21:42 Fri 31 Aug 2007
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I’m reading Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs at the moment. It’s an exploration of what Levy calls “raunch culture”, the pornographization of American mainstream culture. One of her points that I think is worth examining is the distinction between sexiness and sexuality.

Levy claims that “sexiness”, in its modern incarnation, is all about appearances and not really about any deeper appreciation of human (or one’s own) sexuality. This is both obvious, because it’s clear that a great deal of modern American culture is extremely and avowedly superficial, and counterintuitive, because there’s obviously a link between our finding something “sexy” and its relation to our own sexuality.

The connection with consumerism is inescapable. While there are other forces at work, advertising exerts considerable pressure in this sphere. Advertising uses “sex” to sell products, and I put sex in quotation marks there because it’s not selling prostitution services. No, it’s pushing two things: sexual insecurity (you need this product because you’re inadequate) and superficial relief from that inadequacy (once you have this product, you won’t have to worry about it).

In any case, advertising is a mass, common-denominator, medium. Human sexuality is infinitely varied, diverse, and unpredictable. Advertising doesn’t (yet?) have the personalization capability to tailor pieces to the individual. So it works with whatever pointers to “sex” it thinks has the most appeal. Because advertising is such a huge part of our culture, its messages help define that culture, and over time influences us to confuse its pointers with actual sexuality. I refer to “advertising”, but I don’t just mean actual advertisements, because consumerism and commercial culture are all predicated on reaching mass audiences, audiences that are much easier to deal with in terms of generalized pointers than in terms of diversity and individuality.

We end up with a feedback loop where certain forces in the culture take what a lot of people already think is “sexy” and sell it as the sexy, and then more and more of us think of it as “sexy”, even if on some level we’re just associating it with some other things that we as individuals actually find sexy. Lust by association, where we’re bombarded by this representation of sexuality so much and for so long that we begin to confuse the map with the territory.

There’s still plenty of overlap between the two, of course. But the map is far simpler, far more amenable to manipulation, than the territory, and we lose a real connection, internally, with our own sexual territory.

Not completely, not for everyone, and certainly not inexorably. We can still have lots of healthy primate fun with it, and every sexual experience we have will tend to push us back towards that connection. But it would be wrong for me or for you, dear reader, to underestimate the effect of this consumer culture on your intimate life. After all, nobody appears to think that they’re influenced by advertising, yet advertising is clearly massively successful as a way to sell products. In other words, our proven general susceptibility makes our claimed individual immunity deeply suspect. So consumerism, even/especially in this aspect of human life, leads us closer to disassociation, commodification, and alienation.

It’s not hopeless. Even a little bit of consciousness about it goes a long way. Your sexuality is (obviously, I should think, but I state it anyway) yours to define, and no others can legitimately make that claim. Your idea of sexiness is also yours, but it may be a voice that’s harder to hear over the din of the culture’s attempts to define it for you.

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One Response to “Sexiness/Sexuality”

  1. Frank Says:

    You neglect to follow this to its inevitable conclusion… strangely shaped fake boobs. The day is not far off when we will all have them.

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