Is popular culture becoming more sexual?

Popular culture refers to the cultural practices of a society – to its way of life. This includes holidays and festivals, sports and leisure activities, and subcultures – as well as cultural representations – in television and cinema, literature, the press, and popular music[137] . It is increasingly said that popular culture has become more sexual and that mainstream media are also sexualized. For example, burlesque has undergone a revival, while pole dancing has been taken up as a leisure activity and form of exercise. Sexual themes are widely explored in literature and in art. Music videos and fashion aimed at women and girls are claimed to be overtly sexy and have been described as part of a ‘raunch culture’[138].

It feels to many that in Western societies like the UK, sex is now more visible. Sexual practices are often seen as matters of personal taste and individual choices about sex have become important in expressing a sense of identity and lifestyle[139]. Sex is sometimes seen as a form of recreation which is linked to commercial products and services, or as something which we may need experts to advise us on, part of a broader therapeutic culture aimed at taking care of the self[140]. This is not to say that sex is no longer related to relationships, or that it has lost the meanings that it had in earlier historical periods, but that it is taking on new kinds of significance alongside these.

Some of the most striking changes can be seen in the way that sex is associated with the idea of fun or personal liberation. This is often promoted by cultural intermediaries such as journalists, designers, PR practitioners, advertisers, therapists and advice-givers[141]. Metrosexuality describes an idea of sexual identity which is not linked primarily to particular types of sexual practices or to sexual orientation, but to consumerism and the cultivation of image and stylishness[142]. In addition new terms ‘bicurious’, ‘friends with benefits’, ‘MILF’ and ‘hot lesbian’ suggest changes in the way sex and sexuality are perceived[143].

A range of technologies are also increasingly part of sex. There are biomedical technologies, such as contraceptives or treatments for erectile dysfunction, recreational or erotic technologies such as vibrators, and mediated/representational technologies such as sex-advice manuals or pornographic photographs.

Yet visual representations of sex and sexuality are not new and it appears that other societies in the past have been much more open about sex than contemporary Britain is[144]. However, new developments in technologies of visual representation and reproduction from paintings, to lithographs, to the printing press, and so on have made possible new forms of erotic imagery and pornography. Until the mid 20th century, only wealthy or elite individuals, mainly men, had access to their own means of producing sexual representations. But, as technologies such as polaroid cameras and super 8 film became more available, DIY representation became increasingly common. Home video technologies in the 1980s provided a tipping point in the production and consumption of sexually explicit media in ordinary domestic settings[145].

Increasing access to the internet in the 1990s made it possible for more and more people to produce, consume and distribute sexual images and texts. More recently, social networking sites and smart phones have radically boosted the capacity of individuals to reproduce and share sexual images. New types of sexual communication and encounter have become available such as cam sex and avatar sex. The circulation of images has become a significant part of other forms of sexual communication in the practices of sexting, the use of display and ‘rate me’ sites and the creation of profiles in all kinds of swinger, dating and hookup sites and apps[146].

Representations of gender

137. Williams, R. (1961). The Long Revolution. London: Chatto and Windus. For an overview of cultural studies work see Storey, J. (2010). Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture: Theories and Methods, third edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
138. See for example, Levy, A. (2005). Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. London: Simon and Schuster; Paul, P. (2005). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and our Families. New York: Times Books.
139. Weeks, J. (2007). The World We Have Won. London & New York: Routledge.
140. Plummer, K. (1995). Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds. London & New York: Routledge; Attwood, F. (2010). Sex and the Citizens: Erotic Play and the New Leisure Culture in Bramham, P. & Wagg, S. (Eds.) (2010). The New Politics of Leisure and Pleasure. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 82-96.
141. Gill, R. & Scharff, C. (Eds.) (2011). New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
142. Simpson, M. (1994). Here come the mirror men; Metrosexual men wear Paul Smith, use moisturizer, and know that vanity begins at home. The Independent, 15 November, 22.
143. Attwood, F. (2010). Sex and the Citizens: Erotic Play and the New Leisure Culture in Bramham, P. & Wagg. S. (Eds.) The New Politics of Leisure and Pleasure. London: Palgrave, 82-96.
144. Kendrick, W. (1987). The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.
145. McNair, B. (2002). Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratisation of Desire. London & New York: Routledge.
146. See for example Mowlabocus, S. (2010) Gaydar Culture: Gay Men, Technology and Embodiment in the Digital Age. Farnham: Ashgate; Rooke, A. & Moreno Figueroa, M. (2010). Beyond ‘Key Parties’ and ‘Wife Swapping’: The Visual Culture of Online Swinging in Attwood, F. (Ed.) porn.com.Making Sense of Online Pornography. New York: Peter Lang, 217-235; Radeloff, C.L. & Waskul, D.D. (2010). How Do I Rate?: Web Sites and Gendered Erotic Looking Glasses, in Attwood, F. (Ed.) porn.com.Making Sense of Online Pornography. Oxford: Peter Lang, 202-216.

Representations of gender