Sex for sale
Weekdays I read the Daily Record at breakfast. For those who don’t know it, I should say that it is a Scottish tabloid popular newspaper with a left of centre political view, and a broad, working class culture in its presentation. It cannot resist a pun or popular phrase and would greet Judgement Day with the headline, SQUEAKY – BUM TIME NOW, a phrase popularised by Sir Alex Fergusson. Amongst its other delights, however, is its substitute for the old page 3 semi-nude woman: several pictures of scantily clad female celebs, with a jokey commentary drawing attention to their dishabille: SHE IS SO BUSY DURING LOCKDOWN SHE FORGOT TO PUT HER TROUSERS ON. This is now a standard form of self-presentation, the photos often being produced by or for the celeb’s online pages.
Hardly anyone is offended by these, so it’s reasonable for me to take them as evidence of popular morality now. What on earth can I have against them?
1. They are bad and ugly photos zeroed in on boobs or groin or both, with no real attention to the person whose body is displayed.
2. They are often also fashion shots displaying clothes or lingerie designed “by” the celeb which are being advertised to the millions of women who already follow them online. Nevertheless the angles are still on boobs and groin for the benefit of the male gaze.
3. Often they are frankly ridiculous images which suggest that this person cannot be taken seriously, and perhaps, as a subtext, that women are best as objects of male fantasy.
4. Reproduced in a national newspaper they are hints, that however much its journalists say they take the worth of women seriously, they’re not that serious.
I want to argue that these images are part of a commercially generated culture whose fundamental belief is that young women, and increasingly young men, are to be judged by their suitability and willingness for sexual activity. This belief can be garlanded by advice on dating, clothes, conversation, and so on, but it is basically a- personal, having little to do with class, education or character. It is important to understand that this culture is not oriented to pleasure, as is sometimes alleged, but to consumerism and success. A young woman for example may signal sexual availability by her clothes and may even dutifully have sex, without getting much pleasure out of any of it. It is required for popularity, celebrity and success – and for being a useful stimulus to transactions which make money for others, often not individuals but corporations. This is sex for sale but not in the time- -honoured form of prostitution but rather as a monetising of sex and its use as means of social discipline for capitalism.
That may be why, in the social media exchanges on teenage and young adult sexual relationships there is so much anxiety expressed and so little joy; why stress is the dominant emotion in so many personal accounts of young life. An aspect of human maturation which can bring romance, pleasure, experiment, beauty and self-awakening has become a form of competitive self-justification which trains people to achieve success by buying things, a lesson which often lasts a lifetime.
In countries like the UK where the rule of law is still strong we should be aware that the same multinational corporations which have poisoned and killed people in other parts of the world, in order to advance their interests, do not become less ruthless in their methods here. They simply adopt different tactics, one of which is control of the minds and habits of people when they are most vulnerable, namely when they are young.
As for the Christian churches, they have neglected their duty to the young by being more concerned with what they see as breaches of biblical morality, than with offering the friendship of Jesus and the church community to those who are trying to work out how they should live. Many churches have simply abandoned young people altogether, while others have added to societal stress by increasing their sense of failure. As a result most young people have been left to navigate an increasingly stormy crossing into adulthood without a pilot or a chart. Amazingly some of them have done it well. Where Christian influence has been helpful it has often come from organisations like Boy’s Brigade or Scouts or Girl Guides, regarded by some in the church as old fashioned.
A more radical analysis of societies and a more supportive attitude to young people might be the beginnings of a new ministry to this age group.