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 disorderslower 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.


  1. Thank you for the thoughtful analysis of American raunchification. Girls and women, young and old alike, are suffering from this trend. And it seems the internet and proliferation of porn as an omnipresent and acceptable norm has made it far, far worse. We need battalions of guerrilla girls out there demanding women’s agency in pleasure and in fantasy, as opposed to being exploited and triple penetrated by patriarchal sex shows masquerading as ‘desire’ and ‘liberation.’

  2. Caroline Heldman says:

    Go guerilla girls!

  3. This article brings up something I think about a lot: the fact that our society is getting more and more sexualized, yet knows increasingly little about REAL sex and REAL human bodies. This is disturbingly apparent when I talk with men who seem to understand sex only in terms of pornography they have seen, and recoil at the idea of women having pubic hair. Is there any sort of organization/blogging community out there trying to combat this? I would really like to get involved with a movement that is working to talk about REAL sex, rather than sex as a performance of pop culture.

  4. Dominique says:

    This: “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.”

    I talk about how this culture makes me feel (amongst other concerns) in my blog entry on International Women’s Day:

  5. Sarah Dorrance-Minch says:

    I like the distinction you make between “sexy” (prurient, objectifying) and “sexual” (erotic).

    Sometimes the line can be very fine. I write erotica. Edgy erotica. But it is understood that the context of reading it is for personal pleasure, not mass consumption; it is something we choose to read, not something we see splayed on a billboard or on a full-page perfume advertisement in a fashion magazine as an icon of “what women are supposed to be like.”

    I think it’s that element of compulsion that marks whether something is inherently degrading or not. While I personally find it mind boggling that any model could voluntarily take part in or enjoy a shoot that involved, say, the three-in-one anal penetration scene you described, it’s not totally impossible to me, given that some of the things I’ve enjoyed and willingly taken part in (without getting paid for it the way a model would be) are the sort of things the average person finds beyond the pale, such as menage-a-trois arrangements and bondage. (And no, I don’t think I need to elaborate beyond that.) I too find the more degrading poses in hard-core visual erotica, and certain filmed situations, disturbing.

    But what disturbs me more are Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions, Abercrombie and Fitch catalogs (which objectify and sexualize young adolescent males in such a way that it is obvious that young adolescent males are probably not the ones buying the catalogs, at least not if Kinsey’s optimistic ten percent figure is to be taken at face value), tweenagers who dress like “prostitots” to emulate their pop-singing idols (two of whom, Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, got their start on Disney!), and the constant media bombardment of boobs and bums and female availability. We have to be beautiful, or else. We have to be willing, or else – but we also have to be nice, or else. Meanwhile, I still can’t breastfeed in public without somebody at any given time giving me the evil eye or telling me to cover up because breastfeeding in public is controversial and “obscene,” “disgusting.” Hello?!?

    There are times that I wonder if real sexuality and real female sensuality and the real female body in general are not more forbidden than this prurient “sexiness.” If we have to debate whether something is erotic or not, that in itself is not a good sign. Real sexuality, like real respect, should be instinctual.

  6. I thoroughly agree with this article. I have 3 sisters who argue with me when I say what I will and will not allow my sons to watch based on the portrayal of the female characters in the program. One example is the Chipmunks sequel. I am forced to question my standards because everyone I know thinks that all of this is okay. I am wondering–if any of my fellow feminists can help me out–if there is a website that helps concerned parents address these issues with their children as well as with their peers. It is so frustrating to feel like I am the only parent I know who doesn’t want to raise her kids to think that girls should be shown as shaking their asses and playing dumb.

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I am so frustrated by attempts to label mainstream pornography – and even prostitution and stripping – as “empowering” choices.

    Empowering to WHOM?

  8. I echo the words of others on this issue and feel so glad that you brought this topic up.
    This notion that women/girls are empowered in the way it is currently being marketed is absurd. The prude title attached to any person who is tired of the constant bombardment of boobs (and other female body parts) in the media, entertainment and advertising, is getting frustrating for me. Your thoughts on the whole “sex sells” argument, for which I am sick of hearing, is great… where are the men if its such a strong selling point. Women are sold and that’s it.

    This has been on my mind for quite awhile and I’m currently working on an article which touches on some of these points. Thanks helping us “prudes” feel better about not getting off on objectification.

  9. Jennifer Drew says:

    The below link provides excellent ideas regarding educating girls and boys too how the media promotes a very, very narrow notion of what it means to be a girl and likewise a boy.

    The Lolita Effect by M. Gigi Durham is widely available and Ms. Durham provides excellent examples of how parents can help their girl children challenge the increasing popular culture’s promotion that all women and girls are males’s sexualised commodities.

    I’m not worried about teenage boys being turned into ‘sexualised commodities’ because the reality is this is not happening. What is happening though is pre-school girls now are being subjected to sexual violence from their male peers. The trickle down effect of mainstream pornified society is now affecting girls and boys aged 2.

    I too would feel immense power and yes a sense of sexual entitlement if I were daily bombarded with images of totally naked men in sexually submissive poses. Likewise I too would feel a huge sense of entitlement and self-validation if it was men who were the ones being subjected to multiple anal penetration because as we all know men have a prostate gland in their anuses and if this is stimulated it gives males immense pleasure. What? Men do not always enjoy this – nonsense given the gland exists they must and should enjoy it. It is empowering to men!

    However, this sense of immense power and sense of sexual entitlement would not be acceptable because men unlike women are ‘human’ and therefore these ‘humans’ have certain rights and privileges not accorded to that other species – women. Also, reducing one half of the human population is not acceptable because contrary to male supremacist notions – men like women are human too and men like women are not sexualised commodities to be used/abused and then discarded as rubbish.

    Given our society is now utterly pornified and a woman’s or girl’s sole reason to exist depends on whether or not she meets mens’ and boys’ ‘sexual hotness and sexual availability’ I believe we cannot possibly begin to claim certain porn is ‘erotica’ given mainstream pornography has become hard-core porn and what used to be termed ‘softcore porn’ is non-existent.

    Women who work in pornography commonly do not enact a free and informed ‘choice.’ This is another myth created and promoted by the male pornographers. Most women enter porn because they are not able to find employment which is above the poverty line. Other reasons include having experienced male sexual violence when they were younger which leads many female survivors to accept their sole worth lies in being ‘sexually hot to men.’ Only a tiny minority of so-called female porn stars make large amounts of money and even these women readily admit doing porn does immense damage to their physical and mental health.

    Just because women in porn are paid does not mean the immense male sexual violence and sadistic sexualised torture meted out to them disappears. Stop Porn Culture is a website which provides excellent analysis and factual evidence that porn is not ‘harmless entertainment’ neither is it ‘fantasy.’ Real women are being daily subjected to triple and quadruple penetrations of their every orifices as well as being beaten and subjected to other sadistic sexual torture. Why? Because the male pornographers have to keep creating yet more ‘edgy’ porn in order to retain the male consumers.

    Access Stop Porn Culture and read the facts – the pornography and sex industry is awash with lies and myths. Californication is just one example of mainstream pornography wherein women are dehumanised sexualised commodities.

    The common claim that any feminist who rejects pornography and the sex industry is anti-sex is another tired old myth – and it is used deliberately in order to silence any challenge to men’s pseudo right of unlimited sexual access to women and girls. Pornography is filmed prostitution and no woman was put on this earth to be men’s sexual service stations.

  10. Thank you for this!!

  11. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so is pornography. If you're a prude you might see it everywhere. And in this sexually repressed society we see it used in advertising quite a lot because of that very sexual repression. But we expose children do the President dismantling the Constitution and think nothing of it. I'd much rather they see naked people – at least that's honest and has an aesthetic value.

  12. They are not just sexual protagonists, they are being sold to as protagonists, period. A world where women are only good for one thing.

  13. Excellent article, and excellent comments. There is real harm being done with the way sexuality is portrayed in the media every day, and I think the negative effect (especially on young women) is incredibly strong.

    However, I have one quibble, and that’s the notes about the effects of this culture on men. There may be a very small minority of men who feel a sense of power, as you describe:

    “I might feel pretty powerful, too, if I were surrounded by images that implied that I h”ave ready access to the bodies of half the population, and entitlement to be sexually pleasured by them.”

    However, for most the effect is quite the opposite. Like all advertising seeks to do, the images do not make men feel that they are living in a dream world of sexualized, available women, but rather that they SHOULD be. The advertising contrasts so sharply with the reality of life that the resulting feeling is one of a painful lack, a sense of depression. That is, of course, the point: the advertisers (when they are catering to men–a lot of these images are rather catering to women) want the viewer to feel that there is something they don’t have but should.

    The overall effect, I think, is not at all positive. It creates a continuous sense that the straight male viewer is cut off from this fantasy world, and that his life pales in comparison. Studies have shown that men are also less happy as a result of these images, although I doubt the negative effects are anywhere near as pronounced as those on most women.

    This is just a minor side point to the article, of course.

    Thank you for writing this! Wonderful article.

    If only we could all feel more free to be “sexual” without having to be “sexy”, as you point out, the world would be a better place.

  14. This is a brilliant short article and I wish more had been written on this topic, because people really need to think about this. Our eyes need to be open to this porn culture we live in and what horrible consequences it has for many women and some men out there. Your point about girls being encouraged to participate in their own objectification is SPOT ON. And that is also the scariest bit of all. Women need to be aware of what is happening, the underlining meaning behind it, what it means for them and for others. Once we are more aware, we can start combating this. But as long as we think “oh, it’s just advertising, it doesn’t mean anything”, we are participating in our own doom. The world hasn’t become more open minded. Media is still brainwashing people, but now in ways that supposedly “agree” with them more.
    Girls, be sexual, be horny, be attractive – but for your own damn benefit. Find your own pleasure first, instead of thinking (consciously and subconsciously) how to please men first and then yourself. That would be the wrong approach.


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  2. […] a kind of hyper-sexualisation bleeding right through our societies. It has been described as the ‘pornographication’ of our daily lives, and has become intensified and increasingly directed at the very […]

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