Mainstreaming Sex: the sexualisation of western culture

Great title, isn’t it? It’s not mine, and I won’t lay claim to it. But it is, in fact, a book that I am reviewing for the lovely crew over at Lip Mag. As they say, I have fingers in many pies.

Given that I’m not exactly in a sleepy mood, though I should be (it’s already 5.14 am and I haven’t been to bed yet), I figured that I might write some details about this book thus far. At least that way I will be able to come back to this blog when it comes time to write the review properly. I probably should be worried that I haven’t been writing notes as I go – but at the same time I haven’t wanted to ruin the experience.

I find that reviewing books is a bit different to reviewing music. With music you have a limited time in which to capture the moment, the experience. With a book you can mull it over, re-read parts or sections, and take your time. You can also share it in a different way: by reading it aloud, discussing pertinent points, and generally allowing the analytical experience to wash over yourself, through conversation.

When I saw this title offered out on the Lip Mag Tweets – I follow Lip Mag because I love their work – I just had to have it. There is a two-fold reason for this. The first is that it’s been ages since I read an academic work, and I figured (rightly) that this one would be an academic text. The second is because I am a hard person to please when it comes to gender studies and sexualisation studies, having gone to a very female-preferred university (seriously, in so many classes of 25+ students, 1 was male. Weird stuff), and had feminist theory pretty well shoved down my throat. Reading Mainstreaming Sex would be, I thought, a good challenge for me – and a good challenge for the book, too.

Ok – so the first thing that may strike you when you start to get into this book is that some academics are paid to watch porn. And then analyse it. It sounds weird – but the more you read, the more you begin to realise that maybe it’s not as weird as it sounds. when you really think about it, a great deal of our culture is sexualised. Everything from cars to mobile phones – well, especially mobile phones  – are highly sexualised. You can get porn on your phone; you can record your own porn on your phone; and the interwebs are literally scattered with different types of porn, as we’re constantly told by politicians and the media.

Part One of this book – Pornography and pornographication – contains four chapters, the spread of which (please, minds on the topic at hand!) is fairly broad.

The first, The new pornographies: representation or reality? by Simon Hardy discusses the ‘reality’ sought by pornography. It is an incredibly academic chapter – almost enough to put you off the rest of the book – but if you’re familiar with the academic patois then it shouldn’t really be a problem. Hardy’s chapter takes the argument that pornography has always claimed to ‘reflect the truth of human sexuality’, and examines how new technologies allow a far greater range of representation. From commercial pornography, to gonzo porn, realcore, and amateur porn, the chapter winds up reflecting on cyberporn and the notion that the lines between representation and reality are becoming blurred, as your regular joe gains the greater ability to create his own representation of his own reality. As Hardy writes, ‘When we see contemplate the content of amateur cyberporn what we see is less a case of pornographic representation affecting lived reality as a situation in which this reality is now available to be transformed into pornographic representation’.

The second chapter, Pleasing Intensities: masochism and affective pleasures in porn short fictions, by Clarissa Smith, is really a case study of two very different texts taken from Forum magazine. Her exploration of these texts focuses on masochism, as it is presented in two different ways. Smith’s perspective is interesting because she dismisses the pro-porn and anti-porn arguments entirely; instead, she argues that ‘expressions and descriptions of bodily discomfort, pain or shame are used in the stories to produce an emotional experience of sexual pleasure centred on bodily sensation’. In so doing, Smith uncovers a range of questions not fully addressed (or addressed at all) by the academy. Questions like, how do readers engage with written sexual media? How do readers engage with such narratives ‘and the expression of bodily affect’? It’s a really interesting read; and far more accessible, admittedly, than Hardy’s chapter, which opens the book.

The third chapter, ‘Choke on it, Bitch!’: porn studies, extreme gonzo and the mainstreaming of hardcore, by Stephen Maddison, is a confronting examination of hardcore porn. Well, when I say that, it was confronting for me because I’m not one to indulge in hardcore pornography. Again a highly readable work, Maddison’s chapter puts forth some interesting facts about the hardcore porn industry, and the nature of the feminist and pro-/anti-porn wars. But at the same time, he somehow manages to remain distant from the feminist wars or the porn wars – while yet writing on the topic. Interestingly, he writes about porn in terms of its growing economic power, in a situation (as with the legal case of the United States Vs Extreme Associates) where the state has abdicated responsibility to the market. But that’s not all of what Maddison’s work is about: he also takes a case study of  a hardcore film, Forced Entry, which allows him to discuss several issues, the most pertinent of which is the objectification of women and what hardcore porn truly represents.

The fourth chapter – the last I’ve read so far – is titled From Porn Chic to Porn Fear: the return of the repressed?, and it was written By Brian McNair. This author takes an interesting and engaging stroll through the process of porn becoming ‘chic’ in western culture, especially in the cinema. But it takes this rise of porn becoming ‘chic’ or ‘cool’ hand-in-hand with an analysis of the rise of the conservative right, as well as a resurgence in feminist sexualisation debates. Admirably, McNair manages to steer clear of himself becoming involved in either side of the debate, instead implicitly arguing that the rise in sexualisation isn’t a failure of feminism, but has in fact been driven by feminism.

The thing that has really struck me so far about this work is its contributors’ tendency to compare the sexualisation of western culture with the growing grasp of the culture by commercialisation and capitalism. Where Maddison writes about the pervasivness of the hardcore porn industry and its share of the market – which in turn affects legal outcomes in the USA – McNair writes that the ‘culture market in its profit-hungry blindness has seemed to encourage the inappropriate sexualization of younger and younger girls’.

Although I’ve not read much further, it seems that in Part Two (Sexualization and Mainstream Media) this argument about capitalism and market-share raises its head again – but this time in relation to masturbatory practises.

Actual critique of this work so far: it commenced with a necessary, but very dry, academic work that could potentially put readers off – especially when the others have, so far, been highly readable and engaging texts; the referencing system is not consistent throughout the book – some use footnotes, some use Harvard referencing: it would have been nice to have them all the same. What I appreciate has so far been the light, objective nature of the writers – it’s so refreshing to read something that is musing rather than head-beating; the spread of topics throughout is grand; and the writers have managed to convey a real sense of the key scholars in the field, simply through the ways in which they’ve been threaded together. For example, I feel like I’ve read Linda Williams’s work – but I haven’t: I simply have an appreciation of what her work was about and why it is a key text in the field. That alone is a major achievement for a small work like this.

Stay tuned for further comments about this work as I see fit to blog them. I think that writing this review is going to be a huge challenge, because there is so much to say about this book already. With about six chapters to go, I might have to find a framework in which to write it.


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