July 14, 2007
The Canberra Times

In their efforts to be sexy, women fail to see the sexism

It was the kind of conversation you overhear accidentally, and then think twice. Perhaps about why you didn’t think more thoughtfully the first time.

I was on a Saturday morning stroll to the Kingston shops, when I fell into pace behind a group of three people, probably in their early 20s. One of the two girls had her arm slung over the shoulders of the boy in the group. Just as I passed them I heard her say, ”You know, I only wanted to shag her, it’s not like I wanted a relaaaationship or anything”. There was a bit of laughter and then they were out of ear shot.

It was an unremarkable comment: which in itself is kind of remarkable. Sure some girls shag girls, as well as boys. So what? Plenty of girls pash girls as well as boys too. They do it at parties, they do it in pubs, and some girls love to do it in front of everyone if there’s a camera in sight.

Most will tell you it’s all ”just a bit of fun”. Some will also admit they do it to show off or to tease the blokes around them. ”It was with a few of my girlfriends to impress this one guy,” a 16-year-old respondent told author and researcher Joan Sauers.

Her book Sex Lives of Australian Teenagers caused shockwaves among parents of teenagers and young adults when it came out earlier this year. Not so much because it detailed kids having sex at a young age (over half of those interviewed between 11-16 years old had had at least one sexual experience with someone else), but rather the shock was due to the kind of sex that teenagers are engaged in, and exposed to.

Sauers found that young Australians, a bit like Bill Clinton, don’t consider oral sex, or more specifically a ”blow-job”, actual sex. And a so-called ”hand-job” is little more than a handshake that is fine to share with someone you hardly know. Just over half of the girls in Sauers survey admitted to giving blow-jobs or hand-jobs by the time they were 16. Most of those reported that they were uncomfortable with it, and some even said they ”hated it”.

But the most disturbing and recurring theme was that of ”giving”: girls giving pleasure to boys. There was little or no sense of mutual enjoyment, or sexual exchange.

”I didn’t really want to,” says one 17-year-old about giving a blow-job to her boyfriend, ”it was [his] birthday present”.

And as for how to go about delivering such a ”gift”, according to Sauers’ research 59 per cent of girls have seen pornography by the time they’re 14 years old. Not just on the internet, but in films, magazines and photos. Given most porn is still produced by men, for men, the role of women as sexually subservient and submissive continues to be strongly reinforced – despite decades of so-called sexual liberation.

Where their feminist foremothers once fought for the right to say yes to sex, are these daughters of the revolution going to have to learn to fight for the right to say no? Or, as Germaine Greer has suggested, are they blighted by a ”fear of being branded inhibited and repressed”? After all, no one wants to be ”uncool”.

But how do girls and young women resist the pressure to ”put out” when it seems everyone else is doing it? And when they’re not doing it they’re surrounded by it.

Women seen writhing, humping, twisting, and flirting in skimpy costume, or near nakedness, form a daily diet of the mass media marketing we all consume.

It’s there on TV, in every form of print advertising, paraded on billboards, thumped hard in music videos, and splashed across women’s – and men’s – magazines on the news-stands. Breasts, thighs, cleavage and plenty of bare skin are the staples. This month’s Marie Claire instructs women to ”Get Sexy!”, Cleo promises a ”Sexy winter body”, Cosmo has ”sexy hair”; and Men’s Style boasts the heaving bosom of ”Dita von Teese” a striptease artist who the mag calls ”old school”, because she begins her de-robe dressed in a vintage corset .

The hard sell of soft porn is so ubiquitous we’ve almost become immune to it. In fact, so prevalent is the sexualisation of women in every tier of our popular culture, that we hardly even notice it. Most of all, we’re becoming increasingly blind to the rampant sexism in it.

When author Ariel Levy was in Australia to launch her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, she called for another wave of action against what she sees as a ”backlash against feminism”.

Levy describes raunch culture as the mainstreaming of soft porn. It comes from throwing into a confused mix the notions of female empowerment, sexual liberation, consumer culture, and old fashioned objectification of women. Or as writer Sophie Cunningham has put it, raunch is ”an aesthetic based on strippers and a sexuality based on performance”.

Its poster girls are a who’s who of celebrity obsession – Paris, Britney, Lindsay, Jessica Simpson, and Christina Aguilera.

But even an Aussie housewife can get in on the act, as witnessed by the bizarre TV ad for Nando gum. I have no idea what the stuff is, but the spruiker is a mother of three who sits down to fried chicken with her family at night and pole dances naked (but for a g-string) by day. Wiggling her tail in front of a man who slips her money is presented as though it is as natural and normal as chewing gum. Is it any wonder young women – and men – might be confused?

The real trouble with raunch is that it’s less about liberation, and more about conforming to strict stereotypical images based on male and manufactured fantasies. After all, porn stars and strippers are faking lust. Most women just want the real thing.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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