This being early January, we're awash in looks back. As I look back on the past few years, I see one thing on which everyone, neo-con or liberal, young or old, appeared to agree: our culture is oversexed. Porn is everywhere (see: Pornified, the Bush administration's "War on Porn," and every other New York Times op-ed in recent memory). Women who feel in control of their objectification are kidding themselves (see: Female Chauvinist Pigs; the condescending reviews of memoirs like Alice Denham's Sleeping With Bad Boys). Celebrities aren't the class acts they used to be (see: every blogged eye-roll over every paparazzi photo or leaked sex tape).
But is it possible that what's actually at work is a kind of neo-prudish groupthink?
The books, the opinion pieces, the Today Show asides, all accuse the reigning pop culture of replacing good old reality with bedroom-eyed fantasy, rich love with cheap sex, girls next door with whores. Is it possible they're all wrong? Or at least missing the point?
Usually the observation is made off-handedly, as if we all know that we're the most depraved culture in the history of the world: " It is news to no one, not even me, that eroticism in popular culture is a twenty-four-hour, all-you-can-eat buffet . . ." a concerned man wrote just days ago in a Times op-ed. "It is worth asking ourselves if this bawdy world of boobs and gams we have resurrected reflects how far we've come, or how far we have left to go," writes Ariel Levy in Female Chauvinist Pigs. "We are living in a pornified culture," writes Pamela Paul in Pornified, "and we have no idea what this means for ourselves, our relationships, and our society."
The evidence given for our supposedly sex-mad society typically falls into these three categories:
1) Jenna Jameson's 2004 autobiography; internet porn; sex parties like CAKE; strip clubs; pole-dancing classes; strip-aerobic classes; Pamela Anderson.
2) Girls Gone Wild; celebrity sex tapes; that handful of trashy girls (Tara Reid, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan) who run around getting photographed in various states of undress; female Olympic athletes posing in Playboy in 2004.
3) Ruffled miniskirts; low-rise jeans; thongs.
Let's look at these one at a time.
First, there has always been porn. Sexy ladies have always been interesting. We are biologically predisposed to enjoy sex and to enjoy watching other people enjoy sex and to hearing about people having sex and reading in Star or tell-all memoirs about people having sex. Have you read Confidential magazine from the '50s? So much dirtier than Us. And what about the Deep Throat phenomenon of 1972? A-list film stars showed up to the premiere of a porn film more than thirty years ago.
Yes, the internet has made pornography easier to access. Is there anything the internet hasn't done this to? It's changed the music industry, the ad industry
As for teen girls: they have always gone, and will always go, wild.
and the news media. Why wouldn't it change pornography too? But is the change one of quality (sex is dirtier now) or one of quantity (you don't have to go to the store)? Having seen pre-Hays-Code films, I think the latter. Anti-porn activists point to violent, hateful or kiddie porn as if it were the standard. But there are as many kinds of porn as there are kinds of sex: some is reprehensible, some is affectionate; plenty is really dull.
And I say that as someone who isn't a porn consumer. Like many women, I think, I have enough filthy fantasies in my head to tide me over without needing a visual prompt. But pretty much all the men I know — thoughtful, decent, feminist men — look at porn. If I thought it was really bad for them, or affecting how they viewed women, I would be more than happy to say so. But I just don't see anything of the kind happening. And the '70s "pornography wars" within feminism, fueled by Susan Brownmiller's statement that "pornography is the theory, rape is the practice" has been pretty soundly disproved. In America, rape has declined 85% in the past twenty-five years. In October, Slate reported that, if anything, porn has led to a decrease in violent crime.
As for teen girls: they have always gone, and will always go, wild. I'm tired of hearing about how teen girls today are debasing themselves now more than ever. Every generation has found a new way to scandalize their parents, to push the envelope of the day. Once it was Elvis or cashmere sweaters over bullet bras, now it's thongs, gyrating and the occasional flashing incident.
I've watched Girls Gone Wild. Wow, is it silly. And not nearly as sexy as the commercials. But I don't agree that those girls don't know what they're doing or aren't having fun. They're having dopey fun, to be sure. But what other kind of fun is there for teenagers to have? I shudder to think of what I found sexy when I was nineteen, what I did to get guys' attention. (All that Revlon Blackberry lipstick and strategic denim distressing! And I didn't even get a T-shirt.)
But isn't that sleazy guy exploiting young college girls, you might say, girls who are highly suggestible, especially after doing a keg stand? Yes, he is. It makes him feel hot to make the girls do what he says. And the girls (whose boobs they are, after all) are exploiting him to feel hot. Is it stupid that that's what makes them feel hot? Sure. Would it make everyone feel better if they felt hot doing math? Sure. Perhaps a new day of healthy, feel-good sexual fantasies will dawn, fantasies not built on power or vulnerability or anything unpleasant, but I'm not holding my breath. I think fantasies will always be on the other side of acceptable.
Another thing you hear is that it's appalling that people like Paris Hilton are celebrities. Since when do we not like laughing at excess? During the Depression, all anyone wanted to see were films about rich, pretty people falling down stairs. Paris Hilton is a national joke, our very own screwball comedy star. The Lindsays of the world? They're fodder for clever drag-queen Halloween costumes, not role models for impressionable teenagers.