Raunch culture, sex and sexuality

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Public displays of sexual desire, sex and agency are almost synonymous with the broad Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) rights movement.

Positive displays of queer sexuality challenge narrow and dominant ideas about "acceptable" sex and sexuality. They play an important role in the struggle for democratic rights and against persecution; and in exploring sexual pleasure and desire.

Sections of the women's liberation movement investigate and promote women's sexuality and sexual pleasure for similar reasons.

While feminists explain that "the personal is political", recognising that sexism is a social construct, the LGBTI rights movement challenges queerphobic ideas about what “acceptable” sex is.

As queer theorist Guy Hocquenghem said: "The special characteristic of the homosexual intervention is to make what is private — sexuality’s shameful little secret — intervene in public, in social organisation".

Campaigns for sexual liberation bring sex and sexuality out of the bedroom and into the streets.

Gender queer porn star Jiz Lee told Green Left Weekly: "Queer porn is one of the few places queer people can see themselves represented in an authentic and intimate way.”

Lee explains that queer porn also provides an "opportunity to educate ourselves about sex" at a time when "schools teach heterosexuality (be it an abridged version) and often shame, hide, or punish homosexual and other queer sexual expressions".

Yet some feminists contend that raunch culture — a phrase that has come to mean any public representation that is sexually explicit or suggestive — coerces women and girls to become sex objects, under the guise of empowerment.

Arial Levy, author of Female Chavinist Pigs: women and the rise of raunch culture, writes: "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 …

“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 … mimicking whatever popular culture holds up to us as sexy.”

Levy gives examples of women having brazilian bikini waxes, going to strip clubs, wearing the Playboy bunny logo and labouring to look like Pamela Anderson.

She said the raunch culture falls far short genuine women’s liberation, and could even take women backwards. “What appears to be liberating rebellion is actually a kind of stifling conformity.”

Levy rightly questions the “empowerment” of a narrow definition of sexuality that puts women’s needs second.

However, Levy fails to recognise that the source of sexism isn’t the explosion in public representations of sexuality; and that the depiction of alternative sexualities can play a positive role; and that sexual liberation is not individual decisions about how to survive in a system that commodifies sex and sexuality.

Sex is not the problem. Sexism and queerphobia, and the economic system that underpin them, are.

As Tanya Serisier and Mark Pendleton write, in the November 2008 edition of Overland: “Blaming raunch culture turns sex into a convenient scapegoat for misogyny and the commodification of sexuality.”

But raunch culture, like other representations, needs to be analysed as media and social construction.

In a 2005 paper, Pornography is a Left Issue, Gail Dines and Robert Jensen explain: “Leftists examine mass media as one site where the dominant class attempts to create and impose definitions and explanations of the world. “

“These are places where ideology is reinforced, where the point of view of the powerful is articulated. That process is always a struggle; attempts to define the world by dominant classes can be, and are, resisted. The term "hegemony" is typically used to describe that always-contested process, the way in which the dominant class attempts to secure control over the construction of meaning.”

All depictions of sexism and queerphobia should be rejected – including those in raunch culture. And part of contesting these definitions and explanations is creating and supporting alternatives.

Lee points out: “as marginalised people, we are rarely given the opportunity to educate ourselves about sex, let alone to tell stories about ourselves in media.”

So the need to collectively bring alternative sex and sexuality out of the bedroom – in forms that challenge sexism and queerphobia -- remains.

And while a sexual counter culture cannot solve the problem in isolation — the economic role of the nuclear family and women’s oppression must be challenged — a public, ethical and political raunch culture has the potential to reflect a bigger diversity of desires and pleasures.

From GLW issue 864