April 2008

Arts & Letters

Embracing the inner bunny

By Linda Jaivin
Recent books about raunch culture

Society was awash in filth. Young women chased fantasy and titillation at the expense of their mental and physical health, not to mention proper relationships. And they couldn't keep their hands off themselves. Something new had appeared on the scene, something dangerous. Respectable commentators agreed it was the source of all this trouble.

It was the novel. The authors of The Porn Report cite the moral panic around fiction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a reminder that aspects of popular culture will always get people's knickers in a twist. Today, it's the explosion of pornography, particularly on the internet, and raunch culture, through which the aesthetics and values of porn have had an unprecedented influence on fashion and mores. Here, there's considerably more twist than knickers - think Bratz, Britney, porn-star chic and 12-year-olds learning to pole dance.

Ariel Levy raised the alarm in her brilliant, acerbic examination of the paradoxes of post-feminist culture, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Black Inc., 225pp; $27.95). A contributing editor at New York magazine, Levy is no prude and panic is not her prescription. Her concern is how limited and self-deluding we are: "We are still so uneasy with the vicissitudes of sex we need to surround ourselves with caricatures of female hotness to safely conjure up the concept ‘sexy'."

Three years after the publication of the still-startling FCP, three new Australian books broaden the conversation: Emily Maguire's feisty, confessional Princesses & Pornstars: Sex, Power, Identity (Text Publishing, 256pp; $32.95), which looks at raunch culture and its twee, precious cousin, princess culture; Karen Brooks' thoughtful Consuming Innocence: Popular Culture and Our Children (University of Queensland Press, 336pp; $34.95); and The Porn Report (Melbourne University Press, 272pp; $34.95), Alan McKee, Katherine Albury and Catharine Lumby's landmark study of the production and consumption of pornography in Australia.

For readers who still think Paris is the capital of France and hooking up is what you do to a phone, or who haven't been in a doctor's waiting room for some years, let's start at the beginning. This could easily be 1953, the year Hugh Hefner produced the first edition of Playboy. Levy notes that today we "have come to think of [him] as a glorified dirty old man, but back then Hefner had a cause". He set out, in his own words, to do battle with the "ferocious anti-sexuality" and "dark anti-eroticism" of American society at the time. So far, so good.

The founding of the Playboy empire (clubs, publications, Mansion) was the seminal act of the sexual revolution, which blossomed alongside flower power in the '60s - seminal being the operative word. Sexual liberation unfolded in the Hefnerian script like the ‘plot' in an old-style porn film. Women were conceived of as little more than sex aids and fluffers for male desire; the money was always on the money shot. Hefner once declared, "I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism!" He also told the formidable and unamused Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci that he'd chosen the bunny as his symbol because it's "sexy", makes you "feel like caressing it", and brings to mind unsophisticated, young, naked, "simple" girls and not "difficult women".

As Levy comments, "statements like these made feminists want to throw up." Feminism, which took off in the '60s and '70s with a broad equal-rights agenda, began to get serious about sex. A little too serious. In the process, a movement which was originally perceived by many young women (and some men) as fun, liberating and cool ended up, for one high-profile historical moment anyway, in a boiler suit in the corner of the room, playing with itself. But even while the most dour libbers were trying to work out how to have sex with each other without recourse to dastardly gendered penetration practices, more light-hearted adherents were slapping on the lippy and showing men how to work the clitoris.

Feminism was never one-size-fits-all on any issue, much less matters of sexuality. The pews of its broad church had always seated all sorts: straight, queer, bi, bent, all of the above. When, in the mid '90s, I wrote a novel of comic erotica, Eat Me, I comfortably identified it (and myself) with a newish strand called sex-positive feminism. Not long after that, the Sex and the City gals strode onto the scene in their Manolo Blahniks. Both chick lit and women's erotica began paddling the mainstream. Yet even as fictional and real women availed themselves of the sort of careers and life choices of which their mothers didn't even know to dream, fewer and fewer young women were identifying as feminists. Despite lingering inequalities in countries like the US and Australia - and horrific, ongoing abuses in war zones and less-developed countries - feminism began to seem unnecessary, by virtue of its apparent success.

This is where things began to get weird. Maguire writes of the "bizarrely circular logic" which argues that, "since feminism was about giving women choice and feminism succeeded, every choice a woman makes now is proof of feminism's success." Thus, whatever a woman did - whether having her breasts enlarged to please men, learning to lap dance or staying a virgin until marriage - was labelled empowering. (Maguire asks how, if all that is truly empowering, men have managed to control the political and economic spheres without ever having to get their gear off.) Karen Brooks reports from the creepy side, where little girls are taught the value of being "hot". Even Myer sells "strappy black stilettos" with 3-centimetre heels in children's size 7.

And so hip, smart women with high-powered jobs and independent lives take pole-dancing classes, ogle female strippers alongside the boys, and send one another cheesecake postcards with legends like "Breast wishes from Puerto Rico!" - hence Levy's provocative title. If such women want to claim that embracing their Inner Bunny makes them feel empowered, they certainly won't get any argument from the sort of men who are relieved that they no longer have to hide their copy of Jugs when a date comes round.

If a woman finds deep fulfilment in acting, as Levy puts it, "like a cartoon woman, who has big cartoon breasts, wears little cartoon outfits and can only express her sexuality by spinning around a pole", then so be it. But she raises an essential point when she questions how strippers and porn stars have "mysteriously come to symbolise sexual liberation despite the fact that it is their job to fake arousal". Within raunch culture, female sexuality is squeezed into a little Bunny costume and a performative regime in which a woman's breasts may be pneumatic but her own desires will most certainly be deflated.

The anecdote I found most chilling in Levy's FCP was that of the makers of the Girls Gone Wild video series - which is based on the premise that if you shout, "Show us yer tits!" at enough women, some will - ambushing two young women on a Florida beach. With the help of a cheering crowd of onlookers, they coaxed and bullied the girls until one pulled down her bikini bottom and the other spanked her for the cameras, including those on the mobile phones of other beachgoers. Their reward for what might well result in a lifetime of internet-assisted embarrassment: a trucker's cap and a T-shirt.

In Princesses & Pornstars, Maguire says a 20-year-old woman told her that the three men she'd slept with had all demanded anal sex the first time they'd slept together. They also expected her to maintain a hairless pubis. Like the girls on the Floridian beach, she consented, but not in expectation of any personal pleasure outside that afforded by male approval.

At least they didn't demand that she have her vulva "healed to a single crease" (to use the language of the girlie-mag graphic designers Maguire quotes). Our allegedly advanced society is witnessing a trend towards voluntary female genital mutilation, so that men used to the airbrushed vulva of porn-mag models won't be shocked by the sight of genuine female pudenda. Other anecdotes offered by Maguire and Levy indicate that many teenage girls in the US and Australia feel pressured to give boys blow jobs without expecting any comparable pleasuring in return. The young woman above told Maguire that all three of her boyfriends had based their sexual expectations on pornography.

Is porn responsible? Researchers for The Porn Report surveyed the top-50 X-rated videos and DVDs purchased in Australia in 2003. These included such titles as Hairfree Asian Honeys, Buttbanged Naughty Nurses and Supercum 3. In them, oral sex by women on men clocked in at a cumulative time of 15 hours, 26 minutes and 7 seconds. By contrast, male-to-female oral sex racked up a paltry 4 hours, 45 minutes and 27 seconds. Which was still more than four times the 1 hour, 5 minutes and 49 seconds devoted to missionary-position sex, but considerably less than the 7 hours, 35 minutes and 30 seconds of male-to-female anal penetration. On the other hand, thanks to the internet, DIY or ‘real people' porn has even greater reach - and far more diversity.

There has always been more heat than light around porn. Particularly because of the sort of anecdotal evidence gathered by Levy and Maguire, and even their own research, some of the findings of The Porn Report seem counterintuitive. The consumers surveyed by McKee, Lumby and Albury, for example, report that porn has had a fairly benign, even positive impact on their attitudes to sex. They list greater tolerance of other people's sexual pleasure and more attentiveness to a partner's pleasure among its effects. The authors, who share ethical and broadly feminist concerns about the production and consumption of porn, do acknowledge the limitations of their self-selected sample, just as they concede that "No matter how ethically produced the pornography is, there's nothing to stop a consumer from simply interpreting it as, say, ‘a bunch of stupid bitches getting fucked'."

What a world. As Karen Brooks writes, "you'd be hard-pressed not believing that our kids are just one doll, song, website, TV show, film, Muppet or outfit away from being sexually corrupted or, worse, abused." She also sensibly notes that ours is not the first or worst society in history for the exploitation, sexualisation and abuse of children. Her solution is a combination of common sense and communication. Popular culture is not the enemy. Don't panic.

A sophisticated argument runs through all four books about the way in which corporate and patriarchal interests intersect to mediate and contain female desire, historically the source of so much moral panic. Caged, it performs like a go-go dancer, all bouncing hair and tits. Sexual liberation can be a lot better than that. It's time to fly the coop.

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

Cover: April 2008

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