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Published Date: March 5, 2009

Published Date: March 5, 2009

Featured Articles

Featured Articles

Beauty for Ashes

It’s all around us; we are surrounded. Sometimes it’s in our faces; other times it’s become such a normal part of everyday existence that we hardly even take note. On the television, on the radio, at the movies, at the local drug store or the checkout lane at the grocery store: it is “raunch culture,” and it is invading nearly every aspect of our lives. 

Examples abound. Let’s begin with just two examples from television advertising. A 2005 ad by Carl’s Jr. hamburger chain featured Paris Hilton in a provocative swimsuit soaping herself, as well as suggestively sudsing and crawling on a Bentley before taking a bite out of a “spicy BBQ burger.” The ad immediately caused an uproar because of its clear pornographic overtones. Carl’s Jr. was unapologetic. More recently, television network NBC rejected an ad intended for the 2009 Super Bowl. The ad created for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was rejected for its excessive sexuality — in particular, sexuality featuring vegetables. Yes, vegetables. The commercial depicted lingerie-clad models hot-tubbing with vegetables, provocatively licking pumpkins, steamily kissing broccoli, and sexily rubbing an assortment of vegetables including asparagus all over their bodies.

Television programming is also a “hotbed” of hyper-sexualization. An episode from season six of the popular series Two and a Half Men provides an excellent illustration. In the episode entitled “A Jock Strap in Hell,” brothers Alan and Charlie are at a strip club when Charlie sees a former girlfriend-turned-stripper. While Charlie talks to her as she dances, she mentions the loss of her teaching career following their breakup. In recompense for dumping her, Charlie actually negotiates for the woman, Miss Pasternak, to become a tutor for his nephew. In one notable quote from the show, Miss Pasternak accuses, “I gave you my heart, I gave you my soul, I gave you my body. And you just threw me aside like I was some piece of garbage.” Charlie simply responds, “Yeah, my bad.”

Of course, other programs are also rich examples of the hyper-sexualization of women, as well as the promotion of sexual violence against women. Take for instance the program America’s Next Top Model. The program features young women competing for the opportunity to become models and is hosted by ex-model, turned TV talk-show host, Tyra Banks. One episode of the show featured a “crime scene” photo shoot. Accordingly, the models, some of whom were scantily clad, were posed in scenes featuring electrocution, gunshot wounds, strangulation, drowning, poisoning, and decapitation. In another scene, the model was a victim of a stabbing; it appeared her ovaries had been gouged out. A later episode of the program showed the women being photographed in a meat locker…dressed in meat. 

No discussion of television would be complete without mention of Oprah. While sometimes Oprah airs programs that discuss exploitation of women, at other times the show normalizes or trivializes it. For instance, one popular segment entitled, “Releasing Your Inner Sexpot,” taught women the “stripper walk” and featured “Pole Dancing 101.” This may have been an innocent attempt to help women in their sexual relationships, but any good intentions aside, such programming promotes and normalizes stripping as a so-called profession and argues that it is a healthy way for women to express sexuality.

However, the lives of many women in the sex industry are a far cry from the glamorized version of stripping portrayed on Oprah. As Bernadette Barton (2006) reported in her book Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers, exposure to stripping exacts a high emotional and psychological toll on women:

…a complex network of experiences tax the energy and self-respect of women the longer they work in the sex industry. The dancers’ comments demonstrate that stripping distorts their perceptions of money, sexuality, encourages them to blur their personal boundaries about previously unacceptable sexual acts, teaches them to develop contempt for men, reduces their sex drives, and causes problems in their intimate relationships. Several late-career dancers told me that stripping itself became literally toxic to them, that just the idea of going to work made them feel sick (p. 22).

Women in the sex industry recognize the toll the industry takes on them. One woman involved in stripping quipped, “You age in dog years when you dance because it’s so hard” (Barton, 2006, p. 54). Another dancer explained, “It’s one of those things that either kills you or makes you stronger. If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you a stronger person. I mean kill you spiritually, emotionally” (Barton, p. 69).

Radio is another place frequently imbued with overt sexuality, whether in advertising, music lyrics, or from the banter of disk jockeys and so-called shock jocks. Pop stars like Britney Spears produce an almost constant stream of highly sexualized songs. Consider just this brief excerpt of one of her songs:

I gotta plan we can do it
Just when you want it baby, baby, baby
As long as you want it
Come with me we can do it baby, baby, baby
Get naked, get naked, get naked, get naked
Get naked, get naked, get naked, get naked
Take it off, take it off, take it off, take it off
Get naked, get naked, get naked, get naked

As you may have guessed, the song is titled “Get Naked.” Or, how about Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body”:

Touch my body, put me on the floor
Wrestle me around, play with me some more
Touch my body, throw me on the bed
I wanna make you feel like you never did

Such songs leave little to the imagination, and are often expressions of dehumanized sexuality where the “other” is less a person to be known and loved, and more a mere instrument for a moment’s selfish gratification. 

Other songs like T-Pain’s “I’m in Luv Wit a Stripper” and Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp” further serve to popularize the notion that women are nothing more than material for the commercial sex industry. “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp” was featured in the film Hustle and Flow and was actually awarded the 2005 Academy Award for Best Original Song. Despite the reality that as a criminal class, pimps are often notoriously violent and perpetrators of serial sexual offenses against those under their control, pimping is increasingly becoming normalized within American popular culture through such songs and films. 

And, too, radio personalities like Howard Stern make a living out of crude jokes, crass pranks, and routine degradations of women. His website on February 19, 2009, featured highlights from his interview with Shawna Lenee, a “Penthouse Pet” who gave the interview while topless. Shawna told Howard that she had been in pornography since she was 18 years and 5 days old. He pressed her about her reported suicide attempt and drug abuse, and tactlessly asked if she ever “blew guys” (performed oral sex on men) in return for meth. Shortly thereafter, their conversation becomes blatantly pornographic. In a brief interview with Stern where only snippets of her personal story begin to emerge, the veneer of a powerful woman on a sexual odyssey slips, and a picture appears of a troubled young woman frantically trying to gain approval by pleasing men through overt sexuality. 

Raunch culture has become a hegemonic force shaping how we see others, how we view ourselves, and even what we strive to be. “Ladies, are you sexy enough?” raunch culture asks us. “How big are your breasts? Not big enough? Get those implants! Are your lips full and plump? No worries, some silicone injections will take care of that. And what about those wrinkles? Time for Botox! Oh, and have you memorized those 101 sex tricks that Cosmopolitan magazine tells you will please your man? What, no boyfriend? Don’t you want to be noticed? How about a pair of sweatpants with the word ‘juicy’ emblazoned on the behind, or wouldn’t that Playboy bunny T-shirt be cute? Of course, you could really let your hair down and be a ‘Girl Gone Wild’! Just flash your breasts and smile at the camera while a bunch of drunken men urge you on! That’s sure to get you noticed!”

Perhaps this litany of problems created by raunch culture and its “solutions” seems unreal, but unfortunately, it’s not. This is the “pornified” world in which we live. Ours is a time and place continually telling females that to have meaning in life is to be sexy. “Not sexy?” it asks. “You have no meaning; you are invisible.” Of course, the deluge of advertising and media messaging that reminds us females of how imperfect we are does not equally influence all women. Still, I expect most any female in America today will admit to at least occasionally hearing that inner voice saying to herself that she is flawed, and that something must be changed about her body or her appearance for her to be truly beautiful. 

The bottom line is God did not create any woman to be a prostitute, a stripper, a porn star, or to feel like she must pursue an endless quest for physical perfection. As children of God, all females are endowed with worth and dignity for who they are…in all their infinite and beautiful varieties. For ourselves, for our mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces, granddaughters, and friends, it is time to reclaim our dignity and our beauty. Let’s exchange the ashes of raunch culture for the beautiful crowns of God’s love.