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Time to challenge what’s considered sexy

sexyRaunch culture continues to polarise feminists, but the pornification of society  isn’t the problem, it’s the lack of diversity in what’s considered beautiful or sexy, writes Katrina Fox.

If feminist politics were to play out in a boxing ring you’d have Sex Positive Sally in one corner with her battle cry of ‘No more slut bashing: Women should be free and unashamed to express their sexuality’. In the other would be Anti-Raunch Culture Carrie proclaiming that ‘Young women’s value shouldn’t be based on their sex appeal alone’. 

Five years after the term ‘raunch culture’ was coined by American author Ariel Levy in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, the debate around the sexualisation of young women and the so-called ‘pornification’ of society continues to rage and polarise feminists. 

But if only Sally and Carrie would take off the gloves and sit down for a frank chat over a cup of chamomile tea, they may realise it’s not each other they need to be fighting – because they are both right. 

Rather than focusing solely on the pornification of society, there is a far greater need to challenge what is culturally deemed to be ‘sexy’ in the first place, as this is likely to have a much greater impact on how women view themselves and how men regard women. 

The revered beauty type in most western societies is white and thin and this is the only benchmark for a woman’s ‘hot’ factor. This narrow model of femininity is inherently class-based. If a woman attains it, she has more opportunities to gain access to money, while a man’s status is elevated if he has a ‘perfect’ woman at his side. 

To achieve such perfection, a woman must be required to undergo all sorts of body modifications – from breast implants and liposuction to anal bleaching and labiaplasty (euphemistically known as vaginal ‘rejuvenation’, this procedure involves cutting off parts of the labia to make them neat and symmetrical). 

This rigid ideal – which relies on the commercialisation of beauty – is prevalent in the sex industry. While alternatives exist, such as ‘fat porn’ or websites featuring ‘hirsuit girls’, these tend to be sidelined as ‘niche’ or ‘specialist’ as if finding a fat or hairy chick sexy is socially taboo. 

Even so-called alternative porn such as that promoted by the Suicide Girls and their ilk still feature predominantly thin, white women, except with tattoos and piercings. Any blemishes or pimples on their bodies are still airbrushed out the same as they are in mainstream porn. At the majority of lap dancing clubs the women are so homogenised it’s hard to tell them apart from each other. 

The fashion and entertainment industries also buy into the hype. Celebrities and models hailed ‘stunning’ or ‘gorgeous’ are invariably white and thin with perfectly formed (surgically sculpted) facial and body features. And the most ‘sexy’ non-white stars are those who mould themselves into Caucasian standards of beauty. 

Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with body modification of this kind. If a woman makes an informed choice to go shopping for a new nose or pair of boobs, then all power to her, but if we were taught from a young age to appreciate a far greater diversity of bodies as beautiful and sexy it would no doubt be beneficial to more women in terms of self-esteem (not to mention bank balance).

British feminist author Natasha Walter in her recent book Living Dolls and Australian anti-raunch crusader Melinda Tankard Reist complain about the mainstreaming of the sex industry (although if it were really so accepted by the mainstream and normalised, there surely would have been far greater steps in legal protections for actual sex workers but neither of these writers address this issue). Young women who dress and act provocatively are not ‘empowered’ as they claim to be but are instead enslaved by their own sexualisation, Walter and Tankard Reist argue. 

But it’s not women expressing their sexuality that’s the problem – it’s what considered ‘sexy’. Women are enslaved only if they are forced into a strait jacket of regulated femininity. Would we be so obsessed with the so-called pornification of society if the sex industry promoted a diverse range of bodies as beautiful? Or if big-arsed women with unsymmetrical genitalia and hairy armpits were swinging around the poles at gentlemen’s clubs? 

Berating women who dress or act provocatively only serves the conservative agenda of those wanting to control female sexuality. We need to stop taking pot shots at them and instead unpack and challenge the cultural misogyny that deems the majority of the female population in their natural state to be sexually unattractive. 

And while a woman’s worth should never be based solely on her looks or her ‘hotness’, expanding the scope of what’s considered beautiful and sexy would go a long way to achieving women’s liberation. 

Surely Sally and Carrie can agree on that. 

Katrina Fox is editor-in-chief at The Scavenger. This article first appeared on the ABC’s The Drum Unleashed.



0 #3 Lisa 2010-06-20 15:57
Ooh, ooh, I disagree so hard!

I find it absolutely maddening that the response to the sexual objectification of women is so often to petition the (straight) male gaze.

Sexual objectification is pretty much inevitable. We all do it. We all objectify people we're attracted to. What makes it different with women is that we've internalized the male gaze to the point that intelligent, heterosexual women spend inordinate amounts of time and energy discussing and arguing about what attributes are considered sexy. Well, as an intelligent, heterosexual woman, I am here to tell you that I don't have any strong opinions on that; and I'm not especially interested in the topic. I am interested in women as human beings with ideas and principles and abilities that have nothing to do with their bangability. Whether they're 'sexy' or not doesn't enter the equation, and frankly, I think it's trivial, boring, and ultimately undermining of women as human beings. I am not going to expend my time and energy trying to subvert the male gaze. The male gaze isn't important enough to merit that.

The idea of women being judged primarily on their sexual attractiveness is so pervasive, in fact, that if you look at iconography in advertising and even children's cartoons, you'll see that female characters are often little more than personification s of sex. Smurfette, the green M&M, Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck, and the list goes on.

Google "female cartoon characters" and the first hit you get is a list of the Top Ten Hottest Female Cartoon Characters. The Bechdel test for movies backs this up. In far too much of our media, women exist only as romantic foils to the better articulated male characters. And every time we raise our hands and say, "No, THIS is sexy!" we reinforce the notion that men's desire is our ultimate goal.
+1 #2 Damien 2010-06-15 04:31
I don't understand what you are saying. Who is supposed to be creating these 'ideals'??
people need to take responsibility for themselves. I have little sympathy for women who go out in revealing clothes - or men who go out with jeans hanging down, constantly needing to be pulled up and adjusted
-1 #1 Natalie Becquet 2010-06-13 22:57
"Women are enslaved only if they are forced into a strait jacket of regulated femininity"

This is especially harmful for children. I know parents of 7 and 8 year old girls that obsess about their weight. It's frightening.

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