13 Feb 2009, 1:18pm
feminism media & technology
by jordan

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women and video games

my friend and fellow grad student Morgan Romine was featured on Fast Company earlier this month, blogging on “Why Women Should Play Video Games.” Here’s an exerpt:

I realize that gaming is still a decidedly male-dominated pastime and industry, and I understand that mainstream culture is still deeply influenced by the notion that games are only for the stereotypical antisocial, tech-nerdy, teenage male. But I’ve been advocating games for years now, and playing them for longer, so I’m impatient for the change in popular perception that I’m sure is waiting right around the corner.

13 May 2007, 1:24pm
sex youth
by jordan

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here’s a little refreshing back-talk from a recent college grad, giving some badly needed lip to all the recent moralizing over young women’s increasingly public sex lives:

Sex-Crazed Co-Eds! – Nerve.com Screening Room

the author, Annsley Chapman, isn’t exactly flawless in her logic (young women today are just unashamed of casual sex, and are too busy pursuing the opportunities furnished to them by feminists of yore to focus on establishing more longterm, committed relationships), but it’s nice to hear a little dissent from actual college-aged women, over and against the tiresome clamor of older feminist and non-feminists alike (Ariel Levy and Caitlin Flanagan come to mind, and Chapman points to a number of others equally poorly poised to speak for young women).

Chapman’s gloss of the current fruits of feminism remains a little thin, though — i’m not remotely convinced that today’s college women are graduating into a world of boundless gender equality and consequence-free casual sex (rates of HPV and HSV are still pretty high last time i looked, a reminder to be attentive to safer sex, not give up on sexual freedom altogether). and she explicitly emphasizes the lives of white, middle-class, straight girls, typically minimizing the visibility of women whose experiences and social positions often place them outside mainstream public debate.

but Chapman is right to call attention to both the tone of recent critics, and their tenuous claims to speak with authority about the lives of young women today. girls and not boys are still being held disproportionately accountable for changing attitudes towards sex, which only reinforces the reality of unequal gender relations that persist in our culture.

19 Mar 2007, 12:37pm
sex youth
by jordan

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hard to swallow: overblown fears of teen oral sex

there was a piece in the Atlantic Monthly a few months back that was a thoughtful but ultimately disappointing musing on the alleged oral sex craze among teenagers today (Are You There God? It’s Me, Monica).

Caitlin Flanagan (about whom I have many reservations, thanks to reading Salon’s Broadsheet too frequently) succeeds in resisting the tempting moral outrage over the news that young people are having oral sex, in particular, girls casually performing fellatio on their male acquaintances. but despite Flanagan’s willingness to probe the topic of youthful hummers with some measure of sensitivity and introspection (including some meandering through Judy Blume and other young adult novels), she contributes to the distorted media contention that teens today are having disproportionate amounts of oral sex, in which young women have renegged on their own sexual desire in favor of performing a media-inspired, pornified sexuality for their peers.

in particular, Flanagan doesn’t appear to have looked closely at the very study which supposedly bolsters the controversy over teen oral sex, writing “[a] huge report was issued by the National Center for Health Statistics. It covered the topic of teenage oral sex more extensively than any previous study, and the news was devastating: A quarter of girls aged fifteen had engaged in it, and more than half aged seventeen.” interestingly, what the study actually reports (the pdf from the CDC can be found here) is that a third of all boys 15-17 have had vaginal intercourse, while slightly less (28%) have given oral sex and slightly more (40%) have received it, and of young men 18-19, two-thirds had had vaginal sex, 52% had performed oral sex on a woman, and 66% had received oral sex — that is, the same percentage of men 18-19 had engaged in vaginal sex as had received oral sex. among teenage girls and young women, over one-third of 15-17 year olds had had vaginal sex (39%), 30% had given oral sex, and 38% had received it — again, fewer had actually performed oral sex on a male partner than had engaged in vaginal sex, and the same percentage had received oral sex as had had intercourse. for older girls, the study repeats the findings, that as girls get older, most of those who are having vaginal sex are also engaging in oral activities. the study further explains that in each age group, about 10-14% of young men and boys who had had oral sex had not had intercourse, and about 9-11% of young women aged 15-19 had engaged in oral sex only. as the percentage of young men 15-24 increases who have had intercourse, the percent who have only tried oral sex declines to 3%.

these data, shockingly, suggest that sexually active teens who are engaging in vaginal intercourse are also likely to experiment with oral sex (giving and receiving), and that only a small proportion have had oral sex but not intercourse. over time, the majority of sexually active young people will be having intercourse as well as oral sex. and while slightly more men report receiving oral sex than giving it, of the young women surveyed, more actually reported receiving it than giving it (how this adds up remains to be seen).

so what gives? why is the media continuing to promote the myth that girl-on-boy oral sex is rampant amongst youth (in place of good old-fashioned intercourse), when the data indicate that young people begin experimenting with oral sex, but ultimately resort to the heteronormative standby? this report seems consistent with my own recollection of sexual exploration among my peers at that age — perhaps attitudes toward oral sex have changed in the past 30 years, so that it’s now considered an intermediate step between heavy making out and intercourse, but that doesn’t remotely support the premise that scads of young women are suddenly going down on their male peers without reservation.

unfortunately, not only does Flanagan accept the media reports in place of reading the statistics for herself, she ultimately reduces female sexuality to women’s delicate, emotional nature: “I am old-fashioned enough to believe that men and boys are not as likely to be wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience, or by sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment, as are women and girls.” boys, of course, have unlimited sexual appetites whose bases are unquestionably biological and unemotional, whereas women are fragile flowers who need to be loved and cared for to protect them from the dangers of sexual pleasure. not only is this line of thinking offensive and demeaning to women, but it perpetuates the equally damaging idea that men don’t bring emotional needs to sexual relationships.

finally, she comes to the sparkling conclusion that “…the forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy–which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence.” yes, that’s right, the systematic domination of women in Western society actually represents a safety net that protects the delicacy of youthful femininity from the ravages of early sexuality, and has nothing to do with controlling and exploiting female reproductive capacity. i think the prevalance of rape and domestic violence in Western societies offers an excellent testament to the protective role of the Patriarchy (TM). if anyone is going to challenge the media’s portrayal of youthful sexual behavior, or investigate how sexual norms are changing and what implicatons that might entail, clearly it’s not going to be Ms. Flanagan. parents, the media, and other public voices too often retain this prurient tone in which their fears over female sexual desire overshadow the ways in which teens are actually exploring and experimenting with their sexuality in a decade of abstinence-only education and abundant internet porn. perhaps instead of frothing over “rainbow parties” and other urban legends, we should be thinking through what kinds of positive messages about sexuality we actually want to be transmitting to young people.

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.

26 Feb 2007, 2:52pm
by jordan

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QUANTOproject: prostitution for sale

this website showcases a really interesting selection of graphical images that address issues of sexual exploitation and trafficking around the world, apparently submitted for a contest juried by QUANTOproject, an Italian organization trying to increase awareness of the topic.

many of the images are stark and powerful, but at the same time, they reveal particular cultural perspectives on prostitution. many of the images portray women and women’s bodies, often alluding to pigs, meat, and money. i’m continually fascinated by how debates on prostitution tend to center around the women who sell sex for a living — where are the customers, mainly men, who fuel this trade? if demand is understood to create supply in a market economy, why don’t we crack down more on the men responsible for supporting the sex trade? where are the damning images of men objectifying and exploiting women and children?

as a related issue, i think a large part of the problem around sex work is precisely this constructed view that women sell their bodies, rather than selling sexual services. doctors, massage therapists, and other healthcare workers sell their skills to help people physically, but we never construe their actions in terms of making their bodies available wholesale. what is it about sexual services that connote temporary physical ownership of another? i’m find sexual slavery and forced prostitution abhorrent, but also i think we need to radically revisit our understanding of sex work in the first place, and how that view implicates particular cultural notions of women, bodies, gender, and sexuality.

(thanks to jwz for pointing out some of the images)

21 Feb 2007, 1:20pm
consumption feminism pop culture:
by jordan

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leering after girlhood

Goodbye to Girlhood – As Pop Culture Targets Ever Younger Girls, Psychologists Worry About a Premature Focus on Sex and Appearance

(go here if you don’t have a login)

vinyl and fishnet may be acceptable for the spooky set, but the Post reported this week that, according to researchers from the American Psychological Association, increasing sexualization of young girls contributes to harmful outcomes such as eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. this kind of alarmist article inevitably incites pricks of trepidation as i read through it. i share the researchers’ concern for the impact of marketing and consumerism on young people (both male and female, of a range of ages) — at best, marketing exploits insecurities about body image, attractiveness, and social self-worth to motivate consumption of products that purport to ameliorate our perceived flaws. consumption practices, moreover, tie into broader schemas of social status, in which accelerated consumption promises to keep us ahead of the latest trend curves to maintain our social position, when fundamentally, the economic system benefits the small minority who hold power in our society.

yet despite my deep reservations about this cycle of marketing and consumption, i remain equally concerned about the kind of moral hyperventilating over girls emulating adult sexuality. the APA researchers appear to be dovetailing Ariel Levy’s superficial line of reasoning around “raunch feminism,” the notion that pop culture has co-opted feminist values of sex-positivism and female empowerment, regurgitating them into a raunchy obsession with stripper fashion and porn imagery — pole-dancing classes and waxed nethers, chintzy thongs and salacious baby tees. ever since bobby socks came into fashion, if not earlier, adolescent girls have been clashing with their elders over the sexual propriety of their sartorial choices — often in collusion with marketers who benefit from selling the image of maturity to young people.

but in examining this issue of girls and “sexualization,” we need to look more closely at the ways in which our society tends to project fears about social and sexual reproduction onto young people — especially young women. while the researchers acknowledged that boys can be targeted as well, social fears about sexual precocity inevitably revolve around girls, whose bodies are far more likely to become objects for control and obsession. in a culture that continually defines women’s worth in terms of their appearance and attractiveness, why are we surprised when younger and younger girls are targeted and affected by these messages? and how ironic is it that we sexualize young girls as part of marketing schemes, and at the same time, attempt to punish and control sex offenders more and more harshly. are we really so repulsed by the sexualization of children, or are we continually lured by it?

of course, the liberal media and blogosphere (like Salon’s otherwise excellent Broadsheet) just lap up this kind of study with little thought or criticism for the underlying assumptions or methodology.

APA report:


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