Supersexualised Market and the New Body Politic

Braj Ranjan Mani

The supersexualised market and its mindless validation encourage the assumption that feminist and all equalitarian struggles have ended, that equality for all women and men has been achieved, and the deserving lot can now have anything they want. Its sexy-selfish template trivialises all social commitment and mocks any serious engagement with arts, literature, politics, or spirituality.

In the market culture, money forms the ties of affection and love. Personal relationships, like other things in life, are the function of wealth and possession. Promotional ads seldom depict a man's economic success without possessing a playgirl or a trophy wife, the more (women) the merrier. This fits in with the concept of possession—possessing property leads to possessing fetching and fertile females. The neatness of the fit between economic success and sexual success is not surprising since both are manifestations of the same dominant ideology and value system. This is in sync with the traditional—patriarchal—concept of woman as a maal (property). The modern capitalist commodification of woman is just an updated version of the patriarchal objectification of woman. The commercial culture just packages the old heterosexual stereotypes in a new feisty vocabulary of female empowerment and an exuberant celebration of the body.

The market appeals to naturalness and ubiquity of sex to sell or service, which in its turn makes sex an object of exchange and commerce. The marketers promise that there is no happiness or sexual bliss that your money cannot buy you. Thus, sexuality unleashed and celebrated in the market is never free in itself. It is a symbol, as John Berger says, for the good life in which you can buy whatever you want. "To be able to buy is the same thing as being sexually desirable...the implicit message [is:] if you are able to buy this product you will be lovable. If you cannot buy it, you will be less lovable." * [John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: BBC and Penguin, 1981), p. 144.]

Since nothing defuses the arbitrariness of capitalism like sex, the three-letter word, especially the female sexuality and its pornographic commercial celebration has taken the centre stage in the market. In order to lure customers and sell things, the presence of a half-clad model with bedroom eyes has become mandatory to sell everything—from sofa and car to beer and hard liquor. Ads often dismember women's—and now men's, too—bodies to emphasise their erogenous parts to promote the products. Pointing to the female objectification at its most pernicious, Margaret Atwood contends that the powers that be can invoke or bring in anything—national debt, patriotism, or other "noble" or "moral" cause—to exploit the female flesh:

It [the female body] sells cars, shaving lotion, cigarettes, hard liquor; it sells diet plans and diamonds, and desire in tiny crystal bottles... It does not merely sell, it is sold. Money flows into this country or that country, flies in, practically crawls in, suitcase after suitcase, lured by all those hairless pre-teen legs. Listen, you want to reduce the national debt, don't you? Aren't you patriotic? That's the spirit. That's my girl. She's a natural resource, a renewable one luckily, because those things wear out so quickly... * [Margaret Atwood, "The Female Body," in idem Good Bones (Couch House Press, 1992).]

Above all, the market commercialises sex by stereotyping sex roles. Inculcation and normalisation of masculine and feminine stereotypes is necessary for boosting sales and turning sex into a thriving industry. The market-induced standards of hot body (that rarely match what most women and men actually look like) immensely enhance the scope to give hopes—sell things—to the less feminine, the less masculine. The bottom line is: solution to your sexual problem is something you have to pay for. Buying the product will supersexualise you. In advertisements, the tag line goes something like, Hey guys! Want to become alpha male, seductive female! Want to heighten your sex appeal and overall confidence! Then, buy the magic grooming products and colognes! Instinct from Axe, Swagger by Old Spice, Magnetic Attraction Enhancing Body Wash by Dial. Body wash. Face wash. Exfoliating wash. Body spray. Body hydrator. Shaving cream. Deodorant. And, of course, shampoos, conditioner and hair gel. According to a 2010 report in The New York Times, worldwide retail sales of such products for boys ages 8 to 19 would be around $ 2 billion. And sales of beauty products for young women, of course, would be many, many times higher. Sex sells!

For profit-maximisation at any cost, the market exerts a wider set of pressures on people, especially youngsters, to embrace and engage in casual sex. The market is saturated with sexual imagery and content whose effect is to reinforce the idea that sexual activities are central to our life. Teenagers are bombarded with publicity that shows premature sexual activity as a benchmark of being cool, trendy and advanced. The most perverse aspect of selling sex is the advertisers' growing tendency to presenting children in sexually provocative clothing and poses to sell products—a marketing method that has come to be known as "corporate paedophilia." Even the most reputable companies indulge in such crime to up their sell. Philosopher Clive Hamilton contends that corporate paedophilia is so "widespread and unremarked that it stands as testimony to the Freudian denial on a mass scale." Citing the phenomenon of young cheerleaders as sex symbols, he says that the delusion of the mothers who insist that their daughters' routine are in no way sexual—despite the short skirts, clingy tops and bottom-thrusting—would be shattered if they "spent five minutes with their ears open, listening to the lechers on the terraces as their daughters performed." He makes the point that such consent and acceptance has been "extracted by subtle coercion—not by the other party but by social groups and the wider culture." In an oversexualised climate created by the market forces, participating in sexual shows and activities by youngsters can be a way of winning social approval and group acceptance. * [Clive Hamilton, The Freedom Paradox, (Noida: Allen-Unwin with Viva, 2009), p. 203.]

Biological model of sexuality

Since the market is already saturated with sex and porn, there is a mad race among the marketers to produce even more stimulating words and images to get the public attention and peddle sex as a master solution to all problems. The love of lucre blinds them to the fact that seeing sex as panacea is as reductive and dangerous as seeing sex as sin. Earlier, sin used to be "to give in to one's sexual desires;" now, it is not to have "full and repeated sexual satisfaction." Today, it is sin not to have full libidinal health, full sexual expression "but in the same old puritan form—alienation from body and feeling, and exploitation of the body as though it were a machine." Indiscriminate sex is being hailed as a substitute to the anxiety of aloneness and emotional depletion compounded by a dwindling community life. Sexuality, seceded from intimacy and social sensitivity, is hailed as liberation. "What goes into building a relationship—the sharing of tastes, fantasies, dreams, hopes for the future and fears from the past—seem to make people more shy and vulnerable than going to bed with each other. They are more wary of the tenderness that goes with psychological and spiritual nakedness than they are of the physical nakedness in sexual intimacy." * [Rollo May, "Antidotes for the New Puritanism," The Saturday Review, 26 March, 1966. Italics added.]

Earlier, she wanted more intimacy and he wanted more penetration; now she has caught up, well... overtaken him in divorcing sex from intimacy, if we are to believe libertarians like Katherine Millet whose sensational memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M. is advertised by the publisher as "a manifesto of our times—when the sexual equality of women is a reality and where love and sex have gone their own separate ways." * [Katherine Millet, The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (London: Sepent's Tail, 2002).] The thesis statement in Millet's memoir is stark: "Fucking is an antidote to boredom. I find it easier to give my body than my heart." She gives explicit accounts of hundreds of sexual encounters, especially orgies in which she is penetrated in every orifice. She boasts of having had sex with a hundred men in one single night. She admits she cannot remember most of them and did not even see many. But she is so sure that only through such sexual abandon can we find full freedom and that any criticism of her remorseless sexual orgies is not just neurotic but oppressive as well. This form of free and depersonalised sex is being hailed in the society set as a major triumph of the female power rather than actualisation of primordial male or female fantasy in which all finer feelings drown in a sea of testosterone. The blunt biological point of "anatomy is destiny"—"penis fits vagina"—is being stretched to the dangerous extreme by asserting, "love is the victim's response to the rapist," or, "when rape is inevitable, lie down and enjoy."

Such biological model of sexuality is a dangerous nonsense because sex is not simply a natural bodily function. Of course, sex is a drive or instinct, but like all human drives and instincts, sex, too, is developed and cultivated in society. Though natural, sex involves a decision, a judgement. Even for the believers in free sex, it is neither involuntary nor indiscriminate. Defining sex as purely biological can be questioned from many anti-essentialist perspectives. Foucault demolished the sexuality-as-biology thesis in his History of Sexuality, along with the assumption that such a natural, biological sexuality could be "liberated" outside the society and culture. Sexual identities are not merely the expression of natural instincts, but are social and political constructs as well. "Sexuality has always been the site where the future of our species, and at the same time our truth as human subjects, are formed." Foucault rightly sees sexuality as a historically and culturally constructed domain of experience that is shaped by social relations of power. As he put it, sexuality constitutes "an especially dense transfer point for relations of power: between men and women, young people and old people, parents and offspring, teachers and students, priests and laity, an administration and a population." * [Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976, 1990, p. 103.]

Sexual needs, values and emotions are shaped by society and politics. The assumption—and theorisation—of the Freudian Marxists and feminist radicals of the 1960s and 70s such as Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich and Shere Hite that took a categorically biological view of sexuality, along with the optimism that sexual liberation will overcome capitalism and transform the social order was naïve and utterly wrong. * [Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilisation: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (London: Routledge, 1956); Wilhelm Reich, The Sexual Revolution: Toward a Self-Governing Character Structure, fourth edn (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969 [1930]); Shere Hite, The Hite Report on Female Sexuality (New York: Dell, 1976).] In fancifully yoking Marx and Freud together—by proposing that workers and women couldn't be free until they were liberated from sexual repression and the tyranny of traditional family structures—the likes of Reich and Marcuse overlooked the social and material conditions under capitalist order. Their fascination with the body and the pleasures of consumption (mass market kitsch, shopping malls, television soap-operas) displaced the traditional Marxist focus on conditions of material production. They forgot that Marx himself had dismissed free love as a "bestial" prospect, tantamount to "general prostitution." * [See Francis Wheen, Marx's Das Kapital (Bhopal: Manjul Publication, 2008), p. 105.] It is notable what he writes in the Communist Manifesto, "Our bourgeois, not content with having wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other's wives." * [Robert C Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, Second edition (New York: Norton, 1978), p. 488.] He follows this up by asserting that only the abolition of the capitalist system of production would lead to the abolition of prostitution "both public and private."

The New Left's fond hopes that unfettered libido will not only liberate sexuality but also oppressive structures of power and patriarchy did more harm than good to the cause of a social revolution. Seeing sexuality as merely biological was, is, essentialist, one-dimensional, not very different from the dogma of evolutionary psychology. No wonder, sex-centred radicalism ended up with women simply internalising male ideas of sex and power. The concept of free sex was easily co-opted by the capitalist forces which went on to build a massive sex industry, based on pornography and prostitution in the wake of the sexual revolution. Now, it is clear as daylight that far from unalloyed pleasure, "free sex" is also the site of extreme selfishness, promiscuity, relationship risks, commercial exploitation, male violence, rape, pornography and prostitution. Sex is no exception to the truth that the extreme of anything leads to absurdity, sickness and decay. Sex has its place in life but when it is employed as a therapy to fill up social insecurity and emotion vacuum, and taken as a substitute to social action and transformation, it becomes dark and dangerous—a tool in the hands of oppressive forces.

Commercially packaged femininity

A total exclusion of labouring bodies and concealment of less than perfect faces and bodies in the corporate media tell the sinister story of sex, lies and advertising. In its ruthless pursuit of profit maximisation, the market culture has deceptively appropriated, mutilated and domesticated the liberating feminist ideas against an unbalanced and sick society. A feminist sociologist explains this nefarious trend:

Cultural images of women's beauty—and implicit ratings of their bodies—are replete throughout the culture.... Advertisements admonish women to be afraid—afraid of aging, afraid of food, afraid of being alone, afraid of having too small a bust. They promise that with the right products, a woman can be beguiling and seductive, as long as you change how you look. Smooth your skin, wear the right scent, change your hair colour, colour your lips, and above all, be thin! Why? To attract men. And, if the ads don't work, the articles tell you month after month how to please men: "Touch him this way," "The one word he's dying to hear during sex," "How to make scent your secret weapon" (an article on so-called "man-entrancing elixirs" at the workplace—as if all women needed at work was the sexual attention of men!"). And how does feminism fit in this? Advertisements tell it all: "The New Movement"—an ad for hair gel or "the new women's movement"—the ad copy for the bra! So not only do advertisements tell women exactly what they have to buy to have the right look, they have also appropriated the women's movement by claiming that new freedoms allow you to buy the right products. * [Margaret L Andersen, Thinking About Women: Sociological Perspectives on Sex'and Gender, sixth edn. (New York: Pearson, 2003), p. 56.]

The gap between an iconic perfect body and the natural body produces shame—and misery—for both women and men. The perceived lack of ideal femininity or masculinity even ruins many lives. The shame permeates the core of both their emotional lives and their personal selves. It manifests itself in the "obsession with diet, with exercise, and even with having surgery so that her body can be an object of pride and measure up to the cultural ideal of beauty and femininity." In advertisements, women's bodies are often fragmented in parts—the lips, the eyes, the breasts, the legs—each requiring a product-solution to enhance their values. From dieting and frenetic exercise, the fetish of a perfect body and obsession with weight and shape has led to the mushrooming of the cosmetic surgery centres. Facelifts, nose jobs, liposuction, breast augmentation, breast reduction, tummy tucks, buttocks lifts are the new ways to achieve the ideal of beauty. Go under the knife and take magic pills for fuller lips, slimmer hips, convex breasts, concave belly. Not long ago, 22-year-old Solange Magnano, a former Miss Argentina, died after complications during cosmetic surgery on her buttocks. Her death was mourned by a close friend who said, "A woman who had everything lost her life to have a slightly firmer behind."

While being commodified, women are made to believe in their new subjectivity and empowerment through a seductive discourse of playfulness, freedom and choice. Women are encouraged to cultivate erotic appeal and capitalise upon every aspect of it because sexual attractiveness is a personal asset that offers money and mobility. Catherine Hakim, for example, gleefully argues in a provocative book that women can—and should—use "erotic capital" to enhance their power "in the bedroom and the boardroom." * [Catherine Hakim, Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital (London: Allen Lane, 2011).] Fortunately, not everyone is as hunky-dory as Hakim, seeing lookism as the royal road to women's empowerment. "Midriff advertising," Rosalind Gill points out, "adds a further layer of oppression. Not only are women objectified now as they were before, but through sexual subjectification they must also now understand their own objectification as pleasurable and self-chosen." * [Rosalind Gill, "Supersexualise Me!", in Feona Attwood, ed, Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualisation of the Western Culture (London: I B Tauris, 2009), p. 107.] Gill argues that the supposed sexual subjectification of women actually re-sexualises women's bodies within a rigid heterosexual economy, in which power, pleasure and subjectivity are all presented in relation to traditional heterosexual relations. "Far from empowering women, it requires them to internalise and own an impossible view of women sexuality." It promotes a uniform standard of female beauty and sex appeal that excludes a large number of women who cannot meet these narrow sexy standards.

These women [fat women, older women, disabled women, lesbians and many other "unattractive" women] are never accorded sexual subjecthood. The figure of the "unattractive" woman who seeks a sexual partner remains one of the most vilified in popular culture. ... Sexual subjectification, then, is a highly specific and exclusionary practice, and sexual pleasure is actually irrelevant here; it is the power of sexual attractiveness that is important. Indeed, the two are frequently and deliberately confused in midriff advertisement. * [Rosalind Gill, "Supersexualise Me!" in Feona Attwood, ed, Mainstreaming Sex, pp. 104-5.]

When one's identity and self-esteem is so deeply tied up with one's body image, the body however beautiful turns into a structure that does not allow blossoming of one's individuality. The more women are ensnared in this kind of body politic—accepting looks as key to their self-image—the less (the worse) they think about themselves and others. This was brought out dramatically in an US survey some time ago in which over half of young women said they would prefer to be hit by a truck than be fat. * [Deborah Rhode, The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.)

Consumer culture targets both women and men with standardisation of femininity and masculinity, but women become more vulnerable to the beauty ideal because the female body is displayed as an object of power, and that power is based on beauty. Though images of men in popular culture are also stereotyped, they are generally shown in dominating, self-assured postures—as masculinity still means "natural" power and control—while the new femininity is like consuming and celebrating a kind of emancipatory nakedness. In other words, if man and woman are defined and judged by just their anatomies, he is still on top. As anatomy remains destiny, he is still the mover and she is the shaker. As the popular culture pushes women to "channel energy into being seen rather than into being strong, attracting becomes a substitute for acting." Far from liberation, succumbing to lookism is a trap that perpetuates the worthiness of a woman in terms of hooking a powerful man and "sharing his bed, bearing his children, and wearing his name." Only a thin line separates the commercially packaged femininity from a willing victimhood.

Erotic capital and prostitution

The pursuit of erotic perfection does not lead to personal or social bliss; it leads to a sex industry that lures women and men with promises of sexually-oriented shortcuts to success. "Want to buy a Rolex...a Contessa...clothes from Gucci, a sunglass from Rayban ...Don't worry if you don't have money ... You have a pretty face, a wonderful body that you can use and get those dream items." No wonder, all kinds of prostitutions are flourishing today—in addition to the traditional body trafficking induced by abject poverty and force which continue to blight millions of lives. (According to the UNICEF estimate in 2010, 1.8 million children are forced to enter sex trade each year.) Perhaps for the first time in history, thanks to the rise of consumerist culture of raunch, classy prostitutes and painted, perfumed gigolos have gained a global respectability. With the consumerist fever sweeping the world, the item girls, the models, the porn stars have become the role models—and envy—of many middle class youngsters. Singing the virtues of their "noble" professions, many pin-ups, porn stars and their patrons are penetrating the media, the market—and now even parliaments. This phenomenon, represented by the likes of Silvio Berlusconi, the former billionaire playboy prime minister of Italy, is currently more visible in the Euro-America, but the trend is gaining ground globally.

Today, there is no dearth of defence lawyers of prostitution, such as Camille Paglia and Katherine Millet, who are outraged by any criticism of prostitution. The decision to become a prostitute, they argue, is a free choice no different from becoming a schoolteacher, a waiter or a truck driver. In their view, sexual morality or coercion is a myth, and negative stereotyping of prostitutes is solely due to crass ignorance and outdated moralism. This is part of their philosophy of sex which hinges on the idea that sex—impersonal, paid, or anything—is more enjoyable when it is free of any expectations, obligations or intimacy. * [Camille Paglia, Vamps and Tramps: New Essays (New York: Vintage, 1994); Katherine Millet, The Sexual Life of Catherine M.] Decades ago in India, Durga Bhagwat, a Marathi author of repute, made a similar point, arguing that prostitutes render a valuable service to society, and that the flesh trade is a noble profession, to which Raja Dhale, a dalit writer, retorted, "Then, why don't you join the noble profession?"

The condemnation of prostitution is not based on a puritan bigotry but on a profound truth that our body and we are not two entities but one, and by selling the body we sell our dignity and integrity that anchors our individuality. When we put a price on our body, we debase not only ourselves but also all those who value us as individuals. Our sexuality is not a commodity that can be prised free from our beings, and sold in the market like other consumer products. Prostitution and pornography are human trafficking. Such marketing of human sexuality is not a tribute to either physical beauty or human freedom but a perversion of both. "The case against pornography is the case against the interest that it serves—the interest in seeing people reduced to their bodies, objectified as animals, made thing-like and obscene. This is an interest that many people have; but it is an interest at war with our humanity." * [Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (London: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 138.]

The pornification of market society, however, is part of a bigger phenomenon in which the power and wealth of those who prostitute their bodies are nothing in comparison to those (such as corporate CEOs and power pimps) who prostitute their minds to the highest bidder. Physical or intellectual, prostitution never fails to debase and dehumanise relationships and values. But the prostitution of mind is perhaps more odious, because it prepares the ground for perversion and corruption of the whole culture. The intellectual prostitution, though seldom recognised, has for long afflicted humanity, and has in fact been far more prevalent than the business of selling one's body. There is little doubt though that the business of selling one's mind and body has never been as flourishing as it is today, thanks to the ruling market forces which give the powerful prostitutes several other glamorous identities to hide their primary profession. Today, the most successful prostitutes, of both physical and intellectual variety, are those who remain invisible (as prostitutes).

On the surface, the sex roles appear to have changed in a radical way but has it brought more satisfaction to women and men? Has it really liberated women? If yes, how many and from which caste-and-class background? As a young Indian woman who writes on the politics of the body observes, "If one realises that we belong to a caste society that once demanded that untouchable women bare their breasts and not wear blouses, we'll move closer to understanding the male gaze that predominates advertising today. ...The stereotype of a sexually liberated woman desperately yearning for the zipless you-know-what is another corporate creation that only manifests male supremacy and female subjugation. ...The promotion of this licentiousness serves the material interests of the ruling classes. Those who advocate such a de-moralising of society have no tolerance to declass and decaste it. [It]...is an absolutely apolitical project. The nude woman in a corporate advertisement ...cannot speak at all, not even to save herself. It is merely a corporate appropriation of the feminist notion of freedom that does not envisage any social change. Sex and the City and its many clones may be about lusty and liberated women but they do not have a single care about the rest of the world." * [Meena Kandasamy, "All You Who Make Love To Mannequins," Outlook, December 26, 2011.]

The consumerist culture celebrates hypersexuality and peddles the idea that the young and the sexy means new brains, new bodies that bring in new approaches and new ideas. But this is appearance, not reality. It is not a movement away from the traditional trajectory of domination and subordination. Behind the facade of celebrating youth power and sexual freedom, it indulges in a new kind of reactionary politics. The supersexualised market and its mindless validation encourage the assumption that feminist and all equalitarian struggles have ended, that equality for all women and men has been achieved, and the deserving lot can now have anything they want. Its sexy-selfish template trivialises all social commitment and mocks any serious engagement with arts, literature, politics, or spirituality.

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Braj Ranjan Mani is the author of Debrahmanising History (Manohar, 2005). This write-up is excerpted from his forthcoming book, Reconstructing Knowledge: Transforming the Self and Society.