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The New Prudishness

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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?

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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.

     

  

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Which brings us to the evil miniskirt. Both men and women have always tried to dress as provocatively as possible. Rap videos did not invent short-shorts and halter tops. Have these miniskirt-decriers never seen those French Court getups with the boobs jacked up to the chin? Or the mod era’s scandalous contributions to the miniskirt oeuvre? Or Gold Diggers of 1933, with the super-revealing silhouettes of the dozens of women changing out of their wet clothes together? Women dress to appeal to men. Men dress to appeal to women. (Seriously, who thinks baseball uniforms are purely utilitarian?) And this is a problem how?
    The neo-prudes are just appalled by the lengths to which we go to attract men. I would have thought that argument was too absurd, too ’60s, to warrant discussion, but it has made such a comeback that I guess we have to say, yes, we can wear lipstick and be feminists. These people also say we’re playing right into men’s hands when we wear heels. Well, you bet we are. They’re doing what they can to attract us, too. Isn’t that the whole point of sex?
    And do these cultural critics offer any alternative? Not so much. I find myself in a rare instance of agreement with the academic provocateur Laura Kipnis, who wrote in 2006′s The Female Thing: “The pop-feminist solution, endlessly commemorating Strong Women while treating ordinary men as equivalent to rapists when they’re merely being (for instance) romantically disappointing, or watching porn, or having midlife crises . . . how is that really helpful to anyone?”
    Smart feminist theorists such as Paul and Levy encourage us to think through the meaning and impact of sex in the culture. Hear, hear. I like thinking about that stuff, too. But once we’ve thought it through, even if we did agree that our culture is saturated with anti-woman sexuality, what do we do? Unplug the internet? Ban porn? Drop Catharine MacKinnon leaflets onto the beach at Spring Break?
    No, the right-wingers and feminist academics — together again, as in Andrea Dworkin’s day — offer no game plan. They just declare that the porn girls and the teen tramps and the pop stars, and all of us, everywhere, who find any of that appealing, should feel bad, dirty and humiliated about the most natural thing in the world, the one thing that unites the history of humankind: trying to look cute.

Nine times out of ten, what turns us on is completely embarrassing.

    What these cultural arbiters fail to realize is that we’re not doing it for them. We don’t care if columnists think it’s gross or lame or sad that teen girls give so many blowjobs or wear such skimpy clothing. I think I speak for teen girls everywhere when I say that it’s Jake in Calculus we’re trying to attract, not John Tierney. And Jake doesn’t see things in the same way. He likes those skirts. Just like we like that he wears his wrestling uniform when he walks us home. That’s how sex works.
    The columnists seem to be of the opinion that sex isn’t supposed to be messy, or icky or to involve things like online porn or spring break or stupid shoes. But it does. And there’s something almost cruel about the way these pundits haul our means of attracting each other, our sexual proclivities, out into the blogs and the pages of glossy magazines and into newsprint. Of course they don’t hold up as Noble or Good or Reputable in that analysis. Nine times out of ten, what turns us on is completely embarrassing. Porn is embarrassing. Dressing slutty is embarrassing. The mechanics of sex are absolutely, entirely embarrassing.
    Porn, out of context, is stupid. Wild girls, out of context, are stupid. Sexy fashion, out of context, is definitely stupid. Of course five-inch heels are ridiculous. Of course girls flashing cameramen is ridiculous. But you know what’s ridiculous to me? The academics and cultural critics who condemn such things. How cowardly they are to take themselves out of the equation! They must be so happy to have sex lives that they don’t feel at all weird about, crushes they can justify before a panel of their peers, a wardrobe devoid of pandering.
    I’m definitely not saying we shouldn’t be thinking about sex, trying to figure out why we like what we like, trying to reconcile our politics with our fantasies and our behavior and our hemlines. That’s what we do every time we have an honest conversation about sex with our friends or the people we sleep with. Through that kind of honesty, we’ll be able to make headway on real feminist issues, such as wage parity, domestic-abuse prevention and affordable child care.
    So for the coming year, let’s make a resolution: every time someone casually refers to the horrible hypersexualizing of our culture and encourages us to be more responsible about what we wear, what we look at and how we behave with each other, let’s nod and smile and thank them for opening up a discussion about modern sexuality. And then let’s go right on doing what we’ve done throughout recorded time: upending our beliefs about what’s right, what’s proper and what’s politically appropriate, for the sake of desire.  

  

     


©2006 Ada Calhoun and Nerve.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nerve consulting editor and Babble editor-in-chief Ada Calhoun has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, a contributing editor and theater critic at New York magazine, and her softball team’s MVP.