Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture

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.

See also Lizzy Borden: We don’t shoot “all the lovey-dovey stuff that there’s not a big market for” (explicit language).

3 thoughts on “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture

  1. I, personally, do not fit the profile that they portray as the “pro-sex feminist”. I am a Dominant. I have always been. My fantasies do include domination and submission… but only as males submitting to my authority. I am a Dominatrix. I have whipped, scratched, and anally penetrated men for my amusement, and theirs actually.

    Outside of that I take control of my own body. Sex has always been MY idea. I have never been abused, raped, a victim of incest or any such thing. I am healthy, horny, and happy.

    I may be the minority. I don’t have the figures to judge that. I consider sex healthy and enjoyable. I have never really met with resistance to have safe sex and I have been tested for everything under the sun to make sure my sex life maintains happy and healthy.

    Personally, I have never orgasmed through penetration alone. That makes me one of the 70% that can’t. If you consider our sexual organ solely allotted for this single heterosexual act then you are excluding many of your sisters from the pleasure of orgasm. Cunnilingus has always been part of my regular normal healthy sexual activity. Any man that didn’t want to do that was promptly kicked out of bed…. 99% of the time knowledge was acquired ahead of time and the guy was weeded out of the dating pool like a three-headed ogre.

    No man or woman enters my bedroom without clear understanding of my personal needs and a clear desire to fulfill them. If any woman is unable to communicate that she needs to stop acting like a fucking victim and take charge of her body and her life! Women are not children and I am sick to death of us being treated as such. We have to own our bodies and ourselves and be proud and assertive enough to demand to be pleased and treated with respect.

    Sex does not have to be an act of repression. True the media portrayal sex and women is exploitative. Yet, the fact of the matter is… sex sells. It sells material goods, ideas, et cetera. Men are slave to their penis. It’s all a matter of how you use your power as a woman. You can make your man as much a slave as you think yourself to be. It’s all about using the power of arousal to your benefit.

    In the outside world, we want equality of opportunity and pay. We want respect in the workplace. The ability to fulfill our own destinies. In the home we want to be treated as an equal contributor to the household. We want help with the dishes and the children. At least that is what I thought feminism is.

    That is what I demand in my life and I get it. I am aggressive and assertive enough to be certain I have it. I do believe the rest of female-kind can have it too if we stop fussing over pornography and start working on our own lives. Get off the soapbox and start muscling up the courage to tell your boyfriend/husband what you want him to do in bed and in life.

    If men did not have pornography to masturbate to, you would never be able to fulfill their subsequent increase of sexual needs. Whether you realize this or

  2. Hi,I want you to answer the message from a promiscuous and pro-porn woman to my youtube account who has called herself a “card carrying feminist” in her submitted comments to a youtube video by “Arguseyes-The Problems with Feminism” of which I also submitted comments.I totally disagree with her support of pornography and her lifestyle of promiscuity which she thinks is liberating to women.I want you to refute what she has stated-and I particularly want a woman and a feminist.I know that you might agree with artificial contracepton but I know that it is not 100% effective so she is still putting herself at risk of STDS HPV HIV/AIDS etc which have devastating or fatal effects.Also pregnancy is the reason (of nature/biology)why sexual intercourse exists and is a sign of health and is something positive.Sex and pregnancy -I know is for a loving couple (man and woman)but she thinks that she can degrade womens equality and defy nature for her own selfish whims.Also the website that I referred her to was calle d http://www.captivedaughters.org and then I ashed her to click on CD Salon and next I asked her to click on “why women defend pornography by Doreen(cant remember the surname).
    Please see why I believe that artificial contraception and abortion are one of the major contributory factors to men using women as sex objects and secondly cause varying negative health problems on women.
    Mainly answer the contents of the message she sent to me on my youtube account.

  3. I left two comments which you will recognise especially from my name and email address.Could you please answer the message”I am not a pro sex feminist”…to my email address instead of on this website.
    And also my own comment and please see why I think abortion is wrong.Artificial contraception has aided promiscuity and thus disrespect for women.Asfor abortion pleases see http://www.feministsforlife.org or com or net.I repeat-Dont display anything I have sent to you here-answer me by sending an email instead.Sincerely

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