U of T professor Paul Rutherford explains how the erotic became the mainstream

[originally printed in fab issue 331 – October 14, 2007]

Sex sells. It’s a given, a cliché, but University of Toronto history professor Paul Rutherford decided to trace how sexuality and consumerism became so entwined. His new book, A World Made Sexy: Freud to Madonna, (U of T Press, $27.95) examines what he calls “a largely unwitting ‘conspiracy’ in which,” he explains, advertising took over the sexual revolution (and vice versa), turning sex into a commodity. Gay men are an excellent case study in how we are all liberated and controlled by “the libidinal economy.”

Rutherford explains how Victorian notions of “perversions” were pushed aside, first by Sigmund Freud a century ago, then perhaps permanently later. “The notion of oral sex has changed in my lifetime,” he says as an example. “In the ’60s, oral sex used to be regarded as fundamentally dirty, some-thing carried out by perverts. Gay or heterosexual, it didn’t matter—they were perverts. But by the ’90s, oral sex was regarded somewhere between French kissing and petting, I guess.” Or for some gay men, I joke, a handshake. “Maybe so,” he says, “and all this happened quickly, within two generations.”

The advertising industry was quick to exploit this easing of sexual mores. Rutherford points to Playboy magazine as an early ad-driven outlet for sex that helped create a whole new identity for heterosexual men—the ’60s swinging bachelor. “If we see ourselves as an erotic subject, the whole industry of marketing benefits because we will respond to them in that way,” Rutherford says. And while straight men were being taught to see their sexuality as an identity, gay men were already doing so out of political necessity. By the late ’70s, marketers began to notice and cater to gay men eager to buy from companies that recognized our existence. We became renowned for shopping. “It’s marvelous!” the professor says. “You’re already defined as an erotic being in a marketplace built on constantly finding goods to enhance your erotic appeal.” Even the act of sex became bought and sold, says Rutherford—before the AIDS crisis, bathhouses were packed nightly, if criticized for the way they “institutionalized promiscuity.” He quotes philosopher Michel Foucault who tartly summed up this new philosophy: “Get undressed—but be slim, good-looking, tanned!”

In one chapter of his book, Rutherford traces this process through the paths of two pop-culture icons of the sexual revolution: James Bond and Madonna. Bond’s “rampant and rampaging heterosexuality” startled people in the ’60s: “In the world of 007, life was organized by the rule of the phallus.” But while Bond himself has become a sex object (the camera lingering over Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig), his film series has become increasingly consumerist, having “extended his aura of sexiness to a variety of goods” like BMWs and Omega watches. When Madonna both recorded a title song and appeared onscreen in Die Another Day, it was the perfect corporate transaction: the Bond series gained some of her gay audience and Madonna, once a sexual provocateur who borrowed from gay culture in the ’80s, got another stab her quest to be a movie star. Stung by the backlash against her pornographic Sex book in 1992, Madonna has retreated, Rutherford argues, into desire for respectability. Respectability has replaced repression, says Rutherford, but the process that made the ordinary sexy has also made the sexy ordinary: “What I see happening to gay men and lesbians is that they now submit to the same forms of social and moral discipline that heterosexuals do.” Single gay men now speak the language marketing in online personal ads where, as in commercials, little can be trusted. And before gay men could get married, says Rutherford, “they had a culture and a place of resistance. But once they bought in, though marriage, they became part of a family…a corporate entity that purchases things.” In our culture, it is, he says, “a form of stability…a form of control.”

“There’s always this double side,” Rutherford says. “Liberation on one side, domination on the other.” On vacation in a small Spanish town, he saw erotic advertising right next to a shop selling religious paraphernalia: “Two parallel ideologies…both engaged in selling.” The professor gives a wry smile and says, “Shopping brings us all together.”


About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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