This book, subtitled Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture examines (primarily from a US point of view) the way that the sex industry has gone mainstream, how women are contributing to this trend, how we are responding to it, and the extent to which we are complicit in our own objectification.

It is, says Levy, “not a book about the sex industry; it is a book about what we have decided the sex industry means… how we have held it up, cleaned it off, and distorted it.”

To kick off, Levy takes a look at what raunch culture is and how it has gone mainstream.

She goes on the road with Girls Gone Wild, a video show in which ordinary women reveal their naughty bits, or fake lesbian encounters for the camera, in order to get free hats.

She discusses other examples of raunch culture: the mainstream success of books like porn star Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits; the nude or almost-nude shoots of female Olympic athletes in porn or semi-porn magazines; the appearance of pole-dancing and stripping as exercise classes; the pornification of reality TV; the explosion of plastic surgery; the smutting-up of fashion shows and pop concerts.

She interviews Christie Hefner (daughter of Hugh Hefner, Playboy founder) about her role in her father’s business. Hefner says – the “post-sexual revolution, post-women’s movement generation… has just a more grown-up, comfortable, natural attitude about sex and sexiness that is more in line with where guys were a couple generations before“.

Levy then surveys second wave feminism – the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s – and its uneasy relationship with the sexual revolution happening at the same time. Hugh Hefner, for example, supported sexual freedom for women when it came to contraception and access to abortion, but his support only went so far. He was happy for women to make a show of their sexuality, but they were not to permitted to actually be sexual: he would be delighted to see his daughter in Playboy appearing promiscuous, but she should on no account actually be promiscuous. He did not, however, view this as anti-feminist or anti-woman, taking the view that the only alternative to his ideal of female sexuality was a prudish, puritanical one.

This is a view that also seemed common among “sex-positive” feminists* and their supporters, and led to bitter divisions between factions of the feminist movement. If raunch culture is anything to go by – including “feminist” strip parties featuring live porn – the sex-positives won out. Women who identify as feminists now participate in the sex industry (as business owners and consumers) and see no disconnect: despite their inability to articulate how what Levy calls “raunch feminism” hopes to better the lot of womankind, or why sexual liberation can only be achieved in the presence of “taut, waxed strippers”. Raunch feminism wants women to feel free to feel sexy, it seems, but it only has one way of expressing sexiness: the patriarchal way.

[* By which I mean feminists who either approve of or at least condone pornography (and/or prostitution). This is the meaning of the term as used by Levy, and was apparently coined by feminists seeking to distinguish themselves from the anti-porn faction.]

Raunch culture is not, Levy argues, just the expression of one way to be sexy or have fun. It is an all-encompassing, inescapable model of the way to be sexy, the way to have fun. It is also all about the commercialisation and commodification of sexuality. “It’s about endlessly reiterating one particular – and particularly commercial – shorthand for sexiness.”

And, she argues, it isn’t even that sexy. The women who participate speak again and again in Levy’s book of their non-sexual feelings about sex. They are passionate about looking sexy, they revel in sexiness and say that it makes them feel powerful, but the actual sex part they don’t much enjoy: they don’t feel sexy. So why do they do it? The women Levy interviews are not sex workers, they are women who run the sex industry, make money out of it, the women who go to strip clubs, the women who tie themselves in knots to reproduce the sexiness that raunch culture demands of them. They aren’t forced into this: they choose it. Why?

Some of these women are what Levy calls Female Chauvinist Pigs. They are the women who are like the men who we used to call Male Chauvinist Pigs. They are the women who want to succeed in their chosen field and see that the only realistic way to do it is to act like a man. To act more like a man than men do: to be a cartoon man. What do men do? They objectify women, lust after women, place absurd demands on how these women should look and act. So the women who want to be like men do the same. Only more so. They turn these women – the strippers, the glamour models, the porn stars, the customers – into Other, and they treat them absolutely as commodities. Then they set out to go further, treat women worse, sex them up more and more – more than ever men have managed to do.

(What these women do not realise, or more probably do not care about, is that setting out to “be like a man” leaves us exactly where we were. There are still women acting one way and men acting another – the only difference is that some individuals are crossing the line from one camp to the other. There are still two camps.)

Thus Sheila Nevins (a very highly regarded programme maker for HBO) can say of her decision to commission a titillating docu-soap about strippers called “G-String Divas” – I love the sex stuff, I love it! What’s the big deal?… Everyone has to bump and grind for what they want. Thus Mia Leist (Girls Gone Wild tour manager) can yell “We want boobs!” at girls on the beach and can justify herself by saying – It’s a business. In a perfect world maybe we’d stop and change things. But we know the formula. We know how it works. Thus Mary Wells Lawrence (a highly successful advertising agent), responding to criticism by Gloria Steinem of her advertising campaigns objectifying women, can say – What a silly woman. I wanted a big life. I worked as a man worked. I didn’t preach it, I did it. Thus, Jennifer Heftler (co-executive producer for horribly sexist TV programme “The Man Show”) can explain – One of the perks to this job was that I wouldn’t have to prove myself any more… It’s like a badge.. If you can show you’re one of the guys [by being able to say “I worked at The Man Show“], it’s good.

Thus a self-proclaimed feminist can say of strippers – I can’t feel bad for these women, I think they’re asking for it. Thus women who reject femininity, rather than become feminists, can disdain “girly-girls” who do not reject it* and try to join the ranks of men instead, showing their allegiance with, and approval of, men by an interest in raunch that might otherwise seem paradoxical. Thus women everywhere can follow the Sex In The City model and decide to go out and have sex like a man – as much as possible, as often as possible, with as many different partners as possible – regardless of whether they actually enjoy it. (They may even, on some level, use sex workers as their models for living – and we know how much a prostitute enjoys sex, right?) Thus a sexually aggressive woman can wonder why it is that If I stop being really attracted to someone then I can’t have sex with them. As if not wanting to have sex with someone you don’t fancy is somehow inexplicable!

[*In the not so distant past I have been dangerously close to this trap myself, although not I hasten to add anywhere close enough to embrace raunch culture!]

Thus, in the GBLT scene, there is an increasing trend for women to act more and more like men. Women who in the past might have been butch lesbians and left it at that are now calling themselves “bois” and treating the other women they date as badly as we are used to Male Chauvinist Pigs treating the women they date. Moreover, the urge to “be like a man” is manifesting itself in an explosion of FTM transexuals – women who go that one step further and take hormones, have surgery, adopt a new gender so that they can literally be men.

Some of the women embracing raunch culture are not FCPs. They are what Levy calls Pigs In Training. They are the girls and young women who embrace raunch culture not because they have chosen it as something they think is empowering or profitable, but because they do not even know that there is another way to be. The media bombards these girls and women with raunch culture, and rarely if ever with anything else, leaving them without the tools to even make an informed choice about their acceptance of this definition of, and demand for, sexiness. They are, of course, immature and impressionable, and they have no protection from such an onslaught.

Thus underage girls are dressing slutty, wearing Playboy-bunny thongs, giving blowjobs on the school bus, having sex without really feeling sexual – just because they feel it is what is expected of them and are taking, understandably, the path of least resistance. Thus one girl was astonished to hear from Levy that in her day girls would have been embarassed to dress slutty and could only respond: So how did you get the guy?

This part of the picture is the most disturbing and depressing: the sexualisation of girls and young women, in a culture where there are no other options on the menu. What does this say about the future of womankind? Levy offers no solution to this depressing saturation of raunch, no suggested method of escape for grown women, let alone for adolescents.

She only offers the clear insight that:

If we believed that we were sexy and funny and competent and smart, we would not need to be like strippers or like men or like anyone other than our own specific, individual selves. That won’t be easy, but… the rewards would be the very things Female Chauvinist Pigs want so desperately: freedom and power.

This book is a must-read for any young woman. It is a must-read for any parent who has a daughter. Because if we cannot open the eyes of our Pigs In Training, there really is no hope.