Inside every princess ...

July 29, 2016

Following a community campaign, the Queensland government has announced it will deregister Wicked Campers vans that "fail to comply with determinations by the Advertising Standards Bureau". The vans are banned in northern NSW council caravan parks and bans are being considered by the Tasmanian government.

What is wrong with Wicked Campers vans? What are the limits of the campaigns so far and where should these campaigns be headed? All these bear unpacking, but I will confine my comments to understanding one slogan.

“Inside every princess is a slut who wants to try it at least once” is just one of the many sexually-referenced slogans emblazoned on Wicked Campers vans available for hire and seen all over Australia. They are marketed at a young, adventurous tourist demographic.

So what exactly is wrong with the slogan? Is it just a joke? Are people who object to it just anti-sex? Or from another angle, does it even make sense?

What is wrong with it is not that it references sexual themes.

There is a valid argument that we should not needlessly, endlessly barrage ourselves and our kids with sexual messaging. But most people are sexual, for at least some of their lives, and there's nothing wrong with public acknowledgement of that, in itself.

Tying everything to sex and using sex and especially female bodies as a marker of sexual desirability to sell everything is worth critiquing — but if that was all Wicked Campers was doing, it would just sit alongside innumerable other companies doing the same thing.

The pressure on women to not appear to be looking for sex has still not been eradicated, despite the definite gains of the sexual revolution and women's liberation movements. So there is something positive about the observation that many women who feel compelled to present a face of sexual passivity — the princess — really are or wish to be sexually curious, adventurous or assertive.

The problem is that the Wicked Campers' slogan reinforces the Madonna/whore dichotomy women face as we negotiate the contradiction between being cast as sexually passive and respectable, on one hand, or sexually experienced, assertive, adventurous and confident — and stigmatised as sluts — on the other.

The generation that is seeking to re-value the word “slut,” to claim it proudly as sexual beings, rather than succumb to the shaming it is intended to induce, may as an act of determination be less vulnerable to the stigma attached to this particular slogan.

For many, however, the stigma retains its full force. More than that, beyond the stigma attached to the word “slut” are the unstated assumptions of the rape culture this slogan comes from and perpetuates.

If inside every princess there is a slut who wants to try it, according to one set of unspoken assumptions, it is okay to ignore a woman who is saying “no” to a sexual experience because she's probably just a princess who cannot say “yes” even though she secretly wants to.

The trope of the women who cannot say “yes”, who have to be forced to acknowledge their desires, is an old one. It provides a self-serving narrative that lets men get the sex they want while ignoring the lack of enthusiastic or real consent of their partners. Part of its power lies in the reality that — particularly among women influenced by conservative anti-sex currents in our culture — some women may find it challenging to acknowledge their sexual desires and needs, especially when doing so may get them labelled sluts.

But the corollary of this is not that such women should have their consent violated, so they do not miss out on a sexual experience they were secretly longing for. To follow this path — which is where the slogan points — is to foster the culture and practice of rape that so pervades our society.

Rather, the corollary is that we need to affirm female sexual assertiveness as positive, not shameful; not to denigrate women who want to try “it” (whatever “it” may be); and in every way we can, from the classrooms to the street to the nightclubs and workplaces to the bedroom, insist on only fully consensual sex. In the words of the Reclaim the Night chant: “yes means yes and no means no”. (This does not exclude consensual role-playing, which is another thing altogether.)

And if that insistence on real consent means that somewhere along the line some princess misses out on some fun, that is a pity — but far better that, and learn to take the steps to say “yes” (or go after what you want without waiting to be asked), than to learn from repeated experience, as so many of us have, that what we want, our “no,” makes no difference.

In this context, “it's a joke” does not cut it. Not when this culture affects something as personal, powerful and fundamental as our autonomy as sexual beings; not when so many of us have our experiences shaped and develop as sexual beings in ways that subtly or resoundingly embed us in unequal and oppressive dynamics. If it is a joke, it is one that functions to cement those dynamics in place. I am not laughing, and neither are others who see it for what it is.

That is why I support the call on Wicked Campers to get the misogyny off their vans, and am glad to see people taking action to challenge them — not because sex is offensive, but because rape culture is intolerable.

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