Monday, January 3, 2011

Cultural Pathologies of the Body: When Porn Stars are Post-Feminist Icons, Yoga Must Embody Rebellion


Well, you know, when you’ve got some spare time and are poking around on the Net, one thing leads to another. This post is a product of that process, clicking on links on the Web (and in my mind) connecting Buddhism, “post-postmodernism,” feminism, porn, and – ultimately – yoga.

OK, so here goes. Let’s start with the Buddhism.

Right now, I’m reading Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist – a brilliant, fascinating book that came out last spring and is very – and I mean very – controversial in Buddhist circles. Knowing this, but not fully understanding why it triggers such strong feelings, I went online to read some reviews and blogs about it. (There’s plenty out there.)

And thus I stumbled upon the blogazine Beams and Struts, “An Integral Inquiry into the Post-Postmodern Age.” Hmmmm, interesting, I thought, . . . is that like Integral Yoga – or are they devotees of Ken Wilbur – or it is just more generally dedicated to Integral Psychology – and WTF do they mean by “post-postmodern”?

Hooked, I started exploring the site (which, BTW, is largely written by Canadians – why, I wonder, is so much of the writing that I’m interested in these days coming out of Canada??). One title grabbed my attention: “Pop Culture, Porn Stars and the Mis-Guided Revolution: A Window into the Rebellion of Postmodern Young Women.”

OK, moving on from Stephen Batchelor for the moment – what’s this??

As someone who grew up in the shadow of 1970s feminism, was a young adult during the feminist anti-porn crusade of the 1980s (and even taught a bit of Catharine MacKinnon during the mid-90s), and then watched from a distant disconnect as a new generation of 20-something women starting making a name for themselves as provocative “pro-sex feminists,” this looked like a new iteration of an ongoing debate that at this point, I pretty much know nothing about.


Porn Star as (Post-) Feminist Role Model?

My intuition was right. This post opened my eyes to an entirely unprecedented phase in the controversies that have been swirling around issues of women’s empowerment and sex all my life.

But, sadly to say, it’s not a pretty sight . . . except perhaps on the most hollow, soulless, and superficial level, where all the old tropes of the beautiful young female body are being hammered without mercy. But underneath that fa├žade, well . . . I may have morphed into an old fuddy-duddy, but it feels nothing short of tragic to me.

Author Vanessa Fisher starts outs explaining the context of feminism today:
Six centuries after Joan of Arc was burned alive at the stake at the age of nineteen for standing up for her cause, and only 60 years after Freidan wrote her groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique . . . we find ourselves at an interesting, and somewhat confusing, juncture in women’s history. The young women of my generation now live in what is often deemed a “post-feminist” world, where freedom of access and unprecedented options are increasingly at our fingertips . . . We have also grown up in a media-saturated postmodern consumer culture where nearly all spiritual depth has been stripped away in favor of superficial and easy to swallow sound bites, and where the role and importance of the individual consumer—including all our personal desires for freedom and fulfillment—have been raised to an all new altar of the sacred. Within this climate, where words like morality, duty, higher purpose and obligation have become largely outdated relics of the past, the young women of my generation find themselves birthing a whole new image of what it means to be an empowered, rebellious and fearless female at the beginning of the 21st century, and she is truly unlike anything we’ve seen in recorded history.
So far, so good. All this is familiar and makes sense to me. But then comes the kicker. “There is perhaps no young woman who embodies the many diverse and often contradictory values of postmodern female empowerment more potently and starkly,” Ms. Fisher continues, “than the 22-year-old porn-star, actress, model and rising starlet, Sasha Grey.”

Who the hell is Sasha Grey? Certainly, I’ve never heard of her.

As if anticipating my reaction, Vanessa’s next sentence is: “For those of you who haven’t yet heard of Sasha Grey, let me suggest that you soon will”:
I first came across Sasha a little over six months ago, while doing research for an article I was writing about the effects of hardcore pornography on teen viewers. As soon as one enters into the underground world of adult films, it is nearly impossible not to stumble upon Sasha Grey, as she has become a fast rising star with an increasingly wide fan base ever since she entered the pornography industry at the tender age of eighteen. Before turning 21, Sasha . . . had received several major AVN awards, including best female performer of the year, best three-way sex scene and best oral sex scene. In 2009, Rolling Stone magazine wrote a feature article on Sasha and distinguished with the honor of being “The Dirtiest Girl in the World,” because of her willingness to do things on screen that would make most of us (and even most pornstars) cringe, including licking toilet seats, drinking her own urine and asking male co-stars to punch her in the stomach.
Despite such degradation, Sasha has successfully carved out a niche in which her primary cultural image is that of an intelligent, empowered woman – even an “artist.” As Jennifer’s post (which deserves to be read in its entirety) goes on to explain:
Sasha is definitely no ordinary pornstar. At 22 years old, she is one of the most successful and wealthy women in the United States, and she is still in the infancy of her career. She is also no porno bimbo, nor an innocent young victim of the malevolent pornography industry; rather, Sasha is well-known for her sharp intelligence, her love of her job and her deep passion for art and existential philosophy.
What’s the evidence for this? Well, Sasha may not have a Ph.D. in philosophy (or even a college degree), but she does have some real cred in the business-and-brains department. Among other things, she starred in “The Girlfriend Experience,” a recent film by acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh; appeared in the HBO series, Entourage; modeled in mainstream fashion mags; was featured in an ad campaign for American Apparel; and appeared in music videos by the Smashing Pumpkins and The Roots. 


What’s Happening with Young Women Today??

While this brief introduction to Sasha Grey was arresting, what really shocked me about this post was not the fact that she was becoming rich and famous by combining pornography with self-styled abuse – while I find this sad and disturbing, it doesn’t surprise me that there’s a market for it. No, what shocked me – and really got me thinking – was the author’s claim that Ms. Grey represents a new icon of female empowerment, one with allure even for someone as evidently educated, talented, and thoughtful as herself.

“Sasha stirred a mixture of intense and confusing emotion within me and I often found myself vacillating between flagrant disgust and idolizing admiration,” Ms. Fisher admits.
There was something about Sasha that spoke to something very deep within me. She was in fact a blatantly stark and unapologetic reflection of the very voice of rebellion that I knew so well within myself, even though I had no desire to be a pornstar. More generally, she was the extreme and honest expression of an archetype that has become increasingly pervasive within my generation as a whole.
Wow. I mean, I grew up in the decadent 1970s, and remember the hedonistic feel of the pre-AIDs, post-60s era of “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” singles bars, gay bathhouses, and “wife swapping.” But I really don’t think that women of my generation could have possibly seen someone like Sasha Grey as “the embodiment of a new ‘fearless female’ archetype” (the contemporary equivalent of Joan of Arc?) that Ms. Fisher believes “is arising with force in my generation.”

How can a porn star – particularly one who seeks out degradation and abuse – embody a new “fearless female archetype”? While critical of the fact that there is “no drive behind her rebellion and her uninhibited freedom of expression that really serves anything other than her own personal freedom and self-aggrandizement,” Ms. Fisher believes that this is perversely part of Sasha’s cultural resonance:
I don’t wish to paint Sasha as morally reprehensible, because I actually appreciate her blunt transparency. I simply find Sasha an intriguing example of the wider impulse of rebellion that seems to be pervasive in my generation and embodied in cultural trends like Girls Gone Wild and Hookup culture, as well as exhibited to differing degrees in some of the major female icons of my generation, such as Lady Gaga, Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan and Kaci Battaglia. Sasha Grey represents the extreme embodiment of our postmodern impulse to create ever-increasing freedom of self-expression for all.
Now, I don’t know to what degree Vanessa’s sense of Sasha’s cultural significance is right on – I’m too old, too out of touch with popular culture (who’s Kaci Battaglia, anyway?), and the mother of sons, not daughters. Plus (no doubt like many of you reading this), I live in a non-mainstream cultural bubble – hell, we don’t even have cable. So I really can’t judge the extent to which this analysis of what I guess could be clunkily called the cultural climate of post-post-feminism is accurate.

I do know smart and insightful cultural analysis when I see it, however. And this post is clearly that. It’s also clear from the comments that Vanessa’s analysis resonated with a lot of readers. “I have also been intrigued by what I have seen of Sasha Grey,” SarahO wrote, “and can relate to feeling a mixture things, repulsion and attraction, envy even.”

Envy even?! Interesting. And to me, alarming: Certainly, I feel none of those emotions myself. Rather, I feel a deep sense of concern about the type of world that our daughters and our sons (as we’re all in this together) are inheriting today.

It seems that we in the older generation have done a pretty lousy job of working through the issues that second-wave feminism created if intelligent young women today find themselves lionizing someone like Sasha Grey.


And What About Yoga?

So how does any of this relate to yoga? Well, beyond the fact that for me, pretty much everything in life relates to yoga (☺), there are, I think, some very important lessons to be learned here in terms of the relationship between contemporary culture and our experience of our bodies.

A nice bridge is provided by the movie “The Girlfriend Experience,” in which Sasha Grey plays a high-end “escort” working the glitzier side of Manhattan in late 2008, a lush setting permeated by the menacing sense that the global financial system is starting to crumble. Her character, Chelsea (sometimes called Christine), is a likable, but emotionally frozen character. She’s a beautiful, smart, savvy entrepreneur whose business is selling a desirable body along with a simulacra of human connection (i.e., the “girlfriend experience”).

Chelsea’s boyfriend is a personal trainer – a handsome, buff guy who also services clients in a way that’s intimate on a bodily level, but vacant in terms of authentic emotional connection. One scene has him coaching a woman through a suitably strenuous segment of a Sun Salutation. He stands over her as she’s in plank position, and talks her through a very slow, very intense Chatarunga. Her entire body quivers with effort as he bends over her in a close and sensual, yet psychically distant way.

Here, yoga is used to build the perfect bod. It’s part of the whole gym racket – which is part of the larger competitive hustle – to sculpt a body that’s got value in the marketplace. Just as Chelsea (like Sasha Grey in real life) uses her body to sell herself and get ahead, the gym culture (or at least this symbolic portrayal of it) enables us all to turn our bodies into the best commodities they can be.

Certainly, there’s not the slightest whiff of an integrated body-mind-spirit practice here. Nor would this trainer be qualified to teach yoga that way even if he wanted. We can only teach what we know, and if all we know is the mainstream culture of the body, then that’s what we’ll transmit when we teach yoga.

And because yoga is such an effective means of developing a beautiful body, it’s only natural that it will be used in this way. This is a pitfall that any serious practitioner needs to be keenly aware of.

Yet taught as an integrated mind-body-spirit practice, yoga opens up an entirely different way of connecting to our bodies. And at this time, in this culture, that's incredibly important.

Because the paradigm that “The Girlfriend Experience” represents – and that Sasha Grey has taken to an attention-grabbing new extreme in real life – is beyond unhealthy. I’m tempted to say that it’s soulless, but that’s not quite right, and carries too much baggage. But I do believe that relating to our bodies as “things” in an overwhelmingly materialistic, market-driven culture produces profound alienation from our deeper, authentic selves – as well as from that ineffable, but powerful sense of what’s most inspiring and precious about the human spirit.


Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with gym yoga – I’ve had amazing classes in gyms that inspired me to take my practice to a deeper level. It doesn’t matter if yoga is practiced in a gym, studio, or at home – the same pitfalls and opportunities apply.

We can practice in a way that helps to cure the cultural sickness that almost all of us are infected with to some degree – that is, the divorce between body, mind, and spirit that keeps us in a state of psychic fragmentation, alienated from our animating spirits and our true selves. And, if we are teachers, we can give others the opportunity to do the same.

Or we can - whether deliberately or unwittingly - buy into the same old same old commodification of the body and alienation of the spirit.

In a culture in which a 22-year-old porn star can be regarded as a cutting-edge icon of feminine empowerment, we need to make the most out of whatever tools that we have to imbue ourselves and our children with alternative models of value, beauty, and yes, rebellion.

In a society that’s increasingly devoid of values beyond successful competition in the market, perhaps insisting on the importance of something as ineffable as an integrated human being – synergistically connecting body, mind, and spirit – makes for the most important rebellion of all.

31 comments:

  1. I've been spending some time on a few feminist websites that are wrestling with these very issues. It's kind of exciting to actually have something to say about all this, and that these issues are sliding out beyond those niche websites.

    There was a recent post by a woman from your neck of the woods - Chicago - about the impact of the term "whore" and all the baggage associated with it.

    http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2010/12/17/whore-stigma-makes-no-sense/

    The author is decidedly pro-sex worker, which isn't something very mainstream. But one of her main points is how the use of the whore stigma - i.e. suggesting that some women are worthy of wholesale condemnation based on their sex lives, damages all women because it sets creates limits around what it means to be a woman who has sex (or doesn't).

    I can imagine that a woman like Sasha Grey, who appears to be upsetting the apple cart of the whore/prude paradigm, is viewed as a potential role model precisely because she's been able to be materially successful, and have some kind of respect for being both intelligent and beautiful, and doing so through a medium that otherwise is all about "slut-dom."

    I personally love that there is a hell of a lot of analysis and thought going on amongst some folks, like young feminists, around some of these pretty taboo sexual issues because we're quite screwed up as a society around sex and sexuality, and I'm positive it's also linked to our patriarchal inheritance.

    At the same time, like you, I find myself disturbed by Sasha's willingness to degrade herself on camera, and find that the emphasis on her material success as a marker of liberation to be very painfully consumeristic.

    Perhaps some young feminists hope that upholding someone like Sasha Grey, and cheering her on as a successful representation, is that people like her will lead to more a intelligent, unbiased, in depth incorporation of sexualities into our culture. And that in doing so, some of the baggage around oppression of women will also break down.

    The main problem, as you point out, is that what Sasha offers is too superficial. Once you get past the fact that she's a smart, young woman who's financially successful and likes to make movies about having sex, there's not much to talk about.

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  2. This is wonderful, Carol. As yoga teachers we need to embody a new paradigm of strength and beauty. May we practice radical ahimsa, teach young people to respect their own bodies and minds, and live our yoga for the benefit of all!

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  3. Hi Carol! I enjoyed reading your piece. It is really very interesting. I find myself wondering if you have seen any of the material that might be really impressing these new feminists. It might be interesting to consider what's going on with Sasha Grey a bit more fully. Like see it for yourself. It sounds like you just saw the mainstream movie and her appeal to feminists doesn't make any sense to you at this point. But you seem to have a lot to say about it based on what the other writers have said. I don't have an opinion on the subject of Sasha Grey, because you are bringing it to my attention right now.

    I also question the thought expressed in the title that "yoga must embody rebellion"… Come on, there is nothing that yoga "must" do.

    At the same time I do resonate with some of the ideas you express, and agree that yoga can help to give birth to something, but we can't really predict what that is, I think. And perhaps what yoga might help with is reaching out with our minds and hearts toward greater understanding.

    Thanks.

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  4. Hey Carol,

    I love your analysis from an older woman's perspective. You rock! :) As for Sasha, I think only time will tell whether she will become the icon of female empowerment that she is being propped up to be by the culture. Her presence is definitely controversial, but her rebellion is a symptom of a much wider impulse in my generation on the whole...

    Oh, and this is Kaci Battaglia
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWYJ6cpZzFc

    Just in case you want to be more disturbed :)

    Love,
    Vanessa (writer of the original article)

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  5. Great post, Carol! As a Boomer feminist myself, I find this whole trend that Vanessa Fisher is pointing to very disturbing... And I'm glad that you have found Vanessa's work--she's the one to really watch! (Oh and you call her "Jennifer" rather than "Vanessa" in several places.)

    Elizabeth

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  6. Elizabeth: Thanks for your proof-reading! Don't know how that happened - I went back and corrected - guess that's the trouble with working in coffee shops . . . :)

    Vanessa (NOT Jennifer!) - Thanks for reading - glad you enjoyed it - and thanks again for lucid and insightful writing.

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  7. I'm with Nathan on this one. I'm not sure it's all that smart or radical to commodify oneself--any one with a digital camera and an internet connection can do it. As we all know, the appeal of a naked female body to the mainstream has an extremely short shelf life; it won't be long before some enterprising 18 yr-old does her own take on licking something icky for the shock value, making Ms. Grey seem old and tired. Not a really long-lived business plan.

    As for being an artist, I suppose that is up to the viewer. Lately, it seems, people like to declare anything edgy or dangerous or naked as art, suggesting it is somehow creative or original. Using sex as a way to rebel and shock the bourgeoisie is certainly nothing new...I'd be a lot more interested in some one who subverted the porn paradigm or female beauty paradign, rather than just did the same old same old and with a bit of mainstream crossover. Big deal.

    Being pretty and drinking piss on camera doesn't seem all that empowering to me...

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  8. This kind of reminds me of a comment I made on a friend's Facebook post having to do with Julian Assange blaming his legal troubles on "a hornet's nest of revolutionary feminism": Well, if Sarah Palin can claim to being a feminist, I guess taking rape charges seriouly could be considered "revolutionary feminism"...

    I've just started reading Confession of a Buddhist Atheist today, myself. I've been a big fan of Batchelor since reading Buddhism Without Beliefs a couple of years ago. And, actually, I'm interested that he's calling himself an "atheist" rather than an "agnostic," now. (Though wondering if maybe he's simply as sick as I am of people thinking "agnostic" means "don't like to think about that deep stuff" as opposed to "have thought about that deep stuff enough to question all of it, including the false certainty of atheists").

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  9. Great article, Carol, and, as usual, you generate some of the best discussions in the Yoga blogosphere.

    Bob W.
    Elephant Journal

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  10. Oh boy, I'm so far from cool these days it's unbelievable. We are definitely going to have to change the definition of freedom to help the up and coming leaders of the free world.

    It seems to me that people who feel powerless often assert themselves by using sex. According to some statistics, one out of three girls have been sexually abused and one out of four boys. So between the predators and the preyed upon I suspect there's a lot of powerlessness and that's before you add in a class system.

    Many years ago I remember a study that considered that our puritanical sexual repression made us a country of more rapists than freer cultures around the world.

    From that consideration, does it mean that if sex is acceptable in all forms and displayed freely that there will be less abuse? Or is there still a dominance of sexual repression which is seen in abstinence only attitudes that is even more confused by sexual displays that can't be avoided no matter how hard one tries to avoid it?

    Once again we are a nation of extremes. I just had a discussion with a friend who says that nothing is perverted if all consent to it and I argue that it's sad and broken and no one can change my mind.

    I don't think demanding to be seen naked and feral indicates freedom or progressive as much as discontentment.

    But then I too am a mother of sons. I advise them that nice women like men with manners so I'm probably too far out of it to know anything.I still think a man can open a door for me without me being weak.I also think it's sexier to be a secret than a science experiment.

    Glad you broached the topic. It's indicative of the entire fabric of what we accept as reality; whatever that is.

    Carol, I love your honest explorations.

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  11. I think that the repressive attitudes around actual sex, combined with the "progressive" views around sex as commodity or as method of selling other commodities, are a huge contributor here. And honestly, I see little in depth discussion going on in either the yoga or zen communities - both of which I've been long time members. We are good at talking about sex scandals, and other forms of sexual abuse, but how often do you hear or see discussions about what it means to be a healthy sexual being? How, for example, do we access the actual power of sexuality in a way that is in union with our spiritual lives? There are plenty of superficial takes on tantra out there, but what I fail to see is a lot of real, honest focus on centralizing sexuality, and/or sexual energy in our spiritual practices.

    Hilary, I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "manners," but the example you give of holding the door is quite "old school," even in my mid-30 year old ears. (Not that I don't hold doors open for people, but that it rings of the kind of chivalry that is beyond passe for many these days.)

    In addition, I think that unfortunately the healthy forms of manners that came from the more gender rigid days, such as having some patience around initiating sexual contact and getting to know a person more first, have been tossed out due to being linked to the repressive aspects of the old paradigm. When people like Sasha Grey and the women reviewing her hear others labeling their behavior as "perverted" and "destructive," I can imagine they might consider this as coming out of that old, repressive narrative, regardless of any truth behind it. Because nearly everything is "perverted" under that narrative - even consensual sex with your spouse is perverted if its not tied to making babies. And if you don't think this is still haunting all of us, then you're in denial.

    Sex is often coming from a place of powerlessness, but it's actually a deep source of power and potential for us. As long as there aren't enough counter-narratives about sex and sexuality coming from a place of spiritual liberation, then it will remain all about fear-based reactions to the "acting out" of young babes.

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  12. Nathan - Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I have a few ideas in response.

    First, while I agree that I don't see much in-depth discussion of healthy sexuality in the yoga (and to the extent I know about it) Buddhist communities, I do know of some. For example, Ellen Heed, who I studied anatomy with in my Forrest Yoga training, is very passionate about it (http://ellenheed.com/).

    Second, while I think that it’s true that we’re experiencing some sort of weird backlash against residual “Puritanical” views, I also feel like the engine driving the Sasha Greys and Kaci whoevers (see link that Vanessa provided) comes even more powerfully from the forces of commodification and mass marketing. Sex sells, and we’re all under pressure to sell ourselves. If you’ve got the right kind of body, it can make for a great product. I don’t see buying into this paradigm as liberating or progressive in any meaningful sense.

    I think some of the sense that the Sashas etc. are progressive forces comes both from the Puritanical backlash and from the tradition that Brenda alluded to – shocking bourgeois sensibilities was key to avant-garde movements throughout the 19th-20th centuries. But it seems to me that that movement has played itself out – commodified “shock” is the new mainstream.

    That’s why I suggest that insisting on the importance of a deeper set of values – whether framed in terms of spirituality, humanism, or whatever – is really much more radical in this context. The problem is that these sorts of values have become the territory of the right-wing.

    I find myself hoping that non-doctrinal practices like yoga and meditation can provide the ground for a new sort of post-modern spiritual movement, one that’s guided more by a commitment to practices that produce a different sort of consciousness than to a fixed set of beliefs. But given how much profound disagreement there is in the yoga and Buddhist communities, this is probably just a pipe dream.

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  13. "I don’t see buying into this paradigm as liberating or progressive in any meaningful sense." I agree with you. What Sasha and others are supporting is too superficial, and entirely too tied into the consumer mindset.

    Thanks for Ellen's website. Looks really interesting.

    I think one of the challenges is that the superficial has gained so much power in our culture. We've literally handed over much of our free time and energy to the fluffiness of reality TV, video games, hot bodies, shopping, and other pursuits that have shaped the way our culture thinks about life (obviously a minority percentage of folks aren't sucked into all of this, but it's not enough yet for a tipping point). So, I think what you're saying in the last paragraph is really important, even if it's mostly dreaming right now. Because the collective tide impacts us all, and right now, the collective tide is decidedly flowing towards fluffy consumerism.

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  14. Hey Nathan and Carol, I really appreciate the dialogue you are having here and wanted to pipe in with a couple comments.

    One, I do think that a lot of the "sexually out there" stuff is a reaction to/against the more rigid sexual repression of our past and the puritanical legacy that is still present in all of our psyches. There are some people who make the same arguments as you, Nathan, that fixing this problem would be to create more spiritual approaches to sex, and make sex more central in our lives as a spiritual practice.
    Thomas Moore is one who makes this argument in his book "The Soul of Sex," where he basically follows Freud and argues that anything that is repressed will show up in unhealthy symptoms of expression (i.e., Sasha Grey and the generally oversexualized culture we now live in). Thus, his argument is that we need more sex, but sex with soul.

    I can see the basic argument here, and I'm all for creating better spiritually connected sex lives for young women. But my concern is this, I feel that sex itself is being oversold as the answer to our existential insecurities as modern and postmodern women. Not just in our pornified commodity culture, but also in the self-help and spiritual culture. I think we are putting a lot of expectation on sex to deliver something that it may not be designed to deliver.

    This is obviously a very big conversation and a point in need of expansion (which I'm currently doing in my upcoming book), but it is really crucial because a lot of what we have imported as Tantra, comes out of very particular contexts where there were strong containers to hold these practices (also sex is only 1% of what the tantric path is all about). When these sexual tantric practices are pulled out of their cultural matrix and imported in the west, and into a highly individualized postmodern culture, the result is often a commodified free-for-all, which is why you see so much confused ideas of tantra out there.

    This also boils down to the fact that with the death of the patriarchal God in Western culture (some exceptions granted of course), sex has been in many ways raised to a new alter of the sacred and often injected with may of the same desires and fantasies for personal salvation and liberation that we once reserved for the old man in the sky.

    In my opinion, in general, sex is just receiving way too much focus in general.

    Sex is definitely a part of the whole package of spiritual life, and ideally sex should support the flowering of Eros in all areas of our lives, but with the amount that young women are bombarded with sex these days, and in such confused forms, I actually feel that less emphasis on sex might allow us to really focus on other aspects of our experience and also create better boundaries and containers for our sexual energy so that we can actually experience pleasure in the bedroom.

    It would be great if we could all access high tantric sex, but the reality is that real tantra is a high art that requires a lot of practice, discernment and containment of sexual energy. Not something that many of us postmodern young women have access to... and even as a question: do we need to make sex as important as we have? Is sex the only way we see we can access life force? Let's give sex its rightful place, but not over-inflate it...

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  15. Hi all,

    This is all quite thought-provoking, but after going all sorts of directions I came back to the original idea that popped in my mind when I read this post, and it's a parallel with the Jack-ass ethics.

    Now in my mind, contrary to Carol, neither her main point or the parallel I see here have anything to do with markets and commodities, except for making censorship more difficult. In other words, if these are dark sides of what we are, the market society allows us to see them better, which I think is probably a good thing.

    No, the link I see with the Jackass trend is just because I read something about that a few hours before I got to this post, as I was cleaning up old newspapers I had piled up somewhere, and it was a tentative analysis of that phenomenon which made use of an essay about stupidity by Austrian author Robert Musil, something he wrote in 1937 (one year before the Nazis annexed Austria). If any of you guys is fluent in french, here's the url on the newspaper's website:

    http://www.ledevoir.com/societe/le-devoir-de-philo/310439/robert-musil-et-le-phenomene-jackass-la-betise-professionnelle-et-le-nouveau-desarroi-panique-des-etats-uniens

    The suggestion is basically that the way to understand the Jackass movement may be as a sort of suspension of intelligence of the kind that happens whenever humans are confronted to situations of absolute panic despair. If I may translate just a bit from the Musil quote: "the plan then is to replace the quality of actions with their quantity, under the assumption that among a hundred blind attempts of reaching a target, one could eventually get there."

    It's as if the response to the loss of confidence in the capacity to communicate some real meaning, or even more fundamentally in some valid moral compass, took the form of what the author of the paper calls a "supreme cynicism" that makes the actors destroy all that appears worthwhile in mainstream society, including themselves.

    I don't know if you guys will agree with the parallel, since I don't see sex as the main issue here, anymore than money, but where I think I disagree most with both Carol and the author of that paper is that these would be symptoms of a culture-wide or generation-wide moral disorientation.

    On the contrary, I see moral codes all over the place: eat local, buy a Prius, be more spiritual, quit smoking, wear a piece of cloth on your head, don't wear a piece of cloth on your head, don't wear your skirt too long and don't wear it too short, meditate, don't buy Nike shoes, make up your mind about China, cool down, get mad, whatever. We're not missing morality at all, there's just too much on the menu for those of us who don't like to choose.

    Am I making even a bit of sense, here? Just wondering. Apart from that, best wishes to all for the new year. Carol, you started it with a bang! Cheers! Oh sorry. Namaste.

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  16. Vanessa, I think you're right. And part of the reason I believe developing more healthy attitudes around sex is vital, is that it would put it in its proper place. It's not a cure-all, nor is it the only way or even always best way to access the deeper places of life. Hyper sexuality, and hyper repression, both bring with them too much focus.

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  17. Hi Yvan: Thanks for another thought-provoking comment! If I understand you correctly, I think that I agree in part and disagree in part.

    I agree that there are so many bits and pieces of moral ideas floating around that it's really confusing for people. This creates a underlying sense that life lacks meaning, which is really disturbing, even if it's not processed consciously, it eats at our subconscious. Hence, an impetus toward cynicism and destruction - this makes sense to me.

    But I disagree strongly that there is no strong cultural push toward materialism, commodification, consumerism etc. Here our sensibility may be partly political - you seem more libertarian, I am more social democratic - as well as national - you (I think) are Canadian, and I am American. During my lifetime I have seen U.S. society move more and more toward a set of very aggressive market values that are wrecking a lot of destruction in the society. There is no doubt in my mind that when I was younger, there was still a much stronger cultural presence of other, non-market cultural values - for example, education used to be about human development writ large, not simply about getting the skills to compete in the market and get a good job.

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  18. Hi Carol,

    Well, I'm quite happy that we "strongly" disagree. Then we can both feel safe enough in our respective position that we won't fear being convinced by the other. ; )

    I think we can also agree that our disagreement will not go away, and you won't be surprised that I see such diversity as a good thing. I'm a bit ticked off though of being associated with the libertarian label. Although I certainly am more inclined toward market liberalism than you are, for reasons that I would tend to assign more to our respective professional training, I do value tremendously the institutions that allow our societies (yours and mine each in their own way) to impose certain costs on behaviors that are destructive, based on sufficient consensus over what these are. I don't even think a society can exist without some structure of that kind. In that respect, I think libertarians simply live in a dreamworld. This may seem like conceptual nitpicking from your perspective, but I'm just a bit weary of how some simplifications can sometimes be misguiding.

    It's true though that given a choice between a society with only freedom and one with only justice, I'd go for the first one. Thank god we can have a bit of both things. But before you solidify your view that it's just sensibilities at stake, or political preferences, consider that we might just not believe that the same set of alternatives are available. To me, reverting back to what went on in the US half a century ago is not very inspiring. The only alternative I see to societies that give as much free rein to markets as is compatible with consensus values is a kind of totalitarian, "father knows best" society. You seem to think that something better can be attained (and I'm quite happy that you're not the only one, so you guys can balance out those nutty libertarians at the ballot box).

    But that's a discussion we had before, isn't it? So I'll leave it at that. If there is something like an ocean of moral relativism out there, I see it as something to swim in, and you see it as something people can drown in. Strangely again, we disagree yet it seems we're both right: swimming is risky business indeed.

    I really hope I'm not being too annoying...

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  19. Yvan: Not annoying at all; I welcome your clarifications. They all make sense to me.

    It's sort of ironic in that while I may be more optimistic in hoping for a new, as yet unformed alternative, I may also be more pessimistic in feeling that if we can't find one, we will indeed drown. Maybe that's just another way of saying that I seem much more unhappy about the ways things are going now.

    I still can't help but think that this may have something to do with our national differences - but perhaps it's just personality. It's true that I tend to idealize Canada a bit as a saner form of North American culture than what I experience here.

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  20. Thanks for this interesting post, Carol. As someone who has spent the past ten years engaging in feminist theory and activism, I find stories like the one you linked to about Sasha Grey exhausting. Since I don't know anything about her, I won't weigh in on that. However, I feel like the sex-worker-as-feminist-icon trope is a red herring that distracts people from feminism and piles onto the arguments against it. I've spent the past several years working at a domestic violence center and a university women's center (which offers domestic/sexual violence services), and I can definitely say that as the research continues to emerge, there are more and more links between sex positive education and violence prevention. I like the book _Yes Means Yes_, edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman, on this point.

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  21. Hey Anna,
    Thanks for your comments on this (I really enjoy the discussion that is happening on your blog, Carol :)

    I just wanted to offer a quick response to your concern, Anna, and that is simply that I do believe there are many strains of healthy feminist activism happening out there and my article was in no way an attempt to discount that. If anything, I'm attempting to resurrect some need for healthy feminism in my generation, because the term itself has become so watered down and misunderstood in postmodern culture. Sasha Grey is just one example of this...

    Have you ever read the book "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture" by Ariel Levy? She is a young 30s feminist who does a fantastic review of ranch culture and how feminism has been appropriated by consumerism and also how second and third wave ideas of free choice have led to some unexpected consequences. It is really worth reading! Very smart depiction of my generation en mass...

    In my short little article, I most definitely wasn't able to cover all the strains of feminism that are out there, which is always a limitation, so I appreciate you pointing that out. That said, I wouldn't call Sasha Grey a red herring... She is an extreme, yes, but the raunch culture phenomenon being toted under feminist ideas of free choice is very pervasive, and important to take seriously in my humble opinion...

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  22. Hi Vanessa, thanks for your feedback! I appreciate your clarification on raunch culture and am familiar with Levy's work. I'm also a young feminist (29) and appreciate people's work to hold space for a variety of feminisms. When I said it was a red herring, I meant in the sense that I feel like sometimes conversations around raunch culture (and other topics, certainly) can quickly devolve into debates about who owns feminism, who is feminist enough, what is feminism, etc., and I can find that to be a limiting conversation.

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  23. @Anna: I can imagine your frustration with "who owns feminism" debates as an engaged activist. But it's also true, I think, that feminism is a set of ideas and practices that evolve together. Hence these debates, in a broader sense, are vital to making it what it is as it evolves over time - no?

    @Brooks: Sorry this is a late response - but I guess my commitment to research is not quite enough to start watching Sasha's porn! I try to stay away from what feels like mind pollution, as a general rule . . . I did however check out some interviews with her available online. For me, this felt sufficient - I felt that I heard enough from her directly to get an idea of her work and how she is positioning it culturally - which is really what was most interesting to me. (And BTW I agree with you about the title - that there is nothing that "yoga must do" - just thought it sounded better than a more qualified, "well, it would be nice if . . . " statement :).

    @Vanessa: This has been a very eye-opening discussion for me. I knew that much of this raunch culture stuff was out there, but tended to dismiss it as the female equivalent of frat-boy stupidity. Which meant that the women clamoring to be in "Girls Gone Wild" or whatever - truthfully, I sort of wrote them off; didn't take them seriously.

    Your discussion of your mixed feelings about Sasha Grey - the attempt to articulate what she culturally represents and why it can be so seductive, even to women who are clearly not the types to be caught up in shallow spring break party scenes, etc. - was very arresting. And much more illuminating than a simple denunciation of the trend would be - that way it's too easy to just dismiss it if you're not into it.

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  24. Hi again Carol,

    Just 2 quick things. First, I wouldn't dismiss frat-boy stupidity too quickly in the first place, especially from a feminist perspective. It's arguably a pretty efficient networking strategy for what will eventually morph into old boys circles: you can trust a guy who accepts to do stupid things for the benefit of the group. Second, my own qualified dismissal of "raunch culture", if I may say so, as a pretty marginal thing, is more in line with this, which I found just googling the phrase:

    http://thesexmyth.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/young-people-on-raunch-culture-casual-sex-and-the-liberatory-discourse/

    Here's a third thing, actually. I have a daughter, and I may be just a guy, and a moral relativist at that, but I'm a lot more worried for her about what Anna is confronted with in her work than with the deep meaning of this kind of status-seeking game. Widening the space of real choices for women is more important, I would think, than just being able to put a jolly spin on any situation or behavior, however self-destructive it may seem to so many people. Am I just being too old school?

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  25. Great link, Pierre. As I stated in my post, I'm not sure how prevalent the idealization of raunch really is among young women. The question of actually enacting the behavior is separate but of course closely related.

    I would imagine that there's tremendous variance by community. The researcher you cite did her work in Australia. What would it look like if she focused on a lower-middle-class community in the U.S.? An elite community? I would imagine that there are really significance differences.

    Also, while not discussed in what I've read so far (which admittedly isn't much - where was I when those thousands of articles were published??), it seems more like a white phenom than not. I would imagine that it's much less prevalent in immigrant communities - but of course I'm just guessing.

    It's certainly something that I'd love to keep my kids away from, however. It seems really soulless to me - just another sign of being lost, decadent, spiritually adrift.

    Re the "real" dangers - I have to think that to the extent that raunch culture exists, it intensifies them . . .

    Re frat boys - yes, but since that's been around so long I just accept it as a fact of life. Certainly, the overall trend has been strongly toward breaking up the exclusive privileges of such "boys clubs" - no question that opportunities for women have increased tremendously.

    Disheartening though what we so often choose to do with our newfound freedom - and it's not just raunch - any dreams that getting women into positions of power would automatically improve things on a more holistic basis have, in my opinion, been proved definitely wrong.

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  26. @ Carol,

    "Re the "real" dangers - I have to think that to the extent that raunch culture exists, it intensifies them . . ."

    This is what I find real hard to grapple with. At one level, I agree the risk is there that this kind of phenomenon may increase violence against women, especially if it's somehow interpreted as if no may sometimes mean yes, as well as putting more pressure onto young women to adopt sexual roles that they're not comfortable with.

    On the other hand, I am very uncomfortable about how this throws once again the responsibility of maintaining healthy sexual norms on the shoulders of women. Is it that only females are capable of upholding such norms, or is it that males just won't bother with it anyway?

    I don't have an answer, as you can see, but as a male who value responsibility I must admit it kinda bugs me.

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  27. Yvan: I don't see why that necessarily has to be the case. I have two sons, and when the time is ripe I would not hesitate to talk to them about my views on such trends they may encounter among girls, and how to deal with them compassionately and responsibly.

    I do think boys and girls, men and women are very different innately, but both are very much influenced by culture, socialization, parenting, etc. And I actually think that males have almost as much to gain from resisting this type of cultural movement as females do.

    Besides, regardless of what females do, males are not absolved of abusive or exploitative behavior.

    That said, I still think that realistically, the more that women embrace raunch, the more men will take that as a green light to exploit them. Which is unhealthy for all involved, but the women are the ones who will end up traumatized.

    Or maybe I'm just too "old school" myself. If anyone else out there is still reading this, I'm wondering what is the best feminist defense of raunch out there? I'd be interested to read it . . . what I've seen through a little bit of research online has been not compelling whatsoever.

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  28. Well I am a little late to this discussion. I read Vanessa's article and am happy and relieved to find this ongoing discussion. I was also happy to see that Carol mentioned Ellen Heed's work as she is one of my main mentors and teachers.

    I am a female yoga teacher, bodyworker, and I have a 3 year old daughter. I live in Brazil where the concept of "body" and sex is quite a bit different from the US- not so affected by religious legacy.

    What I am noticing among my peers (women in their 30s who have a background in bodymind work) is a continually shifting perspective on relationship. A complete re-working of whether the ideal of the nuclear family or one partner is actually the object. A re-working of personal sexuality, with poly-amory being at one end of the spectrum.

    In the yoga studio, anatomy is fiercely dissected, with sexual anatomy conspicuously absent. Women are the ones who miss out here- we are grossly informed of our own anatomy and usually the victims of sexual predators. I teach women's yoga workshops and when I disclose that I am a survivor of sexual assault, almost every time a woman discloses to me who has never disclosed before. Most of the are yogis who I believe are hoping that unconditional love and polishing the spiritual body will allow them to leapfrog the unraveling the complexities of abuse.

    I view the sexual exhibitionism and glamification of porn as a reaction to decades of shame. This point in debate about porn always elicits the conversation of "choice". I see Sasha Grey's actions as an attempt to dismantle morals and shame itself.

    For myself I wonder if letting go of shame has to go side by side with what I view as exhibitionism. AS a bodyworker who works internally (pelvic floor, vagina, anus) I know that most of us have a lot of unresolved stories and untouched areas. I work with women not men (no men have come to me).

    There is a duplicity- a complete ignoring of sex and sex organs or as Vanessa added in her comments, an idealization of sex, like God, where now sex is held up as THE answer to our disconnection, unhappiness, ultmate liberation from this state of suffering.

    I appreciate this dialogue, and the multi-generational perspectives. Thanks for the intelligent writing too, Carol!

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  29. Kimberly: Thanks for your very interesting comment! I would love to hear more about the work that you're doing in Brazil.

    Re dismantling shame: I can't help but feeling that the Sasha Grey approach is much more about trying to become invulnerable to pain. Being so tough that no one can hurt you, even when it comes to what seem like the most intimate violations. Asserting that you are always in control, no matter what.

    One of the things that you hear a lot in yoga is that the body doesn't lie. I think that this is particularly true in terms of our gut emotional reactions. We can get into a lot of intellectualizing about why being a porn star who invites and seemingly rises above and capitalizes on abuse is empowering and avant-garde. But how do our bodies react to being punched, choked, etc. We hurt.

    Another truism is that to let go of our pain and trauma we have to first feel and process it. There is amazing research, for example, about how the best way to prevent inter-generational cycles of child abuse is for parents who are survivors of it to have the supports necessary to experience their pain, and deeply empathize with themselves.

    This is extremely hard to do. There is a natural tendency to want to stay cut off from the pain. To me, Sasha Grey sounds like a glamorized embodiment of this approach. As Vanessa said, she's portraying fearlessness - which is certainly seductive to women, as most of us always carry around a certain amount of fear of sexual violence.

    I would be more enthusiastic about an approach that dismantles shame by empathically processing and discarding it, rather than trying to become invulnerable to it. To me, the former seems healthy but extremely difficult, while latter seems unhealthy but more amenable to being glamourized as sexy toughness.

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  30. I agree Carol. I also find this approach to dimantling and unraveling shame more characteristic of a way to uproot generational patterns.

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  31. Just found your essays and am still reading! So excited to find you. I am interested in your yoga in the 21st century project.

    Rhonda Geraci

    http://rhondageraci.blogspot.com/

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