OPINION by Dr Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Call me a wowser, but too much sex ain't good for us
, February 28, 2015
Call me a wowser, but even though I enjoyed and appreciated the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, there are also parts I found unsettling.
Australian poet C.J. Dennis defined a wowser as “an ineffably pious person who mistakes this world for a penitentiary and himself for a warder”.
Alongside being described as a “God-botherer”, being called a wowser is one of the worst insults anyone can receive when arguing that public standards of decency and propriety have deteriorated too far.
There’s no doubt that Gaultier is a creative genius when it comes to fashion; but celebrating misogyny, bondage, overt forms of sexuality and permissiveness is representative of a society that mistakenly blurs the boundaries between the public and the private.
One figure in the exhibition holds a sex toy. Another figure is the semi-visible form of a woman disappearing into what appears to be a bordello. Representations of erect nipples and female pubic hair are on display in an exhibition open to the general public, including families with children.
Not surprisingly, the official description of the exhibition describes aspects of it as “hyper-sexualised” and “marked by many allusions to bondage and the X-rated, with latex, leather, fishnet stockings and other sadomasochistic paraphernalia dressing his new-style horsewomen in ‘ready-for-sex’ designs, close by-products of late 1970s power-dressing that some have found outrageous and others sublimely elegant”.
Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, it’s clear that the wowsers have lost their battle, and when it comes to open displays of sexuality and permissive behaviour it’s obvious that Australian society, as with most Western cultures, has been liberated. However, have we gone too far and at what cost?
It’s significant that one of the enfants terribles of the hippie movement, Australian-born writer Richard Neville, has questioned the often harmful consequences of the sexual liberation associated with the ’60s cultural revolution.
How times have changed! Growing up in working class Broadmeadows in Melbourne’s north, as kids we knew that girlie magazines were available to adults but were hidden under the news-
I still remember the surprise and shock in year 8, when one of the boys brought an ink pen to school featuring a lady in a swimsuit. When you turned the pen upside down, all was revealed. Uniform inspection was every week, and girls were warned about skirts being too short or for daring to wear witches’ britches.
Call it repressive and puritanical, but the positive side was, as boys, we were taught to respect women and not to treat then as sex objects. Boundaries were established about what constituted acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, especially when it came to premarital sex.
While somewhat farcical, this was a time when a copy of Michelangelo’s David displayed in Myer had to wear a fig leaf and police in Melbourne raided a play in which the actors appeared naked.
Nobody expects a return to the past; but, at the same time, it is right to ask what is the cost of our increasing acceptance of public displays of sexuality and, especially, the increasing commodification of young girls and women? It also needs to be asked whether young boys are being presented with a jaundiced and unhealthy representation of girls and women that panders to the dark, misogynist side of sexuality.
The Internet has opened up a world of explicit sex available 24/7 to any young, impressionable mind. “Sexting” and body image are de rigueur for many young girls if they are to be socially acceptable, and raunchy celebrity figures teach that bums and boobs outsell talent.
Whereas childhood was once associated with innocence and naïvety, the broader culture is now one of explicit sexuality and raunchiness. In Hollywood movies, what was once only alluded to or implied in films like Casablanca is now graphically portrayed in every detail.
Billboards across our major cities offer sexualised slogans and images; stand-up comedians resort to crude, offensive language instead of carefully crafted satire and wit; and comedy shows, such as SBS television’s Housos, are full of offensive language, crude gestures and dialogue calculated to make an Australian Digger blush.
Even the Australian Open is not immune, as proven by the Ultra Tune television advertisement selling tyres, in which two women in bondage outfits are portrayed as “into rubber”. Add the increasing use of the f-bomb at the tennis tournament and it’s clear that civility and respect for others are on the decline.
There is no chance of turning the clock back, and it is true that elements of the more conservative approach to sexuality were, and still are, hypocritical. However, maybe it is time to evaluate the cost of our new-won freedoms and to ask ourselves whether we have lost more than we have gained.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute. This article originally appeared in the Melbourne Age, and is reprinted with the author’s permission.