Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sexuality On Sale

This is an essay from this term. Enjoy! Works Cited at the bottom of the page.
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Lets talk about sex. Actually, lets talk about sexuality.

When most people think of the word “sexuality,” their thoughts drift towards sexual orientation and gender identity. Many people think that a person’s sexuality is something that can’t be controlled: people are born with their sexuality intact and nothing can truly change it. On the other hand, many people believe that sexuality is entirely a choice and so a person can be rid of any and all sexual tendencies and new ones can take their place.y. Humans seem to be overly aware of sexuality. People spend a great deal of time trying to make themselves more sexually desirable. They also spend a great deal of time agonizing over sexuality when it concerns other people. Michel Foucault, a French modern philosopher, wrote in his book The History of Sexuality that sexuality has nothing to do with sex. The Sparknotes editors say this of Foucault:
"Sexuality, according to Foucault, is nothing more than a social construct. There is not something about our sex organs, or the act of sexual intercourse, or our instincts and impulses related to that act, that in itself relates to other aspects of our consciousness and social being. Rather, we have created connections that we now think of as objectively real and independent of us."
(Online)

If sexuality has nothing to do with sex, why do people obsess over it so much? Foucault goes on to say that sexuality has become something that has invaded every aspect of our lives. People are judged and have a moral character assigned to them based on how other people perceive them sexually. Not only do people have to work at becoming more sexually desirable, but also they must make sure that they are not perceived as being sexually unacceptable.
What is sexually acceptable and what is not has never been concretely defined. Things that society today deems completely unacceptable were acceptable and even sought after in times past. The argument that “it has always been this way” simply does not hold water. Sexuality, while a huge part of our core being, is not something that appeared out of thin air. It was created through a bombardment of images and the massive power struggle that shapes our collective consciousness. Susan Bordo, a writer who often tackles the subject of sex, says that men featured in advertising appeal mostly to other men. No singular guide book exists (at least none that I am aware of) that tells gay men what they must find attractive. Yet, Bordo can look at an advertisement and say with confidence “That ad is appealing to gay men.” How does Bordo know what a gay male would find sexually attractive? Her perception of what gay men find attractive is likely found on display in advertisements, both in print and on television. With very little research, one can find a plethora of information concerning the likes and dislikes of a “typical” homosexual male. One can also find plenty of companies willing to sell things to a typical homosexual male. Of course, they also want to sell things to a typical heterosexual female, a typical homosexual female, a typical heterosexual male and anything and everything in between.
Most people would like to think, no matter what “box” they have been put in sexually speaking, that they have total ownership over their sexuality. They know what they like and nothing is going to change it. Jean Kilbourne, in her presentation Killing us Softly, shares her view that advertising is contributing to poor body image in both women and men. She also speaks about how children are now growing up with an unrealistic view of themselves because they are constantly being reminded that they are not perfect little objects. I believe that the people in charge of media outlets are doing more than simply telling people “Please feel bad about yourself. We can fix whatever ails you for only $19.95!” Foucault theorises that sexuality is a constantly evolving social construct and that the construct is always being modified to benefit those in power. About the seventeenth century, he writes “One had tolerant familiarity with the illicit.” (Foucault) This way of thinking shifted, however. Behaviors and ideas that were perfectly acceptable suddenly became taboo. For example, homosexuality was not a subject of conversation even as late as the seventeenth century. As time progressed, it became less and less O.K. to be gay. Of course, people could still indulge in “unacceptable” sexual behavior, but it wasn’t free anymore. Not only had the definition of “sexual deviant” changed, but also people began to see profit potential in this new kind of deviant. Industries for treating and housing sexual deviants began to appear. Prostitution increased as more people required outlets for their deviancy, and as more people realized that there were some willing to pay large sums of money in order to deal with their deviant tendencies in a somewhat anonymous fashion.
Rarely does a person wake up and say, “I am a sexual deviant. I am not normal,” even though this is the message people see on a daily basis. People have been conditioned not to label unattractiveness as sexual deviancy. No, being unattractive sexually is not the same as being a child molester, but with the way the media puts emphasis on needing to be sexually attractive, it might as well be. When someone is sexually unattractive, they face many challenges. They may even be put last in line for a job, even though they meet or exceed the qualifications required. Many laws are in place that tell companies and individuals that they cannot act against someone based on race, religion, or handicap. Being unattractive is not considered a protected class, therefore people can discriminate without fear of retaliation. Axe, a brand of male beauty products, often warns men of the dangers of having “bad hair.” in their advertisements. The warnings are meant as somewhat of a joke, but a male with unacceptable hair can find himself discriminated against by both women and other men. Attractiveness is used as a measure of worth. If sexuality wasn’t constantly on display in television or print media, I doubt that people would be willing to spend large sums of money in order to become more sexually desirable. People also wouldn’t judge people based on what they are told is sexually attractive.
People in charge of the media benefit from telling people how think about sexuality. They have formed constructs telling people how to identify themselves sexually and what to do with this identification. Forces within the media even tell people how to operate within “unacceptable” sexual constructs. The television program "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," for example, is designed to help heterosexual males with subjects such as wardrobe selection and hair management. The programs premise is that homosexual males are better at selecting clothing and doing hair. This implies that heterosexual males are incapable of picking clothes or doing their own hair. Conversely, homosexuality, particularly in males, is frowned upon. Paradoxically there is quite a bit of money to be had in telling men how to be better homosexuals. Women are affected by the manipulation of sexuality as well. Most women are aware of the dangers of eating disorders yet at the same time there are hints found in various media outlets that suggest that sometimes women must develop an eating disorder in order to stay thin enough to be sexually attractive. Jokes about eating disorders are a constant on comedy programs such as "Family Guy." Some would argue that statements that would encourage women to develop eating disorders are not supposed to be taken seriously. I believe, however, that these jokes are are tiny bits of encouragement to some, especially those that feel desperately unattractive. Those in charge of media outlets benefit from making sure everyone is dissatisfied with their sexuality. The media tells people “You are xyz paradigm, but you can always be better at it! Pay us to find out how” and people do pay because they they are being watched.. People fear the eyes of strangers, especially when it comes to anything involving sex. The more sexual paranoia is perpetuated, the more people are willing to pay to make the nasty feelings go away. Don’t like being watched? Buy this product, get this surgery, take this pill and become normal enough to be ignored.
Even though they perpetuate a skewed perception of sexuality, television, magazines and movies appear to many as a savior. If the media are the ones telling people they have a problem, of course the media are going to have the solution. Maybe that new perfume will work or maybe just a little plastic surgery will do the trick. The media picture of the perfectly sexually attractive person is based completely out of image manipulation. Fashion models often admit that the images of them put on magazine covers and advertisements are not real. Imperfections have been smoothed over and pounds have been dropped artificially. Models are not perfect but people are told that they should find them attractive. No perfect person exists, even though there are many people who have some perfect parts. This is a good thing for the media because it means that people are constantly chasing perfection. People will never stop spending money on perfection because they can never achieve it. Those in charge of media outlets are careful not to reveal too much about how they are defining sexuality, even though it is obvious in just about everything the media has out there. There are shows that tell people how to be gay, straight and every thing in between. People start to think “Well they are experts after all; if I’m not all that they say I should be, there must be something wrong with me.” It becomes more than just not feeling attractive. People start to question what they find attractive about others based on what they see on television and in movies. Eventually, people begin to define their entire sexuality based on the opinions of others.
Isn’t sexuality supposed to be a personal thing? Over time, sexuality went from an individual construct to a construct built by the illusion of the status quo. Sexuality has become simply another commodity that companies buy and sell from society in little advertisement-sized chunks. Taking control of something that people find to be deeply personal is the perfect way to assure that the profits will continue. Those in charge of media outlets know that people are more driven to action when it is their idea. Simply telling people “We are going to tell you exactly how you should act if you identify with this sexual construct. By the way, your sexual construct is:” wouldn’t work. Most people would reply with a heartfelt “Screw you!” Rather than being direct, the media convinces people that they come up with sexuality on their own. Once people have come up with their sexual identity, through repeated exposure to what is perfect and what isn’t, the “Empire of Images” (Bordo) comes swooping in to save the day. Until people realize that they are being manipulated at the very core, companies will continue to profit from sexuality. Media companies profit from advertising. Advertising is paid for by companies who turn a profit. In order for companies to sell things, people have to be convinced that they need those things. This goes far beyond the beauty product and fashion industry. People who feel like they have something wrong will seek out medical treatment, psychiatric treatment and who knows what else. It could be argued that every industry on Earth could potentially profit from people who are convinced that they are flawed.
Works Cited

SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.

Bordo, Susan. "Beauty (re)-Discovers the Male Body."Ways of Reading: an Anthology for Writers. By David Bartholomae and Tony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008. 131-76. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction Volume 1. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

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