Smart Girls in a Sexy World

Ariel Levy might argue that the scariest sight this Halloween isn't to be seen in a haunted house or a horror movie.

Rather, it's to be found in costume stores across the country, where normally modest women shop for Halloween outfits with the philosophy "the smaller, the tighter, the better."

Levy's 2005 book, "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture," explores the social trend exemplified by all those Playboy Bunnies, sexy stewardesses and hot nurses you'll see on Halloween -- women who embrace the idea that sex equals power and who thrive in a society that continually encourages them to exploit their sexuality for fun and profit.

"Female Chauvinist Pigs," just out in paperback, is only a year old but it already reads a little like ancient history.

Sure, some girls just want to have fun. But more and more, younger women realize that exposing cleavage and flaunting booty is not mandatory -- it's a choice. They're comfortable with not conforming to the cookie-cutter concept of beauty. Women have learned that they can use brains, beauty or a combination of both to thrive in this culture of sex.

Get a Push-Up Bra or Get Out

Levy argues that pornography and plastic surgery have so invaded pop culture that Americans expect women to ramp up their sexuality at all times.

"Because we have determined that all empowered women must be overtly and publicly sexual, and because the only sign of sexuality we seem to be able to recognize is a direct allusion to red-light entertainment, we have laced the sleazy energy and aesthetic of a topless club or a Penthouse shoot throughout our entire culture," she writes.

Flashing for the cameras of "Girls Gone Wild," sleeping with dozens of men, wearing thong underwear, idolizing "Sex and the City," refuting the "girly-girl" stereotype: according to Levy, these are ways in which women have fooled themselves into thinking sex equals empowerment.

In reality, she says, this breed of feminists are just female chauvinist pigs, or FCPs.

Explaining the FCP mind-set, Levy writes, "The FCP asks: Why throw your boyfriend's Playboy in a ... trash can when you could be partying at the Mansion? Why worry about disgusting or degrading when you could be giving -- or getting -- a lap dance yourself? Why try to beat them when you can join them?"

According to Levy, the more women buy into pop culture's objectification of them, the more they morph into living, breathing equivalents of a blow-up doll. Like strippers twirling endlessly around a pole, it's a vicious cycle. And if women refuse to spin, they may as well opt out of sex altogether.

She writes, "The only alternative to enjoying Playboy (or flashing for "Girls Gone Wild" or getting implants or reading [porn star] Jenna Jameson's memoir) is being 'uncomfortable' with and 'embarrassed' about your sexuality."

Focusing on the Extreme

Some critics say that the many depictions of overtly sexual women make "Female Chauvinist Pigs" unbalanced. Take Levy's "expose" of spring break, which stars topless girls and the friends who spank them for the benefit of "Girls Gone Wild" and hoards of onlookers.

The author admits she was shocked by how college coeds spent their time on spring break in Miami. Although she graduated from college not long ago, Levy had never been on a raucous college getaway before she started researching "Female Chauvinist Pigs."

No wonder, then, that Levy was so startled to see the hedonism happening on Florida's beaches that she neglected to look to at the big picture.

It's true that some women on spring break will flash the entire Western world at the drop of a hat -- as in the case of "Girls Gone Wild, which gives its amateur stars hats or T-shirts after they've bared all. But it's also true that they're often ridiculed by peers who keep their tops down and their bikini bottoms up.

California native Stephanie Kwai has gone to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and the Bahamas for spring break.

"If your motive is to find girls who'll flash everybody, you can find them," she said.

At the same time, she explains, these women do not represent all coeds.

"I don't believe that everybody is going to go out there and flash people and have sex with the next person they see," she said. "A huge majority of people just go to have fun."

As for wet T-shirt contests and other woman versus woman spectacles, Kwai's not impressed.

"It's kind of amusing, but it's also kind of gross," she said.

Cultural Calamity or Variety?

Levy suggests no alternative to the reign of raunch culture. She leaves readers with the impression that if women don't wake up, put on some real panties and cover up their cleavage, the advances of the feminist movement will go to pieces.

Is the situation really so dire?

Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union and a prominent feminist advocate, said it's not. According to Strossen, the proliferation of pornography and pornolike images isn't necessarily bad.

"What someone sees as a disgusting, demeaning image, someone else might see as an empowering image," she said. "There's even pornography that's made for women by women, or at least that's the intent."

Strossen points out that numerous attempts by social scientists to find a connection between porn and damaging attitudes toward women have fallen flat. "Using empirical measures, nobody has been able to demonstrate even a correlation between pornography and negative effects," she said.

As for the argument that women who see porn could become more sexually overt themselves, Strossen said, "That kind of 'monkey-see-monkey-do' world view completely denies human autonomy."

Bob Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said overtly sexual depictions of women are only dangerous when nothing exists to counter them.

"These images are only a real problem when they're not diluted by other images. ... You've got a whole bunch of different representations of women right now that are all over the board," Thompson said.

While pop culture provides plenty of wet, writhing women with come-hither stares, it also offers alternatives.

"I think Daria was one of the more interesting mainstream television characters to come along in a long time," Thompson said.

"Daria," MTV's 1990s animated series about a smart, sarcastic, drably dressed girl with an aversion to the popular clique, proved that blond cheerleaders weren't the only girls on TV worth watching.

More recently, some women's magazines have shown they're above surgically enhanced cover girls and the how-to-please-your-man-in-100 ways genre of advice.

This past summer, Marie Claire magazine chided recent cover girl Ashlee Simpson for getting a nose job after she told the magazine how much she appreciated the looks God gave her.

And in its October issue, Jane magazine addressed the trend toward skimpy, scanty Halloween costumes.

In "Enough With the Slutty Costumes," Stephanie Trong writes, "Girls love to dress like sluts on Halloween. Whatever their costume, they always find a way to stipperfy it, no matter how ludicrous the concept. Like 'sexy cop,' 'sexy zombie,' 'sexy Army cadet,' or ... 'sexy shoe saleswoman.' It's always one big pleather, vinyl and fishnet stockings fest everywhere you turn."

Fed up, Trong decided to defy convention on a recent Halloween. She ditched her sexy French maid get-up, donned a heavy, raggedy, head-to-toe rabbit suit, and went to a costume party where she refused to reveal her identity.

Trong garnered more attention than she ever could have in a skimpy outfit. Who from? Skimpy-outfitted girls who couldn't get enough of the daredevil wearing a rabbit suit.

Girls like Trong, who have the ability to laugh with raunch culture while defying its stereotypes, don't exist in "Female Chauvinist Pigs."

But they do in real life. That's the beauty of living in a world that offers women an array of options, from the costume store to the underwear department, from television programs to feminist philosophies.

A culture of sex doesn't have to be accepted in its entirety or not at all. Women can partake in what they like and ignore what they don't. They can wear a French maid outfit one Halloween and a rabbit suit the next. They can get comfortable in a culture of sex because they can handle it.

ABC's Yvonne Lai contributed to this piece.