Monday, June 22, 2009

Chapter 7 - Raunch Culture Rip-Off

I was flicking through the Sydney Morning Herald online recently when I saw a tab on the side to the “world’s sexiest women”, as voted by men, and found myself there. Next I was flicking through photos of Kelly Brook, the winner, “out of curiosity”, for as long as it took to realise that I didn’t look anything like her, so I closed it down in dismay. I asked myself why I’d bothered or cared. That is perhaps one of the more important questions, with what I thought was a somewhat surprising answer, when it comes to raunch culture: why are women behaving like this? In one way or another it seems to be related to power and to men —both the power that women believe their sexuality gives them over men, and the power that wanting to be attractive to men has over women.

Tracing the history of third-wave feminism it follows on from a striving after freedom, and as Carolyn writes, “sex-positive” or “porn-positive” feminism hinges on the idea that sexual freedom is essential to women’s freedom. (I have to say that once again I thought Sanger (pg 171) was waxing lyrical with rather fanciful ideas — and it is now quite obvious that sexual liberation hasn’t overcome the evils of society or lead to earthly paradise.) I actually struggled to make the link between this quest for sexual freedom and third-wave feminists claiming participants in pornography and sex work can be “empowered”. It seems a little incongruous that for all the struggle to be rid of any kind of enslavement to a man’s world, sex-positive feminists all seem to be (self-confessed — see pg 169) riding on this notion of the power that it gives them, a power which only exists in relation to men. Perhaps this is seen as the ultimate triumph?

The section I actually thought particularly interesting in this chapter was that of ‘Real Women Are Bad Porn’, this being the effect on women of men using porn, especially the idea quoted from Naomi Wolf that “The ubiquity of sexual images does not free eros but dilutes it. Today, real naked women are just bad porn … Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.”

That’s true (and relates back to the power that wanting to be attractive has over women) and incredibly sad. As is young women dressing immodestly because they actually believe that that is what is attractive to men (or to men worth attracting!). As Carolyn suggests, they know nothing of the beauty of modesty and restraint or of the power, or increased value, of a thing withheld. (There is a fascinating post by Ben Myers here that speaks, as an illustration, of the boredom of having everything revealed in pornography.)

While I appreciated the conclusion of this chapter that God’s design for sex is best and of celebrating the honour and respect, security and emotional freedom of marital sex, I did have some hesitancies about that being the primary response to sex-positive feminism and porn, in the same way that I hesitate over the prevailing means of motivating teenagers towards sexual purity being the future expectation of marriage. The reason for that is perhaps partly obvious in the fact that I am single — and so I feel like this rationale is in some ways redundant to me (and a good many of my friends) and of limited usefulness. As Carolyn writes of the 15-year-old girl who'd been around the block (pg 177), without the expectation of marriage she had no particular reason to refrain from sexual encounters. But therein actually lies the danger and the problem of hinging things on this future expectation of marriage, and I think we need to be careful of setting up that scenario — inside and outside the church. That’s because as Christians we actually need to refrain from sexual encounters with and without the future expectation of marriage. Otherwise the long-term single woman, who may never know what it is to be “cherished and prized” by a guy who’s “smitten by his wife’s sex appeal”, can reach a point of thinking, well, I am unlikely to get married now (and so have this intimate, most satisfying, free married sex), so who really cares what I do anymore.

So, while I absolutely agree that God’s design for sex is best, and it is a good gift of God to be celebrated within the guidelines of its use, and that Christians shouldn’t be all about prohibitions, I think we also need to be teaching what sex is actually for and stressing that sexual sin is sin against God first and foremost (not against a future marriage partner etc — David sinned terribly against Bathsheba and Uriah, but he knew what his sexual sin ultimately was and said, to God, “against you and you only have I sinned”) — so then it’s God who cares what I do and who gives a particular reason to refrain. Outside of relationship sex has no purpose — it’s not an end in itself, and exists in order to serve relational intimacy, so, if we don’t have a spouse, we have no need of sex. As Lydia Brownback writes in Fine China is for Single Women Too: “God intends for sex to be fulfilling only within the context of marriage. Sex has no validity or worth as an end in itself. Sex is purely a physical expression of a spiritual reality. If we don’t have a husband, therefore, we have no need of sex”. Hard as it can be to believe, sex is not actually a primary need (like food, oxygen and water) and neither is it necessary to make you fully human (very interesting, theologically dense, thoughts on this here and here). I’d like to hear something added to the idea that being a Christian doesn’t mean you miss out on fun sex, or that Christianity has something to say about sex, because married sex is the best (given that the reality for a large number of Christian women in this country is that being a Christian is the reason they are not married, and so they do have to live with the prohibitions) along the lines of telling people what sex is for and therefore why a life of chastity isn’t any kind of missing out — which, together with the former, is, to my mind, the message that young women today need to hear.

(One thing I was a little disappointed about in this book was that all of the stories given at the end of each chapter were of women in relationship and mostly with children — which could seem to suggest that the happy ending, or resolution/redemption of each of the issues, or ultimate expression of radical womanhood came through marriage and motherhood. It left me wondering what some of these ideas actually looked like for single women. Thankfully Carolyn has written another book for single wome, if that is you too, which we have already read through here, if you weren’t reading along then.)


Pete said...

Wow. What a challenging post to read but very well written. I have let it sit with me for a while before making these comments. Firstly I really liked your view point regarding the expectation of marriage and the danger it can create. I totally agree. This should not be the prime reason for not entering the sexual realm though this is what seems to be taught. Are Christians creating an idealism of marriage? That this will solve everything? What happens when the idealism bubble bursts and you are 38 and a single guy or girl and that proposal has never come? Will you feel ripped off and lied to by those that said wait for marriage? Will you do something you regret in this emotion of disillushionment?

Making yourself attractive to the opposite sex is good thing and part of the whole romance game but it all comes down to your personal motives. Healthy or unhealthy? Unlike animals who just have sex as a programmed repsonse and do not actually choose a partner, humans can actually choose and can define what is attractive to us and what is not. This is a really beautiful thing that God has given us that we have the ability to find things beautiful wether a painting or the opposite sex. And yes I know there are some animals that try to 'win' over a mate. It was a generalisation.

From a guy point of view, the revolution of women becoming pro-sex or powerful in this area is a turn off despite what the media may say. Women may be doing this because they think it is what we want (thanks to Hollywood) but it is not at all. I believe the reason women are going down this pro-sex/porn path and seeking this power all comes down to the way they see and value themselves. Due to the media, society, men, parents, school and upbringing they can have a distorted view of their worth both in their eyes and in God's. The wrong messages have been given out by society for the past few decades and now the manifestations are appearing. This power they seek is because of the lack of value and worth they feel. Men are the same. The reason they indulge in sex etc. is becuase it is a manifestation of a much bigger underlying issue. A lack of self worth and value and a form of escapism. People feel powerless because power has been taken away somehow and sex is a great way to feel power and get power back both for men and women.

Sadly too, women see themselves as competition in our attention seeking society. This I cannot comment on as I am a bloke but I have observed many a group situation (Christian as well) where there are lots of single women and a few single guys and it is interesting to see what happens amongst the women. Some shed a layer of clothing, others try and dominate the conversation but it is a power struggle.

I know some will say that a relationship with God is all that matters and all you need and he can fulfill you etc. They are kinda right but kina wrong.He can provide the self worth and value that will stop some of our manifestations and behavior but we are human with human needs and desires. I think there is great power in what Paul says about learning to be content in all situations.

Ali said...

Thanks Pete!! I will leave your questions in the first paragraph as hypothetical. I thought it was a good point in the second that we can choose and define what is attractive to us, and hopefully that is sanctified as we are (so that we can appropriately appreciate beauty etc).

I think I agree with your last paragraph, I think, for the most part. God was never meant to fulfil all our human needs (eg Jesus is my husband - you simply do need a human husband for some things), but unfulfilled desires do take us beyond that to our deepest needs, which Jesus does fulfil.

onlinesoph said...

Interesting post, Ali. I agree that pointing out that the hope of marriage may not be the best motivator for sexual purity.

To add to your point about raunch culture offering women power over men, I’ve noticed lately that it is now ‘in vogue’ for women to exert their sexuality towards other women (think Katy Perry’s song ‘I kissed a girl’ and the antics of celebrities such as Linsay Lohan). Lesbianism is no longer being seen as an alternative lifestyle, but a perfectly mainstream, even fashionable way of expressing your sexuality. Have we moved beyond exerting sexual power over men to just exerting sexual power, full stop?

I also have a question: what are your thoughts (or the book’s thoughts) on the concept of sexuality? You mention that outside of marriage, sex has no purpose. While this is true, what place does a single woman’s sexuality have, particularly as many women today are aware of their sexuality long before they are able to express it in marriage?

There are different lines you could draw. Muslims, for example, maintain that any evidence of a woman’s sexuality is to be shrouded in a hijab or the more extreme burkha to prevent others from seeing her as a sexual being (I once interviewed Muslim women at uni for a story and it was interesting to see how the women wore the hijab because they didn’t want their sex to distract people from their intellect, particularly in tutorials). Then there is the other perverted extreme – young girls who are encouraged to dress in an overtly sexual way long before they even understand what sex is.

What about the Christian? Is being beautiful to the opposite sex the same as being sexually appealing? And if so, should we exercise caution in our looks, in a Christianised version of wearing a hijab? I am loathe to play the “let’s categorise our clothing” game (below the knee – yes, knee high boots – no, V neck tops – yes, halter necks – no), but I am interested to hear other people’s thoughts on whether a woman’s sexuality and a woman’s physical appearance can be separated.

I don’t know the answer, but it’s a comfort to know that although the world measures our worth as women according to our sexuality, God doesn’t. How precious to know our identity is in Christ, not in our sexuality!

Ali said...

Thanks Soph,
Those are good thoughts and good questions! I have to whizz off to bible study straight after work tonight, so I could be a while responding, but I will be back.

Ali said...

OK, dinner wasn’t on tonight before bible study, so here are my preliminary thoughts:

Starting with what you say about lesbianism, that is interesting, because this is one point at which I did get somewhat confused about the link between freedom and power, and which of the two is being expressed – is it the freedom to have sex with whomever you choose, or an expression of power? (I don’t know, by the way, so that is a real question.) There is a sentence in the book that says this: “According to one definition, sex-positive feminists reject the vilification of male sexuality that they attribute to many radical feminists of the second-wave, and instead “embrace the entire range of human sexuality,” including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered sexuality.” So is it part of shedding any sort of “need” for men at all (which would entail some sort of power perhaps) or just aiming for total sexual freedom? Some of these women do seem to want to say “I am sexy, and I want you all to know it”, which is some kind of power statement. I’d be interested in more of your thoughts on that one?

As for the concept of sexuality: for starters I find that it is actually hard to define what sexuality is. There are three things which it would seem to include so I will break it down for now:

1/ sexual character or possession of the traits of sex (as in gender)
2/ a preparedness for engaging in sexual activity
3/ emphasis on sexual matters (or recognition of them)
4/ involvement in sexual activity

I think number 1 is fundamental to who we are and how God made us (Gen 1:27). So single women can, should and do express their femaleness (perhaps this is what people are getting at in “femininity”). On occasion I have heard people say “you’re still fully a women even though you’re single” and I think “well, that’s nice”, but there is something in that. It’s when we get to numbers 2 and 3 that we need to be more careful. There’s a sense in which you have number 2 and are “prepared/ready” for sex by virtue of being a person over the age of consent. But how much should you express that, generally? There are probably elements or the seeds of it in all encounters that head in a romantic direction, in any kind of expression of “interest” etc, but I thing single women do need to refrain from portraying a general “I am ready to engage in sexual acts” vibe. This is where something is going wrong, I think, with young women dressing in a way that says “I am ready for sex” or “I want you to want me for sex” when neither of those things is probably true. It seems to me that sometimes that’s because they’re young and naïve and don’t understand what sort of attention they are seeking, and sometimes because they’re selfish (ie, wanting to arouse that sort of desire in someone else when you have no intention of/can’t follow through with it is just mean and selfish I think). I think women need to ask themselves: am I wanting to express the fact that I am the sex of female, or the fact that I am ready/willing to engage in the act of sex? And obviously single women just avoid number 4 altogether.

Ali said...

My comment was too long, so here is the rest of it:

As for beauty and sex appeal – I do think beauty in and of itself stands alone from sex appeal, but in terms of beauty in people of the opposite sex I wonder too (and the two are perhaps less separate for men?). I think a woman can show her beauty without necessarily displaying no 2 above, but whether there is sex appeal just in the beauty I don’t know?

Something that relates back to what I said above, which I actually brought up in this post here on the pursuit of beauty and single women is what does wanting to be beautiful (or wanting to have sex appeal) mean or look like for a single woman? The thing is, I totally understand that women should want to be beautiful and sexy to their husbands, but one of the issues in being single is that you still have a general audience, not a specific one. What I mean is, I don’t think you should walk around necessarily wanting to be beautiful (or sexually attractive) to any and every guy, but the problem is, you don’t know which one of those every guys is a possible husband.

Anyway, back to what you asked, I think a woman’s sexuality, going by the definitions above (and I have had a quick look in dictionaries), can be separated from her physical appearance, because I think “sex appeal” is different from “sexuality” perhaps.

And finally, I think going back to Genesis, a large part of our identity is actually tied to what sex (as in gender) we are, but yes, thank God he doesn’t measure us by any sort of appeal whatsoever!

Gotta run, but hopefully that makes some kind of sense.

Pete said...

Well I cannot comment on both your posts as I am man but I would like to share that it is also a two way street and men have a role to play. Every woman has the right to feel beautiful and embrace her femininity no matter what her shape, features or appearance. Though accountability must also be used in dress sense etc. Women do not understand the power of testosterone and what can set it off. Women need to make sure they are not making someone stumble but men also need to take their thoughts captive. Appreciating and acknowledging beauty is different to lusting over it. If I see a pretty girl it is a matter of saying 'she has been blessed with attractive features' and then move on. Don't dwell and don't spend 15 mintues thinking about it. Take your thought captive. Denying the beauty exists is the wrong way about it. Acknowledge it honestly and then get past it. Women should read the John Eldridge books written for guys that deal with this.

On another note, when I was in Dubai for sometime where the Arabic women wore a hijab, I found myself suddenly not drawn to short skirts and clevage and that my mind felt a lot freer and I felt more at peace. I spent more time looking at eyes and wanting to know what was behind those eyes in terms of their thoughts, opinions etc. It was a a weird thing, I rediscovered the beauty of people's eyes. Then when I got off the plane in Australia, I was bombarded with flesh in the newsagaency, billboards of clevage and waitress' dressed like they were serving something else and the distractions all returned.

Sexuality is part of who we are and how we are made but God has given us accountability and framework to protect and express our sexuality. Both sexes have roles to play in this. Showing flesh and being provocative is not the only way to express sexuality. In fact it is unhealthy and both men and women get hurt with this technique. A womens sexuality and her ability to make herself attractive to the opposite sex lies in so many more attributes. What makes women attractive to men is the great mystery of life. Women cry out 'where are the real men" Us men are crying out "where is the proverbs 31 woman'. Now that's an attractive and sensual women.

Ali said...

Thanks Pete:

Showing flesh and being provocative is not the only way to express sexuality.

Yes, I actually think showing flesh and being provocative is only showing "sex appeal" (ie wanting people to think you are desirable for sex), which is probably part of No 2 above, but certainly not the sum total of sexuality - and I think deliberately choosing to display "sex appeal" to the general public is inappropriate.