Girls Gone Wild
Pamela Paul, Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Times/Henry Holt, 2005, 304 pp., $25.00 hardcover
Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press, 2005, 224 pp., $25.00, hardcover.
Reviewed by Leora Tanenbaum
Unless you’ve been on a deserted island without a wireless connection, it will probably not surprise you to learn that explicit depictions of female sexuality are no longer a seedy, back-alley enterprise. In the old days (up until a few years ago), most Americans were embarrassed to be caught with pornography of any kind. But today, according to Pamela Paul, we are living in a “pornified” world, a veritable “raunch culture” (Ariel Levy’s preferred term).
Today, young blonde heiress Paris Hilton is famous as a result of the publicity boost she received when a tape of her and an ex-boyfriend having sex became available on the Internet. The Girls Gone Wild soft-core videos, in which ordinary, though drunk, young women take off their clothes on camera, are so popular that the producers are planning to launch an apparel line and a restaurant chain. Middle-school girls in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Pennsylvania have been suspended by their schools for performing fellatio on boys on their school buses. In gyms across the country, you can enroll in pole-dancing exercise classes, and if you visit a spa, you can have every single one of your pubic hairs removed with hot wax in a procedure called a Brazilian. At the local mall, your preteen daughter or niece can buy a thong emblazoned with a picture of Hello Kitty or Bart Simpson.
Paul explores how heterosexual men respond to and perpetuate the objectification of women, and how all this in-your-face sexual expression, particularly on the Internet, affects intimate relationships. Levy seeks to understand why increasing numbers of young women (whether their partners are male or female) flaunt their sexuality to the point of transforming themselves into nothing more than sex objects. Their books are eye-opening for the sheer number of specific examples they cite of female sexual explicitness gone amok—as Paul describes it, an “all-pornography, all-the-time mentality.” Both authors are persuasive when they argue that female sexual escapades are today considered utterly mundane and mainstream, just another part of popular culture. Consider that when Jemma Jameson promoted her book How To Make Love Like a Porn Star a few years ago, thirteen-year-old girls came to readings to tell her she was their role model. Or that Tracy Quan, a prostitute who also wrote a book, shared a “Meet the Author” event at Barnes & Noble with Chief Justice William Rehnquist. She told The New York Times, “If that’s not being part of the Establishment, I don’t know what is.”
This oversexualization of females is frightening. Women are being stripped—I use that word intentionally—of their power. So it is disappointing that both Paul and Levy, while doing a valuable, necessary service in reporting on this problem, offer one-sided analyses and present worst-case scenarios as typical. Reading Pornified, you would conclude that every heterosexual man who clicks on an Internet porn pop-up ad has begun a descent into a dysfunctional, miserable sex and family life. Reading Female Chauvinist Pigs, you could easily conclude that practically every young American girl and woman is a porn-star wannabe, and that somehow, this is feminism’s fault. These books’ limitations are truly a shame and a missed opportunity, because Paul and Levy are absolutely correct that we must urgently address the new sexual ethic.
Paul’s book grew out of an article on pornography that she wrote for Time magazine. (She’s a contributor to Time as well as the author of The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony.) During the weeks she spent researching the article, she reports, her “eyes were blown wide open.” She discovered how deeply porn affected the lives of dozens of men and women. When the assignment was over, Paul decided to interview more people—one hundred in all, eighty of them men—about the role pornography plays in their lives. Their quotes are the meat of this book. She also commissioned a nationally representative poll of Americans, conducted by Harris Interactive, on the subject, from which she cites statistics throughout the book.
However, Paul never tells us how she found her interview subjects, nor are we privy to any specific information about the poll she specially commissioned. Worse, she never defines “pornography,” a loaded term if there ever were one, and she casts such a wide net that it becomes meaningless. She describes as pornography everything from Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show (an incident that many believe was staged with Jackson’s consent) to bukkake, the Japanese pornographic genre that features a woman being ejaculated on by multiple men (sometimes the act is depicted as against her will, and she protests or cries as part of the scene). Is pornography, according to Paul, everything from female exhibitionism to the depiction of nonconsensual, violent sexuality? She never makes her definition clear.
Paul’s thesis is likewise muddled. Her main point is that pornography is destructive to men, women, children, and their relationships. She offers pages and pages of sad stories of men who are “addicted” to Internet porn. But what precisely is the danger? She levels many of the criticisms that feminists have made for years: that men who use porn may regard the sexual acts portrayed in it as examples of real-life sexual acts; that pornography portrays women as objects to be appraised or scorned, judged solely on the basis of their appearance; that women absorb and internalize the message that they must be sexy in order to have value; that pornography is becoming increasingly violent and nonconsensual, even brutal and sadistic; and that when a man sees certain sexual acts over and over, these acts become normalized, leading him to want and even expect the same behavior in his real life.
These are excellent points, and it’s important to be reminded of them. Moreover, they are hard to refute. One well-known study, cited by Paul, has documented the ways in which watching porn alters viewers’ perceptions of women’s sexuality. The study, conducted 25 years ago by Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillman, concluded that porn devalues women, and that for men who watch porn, seeing women demeaned can become a turn-on.
Paul should have quit while she was ahead. Instead, she goes on to call porn to task because, in addition, it allows men to fantasize about having a variety of sex partners and to experience vicariously sexual acts they could never experience in real life; because it is a place in their lives where they get to exert a measure of control, unlike in the real world, where they may feel powerless and insecure; and because time spent logging onto Internet porn is time they could spend doing other things. Paul should have restrained herself and not introduced these weak arguments, to some of which I responded in the margins of her book with a scribbled “So what?” Also counterproductive is the way Paul uses nearly identical quotes from different men over and over. As with porn, the repetition is desensitizing.
The book’s strength lies in Paul’s report on the frequency and ways men use Internet porn. According to an Internet traffic measuring service, two-thirds of all men between the ages of 18 and 34 look at Internet porn every month, and one quarter of all Internet users have visited an adult website. Much Internet porn is not only free, it’s available even when you’re not seeking it out, through pop-up ads. Those who want to hide their tracks can clear their web cache so as not to leave a trail for their wives or girlfriends to find.
That porn is distributed through a new medium would not necessarily be terrifying except for one thing: children have access to Internet porn, too. It’s here that Paul’s condemnations are best placed. As she explains,
Pornography is frequently the first place boys learn about sex and gain an understanding of their own sexuality, whims, preferences, and predilections—their desires filtered and informed by whatever the pornography they watch has to offer. (p. 16)
With online porn, much of it violent and degrading, literally popping up all over the place, we have good reason to believe that children are developing unhealthy and unrealistic ideas about sex, gender, and the line between fantasy and reality. For this reason, I support Paul’s call for government regulation—not censorship—of pornography. Paul recommends, for instance, that people who want to gain access to Internet porn be required to provide credit card information (and therefore their identities), even if the porn is free. If they want to protect their identities, they can always get their porn by way of a video or magazine. She correctly points out that other forms of entertainment and information, from R-rated movies to libraries, contain barriers to entry, and that Internet porn can be held to a similar standard.
Ariel Levy is also a magazine writer (for New York). She’s a crack reporter, no question about it. She interviewed just about everyone you would want to hear from on the subject of young women flaunting their sexuality: Christie Hefner, “chairman” and CEO of Playboy Enterprises; Erica Jong, the feminist icon who famously coined the expression “zipless fuck”; Sheila Nevins, president of HBO’s documentary and family programming division; and Candida Royalle, producer of erotic videos for women and couples. She collected fascinating quotes from young men and women alike and skillfully describes such colorful scenes as the taping of a Girls Gone Wild episode in Miami and an event sponsored by CAKE, a self-described feminist organization that organizes sex parties in New York and London. But she allows too many quotations and observations to hang in the air without context or analysis. It’s not enough to be alarmed about the fact that many girls and women are acting out sexually as never before. We need to know why they are acting out and how they feel about it.
Levy does try to answer these questions, but she jumps from explanation to explanation. She says that being “frisky” is a way for girls and women to show they’re cool, one of the boys, not prissy or humorless. These women confuse male attention with genuine power, and they’ve internalized sexist values. She is particularly disturbed that women encourage each other to be “raunchy,” and says, “it no longer makes sense to blame men”—hence the title Female Chauvinist Pigs. She argues that women, not men, are on the front lines of objectifying women.
And where did the new generation of women learn this behavior? From sixties- and seventies-era feminists, Levy says. She places the blame on second-wave feminists such as Robin Morgan, Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem, Adrienne Rich, Grace Paley, Audre Lorde, and Susan Brownmiller, who rallied against Playboy and took a stance against pornography. This led to a schism within the women’s liberation movement over how to represent sex and even over how to have sex. Feminists who did not share the antiporn point of view felt policed and rebelled by embracing overt sexual expression. Today’s “raunch feminism” is a continuation of the rebellion against those regarded as antisex in the name of feminism, according to Levy. But it’s bizarre to blame antiporn feminists, of all people, for causing the promotion of “raunch”—and according to this logic, wouldn’t Levy herself also be to blame?
“Raunch feminism,” according to Levy, “is a garbled attempt at continuing the work of the women’s movement. … In this new formulation,” she writes, “stripping is as valuable to elevating womankind as gaining an education or supporting rape victims.”
Does anyone, feminist or sexist, truly believe this? Flippant writing like this undermines Levy’s fundamental argument, with which I agree, that “raunch culture” is a huge step backward for women. Levy also undermines herself with her derision of “raunchy” girls and women. She expresses no empathy or sense of connection with them. It’s true that the young women of the Girls Gone Wild videos appear ridiculous. As Levy puts it, the videos are “composed entirely from footage of young women flashing their breasts, their buttocks, or occasionally their genitals at the camera, and usually shrieking ‘Whoo!’ as they do it.” But it’s Levy’s responsibility to look beyond the surface, to find out what is driving these women. It’s got to be more than liquor and the promise of a free GGW trucker hat.
I don’t buy Levy’s thesis that such self-objectification is the residue of an old ideological schism within the women’s movement. Women treat themselves and other women as sex objects when they believe that female sexual power is the only real power they possess. They aren’t stupid. They see, perhaps all too clearly, that women are denied the highest echelons of power in their professional, cultural, and private lives. There are other layers too: We live in a culture with a deeply entrenched sexual double standard, in which girls and young women risk of being considered “sluts” no matter what they do sexually. In this environment, why not take off your clothes—what do you have to lose? Then, consider the additional fact that comprehensive sex education isn’t widely available, leaving young people of both sexes ignorant of how they might experiment with sex in healthful ways.
Levy’s analysis does sharpen toward the end of Female Chauvinist Pigs, when she finally explores the nature of power in women’s lives. She includes the clear-eyed perspective of Erica Jong:
“I would be happier if my daughter and her friends were crashing through the glass ceiling instead of the sexual ceiling,” Jong said. “Being able to have an orgasm with a man you don’t love or having Sex and the City on television, that is not liberation. If you start to think about women as if we’re all Carrie on Sex and the City, well, the problem is: You’re not going to elect Carrie to the Senate or to run your company. Let’s see the Senate fifty percent female; let’s see women in decision-making positions—that’s power. Sexual freedom can be a smokescreen for how far we haven’t come.” (p. 195)
Though Levy covers a range of trends in the world of exhibitionist female sexuality, she doesn’t delve deeply into the subject of girls’ and young women’s clothes. I believe that current fashions—skin-baring, curve-hugging, bra-strap-revealing—have greater consequences than the Girls Gone Wild videos. I wish Levy had asked some teenagers why they show so much skin, how dressing this way makes them feel, and if they would simply shift course and start wearing looser, less sexual clothes if the fashion industry changed direction. When I came of age in the 1980s, the popular, trendy girls wore preppy, androgynous clothes (not altogether different from the power suits our mothers were wearing at the time). How would today’s girls react if preppy clothes re-ascended?
I also wish she had ruminated on the positive aspects of girls’ and women’s new sense of sexual agency. Surely something good must result from the new confidence. After all, feminists on both sides of the porn debate have long fought for women to recognize and act upon their sexual rights.
Neither Paul nor Levy make connections between pornography and sexual harassment, sexual violence, or domestic violence. Have any of the men Paul labels “pornography addicts” been involved in coercive sexual behavior or violence? Does any correlation exist between the porn and actual behavior? I also wish Levy had explored whether her female interviewees allow themselves to be degraded or physically hurt in their private sex lives for the sake of feeling accepted and “frisky.”
Whether or not this was either author’s intention, both books ultimately expose how insecure and powerless many men and women in America feel, and how these feelings cause them to behave in ways that damage themselves and others.
Leora Tanenbaum (www.leoratanenbaum.com) is the author of Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation and Catfight: Rivalries Among Women—From Diets to Dating, From the Boardroom to the Delivery Room. She is working on a book on American women and religion. She lives in New York City.