Tuesday, October 9, 2012

booknotes: exposing phallacy

Recently, I was sent an advance review copy of the book Exposing Phallacy: Flashing in Contemporary Culture (Zero Books, 2012) by Kate Gould. At seventy-four pages, Gould's examination of the culture of flashing is brief and necessarily incomplete, but thought-provoking nevertheless. Flashing (the practice of exposing one's sexybits without the prior consent of the viewer(s)) is frankly something I've never spent a lot of time thinking about. I've had the (rare, it seems) luck of never encountering someone who displayed their breasts, labia, or penis either directly to me or in a public area I happened to be. In a vague sort of way, I thought of such activities as existing in the area between public nudity performed to disrupt (streakers) and sexual harassment like wolf-whistles.

Like streaking, flashing seems to trade on the indecency of exposing parts of one's naked body in public under certain conditions (could one be a flasher on a nude beach? would anyone care?). Like verbal sexual harassment on the street, if it takes place in a populated area with no other threat of physical harm, flashing is (to the viewer) weird and unexpected and probably unwanted, but not particularly effective either as a show of force or as a come-on. I mean, unless you happen to expose your bits to just the right person, most casual viewers are not going to read surprise genital exposure as a positive first move toward mutual sexual pleasure ("Look! I have bits!" "Indeed, you do, as do I. Care to start with a more personalized introduction?").

I frankly hadn't thought of flashing as a particularly sexual activity, as something a person would get off on in a dedicated way -- though why I would fail to see the potential when voyeurism is such a strong element within eroticism now seems baffling. Gould argues exactly this, in fact: that flashers experience the act of flashing as a sexual activity, one in which their imagined encounter with the observer(s) of their act is the reward, rather than any specific response (disgust, anger, fear, indifference) on the part of those who have been flashed. The flashees, it would seem, are necessary yet strangely superfluous.

From an explicitly feminist perspective, Gould explores the gendered differences in flashing: women exposing themselves as part of a larger culture that objectifies female sexuality, men exposing themselves as a bid for power and/or control over their own sexuality (and the imagined sexual responses of observers). She also talks briefly about the legal and medical frames around flashing, particularly for male flashers, and argues that both of these approaches to the problem of non-consensual flashing are inadequate. While those who've experienced flashing as sexual harassment certainly have a right to redress, treating flashing as a sexual disorder risks criminalizing and pathologizing a sexual activity simply because as a society we've deemed it "abnormal." As with so many other sexual behaviors, consent here seems to be the key issue and I wish Gould had explored this more fully: is the unwilling participation of observers (the surprise element) a key part of a flasher's experience? Or would someone who enjoys the activity of flashing be able to channel that sexual activity into a consensual context?

In the end, I found myself wondering what would happen if as a culture we just treated bodily exposure as ... unremarkable? It seems like part of what makes flashing an attractive activity to those who engage in it is the illicitness, the taboo element. So if as a society we've decided it's not so awesome for people to expose their sexybits in public what if we just responded with a collective yawn when it happened? What if, instead of criminalizing the activity and subjecting flashers to therapeutic "fixes," we just said, "Gosh, that's boring!" It seems like if as a culture we had a less disordered relationship with sexuality and the human body, we might have a more constructive response to flashing behavior -- emphasizing the need for consent and otherwise treating the human body as an unremarkable fact of daily life.

Exposing Phallacy is a book that will be of interest to those who explore the intersections of human sexuality, social policing, and the law.

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