Australian politics, society & culture

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Love Me Tender?

Sex & power in the age of pornography

 

It is a story for our times. The amateur DVD boasting the exploits of the self-described "teenage kings" of Werribee looked like any other. It had an R rating on the cover. The credits listed its ‘stars': ‘Boofa', ‘Choco', Brendan and the rest. In a homely note, it thanked one boy's mother for the use of her video camera. What the DVD contained, however, horrified a nation. Among teenage pranks like burnouts and throwing eggs was the centrepiece: the abuse, sexual humiliation and degradation of a 16-year-old girl with a mild intellectual disability.

Through an internet chat room, the girl agreed to meet two of the boys at the local shopping centre. There, she was surrounded, overpowered by up to 12 young men, and forced down to a nearby secluded riverbank. Her clothing was thrown in the mud; she was made to expose her breasts and perform oral sex while the rest of the gang watched and jeered. She had a cup of urine tipped over her; several of the young men urinated on her. They set her hair on fire three times. Called "The Victim," the teenager is pointed at and mocked. One youth turns to the camera and says, "What the fuck; she's the ugliest thing I've ever seen." At another point, the boys discuss pimping her. As one urges the others to give her a Brazilian wax, he says, "We've got to make this bitch look like a slut ... get with this whole deforestation thing." Throughout, the girl cowers, terrified but smiling pitifully.

The story gets worse. Segments of the film were displayed for over three months on YouTube, a website which posts video clips. One segment of the DVD, called ‘Pimp My Wife', was viewed by almost 2500 people without anyone finding anything amiss. As viewers around the globe snickered over its content, as the DVD was sold in Melbourne high schools for $5, the young female victim was shattered. Overnight, her father said, she changed from a "happy-go-lucky" kid to being withdrawn and terribly ashamed. Over the next three months she quietly disintegrated. She is now seeing a psychologist.

It was only when excerpts from the DVD were shown on Today Tonight that the full moral weight of the crime was felt. The victim finally made statements to police, and the boys came under investigation for rape. Even then, amid widespread outrage, messages of support for the lads were posted on the internet. The girl's anguished father was told by Channel 7 that the parents of some of the youths involved in the crimes had laughed it off as "a bit of fun". Other parents, while not endorsing the DVD, nonetheless knew of its contents but did nothing. Some local teens interviewed were sceptical that anything much wrong had occurred. ‘Daniel' thought it was "just like in the movies". ‘Alissa' said, "You can't make someone go down on their knees. You seriously can't do that ... no one is going to admit to giving a guy head in front of people."

As in the Dianne Brimble case, it was not just the actions themselves which were so horrifying, but the fact that they were photographed. As Brimble lay naked on the cabin floor, dying from an overdose of the date-rape drug Fantasy, no hand stirred to help her. Instead, those hands were holding a digital camera, capturing lurid photographic trophies to circulate. As with the Werribee DVD, no one realised or acted on the moral horror of what they were viewing. Some of the women on the cruise ship, to whom the photos of Brimble were shown, actually giggled.

Susan Sontag has written about another ‘bit of fun', the porno-torture photos of Abu Ghraib prison:

For the meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show. Even more appalling, since the pictures were meant to be circulated and seen by many people, it was all fun. And this idea of fun is, alas, more and more ... part of "the true nature and heart of America".

After Dianne Brimble, after the Werribee 12, is Australia any different? Some commentators noted the continuities between what the Werribee boys did and the contemporary version of what Barry Humphries' Sandy Stone character once called "A Nice Night's Entertainment". Even the milder versions of reality TV - the weigh-ins on The Biggest Loser, or Kyle Sandilands insulting young hopefuls in Australian Idol - depend upon ritual humiliation, and often upon group aggression against an individual in the form of expulsion. Other programs, such as the US show Bumfights, which paid homeless people to fight one another for the amusement of the viewer, carry more than a whiff of the sadism of the Roman circus. The Werribee DVD, too, shows a homeless man being harassed. As the British cultural critic Paul Taylor says, "Everything becomes a potential image for the voyeuristic gaze and less and less is ruled out on grounds of taste or any other consideration."

There has been less discussion of the intersection of our present taste for displays of aggression with the new culture of sexual liberalism. Yet the Werribee DVD is hardly an isolated sexual incident. Earlier this year, the Atlantic Monthly published an article called ‘Are You There God? It's Me, Monica'. It concerned what one might call the Monica-isation of America's teenage girls. "The Great Fellatio Scare", as one cynic dubbed it, was that teen girls were casually servicing teen boys with unrequited oral sex. A new generation, it seemed, was giving new meaning to Germaine Greer's memorable comment that women were men's "sexual spittoons". Similar concerns were at the centre of Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs, published here in late 2005. In a swingeing critique of the new and nasty turn that the commodification of sex has taken, Levy also took aim at female complicity with the new "raunch culture".

In Australia, we have had our own worries on the girls-gone-wild teen-fellatio front, as well as allegations of serious sexual assaults and "gangbangs" levelled at Rugby League players. The month of October opened with one kerfuffle, the left-of-centre Australia Institute's report on the sexualisation of children in advertising, and ended with another, over the Muslim cleric Sheikh Taj Aldin al-Hilali's remark about women to the assembled faithful: "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat?"

Contempt for women, however, is hardly confined to Islamic fundamentalists. In a small but telling incident in ‘enlightened' Europe, men's urinals in the shape of female lips were removed from public toilets in Austria. As it transpired, men had been pissing happily into red-lipped female mouths for three years without any concern. It was only when a political party held a convention nearby that public outcry saw them removed. (Whereupon they were scrubbed up and sold on eBay to enthusiastic buyers.)

So what has it all been about: Isolated events in a free modern society, not amounting to more than the sum of their parts? Or cultural happenings which resonate more deeply, indicative of deeper shifts in society's tectonic plates?

*

These seemingly disparate events have an internally consistent logic. The issue is not about what happens on cruise ships, or the antics of Werribee bogans, Austrian misogynists or Rugby League stars. To look at individual incidents is to concentrate on spot fires without recognising the bushfire that is burning. Nor is the issue cyber-bullying and the abuse of technology, although the problem is certainly intertwined with and intensified by this. All the events are dispatches from the frontline of a much larger, deeper and ongoing cultural clash between the new regime of sexual liberalism and the great movement in the late twentieth century towards women's equality. The whole society, as Helen Garner once put it so well, is seething with issues of sex and power.

To borrow a phrase coined by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the '60s was the period of the Great Disembedding of Western culture from its religious heritage. Among those elements of the old regime overturned were our longstanding assumptions about human hierarchy: white over black, men over women. One of the transcendent political movements to emerge from that period was the women's movement; another was anti-racism. As Raimond Gaita has suggested, those liberation movements expressed a desire for justice far deeper than mere equality of opportunity: "Treat me as a person; see me fully as a human being, as fully your equal, without condescension ... These are calls to justice conceived as an equality of respect."

At the same time, though, a sexual revolution was occurring. Alongside patriarchal control of female sexuality, the long-standing oppression of homosexuals was challenged. The contraceptive revolution and widely available abortion saw control over fertility pass, for the first time in human history, from men, church and state to women. A new culture of sexual liberalism was born. It concerned not only how we behaved but also what we viewed. Censorship laws were relaxed; the pornography market exploded; raunch culture emerged.

The women's movement was both a participant in, and the beneficiary of, the sexual revolution. Greater openness about sex, the de-stigmatisation of abortion and contraception, and a less shame-inclined culture enabled women to step down from the garlanded pedestal marked ‘asexual madonna' to become, if not Madonna, sexual beings with desires and needs of their own.

Yet the relationship between women's liberation and the new sexual freedom was never an uncomplicated one. The two movements have often been in tension. This was caught in a chance remark of Stokely Carmichael which instantly entered the lexicon. When female activists in the anti-Vietnam War protest movement got fed up with brewing the tea and demanded their own political positions, Carmichael jeered, "The only good position for women is prone."

Over time, another reason for the ongoing tension has become clear. Any assumption that now we have ‘arrived' at our post-feminist equal-opportunities destination is false. Rather, the sexual revolution is actually much more complete, more successful, more far-reaching than the feminist revolution. And here, the uneven nature of social change matters greatly. It changes everything.

Jostling alongside welcome signs of women's newfound status, and a more relaxed, tolerant, open and liberal society on sexual matters, many of the contours of the new sexual liberalism remain shaped by male dominance. Every so often a truly ugly incident flashes into the public realm, bearing the harsh and indelible signature of misogyny.

All this makes redundant one of the great oversimplifications of modern times, that the new sexual liberalism is either good or evil. Related to this is the false depiction of debate on this issue as a Manichean struggle between the forces of darkness and of light, between Primordialists and Progressives, where the libertarians (the Good Guys) slug it out with killjoy Christian moralists (the Bad Guys).

A useful example is the film The People Versus Larry Flynt, which cast Flynt as the "Loveable Scamp of Free Speech" fighting stupid Christian zealots. This conveniently skips over details of what actually appears in Hustler - the misogyny, racism and endorsement of rape myths, the treatment of child sexual abuse. One of its cartoons, for instance, shows a little blind girl trotting down the road with her dog. A man is lying in wait around the corner, with a piece of meat on a string, his pants dangled around his ankles, his engorged penis ready. Hilarious.

In reality, the progressive camp is divided. One group are what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild aptly called "sunshine modernists", the she'll-be-right libertarian crew whose uncritical embrace of the ‘modern' manages to read blithe and breezy narratives of female empowerment into just about anything. When challenged, this gives way to the furious reaction of old generals still fighting the last war, who lay charges of moral panic - the cultural Left's version of the Right's political correctness - as an alternative to thought.

From the political shadows, however, another group is emerging: the critical modernists. These are people for whom the issues with the '60s involve more of a lover's quarrel than either outright repudiation or wholehearted embrace. Notwithstanding the revival of religious fundamentalism, we live in an increasingly secular society, where new conflicts are emerging. The critical modernists articulate a third position, still from the ‘progressive' side of politics, raising questions about the abuse and exploitation of women, and the values of the sexual culture our young people are inheriting. Two of the most recent contributions from the Australia Institute, for example, concern how young people are socialised and, in some instances, sexualised.

"No two reports in our institute's history," Clive Hamilton told me, "have caused such reaction, most of it favourable, as the two on sex. There were outpourings of messages and emails of support." The most recent one, on the sexualisation of children, triggered a national debate. For the first time, Hamilton had to hire a media-monitoring service to keep up with all the commentary (363 media discussions were recorded in the first week).

Interestingly, too, the institute's membership jumped. According to Hamilton, the overwhelming response was, "Thank goodness someone sensible was saying something." Someone sensible? "Not Fred Nile." The concern came from those who were generally comfortable with the new culture of sexual liberalism, but were not libertarians - at least, not when it involved issues involving children. Support (and relief) also came from members of the women's movement who felt that their concerns over the objectification of women were being swept away by a "tsunami of pornography and pseudo-pornography and muddled ideas about what sexual liberation for women really means", as a commentator in the online magazine Slate put it.

These debates are reopening partly because what is so widely and freely available to people - including teenagers - has radically changed since the last serious debate over censorship. What's out there, just a mouse click away, sure ain't Lady Chatterley's Lover.

*

"Three holes and two hands." That is Robert Jensen, a leftist professor of media at the University of Texas, on pornography's depiction of women.

Men spend $10 billion on pornography a year. 11,000 new pornographic films are made every year. And in those films, women are not people. In pornography, women are three holes and two hands. Women in pornography have no hopes and no dreams and no value apart from the friction those holes and hands can produce on a man's penis.

To Jensen's pithy summation, we may add, "pussy is bullshit." That last insight comes from the pornographer John Stagliano, interviewed by Martin Amis in an essay called ‘A Rough Trade', which appeared in the Guardian in 2001. Amis asked Stagliano about the "truly incredible emphasis on anal sex". Stagliano shrugged. With vaginal sex, "you have some chick chirruping away ... With anal, on the other hand, the actress is obliged to produce a different order of response: more guttural, more animal ... Her personality comes out." Stagliano then explained his shift into the new, harder genre, gonzo porn, with "Rocco", his favourite "assbusting" stud:

Together we evolved toward rougher stuff. He started to spit on girls. A strong male-dominant thing, with women being pushed to their limit. It looks like violence but it's not. I mean, pleasure and pain are the same thing, right? Rocco is driven by the market. What makes it in today's market place is reality.

"Reality" in today's marketplace, according to Robert Jensen, is about eroticising dominance and cruelty. "When the legal restrictions on pornography slowly receded through the 1970s and '80s," Jensen explains, there was a question of where one went next:

Anal sex was seen as something most women don't want; it had an edge to it. When anal sex became routine in pornography, the gonzo genre started pushing the boundaries into things like double-penetrations and gag-inducing oral sex - again, acts that men believe women generally will not want. The more pornography becomes normalized and mainstreamed, the more pornography has to search for that edge. And that edge most commonly is cruelty.

As one of the porn directors, Jerome Tanner, explained in a pornography directors' roundtable discussion featured in Adult Video News, "People just want it harder, harder, and harder, because like Ron said, What are you gonna do next?" Another director, Mitchell Spinelli, said:

People want more. They want to know how many dicks you can shove up an ass ... It's like Fear Factor meets Jackass. Make it more hard, make it more nasty, make it more relentless. The guys make the difference. You need a good guy, who's been around and can give a good scene, fuckin' 'em hard.

*

Unsurprisingly, how this shapes behaviour, teen behaviour in particular, is a vexed question. No one suggests the simple Pavlovian thesis: male views pornography and rushes out to drag the nearest woman off the street and rape her. We know that many men who use pornography don't rape, and that some men who don't use pornography do. Fantasy - however grisly - can be an area of ‘play-acting', in which aspects of aggression and desire not acted on in everyday life can be expressed. That said, while cautioning against certainty on the question, when Michael Flood and Clive Hamilton reviewed the recent research literature, in Regulating Youth Access to Pornography (2003), they found:

existence of significant associations between use of certain types of pornography and sexual aggression ... regular consumption of pornography and particularly violent and extreme pornography is a risk factor for boys' and young men's perpetration of sexual assault. In addition, it may foster greater tolerance of this behaviour by others.

Nor is the question simply restricted to sexual assault. What is the effect on male attitudes to women when the depictions of them in this powerful medium are so clearly based on misogyny, sexual contempt, degradation and the depiction of a woman as a thing to be used? What is the effect when socialisation into sexual feelings includes regularly masturbating to orgasm over such material? What version of the sexual script unfolds in some men's heads: what is their expectation of what women are willing and ready to do?

The statistics on rape and sexual assault don't bear out any oversimplified thesis, although one Australian Bureau of Statistics estimate suggested that as many as 80% of assaults go unreported. Changes in willingness to report crimes, in police taking responses seriously and so on, can also muddy the waters on how clearly we can ‘read' statistical data. The perpetrators of sexual assault are overwhelmingly male, and the victims female. In 2003, the highest number of sexual-assault victims were aged under 25.

Although we are three decades on from the equal-opportunities revolution, sexual attitudes to women remain troubling. Rob Moodie, CEO of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth), pointed out that Sheikh al-Hilali's comments are far from isolated ones: "To believe that we live in a tolerant society where the rights of all are respected and protected is to ignore the prevalence of attitudes that support sexual and physical violence against women." The foundation's recent report, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, found that one in four Victorians believed that women make up rape allegations, and 15% thought that women will say ‘no' to sex when they mean ‘yes'. What's more, "A staggering 40% of Victorians actually agree with the myth that men rape because they can't control their sexual urges."

Clearly, we still have a long, long way to go.

One of the most important elements in the debate over pornography is the possible effects of favourable depictions of rape, the endorsement of the idea that ‘no' really means ‘yes'. Rae Langton, a philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has developed a nuanced argument in a series of articles about the influence of porn on what she calls "sexual language games". Those language games carry powerful presumptions about what women are like. They may be very difficult to contest in a highly charged sexual situation. Power is involved in determining whether our utterances are taken seriously. And porn, Langton argues, casts women in a certain light, enabling assumptions about women's nature - that they all like rape, or forced or rough sex, or that ‘no' means ‘yes' - to be seamlessly embedded in interactions.

The Australia Institute report on youth and pornography found that far more teenage boys than girls access porn, a difference of 73% to 11%, and they access it more regularly. Does that fact, alongside the possibility of an over-determined sexual script ushered in by the mainstreaming of porn, shed light on the Brimble and Werribee cases?

From the female point of view, the initial stages would have begun innocently enough. Perhaps they were flattered, even hopeful that the encounter might lead to a very different form of male attention. Both seemed lonely. Dianne Brimble was a single mother, stoically raising her kids. The cruise was her brief holiday from that unglamorous reality, a moment to kick up her heels. And, regarding the Werribee incident, everyone knows the longings of a teenage girl.

After dancing with the men, before going to their cabin, Brimble was heard to ask, "Where shall we go next?" The young girl in the Werribee DVD thought she was meeting not 12 but two boys, in the safety of a shopping centre. Whatever was in their heads, whether it was even a sexual script unfolding, we know that what happened in both cases had elements of a porn script. In the DVD, explicit references are drawn from porn. There are discussions of giving the girl a Brazilian wax and pimping her; she performs oral sex in front of the gang. In the cabin next door to where Dianne Brimble's body was found, a witness, Joanne Muller, heard a protest: "It was definitely a female voice singing out saying, ‘I'm not like that and I don't do that sort of thing.'"

In the world of porn, all women are like that. They take their punishment, and they like it. They smile for the camera.

*

The publisher of Jenna Jameson, the "world's highest grossing adult-film performer", tells us, "I believe that there is a porno-isation of the culture." Jameson's memoir, How to Make Love like a Porn Star, was breathlessly and enthusiastically reviewed in publications such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. To put it mildly, the industry has not quietly hung up its dildo, so to speak, after the Glorious Sexual Revolution removed the need for sad little men in their raincoats to sneak into seedy cinemas to catch an ‘adult' film. The opposite has occurred. As Martin Amis observed in 2001:

Porno is far bigger than rock music and far bigger than Hollywood. Americans spend more on strip clubs than they spend on theatre, opera, ballet, jazz and classical concerts combined. In 1975 the total retail value of all the hardcore porno in America was estimated at $5-10 million. Last year Americans spent $8 billion on mediated sex.

Porn has gone mainstream. And feminism has not colonised porn; porn has colonised feminism. We all now know its themes and imagery. As William Safire recently noted, the word ‘porn' has entered the lexicon, and been unsexed in the process; food porn, for example, has become instantly recognisable shorthand. More interestingly, the values and sexual practices, even the intimate bodily details of the porn star, like the Brazilian wax, have entered popular culture, as commonplace as a manicure at the local beauty salon.

I cannot claim any great nostalgia for the grimmer remnants of the dour sartorial ethos of second-wave feminism: hairy armpits, boilersuits and faces scrubbed bare of make-up. One got the point, though, that it was time to break with the preceding culture, where a collective female memory bank included Chinese foot-binding and whalebone corsets winched up so tight that women fainted. Later, it was just about sacrificing comfort and sometimes self-respect in ‘dressing to please'. The fresh hope was for a world where making oneself over into the shape of another's desire, at any cost, would give way to self-acceptance. How quaint that all seems now.

In the bad old days, it was clitoridectomies. In the good new days, it is vaginoplasty. Added to the facelifts and breast implants is a new female bodily terrain to be ‘corrected'. Ariel Levy notes that vaginoplasties and "vaginal rejuvenation" are "cosmetic operations to alter the labia and vulva so they look more like the genitals one sees in Playboy or porn". These are not, she emphasises, surgeries to increase female sexual pleasure. They are designed solely to render a vagina more "attractive" - and more in line with the quietly universalising standards established by pornography: the surgical version of the Brazilian wax, with its faint resonances of child pornography. Indeed, the US Society for Gynecologic Surgeons warns of the scarring, nerve damage and numbness which may follow vaginoplasty.

How ironic that a movement based around the elimination of such practices as genital mutilation and clitoridectomies has ended up by having female empowerment invoked to support labial pintucks and mutilating surgery on vaginas. It all sells, though, rather better than the boilersuit.

Another aspect of the women's movement encouraged the female sex not to be defined in terms of their value to men, but to be unapologetic about wanting areas of achievement outside the relational world, where you did not ‘play dumb'. Yet, for Playboy and the emblematically titled For Him Magazine, some of the best female athletes in the world were arranged in sexual poses, legs open, garments yanked up or down to expose breasts or pubis, or on all fours in the ‘presenting' position, as it is called in the animal kingdom, haunches raised and ready. Then again, Levy says dryly, maybe the athletes thought they were trading up.

*

When is a child's teddy not a bear? When it is a hot-thong teddy - an imitation of the adult version. Such items, alongside "bralettes" for five-year-olds, are now for sale in children's clothing sections of Australian stores.

To what extent is raunch culture experiencing a kind of downwards age-bracket creep? That was the question raised by the Australia Institute's report Corporate Paedophilia: The Sexualisation Of Australian Children. In the appendix, photos from retailers such as David Jones are presented. Some were more blatant than others, but the images of made-up children with glossed mouths, provocative poses and see-through T-shirts displaying bras for non-existent breasts were all aimed at the children's clothing market.

The report's authors, Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze, pointed to harms children may suffer as a consequence of being sexualised, such as an excessive early concern over bodily shape (hospitalisations for anorexia are increasing for younger age groups), acceptance of children being treated like sexual objects, and distraction from activities better suited to those age groups. "The messages children receive about desirable behaviour and values incorporate ethical effects that go well beyond simply how to dress," they point out.

Invoking their "renowned" "family values", the general manager of marketing for David Jones, Damian Eales, rejected all such criticisms. Likewise Simone Bartley, chief executive of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, who said flatly, "We have never, ever eroticised children in any way for any client in any communication."

A second prong of the critique in the Australia Institute's paper - less covered by the press but no less important - was directed at ‘tween' magazine culture, the glossy magazines, such as Barbie Magazine, Total Girl and Disney Girl, intended for children under 12. Apart from the predictable embrace of celebrity culture, in several magazines more than half the content, and in Barbie Magazine over three-quarters of it, was concerned with sexual themes. Close to one-third of Barbie Magazine was devoted to crushes and boys; only one-fifth of it was "developmentally appropriate" for the target age group.

Even more disturbing were the "role models" presented for the tween girls to emulate:

It is astonishing that Paris Hilton should be considered an appropriate role model for girls who are not yet in their teens; although she is heir to a substantial fortune, Hilton has no particular talent, and is famous largely due to a pirated video showing her engaged in fellatio.

I doubt I am alone among the nation's parents, outside the Hillsong congregation, in agreeing with the report's authors that Ms Hilton's claim to fame is not quite what we have in mind as a role model.

Reading blogs on this topic was interesting. Mothers, mostly, agreed with the report. I call them the ‘mothers who mind'. These mothers felt they were continually holding back the floodwaters of a raunch culture threatening childhood. Their relief that someone had finally been called to account was palpable.

The Australia Institute's concern is not an isolated one. In Britain, retailers were forced to remove sexually suggestive children's products from their shelves, including padded bras with a "Little Miss Naughty" logo. Community outrage also saw a "sexy" pole-dancing kit removed from the toys and games section of a website run by Britain's biggest retailer, Tesco, which includes items for children aged four to six. The "Peekaboo" pole-dancing kit came with its very own "sexy garter" and DVD "demonstrating suggestive dance moves". It promised to "Unleash the sex kitten inside ... simply extend the Peekaboo pole inside the tube, slip on the sexy tunes and away you go!" ... "Soon you'll be flaunting it to the world and earning a fortune in Peekaboo Dance Dollars." For the pre-pubescent child, flaunting what, precisely? "It's the latest exercise craze," said a Tesco representative piously, with just a hint of injury. "This item is for people who want to improve their fitness and have fun at the same time."

Except that the people in question were children. What's next? A pacifier in the shape of a dildo?

*

In Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy tells of a public contretemps between a woman, perhaps one of those mothers who mind, and Robin Nevins, an extraordinarily successful and powerful player in American television giant HBO. She questioned how Nevins, as a mother, was happy to broadcast her program G-String Divas, on strippers and their sexual practices. Nevins spun around and snapped, "You're talking '50s talk! Get with the program!"

For too long, we have been bullied on this question. For too long, frank and reasoned discussion of these matters - raunch culture, the Roman circus sadism of reality TV, the porno-isation of the world, and the rest - has been taboo. For too long, we have been pinned between twin simplicities. In the light of recent events, the libertarian arguments look as tired and morally jaded as a washed-up porn star. The Christian lobby's emphasis on abstinence and virginity seem about as useful as a nineteenth-century douche in the era of AIDS. As Levy says, "It's time to stop nodding and smiling uncomfortably as we ignore the crazy feelings in our heads and admit the emperor has no clothes." It's time for other arguments, including those from feminism, to come in from the cold.

How responsive is the new regime of sexual liberalism to the claims of women as equal citizens? How far is it ruthlessly and remorselessly incorporating women's ‘liberation' into an even harsher regime of male-dominated sexual relations? These are extraordinarily important questions. Hannah Arendt once remarked that every generation passes something new to the next. To have the daughters of the '60s generation and beyond not prone but down on their knees is hardly an advance on Carmichael. Surely we can do better.

 

About the author Anne Manne
Anne Manne is the author of Motherhood and Quarterly Essay 29, ‘Love & Money’. Her memoir So This Is Life was published in 2009.