The seduction of sexualized commerce

  • October 25, 2007
{mosimage}Sex sells. That seems obvious enough to anyone who owns a television. But cultural critic Paul Rutherford has looked behind this most obvious truth about advertising to figure out how and why we have been sold so much stuff using so much sex.

In A World Made Sexy: Freud to Madonna the University of Toronto professor outlines 'the eros project" – the means by which modern societies have been persuaded to accept the sexualization of the public square in the interest of commerce. The technology of media has been exploited to create what Rutherford calls a 'regime of stimulation." Understanding that regime provides a key to understanding the materialist, capitalist, anti-Christian economy and culture which surrounds us, the author told The Catholic Register.

By starting with a brief history of pornography, then looking at how marketers have used Freudian insights to goose their sales, Rutherford's new book says that sex is a new and better way of understanding the triumph of capitalism.

'This is a regime of stimulation. As a regime it is indeed a way of trying to guide, or control, or program people," said Rutherford.

{sa=080209466X}Rutherford isn't some wingy conspiracy theorist who imagines a dark cabal scheming to get North Americans to gradually accept Playboy magazine and beer commercials populated by women in bikinis.

'Nobody sat down and wrote the eros project as a plan. Nobody actually thought about it in quite that way," he said.

Like classic capitalism, the forces which unleashed sex into the marketplace conquered as if by an invisible hand – 'an almost unintentional conspiracy to develop an ideology of eroticism and a variety of techniques which would work to speed the transmission of goods from the factory to the home."

 As Rutherford sees it, capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a fundamental problem to overcome. To keep selling more mass-produced goods in the context of a basically Christian culture it had to make people comfortable with their affluence.

'One of the great things about North America was the emphasis on abundance, and the effort to produce abundance for wider and wider numbers of people," observes Rutherford. 'This, however, set up all kinds of psychological and cultural tensions. Because North America was, particularly in the 19th century and I think really right up to the mid-20th century, a very Christian land. And Christianity has had a lot of problems with this. At various times Christian churches have celebrated poverty, not abundance, and certainly have not been favourable to material excess."

So if the church saw materialism as the enemy of both spirituality and the good life, capitalism had to redefine the good life. A redefined good, or ethical, life required a new concept of what it means to be human – what philosophers call an anthropology.

Capitalists found the philosophical underpinnings of the eros project in a left-wing convergence of Freudianism and Marxism. For the left following the Russian revolution, the ideal of sexual liberation was grounded in a conviction that human beings become more truly who they are by chasing down their deepest desires.

Beginning with psychologist and marketing consultant Ernst Dichter in the 1930s, the logic of human beings as desiring animals was applied to sex, then transferred to consumer goods through the  trick of association. There may be no logical connection between a beautiful young woman and a car, but if attraction to the model seems right,  healthy and inescapable then one must have a Mustang.

Pope John Paul II characterized this Freudian concept of human beings – basically sexual, defined by sexual drives and desires – as partial. For the pope, the fuller truth about human nature goes beyond biochemically driven sexual longing and finds its meaning in a theologically defined spousal relationship.

'It is necessary continually to rediscover the spousal meaning of the body and the true dignity of the gift in what is 'erotic.' This is the task of the human spirit, and it is by its nature an ethical task," John Paul wrote in the series of audiences which have been collected in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.

John Paul isn't alone in finding sexual determinism ethically inadequate. When capitalism had harnessed sexuality for the purpose of commerce, many leftists found themselves morally offended. Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse was among those disappointed by the market's use of sex.

'For Marcuse, liberation of the body, the liberation of sex, meant that people would be free to express their sexual natures  – not that they would be controlled by marketers, not that they would be controlled by business, not that they would indulge in excess," said Rutherford.

For those perpetually plugged into media, the eros project may seem like an all-enveloping reality that defines the limits of possibility, but for Rutherford there is a distinction between virtual reality and reality.

'There is a way out," he said. 'The eros project is not a totalitarian system. It is not in fact coercive. It may be psychologically coercive for some people, but it's not a matter of law – it is not a matter of sovereignty and control and discipline and that kind of thing."

From feminists in the 1960s and 1970s through to Christians today, many people have found reasons to resist sexualized commerce. The question is whether we really want to.

'This is seduction," points out Rutherford. 'It can seem oppressive, but indeed it can be used as a form of play, and indeed is used that way by people."

But Pope John Paul II's theology of the body insists that people take sex more seriously – that the fantasy of sexual utopias which surround us in the media offer less than an integrated vision of what it means to be human.

'We are, in fact, the children of an age in which, due to the development of various disciplines, this integral vision of man can easily be rejected and replaced by many partial conceptions that dwell on one or another aspect of the compositum humanum but do not reach man's integrum or leave it outside their field of vision," wrote the pope. 'Various cultural tendencies then insert themselves here that are based on partial truths and on this basis make their proposals and practical suggestions for human behaviour and, even more often, about ways of relating to 'man.' Man then becomes more an object of certain technologies than the responsible subject of his own action."

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