In a culture so permeated and motivated by sexuality, it’s sometimes easy to forget that sexuality is driven by its own aesthetics and developments. There’s a tendency to see changes in sex as created solely by the wider culture outside of sex, as opposed to any movement from within.
Before we get started, I should say that this is a valid and true observation to make, in the main. Our sex lives hold up a weird mirror to our other lives. Our sexual motivations are inextricably linked to the motivations placed on us by our society. A change in sexual culture can totally reflect a change in wider culture – especially gender relations.
I’m going to use an example to make my point, and then I’m going to pick so many holes in it that it looks like I’m actually talking out of my arse, and then I’m going to suggest another point that might allow for the first one to exist without any of said holes. So… try not to lose patience with me until right at the end, ok?
Pubic hair, or the lack thereof. The fashion for hairless minge in pornography goes back to the start of the 1990s, so if you’re old enough to really remember Nirvana then the debate about pubic hair is very old news for you. The current trend (in porn and the real world) is to get rid of it… for now.
Here’s an article from The Daily Telegraph (not a newspaper I ever expect to reference in these columns, but I’m grappling for sources here). It highlights some of the problems with shaving yer downstairs. But. Here’s another article from the same newspaper just 6 months later. Here’s one from this year. Pubes are back in, it seems. And the reason is the classic ‘can’t-be-bothered-any-more’ that marks the tired end of a fashion trend. It’s no longer important enough – fashionable enough – to go to great lengths over. The Hollywood vagina is like the genuine Ugg Boot: if you want to go to all that effort and get yourself one then great. But it’s not this year’s must have, not be any means.
So, were bald cooches a fad? When you think about their genesis it seems likely. Pubic hair was removed from pornography due to the industry’s growing fascination with the superzoom. If you have any familiarity with porn you’ll know the shot I mean – what appears to be a closeup of two raw chickens being violently smushed together. The extreme genital closeup doesn’t really work with lots of pubic hair in the way, it removes what (very) little depth there is.
In her recent book on body image, Cameron Diaz (again, not a celebrity I ever thought I’d be referencing in this column) pointed out that women who get laser surgery to remove their pubic hair are essentially taking a risky bet – that something currently in fashion never goes out. She points out that the current practice of bare pubic mounds come from a relatively mundane development, and that you’d be nuts to take permanent steps based on that.
Kids shouldn’t be learning about what bodies are like from pornography, any more than they should learn how to drive a car from Top Gear
So: no pubic hair was a fad created by the porn industry for no reason other than to make closeup work easier. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that (here come those holes I was talking about).
The fashion for the removal of pubic hair is problematic for many reasons. Here’s 3, but if you’re playing along at home you can supply as many as you like:
1. It gives young people an unrealistic expectation of what the human body is like.
2. It puts pressure on women to change an extremely personal aspect of themselves to fit in.
3. It has unfortunate but undeniable connotations of extreme youth.
I’m not denying these 3 three problems, or any others you care to mention. When it comes to sex, even a fashion trend can have serious consequences like these. Did the fashion for bare bajingoes come from a desire to sanitise and standardise the female sexual experience? No. Does it potentially reflect and bolster such a desire? Probably yes. Nuts.
The fact that porn shouldn’t be such an influencing factor is relevant but not the one I’m trying to make here. Kids shouldn’t be learning about what bodies are like from pornography, any more than they should learn how to drive a car from Top Gear. Pornography isn’t sex, or even really a representation of such – porn is just porn, nothing more.
Sex is not some immutable aspect of society. It has its trends and fashions, it’s weird little movements and counter movements
But I think part of the problem is that sex has no discussed aesthetic development of its own, not really. I’m not talking necessarily about the way it looks – I’m talking about the fact that we’re allowed to look at it. That a fad in porn could have such a marked effect on everyone’s sexuality is mostly down to the fact that nobody recognised it as a fad at the time. Young people getting their sexual knowledge from porn knew nothing else: it’s just everything they saw. And older people saw it as a development that came from nowhere, but could not be ignored or rationalised, and edict from on high, a command from the gods of shagging that could not be questioned. Porn dictates what sex should look like to us, because we have literally nothing else to look at in its place.
Sex is not some immutable aspect of society. It has its trends and fashions, it’s weird little movements and counter movements. Even fetishes are not stable in their development. When people bemoan the latest development in sexual conduct (normally that it’s getting more messed up), they forget both that in 10 years that development may have faded from the general consciousness, and that said development may not be entirely novel (the Greeks of old were into some super weird stuff).
It’s worth remembering that sex isn’t some monolith that you have to accept wholesale. If you think something’s stupid, you don’t have to do it
Societies past have had a more positive, linear aesthetic about sex. These were statistical blips, sure, but it is possible. The kama sutra. Greek pots showing athletic classical-era boning. We’ve had nearly 2000 years of denying the aesthetic aspect of sex, so the only choice left to us is either nothing to look at, or pornography (and I’m sorry to come down on the industry here, but porn is clearly doing a terrible job at preparing us for sexual contact.)
The fact that sexuality permeates every aspect of media makes this even harder to deal with. Adverts, music videos, all those titillating diversions are a stand-in for something we don’t have: a way of looking nakedly at sex. There’s that badly shot video you see in secondary school, I guess, but it’s hardly enough.
I don’t have a fix for this. But when I imagine what sex might have looked like if we had had an open attitude to looking at it for the last few centuries… well, it doesn’t look anything like pornography looks like now. That’s reassuring, at least. It’s worth remembering that sex isn’t some monolith that you have to accept wholesale. If you think something’s stupid, you don’t have to do it. Give it ten years, and everyone else will probably think it was stupid too.