Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Female Chauvinist Pigs, Part II

Levy attempts to explain the view of sexuality that currently exists in the US by the "unfinished business of feminism." The conflict between "sex-positive" feminists and anti-pornography feminists left us without a coherent stance on sex and female sexuality. As a result, the raunch culture emerged, where objectification of women hid undeer the guise of female sexual liberation.

I believe that it's here that Levy's argument fails. Her views become parochial and limited at the point where she sees the current attitude to sexuality almost exclusively as a result of what the 2nd generation feminists did or failed to do. As important as the ideological differences between Jong and Dworkin are for the history of the movement, it doesn't seem like the whole country was sitting there, waiting with bated breath for the resolution of their conflict. I propose that in order to understand the way sexuality is viewed, lived, and enacted in America today, it would be useful to look at the issue from the outside. Not only outside feminist debates, but also from outside the continent itself.

When we were talking about cultural stereotypes with my students, they asked me about the way I had imagined the Americans before moving to the US. I told them that the main stereotypes I had held were that Americans were friendly and sexually repressed. The students were very surprised. They were even more surprised to hear that after living in North America for 11 years, I hadn't found much to contradict these assumptions. My undergrads talked about the American culture as being overly sexually permissive, and even "too sexually liberated" for its own good. I reminded them of abstinence-only sex ed, virginity pledges, purity balls, the fact that Roe v Wade was still not safe (and this conversation took place even before Dr. Tiller's murder), and about all the times when I had to stop them from characterizing women as "slutty" for having more than one sexual partner. When I asked why they thought Americans were "too sexually liberated", my students echoed Ricci Levy by answering that "sex was everywhere" in the form of magazine articles, TV shows, movies, etc.

This is precisely the phenomenon that Levy addresses in Female Chauvinist Pigs. And she makes the same mistake as my students, equating obssessive sex talk with actual sexual liberation. There is a very telling moment in her book when she talks about the Girls Gone Wild series, the favorite whipping horse of those who believe in the "pornification of America." One of the young women who takes part in the show by stripping for the camera "declared proudly" that she was a virgin. Here is the answer to the entire problem. This young woman lives in a society where, instead of a mere physiological fact, virginity is an issue that merits emotional attachment and is something to be proud of. So she goes on the show to enact sexuality, since practicing it is forbidden to her by a repressive society. Girls Gone Wild comes not out of a sexually permissive society, but rather out of a sexually repressive one.

(To be continued).


Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right about American sexual repression. We are the product of oppressed religious movements that were opressive themselves; Puritans, Pilgrims,Mormons, etc. Our country is still unable to escape the grasp of 19th century sexual codes that do not account for human nature and human sexuality. The sexual revolution of the '60's was actually an underground movement that surfaced as a cultural cleavage providing fodder for the media economic machine that proceeds today in the 'tittilation " of a nation of pubescent girls that will never grow to be healthy women. If a nation and it's culture has no understanding of the role of sexuality in their society, then that nation is sexually repressed. The pervasive images of half naked and suggestive young people just proves your point: if we were liberated, nudity would be normal. We could not be so economically manipulated by objectifying images if the images were open and real.

Clarissa said...

I'm glad you agree, Anonymous! I've had people come to this blog who tried to prove how sexually liberated the Puritans were. :-)

When the very definition of sexual liberation is wrong, people confuse free sexuality with such unhealthy exhibitions as the ones you describe.

Lindsay said...

"Girls Gone Wild comes not out of a sexually permissive society, but rather out of a sexually repressive one."

I agree.

I read Female Chauvinist Pigs earlier this year, and to Ariel Levy's credit, I do remember her acknowledging this in the book --- that the "raunch culture" she talks about is actually the flipside of the deeply conservative, religious, virginity-and-marriage-fetishizing cultural climate that's grown up out of the backlash against the '60s counterculture and second-wave feminism. She only wrote maybe one line to this effect, but I do remember her acknowledging it, and me being disappointed because I really wanted to read a book about how those two seemingly-contradictory elements of U.S. culture work together, but Female Chauvinist Pigs wasn't that book.