Is It Hot in Here, or Is It Me?

Stef pointed us at this article from last week’s Washington Post. Ariel Levy’s feature is based on her new book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.

The going wisdom is that we now are liberated enough to get implants, we’re empowered enough to start lap dancing. Gloria Steinem and her compatriots were either wrong about these things, or just reacting to them in a different time, when different rules applied. … The question is, when we pick up that “Porn Star” T-shirt, what are we really buying?

You’ve seen the phenomena Levy is writing about; we certainly have. And one reasonable way to read these trends is as a positive, supportable rise in sexuality and sexuality in women, a leveling of the longstanding (even when infinitely refuted) myth that sexual desire and sexual urges are somehow essentially male. And beyond a doubt that’s true.

Another reasonable way to read the same trends is more like Levy’s analysis: women, especially young women, are somehow learning that looking and acting “skanky,” raunchy, visibly sexy is their best shot to make their mark in the world — which means defining their mark in the world by their effect on men. And beyond a doubt that’s true.

Even in this commercialized, commodified culture, you can’t turn on all of the people some of the time, but you can turn on some of the people all of the time. And every society has its own ways of doing that–some commercialized and some acculturated in other ways. “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked upon as simply shocking …” and all that.

We want to explore this further, with feedback. Do you this trend in raunch exciting and hot? Disgustingly exploitive? Boring?

And whether you’re teenage now or you were teenage forty years ago, how did you figure out what was hot for you? How much of it seems like it was socially constructed, and how much feels like it would have been inevitable whether you’d been brought up in contemporary America or 16th century Persia? Or on the moon for that matter?

7 thoughts on “Is It Hot in Here, or Is It Me?

  1. I’ve often related how, when my father retired from the Navy, we moved from San Diego, CA, where my 8th grade class had 700+ students, to Blackduck, MN, where the population of the *town* was 660.

    One of the effects that this had on me, as an entering-puberty young male, was to throw my ideas of what was attractive for a distinct loop. In southern California, I lived in a multi-cultural society. With large Hispanic and Asian populations, much of what I perceived as attractive was driven by the available population. There just weren’t that many white girls around. I found myself initially attracted to the Filipino girls in my class; their long, straight, black hair being particularly fascinating as I recall. When we moved to northern Minnesota, I was in a bit of a cultural wasteland. There was one black family in town, no Hispanics and no Asians. The closest similar objects of attraction in physical appearance were the American Indian girls. Here, I ran into the cultural expectations and prejudices; white boys didn’t date Indian girls. Neither side wanted to mix.

    And so, over time, the outward appearance I became attracted to shifted. Some of this was simply availability. There aren’t any Filipino girls in MN (that I know of). Some of it, I’m sure, was cultural pressure. To what extent these factors play a role is diffucult to say. Today, I find that I’m most often initially attracted to faces over more obvious secondary sexual characteristics, so I think I’ve moved beyond the cultural pressure I felt in my youth. Of course, as a product of that pressure, one can never be completely certain.

  2. I’m going to be shallow, for a moment. And extremely body impolitic.

    I think the sexualizing of youth clothing is growing beyond young women. Specifically, this is the first time in my lifetime that it has been trendy for straight Caucasian men to be able to wear sexy clothing that shows off their bodies. Some of it is even skanky, though I will certainly yield for the most tasteless thing available for boys less objectifying than some of the shirts a 12-year-old girl can find off the rack at Hot Topic.

    I like to take American Apparel as an example. On the one hand, American Apparel’s ad campaigns are disgraceful, focusing on sad-looking androgynous young women (who are apparently employees) in their underwear. It’s worse in the store, where vintage Penthouse magazines paper the walls of the changing rooms. They’ve taken the sexualization and skankification of the female body to furthest extreme possible without actually writing “porn star” on any of their clothes. But on the other hand, they are also designing clothes for men that sexualize, that outline the body, that make men into more Objects of the Gaze. And I… well, I enjoy looking at men, so I enjoy the fact that now men are wearing sexy clothes.

    That being said, I understand that it is not healthy for people to be trained into thinking of themselves at all times as Objects of a Sexualizing Gaze. But I have to admit that I’m enjoying having men to look at for once.

  3. Peter,

    Your post made me think about being in high school and being attracted to that particular combination of brains and humor that is very much New York and frequently Jewish (I’m both.) My family didn’t take well to the time that the guy with the brains and humor was Korean. Clearly, the visuals varied a lot.

    As I got older, I learned more about the down side of that style as well as its pluses. My attractions ended up very diverse. The big thing for me on the visuals is that if I’ve had a good relationship with someone, that physical type will become _really_ attractive from then on. This occasionally leads to really inappropriate “flashes”.

    I’ll be talking more about raunch, sex and “construction” later.


  4. One observation that has resonated with me for years about sex and power is that young women experience power over men that is quite impressive–just due to the major hormonal pull of youth. This kind of power is much more culturally sanctioned than other sorts of power, even when it’s right on the borders of outlaw behavior. Why? Well, it’s self-limiting and non-threatening to the culture as a whole for one thing. As Nichiren remarks, “Brides become mothers in law.” Modern translation–“Today’s slut is tomorrow’s invisible old lady.”

    A Sluts-R-Us t-shirt will get the wearer attention in a more positive way than an in-your-face political slogan that might force the wearer into an unpleasant dialogue with a (possibly hostile) person who disagrees. So you get much more of a certain kind of power (personal power over individuals) with a sexy statement than with an intellectual or politcal statement. From the perspective of age, I can see that this is a brief moment, but a young person high on the attention has no way of knowing that it can (and will) cease.

    Without any context, awareness or alternative avenues of self-development, a young woman can become addicted to this kind of attention and spend a lifetime trying to re-create it. The male equivalent is the high school jock whose life peaked at age 18. I’m observing the heterosexual youth thing here. The dynamics may be different in gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transgendered youth, but I kinda doubt it.


  5. Laurie,

    In this age of electronic communication, I expect that many a person has gone through something of the shock your family went through. That is, you find yourself talking to someone who is witty, intelligent, well-spoken … and find yourself attracted to them. And then you discover they are a 50-year-old person of a gender you’re not normally attracted to with an amputated arm, a spouse, three kids and a really bad haircut. (Or something like that.)

    It’s kind of liberating to become attracted to people on a purely intellectual level.

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