Raunchy and liberated are not synonyms

The rise of raunch culture

Feminists are torn: Is it porn or liberation of women’s sexuality?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It’s only 10:30 p.m. on a muggy Thursday evening at Margarita Mama’s at Station Square, deep in the heart of what passes for “raunch” culture in Pittsburgh. Already the place looks like an ad for Victoria’s Secret — lots of satin and lace, jiggling cleavage and exposed midriffs.

The night is young — the bikini contest isn’t scheduled until 1:30 a.m., after all — but there is a sense of quiet anticipation among the largely 20-something crowd. One girl in a pink satin baby doll top, hopping expectantly from foot to foot, shows her ID to a bouncer. Another girl, tanned and towering more than 6 feet in ultra-short black hot pants, swigs from her beer and sways uncertainly on her gold stilettos.

Nearby, four young women are sitting at a table out on the deck, observing the action. They are smoking and drinking and laughing and tossing their hair. But they won’t stick around for the bikini contest, or any other of the shenanigans that have been known to break out at this bar and others in Pittsburgh and all across America — a girl grinding her hips between two boys on the dance floor, maybe even a little flash of breast.

That’s because, at the respective ages of 21, 23 and 27, these girls say they’re tired of acting “hot” just to get a man, and scoff at the notion, relentlessly pushed in magazines, movies, music and on MTV, that acting raunchy — stripping or imitating porn stars in their dress or behavior — is a feminist act that empowers women.

“If you have class, you don’t do that sort of stuff,” says Paula Scarpaci, 27, who is wearing a relatively demure white tube top, sans lace or rhinestones. “And we have class. Maybe it’s kind of snobby, but we’re not into that kind of thing. I guess we’re all a little frigid here,” she exclaims, as her girlfriends break out in giggles.

While Ms. Scarpaci and her friends say they’ve moved on, there are plenty of young women coming up the ranks to take their place, teenagers who’ve grown up with belly shirts and Wexford’s own Christina Aguilera — surely the poster child for raunch — who believe that looking “skanky” is ever so much more important than “pretty.” Which teenagers? Why, the little sisters of their friends, of course, “who are 18, 19 and 20, and who think whoever wears less looks the best,” said Sarah Koch, one of Ms. Scarpaci’s friends at the table.

Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette photos
It’s College Night every Thursday at the Station Square hot spot, Margarita Mama’s, where the crowd awaits the weekly bikini contest.
Click any photo for larger image.

Somehow, almost without our noticing it, raunch culture — once the province of girlie magazines and pre-Walt-Disney Times Square — has gone mainstream in the past decade.

It’s everywhere: not just in bars like this one, but in “Girls Gone Wild” videos, where middle-class college girls on spring break perform sex acts with each other for the cameras. In Playboy magazine, female Olympian athletes pout and pose in the buff. College students give lap dances on MTV’s “The Real World,” and Jenna Jamison’s book “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” was a best seller a few years ago.

Locally, Club One-Shadyside fitness center will hold cardio-striptease classes from time to time that “are very popular with women of all ages,” says general manager Chris Labischak. Then again, the tiny thongs for sale at Wet Seal’s store at the Waterfront — emblazoned with “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” — could only fit an 11-year-old (although the saleswoman says purchasers are “at least 15 years old”).

This very Saturday, the pierced and purple-haired set can take in a nationally touring “burlesque show” at the Rex Theatre on the South Side, a “punk-rock-inspired take on the traditional pasties and feathers act” according to the press release, using music ranging from Marilyn Manson to “Hey Big Spender.” It’s sponsored by Suicidegirls.com, a social networking Web site that calls itself “empowered erotica for real women.”

Raunch has even gone highbrow: At Harvard University, students started a sex magazine, H Bomb. It wasn’t the first: Vassar launched “Squirm” magazine five years ago. But H Bomb, its editors claimed, was meant to be artistic, not pornographic: its nudes might be covered in mud or grass or paint to make a “statement,” whereas Boston University’s student-founded “Boink” magazine is more straightforward, with photos of young men and women in Playboy-esque, come-hither poses and how-to articles like “The Straight Girl’s Guide to Sleeping With Chicks.”

“It’s porn,” says Boink’s editor, Alecia Oleyourryk. “It’s meant to arouse, to excite.”

But now, there are signs of a backlash, even from those who believe in more sexual freedom for women, not less.

Ariel Levy, a New York writer and a self-avowed feminist, tagged along with the producers of “Girls Gone Wild” videos, initially just out of amused curiosity. Disturbed by what she saw, she wrote “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.” Her book, along with “Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families” by Pamela Paul, are hot topics on the talk show and blog circuit.

Ms. Levy, in a recent phone interview, recalled watching while a “Girls Gone Wild” crew set up a shot on the beach featuring a college girl who had promised to flash her breasts.

“More and more people started circling around, and it reminded me of seagulls circling around trash someone had left on the beach, and I began wondering what would happen if the girl didn’t comply. Would they start to throw rocks at her?”

Some of this is about young women rebelling against their feminist moms, she says, while others truly believe they are engaged in a feminist act.

“Women would tell me they’d earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes,” Ms. Levy noted, because these women no longer believed they had to worry about objectification or misogyny, and that instead it was time to go men one better.

In their own words

”I went to Metropol one night wearing this golden halter top that the guy I was with convinced me to wear, and I felt naked. I wanted to go home. I was definitely an attention getter in my younger days, though. It seemed like it would be fun at the time, to be experimenting. I wasn’t very comfortable doing sexual things, but at the time I didn’t know it would make me feel uncomfortable until I did it…

“This was 10 years ago, and I was idolizing Madonna and she was doing all these crazy things. I guess I was fairly typical. The idea of these women being very loud, acting the way misogynist men do, using men for sex the way they’ve been used in the past, can be demeaning for women.

“Today, I manage an apartment building near Duquesne University where a lot of students live, and I’ve walked in more than once and broken up parties where women are grinding each other and kissing all over the place for the boys. Raunch is alive and well in Pittsburgh, believe me.”

— Sarah Lolley, 29

“I have been known to make out with a girl at a bar knowing people are watching, but I date girls as well as guys. And sometimes, at a bar, there are guys who are disgusting, who won’t leave you alone. So if you’re making out with a girlfriend, it’s kind of like a [expletive] you. Still, the predominant motivation is to get the boy’s attention, as feminist theorists would say, for ‘the male gaze.’ Which is why I think if there’s a group of people around saying you should make out with a chick, that’s disempowering. But if you say to yourself, I wonder what would happen if I tried this, that’s different. It depends on whether that drive comes from within or outside pressure.”

— Jessica Snodgress, 23

” When I worked at this bar near Pitt, which is now closed, I saw some of the most ridiculous stuff working there. They’d have these wet T-shirt contests, and you’d have a lot of alcohol and some girls clearly intoxicated running around in a thong and bra and then they’d take the bra off. It was pretty crazy. But I’m not sure how much these girls did it to attract men. It was more like, I can do whatever I want. And of course the alcohol played a large part.

” Of course, if I would have talked to you in college, I would have had a much different opinion. I grew up in Shaler, and when I came to Pitt, I had no idea what to expect. I ended up working at a bar in Oakland, where it was no-holds-barred, just go and have fun.

— Christine Claus, 24


“If male chauvinist pigs were men who regarded women as pieces of meat, we would outdo them and be female chauvinist pigs: women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves.”

“It’s laughable that we’ve decided that raunch culture is good for women,” she said.

Bill Horn, a spokesman for Mantra Films, which produces the $100 million DVD series “Girls Gone Wild,” begs to differ.

“Women are much more in touch with their sexuality now than they were 20 years ago,” he said. “They’re being allowed to make their own sexual decisions. They line up around the block to get in our events.”

Ms. Levy’s book has also been criticized by other feminists who describe themselves as “pro-sex.” It’s a split that dates back to the early days of the women’s movement, which remains divided today on the question of whether pornography is demeaning to women.

Ms. Levy’s critique ignores the positive side of raunch culture, says Rachel Kramer Bussel, an author of erotic books who also writes for The Village Voice and Penthouse.

“It leaves no room to reclaim anything, no room for feminist women to make porn, be self-proclaimed feminist porn stars, or just grapple with our naked bodies. She’s missing a whole culture of young women who are making their own sexual art, feminists trying to reclaim their own sexuality, on their own terms, in a public way that is not demeaning or degrading.”

“People think I’m trying to lead women back into the burka,” responds Ms. Levy. “I’m just trying to start a discussion here.”

While Barb Minnich, behavioral health therapist at the Child and Family Counseling Center at Children’s Hospital, says she doesn’t know any teenage girls and young women in her practice who are fans of “Girls Gone Wild,” they differ markedly in their approach to sexuality than a generation ago.

“There’s definitely a paradigm shift going on in girls and adolescents, from traditional views about sex to a more assertive lifestyle. They’re saying, ‘I can dress the way I want because I am who I am, and it’s OK.’ The culture is saying ‘whoa,’ and the girls are saying ‘whoo.’ ”

Not every woman can get away with public displays of raunch. Television news anchor Catherine Bosley in Youngstown, Ohio, lost her job after topless videos of her at a Florida wet T-shirt contest 10 months earlier surfaced online. And while “Desperate Housewives” tops the television ratings, abstinence-only education is taught in 80 percent of the nation’s public schools and the country is polarized over gay marriage.

But those conflicted feelings about sexuality in America actually fuel the success of “Girls Gone Wild” here, but not in Europe, said Mr. Horn, the Mantra Films spokesman. “We’ll never be popular there because seeing someone’s breasts is not that big of a deal there. We wouldn’t be a success if it wasn’t for the puritanical streak that runs through American culture.”

Indeed, said Ms. Levy, “It stands to reason that if you’re trying to regulate sexuality as hard as you can, it will explode out in other ways.”

But the particular expression of sexuality seen in “Girls Gone Wild” seems designed to appeal to traditional male sensibilities circa 1970, she added, rather than as a true reflection of a woman’s own erotic feelings.

“[Girls Gone Wild] is very trashy, commercialized, formulaic, and very unthreatening. I do think it’s the case that if we weren’t so uptight, we wouldn’t need to have this very confining, very limited shorthand for sexiness. Raunchy and liberated are not synonyms.”

What perhaps Ms. Levy is missing, however, is that many of these women eventually do come to their senses — although few harbor regrets about their youthful indiscretions.

Christine Claus, 24, of Shaler, who recently graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, remembered her college days with some mixed feelings. Shivering onstage during one wet T-shirt contest after being doused with cold water “was not a freeing thing,” she said.

“You’re told what to do, given a number and they vote for who they want to keep up on the stage. I had a friend who did it with me who doesn’t have a very large chest who was voted off right away, while another woman up on the stage was shouting and pointing at her breasts and saying, ‘Come on guys, I paid $5,000 for these!’ You are totally being treated like a piece of meat.”

Still, when she decided to participate, it was not to make a feminist statement. “It was about going out and getting drunk and having a good time.”

And what may have seemed fairly shocking in the late 1990s isn’t now.

Sarah Lolley, 29, of the South Side and editor of the now-defunct magazine Access, which covered Pittsburgh’s club scene, says that raunchy behavior — two women making out for the benefit of a group of men — is fairly commonplace in Pittsburgh today. In 1998, a national chain calling itself BAR Pittsburgh opened in The Strip, “where they encouraged you to get on the bar and dance around, or make out with each other. Today you can see that going on at any bar.”

Jessica Snodgress, 23, a recent graduate of Chatham College, says she’s seen a dramatic change in attitudes about dress, at least, in the past three years.

Ariel Levy — “Raunchy and liberated are not synonyms.”
Click photo for larger image.

“When I first moved back here from Austin, Texas, everyone thought I dressed like a slut,” she says, remembering comments to that effect from co-workers, people at bars, or just on the street.

But in three years, she adds, “there’s been a rapid undressing going on.” Now, she hardly stands out in a crowd.

Still, the ultimate standard-bearer for raunch culture, indeed the inspiration for Ms. Levy’s book, continues to elude Pittsburgh.

The closest, in fact, that local college women have come to a “Girls Gone Wild” producer was last fall, when a young man appeared on the campuses of Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham College asking young women if they would participate in a video where they would expose themselves.

Problem was, he was only pretending to be a “Girls Gone Wild” producer, and got arrested.

And “Girls Gone Wild” isn’t planning to come to Pittsburgh, where going topless in public is illegal, unlike, say, Austin, anytime soon.

“It’s not on our upcoming calendar,” said Mr. Horn cheerfully, “although from the sounds of things, it appears you people in Pittsburgh have pretty much got the ‘Girls Gone Wild’ lifestyle down pat.

“But who knows which way the wind will blow our buses? Stay tuned.”


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