17 Jan 2017

What "sex sells" really means

Sex sells. This is what you get told whenever you object to having naked female butts shoved in your face from our media, day in day out. Leaving aside the fact that studies have shown sex might not actually sell products but actually decrease our ability to remember them, therefore making it an inefficient advertising tactic indeed, I think we need to examine what we actually mean when we say the "sex" part of "sex sells." Because what the "sex" involved never seems to include is:

- naked men or parts of their naked bodies
- couples whose naked bodies are shown equally
- bodies that aren't slim, white, femme, young, cis
-  genuine sexual pleasure
- gay sex (unless it's faux-lesbianism from slim, white, femme, young women)

Instead, we're supposed to be absolutely fine with the idea that "sex" means:

- naked women.


Well, as a randy member of a large and powerful demographic often targeted by advertisers, please allow me to say:


Last night I was thinking "Qwoar, The Weeknd looks a bit of alright in his new video Starboy, what with his leather jacket and leather gloves being brandished all suggestively," so I decided to check out his other videos. I made the mistake of watching the video to Earned It, his song from the soundtrack to Fifty Shades of Grey. I expected to see some excerpts from the movie, perhaps Dakota Johnson getting spanked, perhaps Jamie Dornan with his kit off, but what did I get?

Women. Young, slim, white, femme, cis women. With their boobs and bums out, writhing in the most curiously unsexy manner, while Mr Weeknd sings fully clothed.

Talk about a lady boner killer.

Now, even if you take the solely capitalist view of media, this adherence to the latter vision of "sex sells" makes absolutely no fucking sense. The Fifty Shades of Grey franchise is one almost entirely supported by women. Straight women. The books were read by women, the movie was attended by women (I can attest to that, as I watched it in a sold-out cinema packed with them, and the handful of men in attendance were all shyly accompanying their female partners), and the soundtrack will more than likely have been bought by consumers who are, in the vast majority, women.

So why the fuck is a song from said soundtrack accompanied by a video where we get to see SWEET DIDDLY JACK SQUAT of male nudity or sexuality, and instead just get to see other women's tits and arses?

It Makes. No. Sense.

Unless you conclude that, depressingly, there is still a vested interest in reminding us that our bodies will always be the ones up for consumption, whereas men get to choose when they take their clothes off, and who for.

I wrote in my last post about how the lack of male nudity when compared to the amount of female nudity in our media, including the perpetuating of the belief that you can't show an erection on UK TV, seems to be linked to male anxiety about being judged and scrutinised in the same way that female bodies are. The more I see of inexplicable, utterly irrelevant female nudity being used to accompany media products - EVEN WHEN THOSE PRODUCTS ARE CLEARLY AIMED AT STRAIGHT WOMEN - the more I think that must be true. I mean, what more do we have to do to get some equality in terms of whose bodies are sexualised and served up for consumption? 50SoG was written and directed by a woman. Women's power as a demographic was what got it to the point of being made into a movie in the first place. And, however much some people loathe it, the movie itself didn't do too bad a job of showing the "sex" that supposedly "sells" as something that happens between TWO EFFING PEOPLE, BOTH OF WHOM WE HAPPEN TO SEE NAKED.

That's where the whole defence of women's right to "express their sexuality" always falls down a bit for me. There's plenty of back-n-forth debate about whether so-and-so pop star can truly be called "feminist" because she wears outfits slashed to her vulva and writhes about a lot onstage. I'm not interested in playing that game, that one of constantly focusing on other women's behaviour and finding it wanting, but I am interested in critiquing the defence that any such woman is just "expressing her sexuality." OK, maybe she is. I've never quite seen how wearing outfits that your butt cheeks hang out of expresses your sexuality - and that's coming from someone who sometimes wears outfits that my butt cheeks hang out of. I might wear such things for fun, usually for roller derby purposes, but it doesn't give me a sexual thrill unless the hotpants I have on happen to be magical vibrating ones. The point is, my sexuality is much more likely to be expressed while wearing tracksuit bottoms and having a fun night in with my knock-off Hitachi magic wand. That's something you're never gonna see in a music video, maybe because it's not sexy to anyone but me, or maybe because no one's brave enough to suggest that a vision of female sexuality that doesn't happen to feature the subject nearly naked and oiled-up can still be valid. This is where the convenient dovetailing of such-and-such woman "expressing her sexuality" with "slim, young, femme, scantily clad," becomes a bit more suspect. No one ever has to defend Janelle Monae's fantastic suits as "expressing her sexuality," or Adele's big sweeping gowns on the same grounds. Yet it's entirely possible that both women feel fully themselves, feel thrilled, confident, sexy, sexual, when dressed thus. But no one's interested in that, because those women are not dressing in a way that's presumed to get straight men hot. That's not saying that if you express your sexuality in a way that also happens to get straight men hot, you're colluding with the patriarchy, but it is saying perhaps we should look more closely at the expressions of sexuality that get airtime, that get music videos, movies and adverts constructed around them, and say why those ones? Because sadly, the answer all too often comes down the lazy "sex sells," construction.

And also, while we're about it, if the right to express one's sexuality is so important, why do we seem to have zero interest in defending men's right to show off their bodies and serve them up for sexualised consumption all in the name of "expressing their sexuality"? If we're truly interested in equality, then why is the right to pout, writhe and be scantily clad one that we only ever fight for women to have?

But hey, perhaps I'm just bitter cos I didn't get to see The Weeknd with his kit off, wearing nothing but leather gloves.*

* Video producers, if you're listening....

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