First things first: If there are kids of reading age around, you might want to read this post later. It contains some parts that are not appropriate for children.
I wanted to write a post about the pornification of our popular culture.
But it's not an easy post to write. I have thought about what I want to say and how difficult it is to say it without appearing puritanical or judgemental, and so with that in mind I'm going to begin with a disclaimer: I love good sex as much as the next person. I think that what truly consenting adults choose to do with each other in private is entirely up to them. I am very much pro the sexual empowerment of women and I do not for one minute buy into the notions of shame that surround female sexuality and impede its liberation. Clear? Good. Then I shall begin my post proper...
Years ago I read a book called The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. The essence of its argument was that the more liberated women became in their day to day lives, the greater the pressure became on them to live up to an unachievable beauty ideal. Wolf argued that ever more unrealistic beauty standards caused women to become ever more insecure about themselves thus keeping them firmly in their (inferior) place. How can we move confidently towards true equality, she argued, if we are collapsing under the weight of our own insecurities?
I am really interested in Wolfs idea that as we achieve more freedom in some areas of our lives, we become yet more oppressed in others, and that this serves to redress the balance and maintain the status quo. I believe that there is clear evidence for this in the increasing sexualisation of women and girls and the insidious pornification of our culture.
My how things have changed. When I was a girl growing up in the eighties, we had the odd topless model lurking about on page 3 of the newspaper and people tutting disapprovingly over Madonna singing Like a Virgin on Top of the Pops (god I thought she was amazing.) Now soft-core pornography is everywhere - it's completely mainstream - and totally in your face. I went to the Co-op today to buy some milk. On the newspaper stand just at childs eye level was a picture of a woman on the front cover of a tabloid. She was naked apart from a thong, and posed on all fours. The photograph was taken from behind with her vulva clearly outlined through the thin fabric of the strip of material that covered it. She was contorting uncomfortably, her head twisted over her shoulder in order to pout at the camera. I drove home with the radio on and a song by Taio Cruz came on. In it a female singer called Kesha sang explicitly about taking 'dirty' pictures of herself and sending them to him. It was half past two in the afternoon. My three year old daughter was with me. When did society suddenly deem these things to be appropriate for children?
I'm not a prude. I just think that the encroachment of pornography into our everyday lives sends out messages to young women and girls (and to young men and boys too) that are incredibly damaging. Images and portrayals of women objectified and offered up for mindless consumption, abuse and distort everyones sexuality. We can try to teach our daughters that they have a right to be treated with respect, that they can enter into sexual relationships on their own terms, that they can say no to things which make them feel uncomfortable or turn them off, and that they have the right to claim their own pleasure; but how successful can we be in instilling those values, that self worth, when Every. Single. Day. they are bombarded with music videos and adverts and song lyrics and magazine covers that send out a clear message that they are not worthy of respect - that they are little more than decorative sex toys to be gawped at and played with and used - and that if they want to be considered desirable they'd better just shut up and play along.
Although designed for their pleasure and the reinforcement of their superior status I think that ultimately the ubiquitous peddling of female bodies for titillation and entertainment does men and boys a huge disservice too. As avid consumers of internet pornography and so called 'lads mags' such as Zoo and Nuts, young men just starting out on their own sexual journeys are coming to the table with completely warped expectations. The advice columns of these magazines are full of young men horrified to discover that their girlfriends actually have pubic hair for example. How do they go about insisting that their girlfriend remove it they ask, after all aren't they entitled to a hairless partner? I should imagine that it also comes as a shock for some to discover that a lot of women don't actually want anal sex or to have their faces ejaculated over - that what they are looking for is a real connection and real intimacy and an orgasm or two for themselves thank you very much. Our cultures increasing pornification degrades and devalues sex for both genders. Sex that is devoid of intimacy or love ultimately becomes very unsatisfying for everyone.
Walk down any British high street on a Saturday afternoon and you will see young women everywhere sporting a certain look. It's one we all recognise: Long harshly dyed pale blond hair, heavily fake tanned limbs, pushed up breasts and make-up applied to the lips in such a way as to make them appear swollen and enlarged. Whether they are aware of it or not (and I suspect the majority are not) it is a porn aesthetic that has become steadily mainstream due to so much exposure. In much the same way that bikini waxes designed to remove all or most of the pubic hair became widespread as a result of pornography (actresses in the adult industry remove all pubic hair so as not to impede the view of penetration) so has mimicking the look of a soft porn glamour model now become an everyday fashion choice. I do not blame anyone for attempting to conform to what society makes clear is expected of them but it makes me so sad to see young women obviously spending vast amounts of their money, energy, and time on an effort to make themselves more closely resemble a real life blow-up barbie doll. It just seems such a waste of their resources.
What makes me really angry though is when the growing sexualisation of women and girls is presented as being somehow empowering. Who needs equal pay or anything to be done about the rape conviction rate when we have 'girl power' eh? We live in a post-feminist society apparently. Our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of so why not flaunt them in a Girls Gone Wild video? Pole dancing is fun and a celebration of the female form. "Girls rule, boys drool" cry my eldest sons female classmates as they wiggle around suggestively at the school disco copying the dance moves they have seen performed by supposedly empowered women in endless music videos. Twenty first century women are sexy and unashamed, liberated and in control.
It is a seductive argument. We all enjoy feeling attractive and confident, and being the focus of male attention and desire certainly can give one a superficial sense of personal power. But it is a trick. In the end it is just the same old bullshit wrapped up in different packaging. There is nothing for women to celebrate in the pornification of our culture because ultimately all it does is reinforce the notion that a womans intrinsic worth lies in her ability to attract and please men. Real empowerment and self-esteem come from valuing our skills and achievements. From believing ourselves to be good and capable people who have a positive impact on the lives of others. There is no strength to be found in the commodification of our bodies.
Our cultures pornification is damaging to the self-esteem of women and girls. It is a major step backwards in terms of our journey towards equality. And it doesn't lead to better sex for anybody.