Sunday, March 11, 2012

Women's Sexuality: Why does the Debate Still Linger?

These last few weeks, I have been in and out in following the news… but the recent controversy about whether or not a faith-based organization should be forced to provide medical coverage for birth control prescriptions grabbed my attention…. Oh, and let’s not forget how politics have really muddied the waters. I soon found myself researching the issue and evaluating the many spins the “issue” has enjoyed.

It’s an interesting time to be a raising a daughter… and my daughter and I found ourselves talking about and wondering: just what is the issue here? Is it really about the alleged conduct of our government attempting to regulate religious freedom? Or is this about men attempting to regulate (yet again) the lives of women, or more specifically, regulating our sexuality? Or what?...

Whatever your opinion is, it would be great to have a discourse on the varying perspectives… so please, do chime in.

And since I am on the subject of women, I thought I’d share with you a piece that I wrote for a writing class that explores the issue of women’s sexuality from another aspect. Enjoy:

Girls Gone Wild or Girls Gone Exploited?

On one of those rare occasions, I had full control of the TV… my son was at his dad’s house, my daughter was in her room, the dogs were in the garage and there I was – alone in my living room with the TV and the remote control. Not finding anything I wanted to watch, I channel surfed and was surprised to discover an episode of “Girls Gone Wild” airing (with full breasts being shown) at , during prime time.

My first thought came as parent, wondering if my 12 year old son had known that I had failed to get this channel blocked. My next thoughts however, came as I actually watched what was unfolding. The series was promoting “The Hottest Girl in America” contest. The series showcased the adventures of the staff and camera crew as they traveled across the country in search of the young lady who would garner enough website votes to earn this title. It struck me as a twisted form of the country’s obsession with audience participation shows, only this time, the audience would be voting for the young lady who had that fantasy combination of being both All-American girl and sex kitten. 

The real tragedy for me lay in the women’s responses when asked why they wanted to be the hottest girl in America. A typical example is: “I’m going to be popular now. I come from a small town in the Midwest that no one knows, and now, I’m going from being no one to being famous.” This was the essence of what they had to say, the common theme being: fame at any cost. For me, the more glaring and sinister theme at play was: Make it a contest and you mask its true intent - sexual exploitation for profit. Who exactly was benefiting from the contest? Certainly not the contestants. I wondered if they really thought that this kind of fame and glory was the stuff you could put on your resume... REALLY?

So, as I observed this parade of young ladies being “interviewed,” I wondered if this is what young women think equates to “equal rights”? Have they confused sexual liberation with sexual exploitation? I retired that night feeling depressed about the state of femininity and feminism and how shows like this perpetuate women as sex objects for men. I reflected on how damaging it was for all women to have such images perpetuated by those unaware that they were being used for pure profit. This caused me to search the Internet and seek the feminist voice and commentary about shows like these.

Interestingly, I was fortunate to find Ariel Levy’s work Female Chauvinist Pigs. Her book stemmed from her observations and interviews while on the set of Girls Gone Wild. Levy found that many of the young women she interviewed saw their participation in the show as behavior that was synonymous with empowerment or liberation. They seemed to describe their behavior as part of a societal norm. Empowerment? Liberation? How could these young women arrive at such a conclusion?

These questions led me to wonder if we, as women, were in fact truly sexually liberated. If that was the case, then why couldn’t we just walk around topless on a hot day as men do? Why is it called indecent exposure if we do it when we feel like it, but “just business” if men produce it? If we are sexually liberated, then why do women still earn the labels of “whore,” “skank,” or other denigrating terms applied to a woman who is promiscuous or sexually deviant? With men, on the other hand, such behavior is frequently interpreted as sexual prowess.

The taint of such behavior also has more longstanding consequences for women than for men. This is shown by several lawsuits filed by women who had previous appearances on Girls Gone Wild. They are now seeking remedies to remove their videos from the public eye. Evidently, we are not allowed to have indiscretions or exercise bad judgment that can later be attributed to being young and foolish (unlike the privilege of our male counterparts). The reality is that we are not truly sexually liberated; the double standard is alive and well. 

So why would young women willingly participate in Girls Gone Wild? Levy attributes this to a cultural phenomenon she calls “raunch culture.” In this context, men and women alike find the slutty stereotypes for women as appealing and acceptable. She notes that, “the idea of a woman participating in a wet T-shirt contest or being comfortable watching explicit pornography has become a symbol of strength” for women. Interesting. I call it a sociological form of identification with the aggressor, where the female identity has integrated these male definitions for sexual attractiveness or sexually appropriate behaviors. I believe we have merely transformed our oppression as men’s sex objects into our identity as women. As such, sexual exploitation fails to be recognized because the behavior has become part of what defines being a woman.

I don’t take issue with women capitalizing on the sex market and making videos themselves to sell, so long as it was their choice and they fully enjoy the profits of their business venture. What I do take issue with is the current compensation scheme, or the lack thereof, that occurs in the sex industry. A vast amount of money is being made off of these women in the form of website hits, video clips, TV shows, and product merchandise. Yet the women portrayed do not enjoy any of the royalties or profit sharing nor are they adequately compensated. In the case of Girls Gone Wild, only the corporation and CEO get to reap the monetary rewards, while the girls… well, they get to keep their T-shirt. Now, that is sexual exploitation.

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