men, masculinities and gender politics

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“Sitting on a million bucks.” (We want to see Lindsay Lohan naked. Even if it kills her.)

Warning: this post contains graphic language.

This week the news was full of reports that the actress Lindsay Lohan has accepted nearly a million dollars (US) to pose nude for Playboy. And it is reported that the pictures will be explicit, showing her breasts, butt, and vagina.

Lindsay Lohan is (in my opinion) an excellent actress who has the talent to be a major Hollywood star and to have an amazing career. Unfortunately, she also seems to have an out-of-control substance abuse problem that reportedly makes her impossible to hire. Because it is so expensive to make a film, movie companies must insure their productions. But if a star is uninsurable, then he or she can find it nearly impossible to get work.

So Ms. Lohan reportedly is having a very difficult time getting a job. Her compliance with drug treatment programs and with the conditions of her probation (for various offenses) is very poor – which in turn does not help her insurability. She is probably feeling rather desperate.

Which is likely what led to her accept nearly a million dollars to pose fully nude for Playboy.

“You’re sitting on a million bucks!” The Lohan situation reminds me of one of the most offensive phrases that I have ever heard said about women – and I have heard it said often: that women are “sitting on a million bucks.” This phrase refers to women’s genitals – and to the fact that there are many, many men out there who are willing to pay money in order to stick their penises into a woman’s vagina in order to ejaculate inside of her. And while it is doubtless true that there is no lack of men who would pay to do this, the phrase is so wrong in so many other ways…

First, the vast, vast majority of women around the world involved in the sex trade never come anywhere near earning a million bucks. The highly paid “escort” is the exception rather than the rule, and she represents only the tip of a very steep iceberg that has a very, very broad base. Recently there was a report of women in Haiti who, desperate to feed their families in the wake of the devastating earthquake there, were allowing strange men to ejaculate semen into their vaginas for less than $1.00.

In Thailand I have walked by the open doors of brothels where girls and women sit behind a glass wall wearing numbers pinned to their blouses. Male customers then give the brothel owner the number of the girl or woman into whom they would like to insert their penis. It is a terribly grim scene.

The vast majority of women involved in the sex trade everywhere in the world – including in the rich nations – are introduced into the sex trade before they have reached adulthood, and they do not make a good income. Most are trafficked. Like property. Like slaves.

Second, the statement that all women are sitting on a million bucks implies that it is somehow an easy choice for a woman to just spread her legs and allow strange men to ejaculate semen into her vagina – and that risking disease and having the experience of being fucked by countless strangers is something that has no psychological toll or physical consequence. But I, for one, am more on the side of those who consider most prostitution to be the buying and selling of rape. Of course this notion of prostitution as sanctioned rape does not describe the experiences of all women who are involved in the sex trade, but it certainly describes the experiences of many – especially those women and girls who are trafficked against their will, and those women and girls who are forced to turn over the money they earn to their pimps.

Third, this statement denies the considerable danger that women involved in systems of prostitution face. Women in prostitution (especially those who work the streets) are brutalized and murdered at an extremely high rate. They are a favorite target of serial killers. Female police officers involved in street-level prostitution stings report that their scariest encounters are the ones where the men have no money, but instead have a bag full of weapons of torture and instruments of bondage in their vehicles. These men aren’t “just out for a good time.” They are looking to murder a woman.

And experience also suggests that legalizing prostitution does nothing to increase women’s safety. It turns out that along the fringes of legal, regulated prostitution there emerges a shadow world of underage and unprotected young women who are as vulnerable as women in illegal prostitution have ever been. And some people argue that legalization actually increases the danger to women exactly because it increases the incidence of trafficking, and of illegal and unregulated prostitution. (An article discussing this issue can be found here: http://action.web.ca/home/catw/attach/AUSTRALIAlegislation20001.pdf)

Fourth, this statement tells a young woman that her most valuable asset is not her brains or her talent, but her vagina. It says that if other options don’t work out for you, don’t give up! You can always fall back on allowing strange men to ejaculate semen into your vagina! At the end of the day, this is what society values in you most. No matter how intelligent, capable, talented, creative, or dynamic you are, some men will always be willing to give you money if you fuck them. So you can always rely on that!

What a devastating (and incredibly creepy) message this is to give to young women!

Fifth, this statement denies the reality that boys and men can also sell their bodies. Because the demand for bought sex knows no sexual orientation, it turns out that boys and men are also sitting on a valuable “asset.” And while there do exist women who will pay for sex, the vast majority of the people who seek male prostitutes are other men. And the boys and men who are involved in selling sex can themselves be of any sexual orientation. Just as with his female peers, the sexual preference of a male prostitute is irrelevant. Both are allowing strange men to insert penises into their bodies until ejaculation. It is purely business – and usually a pretty brutal and desperate business at that.

Finally, this statement denies the contempt with which society treats women who sell their bodies for sex. Even though most cultures (but not all!) have a large number of men who show an immense desire to purchase sex, the reality is that these cultures treat the women (or men) who sell their bodies with utter contempt. It is not the “john” (the customer) who faces attack for his behavior. It is the woman (or man) who acts as a receptacle for the client’s ejaculate who meets with withering criticism. This is true even in places like the Netherlands, where women work legally in the sex trade. (For evidence of this, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/12/world/new-rights-for-dutch-prostitutes...)

But what about Ms. Lohan, who really is “sitting” on a million bucks? So how does all of this apply to Ms. Lohan’s situation? After all, she is making a hell of a lot of money for her “spread.” And she is probably not at significant physical risk from her “clients” – the hundreds of millions (if not billions!) of men and women who will no doubt wind up seeing these naked pictures of her. (She is probably at no more risk from them than any other female Hollywood star is from the odd stalker – a danger that is all too real whether the woman has appeared in Playboy or not.)

But Ms. Lohan is not immune from the other issues that are associated with selling one’s body for sex. Pictures of Ms. Lohan (who used to say that she would never do nude scenes in movies) will now be seen around the globe by men who will masturbate to orgasm as they stare at photos of her breasts, her ass, and her vagina. Every day she will likely run into men (whom she does not know) who have ejaculated while staring at her most intimate body parts. Those encounters will no doubt be a relatively disgusting experience for her.

And Ms. Lohan will be subject to the immense ridicule that society still heaps on women who work to meet the societal demand for the sex trade. This has already begun to occur. Reaction to the news that Ms. Lohan was posing nude for Playboy was harsh. Posts on numerous websites included comments like: “Who wants to see that skanky whore?” Already Lohan is being perceived by many as disgusting. A slut. A filthy woman.

The greatest danger of all. But Ms. Lohan is also facing another great danger. She has what appears to be an out-of-control substance abuse problem. Her acting career is in tatters. And now she is about to get paid a huge sum of money for doing something that she said she never would do: expose her most intimate areas to an uncaring and cruel (yet also horny and sexually exploitative) public.

The equation here seems rather simple:

Substance abuse + participation in activities that one finds sexually debasing + lots of money = big trouble.

In my opinion, Ms. Lohan is on a collision course with disaster. She is exploiting herself in order to get money that will quite possibly fuel her drug problem. Rather than getting clean, getting healthy, and getting a new start, she is heading down a very bad road. And while these are all choices that she has made for herself, they are choices that our sexist society is colluding in. In our desire to see Ms. Lohan’s naked body, we are willing to fund her reckless lifestyle and her unhealthy choices. We are participants in something that very well may lead to her ultimate destruction.

Lindsay Lohan has often said that she has great admiration for Marilyn Monroe. Monroe herself posed for Playboy. And then she died at age 36 from a drug overdose. Here’s to hoping that Ms. Lohan is able to get back on track and avoid a similar fate.

And here’s to hoping that all men – before they choose to “get busy” with these new photographs – take a moment to think about the fact that they may well be contributing to the death of Lindsay Lohan.