It has always been a mystery to me why the media and advertising use sex to sell us everything, but always stop short of selling us sex directly. Perhaps it is because, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde (and House of Cards Season 1): “Everything in the world is about sex … except sex. Sex is all about power”.
We all love a beach holiday right? Sun, sea and sand. Long, drawn-out days, full of intense colours. Drinking cocktails and lounging in the sun gazing at the ocean. And what a great break from our normal life of labouring ceaselessly (and often pointlessly) under relentless grey skies. In addition to the shift from work to holiday, and home to away, there’s another shift, from mind to body; the cerebral to the corporeal. Instead of mainly concentrating on ourselves as a mind – either sitting in front of a computer for work, or a TV screen for leisure – we are now all body.
So when it comes to sex, instead of thinking about it, or watching it on TV, while on holiday we might actually have it. In our western culture, the primary signifier of sex, particularly in advertising is the young, white female body. Women’s bodies on holiday need to look good – as the furore about the use of a particularly slim woman’s body to sell protein shakes showed. Yet the average woman in the UK is a size 16 which means that many women are more likely to be lumpy than lithe, a body out of its comfort zone.
As bodies, our status is now less connected to what we do for a living or where we live, but what we look like with little or no clothes on. We know the consequences of this from the Daily Mail’s “sidebar of shame”, where every excess ounce of flesh of any female celebrity on show is pored over with pleasure-inducing disgust.
So why does the media spend at least six months of the year selling us epilation, fake tans, bikinis and sarongs? Just so we can walk into a restaurant in our underwear on a two-week break in a far-off economically disadvantaged part of the world? Sex, or the promise of sex, sells the products, but leaves a dysfunctional relationship between the holidays we buy (a site for sex) and our bodies (not quite good enough for sex). The demand for products to fix this, ranging from surgical interventions like breast enlargement and liposuction to dieting and sun lotion, ensure good business for a whole lot of people.
The power game
If women have power through their sexuality, it is still prescribed as a power to initiate desire in men – and that means conforming to rules about size and shape. And the older you get as a woman, the more this power is deemed to decline.
But something happens when these women travel, particularly if they travel to more conservative societies in Africa such as Senegal and some countries in the Middle East such as Jordan. Here, white female bodies gain tourist privileges in places where genders may actually be more segregated. For these women, their bodies become less important and their normally mediocre income suddenly makes them rich, giving them a power they did not previously have.
Perhaps these women don’t (apparently) look so hot in a bikini and are past childbearing age. But these legions of women venture forth, using their salaries, pension credits and child benefit allowances, and meet a host of economically disadvantaged men … young, lean, desirable, available men. Men who are then stereotyped via their non-white ethnicity as being more potently masculine.
These encounters make good stories of sand, sea – and sex. Yet descriptions of the encounters fail to acknowledge the glaring disparities in privilege – income and mobility – that disrupt our gender norms. And instead of stories of how sex is connected to power, they become the “slutshaming” articles in the Daily Mail or are presented as menopausal romantic tragicomedies such as on Love Rats Exposed with local men portrayed as lurking predators.
As an audience it seems we can only leer or judge. Judge the women for their apparent delusion that they might be attractive. And leer at the men these women lust after – and who are apparently only doing it because they need the money. There are some terrible injustices going on in these encounters and I’m not an apologist, but there is also something important being overlooked: that when women do undermine (Western) male power with their own, the media and its audience are far too willing to bring it down.