Sex sells. Our world has been pornified. Culture is sexualized and it’s making our children grow up too quickly. Porn is everywhere. Porn changes your brain. There is an epidemic of porn addiction. Porn is a public health crisis. Sexting is a growing problem. Raunch culture is damaging girls. Virtual reality is the future of porn. The future of sex is with robots.
These kinds of claims are often made when people discuss the relation between sex and media, and increasingly feature in important debates about the access we should have to the internet, what it means to be sexually healthy, how men and women might differ in their relation to sex, or how media may be connected to sexual fantasy and behaviour.
In my new book Sex Media I examine media forms in which sex is the primary focus of representation. I argue that these are interesting in and of themselves, as a diverse set of texts with a wide range of characteristics, found across art, popular entertainment, pornography, and erotica, genres such as the sexploitation movie, sex comedy, and erotic thriller, and more recently in online games, virtual worlds and apps. They are also a good starting point for thinking about the ways in which media are increasingly part of public and private lives, and about the changing place and significance of sex in contemporary society.
In the recent past the most prominent framework for talking about sex media has been through the highly publicised notion of ‘sexualization’ and its impact on women and girls, but the way this has been deployed in the media and in politics has done little to shed light on the ways in which sex media are developing and changing, on the experiences of young people and women, or on the status of gender and sexual communities. It is certainly true that sex has become highly visible in Western cultures. It is also true that those cultures are shot through with restrictive and oppressive views of sex and sexuality. But if culture is now ‘sexualized’, this is also marked by an increasingly diverse and visible range of sexual communities, representations and ideas about sex.
We need to understand how sex media are related to the ways that we experience and understand sex – and to the shifting intimacies, relationship structures and sexual cultures of our time. As media and other technologies become steadily more important in the way we live, making possible new forms of public and private life and complicating ideas about what is natural and authentic about human life and sexuality, we need better and more critical frameworks and approaches for understanding sex media.
Feona Attwood is Professor of Cultural Studies, Media and Communication at Middlesex University.