Just before the Republican National Convention came to town in 2004, New York newspapers were buzzing with rumors that the city’s high-priced prostitutes and strippers were gearing up for “one grand old party.” The reports quickly gained currency, for no one had problems imagining randy GOP types forking over $100 dollar bills in the dark of the night to be serviced by acquiescent, uber-sexualized women–the same women likely to be condemned as moral degenerates on the convention floor the next morning. This is, after all, what passes for sexual abandon in a conservative world–the kind of “Good Old-Fashioned Pleasure” a San Diego escort agency was touting when it changed its name to “GOP” during another such convention eight years before.
For the past five years, Americans have been wallowing in this quaint version of sexual pleasure, defined by skimpy thongs, stripper poles, porn boobs and faux chick-on-chick action. In a Bush World where commerce is king, it is all-but-inevitable that the dominant image of sexuality is that of a woman on sale. In her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, New York magazine editor Ariel Levy describes the new-old female sexuality that lies at the core of “raunch culture”: “A tawdry, tarty, cartoonlike version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular. What we once regarded as a kind of sexual expression we now view as sexuality.” As an L.A. workout guru specializing in “Cardio Striptease” blithely tells her, “Stripping equals sex.”
Contrary to Levy’s assumption, however, this shift did not occur despite the rise of the religious Right but because of it. Sex-positive feminists, who argue for the liberatory power of sexual expression, and defend the rights of sex workers, may have unintentionally done their bit to ease the transition — for reasons too complicated to shoehorn into this article. But make no mistake, raunch is Republican. The sexuality that reigns supreme in Bush World bears the basic imprimaturs of right-wing ideology: gross materialism, sexual hypocrisy and acquiescence in the name of empowerment. It is in every sense a conservative wet dream come true.
Market-ready and mass-produced
The “mainstreaming of porn,” a phrase that refers to the ubiquity of both pornographic norms and porn itself, was as much an economic phenomenon as a cultural shift. Popular culture in America is driven by what sells, and nothing sells as well as sex. AT&T and General Motors bought themselves cable companies to more easily offer us porn in the privacy of our living rooms, while hotel chains like Marriot, Hilton and Westin made sure we could scratch that itch on the road. And then flailing dot-com entrepreneurs, amateur exhibitionists and porn veterans alike discovered the Internet. The rest is history.
The meteoric rise of the porn industry is both the cause and effect of the mainstreaming of its product. The more we sell porn, the more “okay” it becomes. The more “okay” porn becomes, the more okay it is to sell porn — everywhere and all the time. Today porn does not just sell sex, it sells everything — clothes, body parts, deodorants, books, magazines, celebrities. The rise of porn has been accompanied by an enormous boom in plastic surgery, as women go to the beauty salon and under the knife to reshape their bodies to fit the porn aesthetic. In turn, the fashion industry churns out skimpier and skimpier clothes to better reveal these manufactured bodies with personalities to match.
The same companies who could once only shill sneakers in the name of revolution now find that they can finance entire industries in the name of sexual freedom. Levy decries raunch culture for “endlessly reiterating one particular — and particularly commercial — shorthand for sexiness,” one that is “fuckable and salable.” The secret of pornography’s triumph, however, lies more in its construction of sexuality as a commodity than its appeal to male desire. The market requires a readymade version of “hotness” that can be sold as a product to the largest possible consumer base. The X-rated version of sexuality is simply the most obvious and well-tested choice.
Better yet, in the spirit of true capitalism, the hot porn star look is also democratic, in that it can easily be reproduced with the right attitude (and, of course, a whole lot of money). Now you and I can look like Pamela Anderson or any of the pornified, plastic-doll celebrities, as both MTV’s “I Want a Famous Face” and Fox’s “The Swan” eagerly revealed. Corporate America has finally learned how to apply the principles of assembly line production to manufacture a Model-T of sexuality.
Less bang for the buck?
The most striking aspect of this booty-on-tap culture is its relationship — or lack thereof — to actual sex. Despite all the bumping and grinding on our televisions, none of us are more likely to get laid — a reality that hand-wringers on both the left and the right seem to miss.
In the schizophrenic Republican nudie bar, pop nymphets like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson rise to stardom by selling their bodies even as they loudly proclaim their virginity. Debbie Cope, who makes a brief appearance in Female Chauvinist Pigs as a 19-year old willing to masturbate on camera for a “Girls Gone Wild” crew, tells Levy: “People watch videos and think the girls in them are real slutty, but I’m a virgin!” Debbie is the strange fruit borne by the unholy coupling of God and Mammon in Bush World, the epitome of its twisted message to young girls: Act like a slut–just don’t be one.
As for adults, the raunch culture has brought pornography right into the bedroom. The booming relationship advice industry is now churning out sex guides to teach us How to Have a XXX Sex Life and How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, published by the likes of tell-all publisher Judith Regan, described by Vanity Fair as “to the right of Genghis Khan” for her take-no-prisoners appetite for power and success. Regan characterized her offerings to the New York Times as “more outrageous and candid and at the same time more fun and friendly, like Las Vegas.” A family-friendly Las Vegas, that is, as Doubleday Broadway’s Kristine Poupolo makes clear, “We’re not publishing to shock … I like to think we’re improving peoples’ lives.” This would explain her company’s latest helpful title The Many Joys of Sex Toys by Anne Semans. Pornography itself has become the must-have sex toy for any couple looking to reignite that perennially endangered spark.
Yet one of the often-cited books of 2003 was Michele Weiner-Davis’ The Sex-Starved Marriage. Her dire warnings about marital celibacy were echoed by newspapers that reported nearly 20 percent of all married couples have sex less than 10 times a year. While it remains unclear whether these numbers represent a new trend in marital behavior, raunch culture has clearly done little to improve the sex lives of real men and women.
Pamela Paul, Time contributor and author of The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, lays the blame for these sexual woes squarely on pornography itself. Her recent book, Pornified, claims that the mainstreaming of porn has resulted in less sex among couples, as men spend hours surfing the Internet rather than getting it on with the real women in their beds. Contrary to all the talk about using porn to jumpstart the libido, it ends up making physical contact with real bodies seem boring, inadequate and way too much work. While Paul’s hard data — which is based on a slim 100-plus person survey — is problematic, as is her tendency to treat pornography as the most important cause of our relationship woes, the book reveals the neo-puritanical reality of our smut-drenched culture.
What could be more conservative than a society that finds its pleasures in the distance of simulated sex rather than the intimacy of real intercourse, the transactional detachment of consumer demand instead of the emotional vulnerability of human desire?
Acquiescence in the name of empowerment
At the heart of the raunch culture — and the reason for its triumph — is the dubious equation of female self-objectification with sexual freedom. This logic, as Levy observes, has been whole-heartedly embraced by many young women responding to the age-old fear of male rejection. In a culture that encourages us to say “Yes! Yes! Yes!” it is difficult to demur at the prospect of playing porn star without being labeled a man-hating bitch or at least an un-sexy prude.
In Levy’s words, “Raunch culture, then, isn’t an entertainment option, it’s a litmus test of female uptightness.” To be hot today entails embracing porn-like gymnastics in the bedroom, stripper wear in our wardrobes, surgery scars on our bodies and wall-to-wall visuals of gyrating, barely clad women everywhere we go–all in the name of our liberation. Under the guise of losing our inhibitions, we are being bullied into performing a specific version of female sexuality.
Very early in her book, Levy poses a question that exposes the emptiness of the porn-equals-freedom logic: “[H]ow is imitating a stripper or porn star — a woman whose job is to imitate arousal in the first place — going to render us sexually liberated?” The porn-as-liberation canard relies on a confusion between pornography and pornified sexuality. Where a porn actress, stripper or prostitute imitates sexual acquiescence in exchange for a man’s money, the pornified woman exchanges real sexual submission in hope of his approval. There are no prizes for guessing which woman has less power of the two.
When Olympic swimmer Haley Clark is — in Levy’s words — “pictured naked and bending over in Playboy, in a position referred to as ‘presenting’ when exhibited in the animal kingdom,” to prove that female athletes can be sexy, it raises a couple of questions: Who thinks female athletes are not sexy and therefore needs to be convinced otherwise? And, whose version of “sexy” does Clark have to conform to in order to make her point?
But where Clark may at least earn greater celebrity for her public submission, girl-gone-wild Debbie Cope will have to make do with a “free” hat — and the knowledge that her vagina has played a small but essential role in ensuring the success of a $100 million franchise. Jenna Jameson, one of the wealthiest women in the porn industry, would undoubtedly think Debbie a fool. Yet the porn star herself is part of the larger ideological apparatus that transforms porn sexuality into a culturally desirable form of femininity.
The mainstreaming of pornography has required a significant distortion of the reality of sex work. Prostitution, for example, requires women to simulate sexual pleasure during intercourse as part of their job. It comes with the territory. Yet, the working girls featured on HBO’s brothel reality show, “Cathouse: The Series,” present themselves as nymphomaniacs who regularly enjoy earth-shattering orgasms with their johns. Prostitution at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch isn’t just lucrative — “I’m a businesswoman” — but also intensely pleasurable — “I come all the time. You can’t do this job if you don’t enjoy it.” Worse, experiences at the brothel are represented as valuable sex lessons for men to take back with them into the real world. With the mainstreaming of porn, the tricks of the prostitute’s trade have been transformed into cultural imperatives for all women.
In effect, the logic of the raunch culture is eerily similar to that Christian ideal of femininity, the Surrendered Wife. Both preach empowerment through acquiescence, promising greater happiness through the fulfillment of archetypal female roles. Bush World offers women only two choices: repression or commodification.
Toward a more sex-positive feminism
Drawing a bright line between sexual freedom and sexual acquiescence is not an easy task in a world still defined by male desire. Yet simply rejecting male lust — Ã la Andrea Dworkin or Catherine McKinnon — is not a viable option for heterosexual women. Nor is falling back on the anti-porn bigotry of older feminists, as Paul and Levy do. Where Paul’s book ends up reading as a wholesale attack on all pornography, Levy resurrects tired old stereotypes of sex workers as victims.
Both authors, however, offer an important reminder for sex-positive feminists that pornography, just like every other part of the sex industry, trades sex for money. That some women may experience personal freedom or boost their sexual self-esteem in the process is entirely incidental to the job at hand. Sex-positive feminists are entirely correct to champion sex work as work, and therefore the right of women to use their bodies to earn a living — and have fun while doing it, if they so choose. But de-stigmatizing sex work is not the same as championing a porn version of sexuality for all women.
For now, for all the talk of liberation in Porno America, women have merely exchanged one sexual tyrant for another. It is why the over-the-top displays of flesh and lust — accompanied by a chorus of protests from dutifully outraged preachers and parents — seem so eerily familiar, especially to women who recognize in the faces of a Paris Hilton or Pamela Anderson the triumph of our old friend, the Whore. Long exiled to the margins of men’s lives and minds, she has today dethroned her arch-nemesis, the Madonna. The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.
Lakshmi Chaudhry has been a reporter and an editor for independent publications for more than six years. Besides being a Senior Editor at In These Times, where she covers the cross-section of culture and politics, Chaudhry is also a blogger at AlterNet.org.