Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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No one — not Walter, not me — wants to be thought a prude, so no one is going to actually take on the hypersexualised culture that is supposedly spoiling the life chances of girls today. Certainly not Walters’s publisher — the formerly feminist Virago press — which in effect negates the book’s argument with an ugly and affronting cover design that has a Barbie doll serving as the vulva on a thin naked airbrushed idealised female torso.

Anne Summers reviews Natasha Walter’s book, Living Dolls.

I respectfully disagree. If the response to Walter’s book - both from the media, and from many of those working and writing around this area - is any indication, there is still plenty of space and enthusiasm for talking about raunch culture.

If this space is increasingly dominated by conservative and older voices rather than progressive, younger ones (although to be clear, I do not think that these categories always go together - and particularly not in the case of either Summers or Walter), it is because the pendulum has shifted since Ariel Levy released Female Chauvinist Pigs in 2005.

Levy was the first person in a while to popularise the idea that maybe Maxim spreads, Playboy bunnies, stripper heels and Bar-sexuality weren’t so easily appropriated as “empowering” after all. When Female Chauvinist Pigs first came out, I was thrilled to see someone saying what I’d been thinking, but what it seemed no one had been saying - and a lot of other people were too. 

Levy’s ideas were taken up with enthusiasm (and, I would argue, distorted into something of a moral panic) - and in 2010, public discourse around young women and sexuality is in a very different place. The loudest message women are getting now is that they are too sexual - offensively so - which is why something like “Boobquake" (which seems like a pretty weak political act to me) can be taken up as rebellion.

Jessica Grose at Slate argues that we’re getting downright downright prudish, noting what she calls “the new backlash against casual sex”. 

To be honest, I think both the media and the empirical reality of what people actually think and do are more complicated than either the “raunch” or “new prudishness” frameworks suggest.

Most of the late-teens and twentysomethings I have spoken to for my research are deliberately non-judgmental of other people’s sexual behaviour - and they tend to grow less judgmental as they grow older, which makes sense to me. Casual sex seems to be less taboo when you’re 22 than it is when you’re 18.

Media-wise - well, it’s not exactly a constant deluge of raunch, either. On the most obvious level, there’s the plentiful space given to handwringing over sexualisation, but even the messages in the most sexualised of media are multiple and inconsistent. Read through enough issues of Cosmo, Cleo or Zoo (and believe me, I am at the moment - for a couple of talks I’m giving in coming months), and you’ll see that there’s pretty much something for everyone. Which stories are told the most - and which stories are taken up the most, and why - is still something I’m nutting out. More on that once the chapter is written.

As for Summers’ comment on the cover of Living Dolls negating Walter’s argument - well, it reminds me of a question at the Self, Selves and Sexualities conference in Dublin a month or so back. The woman asking never heard the term “raunch culture” before, and asked what it was. Was it a brand, or used to sell something?

"Well, it’s used to sell articles and books about raunch culture," I replied.

Hilarious, I know. But I think the point stands. Commentary about raunch culture is highly marketable, and it does as much to reinforce what it critiques as it does to argue against it.

Related: Lady Gaga: Gen Y sex icon?
Is ‘raunch culture’ real? Young adults on media and casual sex
Everyone hates a slut, but no one knows what one is

Elsewhere: The tyranny of self-perfection (The Australian)
The new backlash against casual sex (Slate)
Generation scold: why millennials are so judgmental about promiscuity (Slate)
When ‘the sexualisation of girls’ becomes a dangerous term (MamaMia)