in government … so when exactly did we win?”

All of this has led Levy to be termed “the future of feminism”. On reading her book last autumn, I found it a revelation. I had been amazed in recent months by how quickly a career in porn had gone from being the last refuge of the desperate, the poor, or, in a few rare instances, the genuinely exhibitionist, to suddenly becoming aspirational for large swathes of young British women. Six out of eight of the female contestants on Big Brother last year, for instance, said that they were keen to be glamour models or work in porn – while this year’s contestants include Lea, a former porn actor, and Nikki, who entered the house in a Playboy bunny outfit.

Playboy has also become one of the most popular brands among adolescent – and even pre-adolescent – British girls: WH Smith describes the Playboy stationery line as one of the bestselling of all time. Soft-porn model Jordan’s two autobiographies (again, bestsellers) have been bought primarily by women. At Cambridge university, female students have reportedly started a pole-dancing club, to practise their technique. And a WI group recently visited Spearmint Rhino, apparently for lap-dancing tips.

Reading the book a second time though, on the plane to New York, it made me much more uneasy. I still found much to admire in Levy’s thesis, but that title, Female Chauvinist Pigs, bothered me, as it has many women, since it seems a direct insult to women; specifically blaming us, rather than the culture at large, for this issue. …

Jessica at Feministing noted that Jennifer Baumgardner had a negative reaction to the book, while the interview with Levy brought interesting reactions here and here.

I’ve had a number of awkward conversations with female lawyers and law students who dress very beautifully and provocatively, who express frustration that they are not taken seriously as intellectuals, but instead are pursued romantically by professional colleagues who could but do not take an interest in their legal careers. I don’t want to tell anyone how to dress, and I absolutely believe that people should be free to wear whatever clothing they want, and I’d further argue quite passionately that people should not make judgments about intelligence or hardworkingness based on physical appearance. But, anyone who doesn’t think her appearance is relevant to how she is treated is kidding herself.

–Ann Bartow

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