Mainstreaming Sex: The sexualization of Western culture. Part Three.

Finally, you are all yelling – she’s finished the book! Indeed I have and it’s some cause for celebration. Here is the final round of comments and notes about my thinking centred on the final chapter in Feona Attwood‘s Mainstreaming Sex; once the review itself has been finalised, I’ll post that up here in its entirety as well (if LipMag don’t mind, that is!).

Part three of Mainstreaming Sex takes yet another spin on the issue of sexualising culture. Titled Striptease Culture, something that all its authors bang on about and never seem to take seriously, must less understand, it looks at young people and their perceptions of sexual media, women and their perceptions and use of erotica and pornography, the popularisation and mainstreaming of pole dancing, and third wave feminism.

Chapter eight, Too Much Too Young?: Youg people, sexual media and learning, by Sara Bragg and David Buckingham is pretty much a research report. The authors took the common concern about children being in some way ‘damaged’ by exposure to sexual media, or that they have their childhoods damaged or taken away from them too early, and sought to find out what children’s perceptions of sexual media actually are. They did this by interviewing kids about the issue, and by getting them to create scrapbooks in their own time to illustrate their reactions to various media. What came out of the study was very interesting: children highlighting that they know far more than they are ever given credit for; but at the same time being (and illustrating) selective in their choices of what they deem to be personally acceptable. Reports were provided of kids who protected younger siblings from what wasn’t appropriate, of kids who stopped buying certain magazines because they didn’t feel they needed to know ‘it’ (some sexual knowledge) yet, and others who consciously restrict their own television viewing for similar reasons. Interestingly, the media was seen to be a better means of gaining sexual education than either teachers or parents.

Bragg and Buckingham pointed out that

Honesty, happiness and personal freedom, rather than following externally imposed moral codes, seemed to be the pre-eminent ethical choices here. Such findings have significant implications for sex education, suggesting thatit is likely to alienate students if they perceive it as overly didactic or aiming to instil ‘correct’ moral codes.

Indeed. The authors go on to explain a new, collaborative, peer-based method of learning about sexual education that they developed, which gained good feedback from participants and teachers alike. I won’t go into details here, but the fact that it’s only recently been pioneered – in Britain at least – does boggle the brain a tad. The authors’ general conclusion was that morality and didacticism doesn’t work for sex ed. Well, you could’ve just looked to America to discover that.

Forgive my flippantness – this chapter was actually an insightfully written research report; and given that it was actually a full paper, it stood out in sudden, back-lit relief. Compared to the foregoing chapters, that were all quite conversational, it was very much a sit-up-and-take-notice-of-me piece. It was also very self-consciously balanced (emphasis here on ‘self-consciously), which is refreshing in an otherwise highly academic work.

Chapter nine, Some Texts Do It Better: Women, sexually explicit texts and the everyday, by Dana Wilson-Kovacs, was essentially another research report. This study involved women of nearly all ages (18 to 65) and interrogated their uses of pornography and erotica, and what these women’s perceived differences were. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pornography carries a dubious pleasure for lots of the women surveyed – they like it, but they don’t, but they do. The study also found that porn tended to sit uneasily with women; they felt like they shouldn’t enjoy it, like there is this weird guilt hanging over them from enjoying it. Erotica, on the one hand, they found exciting and steamy in other ways: they could use their imaginations much more, they could take their time over reading it, they didn’t necessarily have to share it, it was more private.

It was a relatively insightful look into how women perceive the differences. From memory only one woman claimed to dislike pornography – but she also couched her narrative in reactionary discourse that lends her no credibility whatsoever. The remainder didn’t dislike it – but they did think they shouldn’t like it. They became concerned about their own identity and sexual role when they compared themselves to porn imagery, and they were also concerned about the ways in which porn portrays sex as being something that is leapt straight into: another area in which the leisurely consumption of erotica tended to win.

It wasn’t a bad chapter, but was rather overdone in some ways – as being fairly obvious, I mean. To me it seemed obvious as hell anyway. Sure, somebody’s got to make it ‘official’ but – it wasn’t terribly engaging. The most significant problem I had with the chapter was the sample that Wilson-Kovacs used. Fine, it was representative of ages – but that’s about all.

Participants were recruited through local women’s initiatives, antenatal classes and mother-and-toddler groups.

What is not explained is that the majority of the women – well, from the presentation of it here – work in some sort of caring field: they are paediatricians, social workers, midwives, homoeopaths, counsellors, teachers, childcare workers. I hate to ring a stereotype bell, but what about anybody else? These women seem to be very sympathetic to a certain political persuasion of the gender type. I would have liked to have seen greater attention paid to the sampling process. Granted, it was self-selected, but instead of just going down the easy road, better to make it more challenging and get women from all walks of life in order to gain greater clarity. No wonder they were conflicted about pornography! one could yell. Look where they work, and what they’re involved in! I doubt any of them lead alternative lifestyles where acceptance of pornography may have been higher. We’ll never know: if they were, they were not illustrated, and the sample would tend to preclude them anyway.

Chapter ten, Keeping Fit In Six Inch Heels: The mainstreaming of pole dancing, by Samantha Holland and Feona Attwood got back to the conversational tone that I enjoyed throughout the rest of this text. And, instead of merely ‘studying’ the ‘other’, Holland and Attwood signed up for pole exercise and got in on the ground amongst other participants. It was during their time as participants that the study took place: a combination of interviews, observation and participation. The chapter examined the mainstreaming of pole dancing: taking a look at pole dancing in its truly sexual context, and outside of that in a purely exercise or fitness-based context, and brought the two sides together in a musing and reflective manner.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this chapter was that it started out kind of as an examination of the sexy and the sexual, and ended up almost as an – evangelical is the wrong word, but you see where I’m heading – happy emphasis on the grace, fitness, wellbeing, and dancer-like commentary that you’d see in an analyse of dance in any other form.

My only gripe with this chapter was its reiteration of ‘Ann Summers parties’. What in hell are Ann Summers parties?, I kept thinking. Just, really, WTF? Not having been to Britain myself, it took Google and Wikipedia to enlighten me: Ann Summers parties are what we would call in Australia ‘Luvawear parties’; vis, sex-toy parties, pretty much. Ann Summers is the chain of sex shops from which they originated. It’s very disappointing that one of the authors of this chapter was also the editor – and that, given the beyond-Britain distribution of this book, the notion of ‘Ann Summers parties’ was left unexplained. Tsk, tsk.

The final chapter of the book, BUST-ing The Third Wave: Barbies, blowjobs and girlie feminism, by Rebecca Munford, was one that, while being a suitable ending to the book, also was the type of feminism-assessment – that is, looking at the three waves of feminism, right up to what is now current – that would have done well to have been right at the beginning of the work. While the chapter is actually a case study of a zine called BUST, the claims of third-wave feminism – pro-porn, pro-sex, and so on – the zine itself, as presented here, is actually slightly farcical to me. It’s pretty much an ‘if it moves, fuck it’ position, which leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

If, however, the final paragraph, which talks about BUST’s advocacy and political strategies, had come earlier in the piece, then perhaps I wouldn’t have been reading it wondering when somebody was going stand up and go “hang on, do you really want to just emulate an arrogant, sex-starved beast?”. It was a bit overdone. Then again, maybe that’s where BUST’s agenda is: in being so far over the top that it actually does cause waves, so people take some notice of it. Well, in my opinion it’s a tenuous position.

Following the end of the book, there is a ‘film and TV guide’. To what? Well, there’s everything from Dawson’s Creek to Debbie Does Dallas. I assume that it’s a list of all of the TV shows and films mentioned in the book, but some indication as to why it’s there and what it represents would have been nice. I found that with this book there were a lot of fabulous things, and a lot of things done half-arsed, like elements gone unexplained for international audiences, or just lists plonked in like we should know why they’re there.

Previous: Read Part Two of this review, or start over from the top.

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