It was, intellectually and politically, a dark time: 2005.

In Miami Beach, a nineteen-year-old with "a rhinestone Playboy bunny ring, white stilettos that laced in tight X's up her hairless calves, and wee shorts that left the lowest part of her rear in contact with the night air."

In the Playboy offices, a "rock-hard woman in jeans and heels with a long, silky ponytail and a motherlode of cleavage."

In lower Manhattan, "a Stradivarius, a built, beautiful young woman with milky skin and silky hair and a broad, lipsticked mouth."

At a progressive Bay Area high school, a girl who "may very well have been the hottest one: She was a tall, tan girl with lovely, light freckles across her cheeks, long limbs, and gold hair."

At the W Hotel, "the women were like another species: lush curves bursting off of impossibly thin frames and miles of hairless, sand-colored skin as far as the eye could see."


One day when I was about fifteen, my teacher asked the class how many of us would call themselves feminists. Because I worry that pointing to one's political credentials as a teen will seem like a particularly pathetic form of self-aggrandizement, I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I was the only one to raise my hand. I am also embarrassed that, upon seeing that none of the other twenty-five or so students had their hands up, I lowered mine; I wasn't cool enough to own an unpopular stance, but nor was I far enough outside of the social hierarchy enough to fully embrace oppositionality. 

Our teacher's question came during a typically lackluster discussion of the critic Ariel Levy's then-new book Female Chauvinist Pigs, an articulation and indictment of "raunch culture" from which the above descriptions of hot women are drawn.1 Levy charted the ascendancy of a version of female sexual empowerment that was consumerist, pornographic and, in short, bad for women. Saying that I was the only one who did the reading felt and feels embarrassing. But nevertheless, the fact was that I had read Levy's book in a single late night sitting with a perhaps disconcerting eagerness. (Then, it made me a loser. Now, I worry once more that it will come off as an attempt to retroactively assert my credentials as a teenage intellectual.)

I was transfixed for two reasons. One was the book's argument, which entirely convinced me, however visible its shortcomings its liberalism, its uncritical attitudes toward capitalism, its whiteness seem now. The other was that Levy's critique of the pornification of everyday life was so pornographic that I was transfixed and maybe a bit turned on. When Levy criticized the equation of a narrowly pornographic vision of sexual empowerment with liberation, I agreed with her. But when she described the women who embodied and themselves adopted this vision, I wanted to be one.


It was not the first and would not be the last time in that era that I'd turn to, then be turned on by, writing that purported to expose the shortcomings of contemporary sexual culture. Levy's analysis of sex under the Bush regime was hardly unique. Indeed, there was a constant stream of such material. It was, for my purposes, more or less interchangeable, regardless of the author's ideological or political sensibilities. One writer may have worried about hypersexualization because it represented a regressive anti-feminist turn and another because it resulted from a breakdown of the traditional family. But in either case they couldn't help but mirror precisely the hypersexualization supposedly under scrutiny.

The "rainbow party" was perhaps the most emblematic version of this apparent but only apparent convergence of critique and pornography. Or, in simpler terms: the critique of creeping pornification had a remarkable tendency to sound, for lack of a better word, porny. By most accounts, rainbow parties were first brought to the attention of Americans by Oprah Winfrey, who devoted a segment to the shocking phenomenon: teen gatherings in which girls, each wearing a different bright shade of lipstick, would take turns giving a boy (or boys) blowjobs. Prurience on the part of purveyors of moral panics around teen sexual degeneracy is no surprise. After all, crusaders for sexual morality never can seem to help veering into lurid fantasy, as titillating as it is terrifying. Whatever their authors' avowed intentions, cautionary tales have a funny way of seducing rather than scaring the reader. I was, at the time at least, one of those readers, and in some sense, I suppose, have remained so since. Despite not having revisited the material in nearly two decades, I can remember specific articles, tropes, phrases.


For example, the "post-feminist" journalist Caitlin Flanagan may have thought that Oprah and her sidekick, Dr. Phil, were exaggerating, but even a skeptic couldn't resist the temptation of a pornographic flourish. (She also did grant that some teens might be giving and getting head in the back of the bus after all, the "moms in [her] set [were] convinced.") In a 2006 article for the Atlantic, Flanagan laid out a systematic case for her claim that the fear of rainbow parties was overblown:

How many boys could successfully receive seven blowjobs in an hour? Surely even the adolescent male at the peak of his sexual prime needs at least a few minutes to reload. One would assume that the first transaction would be completed at light speed, that the second might take a bit longer and that by the fourth or fifth even the horniest tenth-grader might display some real staying power. But asking questions like these will automatically preclude you from entering the current oral-sex hysteria, which presupposes not only that a limitless number of young American girls have taken on the sexual practices of porn queens but also that American boys are capable of having an infinite number of sexual experiences in rapid succession. It requires believing that a boy could be serviced at the school-bus train party receiving oral sex from ten or fifteen girls, one after another and then zip his fly and head off to homeroom, first stopping in the stairwell for a quickie to tide him over until math.2

Flanagan isn't just ventriloquizing the moralists she critiques. We can tell that the worries about oral sex were hysterical because they were unrealistic. And, in order to show this, we are meant to think carefully about how long, precisely, it will take a fourteen year old kidthe peak of one's sexual prime, apparentlyto come. (Flanagan also made sure to remind us that "the colors of lipstick [would] smear together, destroying the desired rainbow effect.")  Porn trades in fantasy, of course, but it loses its power if it strays too far from believability.


I read Flanagan's article on teen oral sex about a year before Levy's book and a year after I'd first learned that one could download porn from Limewire. I don't think I recognized it at the time, but I got the same thing, mutatis mutandis, out of both. If anything, I learned more from the legacy media in which worries about the effects of porn on teens were being voiced than I did from the grainy clips I'd download and immediately delete from the hand-me-down computer in my bedroom.

Middlebrow cultural criticism not only provided me with an additional source of pornography, it also gave me an excuse for another indulgence: reality TV. Desire to watch the Simple Life, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie's reality show, was matched in strength only by shame for the desire. It was too unserious, too regressive, too stupid. I tried a few times to explain to friends or family that my interest in watching was anthropological; what I wanted was to see for myself this document of the perversity of our Contemporary Moment. I was sure that they could see through the ruse of trying to position myself as a thirteen-year-old cultural critic (as if they would've even remarked on the desire in the first place). More problematically, I couldn't convince myself.

So, instead, I read articles and books that purported to tackle the pernicious anti-intellectualism and morbid hypersexuality I longed to consume. These provided an imperfect but reliable mode of indulgence for an anxious kid whose sexual and intellectual ambitions were as strong as they were but seemed irreconcilable. Think pieces took the place of the real things. But reading authors like Levy or Flanagan in outlets like the New Yorker or the Atlantic was never entirely satisfying. Even in 2005 they were neither sexy, cool, nor smart enough.


When one revisits these Bush era-discussions about sex, everyone seems to sound the same. Much like different colored lipsticks, lavish descriptions of teens in trouble smear together. In the end, it ends up being hard to distinguish the feminists like Levy, the moralists like Oprah and the even-handed, sober-minded, post-feminist skeptics like Flanagan, the ancestors of today's orthodox-busting Substackers.

Even the ostensibly feminist interventions which were distinctly the minority couldn't seem to get past a sense of bewilderment that women were choosing to wear thongs, that teens were choosing to give head. Feminism had opened the doors of political and corporate offices, but women were instead participating in self-objectifying bimbo-dom. Since the women's movement had succeeded and women were in control of their own destinies, they must have been freely choosing this latter option. But why?


Andrea Dworkin's Pornography had been published only twenty-four years earlier, but by 2005 the intellectual current the book represented felt like something from another planet. The then-standard narrative of something called "sex-positive" feminism winning something called the "sex-wars" is well enough known. Levy internalized the basic liberal version of that narrative namely that "it's fine" if women want to strip or wear tight clothes or be in porn. It's just that it didn't seem plausible that women did want to. The basic problem, then, is that, in the enlightened year of 2005, after the gains of the previous generation of feminist organizing:


Women are free to choose whatever they want to do.

Looking good. Moving on:


No one wants to be a bimbo (defined loosely as someone valued for their looks, whose own desires are subordinated to those of others, and whose capacity for intellectual agency is not so much diminished or even denied so much as set aside as irrelevant.)


People don't typically choose things they don't want to do.

The triumph of feminist consciousness-raising continues. But wait:


Women are choosing to be bimbos.

Something, then, must have gone wrong.


The most obvious problem is that optimism about the triumph of the women's movement seems, at best, quaint. Had feminism really achieved such success by 2005 or, for that matter, 2024 that women were unproblematically choosing to (problematically) self-objectify? But the real problem, of course, is that people don't always choose what's good for them and, what's more, don't always want what's good for them. That goes for sexual as much as any other kind of desire. (I don't pretend that we've solved the problem, despite recent attempts to revive the project of critiquing desires followed by skepticism about the possibility of libidinal reform. But perhaps, if nothing else, the problem is recognizable as a problem.3)

It's telling that there was so much focus not just on the popularity of oral sex among teens, but also a cultural obsession with its post-Monica Lewinsky normalization among the population at large.  Some authors, like Flanagan, simply took it for granted that blowjobs were "debasing, uncomfortable, and messy." But while she proffered "the hand job" and "the dry hump" as less debasing and easier to clean up alternatives,4 Levy was more worried that the prevalence of non-reciprocal oral sex among teens signaled a radical disconnect from sexual pleasure, at least on the part of the giver. The problem wasn't that women and girls were giving boys head per se, but that "most girls" didn't expect "any kind of reciprocal sexual gratification for their services."5 Sadly true, no doubt. But despite the undoubtedly depressing situation, there is a certain optimism in the notion that there is an authentic, stable sexuality from which women were being alienated by the lure of bimbo-dom. Were there such a stable sexual core, it might well be difficult enough to return to. But the notion is illusory.


If there is a problem with non-reciprocal, pornified sex and I am willing to grant that there may well be, indeed that there almost certainly is it is not that it fails to represent real desires, but that it does represent real desires. To say that desire is neutral, neither good nor bad, then, is not the same as saying that it is unproblematic. The fact that I really want something doesn't, on its own, tell me whether I should go for it. And nor can that be answered by reverting to some underlying authenticity waiting to be revealed after peeling away the accreted layers of spray on tan and body glitter, on the one hand, or self-serious overeducation, on the other. The question requires a choice one that can be made in better and worse ways, but is no less a choice because of that.


In other words, the fact that something is sexually desired by a person doesn't ipso facto make it good for them. This, neither the critics of early 2000s sexual culture nor its nostalgic defenders can countenance. For the former, the blithely pornified sexual culture of 2005  couldn't be good because it wasn't what was really desired. For the latter, it was what was really desired and therefore was good, or at least not bad. Desire itself, then, remains untouched. There is no point in pretending that the critique of desire is easy. It is not. This doesn't mean, though, that can be ignored at least, if we don't want to end up in 2005 again.

Elena Comay del Junco is a philosophy professor and writer teaching at the University of Connecticut and living in New York City. She recently published a chapbook, Second Nature; her essays and criticism have appeared in publications including Texte zur Kunst3:AM and The Point.


  1. Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (New York: Free Press, 2005), 9, 37, 97, 152, 116.[]
  2. Caitlin Flanagan, "Are You There God? It's Me, Monica," The Atlantic, January/February 2006.[]
  3. For the former, see most obviously Amia Srinivasan, The Right to Sex (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021); for the latter see Andrea Long Chu, "Wanting Bad Things" The Point, July 2018. []
  4. Flanagan, "Are you there God?"[]
  5. Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, 144.[]