Female chauvinist pigs
Thongs, implants and the death of real passion
Lap dancers, porn stars, big-lipped, zeppelin-breasted exhibitionists - meet the new role models for young British women. And, says feminist writer Ariel Levy, women are not just accepting this supersexualised culture - they are fuelling it. But are "female chauvinist pigs" really to blame?
Interview by Kira Cochrane
Ambling along Broadway in New York, on my way to meet the writer Ariel Levy, I realise that I have developed an extra sense. A kind of "raunch-vision". I have just finished re-reading Levy's book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture' - an analysis of our culture's fascination with porn stars, silicone breasts and lap dancing - and suddenly, everywhere I look, I can see, well, pure raunchiness.
The mannequins in a Times Square souvenir shop, their mouths agape, remind me, suddenly, of blow-up dolls. All around, there's a profusion of nylon thongs poking above women's waistbands. A huge ad (for some sort of gel pad that cushions your feet) is illustrated with the most enormous, arched, dominatrix shoe I have ever seen, a bunion-brewing torture device. Girls are wearing cut-off tops and T-shirts saying "Porn star" and every other woman I see has breast implants. Raunch is everywhere. She is right.
And rocking up to the patisserie where Levy has suggested we meet, I'm amazed to find the words "strip bar" on the window next door. "We're next to a strip bar!" I yelp as Levy arrives, and she looks at me, confused. "Next door," I repeat, "there's a strip bar!" Her brow furrows and she glances through the window. "Oh, that ... no! You must think I'm obsessed. No, the 'strip' there refers to meat - as in, meat you eat. As in, well, not the kind of meat that people associate with stripping."
I'm here to interview Levy, a staff journalist at New York magazine in her early 30s, because her book has been causing quite a storm since publication last August. It is an investigation into the sudden popularity of phenomena such as pole dancing, vaginal "rejuvenation" surgery, and "pasties" (not the Cornish variety -these are sequined circles that strippers stick over their nipples), and it analyses women's apparent willingness not just to accept this culture, but actively to participate in it: taking up pole dancing as a hobby, for instance, or visiting strip clubs, leering and beering along with the male audience. Levy gives these women a name: "female chauvinist pigs", which she defines as "women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves".
The cause of this cultural shift, she believes - the one overriding influence on our sexual outlook right now, the one thing that is driving all these images of big-lipped, zeppelin-breasted, supersexualised women - is consumerism.
"When you talk to people about raunch culture in terms of a specific company or corporation they just say: 'Oh, well, sex sells.' That's our justification for everything." And Barbie-doll images of women - long legs, fake breasts, blonde hair - are a glossy advertising shorthand that simultaneously appeals to everyone and no one, shifting units in a way that more complex, varied and substantive sexual images never could. "My book is not an attack on the sex industry," says Levy. "It's about how the sex industry has become every industry."
Levy isn't a prude or a scold, arguing for women to be less sexual - in fact, quite the opposite. Her point is that the single form of sexuality on offer to women - "this spring-break variety of thongs-and-implants exhibitionism" - is largely unfulfilling. And that buying into this, either by stripping yourself, or by ogling strippers, is a way of currying male approval and propping up male culture and power. (The obvious problem being that, by doing so, you undermine women, and, implicitly, yourself.)
"When it comes to raunch culture, a lot of people say: 'Well, we're living in a post-feminist age, women have won the [sex] war, and so it's OK for all this to happen. It doesn't actually threaten women's social position.' But when did we win the war? We don't have equal pay for equal work, we don't have equal representation in government ... so when exactly did we win?"
All of this has led Levy to be termed "the future of feminism". On reading her book last autumn, I found it a revelation. I had been amazed in recent months by how quickly a career in porn had gone from being the last refuge of the desperate, the poor, or, in a few rare instances, the genuinely exhibitionist, to suddenly becoming aspirational for large swathes of young British women. Six out of eight of the female contestants on Big Brother last year, for instance, said that they were keen to be glamour models or work in porn - while this year's contestants include Lea, a former porn actor, and Nikki, who entered the house in a Playboy bunny outfit.
Playboy has also become one of the most popular brands among adolescent - and even pre-adolescent - British girls: WH Smith describes the Playboy stationery line as one of the bestselling of all time. Soft-porn model Jordan's two autobiographies (again, bestsellers) have been bought primarily by women. At Cambridge university, female students have reportedly started a pole-dancing club, to practise their technique. And a WI group recently visited Spearmint Rhino, apparently for lap-dancing tips.
Reading the book a second time though, on the plane to New York, it made me much more uneasy. I still found much to admire in Levy's thesis, but that title, Female Chauvinist Pigs, bothered me, as it has many women, since it seems a direct insult to women; specifically blaming us, rather than the culture at large, for this issue.
This was always going to be controversial, but perhaps defensible if all the women Levy targeted with this tag were mature, educated and knowingly manipulative, selling out on purpose and objectifying other women to further their own interests. She refers, for instance, to a number of female television executives who are very open about their reasons for working on shows that objectify women. "One of the perks of this job was that I wouldn't have to prove myself any more," says Jen Heftler, executive producer on The Man Show, a rampant tit-fest that features big-breasted women jumping on trampolines (geddit?). 'I could say, "I worked on The Man Show", and no one would ever say, 'Oh, that prissy little woman' again. Women have always had to find ways to make guys comfortable with where we are." By objectifying other women, then, Heftler knowingly set herself up as an honorary man, grabbing all the attendant advantages.
But in fact Levy applies the label to a huge range of women and behaviour. There is the young, bikini-clad college girl on the beach, who is surrounded by a group of about 40 men and a film crew from the US TV show Girls Gone Wild, taunting, 'Show your tits!', 'Show your ass!' in an increasingly threatening atmosphere, before she finally pulls down her bikini bottoms for the camera. A victim of intimidation, surely, rather than a female chauvinist pig?
Or what about the young high-school girls who play Slut on the Bus, an elimination game where they own up to sexual behaviour and work out which of them is the biggest slut? OK, now this does sound a bit dodgy, but who isn't dodgy in their teen years, when they are testing their sexual boundaries? Is Slut on the Bus so different from the age-old game of Truth or Dare, or the game that we used to play endlessly at school, Shag or Die? Should these young women really be termed "pigs"?
Did Levy realise that her title and theory might be seen as an attack on women - an act of female chauvinist piggery in itself, even? "To be honest," she says, "my big concern wasn't, 'Is this going to offend women?', it was 'What are we going to call this?' And I never thought that female chauvinist pigs was a perfect phrase. What I'm saying is that, if there was a time when it was smiled upon for men to be pigs and to be obsessed with tits and ass - and I think that time is back -then we have now also gone co-ed. I meant it as a cultural concept."
It is a pity she couldn't have come up with the "perfect phrase", because one of the outcomes of her title has been an enthusiastic response from the American conservative right wing, clearly not her natural constituency. You can imagine their glee: a self-confessed feminist criticises women's sexual choices! Excellent!
Does it bother her that conservatives like the book? She shakes her head. "No, it's good, because if a conservative reads it and is accidentally exposed to someone who is advocating gay marriage, sex education and for a more open-minded approach to gender, then that's great. Who do I want to read this book? Conservatives! If I'm just preaching to the converted, then what's the point?"
And, equally, how does she feel about being criticised by young third-wave feminists? In her book, third-wave feminism is represented primarily by the "Cake" sex parties, monthly events in New York and London, "at which women can 'explore female sexuality' and experience 'feminism in action'". Levy attended one of these parties, and found that these noble aims involved women simulating sex on stage for an audience of men, while 50 Cent's lyric, "The hos they wanna fuck", pumped out of the club's speakers. Which led her to ask, why is this the "new feminism" and not what it looks like: the old objectification?'
But for many young feminists - who are, after all, her contemporaries - the wider third-wave project of reclaiming and embracing female sexuality, after generations in which women weren't allowed to admit to any sexual feelings or interest at all, has been a genuinely positive progression. Would Levy prefer that we return to the 1950s? "If you happen to be a person for whom this incredibly specific form of sexual expression [the ultra-consumerist porn-star ideal] is authentic," she says, "then this is your moment, and you should enjoy it. But if you're anyone else, then you may as well be back in the 1950s, because there's no other sexual model on offer to you."
And, as Levy argues convincingly, if your only form of sexual expression is inauthentic to you, is something that you have copied from strippers and porn stars - people who are, after all, paid to depict pleasure - then your chance of finding true intimacy, connection, even love, is grossly diminished. That's perhaps the saddest part of all. Levy quotes that ultimate raunch icon, Paris Hilton: "My boyfriends always tell me I'm not sexual. Sexy, but not sexual." Hilton may flash on the red carpet, may affect sexiness at all times, but her sex video apparently shows her answering her mobile during intercourse and looking fundamentally bored.
"To me," Levy writes, " 'sexy' is based on the inexplicable overlap of character and chemicals that happens between people . . . the odd sense that you have something primal in common with another person whom you may love, or you may barely even like, that can only be expressed through the physical and psychological exchange that is sex." It was that sense of the "primal" that powered the original free-love era in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a sense that sex was too important, too exciting, too liberating to be bound by the strict confines of marriage. In our current sexual era, though, the primal seems to have been replaced by performance, pheromones by perfume, body hair by depilation. Genuine passion sometimes seems to be going the way of the dodo, or, to be more accurate, the hippy.
"The whole argument that women are choosing this path themselves, and that that makes it OK, doesn't particularly make sense to me," says Levy. "I mean," she pauses, "I suppose it is a tiny nugget of progress, but it's like we have taken the cage away from women and none of us is trying to escape, we're just behaving exactly as we think men want us to. In terms of the Cake parties, I just didn't think that they were really about women's sexual pleasure at all. It was like being at your average strip club. And if you're going to try to sell that to me as feminist, then I'm just going to laugh at you."
An only child, Levy was brought up in New York by a father who worked as a writer, her mother was a massage therapist. "I haven't really rebelled," Levy admits. "I just think my parents were right. I never disagreed with anything that I was brought up with, in terms of their values or politics.'
Levy isn't entirely against pornography as a medium, and thinks that so-called "sex radicals" such as Susie Bright have the potential to use it in an alternative way, and "to really explore different sexual possibilities, which is what I'm advocating. At the moment, though, it remains the case that most women who enter the sex industry are poor, and most of them will stay poor. So let's not pretend that it's a fabulous, empowering industry."
Do sex workers count as female chauvinist pigs? If someone has very few options and they decide to strip or become a porn star, should they be criticised for that? "No, of course not. The point isn't: oh, you're a bad person because you're doing what you have to do to make a living. The point is that it is really sad that there aren't more options." She continues: "I don't pity or hate or exalt sex workers, I simply say that for us to use them as a sexual model is nutso, because these are people who are being paid to impersonate sexual pleasure and power. It doesn't make any sense. If you're going to have a role model for sexual pleasure, at least make it someone who is genuinely enjoying it, rather than an actor.'
I wonder if she has seen anything recently - any film, or music video, or TV show - that depicts an alternative, more complex sexuality than the jiggling bottoms normally on offer. After all, if there is no alternative model out there, then doesn't it make sense that women, and especially young women, might choose a stereotypical form of sexuality over and above no sexuality at all?
Levy pauses. "Well, whenever I see a film or read a book where there's more than one choice of sexuality on offer, then I'm impressed ... I was impressed by Brokeback Mountain, actually, and I thought that the straight scenes as well as the gay scenes were really sexy. It didn't make out, like, 'These guys are gay, so their sex lives with their wives mean nothing.' Any time I see something where there are sexual options other than just gyrating, rock-hard implants, then I'm impressed."
Leaving the diner, I ask Levy whether she would like to spearhead a new wave of feminism. "Well, that would be interesting," she says, "and I definitely think that someone should, but I just don't think I'm qualified. I'm a writer, not an activist. My job is to analyse things, to think them through and examine them." Which is something of a pity. Women need voices like Ariel Levy's now more than ever
(Ariel Levy will be speaking at a Guardian debate on raunch culture with Lynne Segal, Sam Roddick, Alok Jha and Zoe Williams, at 7pm on Monday June 26 at the Oliver Thompson lecture theatre, City university, Northampton Square, London, EC1V.)