Sex, power, and the real problem with ‘raunch’
- Published: 13 November 2010
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The basis upon which we should judge raunch culture, is whether it really opens-up sexual choices for women, or whether it is more expressive of a particular narrow version of both women’s and men’s sexuality that in reality closes these choices down, writes Anastasia Powell.
14 November 2010
It has been called the ‘Age of Raunch’, ‘Generation Sex’, the age of the S.L.U.T (Sexually Liberated Urban Teen); so-called ‘raunch culture’ is a recurring theme of recent media and public debate.
Raunch culture, or the sexualisation of culture, is of course one part of a whole range of social changes that we’ve seen post the 1970s ‘sexual revolution’, and certainly many of those changes have been positive.
They’ve been associated with greater access to information about sexual health for example, and a somewhat greater acceptance of diverse sexualities. We can certainly talk more openly about sexual issues now than perhaps we could several decades ago.
Indeed, many claim raunch culture is itself representative of women’s newfound sexual freedom; evidence that the equality feminism fought for has been achieved.
In our current culture, everything about raunch – we’re told – is empowering for women. Stripping is empowering for women; pornography is empowering; exposing one’s naked body in public à la Lady Gaga is empowering; female elite athletes’ posing nude for FHM and Sports Illustrated magazine is, again, empowering. All of these examples, we’re told, show women that they can be comfortable in their bodies and with their sexuality.
Engaging in raunch is taken to prove that you are liberated. After all, isn’t enjoying this new sexual freedom what women’s equality has been all about?
There is however another interpretation of raunch culture as a kind of ‘faux empowerment’ or ‘the new sexism’, and the emphasis on so-called liberation, on ‘free choice’, is part of its allure.
It is a part of the ‘politics of choice’, and it works like this: if it is overwhelmingly women who are working in the sex and pornography industries, that’s okay, we say, because it reflects their choice. If it’s overwhelmingly women who are earning less than men, that’s okay because it was their choice to prioritise family over work or that next promotion.
Don’t get me wrong: individually women are, and should be, able to make such choices without being judged by others whose business it isn’t. However, this ‘politics of choice’ also functions to make the overall patterns in these individual choices beyond scrutiny. This is not of course unique to gendered inequalities but it does have a unique impact on women and their experiences of sex, power and consent.
One of the concerning aspects of raunch culture, however, is that it is only representing for young women and young men one version of sexuality – a sexuality, which let’s face it, is somewhat modelled on the sex and pornography industries, in which women are paid to fake their sexual interest.
Now if young people’s own experience doesn’t match-up with what the culture is telling them about sexuality, then it can make it very difficult for them to negotiate their sexual encounters based on what they want to do, and not just on what the culture is telling them at the moment.
It is also highly problematic that despite being apparently ‘empowered’ and ‘sexually liberated’, young women’s experiences of various forms of sexual violence are so common.
The Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey, found that a third of women have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, with one in 10 young women aged 18 to 24 having experienced sexual violence in the last 12 months. This is consistent with figures internationally.
In my own research with young people, young women in particular are still saying that they don’t feel able to say ‘no’ to sex that they don’t want – they feel often pressured to meet a male partner’s requests.
And while there are of course many young men who are very focused on and concerned that their partner really wants to be sexual with them – there are also a lot of young men who just don’t realise or don’t take seriously that consent is something that can never be assumed – it has to be negotiated, and it has to be actively given.
Young women are also experiencing newly emerging forms of sexual violence. For example, sexual assault support lines are receiving an increasing number of calls from women who are distressed because someone sent on their private sext-message to others.
What is concerning is that an online survey commissioned by the American National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found 51% of teenage girls who have sent a sext message did so due to pressure from a boy.
Of course there are also pressures on young men to participate in raunch culture. For example, there are cases of young men being bullied at school for not having sexual images of girlfriends on their phones to share with peers.
This reflects the pressures young men too experience to express their sexuality, once again, in a very narrow way.
There are also growing concerns that increased consumption, at an earlier age, of pornographic material, and in particular, pornography that depicts degrading or violent treatment of women, is having a negative impact on the ways that both young men and young women experience their sexual encounters.
Many young women I have spoken to in my research on sexual violence are also finding it increasingly difficult to speak-out about these issues.
Young women have shared with me their experiences of sexual harassment and violence from fellow students in an education setting. Posters featuring pornographic images with female students faces superimposed; Facebook groups that ‘ranked’ the attractiveness and ‘do-ability’ of women students; and specific incidents of sexual assault – where the young women said many of their fellow students who knew about these incidents, thought that nothing inappropriate had occurred.
These experiences made these young women feel uncomfortable and unsafe, but they didn’t feel they had the right to express this discomfort; that to do so was to somehow infringe on the freedoms of others.
These young women’s experience mirrors those of so many others I have spoken to throughout my research who feel uncomfortable with sexual pressure and violence, both in their everyday lives as well as in our surrounding culture, and yet feel that they cannot speak out about it.
The real impact then of raunch culture should not be judged according to whether this version of sexuality is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for individual young women to express (as has often been the case in recent debates).
All women should be free to express their sexuality in whatever ways they (and whoever they choose to partner with) find desirable and pleasurable. And that, I think, is the point here.
The basis upon which we should judge raunch culture, is whether it really opens-up sexual choices for women, or whether it is more expressive of a particular narrow version of both women’s and men’s sexuality that in reality closes these choices down.
Raunch culture is ultimately a repackaging of old gender stereotypes within a new rhetoric of ‘choice’ that has managed to resist substantive critique at the same time as it obscures the gendered power imbalances that continue to exist.
If, as others have argued, so much about raunch culture is modelled on the sex and pornography industries in which women are paid to fake sexual pleasure, then how is this one version of sexuality liberating for all women?
Dr Anastasia Powell is a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. Her book Sex Power and Consent: Youth Culture and the Unwritten Rules (published by Cambridge University Press) discusses young people’s negotiations of consent, as well as the critical issue of how we can prevent sexual violence. For more information on Anastasia, visit her website.