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Tracking the Issue: Raunch Culture Summary

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Our group (Tamar, Adam, Julia) decided to investigate raunch culture as a subset of sex wars.

First, we needed to find out what raunch culture is. Ariel Levy (since she essentially coined the term) gives us an explanation. Raunch culture is the idea that being sexy should be public, and being sexy means some very specific things. The current societal standard for 'sexiness' means participating in wet t-shirt contests, learning how to pole dance for fun, wearing revealing clothing, etc. Things that some feminists critiqued as degrading are now being embraced as the ultimate realization of female sexuality. It's a recent phenomenon - even 30 years ago, the societal reaction to hearing that someone took a pole dancing class would be very different than it is now.

Before learning anything about raunch culture, we were all interested in the idea, but knew very little about it. Researching and learning more about raunch culture has brought up a lot of interesting issues for us, and made us curious about the idea of what our society prescribes as "sexy" and how this affects peoples actions.

There's a fair amount of academic research that has gone into the 'raunch culture' phenomenon, on both sides of the issue. Some people think that it is sexually liberating for women, and a method of escape for puritanical ideals for sexuality - others think that it forces a conformation to one particular type of sexual identity.

Here are the main controversies in the issue:

1. Is acting "raunchy" a way to reclaim female sexuality from the male gaze, or is it playing into a male desire for public, degrading sexual practices? (lap dancing, wet t shirt contests, etc)
2. Can it ever be empowering for women to participate in raunch culture?
3. Does raunch culture narrow the sexual options available to women, or broaden them?
4. Is it "feminist" to ever critique a certain sexuality/way of being sexual? If feminists do critique certain types of sexuality, does that mean that feminists are making a new "charmed circle"?
5. Does the exchange of money make a situation empowering or degrading?
6. To what extent is the rise of raunch culture (in many ways, a product that can be marketed) due to capitalist profit motives?

All in all, the rise of raunch culture is a relatively new phenomenon. We think it's important for people to be curious and critically think about the ways that raunch culture relates to feminism and women's well being, but we think prescribing a certain "solution" is a bad idea. What is empowering and satisfying to one person is different than what is empowering and satisfying to another person, and we think people should strive to find out what REALLY makes them happy, and follow that, regardless of whether or not it has been approved by society.

Raunch Culture

Raunch culture is largely considered to be incredibly seedy, and a phenomenon that is confined specifically to overtly sexual realms as in strip clubs or pornography. However, as an avid blog reader, specifically fashion blogs, I can see numerous parallels between raunch culture to some of the most acclaimed fashion bloggers on the internet. For example, Rumi Neely is the creator of the blog Fashion Toast. rumi.jpg Her posts are primarily pictures of outfits with a spattering of text, and this style is incredibly effective. Immediately, the reader is presented with photo upon photo of this beautiful female in sky-high heels and dangerously short skirts/dresses/shirts/etc. She herself refers to her own style as mostly "trashy crap". Her daring habits have gotten her features in Nylon Magazine, CNN, Teen Vogue, Vogue Paris, and numerous other internationally recognized publications.
Another example is a fashion blog called TwistedLamb. Instead of a personal blog, TwistedLamb features different photographs of fashion. While it is not as obvious as Fashion Toast, a general theme of sexuality pervades throughout the posts. Many of the models are wearing little, if any clothing. However, there is more of an ambiguity to the sexuality. Raunch culture plays upon more heavily entrenched norms of beauty where women are more voluptuous in certain parts of their body and thin in other parts. ambiguity.jpgTwistedLamb displays photos, which play with these norms and generally display a more innate type of sexuality instead of the overt sexuality that fishnets and stilettos convey. Many times, the gender of the model is entirely ambiguous, yet the photographs portray raw emotions of sexuality. ambiguity 2.jpgIn addition, we see that in many other photos oh TwistedLamb, that take raunch culture and twist it in a way which almost negates sexuality in terms of body parts normally considered sexual like breasts, and displays them in such a manner that pushes the reader to focus more on the clothing that the models are wearing. Visible body parts only serve to enhance their beauty.
Thus, these internet bloggers are taking the blatant sexuality that the term raunch culture connotes and using it as a backdrop for the things they are really blogging about - clothes.

Raunch Culture - Local

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Ariel Levy describes the impacts of raunch culture in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, and we see its effects not just in Hollywood and in the media, but on a very local level in addition.

The University of Minnesota claims home to hundreds of clubs and organizations, advocating interests from aircraft construction to skydiving. However, there is one which exemplifies the idea of raunch culture: Kinky U. It's purpose? Its supposed benefit for the community and the University itself states that "Kinky U educates people on the culture of kink, as well as technique and safety. This group helps those new to the community as well as caters to interesting discussions to those who are well-informed in kink." The organization sponsors field trip to places around the Twin Cities area with sex-oriented themes, explores sexual "kinky" acts and members demonstrate proper safety techniques upon participating in such acts.

The club has received much negative response from the community who claim that their use of school money is a waste of resources. Bryan, a member of the club responds by saying that "We're talking about it and being explicit about what practices there are and how to be safe [...] It's removing the stigma. It's allowing people to accept themselves. It's being realistic about what is actually going on."

Tracking the Issue: Raunch Culture Academic Source


I researched the article "Empowerment and the Pole: A Discursive Investigation of the Reinvention of Pole Dancing as a Recreational Activity. It was authored by Kally Whitehead and Tim Kurz, and it can be accessed by going to, finding the Sage Journal Subscription package, and then searching for this article in "Feminism and Psychology."

Pole dancing came into being in the 1970s. It was considered another tool for erotic dancing. The pole was used as a prop to perform tricks and spins, and its use was strongly associated with strip clubs. Recently, the pole has been repurposed. Pole dancing is an aerobically strenuous activity, and women (and men!) have begun signing up for pole dancing classes as a form of fun, sexually liberated exercise. However, this form of exercise has not lost its sexual background. Australian advertisements for pole dancing classes include phrases like "Strength and femininity", "power and beauty" or "Sex appeal comes from within". Whitehead describes the activity as similar to an aerobics class. The selection of classes ranges from "flexibility" to "fat-burning". There are a number of poles in the room, each women selects one, and then follows the movements of the instructer, who has her own pole at the front of the room. Some women wear exercise clothing, while others choose to wear high heels and clothing which is more stripper-esque.

Whitehead and Kurz believe that pole dancing as an exercise activity represents an ideological dilemma. On one hand, who are we to judge the healthy (literally) choices women make? Using sexuality for health certainly seems empowering, and since these aerobics classes are not monitored by men, it seems difficult to make the argument that pole dancing for recreation is consumption of women by men. On the other hand, the sexualization of exercise and the rise of "porn-chic", where the trendiest new enterprises are also the most risque, may represent a movement towards the hypersexualization of women. When stripping and pole dancing is the only type of sex-positive imagery we can conjure, what does that say to the thousands of women who live subtler, more demure sexualities?

Whitehead and Kurz did a rhetorical analysis of the way that customers and teachers talked about pole dancing. They found that broadly, people thought it was empowering because the focus was on fun and fitness, and less on sexuality or "attracting" men to come into a club. One woman pointed out that because she was the one paying to take the class, she had the power. Dancing was an active choice she was making. She believed that when strippers were payed to dance, it made dancing a forced choice for them, because they had to do it for their livelihood.

Another group indicated that they thought pole dancing for someone you loved would be different that dancing for a stranger. They indicated that dancing for a stranger requires no emotional connection - the stranger merely sees a body. Dancing for a significant other means that they already know the person behind the body, and see the act as an example of confidence or playfulness.

Whitehead and Kurz were concerned by some of the statements that women said. Particularly, they thought the dichotomy between dancing for a boyfriend and dancing for a stranger was troubling. What if men said, "It's ok for me to objectify her, because I love her?" Using love as a justification may allow all sorts of degrading and objectionable activities.

"Raunch Culture": An Academic Source

Rachel Hills is currently amidst the process of research for her Ph.D. at the University of New South Wales, Australia. On March 19, 2010, she gave a short speech at Dublin City University, Ireland, unveiling the premise of her research; the transcript of which can be found at the end of this blog post.

Her research is centered on Ariel Levy's conceptualization of "raunch culture." Specifically, Hills addresses the idea of whether or not "raunch culture" is real: "My own interest in and concern about raunch culture comes from a slightly different place -- I do not think it is real. Or rather, I don't think it adequately represents the way young people 'do sex', or their intellectual or emotional motivations for doing what they do."

Essentially, Hills accuses "raunch culture" of doing the selfsame thing that Levy intended to critique with her construction of the "Female Chauvinist Pig"--namely, the framework of "raunch culture" has become the single framework for understanding sex and sexuality in our contemporary society, thereby disallowing for alternative conceptualizations just as "raunch culture" supposedly disallows for alternative sexualities.

In other words, Levy claims that "raunch culture" has created a "constrained environment" in which certain people feel out of place because they might not live up to the sexual standards that "raunch culture" presupposes. However, Hills claims that by the very construction of "raunch culture," one precludes the possibility of alternative ways of thinking about sexuality, thereby creating a constrained environment in and of itself.

Thus, for Hills, "raunch culture" is real inasmuch as people subscribe to the framework of such a culture. What is disquieting for Hills, however, is the idea that many, many people do not fit the "raunch culture" paradigm. Indeed, throughout her research, she has interviewed forty Australian people of Generation Y, the generation that is purportedly the most relevant to the ideas of "raunch culture." Of these forty people, hardly any fit the (sexual) stereotypes that one would expect if "raunch culture" were as prolific as Levy claims. Hills plans to continue interviews with people of Generation Y in both the United States and the United Kingdom, but she has not yet had this opportunity.

Indeed, she concludes by saying:

It is my hope that through speaking with more young adults, first in Australia and later in the United States and United Kingdom, my research will begin to develop an alternative, less prescriptive discursive framework through which young people can make sense of their sexual experiences. I hope to create an accessible framework that accurately and empathically reflects the complexity of young people's sexuality, whilst providing a critical toolkit for the demographic to make sense of their existing beliefs and assumptions.

Sex Wars and "Raunch Culture": A Historical Background

Within the Sex Wars paradigm of feminism, the subtopic that our group is tracking is what Ariel Levy terms "raunch culture," and this is what her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, is based upon. In order to contextualize this idea of raunch culture presented by Levy, a brief history of the Sex Wars is in order.femchauv.jpeg

The Sex Wars originated in the late 70s and early 80s largely as a dispute over feminism and its relation to pornography, sexuality, and erotica. As we have learned in class, the Sex Wars era of feminism was constituted by two diametrically opposed feminist viewpoints--namely, radical feminism and sex-radical feminism.

According to Ann Ferguson, a feminist who has documented the Sex Wars, radical feminism is encapsulated by four viewpoints:

  1. Heterosexual sexual relations generally are characterized by an ideology of sexual objectification (men as subjects/masters; women as objects/slaves) that supports male sexual violence against women.
  2. Feminists should repudiate any sexual practice that supports or normalizes male sexual violence.
  3. As feminists we should reclaim control over female sexuality by developing a concern with our own sexual priorities, which differ from men's--that is, more concern with intimacy and less with performance.
  4. The ideal sexual relationship is between full consenting, equal partners who are emotionally involved and do not participate in polarized roles. (Tong 66)

Whereas sex-radical feminism is constituted by four differing (and opposing viewpoints):

  1. Heterosexual as well as other sexual practices are by repression. The norms of patriarchal bourgeois sexuality repress the sexual desires and pleasures of everyone by stigmatizing sexual minorities, thereby keeping the majority "pure" and under control.
  2. Feminists should repudiate any theoretical analyses, legal restrictions, or moral judgments that stigmatize sexual minorities and thus restrict the freedom of all.
  3. As feminists we should reclaim control over female sexuality by demanding the right to practice whatever gives us pleasure and satisfaction.
  4. The ideal sexual relationship is between fully consenting, equal partners who negotiate to maximize one another's sexual pleasure and satisfaction by any means they choose. (Tong 66)

The viewpoints of the radical feminists, as we learned in class, are generally associated with second-wave feminism, whereas sex-radical feminism connotes third-wave feminism. However, as we learned from the excerpt from Astrid Henry's Not My Mother's Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-wave Feminism, these associations are not necessarily accurate; however, these generalizations are still part of the feminist discourse and the Sex Wars paradigm.

Nonetheless, perhaps one of the best examples of these dissenting factions within feminism culminated in the Barnard College sexuality conference of 1982:

A coalition of radical-libertarian feminists [or sex-radical feminists], including lesbian practitioners of sadomasochism and butch-femme relationships, bisexuals workers in the sex industry (prostitutes, porn models, exotic dancers), and heterosexual women eager to defend the pleasures of sex between consenting men and women, accused radical-cultural feminists [or radical feminists] of prudery. To this charge, radical-cultural feminists responded they were not prudes. On the contrary, they were truly free women who could tell the difference between "erotica," where the term denotes sexually explicit depictions and descriptions of women being integrated, constituted, or focused during loving or at least life-affirming sexual encounters, and "thanatica," where the term denotes sexually explicit depictions and descriptions of women being disintegrated, dismembered, or disoriented during hate-filled or even death-driven sexual encounters. (Tong 70)

Thus, it was in the context of this contentious issue within the feminist movement that we see the rise of "raunch culture," as described by Levy. While Levy never specifically defines raunch culture, in the introduction to her book, she documents a sequence of occurrences descriptive of the rise of raunch culture:

I would turn on the television and find strippers in pasties explaining best how to lap dance a man to orgasm. [. . .] Britney Spears was becoming increasingly popular and increasingly unclothed, and her undulating body ultimately became so familiar to me I felt like we used to go out. (Levy 1)

However, perhaps the most definitive manifestation of raunch culture--or any culture for that matter--was its general acceptance by the general public. Indeed:

This didn't end when I switched off the radio or the television or closed the magazines. I'd walk down the street and see teens and young women--and the occasional wild fifty-year-old--wearing jeans cut so low they exposed what came to be known as butt cleavage paired with miniature tops that showed off breast implants and pierced navels alike. Sometimes, in case the overall message of the outfit was too subtle, the shirts would be emblazoned with the Playboy bunny or say PORN STAR across the chest. (Levy 2)

The book documents the emergence of this culture as well as the ways in which it has thrived. Ultimately, however, this book is a critique of the culture that has emerged. Levy denounces the roles that certain women have come to hold in society insofar as they serve to subjugate certain other women. Indeed, she doesn't claim that the ways in which sexuality manifests itself in the world of sex, porn, and erotica is inherently bad, but rather the idea that while:

there are some women who feel their most sexual with their vaginas waxed, their labia trimmed, their breasts enlarged, and their garments flossy and scant. [. . .] there are many other women (and, yes, men) who feel constrained in this environment, who would be happier and feel hotter--more empowered, more sexually liberated, and all the rest of it--if they explored other avenues of expression and entertainment. (Levy 198)

Thus, Levy is seemingly advocating a culture in which pornography, sexuality, and erotica are more open to personal interpretation, personal preferences, personal desires, et cetera. She critiques what she sees to be a normalizing--and thereby disempowering--institution and discourse. Indeed, she concludes by writing:

Women's liberation and empowerment are terms feminists started using to talk about casting off the limitations imposed upon women and demanding equality. We have perverted these words. The freedoms to be sexually provocative or promiscuous is not enough freedom; it is not the only "women's issue" worth paying attention to. And we are not even free in the sexual arena. We have simply adopted a new norm, a new role to play: lusty, busty exhibitionist. There are other choices. If we are really going to be sexually liberated, we need to make room for a range of options as wide as the variety of human desire. We need to allow ourselves the freedom to figure out what we internally want from sex instead of mimicking whatever popular culture holds up to us as sexy. That would be sexual liberation. (Levy 200)


Henry, Astrid. Not My Mother's Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-wave Feminism.

Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004. Print.

"Lesbian History: The Sex Wars." Web. 20 Apr. 2010.

Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New

York: Free, 2005. Print.

Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: a More Comprehensive Introduction. Boulder,

Colo.: Westview, 2009. Print.

Group Members: Adam Liter, Julia Wang, and Tamar Kaplan

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