9 Mar 2007, 12:12pm
myspace sex youth:
by jordan

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the semiotics of sex

is it porn when college students pose naked for campus magazines with literary intentions, or just ironic, erotic photography? has sex-positivism among young people been twisted into another expression of so-called “raunch” feminism, or does gender diversity shift the power dynamics inherent in consuming images of naked sexuality? the times’ magazine last week published a reasonably even-handed piece on the increasing prevalence of campus nude mags, sometimes offered as porn, but often couched in more aspirational terms (Campus Exposure – Alexandra Jacobs – New York Times).

i was in graduate school at the University of Chicago when Vita Excolatur was first published (prompting me to write my own proposal for a more genderqueer magazine called “Cum Laude,” but the demands of my thesis prevented anything from coming to, um, fruition). at the time, i was largely unimpressed by the amateur and somewhat pretentious forays into “polyamory” and “sadomasochism,” neither of which appeared to have been informed by participants in those sexual subcultures (polyamory was imagined as a typical menage-a-trois, and the S&M surely would’ve disappointed Foucault).

still, the article alights on a number of themes which have been recurring in the media on the topics of youth, sex, exhibitionism, and social media. author alexandra jacobs repeats the popular notion that young people today are so saturated with “overt sexual imagery” even among the “educated elite” that “maybe it’s not so strange that students are confronting their own sex lives so graphically and publicly.” our culture, we are reminded, increasingly embraces fetishistic exhibitionism, especially for women, who attract inappropriate sexual attention through suggestive clothing and provocative pictures. jacobs stops short of concluding that young women today are proof that the patriarchy has won, subjecting them to its overarching ideology of female sexual display for masculine consumption.

but neither can jacobs resist the ubiquity of social networking sites in the lives of young people, such as Facebook and MySpace: “to attend college now means to participate in a culture of constant two-dimensional preening” where students can immediately check one another’s online profiles, complete with revealing photos. but what, exactly, is so flat and superficial about online profiles? of course, these websites streamline individual interests into predetermined categories, producing identities which revolve around popular media and digital imagery. at the same time, digital spaces often reproduce the kinds of semiotic indicators we all deploy in the three-dimensional world of flesh to communicate social and cultural positions to each other, such as fashion, bodily comportment, brand labels, and consumer products. social networking sites may intensify these tendencies, but they also provide spaces for youth to engage in creative appropriation of popular media, reconfiguring music, words, and images in a semiotic assemblage of individual subject position.

the world of college porn ultimately emerges as too diverse to summarize or criticize easily in a few words, when some of the magazines challenge gender norms, while the editor of Harvards‘ H-Bomb was quoted as saying “I don’t think men and women are equal at all. I think we’re different, and what’s wrong with that?” clearly, she’s never read Donna Haraway or Anne Fausto-Sterling on the social and cultural conditions under which sciences like biology are produced, including the biological construction of sex. but i remain suspicious of how young women today are frequently depicted as conflicted about sexuality, unhappy with the reality of their erotic encounters, and displacing personal desire onto performed sexuality, expressed in the emerging predilection for “slutty” and “sexy” costumes on Halloween (or just out at clubs and parties). without seeking to dismiss these concerns, it strikes me that there may be deeper currents beneath the surface of co-ed porn rags and risque MySpace profiles which deserve greater critical analysis and attention.

 
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