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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.



Commentarium (16 Comments)

Jan 09 07 - 6:02am

. . and what if these anti-sex anti-porn people get their way?

Violence will increase for sure. Incidents of rape will go up; as will suicide.

Imagine, if you will, an entire society ashamed of everything people naturally do. As though puberty weren't depressing enough, many of these of these pundits and politicians are proposing making human feelings taboo.

Jan 09 07 - 10:09am

First of all, sure porn is great, I firmly believe the internet as we know it woulndt exist if not for porn. But people are stupid, they have finite brains and attention spans. Britney Spears has been on the cover of the frekaing NYtimes while we were at war. THAT is evil. And no college girl I know is showing her boobs to some perv becasue it makes her feel 'hot', she's doing it to get some kind of sad misguided "approval."

Jan 09 07 - 11:21am

How hard is it to realize tha feminism is not about wearing or not wearing a miniskirt, but about the freedom to choose whether or not we want to wear one?

Jan 10 07 - 12:18am

Here here Ada, well said. Though i think these new prudes do have something to worry about -- they are fighting a losing battle with history. i don't think many 15 year olds today think porn is antithetical to women's rights, and a generation from now it will be an utterly laughable idea.

Jan 11 07 - 11:41am

Hear, hear. How refreshing it is to read an article about the many facets of modern, public sexuality that doesn't make demands or impose judgement on the readers' thoughts or behaviour. This article reads a lot like the discussions my friends (male and female) and I have over pints -- frank and somewhat serious, but ackowledging the joy, sweetness, and universality of sex.

Jan 16 07 - 2:09pm

Well, as in everything, even the federal government, we have checks and balances. In this case, it's on sexuality. We have the BDSMers on one side (yeah, me - haha) taking their kink more and more mainstream everyday, and the neo-cons preaching prudishness on the other side. It all balances out in the end. My only desire is that people make smart choices for themselves, and that they understand those choices, or at least learn from them along the way. And I totally agree that those silly people like Paris Hilton are nothing more than silly -- I love a good grocery store check-out laugh now and again, but I wouldn't take Paris seriously if she said she had the cure for cancer in her pocket. I might just fuck her though -- why not? That's what we're talking about, right? haha

Jan 18 07 - 2:59am

Bravo! An "Honest to God", "In your Face" voice of reason!! This from a 63 yr. old Former Hippy and fan of intelligent writing and thought.

Jan 21 07 - 7:47pm

Perhaps what's the most ridiculous about this is people claiming that our society is "saturated with sex." When I was 14 I was grudgingly allowed to watch MTV. When one of my grandmothers was 14 she was forced to marry. Now which teenager lived a life closer to the sex saturation point, the one barely allowed to watch scantily clad musicians on TV or the one pushed to have a naked man in her bed?

Jan 22 07 - 4:18am

Here's what bothers me the most: All of these scolds never seem to get around to saying what these teenage girls should be doing with their sexuality. They all just seem to hope it will go away until they are 26 and married or something. It's like fundamentalists and homosexuality: If you pray hard enough, God will remove this horrible affliction from your soul. Do any of these people remember what it was like to be 14? I think amnesia must be a prerequisite for this particular kind of hand-wringing. Maybe you didn't get to see girls gyrating in mini-skirts when you were 14, Mr. Downes (I didn't), but don't tell me it wouldn't have worked on you.
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Jan 24 07 - 5:04am

You can call me a new prude if it's that I don't find slutty or degrading behavior sexy. A sexy person has self-esteem and self-respect.

I've been living overseas for 3 years now (I've probably missed many of the arguments on this topic, so excuse the redundancy. I just needed to vent.) Many people have a negative view of American women and while it's a stereotype, it's often enforced. Viewers overseas get Jerry Springer, Cheaters, Bikini Reach, etc. It's not just a domestic issue, we're exporting the crap.

And--Britney Spears on the cover of the NY Times- during the war? What is our youth paying more attention to Britney or the war? There are human rights crises all over the globe and people are more concerned with so-called "reality" TV. I wish they'd tune into reality.

I fully encourage sexuality (I studied health), but, honestly, I cannot support how American women are being represented overseas. And I cannot support such indulgent behavior (yeah, I know we all have stress) when this world needs women who can make commitments to reducing poverty, reducing violence against women, eradicating disease, working towards peace, etc. etc.

Jan 27 07 - 6:02pm

Point taken. However, let's get out of la-la land and face reality -- the GGW phenomenon is not just about "girls being girls because that's what girls do". There is a dark side to all of this and if we are going to flatter and congratulate ourselves on being so intelligent and progressive and open minded (the tone of Ada's article is so trite) let's first get a balanced perspective. Go to this link for a less than pinky-glossy look at public sexuality:,0,26...

Jan 27 07 - 7:29pm

I could argue every weak point that has been attempted in this lousy article, but I'll keep it down to a couple:

First of all, do some research. Robin Morgan, not Susan Brownmiller, said "Pornography is the theory, rape is the practise."

Next: read Ariel Levy's book. The point she makes is not that everything and everyone is oversexed, it is that women are PERFORMING "sex" for men, but not actually enjoying sex on their own terms. The type of sex we are supposed to be performing has more to do with degradation, being tricked, and being forced to do things we don't like, than anything else. Susan G. Cole has a point in her book about porn when she states that "you can call it free speech and free enterprise, but it says a lot when you look at who is doing the buying and who is doing the selling."

Too right. Men do not dress to entice, as this article states. I am a young woman and when I look around, I can't even SEE guys' bodies for all the baggy clothes and huge jackets. Men are hiding themselves and making women perform like organ-grinder's monkeys for their amusement. And all the women get for it is a lousy t-shirt. I, for one, am sick of seeing tits and ass wherever I go, and when I look on the internet or at movies, there is hardly ANYTHING for hetero women to get off on (unless we convince ourselves that we like women too). I've resorted to watching Gale Harold on "Queer as Folk," which isn't set up for me anyways since it's a show for gay men. It's the only show, though, where I can see hot guys naked and showcased.

The problem is that this concept of sex is so pervasive in society that girls are learning to imitate "female sexuality" (translate: extreme effort put in by grown women to elicit the grand prize of a pathetic ejaculation from some random guy, wow, what a prize) at a way-too-young age. Girls don't learn about their own unfettered sexuality. If we try to have sex the way WE want it, we're shown by men that we won't get any effort from them unless we stuff ourselves into costumes and get surgery and load on the makeup and act submissive and totally unlike our true selves.

THIS AIN'T SEX. It ain't free sexuality. It's patriarchy. And it's tiresome.

Feb 02 07 - 12:11am

I think this article convinced me to give up flip-flops.

Feb 25 07 - 4:17pm

I do not think our society is hyper-sexualized, although I do agree with a lot of the points you make in your article. I think we are sexually repressed and the overt or aggressive sexual displays of the body and concepts like Girls Gone Wild is a manifestation of the shame our culture associates with the body.
Other cultures are much more relaxed about nudity/sexuality on television, in the media and in general. I've even seen a picture of a woman giving birth to a baby in a European newspaper whose head was already out, covering the naughty bits, but this kind of thing would never fly in America, people would be outraged. I could go on with other examples, but my point is the cultural subtext of our objections to what some people define as sexual obsession would be an interesting idea to explore.

Nov 22 07 - 3:17am

Okay, first of all, wanting to "look cute" is very different from having casual sex. Casual sex has significant health and life consequences.

Also, I don't agree that the right-wingers and feminist academics are saying that we should feel bad, dirty and humiliated about sex. To the contrary, I think one of the main points is that responsible adult sex IS healthy and normal. NOT that sex is shameful! But that casual sex (especially involving young girls) is often motivated by something other than sexual DESIRE. And that it also HURTS girls (who, by biological fact have more serious consequences to deal with than boys do, and whose bodies and lives are affected very differently.)

There is a big difference between having respect for mature, responsible sex and feeling shame surrounding sex. I think there are plenty of us out here who DO think our culture is very over-sexed, and that it's harmful and damaging to girls (and uneccessary), but who do not feel SHAME about sex, our bodies, or our own sex lives and sexual feelings!

May 10 08 - 12:17pm

This is so invalidating. Wow. Makes me feel like if I am opposed to hyper-sexualized and degrading images I am a prude, not liberated, and all-wrong.

Unfortunately, this viewpoint is becoming the standard feminist one. My days of being a "feminist" are over.