Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Western Culture. By Feona Attwood.
London, New York: I. B. Tauris, April 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1-84511-827-3, $29. 224 pages.

Review by Maheswar Satpathy, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur

This book by Feona Attwood has emerged as a reflection of modern critical perspective dissecting the nuances of an intricate culture of incessant sexual consumerism. As is evident from the title “Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Western Culture,” the book promises to vividly portray the reaction formations and rationalizations people use regarding sex.

The author in the preface succinctly and precisely assesses recent trends. The breach between the concepts of public and private, the emergence of “public intimacy” reflected in more public displays of affection, and “striptease culture” involving self-revelation and exposure all receive a thorough treatment. The book integrates diverse themes of a sexed approach to the construction of western culture in its multifarious manifestations. Issues such as sex professionals as “architects of our sexual lifestyles,” and sex more as a form of recreation than a mechanism of reproduction or relationship have been elegantly canvassed.

The book raises important questions about the role of media, technology, leisure, commerce, education, and popular culture in the production, consumption and reproduction of sexual identities, relationships, ethics, and in a way our very ethos. It presents sex as a constantly changing concept, with its values and configurations being subjected to continuous reinterpretation, resulting in the creation of diverse meanings. Some of the prominent themes addressed are the gendering of sexualization, the epistemological undercurrents required for making sense of the ever-changing concept of sex, the question of sexual ethics, sexual citizenship, and the politics of intimacy.

Attwood systematically develops three themes: Pornographication, Sexualization, and mainstream Media and Striptease Culture. In the first chapter, she examines pornography and the mainstreaming of sex. She provides penetrating discussion of issues such as Gonzo Culture and its role in blurring boundaries between reel and real; amateur sex; the role of technology in structuring our expectations, experiences and desires; purchased intimacy; realcore and hardcore; and the incitement of desires for selfhood through sex. Reflections on preferred masochism and pornographic short fiction and several stories published in Forum Magazine with vivid descriptions prove stimulating for a reader. Pornography is examined in a “postfeminist” framework. The author argues that Hyper-Sexualization of culture has desensitized us. She presents compelling arguments on the objectification, and commodification of the female, and a new feminist advocating the sexual confidence and autonomy in the sexual politics reigning over the scene.

The second part of the book deals with the role of media in sexual representations. It contains three fascinating chapters dissecting diverse issues. The exploration of private lives and fantasies is something readers can identify with. The chapter on themes of media representations of the choices and desires of women presents how the media has become an instrument of Foucauldian (sexual) subjectification, and in turn an empowering device. Treatment of intricate issues like sex advice and the changing roles of “agony aunts,” the concerns and dilemmas of today’s youth regarding sex and sexual identity, and the politics of advice-giving in the twenty-first century are dealt with extremely well.

The third section, i.e. striptease culture, deals with four diverse themes, namely media and impact on sexual learning, erotica, liberating women, and a new revolution in sexual history. Chapter eight is very self-consciously balanced, and refreshing for its emphasis on analysis based on research, advocating honesty, happiness, and personal freedom, rather than following externally imposed eternal ethical constraints in sexual knowledge and identity search. Another theme glorifies erotica over pornography and examines differential preferences of males and females and the pivotal role of consumption of various sexual resources in the construction and organization of sexual selves and lives in contemporary society. Attwood discusses the intricate pleasures derived by women through pole dancing. Some women find that activity liberating, stimulating, and sublimating, and find that it equips women with agency, freedom, and liberty for a freer expression of self in an ultra-modern society. The addition of a Film and TV guide is definitely useful to arouse curiosity in the minds of readers to dig further.

The book is unique because of its rich blend of academic spirit with interesting issues which it touches, and promises to take them forward, by creating curiosity, making readers to stay with it, reflect, ponder, and ask questions every moment. The book definitely challenges many prevalent social representation of sex. Though the book is a candid reflection of the mainstreaming of sex in western culture, still, the scanty discussions of alternative sexualities (e.g., LGBT culture), it suggests that these have not made their way to mainstream culture, remaining a kind of add-on practice. A chapter on the themes of LGBT sexuality would have certainly enriched the value of the work. To an onlooker, the book may appear to be a new feminist manifesto, but it has an interesting discussion of the end of the war between the sexes and a reconciliation of the binaries in the society. I recommend this work to all.

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