From Theory to Praxis: High School Outreach Program

Since I have not taken a gender and sexuality studies class before this semester, most of the concepts we discussed in class and from the readings were very new to me. This class has truly allowed me to broaden my horizons of how I view the world and society. Before this semester, I was only aware of gender and sexuality as binaries, but I now see how society has constructed them to be viewed this way. As we began discussing new topics in depth, I started to think about my education regarding gender and sexuality, or lack thereof, prior to this class. In middle school, I had the standard health and sex education classes, but we mostly touched on only the biological aspects of each rather than the emotional and psychological aspects. In high school, we did not have any type of sex education; in fact, it seemed forbidden to discuss any topics regarding gender and sexuality. However, this class has allowed me to understand how important and crucial it is to have open dialogue about these topics in everyday life. Therefore, for my theory to praxis final project I set out to open this dialogue in high schools in the Charlotte area.

As a member of Rape Awareness Committee, I volunteered to be in charge of our High School Outreach Program. In the beginning, I did it purely because I was from the Charlotte area so I had contacts at many local high schools, but as the semester went on, I realized how much of an impact we could truly make with this program due to the lack of health and sex education in the local high schools. Therefore, I began researching other sex education programs, narrowing down what exactly I wanted to focus on, and how we wanted to convey our message. After meeting with Georgia Ringle and Ashley Fry, I decided to focus on consent and positive and healthy relationships as these topics are pertinent and rarely discussed in schools. We found that most schools’ sex education programs are very abstinence-based so many students have never discussed these topics and a strong stigma surrounds conversation of these topics.

In working with the rest of my committee, we put together a presentation that focused on opening a discussion with students based on the norm of reciprocity: the more open and honest we are with them, the more open they will hopefully be with us. We begin our presentation by showing a video of Davidson students discussing key aspects of positive and healthy relationships and giving examples of personal sexual experiences where their knowledge of consent and choice was important. Following this video, we share why we personally are each here giving this presentation and a little bit about our own sexual identity and experiences. We hope that our willingness to share our beliefs and experiences will open a line of communication for the students to discuss their personal experiences and ask questions. In order to further engage the students and for us to frame the conversation towards the audience, we then have them fill out a series of anonymous questions regarding gender and sexual identity as well as personal experiences. This then leads us into our presentation about consent and healthy relationships. In addition to sharing definitions and characteristics of each, we ask students to share their beliefs and knowledge about each topic. We then give the students hypothetical situations and ask them what they would do in each case. One thing we want to emphasize is that there is more than one right way to handle any of these situations; each person will probably handle them a little bit differently. After hearing the students share their opinions on each situation, we each give our own answer and explanation for how we would potentially handle it.  We conclude our presentation by allowing everyone to write down questions anonymously on note cards, which we then read aloud and answer to the best of our ability for the group.

Overall, we have given two presentations so far and have multiple scheduled for the spring. Just from the two presentations we have given, I have been able to see how much of an impact we can have. In one of our presentations to seventh and eighth grade girls at Circle de Luz, several of the girls were already sexually active, but were unaware of the meaning of the words consent and contraception. Though this was highly concerning in the moment, by the end of the presentation, they were all confident in their own ability to ask for and give consent, aware of their choice, and knew to always use protection. Personally, the impact we were able to make from this one presentation was worth all the time and effort I put into creating this program. However, I am looking forward to our presentations in the spring and to seeing the further impact we can make the community.

Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus

Power dynamics based on gendered interactions can be seen widely in Western societies in particular. The most prominent negative repercussions of these dynamics can be seen as instances of rape and sexual assault. Similar gendered interactions and discourses can be seen as heavily embedded into initiation and bonding rituals and fraternity culture at large. These rituals have been sometimes seen to rely on rape, sexual assault, and sexual discourse in general. In her book, Fraternity Gang Rape, Peggy Reeves Sanday chooses to focus on all male group bonding rituals at a college campus in the United States, particularly the bonding ritual of “pulling train,” or, gang rape. Peggy Reeves Sanday is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She has authored a number of books, focuses primarily on matriarchies and acquaintance rapes occurring in societies. She was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania at the time that the specific gang rape addressed in Part One of this book occurred and was teaching the victim.

Sanday constructs an argument that focuses on exploring how groups of men bond through the use of sex. This is further developed as not only being constructed through actions but also through discourse amongst the group. Her argument is crafted around these group acts existing to allow for homoerotic and sexual experiences to be shared between the men involved. This is particularly explored due to the heavily homophobic mentalities usually seen in these environments. Finally, Sanday focuses on how sex can be seen as a marker of power societally and the constructs that exist which uphold these dynamics.

Fraternity Gang Rape begins with a delving into a discussion of, societally, how the differences between men and women have been seen. This is primarily done through the lens of looking at the three sexual revolutions and models that have been used to understand gender power dynamics. While discussing the various sex models, Sanday constructs a picture of the act of rape as societally upheld by the sexist subjectivity that people have been raised within. Sanday also explores some of the problematic structures that exist within college, mainly fraternity, party culture. Namely these are seen as the seduction tactics used by males, which include feeding girls drinks until they are drunk enough to give in. The ability to do this successfully is often used as a marker of one’s masculinity and reinforces the gender hierarchy that exists within these party interactions.

Sanday constructs her study in two parts. The first part is specifically tailored towards what she calls “The XYZ Express,” which focuses on trends discovered following a specific incident that happened at a fraternity on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus in 1983. This part contains a lot of information that primarily applies to the the fraternity “XYZ” and various incidents recounted primarily by women. This goes through interviews with both members of the fraternity and a number of women who have unique relationships, either sexual, friendly, or both, with members of XYZ. Their interviews highlight social bargaining for a better position within the group’s hierarchy, primarily through having sex with members, an ability to hold your own while drinking with the brothers, or both, which is heavily encouraged by party culture. Sanday also depicts structures within XYZ that reinforce these dynamics, primarily what the brothers refer to as the “Little Sisters Program” as well as aggressive circle dances, which end with a mass heap of all of the brothers, sometimes on top of a woman. The concept of this program is that the brothers of XYZ essentially scout out females to be sexually available for members within their organization. The major rape that spurned Sanday’s writing of this book was the gang rape of one of her students, referred to as Laurel, whose rape was referred to as an audition for this program by brothers. Sanday uses this discourse and the actions of gang rapes and circle dances to discuss the manners in which these actions allow for brothers to bond homoerotically within a heavily homophobic and hegemonic masculine environment.

The second part of her study is heavily focused on phallocentrism, male power, and silencing the feminine. This part focuses on discourses and interactions that are seen in groups, primarily in male centric groups. This focuses heavily on rituals utilized to break young men out of “the feminine”, or their dependencies on their mothers seen prior to adulthood, with a heavy emphasis on the ways in which this is done through fraternity initiation rituals. Sanday discusses in particular detail the exact ways in which the fraternities psychologically mess with their pledges in order to shift their mindset from a loyalty to oneself to a loyalty to the fraternity. This is done not only to promote male social and sexual dominance, but also to construct widely felt male bonding throughout the new members. This is opened up to how initiation rituals in non-Western cultures either create rape free societies or uphold gender power dynamics similar to the ones seen in fraternities. Sanday raps up this part by focusing on how sexist subjectivity is created through discourses and how difficult these structures are to deconstruct as they are so embedded into our language and interactions.

The book ends with an afterword, written in 2006, discussing how much has actually changed since this book was first published. Sanday explores the various ways that hookup culture and these sorts of incidents are perpetuated not only by fraternity culture. An interesting discussion can be seen about the roles that sororities play in upholding the hookup and rape culture that is perpetuated by most fraternities.

Ultimately, Sanday argues that while these issues are discussed much more heavily than they used to be, the statistics haven’t really changed at all. This is primarily due to the persistence of privileged positions of all male organizations of cisgendered, heterosexual white males in society. While this is not 100 percent true about fraternities,  they are predominantly filled with white, cisgendered males. Sanday does comment on the prevalence of discourse regarding sexual assault and rape that is happening in what she dubs the “New Sexual Revolution,” with a particular focus on the affirmative consent policies that are becoming widespread in colleges and universities. She concludes that protecting those more vulnerable and deconstructing these power dynamics that uphold and allow for rape and sexual assault to occur commonly is the most important move we can make societally.

This book gives an interesting overview into a very serious occurrence seen in many all male university organizations. A particularly interesting perspective can be seen when looking at rape and sexual assaults through an anthropological sense instead of sociological. The discourses and interactions are vital to understanding more about why these events occur at the rates they do, whether through groups or by individuals. Furthermore, Sanday does a good job at comparing these discourses and structures across Western and non-Western cultures. However, a further delving into other experiences with in Western fraternity culture would be beneficial. Also, while Sanday provides commentary that this is applicable to groups of men that are not fraternities, more evidence and discussion of these alternative groups would be helpful to support her argument. Furthermore, the generalizability to other fraternities at the University of Pennsylvania or on other campuses is slightly problematic. Through this part, Sanday offers a limited gaze into a few other situations, providing token examples, but a wider spread study that expressed experiences truly representative of the diversity of colleges seen in the United States would provide a more appropriate generalizability.  The manner of splitting the book into two distinct parts makes the main argument hard to connect or follow at some points. Sanday also fails to discuss that all of these interactions she is exploring have occurred in aggressively heteronormative environments. While she briefly highlights homophobic discourse, the addition of this could be beneficial to helping strengthen her argument. This is presented as central to her argument, but discussion of it is lacking in comparison to her other points. I would recommend this book as a good eye opener to someone looking to delve into how fraternity culture upholds and reinforces gender power dynamics and privilege in a heteronormative, white centric perspective.

Sanday PR. Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus. 2nd ed. New York: New York University Press; 2007.

Flirting with Danger

Every day, every single interaction, whether conscious or unconscious, shapes our identity and perception of the world. From the time we wake up in the morning until the time we go to bed at night, we are taking in information, processing it, and shifting our awareness of society based on the viewpoints we perceive. This impact of interactions and social cues has evolved over time into the hegemonic countercultures in different places around the globe. In her book Flirting with Danger, Lynn N. Phillips explores the ideology of power and choice within hetero-relationships formed by Western Culture through an in-depth analysis of the personal stories from young women.

Lynn N. Phillips coined the phrase “flirting with danger” in order to summarize women’s approach toward hetero-relations as established by previous interactions and media influence. In common situations of hetero-relations, the boundaries between “seduction and domination, pleasure and danger, responsibility and exploitation, agency and objectification, and consent and coercion” often become variable and murky (Phillips 3). However, women interpret this risky behavior as a “part of the ‘normal’ experience of their daily hetero-relational lives” (Phillips 3).  Through her research and analysis of women’s personal reflections of their relational experiences, Phillips successfully explores how women’s view of hetero-relations has evolved into the “need to flirt with danger” (Phillips 206).

Lynn N. Phillips draws on previous literature from feminist theorists in order to analyze her qualitative data. In doing so, she successfully creates a framework to guide our understanding of how society has shaped the subjectivity of power, choice, and desire within hetero-relations. In writing this book, Phillips aims to stimulate discourse regarding aspects of hetero-relations that are often excluded from feminist and social science literature. She specifically highlights the absence of conversation promoting “male accountability” and “female pleasure without penalties” (Phillips 77). While women do have the same sexual desires as men, “structural, ideological, and interpersonal barriers” created by Western Culture often prevent women from expressing these desires (Phillips 77).  Further, she hopes to gain a greater understanding of how women’s judgments, specifically regarding the meanings of male domination and sexualized power in their lives, have been shaped by personal experiences and outside influences. These subjectivities, formed from popular media and past hetero-relational experiences, are exemplified through four common themes of discourse: (1) “how to be a ‘good woman’,” (2) “what constitutes ‘normal’ male behavior,” (3) “what counts as ‘real victimization’,” and (4) “what should be expected from men and hetero-relationships” (Phillips 38, 52, 61, 69).  Through her comprehensive investigation of power and desire from personal narratives about hetero-sexual relations, Phillips successfully sets up a foundation for institutional change and further research surrounding “how issues of power and aggression might filter through same-sex relations” (Phillips 205).

Lynn M. Phillips consults with organizations on issues of sexuality, education, and victimization. As a Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Eugene Lang College of the New School University, she has experience in teaching and working with young adults. She has also written several other books on the topic of gender, sexuality, and relationships. For example, she was commissioned by the National Council for Research on Women to write The Girls Report: What We Know and Need to Know About Growing Up Female, and she is the author of Planned Parenthood’s Unequal Partners: Exploring Power and Consent in Adult-Teen Relationships. Her research in the field of gender and sexuality studies has sparked further inquiry surrounding the formation of the beliefs and messages guiding hetero-relations.

Phillips wrote Flirting with Danger in order to investigate her three central research questions: (1) How do “young women conceptualize the distinctions between good relationships and bad ones, between consent and coercion, and between agency and victimization?”, (2) How do “young women make sense of the violence and manipulation that all too often invade their hetero-relationships?”, (3)  What do young women “tolerate,…resist,…or perceive as ‘normal’ or ‘inevitable’ in their own and other women’s hetero-relational encounters?” (Phillips 5). In addition to using previous literature from feminist theorists such as bell hooks, Butler, Bartky, Collins, and more, Phillips conducted her own research study by interviewing young women from a small, progressive liberal arts college in the northeastern United States (Phillips 6). She placed letters in the campus mailboxes of all female students, inviting them to be interviewed about “power and intimacy in various relationships” (Phillips 6). She had in-depth conversations with the thirty young women who responded regarding their own personal experiences within hetero-relations as well as the hetero-relations of those around them.  Surprisingly, of the thirty young women that responded, twenty-seven of them “described at least one encounter that fit legal definitions of rape, battering, or harassment” but “only two women ever used such terms to describe a personal experience” (Phillips 7). Though Phillips does not discuss the official legal reporting of rape, battering, or harassment, this fact demonstrates the challenges of under-reporting. Many women are aware of what constitutes sexual assault and abuse, but refuse to consider themselves a victim when placed in the exact context. When in this situation of victimization, women have a “tendency to downplay the severity of their experience and blame themselves for their own abuse” (Phillips 157).  However, Phillips uses this fact alone as well as the contexts in which these young women’s hetero-relational subjectivities were constructed to understand young women’s personal perceptions, decisions, and attributions within hetero-relations. By placing these perspectives within cultural contexts, Phillips is able to identify common themes which contributed to their formation.

Through exploring prevailing themes within popular discourse relating to hetero-relations, Phillips creates a structure for the contexts, formulation, and application of “flirting with danger.” She specifically outlines four dominant themes of discourse with two conflicting discourses within each. For example, one dominant theme throughout her discussions was “how to be a ‘good woman’,” which broke down into “the pleasing woman discourse” and “the together woman discourse” (Phillips 38-39, 47).  The “pleasing woman” encompasses “the desire and ability to be pleasant, feminine, and subordinate to men,” stressing “morality, sexual ‘purity,’ and service to men and children” (Phillips 39). The “together woman” is “free, sexually sophisticated, and entitled to accept nothing less than full equality and satisfaction in her sexual encounters and romantic relationships” (Phillips 47). As exemplified though “how to be a ‘good woman’ discourse,” the two discourses within each dominant theme are viewed as mutually exclusive, thus creating the need to “flirt with danger” in order to obtain a “normal” hetero-relational experience (Phillips 38). As Phillips discusses, however, these two discourses should be seen as a spectrum rather than mutually exclusive, as hetero-relations will vary within each discourse based on the situation. Through exploring, establishing, and breaking down the social constructions of these dominant discourses, Phillips hopes to stimulate discussion surrounding the promotion of young women as sexual subjects who can find pleasure and safety within their hetero-relations with the final goal being a society without a “need to flirt with danger” (Phillips 206).

Within feminist literature, Phillips specifically draws from bell hooks’s Feminist Theory from Margin to Center in order to build off of previous theories regarding sexuality. In a passage referenced by Phillips, bell hooks describes “naming and criticizing the negative aspects of sexuality” as a “simple task for women” (Phillips 190). Further, bell hooks discusses difficulty of changing the norms of sexuality for women due to cultural constraints. Though Phillips agrees with the difficult task of creating new sexual ideals, especially in the present culture, she argues that naming is not such as simple a task as bell hooks portrays. Referencing the stories of the young women she interviewed, Phillips argues that women have difficulty making “straightforward claims about their own victimization” (Phillips 190). Women were able to speak against male sexual aggression in general, but unable to identify male sexual domination as victimizing within their own experiences. Similar to the views of bell hooks, Phillips contributes the inability to identify personal experiences as victimizing and the failure to establish new sexual paradigms to the cultural constraints of society today. By analyzing and critiquing the work of bell hooks in the context of her research, Phillips contributes to the conversation regarding feminist literature, enabling further research in this field.

One of the strengths of Phillips’s book is that it is relatable to a wider audience, concerning race, socio-economic status, and religion, as she draws on stories from all of the women in order to form her analysis. She uses specific examples of situations women found themselves in or brought upon themselves through poor decisions or risky behavior as evidence for all of her claims, further aiding her argument. This detailed investigation, however, is limited only to heterosexual relations; though some of these women identify as bisexual or questioning, she limits her research to only their hetero-relational experiences, excluding all other relations since she believes that “all women regardless of sexual orientation or sexual identity, are engaged in hetero-relations of some sort” (Phillips XI). Phillips did not take into account that these women’s same-sex relations could have made an impact on the formation of their ideas surrounding hetero-relations.  Therefore, in order to expand upon her study, Phillips suggests researchers should “explore how issues of power and aggression might filter through same-sex relationships as well,” building off of her framework and findings (Phillips 205).

Overall, in her book Flirting with Danger, Lynn M. Phillips successfully analyzes the hetero-relational experiences of thirty young women in order to create a structure for the formation of the beliefs behind their actions. Other feminist theorists as well as young women and men should read Phillips’s book in order to stimulate discourse and change the culture constructing these views and beliefs surrounding power, desire, and choice within hetero-relations.

 

Works Cited

Phillips, Lynn M. Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and

Domination. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Print.

Burger or Blow Job?

“Sex sells.” This is a phrase that is ever popular in the advertising world and is used to sell products, services, and businesses alike. This strategy is usually seen as effective, but sometimes advertising companies purposefully push boundaries past what is deemed acceptable in order to evoke shock value in their viewers. In 2009, Burger King did just that with the release of an advertisement promoting their new “Super Seven Incher” burger. The advertisement had a limited release; it was only made public in Singapore, but was pulled from the market very shortly after it began circulation due to its controversial nature.

The images of the advertisement are overtly sexual and intend to depict a woman performing oral sex on the “Super Seven Incher.” The woman is the focus of the advertisement, as her profile from the neck up is shown on the left side of the ad. She is a white woman, has a blonde bob, and a face full of makeup. Her eyes are wide and her red lips are parted in an oval shape. Coming out from the right side of the page is the Super Seven Incher, aimed directly at the woman’s mouth. The advertisement is shaded darker at the corners and becomes increasingly lighter as the focus moves inwards towards the mouth and the burger. Below the image of the woman and the burger are the words “IT’LL BLOW YOUR MIND AWAY” in white, bold letters. Below the phrase is a yellow panel depicting the burger along with a drink and fries and a price of $6.25 for the whole meal. The description of the meal is in the lower right hand corner of the ad.

The target audience of this advertisement is very obviously the heterosexual male and it is supposed to be viewed through the framework of the male gaze. The sexual nature of the image is attention grabbing and conveys the message that by eating the Super Seven Incher, they will receive as much gratification as they would from receiving oral sex. By depicting the act in this way, the ad is designed to create a fantasy for heterosexual males, which can be fulfilled by eating this burger. Eating this burger will make heterosexual males happier, more satisfied, and more appealing to women, according to the ad.

Depicting the woman in the advertisement in such a hyper-feminine way insinuates that the woman’s sole purpose in the advertisement is to provide pleasure and act as a sexual object. Creators of the ad specifically used a young white woman with bright red lips and blonde hair, characteristics that are routinely associated with sex appeal, to target their audience. Although the advertisement was released in Singapore, the woman is white which reinforces the westernized beauty ideals that we see across most media. By portraying the woman in this way, the ad creators have established that this is what a “real woman” should look like and this is how she should act. The woman is submissive to the man and his desires (as represented by the burger) and the ad links her femininity to sexual objectification. Sex sells, but usually only if it is in a heteronormative way. If the roles had been reversed and an image was insinuating that a male was performing oral sex on a female, the reactions would have been different. People would have been taken aback by the overt sexuality, since a male gratifying female sexual desires is not something often portrayed in contemporary media. The same goes for if a woman was illustrated performing oral sex on a woman, a man on another man, or any other combination of gender identifications.

The imagery of the advertisement is extremely sexual and this is furthered by the use of language surrounding the ad. The name of the burger itself, the “Super Seven Incher,” has nothing to do with the taste appeal of the burger. It does not describe what is on the burger or its quality, but instead describes the length of the burger. This burger length is a not so subtle reference to male genitalia, adding to the visualization of the sexual image that is portrayed. In the quote under the burger, the words “IT’LL BLOW” are larger than the rest of the words on the page, immediately catching the viewer’s attention. Slang terms for performing oral sex are “blowing” or “giving a blow job,” so the use of this specific language was no accident. The most glaring use of language to conjure up sexual images was in the description of the burger in the lower right hand corner of the advertisement. The advertisement tells its audience to “Fill your desire with something long, juicy, and flame grilled” and “Yearn for more after you taste the mind blowing burger” Both of these particular quotes describe the burger, but they do so in a way that expresses the longing and need of the heterosexual male to have his desires fulfilled. The “yearning” and “desire” that is expressed can refer to the male’s need for sexual gratification, but can also refer to the female’s desire “for more,” not in reference to the burger, but alluding to it as a representation of male genitalia. Using the images along with the specific choice of words furthers the message of the advertisement and adds to its shock value.

Although the ad was removed from the market, it was successful in the regard that its shock value made it widely circulated and talked about. It successfully perpetuated the image of traditional gender roles and used sexual imagery to maintain heteronormativity. Its purpose was to push boundaries, spark conversation, and evoke a strong emotional response from its viewers, whether it was one of desire or disgust. By this ad fulfilling its purpose, Burger King got the publicity that it wanted, a publicity that has lasted longer than they could have imagined.

Works Cited:

Stransky, Tanner. “Burger King’s Super Seven Incher Ad: Subtlety Is Dead.” EW.com. N.p., 24 June 2009. Web.

“Top 10 Tasteless Ads.” Time.com. N.p. Web. <http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1907218_1907236,00.html>

What Do You Mean, Justin?

In recent years, Justin Bieber has become one of the world’s top celebrities with the expansion of his singing and modeling career. Beliebers (as Justin’s dedicated fans call themselves) keep up with all the latest news and gossip regarding Justin’s life, relationships, and, of course, the most current songs. When most fans think of this pop music icon, the words “handsome,” “sexy,” “stylish,” “friendly,” and “cool” may come to mind. However, “sexual predator” should possibly be added to this list of favorable words. When Justin Bieber released his hit single “What Do You Mean?” in 2015, it became the fastest single record to reach number one on iTunes (Lyons). Though a catchy beat, “What Do You Mean?” promotes rape culture through masculine dominance in the heterosexual relationship portrayed through the lyrics as well as contradictory actions and gestures throughout the music video.

Rape culture is a term coined in the 1970s by feminists in the United States as a tool to “show the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence” (What is Rape Culture?). In her book Transforming a Rape Culture, Emilie Buchwald defines rape culture as “a complex set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women” (What is Rape Culture?). Though many view sexual assault and rape as predominately a masculine act that disproportionally affects women, as education has progressed, the belief has evolved to include the fact that it can happen to anyone regardless of gender identity. Along with the progression of sex education, the law has changed to encompass different aspects of sexual assault. Today, the law provides strict guidelines for the definition of rape, but rape culture has normalized this sexual violence in society through passively condoning rape. In terms of the law, lack of explicit verbal consent to any sexual act means that the sexual act is rape, which is a federal crime. However, pop culture often normalizes and victim-blames sexual violence through sexual objectification of women in music, movies, advertising, and TV shows.

Specifically exploring the lyrics of Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” reveals of the promotion of rape culture. From the beginning of the song and throughout the chorus, Justin Bieber asks “What do you mean?” then proceeds with, “When you nod your head yes, but you wanna say no. What do you mean?” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). Here lies the main problem in the lyrics: lack of consent. Though Justin uses this lack of consent to create sexual tension, it emphasizes women’s sexual indecision, which is a key component of rape culture. Rape culture simplifies this process of consent, letting one partner dominate the decision. Portrayed as the “good guy” on the surface level, Justin Bieber works to figure out what the woman actually wants. Just as Justin exemplifies, rape culture depicts the everyday, average guy as the “good guy” so that there is no way he could possibly be thought of as a rapist (Bridges, Pascoe).  This ideology can then lead to the perpetuation of “playing hard to get” in order to earn the affection of a potential mate.  The “game” of “playing hard to get” steers further into dangerous waters as it not only establishes the belief that “no” can equal “yes” in the journey of pursuit, but commends those who ignore consent. As non-verbal language becomes prioritized over verbal language, misinterpretation of meaning becomes more common, further promoting rape culture (Redkar).  This tactic and use of non-verbal cues contrary to verbal language becomes a key component of Justin Bieber’s music video subsequently discussed.

Later in the song, Bieber states, “you’re so indecisive of what I’m saying,” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). Not only does this statement not make sense grammatically, but it also adds a harsh stigma to female indecision. Often, this sense of indecision and hesitancy occurs in an uncomfortable or precarious situation as a personal warning sign to proceed with caution. In this situation, the woman experiences indecision due to Bieber’s dominant sexual actions as well as consistent pressure for her to make up her mind. Just like the woman in the music video, women are allowed to be indecisive about sexual activities and this indecisiveness should be a red light for their partner to let them have their space to figure out what they personally want to do. This does become dangerous, as Bieber exemplifies, when the partner takes it upon him or herself to determine what the other is thinking. Bieber’s lyrics make it seem that unwanted sexual actions or misinterpretations are the fault of the women because she was not clear what she wanted, adding “Better make up your mind” and “You’re so confusing” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). He pressures her into making a decision as “we’re running out of time” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber).  Though she clearly is sending him mixed signals about her true feelings, he forces her into a decision, once again telling her “Better make up your mind” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber).  Due to her indecision, Bieber makes the decision for her and assumes that since they’ve had sex before, she wants to have it again: “Wanna argue all day, make love all night” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). However, sex is not black and white, like Bieber depicts; people are allowed to engage in some sexual activities without going all the way to sex every time and to discontinue activities at any point. Further, in this lyric, Bieber sexualizes female aggression by linking arguing to sex, romanticizing a toxic relationship dynamic. This suggests that rather than being seen as mutually exclusive, conflict and intimacy are both key components of an ideal relationship. By normalizing violence and conflict within this idealized relationship dynamic, Bieber’s music video endorses another aspect of rape culture.

Justin Bieber’s music video for “What Do You Mean?” continues to promote rape culture by hiding the lyrical meaning through contradictory actions and gestures. The video’s broader narrative framework expands the meaning of rape culture, starting from the beginning of the music video. The scene of the video opens with a dark, stormy night as Justin Bieber and John Leguizamo stand outside a motel. Justin hands John money, making him promise “the girl won’t get hurt,” but John, handing Justin a lighter, replies, “you play with fire, you might just get burnt.” Later in the video, it is discovered that Justin is paying for the fake kidnapping of the woman he meets in the motel room and him. The screen then flashes to the motel room with a woman waiting as a clock begins ticking, immediately creating the tension and pressure surrounding the impending situation. The woman then answers the door to Justin, instantly sexually drawn to him. As the video progresses with on and off sexual intimacy between Justin and the woman, the tension builds. Soon after, they are both taken by men in masks, tied up, and driven to a warehouse in the trunk of a car. At the warehouse, Justin is able to use the lighter, given to him by his kidnapper, to burn the ropes and escape. Here, they run to a door on one of the top floors, which leads to outside. As the pressure builds, the music suddenly stops; Justin holds out his hand and turns to her saying, “Trust me. Do you trust me? Take my hand.” Breathing heavily, she takes his hand and they jump out of the building, landing on huge air-pillows in the middle of a party. As the “kidnappers” take off their masks smiling, the woman discovers it was all a trick, grabbing Justin and kissing him as they begin to dance (JustinBieberVEVO).

From the beginning of the video, the woman is immediately sexually drawn to Justin Bieber, contrary to what the lyrics imply. The video content works to conceal the content of the lyrical connotations, a common theme in encouraging rape culture (Bridges, Pascoe). The woman does not appear to be bothered by Bieber’s demands and questions, going along with all he wants her to do and again acting contradictory to the lyrics. In the lyrics of the song, the woman seems unsure of her feelings as she “nods” her “head yes,” but she wants to “say no” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). However, the video makes it clear that she is sexual attracted to Justin and wants to be intimate with him as she immediately grabs him as he enters the motel room. Her actions make it appear as a normality for women to abide by the demands of a man, not questioning their own feelings or desires; masculinity is, therefore, equated with power in a heteronormative relationship.

The story line of the music video is a key element used to take away from the lyrical connotations and indecision. The broadened narrative throughout the music video does not at all tell the story of the lyrics from the song. The lyrics create this tension surrounding the pressure on the woman to be intimate with Justin and his frustration with her indecisiveness. However, Justin Bieber’s scheme throughout the video is just a test of her trust: a ploy to get her to make a decision about their relationship and to earn her trust so that she will have sex with him. This terrorizing view of romance, contrary to the rape culture influences, is not the way to go about love. Rape culture portrays violence as pleasurable and desirable in a relationship. This creates the view as the masculine figure in a relationship as the protector. Once again, equating masculinity with power.

Though a common cultural icon, Justin Bieber is a key contributor to the promotion of rape culture in society today. The lyrics to as well as the music video for his recent hit “What Do You Mean?” encourages masculine dominance and violence against women in heterosexual relationships through lyrical connotations, actors’ actions, and setting. Rape culture not only creates the problem of sexualized power within relationships, but supports heteronormative relationships. In a rapidly changing culture regarding gender and sexuality, this constructs yet another barrier to breaking down norms. Justin Bieber is just one example of the countless celebrities encouraging rape culture, further enforcing the monolithic ideology behind heteronormativity.

 

Works Cited

Bridges, Tristan, and C.J. Pascoe. “Pop Music, Rape Culture, and the Sexualization of Blurred Lines.” Feminist Reflections. The Society Pages, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 06 Sept. 2016.

JustinBieberVEVO. “Justin Bieber – What Do You Mean?” YouTube. YouTube, 30 Aug. 2015. Web. 06 Sept. 2016.

Levy, Mason, Jason Boyd, and Justin Bieber. “What Do You Mean? – Justin Bieber.” Google  Play Music. Warner/Chappell, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, n.d. Web. 06 Sept. 2016.

Lyons, Sofia. “How ‘What Do You Mean’ Promotes Rape Culture.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 04 Sept. 2015. Web. 05 Sept. 2016.

Redkar, Nikita. “4 Reasons Why Telling Women to ‘Play Hard to Get’ Perpetuates Rape Culture.” Everyday Feminism Magazine. Everyday Feminism, 30 Nov. 2015. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.

 

1972 Sex Positivity Fair: Body Image


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1972 Sex Positivity Fair: Body Image by Rachael, Maryanna, Malia, and Caroline B.

“If we start from a position of neutrality, and do not make an a priori assumption that higher  BMI  is  unhealthy,  we  are  left with  numerous  studies  showing  health  benefits based on quality nutrition, regular physical activity, social support, restful sleep, freedom  from  violence  and  stigma,  abstention  from  smoking  and  excessive  alcohol  and drug use, access to quality medical care, and so on” (Burgard, 47).

According to Jen Baker in her TED Talk Total Body Love, “4% of women will call themselves beautiful, and in my experience men are very similar.” By creating an exhibit for the 1972 Sex Positivity Fair, we seek to discover why only 4% of women would call themselves beautiful. As students of GSS 101, we have learned to identify the voices seeking to force, in both subtle and blatant ways, the image of the “ideal” body upon us. We have learned to reject these voices in the name of Total Body Love. We have identified three voices that are loud, though sometimes unrecognized in our culture: advertising and media, the health/wellness industry, and the medical world.

In a society overridden by advertisements and media, we are constantly bombarded with both conspicuous and inconspicuous symbolism in images dictating what “attractive” means. These images pervading online, in the news, and even in public spaces, are in almost all instances edited to depict what those believe to be a desirable body type for both men and women. For example, in Agnes Rocamora’s article about the fashion industry titled Personal Fashion Blogs: Screens and Mirrors in Digital Self Portraits,she states, “in a field, fashion, where those in charge of taking photographs have been predominantly men, and those photographed women, visuals show the latter behind the camera actively engaged in an act of self-representation contrast with doxic views of men as photographing subject and women as photographed object” (Rocamora, 420). Our culture teaches us that the woman’s body is valued only when serving a specific audience – whether that is the male gaze, commercial gain, or even representations of purity or innocence. The woman’s ideal body type has changed drastically over time, however. Today the ideal female body type depicted in the media is widely accepted as unrealistic and photoshopped, and many companies have moved towards a “body positive” approach to their advertising as in the case of Aerie’s #AerieReal campaign featuring models with untouched bodies. Conversely, advertisements featuring the male body are frequently also photoshopped to unrealistic proportions of musculature, which acts to shape society’s interpretation of masculinity. However, this issue has yet to take off as a widely accepted false representation of the male body, which can lead to low self-esteem and poor body image in the male population.

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The health and wellness industry contributes to an unrealistic body image by creating an unattainable picture of health. There are men and women whose bodies simply cannot be shaped and molded into the hard, athletic lines of a stereotypical gym-goer. The pressure to be toned and muscular has led to an increase in disorders like muscle dysmorphia: an obsessive preoccupation via a delusional or exaggerated belief that one’s body is too small, too skinny, insufficiently muscular, or insufficiently lean. Muscle Dysmorphia and other related disorders concerned with the strength of the body (together referred to as “The Adonis Complex”) are often overlooked. Because those affected by muscle dysmorphia are not seeking to drop significant amounts of weight, if at all, they are sometimes considered outside the realm of eating (or body) disorders. We are reminded of Marilyn Wann’s claim that “The weight divide is not just a fat/thin binary… People feel superiority or self-loathing based on each calorie or gram of food consumed or not consumed, in each belt notch, pound, or inch gained or lost, in each clothing size smaller or larger” (Wann xv). We learned that identifying voices seeking to shape body image in a way not immediately identifiable with the pressure to be thin or beautiful are especially insidious, and need to be addressed. IMG_6510Because they are encouraged to subscribe to patriarchal standards of “masculinity,” many men are imprisoned by society’s definition of “healthy.” Harrison Pope argues in his book Rise of the Adonis Complex, “Over the last three decades, the Adonis Complex has spread dramatically among boys and men, and more and more men are struggling to improve their appearance in one way or another.”  This obsession men experience with body image echoes Harrison Pope’s study, which reported “95% of college-aged men being dissatisfied with some part of their bodies.” Muscle dysmorphia and other disorders of the health/wellness world need to be more widely recognized in order to make effective and valuable changes.

Another voice seeking to define which bodies should be loved and which should be shamed comes out of the medical world. Fat studies scholars like Marilyn Wann and Deb Burgard argue that the unrealistic and scientifically false standards of “health” set up by health and wellness industries are perpetuated by members of the medical world through measures like BMI. BMI, or Body Mass Index, is one of a variety of “ideal” weight charts used by the federal government to mandate who is healthy and who is not. The problem with BMI is that it is too simple, and does not account for the full range of human diversity, especially in children. BMI works by juxtaposing height and weight to create a n
umber from 12-42. The oversimplification of the incredible varieties of the human body leads to the “medicalization of human diversity,” which “ inspires a misplaced search for a ‘cure’ for naturally occurring difference. Far from generating sympathy for fat people, medicalization of weight fuels anti-fat prejudice and discrimination in all areas of society” (Wann xiii).  Medical professionalsIMG_6508 who seek to determine patient’s achievement of “good health” based on flawed scales like BMI contribute to the chorus of voices that say, falsely, that our bodies are too fat, not muscular enough, too short; basically, that our bodies are
incorrect. We still need to seek advice from medical professionals; there are men and women who have completed years of training in order to help us live our best lives. Through this project, we discovered the importance of seeking medical professionals who understand and appreciate the diversity in human bodies and also encourage us to seek out a truly healthy lifestyle (in every sense of the word).

 

 

Works Cited

Rocamora, Agnès. “Personal fashion blogs: screens and mirrors in digital self-portraits.” Fashion Theory. Vol 15, No. 4, 2011.

Wann, Marilyn. Foreword to the Fat Studies Reader, by Marilyn Wann,  xxi-xxvii. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality

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In Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, Margot Weiss discusses the social, economic, class, race, and gender inequalities of the BDSM scene in San Francisco, and what Weiss calls circuits between those dynamics. She says, “I call such dynamics a circuit to draw attention not only to the dense connections… but also to the functionality, the effects of these connections.”[i] Weiss applies an ethnographic analysis to identify circuits in the BDSM scene based interviews she conducted with practitioners and participants in the scene and from in-person observations of various BDSM events, classes, and practices. As part of her class, gender, and racial analyses of the BDSM scene, Weiss cites and references a wide array of scholars in fields as diverse as economics, gender, sexuality and queer studies, history, politics, and race studies. Techniques of Pleasure provides a thorough, informative, and original account of the various dynamics within the BDSM community.

Weiss claims in her book, “I explore BDSM as a series of sexual, social, and bodily practices that provide opportunities to remake and consolidate forms of subjectivity built both on capitalist practices of consumption and production and on the regulatory normalization of race, gender, and sexuality.”[ii] She describes the various ways individuals in the scene argue that their interactions subvert various societal norms. Then, Weiss shows how the BDSM scene actually relies on and perpetuates racial, gender, and class norms to derive the power of the community’s alternative sexual practices. The book begins with an account of how and why the kink sexual scene in San Francisco evolved from a small, close-knit, lower class, largely queer community into a larger, predominately white, middle class one. As San Francisco developed an economy dependent on high-income information technology jobs, the demographics of the city and the scene changed to reflect the people more likely to hold those jobs. From there, Weiss discusses the prevalence of toys in the scene, arguing that the focus on material toys gives an implicit status and pleasure advantage to the white middle class practitioners who can afford both the toys themselves and the time to master their use. She finishes with a discussion of the social and political impact of BDSM sex and scenes. Weiss describes how the explicit, intentional power exchange in BDSM depends on existence of actual power inequalities based on race, class, and gender for their emotional impact and sexual pleasure. For example, in the scene it is considered ‘more acceptable’ for a woman to be a submissive than a man, reflecting the patriarchal power men have in society in general.[iii] Weiss’ analysis and discussion of the circuits she describes in the BDSM scene are consistently insightful, and wonderfully account for the impacts that intersections of class, race, and gender have on the practices she observed.

The analysis that Weiss brings to the BDSM scene are informed by her methods of gathering relevant information. She interviewed practitioners in the scene, and also experienced various parties, events, classes, workshops, and scenes as an observer. Weiss interviewed sixty-one participants “most [of whom] were professional-class white people in long-term relationships.”[iv] Bits and pieces of the transcripts of these interviews were included in the text, supporting and complicating claims made by Weiss and other scholars whose work she references. The quotations are a definite highlight of this book. The original voices and experiences of the interviewees shine through authentically, adding some much needed personality to the otherwise academic language of the book. The practitioner’s words provided frank and fascinating windows into the scene. Weiss also includes detailed descriptions of a variety of kink events such as slave auctions, national conferences, private bondage parties, takedown workshop demonstrations, as well more less sexually charged events such as munches, social gatherings for food and drink that do not involve any BDSM practices at all. However, the author uses a decidedly detached tone and point of view. Weiss says she told the people she interviewed that she is not into BDSM, and implies that she did not participate in any scenes as part of research for this book. Her personal taste for BDSM is unclear: “I found that the lose-lose situation of being, on the one hand, too close to or overinvested in SM or, on the other hand, too distant from or incapable of understanding it was more easily negotiated with SM practitioners… I have placed the imaginations and experiences of my interviewees and their scenes at the center of this book.”[v] Maintaining a measured distance from one’s subject of study in the name of academic integrity is certainly admirable. However, I would be fascinated to hear how direct participation in a BDSM scene would influence her analysis. That being said, it is certainly unreasonable to expect that the author would be interested in or willing to take part in a scene, much less relate such an intimate experience to such an impersonal audience.

Weiss locates her book and her argument firmly within the various class, racial, and gender conversations about BDSM. In accordance with her intersectional approach, she references gender theorists such as Judith Butler and Michael Foucault and other feminist theorists, as well as various economists, historians, journalists, race theorists, and activists. Each claim Weiss makes is carefully explained in reference to the work of previous scholars, making sure to clearly outline which ideas she finds useful for her own analysis and which concepts she intentionally disagrees with or discards. However, the quotations from other scholars were almost always outshone by the accounts of practitioners in the scene. The interviews were always more interesting and more enlightening, and it is curious that Weiss chose not to lean more heavily on the visceral accounts and surprisingly cogent arguments made by people in the scene, rather than academic arguments made by scholars who may or may not actually have experience in what they are discussing.

Techniques of Pleasure provides an original, intersectional account of the politics of the BDSM scene in San Francisco. While it is easy to view a community based on fringe sex acts as transgressing social norms, Weiss compellingly argues that, to the contrary, the BDSM scene depends on and reproduces those very norms it claims to transgress. The book is well-researched, and the entertaining descriptions and accounts of various BDSM practices keep even the non-academic reader well enough engaged to digest Weiss’ arguments. This book stands as an informative, unique account of the complex dynamics present in the BDSM scene.

 

Works Cited:

[i] Weiss, Margot Danielle. Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality. Durham: Duke UP, 2012. PDF. Page 7.

[ii] Weiss, page 20.

[iii] Weiss, pages 176-177.

[iv] Weiss, page 26.

[v] Weiss, pages 29-30.

Playground for the World’s Sexual Fantasies

Kamala Kempadoo begins her monograph, Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor, with the following quote: “Territories that once served as ex-havens for the colonial elite are today frequented by sex tourists, and several of the island economies now depend upon the region’s racialized, sexualized image” (1). This statement sets the tone for the rest of her book as she analyzes the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race with economics in the Caribbean. Kempadoo argues that there is an engrained “heteropatriarchy” seen through Caribbean societies, which draw from colonial theory to continue oppressive practices to further economic advances in the islands (9). Sexing the Caribbean strives to provide its audience with a dynamic, non-Western ethnocentric understanding of the history and role of prostitution and sex labor in the Caribbean today.

Sexing the Caribbean begins with the historical background of colonial involvement in the islands, like Jamaica, Trinidad, and Curacao, and how race came to be sexualized. Kempadoo retells the history of different areas in the Caribbean being settled by colonial powers, which imposed new social hierarchal frameworks that were mostly based on race (5). Even after emancipation from these white men, white bias still defined sexual relations as local men began to prefer one skin color of women to another. Here the introduction of the “SanDom,” or “a migrant woman of lightly brown skin tone with a slender though shapely body and loosely curling hair,” became a common reference in society (144). Kempadoo continues to explain the impact of migrants to the countries located in the Caribbean, not only racially but also economically. Through her retelling of women’s internalization of gender roles and their role in society as sex workers, she highlights the intersection of race and economics. The intersectionality of race and economics was explored by Kempadoo in her analysis of sex laborers and the job opportunities available to them based on race. It was intriguing to read about how women in the Caribbean took pride in the fact that—for the majority of sex laborers—they envisioned themselves as their own boss, creating their own hours; it was a form of women empowerment in a paternalistic society. Sex became a source of power for women as they “capitalized upon white men’s sexual desire for women of color” (54). Women in this environment established their dominance and power by setting boundaries with clients—such as certain body parts like lips and breast were off limits—and defined the notion of romance and love for their community. Through this loophole of empowerment, women of the Caribbean found a way to be economically sufficient and gain power in society. Although Kempadoo champions the strength of these women of color, she also recognizes that not every woman was so lucky to gain a hold in society. For example, she touches on stories of women acting as “pimps” of other women, and men controlling the income and working hours of a prostitute. Just as women affected each other, men visiting the Caribbean also played a role in determining the economics of prostitution. As tourism plays a huge part in the economics of the Caribbean, Kempadoo also interviewed many male tourists looking for female company. She states that, “The woman are not, in the imaginations of the men, prostitutes who are having sex for money, but are perceived as poor women who genuinely enjoy the sex” (123). This particular framing shows the different global perspectives of prostitution and how the local interpretation based on colonial history and job opportunities greatly differ.

Kamala Kempadoo says that her work draws on the foundations of Third World feminism, which is based on gender relations and “material-feminist traditions” (11). As written about in her work, she relies on a bottom up approach to her qualitative research through interviews, recording personal stories, and local opinions and myths (11, 65). Kempadoo shares little research has been done on this region of the world in regards to the “historical racialization of social relations” (55, 64). Therefore, the basis of her data collection—before she could conduct any interviews—relied on the works of scholars, historians, and anthropologists (17). Synthesizing the information of other scholars is how Kamala Kempadoo situates herself in conversation with other authors. By learning the structure of society and the influence of cultural in specific areas, Kempadoo could contextualize the impact that colonial history had on defining race and sexuality in the Caribbean. Important structural factors Kempadoo had to analyze ware the legal codes written about prostitution. I found this aspect of her work to be a strength of her argument as it gave the readers a better understanding of the time and history of how government played a part in regulating prostitution (89). As well as relational structures, the author continually references to the importance of needing to know the local slang, like SanDom, to comprehend the complexity of the history and role sex laborers play in everyday society.

While reading Sexing the Caribbean, Kamala Kempadoo did a brilliant job of both intriguing and greatly disturbing her readers. As a political science major, I find one of the most intriguing features of sex work in the Caribbean to be the role of the government institutionalizing legal regulations for prostitution by women, but also, on the flip side, criminalizing the economic transactions of sex by homosexual or bisexual men. This in depth analysis of the intersectionality of politics and sexuality was very interesting to me. One story she including about “The Happy Camp in Curacao” was particularly disturbing and illustrative of the oppressive situation surrounding sex (90). Kempadoo did a wonderful job of drawing her readers in through similar stories of how men referred to workingwomen. One quote that stood out to me was a man referring to a woman as “butt ugly” (124). The way Kempadoo reflects the cultural interpretation of “hegemonic constructs of sexuality” served her purpose as hooking the audience into the conversation about sexuality and politics in the Caribbean (2).

Another area I thought Kempadoo did justice in explaining was the role of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean. Kempadoo acknowledges that “AIDS is now established as the leading cause of death in the Caribbean” and the “initial problem of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean is traced to gay sex tourism” (167). She traces the history of the epidemic as well as explains the role this disease has in the local communities regarding gender roles, sexuality, and economic consequences. One question I had for the author was how the organizations targeting vulnerable populations, such as female sex laborers, and the government interacted since the government regulated these “vectors of disease” in the first place and criminalized homosexual acts (169, 170). Another question I had for Kempadoo is why she did not focus on organizations—if any—trying to reach homosexual sex laborers as she previously states the illness was introduced via “gay sex tourism” (167). Also I have questions about how the these organizations were continuing to operate within a society that regulates and perpetuates a stigma of discrimination against sex workers. Many scholars forget to include the vulnerable populations, such as sex workers, migrants, and adolescents, but Kamala Kempadoo successfully created a mental picture of the complexity of the HIV/AIDS issue at hand in the Caribbean. As someone who has an interest in medical humanities, her inclusion of medical violence as a disturbing aspect of daily life was very effective. She discusses how although “the government tolerates all activities in the name of servicing male sexual desires” many at risk groups for contracting HIV are denied healthcare and treatment (102).

Kamala Kempadoo effectively outlines the influence of colonial history on the racial and economic boundaries seen today in the Caribbean, especially when discussing women in sex work. She also includes a political aspect to her analysis, which adds another dimension to her argument that gender roles were established by colonial powers and instilled in local culture. Kempadoo demonstrates strength as an author by equally intriguing and disturbing her audience as well as providing an informative historical and legal context. Sexing the Caribbean should definitely be read by students participating in a Gender and Sexuality Studies course, if they have an interest in human rights and prostitution, or would simply like to be well aware of the impact of colonialism has today on social structures and sex work.

Kempadoo, Kamala. Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Blu Electronic Cigarettes – The Reinforcement of Sexual Norms and the Co-opting of Rebellious Smoking in Cigarette Advertisements

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Image from NPR: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/03/284006424/e-cigarette-critics-worry-new-ads-will-make-vaping-cool-for-kids

Blu Electronic Cigarettes markets themselves as a healthier, cooler alternative to tobacco cigarettes. To that end, in 2014 the company released a full page advertisement featuring the body of a woman in order to attract primarily young, white consumers. This advertisement is in a format that is suited to magazines, webpages, and billboards. It was found in Sports Illustrated magazine and on Sports Illustrated’s website, which suggests that the advertisement is intended to target men. However, the images and text in this advertisement are strongly in line with historical strategies intended to market cigarettes to women, which suggests that women are also an intended target. Either way, Blu’s advertisement relies on and perpetuates images of sexualized femininity in order to sell their product, and in doing so finds a place in the continuing relationship between women and cigarette marketing.

Instead of burning tobacco, electronic cigarettes heat and vaporize liquids that contain nicotine, which the user then inhales[i]. In this advertisement, Blu ignores promoting the supposed comparative health benefits of electronic cigarettes or their ‘cool’ factor, and instead opts for the lowest common denominator of advertising – sex sells! The advertisement is dominated by the body of a young, thin, white woman at a beach in a bikini bottom labeled ‘Blu Electronic Cigarettes’. She is only shown from just below the rib cage to halfway down her thighs, centered on her groin. An image of the product itself occupies a small space in the lower right corner of the page, opposite the slogan ‘Slim. Charged. Ready to Go.’, directions to the company’s website, and health disclaimers in the smallest of small print.

The focus on the model’s sexual appeal instead of the product being sold reinforces the sexualization of femininity in American culture. The model’s genitalia, figure, and race are all highlighted as elements of her physical attractiveness. The viewer’s gaze is drawn directly to the model’s crotch, where the company’s name is stamped across her bikini bottom. Thus, the Blu Electronic Cigarettes brand is literally attached to the vagina. The image is constructed so that you can’t miss that association. If, by some chance, the viewer missed the model’s groin on the first look, all the lines of focus direct the gaze back to the model’s vagina. The model’s fingers, the insides of her thighs, the packaging of the cigarette recharge kit and the jewelry in the model’s belly button all act as arrows pointing the viewer’s attention straight back to her vagina. The focus on the model’s genitalia sexualizes her femininity. When one recalls the phallic shape of a cigarette itself, the sexual overtones of the image are overwhelming. In this context, the words in the slogan ‘Charged’ and ‘Ready to Go’ take on a sexual connotation, suggesting the primary importance of the female body is its sexual potential. For the purpose of this advertisement, the model’s function is entirely for her sex appeal. A further examination of the model shows that she is thin around the waist, and her impossibly photo-shopped ‘thigh gap’ is prominently displayed. An implicit comparison between the slimness of the model and the slimness of the cigarettes is drawn by word ‘Slim’ in the slogan. According to Blu, sexy women must be thin. Men viewing this advertisement internalize that thin women are sexy women, and women themselves learn that they must slim down for men to find them physically attractive. Thus, this advertisement reinforces the notion that thinness is required for sexual attractiveness in women. Finally, the model is a white woman, which perpetuates the default of whiteness as the sexual ideal in American culture.

Unfortunately, Blu’s advertising strategy appears effective, as young people are exposed to electronic cigarette advertisements and are using electronic cigarettes is larger and larger numbers. Even though tobacco cigarettes cannot be advertised to minors, those restrictions do not yet apply to electronic cigarettes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 69% of middle school and high school students in America viewed electronic cigarette advertisements in 2014[ii]. All this advertising is having an effect. Again from the CDC, from 2013 to 2014 the usage of electronic cigarettes among American middle school and high school students tripled, increasing to 3.9% of middle school students and 13.4% of high school students[iii]. Aside from the well-known adverse effects of youth nicotine use, these numbers show that the next generation of Americans are still witnessing and likely internalizing outrageously sexualized images of women as the norm of glamorous, sexy and cool.

This advertisement fits comfortably in the long history of cigarette advertisements aimed at women. In 1928, Edward Bernays orchestrated an Easter Day parade featuring “a number of genteel women” publicly smoking in a New York City on Fifth Avenue. He then ran a series of advertisements for Lucky Strike cigarettes aimed at women, knowing that women were an untapped, potentially lucrative client base. Thus began the co-opting of women smoking as a sign of defiance by cigarette companies and advertising agencies. Early slogans included “You’ve come a long way, baby” from Lucky Strike, referencing the women’s liberation movement of the 1920s[iv]. In the 1930s, A Chesterfield advertisement suggested that, “Women started to vote… just about the time they began to smoke”. Philip Morris followed suit, exclaiming “Believe in Yourself!” above the image of a glamorous smoking woman. These advertisements also capitalized on sexual norms, suggesting that smoking would keep women skinny with the slogan “Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet”[v]. Much later, Camel released a brand called Camel No. 9, designed to evoke the glamor and sex appeal of perfumes and pop songs. Of course, all of the women shown in the advertisements were thin white women. The advertising succeeded in changing cultural norms. Women began smoking in larger numbers as they saw smoking as a glamorous, independent act. The effects carry over to this day. Twenty percent of modern women smoke[vi], and in modern culture, smoking can give women an air of power and eloquence, as seen in the television show Mad Men and the feature length movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Blu Electronic Cigarette’s advertisement fits in the pattern of previous cigarette ads aimed at women. It markets its product to women with vague allusions to women’s sexual liberation, promises of thinness, and the allure of the white sexual ideal.

The advertisement promoting Blu Electronic Cigarettes perpetuates the social norm of white sexualized femininity. The product is advertised solely by an attractive, thin, white model, or more precisely, the model’s barely concealed vagina. In doing so, Blu finds a comfortable place in the tradition of marketing cigarettes to women by co-opting women’s liberation and promising that their product will make women sexier, skinnier, and cooler.

 

Citations:

[i] “How VaporFi E-Cigarettes and Vaporizers Work.” How VaporFi E-Cigarettes and Vaporizers Work. VaporFi, Inc., International Vapor Group, Inc., n.d. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://www.vaporfi.com/how-it-works/>.

[ii] “E-cigarette Ads Reach Nearly 7 in 10 Middle and High-school Students.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 05 Jan. 2016. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http:www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0416-e-cigarette-use.html>

[iii] “E-cigarette Use Triples among Middle and High School Students in Just One Year.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/p0416-e-cigarette-use.html>.

[iv] Lee, Jennifer 8. “Big Tobacco’s Spin on Women’s Liberation.” City Room Big Tobaccos Spin on Women’s Liberation Comments. The New York Times Company, 10 Oct. 2008. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/10/big-tobaccos-spin-on-womens-liberation/?_r=0>.

[v] Christian, Wendy. “Torches of Freedom: Women and Smoking Propaganda – Sociological Images.” Sociological Images Torches of Freedom Women and Smoking Propaganda Comments. W. W. Norton & Company, 27 Feb. 2007. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/02/27/torches-of-freedom-women-and-smoking-propaganda/>.

[vi] “Women and Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 Aug. 2002. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5112a4.htm>.