Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Empowerment or Exploitation?

Lately I've been pondering the rise of explicit sexuality in our culture over the last 15-20 years. In particular, things like stripping and porn have become somewhat mainstream; take for instance cardio striptease classes.

Many claim that this is empowering for women, that they are expressing their sexuality. I'm doubtful. In a recent book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, journalist Ariel Levy, proclaims that there is something profoundly un-liberating about this phenomenon.

Her central thesis is that today's "raunch culture" is not an encouragement of personal sexual expression and healthy sexual appetite, but a highly commercialized and mass produced "commodity" that strips us and our sex lives of all particularity and fulfillment.

There is some video of Levy discussing this claim.

Here is Levy on the "Girls Gone Wild" phenomena:

and here she is on Playboy:

I think she raises some fascinating questions. And I wonder, when is it healthy sexual expression and empowerment, and when is it exploitation? How can we establish a clear criteria? Can we? Should we?


  1. Doc,
    You're the halls of academia, what do the sociologists say?
    Remembering my college days, I can say without doubt that most of the drinking and girl chasing done by my buddies and I were pretty much a way to maintaining an anti-establishment attitude. Could we not say the same thing applies to these girls.

  2. I am all for genuine sexual empowerment. I think women should be free to be sexual and sexy, and that the increased acceptance of female sexuality and sexual desire is a good thing.

    In fact I'd perfer to see this increased. It would be good to do away with pejorative terms like "slut" which are generally used to condemn women for their natural desires and to reinforce patricarchy.

    And I think the sexual revolutions of the mid 20th century were largely as you describe them: a celebration of the individual and a rebellion against a constraining status quo.

    But I think what we see in Playboy, girls gone wild, and their like is not the same thing. In fact, it appears to me that this is yet another way to put women down and control their sexuality.

    Rather than celebrate healthy individual sexual desire and diviserity, these groups impose a commericialzed model of sexual desire, that neither celebrates particularlity nor even promotes pleasure, it promotes mindless exhibitionism for the profit of those exploiting it.

    Although you raise exactly my question! It is clearly not only wrong but natural and even good to find other people attractive. And I see no problem with men and women acting and being "sexy" and expressing their sexual desires.

    The question I have, and I don't know the answer: is where exactly the line can be drawn between exploiting oneself and affirming oneself. I am sure there is a difference, but it's hard to pin point. Though I'm sure "girls gone wild" is on the exploitation side.

  3. How interesting.
    I completely agree with her, particularly what she said on the second
    video. Appearing on playboy, exposing yourself to others, is the
    "natural way" to express your sexuality, you are "unnatural" if you
    don't conform to this....doesn't it sound to you as the same old thing
    only backwards? Before you were "natural" if you restrain yourself
    completely, now it is if you don't restrain yourself at all! What
    happened with the middle point which would be the real not to mention
    healthy "natural"?
    This is another expression of what is so wrong with feminism these
    days, it went to the other extreme. This does NOT help women, it does
    not empower them or set them free, it confines you and restrict you as
    much as the old regimen did. Sad, very sad.

  4. In end stage capitalism sex becomes the last means of controlling people. Society can not exist without some sexual mores. It will break down. The super-sexualization happening right now is brainwashing women to think of themselves, not primarily as subjects worthy to be loved in their very being, but as objects good as orgasm-dispensers (For evidence, look at magazine covers at the grocery store).

    Hedonism has become king.

    Dave Kovacs

  5. Dave,

    I think that is EXACTLY right. Levy says as much: this "raunch culture" she speaks of, is all about turning people into commodities. Because you can't sell individuals, but you can sell objects.

  6. I am still a student, Doc, thanks for the clarity.


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