sex

It’s become a tradition, every year about this time, to have a national conversation about the rise of sexy Halloween costumes, especially for little girls.  But are they really sexier than before?

Sure enough.  Jessica Samakow at the Huffington Post put together a gallery of then and now photos, sent along by Katrin.  See for yourself:

More about sexy costumes for women and girls: boy and girl cookie monster costumeswhen sexy overtakes all reasonsexy femininity and gender inequalitysexy scholarHarem girl, the sexy body bag costume, and a Halloween gender binary.

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.

Lindy West for the win at Jezebel, asks what’s so sexualizing about calling a child’s costume “naughty.”  The costume below was widely criticized for sexualizing little girls, but West nicely observes that there is a non-sexual, child-related meaning to the word naughty.  You know, being bad.  The non-sexual version of bad.  Doing something you’re not supposed to do.  A non-sexual thing.  You know what I mean!  West writes:

Sure, naughty has had sexual connotations as far back as the mid-19th century, but it’s been used to describe disobedient kids since the goddamn 1600s. So why did we let hornay college chicks hijack the word in all its forms? Why can’t children be naughty anymore?

It’s a great question.

The instinct that “naughty” means “bad and sexy” probably stems in part from our Puritanical roots.  Today it gets tied up with the infantilization of women and the notion that women should be cute like girls.  Add the rampant sexualization at Halloween, including costumes in which women dress up like little girls dressed up like sexy adult women.  It’s hard to see how one could avoid interpreting this “naughty leopard” as an example of the sexualization of little girls.

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Nevertheless, West is right.  The biggest problem with this costume’s title is that it includes the word “leopard.”  Because that’s just false advertising.  It doesn’t say sexy leopard and the dress — I’ll stop calling it a costume now — is not particularly sexualizing.

West calls for change:

Why don’t we send “naughty” back from whence it came—into the realm of wedgies and spitballs and pies cooling on the windowsill with bites taken out of them!? It’s time, people. You know it is. Take Back the Naughty. For the children.

And for the grown ups, too, who are tired of the idea that being a sexual person makes us bad, bad girls and boys.

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 1990 I was still an American Culture major in college, but I was getting ready to jump ship for sociology. That’s when Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video was banned by MTV, which was a thing people used to use to watch videos. And network TV used to be a major source of exposure.

I was watching when Madonna went on Nightline for an interview.  The correspondent intoned:

…nudity, suggestions of bisexuality, sadomasochism, multiple partners. Finally, MTV decided Madonna has gone to far.

They showed the video, preceded by a dire parental warning (it was 11:30 p.m., and there was no way to watch it at any other time).  In the interview, Forrest Sawyer eventually realize he was being played:

Sawyer: This was a win-win for you. If they put the video on, you would get that kind of play. And if they didn’t you would still make some money. It was all, in a sense, a kind of publicity stunt. … But in the end you’re going to wind up making even more money than you would have.

Madonna: Yeah. So, lucky me.

The flap over Miley Cyrus completely baffles me. This is a business model (as artistic as any other commercial product), and it hasn’t changed much, just skinnier, with more nudity and (even) less feminism. I don’t understand why this is any more or less controversial than any other woman dancing naked. Everyone does realize that there is literally an infinite amount of free hardcore porn available to every child in America, right? There is no “banning” a video. (Wrecking Ball is pushing 250 million views on YouTube.)
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No one is censoring Miley Cyrus — is there some message I’m missing? When she talked to Matt Lauer he asked, “Are you surprised by the attention you’re getting right now?” And she said, “Not really. I mean, it’s kind of what I want.”

I think the conversation has slid backward. In Lisa Wade’s excellent comment, she draws on a 1988 article, “Bargaining With Patriarchy,” which concluded:

Women strategize within a set of concrete constraints, which I identify as patriarchal bargains. Different forms of patriarchy present women with distinct “rules of the game” and call for different strategies to maximize security and optimize life options with varying potential for active or passive resistance in the face of oppression.

I think it applies perfectly to Miley Cyrus, if you replace “security” and “life options” with “celebrity” and “future island-buying potential.” Lisa is 1,000-times more plugged in to kids these days than I am, and the strategies-within-constraints model is well placed. But that article is from 1988, and it applies just as well to Madonna. So where’s the progress here?

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Interviewed by Yahoo!, Gloria Steinem said, “I wish we didn’t have to be nude to be noticed … But given the game as it exists, women make decisions.” That is literally something she could have said in 1990.

The person people are arguing about has (so far) a lot less to say even than Madonna did. When Madonna was censored by MTV, Camile Paglia called her “the true feminist.”

She exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode. Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time.

When Miley Cyrus caused a scandal on TV, Paglia could only muster, “the real scandal was how atrocious Cyrus’ performance was in artistic terms.”

Madonna was a bonafide challenge to feminists, for the reasons Paglia said, but also because of the religious subversiveness and homoerotic stuff. Madonna went on, staking her claim to the “choice” strand of feminism:

I may be dressing like the typical bimbo, whatever, but I’m in charge. You know. I’m in charge of my fantasies. I put myself in these situations with men, you know, and… people don’t think of me as a person who’s not in charge of my career or my life, okay. And isn’t that what feminism is all about, you know, equality for men and women? And aren’t I in charge of my life, doing the things I want to do? Making my own decisions?

And she embraced some other feminist themes. When Madonna was asked on Nightline, “Where do you draw the line?” she answered, “I draw the line with violence, and humiliation and degradation.”

I’m not saying there hasn’t been any progress since 1990. It’s more complicated than that. On matters of economic and politics gender has pretty well stalled. The porn industry has made a lot of progress. Reported rape has become less common, along with other forms of violence.

But — and please correct me if I’m wrong — I don’t see the progress in this conversation about whether it’s feminist or anti-feminist for a women to use sex or nudity to sell her pop music. As Lisa Wade says, “Because that’s what the system rewards. That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.” So I would skip that debate and ask whether the multi-millionaire in question is adding anything critical to her product, or using her sex-plated platform for some good end.  Madonna might have. So far Miley Cyrus isn’t.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality and Pacific Standard.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the Boston Globe included a discussion of the pink ribbon campaign and cause-related marketing (products marketed with a promise of a donation to a social cause) more generally.  It, like books by sociologists — including Samantha King’s Pink Ribbon Inc. and Gayle Sulik’s Pink Ribbon Blues — paints a pretty depressing picture of cause-related marketing.

As the article discusses, this approach to raising money for a cause is suspect for a number of reasons.  In many instances, the percent of profit that goes to charity is very small.  For example, one woman bought a candy bar being sold door-to-door under the auspices of a breast cancer donation, only to discover that she was invited to spent .42 cents to mail in a coupon (story here).  The company would then donate one cent to breast cancer research!  (And the chocolate was bad, too.)

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In other instances, companies have a cap on how much they’ll donate.  But consumers may or may not know that the cap is exceeded when they are in a position to buy the product.  This is the case with New Balance.

In addition, companies that participate in cause-based marketing may do so without thinking through and altering their own practices that may be contributing to rates of breast cancer.  Yoplait, for example, “pinked” their yogurt for breast cancer, even as it contained milk from cows given recombinant bovine growth hormone, a substance correlated with breast cancer rates.  After pressure from Breast Cancer Action, Yoplait changed its practices (Dannon followed).

This suggests that companies participating in cause-related marketing may not really be behind the cause, but may instead simply be interested in the profits.  However, cause-related marketing does give advocacy organizations a wedge.  If Yoplait hadn’t pinked its product, it’s unclear whether it would have felt compelled to change its ingredients.  In this sense, the hypocrisy was an opportunity.

The article also introduces Jeanne Sather, who blogs about “the most egregious, tasteless examples of pink-ribbon products.”  The winner of her most recent contest for the most tasteless product: Jingle Jugs, “plastic breasts mounted taxidermy-style on wood” that jiggle and bounce in response to music.  They are, as you might imagine, marketed largely to frat boys (and the like) and the breast cancer edition allowed fraternities to merge their philanthropic and misogynistic tendencies seamlessly:

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Jingle Jugs’ slogan: “Partnering with our nation’s youth to save our loved ones.”

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Nice double entendre there.

This type of objectification of women’s bodies in breast cancer awareness advertising is common.  Renée Y. sent in this advertisement for a breast cancer research fundraiser. Again, note that it says “Save a breast,” not “Save a woman’s life.”

Opponents of cause-based marketing argue that it is fraught with ethical problems and, at its worst, is deceiving and offensive.  While it does result in money for the cause, it may also reduce the amount of money people donate directly because they think that by buying the breast cancer cookies, cream cheese, combination locks, cat food, cookware, chewing gum, limo rides, and golf accessories, they’ve already done their part.

Originally posted in 2009; images found here, here, and here.

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.

The Sexual Politics of Meat is a scathing, powerful analysis of the relationship between the oppression of women and the farming of animals for food.  Written by Carol J. Adams and published in 1990, it inspired many a feminist to choose vegetarianism and made many more take pause.

In the six-and-a-half minute video below, she discusses the sexualization and feminization of chicken specifically.  She shows lots of examples of the ways in which chicken carcasses are objectified as women: put in high heels, bikinis, sexual positions, etc.  We feature many examples of this at our Pinterest board collecting gendered and sexualized food, some of which we’ve borrowed from Adams.

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Adams then argues that this is a way to distract us from the fact that we are eating the flesh of an animal that has been killed for us. She writes:

By sexualizing animals, we trigger another thing, that uneasiness becomes sexual energy… and everybody knows what to do about sexual energy.  You can laugh at it, you can talk about it, it reduces whoever is presented to an object.  And so it makes it okay again.

So the sexualization of animals enters into and participates in the wider issue of “Why are we doing this to animals?”  Oh yeah, because it’s funny, because it’s fun, because we can have fun with it. And it takes the ethical out.

Moreover, presenting chicken as dressing up for the male gaze suggests that the animal wants to be consumed.  The animal appears to desire to inspire (culinary) lust and, accordingly, it’s okay if you eat her.  This works best alongside feminization, as it is women who are typically presented as objects of a lustful male gaze.

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Bonus: Fifty Shades of Grey makes an appearance, and not incidentally.   In response to its popularity, a book was published called Fifty Shades of Chicken.  Here’s the book trailer:

Adams call Grey a “regressive book that implied that despite all the advances feminism has made, women really just wanted to be in bondage.”  In both books, she argues, we’re seeing the “packaging and sexualizing [of] dominance over another being.”

Hear it straight from Adams, via Uncooped:

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.

*trigger warning for sexual violence; not safe for work*

In a wonderful article called It’s Only a Penis, anthropologist Christine Helliwell talks of how her time with the Dayak community of Gerai in Indonesian Borneo changed her perceptions of the sexual body.  She writes of a time when a man crept through a window and into the bed of a sleeping woman.  She continues:

[She] awoke, in darkness, to feel the man inside her mosquito net, gripping her shoulder while he climbed under the blanket… He was whispering, “be quiet, be quiet!” She responded by sitting up in bed and pushing him violently, so that he stumbled backward [and] became entangled with her mosquito net… His hurried exit through the window, with his clothes now in considerable disarray, was accompanied by a stream of abuse from the woman and by excited interrogations from wakened neighbors in adjoining houses.

The next morning:

I awoke… to raucous laughter on the longhouse verandah outside my apartment where a group of elderly women gathered… They were recounting this tale loudly, and with enormous enjoyment… one was engaged in mimicking the man climbing out the window, sarong falling down, genitals askew… both men and women shrieked with laughter.

Helliwell was appalled.  It sounded to her Western ears like a case of attempted rape.  It was frightening, not funny.  But, when she explained to the local women that what he did was bad, one replied, “No, no bad, simply stupid.”  Helliwell turned to the woman who had been approached by the man and said, “He was trying to hurt you.”  She replied, “It’s only a penis. How can a penis hurt anyone?”  The Gerai had no word for “rape.”

I often think of this story when observing the way that women’s and men’s genitals are represented in Western culture.  I find the Gerai’s perspective intuitively pleasing.  Penises are, in fact, very sensitive dangly bits imbued with much importance. I can imagine a culture in which their vulnerability was front-and-center, so to speak.  I’m reminded of an observation made by my colleague Caroline Heldman regarding the seemingly secret pact of all men not to fight “below the belt” so as to never draw attention to men’s obvious and uniquely male physical weakness.

Yet, in Western cultures, we do imagine the penis to be a potentially threatening piece of anatomy.  In contrast, Helliwell writes, the vagina is often “conceived of as a delicate, perhaps inevitably damaged and pained inner space.”  Accordingly, we have collectively agreed to somehow believe that penises are potentially brutalizing and vaginas easily brutalized.

Where do these ideas come from?  Well, here’s a clue: the frequency with which penises are represented, literally, as weapons.  Kira recently sent in this example: a lubricant with the name “Gun Oil” advertised in the San Jose Mercury News (this is also going straight to our pointlessly gendered products page).

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A while back, we received this safer sex ad from Germany:

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And Julie C. sent along a link to a set of safer sex ads that included these three:

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While I am all for encouraging sexual pleasure and safer sex, I would prefer that such efforts not conflate the penis with a weapon.  Doing so only contributes to the idea that the penis is inherently useful for enacting violence and women’s bodies naturally vulnerable to violation from men.  Moreover, Helliwell’s experience suggests that this isn’t simply imaginary, but may also contribute to the enactment of violence or lack thereof.

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.

Screenshot_1Last month I had the pleasure of writing a really fun essay about sexual dimorphism for Salon.  The phrase refers to the degree to which males and females of a species are different.  I offered a bunch of fun examples of strong dimorphism and imagined what humans would be like if we were like those animals.

Men would be 11 feet tall, for example, if we were as dimorphic as the elephant seal; they’d be the size of a walnut if we were like the blanket octopus.  And don’t we all think that glistening iridescent skin, like the feathers on male birds, would make men more fabulously attractive?  It’s a no-brainer.

In any case, coincidentally the New York Times put together an animated video about one of my favorite examples: the green spoonworm.  The male spoonworm is very small compared to the female, equivalent to a human male being about the size of a breath mint.  And he lives his entire life inside of the female’s digestive tract.  Now that’s sexual dimorphism!  Enjoy:

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.

Every once in a while the internet is abuzz being horrified by vintage ads for Lysol brand douche.  The ads seem to suggest that women are repulsing their husbands with odorous vaginas caused by neglected feminine hygiene.  In fact, it only looks like this to us today because we don’t know the secret code.

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These ads aren’t frightening women into thinking their genitals smell badly.  According to historian Andrea Tone, “feminine hygiene” was a euphemism.   Birth control was illegal in the U.S. until 1965 (for married couples) and 1972 (for single people).  These Lysol ads are actually for contraception.    The campaign made Lysol the best-selling method of contraception during the Great Depression.

Of course, we’re not wrong to be horrified today.  Lysol was incredibly corrosive to the vagina; in fact, it’s recipe was significantly more dangerous than the one used today.  Hundreds of people died from exposure to Lysol, including women who were using it to kill sperm.  It was also, to add insult to injury, wholly ineffective as a contraceptive.

Here’s to safe, legal, effective contraception for all.

Via Buzzfeed and @CreativeTweets.

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.