Pornified and Female Chauvinist Pigs

What's Feminist About Girls Gone Wild?
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 20 2005 12:11 PM

Pornified and Female Chauvinist Pigs

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It's great to be doing this book club with you. You raise a lot of interesting questions.

I'm curious what type of study would need to be done for you to say, OK, I have to take this conclusion seriously? For it seems to me that both Levy and Paul's research methods are quite legitimate. And their findings directly contradict the assumptions they began with. That means something to me.

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Levy, an avowed feminist, tried valiantly to see how the Female Chauvinist Pig ideal was liberating, because everyone else was saying it was. She pounded the pavement. She crashed a Girls Gone Wild filming to find out why so many middle-class coeds are taking off their shirts [Ed. note: This section of Female Chauvinist Pigs appeared in different form as a dispatch in Slate]; she ducked into CAKE parties where women's sexual desires are supposedly fulfilled (but where, in fact, girls end up bickering and performing for male approval). Levy tried to "get with the program, but I could never make the argument add up in my head." Of course she couldn't.

Levy interviews women who've tried to be super-casual about sex for years, only to discover that "accumulating sex for its own sake … is not that sexual," as one puts it. I found Levy's research really interesting and not at all alarmist, though I'll concede that what she reports—like "Cardio Striptease" classes for birthday girls and their pals—is genuinely alarming. True, there have always been men who objectified women, but society also encouraged them to grow up at some point. But today, even grown women are taking their cues from the most immature males. Under pressure to compete at being "hot," young girls are making objects of themselves. Don't you find this a teensy bit depressing? I certainly do. Levy asks, essentially, isn't there a way for women to be sexual without having to be publicly sexual?

Paul began with the assumption that pornography was not a big deal, but after interviewing 100 men and women from a range of backgrounds, talking to dozens of sex therapists and psychotherapists, studying piles of sex studies and advice columns, she realized she had underestimated porn's influence. What changed her mind?

Elementary-school boys are getting porn from libraries. Thirteen- and 14-year-old girls are being pressured to get more "hardcore" in their sexual encounters lest they be called "prudes." A Baltimore 24-year-old is hurt that her boyfriend's so "open about his interest in porn," but she can't share her feelings because "a guy doesn't think you're cool if you complain about it." Husbands are ignoring their children to watch porn for hours on end. Thrice-divorced Luis, a porn enthusiast since age 10, doesn't get why women need foreplay: "It usually takes longer in real life … I get pretty impatient." Tyler, a 21-year-old, is frustrated that his 16-year-old girlfriend, Betty, has a "problem" with taking a razor to her private parts. As porn consumers become increasingly desensitized to viewing sex online, Paul shows how their tastes turn to the odd, the young, and the violent.

But is Paul really arguing that porn is the sole cause of societal woes? Take the 28-year-old ex-porn fan who admits that "real sex has now lost some of its magic. And that's sad." I read Paul as saying that the availability and intensity of Internet porn is what's new, and that because porn desensitizes us, we'd better wake up and pay attention. Is she implying that without porn, these men would be perfect partners? I thought she was saying something far more reasonable: that if men weren't learning about sex from pornography at age 8, or 10, or 13, then at least they'd have more of a chance to forge real intimacy with women.

At any rate, I found Paul's stories quite shocking. We're talking about men who can only be sexually satisfied by pornography, and in increasingly gruesome forms—young men who can no longer perform with their "boring" girlfriends. I think these stories complicate your assumption that people who wait until marriage are the ones who "hate sex."

It's like some big cosmic joke: The people who are supposed to be "sex positive" and enjoying their cultural freedoms are actually lonely and having terrible sex, whereas studies have shown that religious marrieds are the ones enjoying themselves the most. What's happened? Perhaps without emotions involved, sex becomes boring.

You're right that pornography is not the whole picture. To me the real question is: What else is going on in the culture that makes women so positively intimidated by porn? Why do they feel they don't have the right to object to their boyfriend's or husband's use of it, even if it's totally destroying their intimate life? Laura, if a man gapes at a woman's body parts so that he can "replicate the porn experience," if a man says he'll hand out "points" for certain acts that a woman finds "demeaning" and "empty"—both Paul anecdotes—why in the world don't these women just say no?

Here is where Female Chauvinist Pigs fits in. Levy uncovers the steady pressure on women to be "cool chicks" and do any number of things that, deep down, make them uncomfortable. She points out, rightly in my view, that competing with men about how piggish we can be is getting us nowhere, fast. Girls today have so much anxiety about appearing "hot" and servicing boys correctly, it never even occurs to them that they should actually experience—or wait for—their own desire. Is this not a problem?

Inquisitively yours,

Wendy

Wendy Shalit is the author of A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, and the founder of ModestyZone.net. 

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