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Privacy: class matter, not generation gap?

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Tuesday, Mar 6, 2007

More on youth and privacy (and lack thereof, as well as indifference and alleged superiority to). In the NYT magazine Alexandra Jacobs took a look at college smut publications—oh, excuse me, I mean provocative sex magazines with “playful nudity” as opposed to “pornography”. These are semi-amateur magazines drawing from the talent pool at the entitlement schools—Yale, Harvard, BU, University of Chicago, etc. It seems the smack of elitism is critical to this entire enterprise; it is what distinguishes the spirit of these magazines from that of Girls Gone Wild or Hooters—these people can afford not to be afraid of the consequences, a reassuring message to the other students for whom the zines are made. Also, they promote the quasi-bohemian idea that sophistication about sex means pretending to shrug it off while exploiting its market value. Jacobs offers this cryptic and highly speculative explanation of the phenomenon:


It’s as if, though curious to explore the possibly frightening boundlessness of adult eroticism, they also wish to keep it at arm’s length, contained within the safety of the campus. The students involved display a host of contradictory qualities: cheekiness and earnestness, progressive politics and retro sensibilities, salacity and sensitivity. They aren’t so much answering the question of what is and what isn’t porn — or what those categories might even mean today — as artfully, disarmingly and sometimes deliberately skirting it.


So the students are going to all the trouble of making these magazines so that they can create a space in which they can remain ambivalent about sexuality if not altogether confused by its economic and social instrumentality?


This explanation, from one of the models, seems more apt:


Oleyourryk said that for her and her peers, the question is not why pose nude, but why not? After all, they grew up watching Madonna (“All she was was naked all the time”), parsing the finer points of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and flipping through Calvin Klein ads: sexual imagery was the very wallpaper of their lives, undergirded by a new frankness about how to protect oneself from pregnancy and disease. “Condoms. They’ve been rammed down our throats ... since we were old enough to start contemplating training bras,” wrote a Boink contributor in an essay called “Fall Fornication Must-Haves,” which apparently included crotchless bikinis and a Swarovski-crystal-encrusted dildo called the Minx.
Sex is “everywhere, and it’s always been everywhere for this generation,” Oleyourryk said. “A body is a body is a body, and I’m proud of my body, and why not show my body? It’s not going to keep me from having a job. Maybe it sticks to people, but it doesn’t have that negative connotation like, I’m going to have to carry around this baggage. Maybe it’s like, I’m going to carry this around and be proud of it and say: Look how I looked then! My boobs weren’t on the ground. I wasn’t 45 pounds overweight. How hot was I? It’s not, like, ‘The Scarlet Letter’ anymore. It’s a little badge of honor.”


The logic here is interesting: the ubiquity of sexualized marketing and entertainment is seized upon as license and provides the curious ethical postulate that you need to “show” whatever you are “proud” of. Self-esteem, here, is meaningless without an audience, and the link to commodified sexuality (a given, we’re expected to believe, for all youth—sex is commodified by definition) implies that sexuality is nothing more than a medium for self-marketing, and attention is the currency in which one is paid and the ultimate measure of that self-esteem: “How hot was I?” In the context of elite universities, this seems like an extension of privilege, of demonstrating how far from necessity one is by squandering a long-conserved resource, one’s private sexuality. (This seemed the principle behind Paris Hilton’s behavior initially, but now her image is big business in itself). The message sent seems to be this: I don’t need to prostitute myself for money, I prostitute myself for the hell of it. This is nothing new—unfettered morals have been an aristocratic signifier ever since the bourgeoisie began; it’s a compact way of demonstrating how indifferent you are to the need for a good reputation (the core of commercial life). Now this may be playing out in terms of privacy concerns, the lack of which signifies less a generation gap, as Nussbaum argued in New York magazine, than a class hierarchy. Some people’s reputation will remain untarnished no matter what they do; other people will not be forgiven the slightest slip. And it’s worth remembering that it requires a good deal of cultural capital to maintain a meaningful online presence; if sexuality is no big deal anymore, it’s because it has ceased to be an end and has become a means to establishing that presence. It is losing its relationship to intimacy, which is probably not a terrible thing unless you happen to think that some evolutionary imperative linked them in the first place, and the decoupling is bound to be untenable. But kids, recognizing sexuality is already lost to commercialization are secretly devising new ways to be intimate, so secret that they haven’t even been reported in New York magazine yet.

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