Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan: "Does anyone ‘choose’ to be a sex symbol?"

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"Some younger readers may need a bit of context before I begin. When I were a lass, Pamela Anderson was the sex symbol. After success as a Playboy covergirl she became the breakout star of Baywatch, which she parlayed into a cross-media porny notoriety that brought her huge amounts of fame and fortune. She was the decade’s byword for post- Madonna, pre-Kardashian sex, sleaze and pneumatic beauty.

Then she retreated from the world a bit. She mainly, it seemed on her own terms, though of course when your career is built on the time-limited foundation of sexual allure there will always be an element of the world retreating from you too – had children, turned her attention to charity work, had various implants removed, let her lips deflate a little, cut her hair shorter. You could see it as a sad end to her glory days or as a form of quiet relief, maybe even liberation from a constraining image according to your taste and temperament.

Then last week she gave a speech at Cannes at the launch of her own charity – the Pamela Anderson Foundation, aimed at boosting human and animal rights and environmental activism – outlining the many experiences of sexual abuse and rape she experienced as a child and young woman. It included references to her molestation from the ages of six till 12 by a female babysitter, rape by a friend’s 25-year-old boyfriend when she was 12 and a gang rape by her first boyfriend and six of his friends a few years later.

It was these experiences, she said, that gave her a love for animals and affinity with nature. The perfection of her children when they were born gave her an interest in human rights – thus the trifecta of concerns for her foundation.

Pamela Anderson with her dog out and about in Los Angeles

Many commentators’ response to this uncommonly brave action has been to profess disbelief or bafflement. If this is true, they want to know, why did she go on to make herself a sex symbol?

Two things are going on here. One is the psychology that underlies all victim-blaming. We want to believe that bad things don’t happen to innocent people. So we need either to reject what the supposed victim is saying (as here) or we need to make the victim complicit (a rape victim was asking for it, shouldn’t have been walking down that street at that time, wearing that skirt, that lipstick – you know how it goes).

The other is how unwilling we are to recognise that human beings – their emotions, their reactions and their consequent decisions – are complex. On the face of it, to make a career out of sex and sexuality is a strange thing for a sexually abused person to do. Except that it’s not – not really.

If something terrible happens to you, especially when you are young, your instinct is to try to master it. If you lose control over your body – which is what happens in the most profound way during an assault – you might try lots of ways over the ensuing years to regain it. You might ‘choose’ (I’ve put it in inverted commas because there is a never-ending debate to be had over whether anything that arises directly out of trauma is as freely adopted as the word implies) to have cosmetic surgery, to alter your body on your terms and away from the body that was abused.

If you experience repeated assault and violation, you might feel that your only option was to embrace that part of yourself that apparently keeps attracting attention. Being the hunter beats being the hunted every time.

Marilyn Monroe posing for film All About Eve in 1950

The history of sex symbols of various kinds is strewn with stories of abuse. From the awful miseries of the child Norma Jean Baker who grew up into Marilyn Monroe, to Linda Boreman (coerced, she claimed, by her violent husband into performing as Linda Lovelace in porn films including the infamous Deep Throat), Seventies porn starlet Traci Lords (brought up by an abusive father and stepfather, started in the industry at 15) to US porn star-of-stars Jenna Jameson, whose autobiography includes accounts of her bad childhood and first marriage and of her two rapes.

As sex becomes ever more a currency, as porn proliferates, I always wonder – am I meant to believe that everyone involved is there because they want to be? That they’ve all freely chosen this option from the multitude generally granted to those lucky enough to have had a stable childhood, happy relationships and maintained an unshattered psyche? Are Anderson et al all exceptions? Or are they just the tiny, visible tip of a huge iceberg? I wonder. I wonder."

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Stylist Team