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Sexing the handbag

It's time to fight Hefnerism with radicalisation not restriction, declares Dylan van Rijsbergen

A few weeks ago it was all over town. A billboard with a picture of a beautiful near-naked female body, wearing nothing but a bra. Eyes invisible. In front of her vagina a small designer bag. The poster bore the words: "lesson 84: lead him into temptation."

It was not so much the Photoshopped perfection of the female body that triggered me. Nor the absence of the woman's eyes, which made the body into an anonymous signifier of pure sexuality. I was not irritated because the picture forced on me the voyeuristic gaze of the heterosexual, macho-male observer, turning women into sex-objects. Most shocking for me was the fact that the little bag and the vagina were totally interchangeable. The billboard suggested that sexual temptation and the temptation to buy commodities were one and the same. The picture was not only about turning women into sexual objects. It was about transforming human sexual desire into a commodity. Interchangeable, standardized and ready to be sold to the highest bidder.

The debate about the pornofication of society was started by feminists and conservatives alike. Feminists like the American writer Ariel Levy and Dutch publicist Stine Jensen criticize the way women are portrayed in an inferior and humiliating fashion as no more than compliant slaves of male desire. Conservatives of either Islamic or Christian origin are also unhappy with this sexualization of the public space. In their view sexuality should not be displayed in the open. It should be restricted to the privacy of marriage. All these naked bodies on billboards, on television and on the Internet are only leading men and women into temptation. In their opinion, it is likely that these images will stimulate sinful behaviour.Conservatives usually blame the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies for sexual morals disappearing down the drain.

In a sense they are right. Pornography is as old as mankind, but since the sexual revolution it has multiplied, and today you see it everywhere. In my opinion, though, sexuality, desire and even pornography are not intrinsically wrong. They are an essential part of the way individuals enjoy, celebrate and give meaning to their lives. Before the sixties, only a small number of bohemians were able to practice sexuality outside the bounds of marriage and restrictive communities. Pornography was for the happy few, it was 'haute couture'. The beauty of the sexual revolution was that increased prosperity in the west, the invention of the Pill and a new, more liberal awareness brought erotic fulfillment to the masses. The revolution was the triumph of the newly emancipated, sexually active individual.

In those days a number of writers ruffled Dutch feathers. Writers such as Jan Wolkers and Jan Cremer spared no personal details in describing their sexual experiences. The way Jan Wolkers writes about women and sex, for example, is unique in its idiosyncratic eroticism. Reading Wolkers, you may get titillated by the sexual encounters he outlines, or you may be reviled by the author's sexual preferences. But you are always left feeling that there is a certain authenticity in his eroticism, it is something extremely individual and this individuality somehow echoes back to the reader.

Nothing is more personal than the way you experience sex, and by reading about someone else's peculiarities, you are silently confirmed in your own sexual fantasies and obscure desires. Wolkers, by being a sexual individual, stimulates others to become sexual individuals as well. When he gazes at a woman's body, his gaze is that of a macho, heterosexual male, but at least it belongs to the authentic, individual macho called Jan Wolkers.

After the seventies something went wrong. Sexuality became commodified and started appearing everywhere, but without the least trace of individuality. The porn industry taught us how to have sex. Like fashion, the more sexuality is standardized, the more easily it can be sold. This readymade sexuality found its way into popular media, videoclips and advertising. It became all-pervasive. Switch your TV to a music channel and you will find up-for-it babes jiggling around rappers dressed as pimps. Surf the web and before you know it some sexually charged advertisement will pop up. Sex-soaked commercials are everywhere, for products ranging from female lingerie to male deodorant.

Why did this happen? One may point to all kinds of structural developments in our society, such as the advent of neoliberalism or technology like the videotape and later the Internet. But most important, I think, is the golden rule that all revolutions get stuck at some point. Every revolution contains within itself the pull towards its own demise. And usually this demise is symbolized by one person.

Think of the French Revolution, which brought all kinds of new democratic ideas, but was corrupted by the advent of the dictator Napoleon. Napoleon brought the achievements of the Enlightenment to the rest of Europe yet ruled like an old-fashioned monarch, installing his family on thrones across Europe. The Russian Revolution was halted in the same way by Lenin's violence and particulary by Stalin's crazed powerlust.

The Napoleon or Stalin of the sexual revolution was called Hugh Hefner. This Playboy magnate appeared to be a supporter of the counter movement. For example, he helped to sponsor the district court cases that eventually led to the famous American lawsuit Roe versus Wade. But he also signalled in the derailing of the sexual movement. Playboy magazine standardised sexuality on a gigantic scale. The women featured there were stripped down to the bare essentials in more ways than one. Like the famous playboy bunny, Hefner turned them into completely predictable images of sex. His enterprise made him incredibly rich and made sexuality incredibly boring.

You might say that we are living in the hefnerist era now. The liberal achievements of the sexual revolution exist in name only. Its creativity and playfulness have been destroyed by huge industrial concerns like Playboy and other marketing companies that use sexuality and porn in a routine and commodified way. But this does not mean that we should return to the period before the sexual revolution. I think both anti-porn feminists and conservatives are wrong when they battle against the pornofication of society. The democratization of sex is a vast achievement which should not be reversed�. or restricted to 'haute couture'.

What we should do is radicalize the sexual revolution and return to the roots of this enthralling moment of historical change. Our task is to individualize and diversify the images of sexuality we see everyday.

Time has come to start a new movement inventing new images of sexuality and pornography.
Time has come for a new Jan Wolkers, male or female, someone who can write powerful stories of authentic sexuality.
Time has come for all kinds of individuals in the media, art and literature to invigorate the tired imagery of commercial porn.
Time has come for a slow sex movement, which stretches sexuality beyond the single moment of the male orgasm.
Time has come to return sexuality to what it has always been: elusive, exciting, intense, playful, authentic, dynamic and sublime.

And then at last we will feel the enormous vulgarity of a designer bag hiding a vagina on an anonymized body. It is not by restricting images that we should fight Hefnerism. We must drown it in a flood of better alternatives.


This article was written in English and originally appeared in Dutch on october 6th, 2007 in Trouw.

Dylan van Rijsbergen (1975) Dylan van Rijsbergen (1975) is a Dutch historian. In 2004 he co-founded the progressive Dutch thinktank Waterland which aims to attack the intellectual emptiness of the political left with new ideas about freedom, equality and solidarity. He also has his own
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