'Raunch culture isn't about opening our minds to the possibilities of sexuality. It's about reiterating one particular shorthand for sexiness'
In her book Ariel Levy decries the rise of "raunch culture", which sees pornography and stripping passed off as a form of women's liberation. Levy spoke to Judith Orr about her work and the debates it has sparked.
From "Bus Pass Boob Jobs", the title of a recent Channel 4 programme about women over 60 getting breast implants, to the packed pole dancing classes at Cambridge university - society seems to be embracing an image of women's sexuality that in the past would have been identified with the world of pornography.
Ariel Levy, a journalist based in New York, writes that she first noticed the trend when "people I knew (female people) liked going to strip clubs (female strippers). It was sexy and fun, they explained - it was liberating and rebellious." In the introduction to her extremely readable book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, she explains, "I tried to get with the programme, but I could never make the argument add up in my head.
"How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavoured to banish good for women? Why is labouring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering? And how is imitating a stripper or a porn star - a woman whose job is to imitate arousal in the first place - going to render us sexually liberated?"
The book has hit a nerve. On the internet feminist blogs are buzzing and Levy has been talking at packed events to audiences of women keen to discuss the issues she has raised. In the US she has sparked debate about a culture that shows naked women at every opportunity, but which denies young people comprehensive sex education.
Levy's research for her book takes her to the surreal frontline of raunch culture. She follows the camera crew of the US video series Girls Gone Wild, in which women are persuaded - with frightening ease - to expose their breasts for the camera in exchange for a cowboy hat. She visits Playboy Enterprises, a company now run largely by women, including Christie Hefner, daughter of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.
Levy also talks to older women who were identified with the women's liberation movement. She hangs out with lesbians in San Francisco who aspire to remove their breasts completely so they can complete their transformation into "bois" (pronounced "boys"). But the most powerful and disturbing discussions are with young college students who talk about their experiences of sex and self-image.
I caught up with Levy during her visit to London to promote the new paperback edition of her book, which the publisher has rushed out to meet demand. Levy told me that many of the criticisms made of her book are informed by a wider attitude that sees "money as the only measure of something's worth".
"You can see in the US how single-mindedly and unapologetically focused we are on the bottom line, in every aspect of our existence - from culture to policies, from our failure to get behind the Kyoto Protocol [to limit global warming], to our failure to prioritise healthcare in any meaningful way," she said. "We are the richest country in world but we have 14-hour queues for hospital emergency rooms because people can't get insurance and can't get healthcare.
"You see this attitude everywhere, so why wouldn't you see it in sexuality and the role of women? Every time I go on the radio I'm asked, 'Aren't women making a living doing this? Isn't there a lot of money to be made out of this?' I say, 'So what? It's not the last word.' It's like that's the end of the story - 'Well, people are making a buck so it must be good.' I don't agree."
In the past, some feminists responded to sexist imagery by attempting to ban it. Levy's book explores some of the debates on pornography that took place in the women's movement of the 1970s. Some of those who saw porn as an example of the worst excesses of women's oppression were prepared to go to any lengths to see it censored - even if that meant standing alongside the religious right who opposed all sexual openness. This strategy also meant relying on the state, no friend of the women's movement, to enforce censorship.
Levy's book looks at a famous case from the early 1980s. Two radical feminists in the US, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, sought to pass laws that would treat porn as a violation of women's civil rights. Controversially they lined up with some rabid reactionaries in the campaign, which ultimately lost. Levy told me that, in her view, censorship is no solution.
"I don't see the point," she said. "When Dworkin and MacKinnon proposed it, they said they weren't going to outlaw pornography. They were just saying that it was a civil rights violation. It was never going to be a criminal offence. I know all that. However, that attempt arguably was the last straw that divided the women's movement."
She added that even at a talk during her visit in Britain "people were still jumping down the throats of anyone who had anything to say on the subject because they think we want to ban it. But surely we can have an intelligent discussion without imagining we are going to censor porn. It's never going to happen, and I don't think that it should.
"Also I don't think it's impossible for someone to come up with porn that is good for women. I haven't seen anyone do it, but I don't believe the form is so fundamentally evil or immoral that it should be banned."
But there is a difference between opposing censorship and celebrating the porn industry. "The way porn is made, consumed and distributed is, aesthetically and values-wise, damaging," said Levy. "It is not damaging in the sense of corrupting women, but in not treating women as real human beings, as real sexual human beings. No one is asking what women want, what women find erotic - it's not 'cum shots'."
For Levy this is one of the fundamental problems with raunch culture. "I think it's as much a problem of limiting women's sexuality as it is any kind of problem with the objectification of women," she said. It is this problem that Levy writes about so well in her book. She is concerned about the way raunch culture limits women's view of themselves and their sexuality to a narrow, clichéd caricature: "Raunch culture isn't about opening our minds to the possibilities and mysteries of sexuality. It's about endlessly reiterating one particular - and particularly commercial - shorthand for sexiness."
Levy sees herself as part of a generation of women who benefited from the gains made by the struggles of the 1960s. However, despite these steps forward, she contests the claim that women are now equal. Furthermore, the sexual freedoms the women's movement won have been swallowed up by capitalism, commodified and sold back to young women as boob jobs and push-up bras:
"People are very vulnerable to misconceptions about sexuality and misconceptions about what it means to be a woman. They think that part of the job description of being female is exhibitionism of one very particular kind. They don't know anything else - they've not been taught anything else.
"This makes a certain amount of sense if you are in a society which is really rigid about sexuality and trying to keep everything under control. So what's safe? Formulas. Pornography for the most part is very formulaic. There are no surprises. The women are going to have giant fake breasts and waxed vaginas, you're going to see the 'money shot', the 'three way', and this and that.
"And specifically in terms of the way we think of women I think it challenges nothing to say let's have any women who is sexy resemble a sex worker, who of course is impersonating real lust. It's real lust and real eroticism that we can't handle. So long as it's just a performance it's fine."
In this cultural climate young people are woefully unprepared for their first sexual experiences, both emotionally and practically. Levy reports that in the US, "as of 2005, federal funding was denied to all public school sex education programmes except those advocating abstinence until marriage. We expect [young people] to dismiss their instinctive desires and curiosities even as we bombard them with images that imply that lust is the most important appetite and hotness the most impressive virtue.
"We have a major crisis in terms of the way we educate young people about sexuality. There's an enormous amount of money pumped into abstinence-only education, which just teaches kids, 'Just say no to sex.' It's the same approach we took to drugs - which didn't work - and this isn't working either.
"This has been studied, evidenced by the fact that the US has rates of teen pregnancy and teens' sexually transmitted diseases on a par with nations that have nowhere near the level of resources and privileges that we do."
Britain mirrors many of the trends from the US that Levy describes. Young people recently petitioned Downing Street to challenge the lack of sex education. Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in western Europe.
Levy points to the rise of plastic surgery as another symptom of society's increasingly crude image of the ideal women. In Britain the number of women getting breast implants rose by 51 percent from 2004 to 2005. No longer solely the preserve of celebrities and Big Brother contestants, cosmetic surgery is now widely socially acceptable - and big business. The Mail on Sunday recently published a guide to the procedures on offer, describing cosmetic surgery as "a very personal journey". A recent column in the Independent by agony aunt Virginia Ironside was headlined "I've Had a Facelift and So Should You". Ironside claimed that wanting to look young was a positive aspect of being part of a generation of women with greater expectations than in the past.
I asked Levy what was driving the trends that she analyses. "This isn't particularly driven by men," she said. "I don't think it is universally beneficial to men. What do men want? Which men? They are all different. What a man wants is probably a partner who is passionate and fully engaged. This is not going to happen if you have focused all your attention on impersonating a formula for sexuality rather than thinking about what turns you on."
She added that the expectations foisted on women by society are increasingly internalised. "James Baldwin is my favourite author on these topics of identity and he wrote that 'identity is the cage which traps you first from without and then from within'," said Levy. "I think that is what happened with women. It doesn't need to be a man saying you have to do this for me - it has been internalised."
Levy agreed when I suggested that men too are shaped by society, particularly through the family, which implants our gender roles from a very early age. However, "there is still more freedom for a man to say 'I like this', 'I want that' and still to be seen as a man," she said. "For instance think about gay culture. Gay men have become a force in culture in a way that lesbians have not. Everybody thinks they know what it is to be a gay man. Everyone thinks they don't know what it is to be a lesbian. That is gender inequality."
The debate that Levy has sparked in the US is now spreading across the Atlantic. On the evening before we met, she spoke at a packed forum hosted by the Guardian and entitled A New Sexual Manifesto. The panel included feminist academic Lynne Segal, Sam Roddick, daughter of Body Shop founder Anita Roddick and purveyor of luxury sex toys, and Guardian columnist Zoe Williams. There was lively argument, not least when Segal took issue with Levy's analysis and said she didn't see the problem with raunch culture. She argued that young people have always acted in ways that older generations disapprove of.
Levy, who was clearly taken aback by Segal's views, told me, "I was thinking, you must not watch television. If you knew what was going on you would at least allow me to explore it and not say that I'm somehow putting a straitjacket on women by saying this is happening - it is happening."
In a comment that revealed much about the state of feminist politics in Britain, Segal went on to complain about Levy's and the audience's attacks on the market. Segal claimed that we have much to thank the market for, for instance that it has made it easier for people to come out as gay and make different choices. This caused Levy to grab the mike and say, "I think that was the gay liberation movement." She won a resounding cheer from the audience.
Commenting on the exchange, Levy told me, "In the US there is a gay TV channel called Logo. It is terrific that you can flick to that network and see shows about gay people. The fact that there is an industry in place made that possible. But having a growing acceptance of diversity, to the extent we do, is not a natural by-product of the market. It is because people worked and slaved to declare their humanity.
"If we're talking about what capitalism has done, let's look at global warming. A woman's right to empower herself to drive a SUV [sport utility vehicle] because it makes her feel protected in Los Angeles trumps the right of somebody not to live under water in an underprivileged country. Not everything that makes you feel good is necessarily the best thing. I think there should be some other measures of success that are beyond the economic - like human decency for instance!"
Female Chauvinist Pigs is published by Pocket Books and is available from Bookmarks bookshop for £7.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to Bookmarks' website to order copies.