sex

3Thanks to a tip from Jay Livingston, I came across this quote from The Pursuit of  Loneliness by sociologist Philip Slater.  It’s long, but wow:

[I]t can’t be denied that the female ideal in America is nonaggressive and nonthreatening, to the point of caricature.  Take for example the film personality of the much-idolized Marilyn Monroe: docile, accommodating, brainless, defenseless, totally uncentered, incapable of taking up for herself or knowing what she wants or needs. A sexual encounter with such a woman in real life would border on rape – the idea of “consenting adults” wouldn’t even apply.  The term “perversion” seems more appropriate for this kind of yearning than for homosexuality or bestiality, since it isn’t directed toward a complete being.  The Marilyn Monroe image was the ideal sex object for the sexually crippled and anxious male: a bland erotic pudding that would never upset his delicate stomach.

It’s important to realize that this Playboy ideal is a sign of low, rather than high, sexual energy.  It suggests that the sexual flame is so faint and wavering that a whole person would overwhelm and extinguish it.  Only a vapid, compliant ninny-fantasy can keep it alive. It’s designed for men who don’t really like sex but need it for tension-release – men whose libido is wrapped up in achievement or dreams of glory.

Slater wrote this passage in 1970, hence the reference to Marilyn Monroe.  I would have to think hard about whether I think it still applies broadly, but I think it’s fair to say that the “bland erotic pudding” is still part of the repertoire of essentially every female celebrity who is successful in part because of her appearance.  I did a search for some of the most high-profile female actresses and singers today, looking specifically for images that might fit Slater’s description.  I invite your thoughts.

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Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Over at his blog, The Ethical Adman, Tom Megginson asks us to consider the “power symbolism of fellatio.”  His post was prompted by this sign for an Android store (next door to an Apple store) in China:

Get it? Apple is fellating Android, so Apple is inferior. <sarcasm> Obvious right? </sarcasm>

The variations on the insult “you suck” — “suck it,” “suck my balls,” “suck my dick,” “cocksucker,” and Tom’s colorful addition, “this sucks donkey balls!” — are so commonplace that it’s easy to forget where it comes from.  Like the sign implies, and the more elaborate insults make clear, “you suck” works as an insult by positioning the male or female receiver in a position in which they are sexually servicing a man.

This cultural association of power and sex is pervasive throughout our insult vocabulary.  “Fuck you” is an excellent example, as is “fuck off,” “motherfucker,” and “go fuck yourself.”  Sexualized body parts used as insults are part of this too: “cunt,” “pussy,” “dick,” and “prick.”  “Scumbag” is a word that originally meant condom and suggests that sperm is somehow contaminating; sexual partners who receive or are covered with sperm can be seen as exposed to a disgusting or filthy substance.  Even “douchbag” may fall into this category (think about it).

People get pretty creative (or not) with this stuff.  Here’s one of my very favorite pieces of hate mail (in response to this post):

Just a tipoff, to let you filthy feminazi CUNTS know that we are exposing you, you fucking pieces of shit… see [name and organization redacted], a leading men’s rights magazine site, and boy does it expose you and your fucking feminazi cunt blog for what you are…. nothing but awful screaming feminazi harpy cunts who need to suck a dick and calm down… you evil twats…

Aside from this tipoff, all I will say to such feminazi CUNTS like you is, suck my fucking dick you awful feminazi cunts. FUCK I HATE YOU, AND EVERYTHING YOU STAND FOR!!!!! DOWN WITH FEMINAZI COCKSUCKING CUNTS WHO I HOPE GET BREAST CANCER.

So it’s interesting, right, to notice how often attempts to hurt other people come in the language of sexuality.  This reveals why sex can be scary, especially for women who are so often positioned as the one who “gets fucked.”  And this, of course, is what rape is all-too-often about.  It’s also part of how we demean and marginalize gay and bisexual men.  In the language of sex/power, they’ve voluntarily made themselves into lesser human beings, making homophobes feel justified in denigrating or assaulting them.

For my part, I try to avoid all of this language and I encourage you to do so too.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Oddly, three high profile female musicians find themselves in a public debate about what it means to be a feminist.  We can thank Miley Cyrus for the occasion.  After claiming that the video for Wrecking Ball was inspired by Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You, O’Connor wrote an open letter to the performer.  No doubt informed by Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, she argued that the music industry would inevitably exploit Cyrus’ body and leave her a shell of a human being.  Amanda Palmer, another strong-minded female musician, responded to O’Connor.  She countered with the idea that all efforts to control women’s choices, no matter how benevolent, were anti-feminist.

I keep receiving requests to add my two cents.  So, here goes: I think they’re both right, but only half right.  And, when you put the two sides together, the conclusion isn’t as simple as either of them makes it out to be.  Both letters are kind, compelling, and smart, but neither capture the deep contradictions that Cyrus – indeed all women in the U.S. – face every day.

Cyrus in Wrecking Ball:

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O’Connor warns Cyrus that the music industry is patriarchal and capitalist.  In so many words, she explains that the capitalists will never pay Cyrus what she’s worth because doing so leaves nothing to skim off the top.  The whole point is to exploit her.  Meanwhile, her exploitation will be distinctly gendered because sexism is part of the very fabric of the industry.  O’Connor writes:

The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth… and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, “they” will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body…

Whether Cyrus ends up in rehab remains to be seen but O’Connor is, of course, right about the music industry. This is not something that requires argumentation, but is simply true in a patriarchal, capitalist society.  For-profit industries are for profit.  You may think that’s good or bad, but it is, by definition, about finding ways to extract money from goods and services and one does that by selling it for more than you paid for it.  And media companies of all kinds are dominated at almost all levels by (rich, white) men. These are the facts.

Disagreeing, Palmer claims that O’Connor herself is contributing to an oppressive environment for women.  All women’s choices, Palmer argues, should be considered fair game.

I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze…

In Palmer’s utopia, no one gets to decide what’s best for women.  The whole point is to have all options on the table, without censure, so women can pick and choose and change their mind as they so desire.

This is intuitively pleasing and seems to mesh pretty well with a decent definition of “freedom.”  And women do have more choices – many, many more choices – than recent generations of women. They are now free to vote in elections, wear pants, smoke in public, have their own bank accounts, play sports, go into men’s occupations and, yes, be unabashedly sexual.  Hell they can even run for President.  And they get to still do all the feminine stuff too!  Women have it pretty great right now and Palmer is right that we should defend these options.

So, both are making a feminist argument.  What, then, is the source of the disagreement?

O’Connor and Palmer are using different levels of analysis.  Palmer’s is straightforwardly individualistic: each individual woman should be able to choose what she wants to do.  O’Connor’s is strongly institutional: we are all operating within a system – the music industry, in this case, or even “society” – and that system is powerfully deterministic.

The truth is that both are right and, because of that, neither sees the whole picture.  On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system.  They are architects of their own lives.   On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system.  The system sets up the pros and cons, the rewards and punishments, the paths to success and the pitfalls that lead to failure.  No amount of wishing it were different will make it so.  No individual choices change that reality.

So, Cyrus may indeed be “in charge of her own show,” as Palmer puts it.  She may have chosen to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot” all of her own volition.  But why?  Because that’s what the system rewards.  That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.

In sociological terms, we call this a patriarchal bargain.  Both men and women make them and they come in many different forms. Generally, however, they involve a choice to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage without challenging the system itself.  This may maximize the benefits that accrue to any individual woman, but it harms women as a whole.  Cyrus’ particular bargain – accepting the sexual objectification of women in exchange for money, fame, and power – is a common one.  Serena Williams, Tila Tequila, Kim Kardashian, and Lady Gaga do it too.

We are all Miley, though.  We all make patriarchal bargains, large and small.  Housewives do when they support husbands’ careers on the agreement that he share the dividends.  Many high-achieving women do when they go into masculinized occupations to reap the benefits, but don’t challenge the idea that occupations associated with men are of greater value.  None of us have the moral high ground here.

So, is Miley Cyrus a pawn of industry patriarchs?  No.  Can her choices be fairly described as good for women?  No.

That’s how power works. It makes it so that essentially all choices can be absorbed into and mobilized on behalf of the system.  Fighting the system on behalf of the disadvantaged – in this case, women – requires individual sacrifices that are extraordinarily costly.  In Cyrus’ case, perhaps being replaced by another artist who is willing to capitulate to patriarchy with more gusto.  Accepting the rules of the system translates into individual gain, but doesn’t exactly make the world a better place.  In Cyrus’ case, her success is also an affirmation that a woman’s worth is strongly correlated with her willingness to commodify her sexuality.

Americans want their stories to have happy endings.  I’m sorry I don’t have a more optimistic read.  If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already.  But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it.  To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Recently David Gianatasio at AdWeek wrote an analysis of the sudden rise in the sexual objectification of men in advertising.  It seems to have been spurred by the wild popularity of the Old Spice character introduced in 2010, The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.  Gianatasio calls it “hunkvertising.”  Indeed, rippling abdominal muscles suddenly seem to be everywhere.

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Gianatasio interviewed me for the piece and I had two thoughts.  First, because the ads are so tongue-in-cheek, they didn’t seem to be acknowledging and validating women’s sexual desire, so much as mocking it.  “It’s funny to us to think of women being lustful,” I told Gianatasio, “because we don’t really take women’s sexuality very seriously.”  In this way, the joke affirms the gender order because the humor depends on us knowing that we don’t really objectify men this way and we don’t really believe that women are the way we imagine men to be.

Second, objectifying men alongside women certainly isn’t progress.  There’s the old critique that, if it is equality, it’s not the kind we want.  But, more importantly, the forces behind this so-called equality have nothing to do with justice.  Gianatasio generously gave me the last word:

I wouldn’t call it equality — I’d call it marketing, and maybe capitalism. Market forces under capitalism exploit whatever fertile ground is available. Justice and sexual equality aren’t driving increasing rates of male objectification — money is.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

This lady is apparently going as Sexy Leaf Pile.  What would you go as?

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Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

In my lecture about the sex lives of college students, I remind students that they didn’t invent casual sex.  This always prompts some snickers.  The fact that today’s students have about the same number of sexual partners as their parents did at their age evokes an even stronger response.   About 1/5th of college students will be virgins when they graduate college.

In fact, college students aren’t as sexually active as the moralizing makes it seem.  And neither, it turns out, are teenagers.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 57% of girls and 58% of boys age 15 to 19 have never had penile-vaginal intercourse.  Moreover, the percent of teenagers that have had intercourse has been dropping consistently over the last 20 years.

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So, despite the fact that young people are more likely than earlier generations to engage in oral sex before initiating penile-vaginal intercourse (especially fellatio), they continue to take intercourse very seriously.  This may be, in part, because men are becoming more like women in this regard.  Men’s numbers have dropped much more sharply. In addition, for the first time the CDC study found that boys’ #2 reason for not having engaged in intercourse was that they were waiting for the right person.  Men cited this reason 29% of the time, compared to 19% for girls.  For both boys and girls, the #1 reason is that it’s against their religion (41% of girls and 31% of boys).  Concerns about pregnancy come in third.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality. Writing the book in 1973 and only three years out of college, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. Carrie is woman feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.”

– Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Screenshot_1Most feminist criticism of Stephen King’s Carrie has focused on the male fear of powerful women that the author said inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp finding her death at the end to signify the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s honesty about what inspired his 1973 book notwithstanding, Carrie is as much an articulation of a feminist nightmare as it is of a patriarchal one, with neither party coming out on top.

The rise of Second Wave feminism in the ’70s posed serious threats to the patriarchal order — as well it should have. But even for those who think change is not only necessary but good, change can be pretty scary. This, with a hat tip to the universality of being bullied, is one of the reasons Carrie scares everyone.

While men in the ’70s felt threatened by the unprecedented numbers of women standing up for themselves and attempting such radical social changes as being recognized as equal under the law, women themselves must have felt some anxiety that the obstacles to fully realizing themselves might be too big to conquer. The story therefore resonates with men in terms of the fear of (metaphorical) castration prompted by changing gender roles, and with women in terms of the fear that no matter how powerful we become, social forces are still so aligned against us that fighting back might destroy not just the patriarchy but ourselves.

Feminism was not the only thing on the rise in the ’70s: so was Christian fundamentalism. In 1976, the year that the original movie debuted, 34 percent of Protestant Americans told the Gallup Poll that they had had born-again experiences, leading George Gallup himself to declare 1976 the Year of the Evangelical. In fact evangelism, then as now — when 41 percent of Americans report being born again — was one of feminism’s more formidable foes, one of those very social forces that would rather destroy women than see them powerful.

The triggering event of Carrie–the infamous shower scene–is a product of the meeting of these two forces. Because of a fundamentalist Christian worldview in which menstruation is not simply a biological process but rather evidence of Eve’s original sin being visited upon her daughters,Carrie‘s mother does nothing to prepare her for getting her period. When she starts bleeding at school, Carrie naturally panics, and as a result faces the scorn of her peers — who laugh at her for not knowing what’s happening — and the scorn of her mother, who believes that “After the blood the boys come. Like sniffing dogs, grinning and slobbering, trying to find out where that smell is.”

I can’t believe I’m about to go all Freudian here, but for the male viewer the shock of seeing unexpected blood between one’s legs clearly represents a fear of castration–a literal embodiment of King’s anxieties about feminism. From the woman’s perspective, the menstrual blood obviously signifies Carrie’s maturation — coming into her power — which has been marred by fundamentalism.

10304319383_31b0b70ec7Without making the new remake of the movie any more violent, director Kimberly Peirce emphasizes the imagery of this inciting event by adding waaaaay more blood to her Carrie. When Carrie gets her period in the shower, there’s more blood than in Brian De Palma’s film. When Carrie gets some of that blood on her gym teacher, which happens in both films, Peirce adds more of it, and the camera lingers on it longer and returns to it more often.

When Carrie’s mother locks her in the closet, Peirce has the crucifix bleed–something that doesn’t happen in the first movie. The blood of the crucifix connects Carrie’s first period to the suffering of Christ, deepening the relationship between debased femininity and religion.

Then, when Carrie gets pig blood dumped on her head at the prom, there’s not just more of it in the second film: Pierce shows the blood landing on her in slow motion three times. This final deluge of blood echoes a scene that Pierce added to the beginning of the movie, in which Carrie’s mother endures the bloody birth of her daughter. Carrie, then, is essentially born again at the prom, and the devastation she wreaks can be read as a result not of her feminine power but of the corruption of it by religion.

Peirce told Women and Hollywood that her goal was to make Carrie as sympathetic as possible. She removes the male gaze aspect of the original shower scene, in which many of the girls are naked and the long, slow shots of Carrie’s body are rather pornified. She makes sympathy for Carrie’s primary nemesis at school pretty much impossible by changing her from an angry girl in an abusive relationship to a sociopath without a conscience. In the new film, Carrie even has the strength to challenge her mother’s theology. Her prom date is more likeable and Peirce uses his death–something De Palma doesn’t reveal until the end — as further motivation for Carrie’s rampage.

None of this changes the fact that Carrie dies at the end, but it does foreground the idea that the message doesn’t have to be that powerful women are indeed dangerous. It can be that fundamentalism is dangerous to women.

If you’re a feminist, I say go see Carrie. Watching her be destroyed — but not without taking out a lot of the patriarchy with her — and then, as a viewer, emerging again into the sunlight unscathed, allows feminists to process some of our deepest fears about what we’re up against. Then we can get on with making the world a place where religious beliefs don’t corrupt our sexuality, where women don’t have to destroy themselves to be powerful and where women’s equality doesn’t trigger men’s fear of their own doom.

Holly L. Derr, MFA, is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist FandomFor more of the Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, check out Parts OneTwoThree, and Four at the Ms. Magazine blog.

Cross-posted at Ms. Magazine.  Photos courtesy of Jade and thefanboyseo1 via Creative Commons 2.0

In many parts of the Western world, Halloween (for adult women, and increasingly for girls too) has morphed into an opportunity or imperative to dress sexy.  These costumes for women and girls are par for the course, where men usually go for scary, funny, or creative.  Brandi H., however, found a link to “sexy costumes for men” at msn.com that claims “There are sexy options for men, too.”

Let’s take a look.  While women’s sexy costumes are typically decidedly sexy (tight with lots of exposed skin), these men’s “sexy” costumes are simply suggestive.  In two cases, they “suggest” that men should be sexually serviced or played with (the “breathalyzer” and the “ring toss”):

In a third, the joke is that he is a perfect candidate for casual sex (the “one night stand”):

In a fourth, the costume is simply sexy because it’s related to (stereotypes) about prostitution (the “hustler”):

So, when women go sexy for Halloween, it usually means being seen as a sex object for others.  When men go sexy, it means joking about how men should be sexually serviced, have access to one night stands, or being in charge of and profiting from women’s bodies.  A different type of “sexy” entirely.

The other two costumes are simply non-sensical in context.  I suppose policemen (and men in uniform in general) are supposed to be sexy in American culture.  And I guess bunnies are related to Playboy bunnies?  But the costume certainly misses the mark.

Cross-posted at Ms.; originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.