In recent years, there has been a dramatic (re)sexualisation of young women’s bodies in the media and society more broadly, which has prompted significant debate in academic and online feminist communities. This phenomenon has commonly come to be known as ‘raunch culture’ (Levy, 2005), and is considered a part of the increasing sexualisation of Western cultures wherein pornography has had an increasingly visible presence (McNair, 2002). A key feature of raunch culture involves a marked shift in constructions of female sexuality from a passive object of the male gaze to a confident, agentic and ‘up for it’ (hetero)sexual subject who freely chooses to use her sexuality to empower herself, that is, by gaining sexual power over men (Gill, 2007a, 2008). These constructions are not only evident in cultural representations of women (for example, in advertising) but appear to have taken root in the public consciousness, as products and services aimed at women to help them develop and express an ‘empowering’, explicit sexual style of femininity have proliferated (Evans, Riley & Shankar, 2010). Such opportunities include recreational burlesque classes (Regeher, 2012); pole dancing, which is now a popular form of exercise (Donaghue, Whitehead & Kurz, 2011; Whitehead & Kurz, 2009); and ‘porno-chic’ fashion such as G-strings and midriff tops (Duitz & van Zoonen, 2006). Nonetheless, these ‘new’ visions of female sexuality still appear objectifying in the sense that they emphasise women’s bodies and sexual appeal to the exclusion of other attributes, and typically do so through representational practises lifted from heterosexual pornography (Amy-Chinn, 2006; Gill, 2008).
The inspiration for raunch culture appears to stem from the idea … that an active, confident and engaged sexuality is a source of liberation and empowerment for women (Harvey & Gill, 2011). In raunch culture, this vision has materialised into the figure of the sexually agentic, ‘up for it’ woman who is unafraid to flaunt her sexuality, whether it be through a ‘porno-chic’ aesthetic or learning ‘sexy’ dance moves (Levy, 2005).
‘Empowerment’ is thus a central tenet of raunch culture, and has become a common buzzword in marketing activities and products such as pole dancing (see Donaghue, et al, 2011), as well as in some women’s positive accounts of their experiences with them (e.g. Holland & Atwood, 2009; Regeher, 2012; Whitehead & Kurz, 2009). This conceptualisation of empowerment is based on a view of female power as being the ability to incite desire in men, and hence wield sexual power over them (see Hakim, 2010). Subjective feelings of empowerment are also constructed as stemming from the self-confidence that (apparently) ensues from being found desirable under the male gaze.
The notion of ‘choice’ is also central in raunch culture discourses. Despite the fact that current sexualised depictions of women appear highly similar to male-imagined images typically found in heterosexual pornography (a site of significant critique in second-wave feminism), the idea that women choose to emulate them for their own benefit rather than for men has gained ground (e.g. Baumgardner & Richards, 2000). Gill has theorised this as reflecting a shift from sexual objectification to subjectification, wherein objectification is understood not as something done to women by external forces (i.e. by the oppressive male gaze) but rather something that they freely choose to do to themselves for their own purposes (Gill, 2003, 2007a, 2008). This sexual subjectification is particularly evident in the advertising construct of the ‘midriff’: a young, attractive, (hetero)sexually desiring woman who is depicted as agentically using her attractiveness for her own amusement, pleasure and/or gain (Gill, 2008). An example of midriff advertising is the 2002-2003 UK campaign for lingerie brand Gossard, in which a picture of a woman pulling a pair of jeans on over her G-string is accompanied by the text “this is just for men” with the “n” crossed out (i.e. changing it to “me”; Amy-Chinn, 2006). Recent research has highlighted how the notion of choice features strongly in women’s talk across a number of contexts, such as in discussion of beauty practises (Stuart & Donaghue, 2011) and the purchasing of lingerie (Storr, 2003). As noted in this research, the emphasis on women’s own choices and desires serves to deflect any accusations that engagement in raunch culture reflects submission to men, instead positioning women as being agentically engaged in their own liberation and empowerment.
A key contingency attached to the empowerment on offer in raunch culture is the possession of a slim, toned, largely hairless body that can be flaunted to maximum effect. Indeed as Gill (2007a, 2008) and Wolf (1990) argue, in contemporary Western cultures possessing a ‘sexy body’ has become more socially valued than other traditional feminine attributes (such being nurturing or domestically skilled), and so has come to form a cornerstone of feminine identity. Not surprisingly then, many raunch culture activities are oriented towards developing one’s sex appeal and ability to perform sexiness. For example, one of the purported benefits of pole dancing classes is that, as a fitness activity, it can help women achieve a slender, toned body and hence improve their self-confidence (Whitehead & Kurz, 2009). Raunch culture has therefore been conceptualised as providing women with the ‘technologies of sexiness’ required to transform the self into the confident, sexualised feminine subject that is currently desirable (Evans et al, 2010).