Sex review: Left feeling unfulfilled

Janice Sheldon reviews: Kate Gould, 'Exposing phallacy: flashing in contemporary culture', Zero Books, 2012, pp74, £9.99

The initial thoughts that leap into one’s mind when coming across Gould’s book are, firstly, what drives anyone to write a book about flashing (except maybe psychoanalysts)? And, secondly, what a great title!

The motivation behind the author’s interest in the subject is personal and is revealed in an amusing little anecdote, with which the book opens. Apparently during the Blitz, when the streets were blacked out, at least one flasher had been making use of these ideal conditions to expose himself in the spirit of 41, opening his coat and shining a torch on the relevant object. A trap was laid - the author’s grandmother was the bait to tempt him, her grandfather the copper hiding in bushes ready to pounce. The flasher was a no-show - but the incident did spark the romance between the two.

Gould opens her remarks on the subject by stating that, far from wanting to put flashers in manacles, her aim was to find out what exactly they do and why they do it, through online forums and chat rooms. She makes the point that we are all exhibitionists, whether that be through “ostrich-feathered hats”, “pink moonboots”, decorating our work suits with jewellery, showing a bit of cleavage, etc. Then add movement. “We create spectacles of our bodies, using them to convey an image of how we want to be perceived.” The difference with flashers, she asserts, is that they use their genitals to communicate this message (pp10-11).

Gould, throughout the first two chapters, makes a point of contrasting the psychology and gratification of the male flasher with that of the female flasher. For the male flasher, in her view, it is all about the penis, the need for attention. Gratification comes through the response, though it is largely irrelevant what that response is. For the male flasher it is an aggressive act imposing confrontation and fear. For the female, Gould takes the view that it is about validation through being desired - regardless of whether o not she would find the male to whom she exposes herself attractive. She imagines that her “shaved vagina” and “porn-esque performances” (p12) cause men to “brag to her about how hard they came thinking of them” (p14).

It becomes clear by chapter 2, headed ‘Slick slits and throbbing clits’ (honestly, this was the second time that I was disappointed by the expectations provoked when reading this book), that Kate Gould does not think much of shaved vaginas, pornography or strippers. The chapter starts off with descriptions of how women flash ‘accidentally on purpose’ - bending over too far, legs ‘carelessly’ splayed, etc - or through the use of Facebook photos and ‘like’ options: you get the picture (and if you literally do, remember to ‘like’ and leave a comment). Her argument at this point seemed to negate her previous position about the emulating of soft porn by female flashers when she states that they bypass “the dabbling in soft porn, so rampant in our culture, and move straight on to hard-core”.

She takes the opportunity to have a feminist pop at the “increasingly early sexualisation of young girls”, also abhorred by daytime TV feminists, mothers’ union types and tabloid journalists alike (the irony of this in connection to the latter should not have to be pointed out). She refers to the “get-up said to be empowering by girls, sexualised at an increasingly young age, who have little real idea of their actions and are unlikely to be able to handle the situations their clothing and posturing may place them in” (p17).

Firstly, the claim that young people (girls, primarily) are sexualised at an increasingly early age is untrue. This is a question of what is considered to be sexualisation within a given society at a particular time. A girl marrying at 14 might be considered unacceptable to most western cultures today, but you do not have to go back that far into the 20th century to find it was perfectly normal in certain US states. A nine-year-old in a padded bra might seem inappropriate, but, with girls reaching puberty earlier, she might actually need the support. A teenager in lip gloss and a Playboy top might fill some parents with moral outrage, while in some cultures a girl of the same age showing her hair would provoke the same reaction. The second point about this short, throwaway statement - that girls “are unlikely to be able to handle the situations their clothing and posturing may place them in” - is that, while it does not actually say the girl is asking for it, the implication is that her attire could lead her to be raped. An implication that leads to very dodgy conclusions.

Gould then goes on to have a rant about ‘Barbie doll culture’ and the ubiquitous nature of pornography. Has she watched any porn since the 1990s? It comes in all shapes, sizes, colours, attire, tastes and niches. It is a trite and tired old argument that pornography objectifies women and is only interested in buxom blondes with shiny genitalia that pervert young boys’ view of women and sex. Do vibrators distort women’s expectations in the bedroom? Let’s face it, while it is true that culture does portray an array of gender and sexual stereotypes, most of us are nuanced enough to cope with reality.

In Gould’s version of the sex industry, like that of most of the feminist prudes, she sees the women involved as “degraded and dehumanised” (p19). This is a very simplified view of the situation. It ignores the fact that women in commercial porn are generally paid more than their male counterparts, and that more and more pornography is amateur and placed on the web by couples eager to share it. Not to mention the fact that there is an increasing tendency towards female-produced porn.

She also has a go at pole dancing as a fitness craze, along with strippers who are “paying off debts” (aren’t we all?), “supporting their families” (the degradation!) , “paying for a drug habit” (clichéd), etc (p21). In other words, it is not empowering. These statements are not backed up with facts or data, yet they make sweeping generalisations and assumptions about people - or rather women, as ever: very little is made of male or trans people in the sex industry. For some it may be empowering; for others it may be to fund a drug habit: there are a multitude of reasons why people work in the sex industry. Gould’s argument in this chapter is that we (women) are culturally conditioned to be good at faking it, whether it is clothes, tits or orgasms, but what we are not allowed to do “by law and culture is show our vaginas” (p22).

This is what female flashers (yes, I was wondering when we’d get back to the point too) are inviting men to do. They are “confronting men with their femaleness”. However, “The woman may tell herself it’s empowering, sharing the beauty of her form with another, but this is not empowerment: it is objectification” (p26), as she still lives within the confines of male approval and male threat. With that brief and highly debatable point left undeveloped sociologically or psychologically, we go back to the ‘Porn is terrible, shaving one’s vagina is pandering to male expectations set by the porn industry’ line of ranting. All other forms of male and female tweezing, trimming and shaving are presumably pandering to the more acceptable expectations set by Gillette.

The chapter on male flashing is different - perhaps because it deals more with the actual subject and less with moral judgments. Gould makes reference to online forums and chat rooms with sizable memberships, where male flashers relate their stories. The author shares with the men her own experiences of having been flashed at and is offered opinions by the men on, for instance, the degree of chivalry, or otherwise, practised. She learns what male flashers actually do - from using ‘glory holes’ to taking pictures on their partners’ friends’ phones to be discovered later. She is also told about ways to get round awkward situations (and the law) - ‘I wasn’t rubbing against that fellow commuter: the carriage was packed.’ There are accounts of incest and paedophilia in this chapter that no-one in the chat rooms seems to recognise as such, the author points out.

What is clear from Gould’s accounts of what the men say is that it is the very act of flashing (and the recounting of the experience) that gets them off - not (as she believes of female flashers) the response of the person to whom they are exposing themselves. She goes on to make the link between flashing and other sexual misdemeanours (15% go on to commit further offences) and the confrontation it forces the women being flashed into (which is true). In fact, she ends the chapter with: “… he can masturbate over them till he’s dry, but all the flasher really feels towards the women is hatred.” While the act may force women into a confrontation, while it can be very scary in certain situations and does in some cases lead to further acts of sexual aggression, how can we know, in all cases, the exact and arguably complex emotions felt by the flasher towards his victim? It is the necessary conclusion of her argument - nothing more. In the same way, critics of the Socialist Workers Party claim that the mishandling of rape allegations mean that the organisation is misogynist to its very core.

While I have many criticisms of the book, it also features some very good assertions made by the author. She comments on the culture of victimhood, where women are taught to be fearful, rather than angry. If they have been flashed, then they may resort to carrying rape alarms that trigger a response in the attacker or passers-by, rather than relying on one’s own ability to react in a challenging and assertive way.

She also makes very interesting arguments about the way that the medical profession deals with flashers. Most undergo psychiatric treatment as a condition of release from a prison sentence - so they are not necessarily the most willing participants. Often the ‘treatment’ involves punishment or humiliation. She cites one example of a 12-year-old boy “who fantasised about and flashed older women and was encouraged to find a more age-appropriate heterosexual object choice” (p79). This was affected through the showing of pictures and administering of electric shocks till he showed the sexual preference desired by the doctors - frightening stuff. Other examples of ‘treatment’ include inducing nausea using valeric acid, or making the ‘patient’ undress in front of an audience, while describing his flashing experiences.

Gould’s concluding chapter of her short book, ‘The demise of the good, old-fashioned roll in the hay’, is a mixed bag. It starts by having a go at raunch culture, deals with the desire to have better and better sex (an admirable goal, worth striving for), deviates into stories about 11-years-olds being pressurised into having anal sex and meanders into the general sexualisation of our culture - what effect is this having on our children? Finally she comes back to the point: the idea that in a culture so obsessed with sex, so sexualised in an insidious matter, the flasher is blatant. The male flasher is delusional in the way he regards his penis. The female flasher is delusional insofar as she believes that she is desired by the men she flashes - “apparently unaware that her body has become expendable to the point that, no matter how naked she may be, she is barely visible” (p129).

Exposing phallacy is a great title, but a disappointing book. A lot of the arguments made are tired, trite and lacking in evidence. More of the same stuff brought to us by the anti-raunch culture feminists of the 1990s, such as Pamela Paul and Ariel Levy. It would have been a more interesting read to have explored in more depth the stories of flashers and those flashed. To have looked at how the phenomenon varies according to different sexual orientations, not just gender, and perhaps to have explored cultural differences in the way people flash - if such exist. The chapter on treatment offered some insight into how psychiatry deals with flashers, but how should society?

The hackneyed, anti-porn, anti-raunch, anti-sexualisation arguments left this writer unfulfilled.