Saturday, July 06, 2013

Gay porn, feminism, and the search for universal explanations

Occasionally, I get into a discussion with one of my feminist friends about pornography. There is a line among some feminists—traced back through the work of Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin—that all pornography is inherently misogynistic. And, relying on the speech act theory of JL Austin, that is doesn't really deserve the protection afforded free speech, because it isn't an expression of an opinion or a view; it's a performative, an act of oppression of women.
Usually, at this point, I bring up porn that doesn't involve any women: gay porn. I ask, "But of course, gay porn can't be about oppressing women, because there aren't any women involved." If you're naive, as I am, you might think this is a slam-dunk. 
But, I have been told many times that this is just a mistake on my part, because of course one of the men in any pornographic scene is the oppressed woman. I fail to see—perhaps because of my position as a man—the way in which this sex is gendered.
For the time, I will leave aside the way that this is extremely homophobic and hetero-normative. I will even ignore the fact that it gets (male) homosexuality entirely wrong and assumes that it can be understood theoretically without any discussion with people who have experience of it. I will even leave aside the way it is generally offensive to be asked whether one is "the woman" or "the man" in a relationship and the way that this view of gay porn and—with it—male homosexuality reflects that same way of thinking. What could I possibly answer from experience when truths flow down to me from the heights of theory? (At least, I will leave these questions aside for now.)
There might be many problems with gay porn, but why think the right way to think about them is in terms of a masculine/feminine dichotomy? Isn't this just a case of seeing a world only through the perspective of one's preferred theory?
The real problem underlying this is a tendency to think that every fact and situation and relationship in the world can be understood through one privileged lens, that every phenomenon can be unlocked if only one has the perfect key. 
In this case, the world may be understood only through gender. Once we understand gender the world is made clear, with the appropriate translation into gender.
But, I remember well sitting through (part of) a seminar with a Marxist geographer—his theory was Marxist, his life was high bourgeois—who believed that gender and race didn't matter, because only class was important.
There are others who believe that once we understand racial relations, everything is clear. Today, I read a blog that (jokingly?) explained dating in terms of markets. In biology, you hear those who tell you that all will be revealed once evolution is fully understood; there is a subset who believe that selection alone is the important force in evolution. In neuroscience and, sadly, philosophy, you hear many people who tell you that once we have a full neuroscience, we will have no more need for the humanities or probably for our humanity.
It is surely a natural drive to think that one thing can explain everything of interest, but this just turns us all into so many confused Casaubons. It will probably turn out that the world and the human world are much more complex than any one discipline or theory. 
Pursue your favored theory at will, but don't assume that it will explain everything; to think so is probably to be as simple as your worldview is simplistic. As Bishop Butler put it: Every thing is what it is, and not another thing.

5 comments:

Andrew S said...

Yeah, this definitely is a critique of radical feminism in particular. Maybe it's just because I hang with different crowds, but the folks I discuss these sorts of issues with take intersectionality for granted.

(Well, things aren't exactly that nice. There are plenty of discussions that get into oppression olympics, but it typically isn't people arguing that *all* oppression/marginalization can be viewed/explained/addressed within a single lens.)

Tom Johnson said...

Interesting post.

I'm a gay man myself, and I am a consumer of gay porn, but I don't think that the MacKinnon/Dworkin take on gay pornography is as simple as you state it there.

Christopher N. Kendall, a gay man, wrote an interesting book on gay male pornography using the kind of MacKinnon/Dworkin take. In it he argues that the depictions of gay sex in gay male pornography do damage to gay men as a group because they reinforce the dynamic of inequality within the gay community. The idea is that the prevalent depictions serve to reinforce both homophobia and misogyny within the gay community by glorifying heterosexual norms. Straight men are worshipped, taking dick is made into a sign of weakness and debasement etc. Based on my experience of porn, which is obviously limited in ways that any individual consumer’s is, it seems that a lot of this is true.

I'd also note that MacKinnon/Dworkin define pornography as sexually explicit material that subordinates women/other marginalised groups or people; so sexually explicit material that is premised on equality/mutuality is by this definition not pornography. It’s a bit esoteric but I think it does capture the dynamic that is central to the prevalent forms of both gay and straight pornography. (I watched quite a bit of straight pornography when I was convinced I was straight and thought it was what I should be doing.)

I completely agree with you that the tendency to try to explain all of humanity on the basis of a single theory is bound to fail. Single theories don’t even explain the very simple systems that physics commits itself to studying so understanding humanity, which is far more complex than anything studied in physics, will require a whole array of paradigms, theories, ways of living etc.

I got linked to this from Sean Zevran’s twitter. I’ve read a few stuff by him before and value his opinion loads so hopefully he sees this lets us know his take on it.

Tyler Hower said...

Thank you for your comments. If I decide to revisit this issue, I might have a look at Kendall's work.
I will add a few things, though:
1) You are right about the way that MacKinnon/Dworkin define pornography, but if we take this together with the Dworkin line that penetration is itself morally problematic and indicative of oppression if not always rape, then we won't be able to have much of anything that is gay sex let alone gay porn that is not oppressive.
2) For them, all oppression is seen through the eyes of gender. Every oppressed group is "Woman." That sees the world too simply, but it also means that they see anyone who is being penetrated as both woman and oppressed. So, most gay sex is oppression and the bottom is a woman. That itself is both sexist—insofar as a woman is oppressed anytime she has sex—and homophobic, since it regains the traditional distinction between the insertive "man" and the receptive "fag/woman."
3) And, this becomes even more of a problem when we think about the kinks people may have. Are they all just enforcing their own oppression or the oppression of others who are in no way involved? Not everything I do is political. Pace Sartre, I am not always choosing for the world.
4) However well their argument may work for straight pornography—and I suspect there's a problem with using speech-act theory to turn horrible speech into action that we no longer need to protect—applying it to gay sex/porn is seeing all of the world through a binary that at least second-wave feminism was attempting to erase.
5) I don't think all sex or all porn is unproblematic. I think there are problems with the current—eternal?—fetishization of extreme and extremely white youth, for example. But those problems aren't the same problems that they see. The world is too complex a place to see all through only one set of tools, whether it's class or gender or whatever. On that, I think we agree.
Tyler

Tom Johnson said...

Thanks for the reply.
I’ve seen a lot of what you say about Dworkin’s position on sex repeated but I haven’t really seen it borne out in her actual writing. I think what she and Mackinnon do is analyse sex inequality as a pervasive social system; they don’t think everything is reducible to gender but they do think that gender plays a role everywhere. There is an important distinction there that I think should be made clear.
In her book Woman Hating for example, Dworkin makes it clear that she thinks that gender is one of many central oppressive issues. Her work shines a light on the centrality of a gender, a centrality that before the women’s movement was largely ignored. Before analyses like hers and other thinkers in the second wave of feminism gender wasn’t thought of as a system of oppression but just an immutable reality that constituted part of a serene natural order.
With that said I think your comments misrepresent their view of homosexuality and penetration. Dworkin never said that penetration itself is morally problematic. She did say that in our system of sex inequality where penile penetration is thought to be the quintessential expression of authentic sexuality (heterosexuality) there are huge power dynamics involved in the act of penetration. This doesn’t mean that whenever two people have penetrative sex the person being penetrated is being oppressed. It does however mean that in our social system penetration is often an act of dominance and control. This view of penetration didn’t originate with Dworkin and her pointing out that it is there doesn’t make her sexist or homophobic.
Male supremacy is what makes penetration mean what it means. Her book Intercourse analyses how pervasive this view of penetration is by considering central works of Western literature. She is critical of this reality; her intention is to overturn the system so that penetrative sex is no longer defined by an unequal and oppressive power dynamic. This system cannot be overturned by simply pretending it’s not there, nor can it be overturned by just using words differently to try to define it away. It is reinforced by specific social practices and acted out in concrete behavioural norms. Mackinnon and Dworkin attempt to target one site in which this behaviour is both socially reinforced and concretely acted out through their pornography ordinance. I don’t view it as a threat to gay sexuality as such; I take it as a positive attempt to reframe sexuality so that a lot of the destructive and oppressive aspects of it are addressed.
Speaking personally, when I first started having sex I’d act out these ridiculous behaviours I saw in porn and have them acted on me. One of the first times I gave a blowjob to a guy about my age at the time he just tried to shove his dick straight down my throat and face fuck me. It was painful and horrible. I just assumed I could cum on his face and did it without asking. We both did these things because we’d just seen them in porn. There was no negotiation, no mutual understanding and little awareness of what the other person was feeling and thinking at the time. We were just acting out scripts fed to us by pornography. Now I know when people first have sex its probably always going to be bad, but I think the badness of it could’ve been restricted to our bewildered fumbling and general clumsiness and not include actually disrespecting and hurting each other had we not been sexualised through pornography. Now I’ll be clear that I’m using pornography here as MacKinnon and Dworkin define it, there is a lot of gay pornography that emphasises mutuality and concern. There is a lot of gay pornography that portrays sexual exploration and varied kinks in a healthy way.

Tyler Hower said...

I think you give way too little credit to earlier second-wave figures like De Beauvoir, who have an awful lot to say about the social construction of gender/sex and the way that it is used to oppress and marginalize women by turning them into creatures of nature rather than human subjects.
But, I will close this out with just a couple of comments. You are right that Dworkin herself denied that was what she meant, but she also said things, like "Intercourse is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men's contempt for women." That this was interpreted to mean that all sex—at least as currently occurring—is rape is hardly surprising. She held out hope for intercourse after equality, but, absent that utopia, it's unclear what we have.
The other place we still disagree is in the centrality of gender. I don't think everything is gendered, at least not in a male/female way. I don't think that gender, in any binary-construction, plays a role everywhere, and I don't think you can use that lens to look at every possible relation, even in part. It is very, very useful, but so is class-analysis and race-analysis and a number of other tools. They don't each play a role everywhere. That still smacks of a certain kind of sexism and homophobia for me; who is the female/woman in this situation and who is the male/man?
I suspect there aren't going to be many kinks that will ultimately survive this sort of analysis, at least insofar as many kinks play on power relations.