January 15, 2005

I love you. Or, sex is the system (Adbusters #56, fall, 2004)

The Guess Jeans billboard near my apartment, the one that made me gag in the mornings on my way to work, has now become a site for sexual catharsis. It's toppled, smashed and ripped apart. Both of Paris Hilton's suggestive eyes have big $$'s etched into them. And spray-painted across her tanned forehead: "You fucked the system!"

The rage toward this lingering effigy of our fallen economy isn't directed at Paris or even at Guess. More like years of needless sexual desire suddenly finding a violent release. Remember that old sex-infused economy? Those sultry body parts of celebrities that became more familiar than your own? Remember your imaginary body? Breasts by Heidi Klum, butt by Gisele Bundchen, legs by Paris Hilton, abs by Usher, fat wallet and fat lifestyle by Donald Trump. Sex was the magic manna energizing it all.

But an economy that sold naughty fantasies doesn't completely explain why Paris' face has been on the receiving end of rocks and aerosol paint. For that, you need to ponder what we rarely questioned before the crash: what does it mean to construct an entire system of exchange on sex?

After supply and demand were jettisoned as our economic axis, irrational desire fuelled by personal inadequacies and sold at WalMart prices took over. This arousal machine sent out constant sexual shocks to keep us spending. Reduced to responding to sexual stimulation, corporations and consumers became pimps and johns.

It wasn't in the store where sex sold, it was in the mind. The purchase was the climax of an intricate come-on. The product hardly mattered. If Brand X's toothpaste made teeth whiter, but Brand Y's had sex appeal, we bought Brand Y like horny sheep. Sexy ads replaced our natural understanding of love and beauty with unobtainable ideals that fed on our esteem. Sullen and depressed, we bought to feel the excitement and lust of the flesh surrounding us.

When Maslow put the physiological requirements of food, water and sex at the base of his hierarchy of needs, he meant physical sex. But the physical wasn't on offer in the virtual economy. It was all tease and no penetration. Marketers piqued base sexual appetites, yet never fed them. Still, numbed by television, repetitive jobs, and easy, thoughtless lives, sexual fantasy offered wild escape. We allowed ourselves to be swallowed whole into the cultural spectacle, and the further we slipped into the virtual, the less physical sex we had.

The crash was both psychological and structural. Our ordering of desires over needs was sent into painful reversal. So many insulated lives full of needless desire were abruptly exposed to a wilderness of real needs -- for food, water and shelter. In an instant, sexual fantasy was destroyed. Countless industries built upon the shrine of the flesh, from cars to fashion, music and entertainment, fell to dust along with it. And then the whole structure buckled. We prayed our economic house could weather the shocks, but ultimately, the veil was off. A fantasy economy based on desire was meaningless when desire itself was an impossible fantasy.

And so we revolt against the old signs of the system, the steamy looks and pouted lips and buxom breasts of life in a secure little bubble. Paris Hilton represents everything that was wrong with the old economy, where few of us could accept that the sexy carrot at the end of the stick was not meant to be eaten. As George Gilder said, "Real poverty is less a state of income than a state of mind." We destroyed the Earth, and our souls, in the process. That's what economics built on sex finally meant.

Tim Querengesser

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