Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005)

by Natalie on August 8, 2011 · 14 comments

in Books, Reviews

I can’t quite say I disliked Female Chauvinist Pigs—though as a sex worker I feel like I should, as it grossly misunderstands and oversimplifies my industry. Author Ariel Levy discusses how women’s participation in modern “raunch culture” is a step backwards for both feminism and the sexual revolution. While earlier generations focused on sexual freedom as related to pleasure and intimacy, the supersexualized post-Girl Power years seem to be more about sexual commodification and performance. As Levy says, “The glossy, overheated thumping of sexuality in our culture is less about connection than consumption.”

Levy brings up good points about the way that mainstream society has appropriated the sex industry, and how women have began imitating the douchiest of men in their objectification of one another. She talks about misogyny within lesbian and trans communities, and some of the general failings of the modern feminism and the sexual revolution. “Raunch” poses as a result of  both movements, but actually betrays them. According to Levy, “This is not a book about the sex industry; it is a book about what we have decided the sex industry means … how we have held it up, cleaned it off, and distorted it.”

I agree with the general assertions in Female Chauvinist Pigs: L.A.-style hetero porn culture (which has seeped into mainstream Hollywood culture) has messed up our heads and sex lives. Looking and acting like a sex worker, without actually getting paid, has become hipper than ever. I find this particularly irritating for actual sex workers: it devalues what we do as work and performance, rather than the acute narcissism and approval-seeking that’s fashionable in pop culture.

For example, in chapter one, Levy dives into the Girls Gone Wild phenomena, in which garnering frat boy praise is reward enough for behaving like a stripper. She interviews straight girls who make out with each other only for the camera—and only for free. From there, Levy moves on to Playboy, which has a rapidly growing number of female subscribers. Levy chats with then-CEO Christie Hefner (daughter of Hugh) about the magazine’s increasingly female readership. Hefner argues that women’s interest in the magazine, both as models and consumers, relates to a desire to take control of their own sexuality.

Levy doesn’t buy it. “There are some women who are probably genuinely aroused by the idea or the reality of being photographed naked,” she writes. “But I think we can safely assume that many more women appear in Playboy for the simple reason that they are paid to. Which is fine. But ‘because I was paid to’ is not the same thing as ‘I’m taking control of my sexuality.”

Well, sometimes it actually is.

Through six chapters, Levy never quite acknowledges the idea of marketing one’s sexuality as a potential form of empowerment. No, not pretending to market your sexuality (for free, ala Girls Gone Wild), but actually taking the task seriously and getting paid. Selling your sexuality, under the right circumstances, can be the ultimate way to take control of it.

I’m not the only sex worker I know who says their work has made them less promiscuous in their personal life, and more conscious and deliberate in choosing sexual partners. Before becoming a sex worker, I was much more likely to find random offers of male attention to be gratifying, flattering, thrilling. Now I find it mostly obnoxious, because I know how easy it is to get, and how much I could be getting paid to receive it. I’m more sexually confident than ever, in terms of seeking out what I want and avoiding what I don’t. Commodifying myself has given a very real, tangible value to something I used to share much more easily. Without adopting a moralistic approach to my own sexuality, I realize its value and preciousness—not in terms of Christian virtue, but money. I have always found this empowering.

But disappointingly, Levy chooses not to speak with sex workers in a book that’s all about “what the sex industry means.” She does quote Melissa Farley, however, about how sex work breeds PTSD in its participants, and how likely we are to have recurring nightmares about our work. My first thought on this is that it’s true: I’ve definitely had nightmares about sex work. My second thought is how I’ve also had nightmares about every other type of work I’ve done. When I was a waitress, I would have dreams about it being midnight in the restaurant and I had five or six hours of closing work left to do. Similar nightmares about impending deadlines and not enough time plagued me when I was a college student and later a magazine editor. When sex/sexiness is your job, it’s not pleasant all the time—but I’d argue that the same statement holds true if you substitute “sex/sexiness” with anything else in the world that is done for financial profit. How do these nightmares, these instances of PTSD, compare with what other working-class people experience when reflecting on the less appealing moments of their work?

But neither Levy nor Farley think about it this way, when it’s so much simpler and juicier to assume the whole industry is full of rape and molestation victims. The one sex worker that she does quote in-depth is Jenna Jameson, who reports, in How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, an overall negative experience with the industry and her entry into it. Disappointingly, there are no discussions with Nina Hartely, Annie Sprinkle, any sex work activists or, for that matter, even Jameson herself—Levy chooses only to quote her book and not to actually speak to her.

If you spend 30 seconds or so on Jameson’s Wikipedia page, you’ll know her entry into the sex industry was difficult. Even though interviews she’s given do reveal a more complex and positive relationship with her work, Levy oversimplifies, choosing to omit all but the most negative of Jameson’s experiences in porn. This allows Jameson to fit much more neatly into the book’s final chapter, dedicated to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and idiotic twists of “logic.” For example:

“Sex workers are workers. They are having sex, just as strippers are stripping and centerfolds are posing, because they are paid to, not because they are in the mood to. The vast majority of women who enter the field do so because they are poor and have no more attractive alternative. … For the rest of us who are lucky or industrious enough to make a living doing other things, sex is supposed to be something we do for pleasure or as an expression of love.”

A couple points on this:

  1. Isn’t nearly everyone in their profession because they “have no more attractive alternative”—in other words, because their current choice is the best one for them?
  2. Unless you were kidnapped and pimped out as a teenager, or born into such exorbitant wealth that you never had to work a day in your life, “luck” has a limited influence on one’s involvement in the sex industry. I was unlucky enough to not be born an heiress; therefore I chose to become a stripper.
  3. Not industrious enough? So, in the event that you’re a sex worker who doesn’t fall in the “unlucky” camp, you can figure out that you got yourself here by being stupid and/or lazy.

I could understand the perspective that sex work could be empowering to an individual while damaging to women’s place in society as a whole. I’m not going to agree, but I’ll admit that it’s a point that’s at least worth listening to and arguing against. Unfortunately, Levy doesn’t stop there, but dives into stereotypes and clichés with Melissa Farley. We’re all dumb and lazy and raped, I get it. The final chapter was full of the same familiar, frustrating and tired stats that journalists recycle on a daily basis whenever they have an excuse to mention prostitution in a story.

Yes, sex work is a job, it’s true. “Work” is the noun, “sex” is attributive: put them together, and it’s more about work than sex. Levy wants to think this s is some big revelation, some groundbreaking act of investigative journalism. Really, she could have figured that all out if she talked to a sex worker for about 30 seconds: No, I’m not actually turned on when I give a lap dance, I’m not attracted to any of the customers, and the most empowering thing about my work is the money. You caught me; it’s just a job and it’s not that sexy to me most of the time. I’m not crying myself to sleep over it.

I understand wanting to discourage civilian girls from imitating sex workers for no good reason, essentially putting on a free show for dudes under the misguided guise of “empowerment.” I personally wouldn’t be stripping if money weren’t involved, and I certainly wouldn’t claim sex work to be empowering if it weren’t, you know, work, with inherent financial implications. So while much of Levy’s analysis rang true for me, it’s disappointing that she chose to silence and discredit the women at the core of her thesis.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Twister August 8, 2011 at 9:55 am

Thanks for the review, I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while. I saw a quote where Ariel Levi was saying that she wasn’t against having “playboy sexy” be an option for women, just our current culture takes options away from girls and replaces it with “playboy sexy”.

That being said, she probably doesn’t know anything about sex work and is just lumping it all together.

I’m a waitress, and I laughed when I read your comment about work-nightmares. So true. So true.


Charlotte Shane August 8, 2011 at 9:56 am

I love this piece. I remember being so frustrated while reading the book because, as you point out, Levy makes some good larger points but falls into the same tired stereotypes and unexamined thinking when it comes to people in the sex industry. And I too have had nightmares about “straight” jobs, more than I have (or at least more than I remember) about my current work. When I was in high school and spent 12 hour days on my feet at a movie theater, I dreamed about it constantly. Even now, out of academia for five years, I have nightmares about a paper or presentation due, or taking a test when I’m completely unprepared. Sounds like grad school gave me a pretty severe case of PSTD, according to Melissa Farley….


Leigh August 8, 2011 at 11:04 am

I’m with you on the “sex work made me less promiscuous” thing. Sex work has helped me get a firmer grasp on my boundaries by allowing me to repeatedly delineate (and communicate) them. And I can redefine them when and if I choose. That’s something I really value about this work.

“For the rest of us who are…industrious enough to make a living doing other things…”

That’s pretty fucking offensive. I resent her implication that we are somehow “lazy”. When I danced I sure didn’t feel lazy after walking up and down the length of a football field for ten hours. In heels.


story August 8, 2011 at 9:48 pm

“For the rest of us who are lucky or industrious enough to make a living doing other things, sex is supposed to be something we do for pleasure or as an expression of love.”

point #4: ummmm, we sexworkers also have sex for pleasure and/or as an expression of love. maybe with out clients, maybe not. but guess what ms. levy? we also have sex with people who aren’t our clients! like you know, girlfriends, boyfriends, husband, wives and other forms of romantic partnerships. our sex life is not limited or defined by our sex/sexiness with our clients.

great article, catherine!


Catherine August 27, 2011 at 1:37 am

I agree with you! Her “pleasure/expression of love” statement is actually really hurtful. Like you’re capable of neither after you enter the sex industry. That’s truly dehumanizing, much worse than a guy paying to stare at my tits.


Furry Girl August 12, 2011 at 2:07 am

The nightmare argument is hilarious.

One of the things I most commonly have nightmares about is forgetting stuff when I travel and/or missing flights. I suppose that even though I *think* I love travel (this brainwashing is no doubt the fault of The Patriarchy), travel is actually deeply damaging to my soul, and I must stop ever leaving home. Going places = nightmares = exploitation = sads.


Kisses and Kinks August 14, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Bravismo!!! Seriously awesome review. I remember reading this book snickering my way through it. I guess I’m not a normal woman either because I HAVE enjoyed getting naked and performing before. It makes me think of the DSM (Diagnostic Statistic Manual) for psychologists who seem to think that men are the only ones that are likely to express themselves sexually via exhibitionism or other “paraphilias,” because only men are wired like that.

Cue *eye roll.* I’m pleased to see this review. I had intended to do a review myself but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. It seemed whiny and shrill. The fact is that this woman is incredibly biased in her writing and she can’t accept that some women aren’t identical to the way that she chooses to sexually express herself.

Oh, and let me say that I completely relate to your comment about male attention. I used to thrive on it, now I’m like “yeah, I know I look good, so what.” I’ve become incredibly selective about my partners because having a man attracted to you is really not that big of a deal. No matter how many insecurities a sex worker may have about herself, there are plenty of men in the other end watching and worshiping her.

Keep up the fantastic work sister! Love the site!!


alwaysandforever August 15, 2011 at 2:33 pm

I thought it might be important to mention that after this book came out, Levy was so demonized for writing it, that she said she never wanted to speak on the topic of porn again.

“Looking and acting like a sex worker, without actually getting paid, has become hipper than ever.”

I’m wondering how many people here agree with this. Why this is taking place is an important question to explore.


Catherine August 16, 2011 at 3:29 pm

I had no idea that she was so demonized for writing it—I actually had thought most reviews within feminist communities were quite positive. If you have an interview or something you could point me towards, I’d love to read it. In the afterword, she does mention a handful of sex workers who read it, but all came forward with praise and gratitude.

I was really interested in the majority of what she had to say, particularly when speaking about misogyny in queer communities. And misogyny among women in general is interesting to me. I just thought her response to sex workers—not just sex work as a phenomenon, but the workers as people—was horribly off the mark.


Cecilia September 6, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Brilliant review (!) and I’d like to add that I also:
1) became more selective about personal sex partners after becoming a professional companion.
2) have had way more nightmares about mainstream jobs than of sex work.

Also, for the record, Miss Levy, I actually was “lucky & industrious enough to make a living doing other things” but eventually chose to come back to sex work instead (maybe it was all the nightmares…?).


Leave a Comment

{ 4 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: