Ariel Levy on 'raunch culture'

Young women are expressing their sexuality more overtly, and outrageously, than ever. But in her hotly debated new book, US feminist author Ariel Levy argues that this is not liberation, it's a betrayal. She takes us on an eye-opening tour of 'raunch culture'

Sunday 04 December 2005 01:00

A few years ago I noticed something strange. I would turn on the television and find strippers in pasties explaining how best to lap-dance a man to orgasm. I would flip the channel and see babes in tight, tiny uniforms bouncing up and down on trampolines. Britney Spears was becoming increasingly popular and increasingly unclothed, and her undulating body ultimately became so familiar to me I felt like we used to go out together.

In my own industry, magazines, a porny new genre called the Lad Mag, which included titles such as Maxim, FHM, and Stuff, was hitting stands and becoming a huge success by delivering what Playboy had only occasionally managed to capture: greased celebrities in little scraps of fabric humping the floor.

Some odd things were happening in my social life, too. People I knew (female people) liked going to strip clubs (female strippers). It was sexy and fun, they explained; it was liberating and rebellious. My best friend from college, who used to go to Take Back the Night marches on campus, had become captivated by porn stars. Only 30 years (roughly my lifetime) ago, our mothers were supposedly burning their bras and picketing Playboy, and suddenly we were getting implants and wearing the Bunny logo as symbols of our liberation. How had the culture shifted so drastically in such a short period of time?

What was even more surprising than the change itself were the responses I got when I started interviewing the men and - often - women who edit magazines like Maxim and produce television series about strippers. This new raunch culture didn't mark the death of feminism; it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved. We'd earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes. Women had come so far, I learned, we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny. Instead, it was time for us to join the wild party of pop culture where men had been enjoying themselves all along. If male chauvinist pigs were men who regarded women as pieces of meat, we would beat them at their own game and be female chauvinist pigs: women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves.

I tried to get with the programme, but I could never make the argument add up in my head. How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavoured to banish good for women? Why is labouring to look like Paris Hilton empowering? And how is imitating a stripper or a porn star - a woman whose job is to imitate arousal in the first place - going to render us sexually liberated?

There is a widespread assumption that simply because my generation of women has the good fortune to live in a world touched by the feminist movement, that means everything we do is magically imbued with its agenda, but it doesn't work that way. "Raunchy" and "liberated" are not synonyms. It is worth asking ourselves if this bawdy world of boobs and gams we have resurrected reflects how far we've come, or how far we have left to go.

The first stop on my tour of raunch culture was Miami, Florida, where I accompanied a group called Girls Gone Wild on spring break (a week-long US college recess). Late at night, infomercials show bleeped-out snippets of Girls Gone Wild's wildly popular, utterly plotless videos, composed entirely from footage of young women flashing their breasts, their buttocks, or occasionally their genitals at the camera, and usually shrieking "whoo!" while they do it. The videos range slightly in theme - from Girls Gone Wild on Campus to Girls Gone Wild Doggy Style (hosted by the rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg) - but the formula is steady and strong: bring cameras to amped-up locales like Mardi Gras, hard-partying colleges, sports bars, and spring-break destinations where young people are drinking themselves batty, and offer T-shirts and trucker hats to the girls who flash or the guys who induce them to. Girls Gone Wild (GGW) is so popular it is expanding from soft-core videos to launch a clothing line, a compilation CD and a restaurant chain. Justin Timberlake has been photographed in a GGW hat; Brad Pitt gave out GGW videos to his Troy cast-mates as wrap presents.

"It's a cultural phenomenon," said Bill Horn, Girls Gone Wild's 32-year-old vice president of marketing, a shaggy-haired young man sitting on the front porch of the Chesterfield Hotel late on a balmy Friday night. "It's like a rite of passage."

Puck, a surprisingly polite 24-year-old cameraman, was loading equipment into their van. He wore a GGW hat and T-shirt, which seemed to be enough to draw women to him as if by ensorcellment. Two stunning young women approached from the street and asked Puck if they could come along with him if they promised to take off their clothes and make out with each other later for the camera, possibly even in a shower. There was no room for them in the car, but Puck was unconcerned; there would be other such offers. "It's amazing," said GGW's tour manager Mia Leist, a smiley, guileless, 24-year-old. "People flash for the brand." She pointed at a young woman sitting on the other end of the porch. "Debbie got naked for a hat."

Besides her new GGW hat, 19-year-old Debbie Cope was wearing a rhinestone Playboy bunny ring, white stilettos that laced in tight X's up her hairless calves, and wee shorts that left the lowest part of her rear in contact with the night air. Body glitter sparkled across her tan shoulders and cleavage. "The body is such a beautiful thing," she said. "If a woman's got a pretty body and she likes her body, let her show it off! It (omega) exudes confidence when people wear little clothes." Cope was a tiny person who could have passed for 15. On the preceding night she had done a "scene" for GGW, which is to say she pulled down her shorts and masturbated for them on camera in the back of a bar. She said she felt bad for "not doing it right" because for some reason she couldn't achieve orgasm.

"People watch the videos and think the girls in them are real slutty, but I'm a virgin!" Cope said proudly. "And yeah, Girls Gone Wild is for guys to get off on, but the women are beautiful and it's... fun! The only way I could see someone not doing this is if they were planning a career in politics."

Everyone piled into the van and followed Crazy Debbie to a dance club in nearby Coconut Grove, where she knew all the locals. "Fun girls," Cope promised. It was a vast, multilevel place and every song had a relentless, throbbing beat. Puck and Sam, the cameramen, headed out on to the balcony with three young women who'd volunteered to do a "private".

"Here we go," said Horn. He gave a little laugh. "There's some part of me that always wants to shriek, 'Don't do it!' "

But he didn't, and they definitely did... the trio started making out in a ravenous lump, grabbing at each other's rears and rutting around while trying to remain upright. Ultimately, one girl fell over and landed giggling on the floor - a typical endpoint for a GGW scene.

Later, the girl - her name was Meredith - said she was a graduate student. "It's sad," she said, with only a slight slur. "We'll have PhDs in three years. In anthropology."

A few weeks later, on the telephone, she was upset: "I'm not at all bisexual... not that I have anything against that. But I'd never do that really. It's more for show; a polite way of putting it is it's like a reflex, " she said. "My friend I was with felt really bad, the one who told the first girl to kiss me. Because in the beginning, I felt so dirty about the whole thing. I hate Miami."

"It's a business," said Mia Leist. "In a perfect world, maybe we'd stop and change things. But we know how it works. I've had discussions with friends who were like, 'This is so degrading to females.' I feel that if you walk up to someone all sly and say, 'Come on, get naked, show me your box,' that's one thing. But if you have women coming up to you begging to get on camera and they're having fun and being sexy, then that's another story."

I asked Leist if she would ever appear in a GGW video herself. She said, "Definitely not."

The next day at the beach, only the light was different. "We want our picture with you!" a blonde in a bikini yelled at the crew, shaking her digital camera in the air.

"We don't want pictures," Leist called back. "We want boobs!"

A pack of guys were drinking beer out of a funnel, and they decided they wanted GGW hats. Badly.

"Show them your tits," one yelled at the two girls splayed on towels next to him. "What's your problem? Just show them your tits."

Puck set up the shot and waited, camera poised, for the female response. "No way!" The girl in the black bikini said, pouting.

"You know you want to," the funnel-wielder taunted. People started to circle around, like seagulls sensing a family about to abandon their lunch. "Do it," the guy said.

"Yeah, do it!" yelled a spectator.

"Show your tits!" screamed another.

"Show your ass!"

There were maybe 40 people now gathered in a circle that was simultaneously tightening inward and expanding outward around Puck and the girls and their "friends" with every passing second. The noise rose in volume and pitch.

I caught myself hoping the crowd would not start throwing rocks at the girls if they decided to keep their clothes on.

We'll never know, because after a few more minutes passed and a few more dozen dudes joined the massive amoeba of people shouting and standing on top of beach chairs and climbing up on each other's shoulders to get a good view of what might happen, it happened. The girl pulled down her black bathing suit bottoms and was rewarded by an echoing round of shrieks that sliced the sky.

"More!" Someone yelled.

Other people pulled out cameras. The people who had cameras built into their mobile phones flipped them open and jumped up to try and get shots of the action over the human wall. The second girl rose up off her towel, listened to the cheers for a moment, and then spanked her friend to the rhythm of the hooting.

"Yo," a guy says into his phone. "This is the best beach day ever."

This is not a situation foisted upon women. Because of the feminist movement, women today - on both sides of the Atlantic - obviously have staggeringly different opportunities and expectations than our mothers did: we have attained a degree of hard-won (and still threatened) freedom in our personal lives; we are gradually penetrating the highest levels of the work force; we get to go to college and play sports and run for government office. But to look around, you'd think all any of us want to do is rip off our clothes and shake it.

It no longer makes sense to just blame men. Mia Leist and plenty of other women are behind the scenes, not just in front of the cameras, making decisions, making money and shouting "We want boobs." Playboy is a case in point. Playboy's image has everything to do with its pyjama-clad, septuagenarian, babe-magnet founder, Hugh Hefner, and the surreal world of celebrities, multiple "girlfriends" and nonstop bikini parties he's set up around himself. But in actuality, Playboy is a company largely run by women. Hefner's daughter Christie is the chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises. The CFO is a middle-aged mother named Linda Havard. The Playboy Foundation (which has supported the ERA and abortion rights among other progressive causes) is run by Cleo Wilson, an African-American former civil-rights activist. A woman named Marilyn Grabowski produces more than half the magazine's photo features.

"A lot of women read the magazine," Christie Hefner told me when I went to visit her in Chicago. "We know they read it because we get letters from them." And this was proof, she said, that "the post-sexual-revolution, post-women's-movement generation that is now out there in their late twenties and early thirties has just a more grown-up, comfortable, natural attitude about sex and sexiness that is more in line with where guys (omega) were a couple generations before. The rabbit head symbolises sexy fun, a little bit of rebelliousness, the same way a navel ring does... or low-rider jeans! It's an obvious 'I'm taking control of how I look and the statement I'm making' as opposed to 'I'm embarrassed about it' or 'I'm uncomfortable with it'. A little bit of that in-your-face... but in a fun way... frisky is a good word."

I asked her why she supposed all these frisky, in-your-face women were buying Playboy instead of, say, Playgirl. "To say that the gap is closing isn't to say that the gap has closed," she replied. "You can't put male nudity in an ad the way you can put female nudity in an ad and have it be perfectly acceptable. I mean, we still have a disconnect because of the attitude that men have about being uncomfortable about being the objects of women's fantasies and gaze."

That would explain why men would be less likely than women to dream about one day appearing in the pages of Playgirl (and why there aren't any Boys Gone Wild). But it doesn't explain why women would be buying the magazine, the rabbit-head merchandise, the shtick. I think that has more to do with the current accepted wisdom that Hefner articulated so precisely: the only alternative to enjoying Playboy (or flashing on spring break or getting implants or ogling strippers) is being "uncomfortable" with and "embarrassed" about your sexuality. Raunch culture, then, isn't an entertainment option, it's a litmus test of female uptightness.

I asked Hefner how she felt about young girls aspiring to be in Playboy - girls like the ones she provides scholarships to through the Committee of 200, an organisation of female executives and business owners who provide mentoring programmes "The reason why I think it's perfectly OK is because the way women see being in the magazine is not as a career but as a statement," she said firmly. "It's a moment that lets them be creative... that can be as simple as 'I just want to feel attractive', or it can be very complicated, as has happened with a Vicky Lamotta or a Joan Collins, saying, 'I am older and I want to reassert the ability to be attractive now that I'm 50.' Or: 'I'm an athlete and I don't think athleticism in women is at odds with being sexy.' "

But the women in Playboy are never seen as themselves. They are only ever seen spread out, in soft focus, wearing something slight and fluffy and smiling in that gentle, wet-lipped way that suggests they will be happy to take whatever is given to them. They are expressing they are sexy only if sexy means obliging and well paid. If sexy means passionate or invested in one's own fantasies and sexual proclivities, then the pictorials don't quite do it. "When you get yourself into the really contortionist position that you've got to hold up and your back hurts and you've got to suck in your stomach, you've got to stick your hips out, you've got to arch your back and you've got to stick your butt out all at the same time and suck in and hold your breath, you don't feel sexy. You feel pain," a model named Alex Arden, a former Penthouse cover girl, told interviewers from VH1.

The world's top-selling adult film performer, Jenna Jameson, echoed Arden's sentiment when she wrote about her early test shoots for men's magazines in her best-selling memoir How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: "I had to arch so hard that my lower back cramped. When I see those photos now, it seems obvious that sexy pout I thought I was giving the camera was just a poorly disguised grimace of pain."

Doesn't sound like something you would do for fun. There are some women who are probably genuinely aroused by being photographed naked, but I think we can safely assume that many more women appear in Playboy for the simple reason that they are paid to. Which is fine. But "because I was paid to" is not the same thing as "I'm taking control of my sexuality."

Why can't we be sexy and frisky and in control without being commodified? Why do you have to be in Playboy to express "I don't think athleticism in women is at odds with being sexy?" (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?)

That women are now doing this to ourselves isn't some kind of triumph, it's depressing. Sexuality is inherent, it is a fundamental part of being human, and it is a lot more complicated than we seem to be willing to admit. Different things are attractive to different people and sexual tastes run wide and wild. Yet somehow, we have accepted as fact the myth that sexiness needs to be something divorced from the everyday experience of being ourselves.

It's ironic that we think of this as "adult entertainment", because really, reducing sexuality to bikini waxes and polyester underpants is pretty adolescent. s

'Female Chauvinist Pigs' by Ariel Levy is out now, published by Simon & Schuster, priced £17.99

Female chauvinist pigs: The movers, shakers and thrusters who are spreading raunch culture

Jessica Simpson

Jessica Simpson's raunchy pop video for Nancy Sinatra's classic "These Boots Were Made for Walking" is more adolescent sex fantasy than independent woman's anthem. As the lusty Southern blonde songstress douses herself in soapsuds and cavorts in a pair of tiny shorts around a bar full of men , surely they are salivating over her ample artistic achievements?

Jenna Jameson

"It's one of the few jobs for women where you can get to a certain level, look around and feel so powerful" writes Jenna Jameson in her autobiography, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star. However it is easy to see how many people fail to see why selling a mobile ring-tone of your sex-moan along with a whole catalogue of bejewelled sex toys, action figures and adult videos adds up to an empowered image of 21st- century female sexuality.

Paris Hilton

The epitome of cartoon sexuality, the hotel heiress is best known for dressing head to toe in various combinations of scanty pink fluff and for her amateur performance in a badly lit internet sex video. Cashing in on the vapid brand of female sexuality that has become her trademark, Paris has also starred in her own reality show, The Simple Life where she first coined the phrase "That's hot" with reference to anything from a poodle to a pole dance.

Christina Aguilera

"Nasty, Oh Christina you nasty, yeah" grunt a pack of sweating men while Christina Aguilera humps the floor of a boxing ring in a pair of greasy leather chaps and a red thong for her music video Dirty. According to Christina she is "all for female sexuality" and "taking the sexual power away from men", for which they're no doubt very grateful, if taking away their sexual power means being able to thrust at her partially-naked body while calling her "dirty".

Britney Spears

Whether as a virginal, pom-pom-sporting schoolgirl, an air hostess or a leather-clad sex slave, Britney Spears is always willing to fashion her image according to the popular whims of male sexual fantasy. When the God-loving, whiter-than-snow image of the early days drifted, along with Justin Timberlake and her chastity, Britney knew there was only one option: PVC, knee-high boots, suggestive lyrics and inappropriate Vegas wedding.

Anna Kournikova

Sexy Russian tennis players sell, found Anna Kournikova as she banked around £7m from for endorsing brands such as Adidas. Having never won a major singles tennis title, Kournikova has effectively transcended the sport and made herself a sex symbol through regular scantily clad appearances in well-known "sporting" magazines such as FHM. Sarah Harris

Clichéd sex please, we're British Hermione Eyre on our home-reared raunch-meisters

Female Chauvinist Pigs are not exclusively a US breed. Some squealing can also be heard here in Britain. "Abi in her undies!" "Makosi: steamy lesbian snog on Big Brother", "Buy the British University Babes Calendar - all nude!" Oink, oink!

All the above are real-life examples of women playing up their sexuality in a clichéd, titillating way, and as such, they could be taken as proof that "Raunch Feminism" is running wild. However, as with most US-led trends, we have adapted it in our own sweet way. That is to say, we remain slightly more grounded about it. They have Girls Gone Wild, we have Calendar Girls. They have pole-dancing clubs, we have the Cambridge University Pole-Dancing Club. They have the steely pro Jenna Jameson. We have the endearing amateur Abi Titmuss (pictured).

Ah, Abi. It is easy to forget that she lead an upright public life before she was shopped to the papers by Jason Blayde, with whom she had enjoyed a private orgy. A "female chauvinist" is often a female compromised by a male chauvinist.

Equally, Britain's real ringmistresses of "Raunch Feminism" work behind the scenes. Rebekah Wade of the Sun, Jacqueline Gold of Ann Summers. And commentators who, while they would never strip in public, deal far crueller blows to womanhood by suggesting Victoria Beckham should have made a home rather than a career. Makes baring your boobs seem rather harmless.

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