Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pro-sex? Anti-porn? Where do I fall?

Deep inside my brain there is an ongoing dialogue about pornography, about sex, about relationships, about misogyny, and about love.

There are, in this dialogue, two competing sides. There is what I consider my more idealistic side, what I sometimes fear is naive (in fact, what I've been told is naive by pro-feminists even), and yet still can't decide is actually wrong or any more unreasonable than any desires for utopia.

Every so often I'm forced to reckon with the way popular culture depicts sexual relationships between men and women. Most recently, it was the tragedy in Pennsylvania where a man who blogged about how cruel women as a whole were for not having sex with him targeted and killed women at a gym. Men all over the internet expressed horror at what he did, but expressed that they understood what he was talking about, that yes, women are uppity, and yes, women do dismiss the wrong guys, and yes, women do send the wrong signals and then insult their dignity.

What's clear is that a lot of men think they have a right or entitlement to have sex with women, simply for being alive, and it's not like this is happening in a vaccuum. Most romantic comedies these days, especially those geared at men (or can we not consider, say, Judd Apatow movies to be romantic comedies, even though they involve both romance and comedy, simply because they're geared at men?), involve some sort of conquest where sex is the end prize, where sex marks the man's success in life, or success as a man, and the woman involved is fairly irrelevant at least up until the big final moments when he realizes actual feelings aren't bad to consider.

The hilarious premises are about how to trick the opposite sex into having sex with you or being in a "relationship" with you. Men and women are in competition. Sex is a game. Human connection is irrelevant. This isn't like friendship where you meet a certain person and click and then rely on each other. Romance, or sex, is strategy. It's tricks. It's like an illusion. You either win the game, or you lose it, and that has nothing to do with the particular human you are pursuing or the particular human you are, but is a matter of technique and generalized truths about each sex.

It's not hard for me, as a feminist, to see that this cultural understanding of sex can be dangerous. Which isn't to say many people will take the path Sodini took and mass-murder a group of women because he sees them as the enemy or opposing team, which is, of course, exactly how they're portrayed in this love-game. But that's not to say it doesn't have widespread negative consequences, relating to partner violence, incredible possessiveness and jealousy, the sense of entitlement to women's bodies that leads to street harrassment, sexual violence and assault, and even puritanical protection of those bodies. The plain fact is that I don't like living in a society where sex boundaries are not only set up like this, but depicted as cute and funny in popular culture.


I think the love-game portrayal I described above is part of this problem, and I think porn is another part of it. A piece of culture created solely to sexually gratify the onlooker. How can there be a human connection when only one human is involved? The other is merely a performer on the stage, a character, sometimes just an object of gratification. It's not just masturbation that relies on the fantasy of another person, it's a sole focus on the image of a voiceless stranger.

I don't say all this expecting that, ideally, every sexual act would be the culmination of years of getting to know the other person, of knowing them deeply, and of wanting to love them. I don't pretend to advocate against completely casual sex between two people. What I want though, is the acknowledgement between both parties that their partners are humans, who are fully dimensional, with depth, and thoughts, and likes and dislikes and vulnerabilities.

And so, I say, when asked about the issue of pornography, that I'm not anti-porn in the sense that I'm actively campaigning to shut it down or outlaw it or even to chastise those who consume and produce it. But I do see its creation as a symptom of a society in which sexual relationships are not seen as fully human, and therefore, I see it as something that would not exist if my dream of a feminist utopia were realized. People would no longer get off by looking at one dimensional, voiceless, personless representations of the opposite sex, because they'd want sex to involve mutual humanity...(You have to already share my belief here that our sexual desires and the things that gratify us are, at least in part, constructed by the society we live in. If you disagree we'll discuss in another post)

And this, of course, is where the nay sayers, and, in fact, my own, other, nay saying strain of thought catch up with me. "But wait, it says, is there really ever going to be a time when people won't need visual stimulation to feel sexually satisfied when . Maybe if the actors in porn were just portrayed more like real people and there were real stories and realistic encounters it would be better. Maybe we could just improve porn. Maybe even in a completely economically just society, where education was available and free, and jobs were not in short supply, some people would still want to act in porn, and maybe in a society with no sexual baggage and a totally human outlook on sex, people would still want porn. "

Yes, maybe I'm being naive and judgmental about why people watch porn and why people act in porn. It's possible. And I can't help but be insecure about the fact that I did grow up in a subculture with pretty puritan views of sexuality. Could I have internalized that and could I just be trying to justify that from a feminist perspective? It could be. But I just don't think that's it. I don't FEEL like I have issues with sexuality. I don't judge people who have different sexual behaviors than myself. I just don't think sex should be about conquest. I don't think it should be a sign of someone's success as a person or a man or a woman or a social being. And not because I believe in some ancient view or morality or want to shame anyone for experiencing pleasure. Honestly, it's just because I think anything else is dangerous.

I can't shake the idea that porn and all those comedies I talked about above are not signs of a healthy societal view of sexual relationships and that they breed bad ideas about who gets to have pleasure and how. When we think of ourselves as having a right to have sex with others and players in a big game where sex is the prize, dehumanizing partners and potential partners seems like a natural consequence.

I'm at a stalemate with myself in this conversation. What knowledge or life experience would make me land more firmly on one side or the other?

6 comments:

T said...

First of all, I think I agree with most everything you've said. But I'm puzzled by what you say about 'falling on one side or the other'. I'm not sure what to make of the sides you have in mind. Are you thinking of distinctions like "pro sex" or "anti sex" (prude, whatever) or "pro porn" vs. "anti porn"? If I've understood you correctly, I seems to me that you want to reject this prescribed choice entirely.

I mean, I hear you saying "I don't have a problem with sex as such, I have a problem with oppressive features of current ways of thinking about sex". Or, succinctly: you don't reject porn or sex, but *bad* porn and *bad* sex. For me its kind of like movies or music. When I am disgusted by the fact that they spend millions making movies like "The Ugly Truth", I don't therefore express an aversion to movies as such. Just bad ones that propagate sexist garbage and reified gender norms. I think my feelings about porn are similar. I'm not against the idea of erotic film/photography/art/whatever, but the fact is that most of the artefacts churned out by the 'porn industry' merely replicate existing forms of oppression at the same time that they help create new ones.

A lot of sex, like a lot of relationships, social interactions, norms, etc. is marred by inveterate sexism. For me, a lot of the problems with the 'if it feels good do it' mentality is that it (besides being banal and hardly subversive in the least) is a perverse kind of consumerism. Its a messed up way of seeing other people, of thining about relationships. Intimacy is replaced with a kind of exchange value, with fluctuations in the prices of objects.

A lot of men talk about sex as though they were increasing the value of a stock (their stock) by having 'had' or 'conquered' certain women. By the same token, I hear virginity talked about in similar terms: you don't want to give it all up because then you are less attractive on the market for men to marry. To reject this isn't to take up the hysterical traditionalist rejection of sexual pleasure, although this is how I often feel people who make this critique get painted.

Arvilla said...

Well, I don't know exactly, in retrospect, what I think I need to decide on still.

After my partner read this post he said, "Well...people will still need to beat off." And I get that. I do. But...does it have to be with porn?

I guess the question I go back to, that I haven't resolved in my mind, is whether porn can actually be made better. Of if I think the spectator/actor fundamental of it is too much to overcome. To put it succinctly, "Can there be good porn or is porn fundamentally only capable of producing unhealthy relationships between two people?"

I don't want to be a puritan about it, like you said, and I also don't want to be a crazy anti-porn Dworkin or MacKinnon, and yet I think I might hate porn as such, regardless of how it's done.

T said...

Unless you are fundamentally opposed, in principle, to people producing erotic photos, literature, or videos, the I think its rather difficult to be opposed to porn as such.

Being pretty pessimistic about the possibilities of it being better anytime soon is reasonable, I think. Especially when SO much porn is really, really awful. It's formulaic, cynical, and really panders to the worst of status quo sexist intuitions. It's also really racist in a lot of cases. Most of it strikes me as frustrating and apalling and profoundly UNerotic.

Still -I think the MacKinnon line is politically problematic because it casts too wide a net -it has problems distinguishing itself from Religious Right anti-pornism since it is insufficiently precise in its criticism.

I can't comment on your specific reactions, but on this issue I often think of parellels in culture (and porn, for better or worse, is part of our culture) like film. SO much blockbuster film is AWFUL. Really bad stuff (e.g. The Ugly Truth) which is RIFE with sexist bullshit. Its equally apalling, and has many of the same tropes, as bad mainstream porn.

I have no problems, in principle, with people taking erotic photos or making erotic videos of naked people. But unfortunately there's tons more baggage tacked onto the products churned out by the Porn Industry.

Or take a beer analogy. If all beer tasted like Busch I'm not sure I would be a big fan of beer. In fact, aside from a couple strange circumstances, I don't think I would really drink much beer at all if it were all like Busch. Luckily its not.

The same could be said of sex. If all sex really were like the interactions in porn, I'm not sure I would be such a fan. I'm not saying I wouldn't still have certain impulses, but if all sex were like porn I think I honestly would dread it in important respects.

Toolbit said...

Pink Scare,

The story of the man who shot up the gym made me do a similar self-evaluation on the subject of relationships and, like you, I haven't fully reconciled thins. As a man, I found myself both detesting the man's actions and being sympathetic to his feelings.

You said, "What's clear is that a lot of men think they have a right or entitlement to have sex with women, simply for being alive..." and I think that's too simplistic. I don't feel entitled to anything, but I do feel a frustration that comes from simply being a man and knowing that I am a "servant and supplicant" to women sexually, to take a line from Christopher Hitchens.

Thoreau said "most men live lives of quiet desperation"; I think this sums up my feelings on the subject. To say that "men think they have a right or entitlement" is to be insensitive to the plight of men. I have found a measure of peace on the subject, but I think it's easy for women to poo poo men's desires because they simply don't feel the same way. In some ways, I imagine it was easier in the past: women traded their bodies for security and men traded wealth for sexual passage. Now, women no longer need to make the exchange, if they don't want to, which places men at a disadvantage. I think what you're seeing in these "trash movies" and porn is men's attempts to deal with feeling powerless. Which is, of course, the appeal of being a "stud" or porn star: men who have a commanding presence with women feel powerful.

I think what you're proposing is logically impossible as long as humans are the way they are. As long as women have control of their bodies (a good thing) and restrict men's access sexually, there will always be a remnant of men who find a sex-ersatz. There will always be men who, for variouus reasons, can't find the sex and affection they desire. Men can no longer treat women as chattel and prostitution brings the risk of disease, loss or reputation, and/or imprisonment. Can you think of a better solution for them than masturbation or than a ascetic lifestyle?

The short story of history is this: eggs are expensive and sperm is cheap. I think the Pennsylvania Shooter came out on the wrong end of a realization men have to contend with: our very existences are paltry. One verile man can handle the procreative needs of a whole community. Women in ages past have had to compromise for security and protection sake. Now, with police forces and gender-neutral career options, women hold all the chips. Frankly, I'm a little surprised more men don't lash out.

Toolbit out.

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