Afew years ago I noticed something weird: Raunch was invading my life. I would turn on the television and see babes in tight, tiny uniforms bouncing up and down on trampolines. I'd change the channel and see Oprah had a stripper on her show, teaching her how to wiggle. I'd walk down the street and see teens and young women -- and the occasional wild fifty-something -- sporting T-shirts emblazoned with the Playboy bunny. Britney Spears was becoming increasingly popular and increasingly unclothed, and her undulating body ultimately became so familiar to me that I felt like we used to go out.

Watching these developments, it struck me that men -- the traditional target market for sex in its many forms -- were only half the equation here. It was women who, across the country, were choosing to firm their thighs by attending Cardio Striptease workouts. It was women -- usually young, always unpaid -- who, by agreeing to flash their breasts or make out with their friends on camera, were making a killing for the insanely popular "Girls Gone Wild" franchise. Even my best friend from college, who is the kind of feminist who used to take part in "Take Back the Night" marches on campus, had become fascinated by porn stars and strippers.

Apparently, where decades ago the women's movement saw objectification, contemporary women are seeing inspiration. The going wisdom is that we now are liberated enough to get implants, we're empowered enough to start lap dancing. Gloria Steinem and her compatriots were either wrong about these things, or just reacting to them in a different time, when different rules applied. Partly, this more recent attitude is a rebellion against the rigidity of the politically correct '80s. Partly, it's a corollary of an ever more pervasive American consumerism, which tells us that if only we buy enough stuff -- bigger and better body parts, tinier and tighter clothes -- we will be able to buy passion. The question is, when we pick up that "Porn Star" T-shirt, what are we really buying?

Take Jenna Jameson. The most popular adult film performer on planet Earth, she has proved to be one of raunch culture's most effective proselytizers. In 2004, her memoir, "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star," spent six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. In it, Jameson writes that "being in the industry can be a great experience" because "you can actually become a role model for women."

She's definitely right about the second part. I've spent the last two years interviewing women for a book about how they relate to raunch. In that time, what I have heard over and over again is that all of this -- Playboy, porn, strippers, thongs -- is good for us. When I went to Miami on spring break with "Girls Gone Wild," a 19-year-old who'd taken her clothes off for the cameras told me, "It shows confidence . . . the only way I could see somebody not doing this is if they were planning a career in politics." When I went to Oakland, Calif., to talk to high school students, one girl remarked, "To dress the skankiest, that would be the one way we all compete. Since seventh grade, the skankier, the smaller, the more cleavage, the better." In Hollywood, Cardio Striptease creator Jeff Costa proudly told me he had a mother bring a troupe of girls to his class for a sweet 16 party.

Which helps explain how a company like Playboy Enterprises, despite a faltering flagship publication that in August announced a $2.3 million second-quarter loss, still turns a comfortable profit. Licensing, for instance, is going extremely well because of the army of women and girls eager to sport the rabbit head logo on their underpants or tank tops or jammies, as an advertisement for their own independence and sass. (When a reporter asked in 2003 if he was concerned about Playboy merchandise being marketed to teenagers, Hugh Hefner replied, "I don't care if a baby holds up a Playboy bunny rattle.")

But let's think about this for a second. That little bunny logo that's supposed to symbolize our kicky empowerment is also the emblem of a man who said in 1967, "I do not look for equality between man and woman . . . I like innocent, affectionate, faithful girls" -- and plenty of them. Judging by his new reality series on E!, "The Girls Next Door," Hef's views haven't changed much. He still surrounds himself with a small stable of girlfriends, each of whom must be involved exclusively with him, each of whom has a 9 p.m. curfew. And these are the women who are going to teach us about liberation?

Jameson is unwittingly poignant on this dichotomy. In her book, she insists that being in porn is "one of the few jobs for women where you can get to a certain level, look around, and feel so powerful, not just in the work environment but as a sexual being." But there's a reason that Jameson's tome is subtitled, "A Cautionary Tale." When she describes her actual sexual experiences, they sound carnivorous and dissociated: "Sexuality became a tool for so much more than just connecting with a boy I was attracted to," she writes. "I realized it could serve any purpose I needed. It was a weapon I could exploit mercilessly." Not once in that description of her sexual life does she use the word pleasure, to say nothing of love. Making love like a porn star -- which is supposed to make us feel so powerful -- doesn't really sound hot or wild or fun, it sounds like a relentless routine. It sounds like a job.

And, of course, for Jameson, as for other women in the sex industry, it is. Strippers, porn stars and Playboy Playmates are women whose job it is to fake lust, to imitate actual arousal. We're supposed to imitate an imitation of our own sexuality and call that empowerment? Seriously?

It's an amazing stroke of illogic, but somehow we have accepted the proposition. In truth, though, raunch culture is not about a real or unbridled exploration of what turns women on or makes us happy, it's about one particular -- and particularly commercial -- shorthand for sexiness, with an emphasis on performance over pleasure, formula over authenticity. It's ironic that we think of this as adult entertainment, because really, reducing sex to polyester underpants and implants is pretty adolescent.

Author's e-mail: ariel@ariellevy.net

Ariel Levy's first book, "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture" (Free Press) is out this month.

Sure, it's all about the abs: Cardio Striptease, an aerobic workout program born four years ago in (surprise!) Hollywood, is selling more than a way to keep fit -- and women are buying.