NoPornNorthampton is amassing a growing library on porn, its development, and its impacts. Here Jendi Reiter reviews Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (New York: Free Press, 2005)….
Why have today’s young women decided that it’s empowering to emulate porn stars? This is the question that Levy, a contributing editor at New York Magazine, sets out to answer. As a second-generation feminist, she wondered why her peers–educated women with more options than ever before–aspired to expose themselves on “Girls Gone Wild” videos and learn pole-dancing. Women were sitting right beside their boyfriends at strip clubs and porn-film nights, saying it was all just a big joke. Female Olympic athletes felt the need to prove themselves by posing for Playboy. The mainstreaming of porn was rebranded as feminism.
For Levy, this caused some cognitive dissonance. “Only thirty years (my lifetime) ago, our mothers were ‘burning their bras’ and picketing Playboy, and suddenly we were getting implants and wearing the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation.” (p.3) Many of her interview subjects argued that “raunch culture didn’t mark the death of feminism…it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved.” (p.3) Liberated women had earned the right to be proud of their bodies and express their sexual desires, they said.
But Levy wasn’t buying it. “Raunch culture” tries to convince us that there is only one way to be sexy, and that is for women to embrace the exploitative stereotypes that men have perpetuated through pornography. “A tawdry, tarty, cartoonlike version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular. What we once regarded as a kind of sexual expression we now view as sexuality.” (p.5)
Feminists have had trouble speaking out against raunch culture because feminism has tried to give women more choices about their sexuality, and to destigmatize the female body. So if women are choosing to get drunk and make out on camera–not because they’re poor and exploited, but simply for the fun of exercising sexual power over men–where’s the problem?
For one thing, says Levy, women’s diversity and talents will always be undervalued so long as we believe that in order to feel attractive and feminine, we must force our sexuality into a stereotyped mold and sell it as a commodity. “[W]e have accepted as fact the myth that sexiness needs to be something divorced from the everyday experience of being ourselves.” (p.44) Speaking of the Olympic athletes, Levy observes, “If you really believed you were both sexy and athletic, wouldn’t it be enough to play your sport with your flawless body and your face gripped with passion in front of the eyes of the world?” (p.44)
The most valuable feature of this book is the chapter “The Future That Never Happened,” Levy’s brief history of the feminist movement, which shows how it became co-opted by a male-dominated sexual revolution that evolved into raunch culture. For instance, one little-known fact is that Hugh Hefner helped bankroll early feminist initiatives such as the legalization of abortion and the Pill, the National Organization for Women, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Anything that broke down “prudish” sexual mores was good for business, Hef reasoned. His targets included not only religious conservatives but what he called the “puritan, prohibitionist…antisexual” element within feminism.
These so-called Puritans included Susan Brownmiller, Gloria Steinem, Shere Hite, Audre Lorde, and other founding mothers of the movement. Brownmiller co-founded the New York chapter of Women Against Pornography, whose activities included guided tours of Manhattan’s red-light district to raise awareness of the mistreatment of sex workers. “They would bring visiting Benedictine nuns to a strip club to observe the patrons and dancers, or they’d take a curious band of housewives inside a porn shop so they could investigate what it was their husbands were looking at in the garage. Women Against Pornography even led high school class trips.” (p.61)
The idea that porn trained men to rape was the focus of books by Brownmiller and fellow activist Robin Morgan. In her classic Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Brownmiller speculated whether the ACLU would be so protective of the porn shops if their materials were “devoted not to the humiliation of women by rape and torture, as they currently are, but to a systematized, commercially successful propaganda machine depicting the sadistic pleasures of gassing Jews or lynching blacks” (quoted on p.62).
However, dissent arose within the feminist community from women who claimed the “sex-positive” label. Listening to angry prophets is no fun. Men who were threatened by the feminist critique of porn, and women who were tired for being shamed for their sexual choices, combined to discredit the Brownmiller camp as a bunch of scolds.
Raunch culture came along as a way for women to have their cake and eat it too. We could feel empowered without needing to make enemies or stop having “fun” as defined by the commercial media. In this way, says Levy, feminist energy became co-opted by a consumer culture in which solidarity for political change is replaced by personal advancement at the expense of other women. For a large part of raunch culture’s appeal, she says, is that it permits women to hang onto their feminist credentials while using their sexuality to achieve success in a male-dominated business world.
Women have to act like one of the guys to establish themselves in this domain, and gleefully collaborating with their love of porn is an effective way to do it. “Raunch provides a special opportunity for a woman who wants to prove her mettle. It’s in fashion, and it is something that has traditionally appealed exclusively to men and actively offended women, so producing it or participating in it is a way both to flaunt your coolness and to mark yourself as different, tougher, looser, funnier—a new sort of loophole woman who is ‘not like other women,’ who is instead ‘like a man.'” (p.96) A loophole woman is a token successful woman who creates the illusion that her profession is accessible to women in general.
Female chauvinist pigs are women who have internalized sexist values to such an extent that they imitate the most irresponsible and aggressive kind of male sexual behavior. They have convinced themselves that it is feminist and empowering to have numerous casual, exploitative sexual encounters, and they show contempt for women they perceive as too “feminine” (meaning emotional, vulnerable and modest).
Levy provides a fascinating tour of the lesbian club scene, where more and more young women are dressing like boys and adopting a predatory, promiscuous attitude toward their sexual partners. Self-styled “bois” adopt the motto of “bros before bitches,” meaning that they respect their “butch” female buddies more than the “femme” women they sleep with. Levy also notes an uptick in female-to-male sex-change operations. As with the mainstreaming of porn, she sees a backlash of female self-hatred disguised as sexual liberation.
Raunch culture is particularly cruel to teen girls, who feel pressure to perform before they can even understand their own desires. The girls Levy interviewed, mainly students at elite high schools, seemed perpetually distracted by the competition to “dress the skankiest” and rack up the greatest number of conquests, in order to gain status in their female peer group. (p.152) Sex and beauty were about power, not pleasure. In fact, some sexually active girls repressed feelings of arousal in order to avoid vulnerability.
The most famous contemporary porn star, Jenna Jameson, is a perfect example of how the porn culture alienates women from their own sexual needs. Though Jameson, a victim of sexual abuse and gang rape, proclaims in her memoir How to Make Love Like a Porn Star that porn is one of the few jobs where women can achieve real power without sacrificing their femininity, her own description of her “work” sounds mechanical and joyless to Levy:
“Jameson, like most employees of the sex industry, is not sexually uninhibited, she is sexually damaged. She has had the grim misfortune to be repeatedly and severely traumatized, which she tells us plainly enough. Non-coincidentally, she tends to describe her sexual encounters as carnivorous, dissociated exchanges of power. ‘Sexuality became a tool for so much more than just connecting with a boy I was attracted to,’ [Jameson] writes. ‘I realized it could serve any purpose I needed. It was a weapon I could exploit mercilessly.’ Not once in that description of her sexuality does she use the word pleasure. What Jameson is describing is the true enactment of sex as a commodity, a currency to be exchanged for other things.” (p.183)
In the pornified version of feminism, sex equals money, and shopping–for shoes or men–equals freedom. Moreover, like a mass-produced thong, every woman is supposed to be sexy in exactly the same way. Levy urges women not to settle for this impoverishment of our personal and political imaginations:
“Women’s liberation and empowerment are terms feminists started using to talk about casting off the limitations imposed upon women and demanding equality. We have perverted these words. The freedom to be sexually provocative or promiscuous is not enough freedom; it is not the only ‘women’s issue’ worth paying attention to. And we are not even free in the sexual arena. We have simply adopted a new norm, a new role to play: lusty, busty exhibitionist. If we are really going to be sexually liberated, we need to make room for a range of options as wide as the variety of human desire.” (p.200)
If this book has a weakness, it’s the same weakness that left liberal feminism open to being co-opted by porn in the first place. Freedom of choice isn’t enough to sustain a healthy sexual culture. Without shaming women for their desires, we also have to recognize that some choices are unhealthy for ourselves and contribute to the oppression of others. We need feminist role models who reconnect sex to love, emotional maturity, unselfishness, and egalitarian family life–who show that the truly liberated woman accepts nothing less than affirmation of her whole person, not just her physical qualities. Levy’s book challenges us to imagine a world beyond the porn culture’s narrow range of choices for men and women.