In the annals of dumb media controversies that have happened this month, the brief shitfight over the allegedly raunchy picture of 13-year-old Willow Smith with a shirtless 20-year-old bro has been overshadowed by the likes of Macklemore’s Jewface dildism, the Michael Jackson hologram, and the continuing Jill Abramson fallout. And James Franco. Obviously. Clearly, the whole business was exactly the sort of thing that the expression “a tempest in a teacup” was invented for. I was happy to see it consigned to history — that is, until reports surfaced that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are now under investigation by child protective services over the photo. The fact that this is even a possibility reveals something disturbing about American society’s views on sex and sexuality.
There’s been endless debate over the last few years about what plenty of professionally concerned people see as the sexualization of American pop culture. These complaints are usually couched in classic “but won’t someone think of the children” rhetoric — recently it’s been indie also-rans Warpaint in the news for their complaints about Beyoncé and Rihanna, but you hear this stuff all the time. It’s not just from conservatives, either — Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs and its theories of “raunch culture” threw a grenade into contemporary feminism a decade ago, and the points it raised have remained the subject of much Tumblr and listserv angst ever since.
All these complaints start from a similar premise — that an increased tolerance for more explicit depictions of sex and sexuality in pop culture, along with the ubiquity of Internet porn and various other causative factors, are combining to expose our society, and specifically its children, to a bombardment of sexual imagery. The negative effects of this process supposedly include a general undermining of childhood, along with more specific issues such as impact on children’s perceptions of body image and how sexual relationships actually work.
I’m not going to argue that there’s no merit to this thesis — clearly, any culture that throws up stuff like this has some self-reflection to do. But I would argue that it’s only half of the story. American culture is characterized as much by a sort of prurient conservatism as it is by hyper-sexualization, and as far as I’m concerned they’re two sides of the same coin. They’re both founded in the idea of sex as something bad, something naughty, something inappropriate, something that should be hidden away. And they both come back to a sort of voyeuristic fascination with what does or doesn’t go on in other people’s bedrooms.
Because, look: the sort of puritanical hysteria that accompanies discussions of things like Willow Smith’s Instagram photo is also a way of sexualizing childhood, and one that’s far more subtly destructive than Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs could ever be. It starts from the idea that an image of a young girl and a shirtless man is inherently sexual, and also from the premise that sex itself is inherently negative, the sin of adulthood contrasted with the innocence of childhood. Jessica Valenti’s book The Purity Myth goes deeper into this subject, focusing in particular on how America’s obsession with virginity is a modern expression of the Madonna/whore binary, one that’s just as destructive and oppressive in its own way as any other example of this godawful age-old repressive dichotomy.
Valenti concentrates on how the virginity obsession is damaging to women, in that the standard of “purity” is as much an expression of patriarchy as are standards of sexual attractiveness: “What’s the difference between venerating women for being fuckable and putting them on a purity pedestal? In both cases, women’s worth is contingent upon their ability to please men and to shape their sexual identities around what men want.”
In this respect, she argues, sanctimonious morality is a means of repression: “If you spend any amount of time doing media analysis, it’s clear that the most frenzied moral panic surrounding young women’s sexuality comes from the mainstream media, which loves to report about how promiscuous girls are, whether they’re acting up on spring break, getting caught topless on camera, or catching all kinds of STIs. Unsurprisingly, these types of articles and stories generally fail to mention that women are attending college at the highest rates in history, and that we’re the majority of undergraduate and master’s students.”
She’s 100% correct, of course — the simultaneous objectification and vilification of women provides the bedrock on which rape culture is founded. But I’d extrapolate even further: as with many aspects of patriarchy, this sort of finger-waving morality is destructive to everyone. This isn’t a “Hey it’s just as bad for men” argument, I hasten to add — but it’s important to realize that the idea of sex as forbidden fruit has effects that reach beyond their most immediately destructive and awful manifestations. It worms its way into every aspect of American culture, from the weird obsession with abortion to the moral grandstanding of demagogues on both the right and the left.
So, where does all this sexual weirdness come from? There’s no easy answer to this, obviously, beyond the fact that both the sexualization of culture and the hysterical backlash against it have their roots in a whole lot of cultural sexual hangups. Where those hangups come from is a fascinating subject that deserves its own PhD thesis — our own Judy Berman wrote a couple of weeks back about how Ellen Willis’ final work suggests that the whole damn country needs a radical Freudian realignment, and it’s hard to argue with this conclusion. There are religious aspects, certainly — after all, Christianity is founded on the idea of the original sin, and America was founded in part by some particularly extreme practitioners of the religion — but there are ostensibly Christian countries that are far more sensible about this sort of stuff than America is.
It’s striking to go to, say, Germany and see how people of every age and gender happily go swimming in the nude together. You can imagine some sort of American moral majority type jumping up and down about the “inappropriateness” of exposing children to the spectacle of adults with no clothes on — but really, it’s a sign of a culture that is able to separate nudity from sexuality. Similarly, there are plenty of European countries where graphic sex and even porn on TV don’t raise an eyebrow. Clearly, correlation isn’t causation, but one can’t help but notice they all have lower rates of teen pregnancy than the more conservative likes of Russia, the UK, and the US.
It ultimately comes back to having a grown-up and non-sensationalist approach to sex, rather than having half your culture full of objectified temptresses in tiny bikinis and the other half dedicated to jumping up and down in righteous horror. All of which brings us back to poor little Willow Smith and her friend. A culture with a more mature attitude about sex might see a photo of a teen girl hanging out with a shirtless older friend and think, “Hey, it must have been hot that day because the dude has no shirt on” or “Hey, Willow’s hair looks cool.” Not here, though. Instead, the image is immediately sexualized — just look how breathlessly TMZ reported it (“[Some people]… have called the image perverted!”) — to the extent that the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services is now involved. Good job, everybody.