Last week I absentmindedly selected an episode of Californication on a Delta flight. Ten seconds, two bare breasts shots and a surprisingly graphic rear-entry sex scene later, I frantically exited the program, hoping that the child seated next to me hadn’t seen the images on the little screen.
Later, in the airport breezeway, I was greeted by an enormous ad for virtual conferencing that featured two ostensibly professional women shown nude from the shoulders up, with the tagline “we collaborate naked.”
It’s official. Pornography is mainstream. This new “raunch culture,” as Ariel Levy calls it, celebrates sexually explicit themes and encourages young women to participate in their own sexual objectification. Considering that the porn industry is always upping the ante–eroticizing new lows of female degradation, including the popular “ass-to-mouth” act and double- and triple-anal penetration (which sometimes requires medical attention afterward)–I wonder what we’ll be exposed to next in our public spaces. Concerned? Yes. Anti-sex? No.
I would celebrate such images if they were about sexual pleasure, agency or freedom, but they aren’t. It’s a fallacy to characterize our bombardment by pornified female bodies as being about sex. If “sex sells,” we would also see pictures of half-naked men plastered everywhere, but we don’t. So what is being sold? Notions of power, I think. Objectified female bodies serve as a constant reminder to men that they are sexual protagonists in a world of female objects that are acted upon. I might feel pretty powerful, too, if I were surrounded by images that implied that I have ready access to the bodies of half the population, and entitlement to be sexually pleasured by them.
We need a new generation of feminists to speak out against women’s objectification, given the rise of raunch culture and a decade of research on the price of female objectification. Women who think of themselves as sex objects suffer higher rates of depression, eating disorders, lower cognitive functioning, and lower self-esteem than others. They also speak up less about their own sexual pleasure with their partners and are less sexually arousable.
Being “sexy”–presenting oneself for the sexual pleasure of another– is not the same thing as being “sexual.” Paris Hilton, an icon of objectification, succinctly notes this distinction: “I may be sexy but I’m not a very sexual person.” Raunch culture teaches young women to think of their sexuality as existing for others, and this impedes development of a healthy sexuality that prioritizes one’s own pleasure. Perhaps this explains why college men are three times more likely to orgasm during sexual encounters than college women .
It is Orwellian to characterize feminists who critique raunch culture as “anti-sex” when this aspect of our culture wreaks such havoc on sexual pleasure. I envision a future when young women and men are able to explore and create mutually pleasurable sexual practices, but this can only happen if we reclaim our public spaces from exploitive corporate marketers with limited notions of what makes heterosexual men feel good.