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Visible or Invisible: Growing up Female in a Porn Culture

Excerpt from Chapter Six

Fashion also is taking more aesthetic cues from porn, including the growing popularity of genital piercing and shaving, which was popularized by adult film actors. Article in the Los Angeles Times

At a lecture I was giving in a large West Coast university in the Spring of 2008, the female students talked extensively about how much they preferred to have a completely waxed pubic area as it made them feel “clean,” “hot” and “well groomed.”  As they excitedly insisted that they themselves chose to have a Brazilian wax, one student let slip that her boyfriend had complained when she decided to give up on waxing. Then there was silence. I asked the student to say more about her boyfriend’s preferences and how she felt about his criticism. As she started to speak other students joined in, only now the conversation took a very different turn. The excitement in the room gave way to a subdued discussion on how some boyfriends had even refused to have sex with non-waxed girlfriends as they “looked gross.”  One student told the group how her boyfriend bought her a waxing kit for Valentine’s Day, while yet another sent out an email to his friends joking about his girlfriend’s “hairy beaver.” No, she did not break up with him, she got waxed instead.

Two weeks after the waxing discussion, I was at an East Coast Ivy League school where some female students became increasingly angry. They accused me of denying them free choice in their embrace of our hypersexualized porn culture. As the next generation’s elite women, this idea was especially repugnant because they saw no limits or constraints on them as women. Literally two minutes later, one of the students made a joke about the “trick” that many of them employ as a way to avoid hookup sex. What is this trick? These women purposely don’t shave or wax as they are getting ready to go out that night, so they will feel too embarrassed to participate in hookup sex. As she spoke, I watched as others nodded their heads in agreement. When I asked why they couldn’t just say no to sex, they informed me that once you have a few drinks in you, and are at a party or a bar, it is too hard to say no. I was speechless, not least because they had just been arguing that I had denied them agency in my discussion of porn culture, and yet they saw no contradiction in telling me that they didn’t have the agency to say no to sex. The next day I flew to Utah to give a lecture in a small college, which although not a religious college, had a good percentage of Mormons and Catholics. I told them about the lecture the previous night and asked them if they knew what the trick was. It turns out that trick is everywhere, including Utah.

I tell this story because, on many levels, it neatly captures how the porn culture is affecting young women’s lives. The reality is that women don’t need to look at porn to be profoundly affected by it because images, representations, and messages of porn are now delivered to women via pop culture. Women today are still not major consumers of hard-core porn; they are, however, whether they know or it or not, internalizing porn ideology, an ideology that often masquerades as advice on how to be hot, rebellious, and cool in order to attract and  keep a man. An excellent example is genital waxing, which first became popular in porn (not least because it makes the women look pre-pubescent) and then filtered down into women’s media such as Cosmopolitan, a magazine that regularly features stories and tips on what “grooming” methods women should adopt to attract a man. Sex and the City, that hugely successful show with an almost cult following, also used waxing as a storyline. For instance, in the movie, Miranda is chastised by Samantha for “letting herself go” by having pubic hair.

….The Stepford Wife image that drove previous generations of women crazy with their sparkling floors and perfectly orchestrated meals has all but disappeared, and in its place we now have the Stepford Slut; a hypersexualized, young, thin, toned, hairless, technologically, and in many cases surgically-enhanced, woman with a come-hither look on her face. We all recognize the look: slightly parted glossy lips, head tilted to the side, inviting eyes, and a body contorted to give the (presumed male) viewer maximum gazing rights to her body.   Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver have morphed into Britney, Rhianna, Beyonce, Paris, Lindsay and so on. They represent images of contemporary idealized femininity – in a word, hot – that are held up for women, especially young women, to emulate. Women today are still held captive by images that ultimately tell lies about women. The biggest lie is that conforming to this hypersexualized image will give women real power in the world, since in a porn culture, our power lies, we are told, not in our ability to shape the institutions that determine our life chances, but in having a hot body that men desire and women envy.

In today’s image-based culture, there is no escaping the image and no respite from its power when it is relentless in its visibility. If you think that I am exaggerating, then flip through a magazine at the supermarket checkout, channel surf, take a drive to look at billboards or watch TV ads. Many of these images are of celebrities – women who have fast become the role models of today. As they grace the pages of People, US Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, and Vanity Fair, they seem to effortlessly pull together the hot look as they walk the red carpet, stroll the aisles of the supermarket or hit the nightclubs of New York and Cannes. With their wealth, designer clothes, expensive homes and flashy lifestyles, these women do seem enviable to girls and young women since they appear to embody a type of power that demands attention and visibility.

… People not immersed in pop culture tend to assume that what we see today is just more of the same stuff that previous generations grew up on. After all, every generation has had its hot and sultry stars who led expensive and wild lives compared to the rest of us. But what is different about today is not only the hypersexualization of the image, but also the degree to which such images have overwhelmed and crowded out any alternative images of being female. Today’s tidal wave of soft-core porn images has normalized the porn star look in everyday culture to such a degree that anything less looks dowdy, prim and downright boring. Today a girl or young woman looking for an alternative to the Britney, Paris, Lindsay look will soon come to the grim realization that the only alternative to looking fuckable is to be invisible.