When women embrace Playboy

The book 'Female Chauvinist Pigs' looks at what is lost as women make sex objects of themselves

Erin Adler

Despite the women’s movement, we still live in a world in which women – their anatomy and appearance – are sold as objects.

But according to Ariel Levy’s book “Feminist Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture,” it’s increasingly women, not men, who are buying. They’re buying – and buying into – the bikini waxes, the boob jobs, The Howard Stern Show, the misogynistic porn, the whole “Girls Gone Wild” philosophy.

These postfeminist girls and women, whom Levy calls Female Chauvinist Pigs, say they find empowerment in sex, strength in objectification. They’re unflinchingly explicit and boldly bawdy.

Levy also thinks they’re sadly mistaken.

Her book and her analysis is intelligent and thorough; she posits that, because many women need to prove they are not polite, powerless “girly-girls” and want to (literally) do all the things men do, they increasingly conduct themselves according to stereotypes of masculine sexuality.

Apparently, this means porn, pussy and perversion.

And if you don’t like it, get ready to be labeled a prude; a woman’s tolerance for raunchiness is now a “litmus test for female uptightness.” The options are binary – you’re either raunchy or repressed.

Levy makes sense of current cultural trends even as they are happening, linking chasms in the ’60s and ’70s feminist movement to the Playboy mansion, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender culture to adolescent sex practices. It’s a skill that few individuals, and even fewer authors, possess.

While reading her commentary, I was prone to alternately enthusiastic and angry outbursts. Every woman should read this book – no, every human should! Why isn’t a concise history of the women’s movement in the United States taught in schools? Middle school girls are doing what to high school boys on buses?

The most shocking chapter is aptly titled “Pigs in Training.” It’s here that Levy takes on current adolescent and sometimes pre-adolescent female behavior. She explains the disturbing and colorful urban legend of “rainbow parties” in which middle school girls throw a coed slumber party, each girl selecting a different color of lipstick. The girls perform oral sex on boys until a veritable rainbow remains on each male’s penis; no similar “evidence” appears on girls’ bodies because the act is not reciprocated.

The girls’ actions are shocking, but their words – about their behavior, their bodies and their emergent sexuality – are, well, mind-blowing.

With Levy, middle school and high school girls discuss their competitiveness with other girls over weight, their “hotness” and who has the “sluttiest” reputation, all of which are good things. They admit to making out and performing lap dances with their female friends not for enjoyment, but because “the guys will like it.”

Yet they are pathetically in the dark about their own sexuality and desire. As Levy said, “We are doing little to differentiate their sexual desires from their desire for attention.”

Which is Levy’s whole point: Female Chauvinist Pigs might enjoy being one of the guys, going to strip clubs and watching porn. It may be good fun for them to refer to other women as “pussies,” and tally the number of sexual partners they have. But what these women experience when they do these things is not power; it is simply oppression in sheep’s clothing.

This artifice isn’t surprising, given that the reality of porn stars and strippers is based on faking, from breast size to arousal and orgasms. As Levy observed (linking porn to consumerism), ” ‘Because I was paid to’ is not the same as ‘I’m taking control of my sexuality.’ “

Because the book is only 200 pages long, questions remain and much is left out. She glaringly omits the contribution of women of color to the women’s movement (and their eventual branching off), except for an obligatory mention of Shirley Chisholm. She ignores the way the porn industry affirms only a blond, white, thin standard of beauty while exoticizing other racial groups.

Further, she neglects to explore the effect “raunch culture” has had on masculinity.

Levy has succinctly identified and named a phenomenon that undoubtedly is present. However, perhaps she is a bit dramatic. I know that actual empowered females of all ages exist today. They are a positive product of, rather than a backlash to, ’60s and ’70s feminism. These women are comfortable with their identity and own their sexuality, whether gay or straight. They just aren’t as, well, flamboyant as Female Chauvinist Pigs.

Above all, though, Levy is right to assert that unexamined contradictions regarding sex are everywhere, and that, until female executives stop referring to assertiveness as “acting like a man” and female athletes stop posing in Playboy to “prove athleticism is not at odds with being sexy,” women will never achieve the respect they deserve. They might be seen as more sexually “liberated,” forever feigning arousal like a veteran stripper, but they will never be viewed as intelligent, funny or, as Levy said, themselves.