Raunch Dressing

Reviews | published in Real Change on Dec. 28th, 2005
Subject: Ariel Levy

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture,” By Ariel Levy, Free Press, $25

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve never owned a thong. This fact makes me wonder if I’m a little uptight, given their near-ubiquity in catalogues and shopping malls, but really: butt floss? Not for these cheeks. And while it’s true I’m not a woman, I feel relieved by the actions of women in Britain: thong sales there have, ahem, bottomed out, with 20 percent less being sold from April-June 2005 than in the same period last year. As for the women who still buy them (and in the U.S., thongs are the fastest-growing segment of the almost $700 million knickers, I mean, lingerie industry,) I propose they spend their money instead on Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy. Chances are, once they close the back cover, they may want to cover up a little more of their backsides.

Not that getting women to burn their thongs is Levy’s thesis. Oh, no no no no no. Levy believes that women can wear thongs or push-up bras or even get breast enhancements if they so desire. What troubles her is that more women appear to be adorning or augmenting themselves in the image of porn stars because they’ve been told such acts equal sexual empowerment. But, Levy wonders, aren’t these deeds simply old school sexism trussed up in the Empress’ new clothes?

Who, you may wonder, is telling women certain clothes and acts signal sexual empowerment? Men, to be sure, but, believe it or not, a good number of women too. In one sense, Levy tracks today’s raunch back to the women who surfed the turbulent waters of what’s referred to as feminism’s first wave: Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, et al. By laying out their achievements and failures in Pigs, Levy identifies an overlooked event: the schism between the women’s lib movement and the sexual revolution that arose in the late ’70s. “What we are seeing today,” writes Levy, an editor at New York magazine, “is the residue of that confusion.” And Levy finds that residue sticking to women practically everywhere.

It’s in the front offices of Playboy, where she watches two women primp and preen before rushing off in hopes of securing a photo spread. (FYI: Playboy is now run by Christie Hefner, Hugh’s daughter. Kinda makes you wonder about all those Daddy’s-Little-Girl-inspired spreads, don’t it?) Levy spies the residue at a female-run CAKE party, a hypersexual monthly event in New York City, where women wear buttons that invite: “ASK ME: If I know where my G-Spot is.” The residue practically suffocates a San Francisco lesbian bar where she overhears one patron with what looks to be a strapped-down chest complain to another: “Some of these chicks, it’s like you top them once and then they’re all in your face. It’s like, Did I get you off? Yes. Am I your new best friend? No.” The list of women selling out women is troubling. But not as troubling as what she finds with young girls.

She talks to teen girls who, in hopes boys will notice them, wear cropped, tight-fighting clothes they don’t necessarily like because they know such a look garners looks. She reports on others who fellate boys on school buses, or perform fake fellatio on broom handles for the benefit of a webcam. These orally inclined young girls almost always get caught, almost always get suspended from school, and almost always get their 15 minutes of neighborhood fame.

Levy does a pretty nice job of revealing this lib vs. sex-power schism in all sorts of locales, but at times, the book suffers from a this-is-my-college-dissertation voice. And she shies away from dissecting one crucial component: capitalism. Women believe raunchy sexual behavior is empowering because it’s sold to them. And buying into it means you need to buy the tricks of a remarketed trade.

Even still, Levy holds tight to her core conviction: “If we [that is, women] believed that we were sexy and funny and competent and smart, we would not need to be like strippers or men or like anyone other than our own specific, individual selves.” Amen, sister. Then there might not be a need to pay such a heavy price for that inexpensive thong.

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