New Jack City

From "The Bachelorette" to "documentaries" on the Bunny Ranch, America is wallowing in boobs and butts like never before. But just how nasty do we wanna be?

Published January 18, 2003 7:42PM (EST)

It must be the season of the slut. From low-rise pants to cropped shirts to tiny hot pants, women's clothing is more revealing than it's ever been before. While men's magazines follow the Brits' lead in pushing the boundaries of taste, even mainstream magazines are filled with photographs of women straddling chairs, animals and men, splayed out on pool tables, and lying half-naked on the floor of shower stalls. Everywhere we go, our eyes pass casually over material that up until recently would have been considered pornographic.

The Internet is flooded with teenagers and young women with webcams, drawing crowds of men who'll pay to see them change clothes or put on funny costumes or just bend over in front of the camera before climbing into bed. And the boob tube has never been so aptly named. First, there are the babes in leather and string bikinis gyrating to Nelly's latest on MTV. Next, the women on "The Real World" have been assigned the job of "promoting" a Las Vegas club, mostly by acting out bizarre sexual scenes, or by go-go dancing in minuscule outfits onstage.

Click over to HBO to find prostitutes sunbathing naked and sticking their breasts into a birthday cake, all under the guise of a "documentary" for "America Undercover" about the Bunny Ranch, a legal brothel in Nevada. Onward to E! where you'll find the same girls in their bikinis and stilettos on "The Howard Stern Show," where the East Coast whores are battling it out against the West Coast whores in a makeshift quiz game. Cut to a commercial of girls flashing their breasts in the latest "Girls Gone Wild!" video, starring Snoop Dogg, or the women of "The Bachelor" jumping up and down in their bikinis on a trampoline, and soon you're so overcome by masturbation material you'd think half the country spends the vast majority of their time touching themselves.

But hey, boys just wanna have fun! Everywhere you turn, from men's magazines to TV shows like "Hidden Hills" and "The Mind of the Married Man," you find the same story of the bored, sexually underfed male.

The story tells us that it's perfectly natural for married men to be absolutely apathetic toward the needs or interests of their spouses and children. Such alienation isn't a reflection of any shortcoming in the husband, of course. His self-centered neuroticism, flights of fantasy and total inability to focus on those other than himself don't echo some pathology in his emotional makeup, a total paralysis that prevents him from connecting meaningfully with those who are closest to him.

Instead, we're told that, in a compassionate world, our hero should be allowed all the hot sex with strangers that he truly deserves. Sadly, though, he was born unto this insufficient world, walks among mortals, and must endure the tedious, mundane demands of a humdrum universe in which absurdly desirable women don't constantly offer themselves up to be ravaged by short, hairy middle-aged men of average looks.

Not surprisingly, it seems the romantic lead has been replaced, at least in part, by the lust interest. Instead of representing the promise of love and a lifelong companion, she offers hot sex, no strings attached. In the movie "8 Mile," Eminem's character, Rabbit, finds himself falling madly in lust with a sexy stranger. She's everything he's ever dreamed about: She's hot, and she looks really good in short skirts. "Getting to know you" scenes are replaced by "wanting to get with you" scenes. There she is, at the factory where Rabbit works, in a tiny skirt and three-inch heels! There she is, across the room at a club, dancing!

Finally, the moment we've all been waiting for: lust in bloom! Without speaking, the happy couple sneaks off to a discreet corner of the factory where they can have sex standing up. Violins soar! They part at last, flashing each other meaningful "that was good for me" looks -- again, no words are necessary. But, of course, such a love affair is too hot not to cool down -- or to end suddenly when Rabbit finds her screwing one of his friends. "But, but ... she promised me ... I mean, she gave me a look that told me she definitely wanted to do me again, whenever we ran into each other!"

Lust interests abound on this season of "The Real World," where three of the four women have fooled around with their housemates. One of the girls worries that she's pregnant every other episode, but continues to sleep with the same housemate without using protection. Worst of all are the scenes where her partner explains that he's not really interested in dating her, that he wants to continue to be able to flirt and fool around with other women, but that he still can't resist sleeping with her whenever she's around. "You're like this big piece of candy," he says, and she blushes like he's just told her he's madly in love.

The setting (Las Vegas) and their jobs (promoting a club) are obviously meant to exacerbate the highly charged sexual climate, and it's certainly entertaining. But when their boss pressures them to go-go dance in skimpy outfits, berates them for not taking their jobs seriously or behaving like professionals, then buys drinks and hits on most of them openly, going so far as to take one of them back to his room and then repeatedly ignoring her requests that they leave, you have to wonder if the producers had any qualms at all about feasting on the inexperience of these women by placing them in extremely confusing and demeaning situations.

But no women have been publicly manipulated more than the contestants on Fox's latest attempt to out-sleaze the sleaziest shows, "Joe Millionaire," which features a lovely array of Bettys competing for a sexy bachelor they're told is enormously wealthy, but who is, in fact, a construction worker.

Fox reality programming chief Mike Darnell told Daily Variety, "In a way, we're ripping the mask off the people [who sign up for shows like "The Bachelor"] ... We find out whether they're really doing this for love." Exposing the ulterior motives of contestants drawn from a pool of wannabe actresses, models and beauty pageant amateurs hardly constitutes groundbreaking television, but who could pass up a chance to point and jeer at the shallow motives of hot girls? Just don't hold your breath for the reality show where men compete for the right to date a Playboy centerfold, only to find she's gained 20 pounds. Imagine the shock when the masks come off: "My god, those guys weren't really in love! They only liked her because they thought she was hot!"

Which presents the question of what our relationship is, ultimately, to these vixens who offer themselves up to be picked apart on-screen. They turn us on, and for their trouble we reward them with our disdain. Once they've pivoted, giggled, bent over and crawled on all fours, we -- both men and women -- enjoy ripping their motives to shreds. What about our motives? There we are, squishy and ruthless on the couch, greasy snacks in hand, thirsty for a chance to trample on the self-esteem of the genetically blessed. Do we enjoy humiliating them in spite of, or because of, their sexual power over us, because they make us feel relatively powerless?

Of course, when it comes to demeaning hot women, Howard Stern is king, and there's no end to his reign in sight. If Susan Faludi was right about the movement to dehumanize women, Stern exists on the radical edge of such a movement, dreaming up new ways to make his female guests look unintelligent and pathetic each week, from urging them to answer pushy questions about their sex lives and insulting them ruthlessly if they refuse, to pressuring them on-air to crawl on all fours or "bark like a dog."

Naturally, Stern is unapologetic. "I'm here to humiliate women," he says, simply. "That's my job." Stern may be an extreme example, but his popularity points to a widening gap between the person men present to their girlfriends and wives, and the person who's being catered to on a show whose host pauses between jokes about having sex with underage girls to smack a female guest on the ass with a raw fish.

But in the oversexed Romper Room of American culture, all women are enthusiastic exhibitionists, and all men long to consume an endless supply of hot girls as idly as jujubes. And we're used to it. Whether it's a Britney Spears video, an MTV Beach Party special, the Miss Universe pageant, an episode of "Friends," a Victoria's Secret special, or a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Raiderettes, American eyes gaze at a herd of nubile young female bodies almost every day. It's the Baywatch school of ratings baiting: If the TV is turned on, we should be, too. So why not loosen up and join the fun?

Plus, this is liberation, isn't it? We can dress as dirty as we want, act as dirty as we want, and still be respected for who we are. At some point, though, while you're pulling on those skintight leather pants preparing for a night at the strip clubs, content to stand by while your boyfriend gets his third lap dance of the night, you've got to wonder if the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" path is all that it's cracked up to be.

Anyone can get a thrill or a cheap laugh out of everything from Tony Pierce's photo essays to bad porn dialogue. But once you start blurring the boundaries between freedom of sexual self-expression and the freedom to crawl on all fours and bark like a dog, you might wonder if you didn't trade your self-respect for the right to be a member of the boys club. If getting spanked by a dead fish is a sign of our liberation, then I don't want to be liberated.

We may never stop scarfing this sleazy cheese, even when it leaves us with a stomachache. It appeals to our basest desires; these are our lions and gladiators, our witches burning at the stake. Still, it's a mistake to assume that the distorted, fun-house mirror of pop culture is an accurate reflection of what's natural for us as human beings.

Boys will indeed be boys, but when tits and ass flood every channel, every page and every url, you have to wonder where biological determinism ends and commercially driven fantasy begins. It's not a question of right or wrong, it's a question of how we choose to relate to each other, and whether or not a fast, glossy fix of commercial sexuality alienates us, or even pits us against the real, imperfect human beings in our lives.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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