Mainstreaming Sex: the sexualisation of western culture. Part two.

Alright, so the first blog on this topic looked at part one of the book that I am reviewing for LipMag. If you didn’t see it earlier, you can access it here. This one covers the chapters in part two, and if you’re coming to this green, these are quite literally notes to help me write the review later. And because I like to share my work, my thoughts and so on, I figured I may as well keep blogging them and allow some discussion on it if anybody wants to take part.

Part two of this book is very different from part one. There are fewer chapters, the chapters are less ‘academic’ in terms of the overall feel of them, and they take a very different look at the notion of sexualisation.

The first chapter of part two is Chapter 5, The Mainstreaming of Masturbation: autoeroticism and consumer capitalism, by Greg Tuck. This was a very engaging look at, firstly, masturbation as a whole – in consumerism (via the notion of self-pleasure generally), and the ways in which the practise has been vilified. One of the best things about this article is the author’s contention that masturbation is ‘profoundly levelling’. The look at historical attitudes towards masturbation are equally compelling, especially in the context of ‘waste’: wasted production and a ‘failure to invest, particularly for men’. The attitudes towards masturbation are also discussed in terms of miniature case studies of mainstream film, in which masturbators are seen as deranged. One of the things that I particularly appreciated about this chapter was the discussion about the oft-promoted benefits of the practise for women, and the still-persistent notion of ‘damage’ that it has for men. Tuck raises the very pertinent question of why – and that the fact that there is still an imbalance in the perception of the practise needs to be addressed. As the author writes, ‘If we are really to encourage or demand a revolution in sexual politics for both genders and sexualities, men who identify themselves as heterosexual are in as much need of liberation from sexual stereotyping and patriarchal functionalism as everyone else. This is not a luxury but a necessity’. Indeed.

Chapter six, Supersexualize Me: Advertising and the ‘midriffs’ by Rosalind Gill started off reasonably well, but gradually degenerated into quite a rant. A highly feminised rant. Which totally put me off. I am not a woman who is tolerant of ignorance, generally, and at one point which I’ll get to in a moment, I could have torn the chapter out and burnt it in disgust. An overreaction, totally, but one that illustrates just how much I disliked it. While Gill makes an interesting journey into cultural studies and representation of women in a culture – as traced through its advertising – she really undid herself. On the home run, on a pertinent discussion of violence and self-esteem, this author blandly writes: ‘…the application of boiling wax to the genital region and then its use to pull out hairs by their roots can be discursively (re)constructed as “pampering” (Sisters, I don’t think so!)’. Watch any blokes reading this book put it down and go out to have a beer by the car. Stereotype? Yes. This type of thing really irritates me. Firstly, waxing doesn’t use ‘boiling wax’ of any kind; secondly, such a proclamation announces far better than the full-caps words I AM AN OLD-SCHOOL FEMINIST that exact statement; and thirdly, it absolutely reeks of somebody who has no idea, or who had a bad experience once. In a text so beautifully balanced and well-edited, I would have thought that the editor may have excised this statement, or at least modified it to resemble a modicum of truth. Of course, being an editor myself, I can also see the flip-side of this: that perhaps the editor did try to emend the passage and faced fierce opposition. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Suffice it to say that with one little paragraph, Gill totally ruined any authority she may have had previous to this. No doubt she would think me ‘anti-woman’ for saying so. Good luck to her.

The third chapter in the second part gets back to the standard set by the rest of the book (Gill excepted, obviously). Titled Whatever Happened to Cathy and Claire?: Sex, advice and the role of the agony aunt, and written by Petra Boynton, who is herself an agony aunt of the sex-advice persuasion, it presents a very detailed (but not boring, lest you equate ‘very detailed’ with that!) look at the nature of the sex columnist, the presence and absence of quality advice and sexual education, and the role of columnists in the media. But it also looks very neatly at the rise of the celebrity sex columnist, and the implications for readers – and those who seek advice – running on from that. Her contention is that while regular sex advice columnists try to present a range of problems and to address them as accurately and supportively as possible, the celebrity columnist is involved for his or her public profile status, responds to letters chosen by the publication (or is merely a name, with columns ghostwritten for them), and isn’t particularly concerned about providing accurate or supportive advice. Perhaps most interestingly, though, is Boynton’s presentation of the differences between male and female readers – and she provides actual examples from real letters to illustrate her point. It’s excellent food for thought. As with any piece of writing that presents the ‘back-end’ of something one doesn’t usually see, this chapter of the book makes you pause and consider. The writer’s style also lends itself to a contemplative read.

So, despite the unfortunate loosening of the book’s standards, thanks to Gill’s chapter, part two is keeping on with those set in part one. I hope that part three, for the book’s sake, keeps the bar high. Gender studies, sexualisation, and cultural studies, are fields that are fraught with hysterically political texts that, despite their desire to approach a topic reasonably, too often deteriorate into a toe-ing of the political line. The balance of this work is what has kept it over and above nearly everything else I’ve ever read in the field (or that I’ve been forced to read in the field). For a reader like myself, this book could potentially turn the tide, and turn readers’ attentions back to what is actually important. There is nothing worse than having an important – nay, essential – debate overrun by pointless rhetoric, displays of outright ignorance, or a simple though vehement reiteration of a political line.

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