booknotes: delirium

After hearing Nancy L. Cohen interviewed by Amanda Marcotte recently on the RhRealityCheck podcast, I requested her most recent book, Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America (Counterpoint, 2012), from our local library and spent a day reading through it. Cohen is an historian and journalist whose previous research also took as its topic political history in the twentieth century. Delirium looks at what are popularly termed "the culture wars," beginning with the advent of the birth control pill and rolling up to the current election cycle -- with a particular focus on the politicization of sexuality -- both behavior and identity -- and gender roles. You can read an excerpt of the opening chapter over at AlterNet.

Cohen's narrative of sexual politics from 1960 to the present seeks, in some measure, to revise our understanding of the conservative revolution of the late 1970s as one led by white male reactionaries like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Instead, she argues, some of the first -- and most successful -- sexual counterrevolutionaries were women like Phyllis Schlafly, Lottie Beth Hobbs, and Anita Bryant. These women, like their male counterparts, were opposed to the advancements in gender equality, the changes in (hetero)sexual mores, and the growing visibility of human sexual variety that the feminist and gay liberation movements of the 60s and 70s fought for. In sometimes overwhelming detail, Cohen recounts how political activists and career politicians successfully stopped the Equal Rights Amendment, pushed back advancements made in civil rights for queer citizens, generated moral panics around sexual variation, and stymied the post-Roe landscape of women's access to sexual health services, especially abortion.

Overall, I felt like Delirium bogged in a blow-by-blow recounting and analysis of presidential campaigns and administrations, from the fall of President Nixon to Barack Obama's first term. Cohen draws much of her evidence from quantitative polling data and political commentary, which left me wondering how much the understanding of individual Americans support her thesis about who sexual conservatives are and why they support the policies they do. To her credit, Cohen does acknowledge that sexual conservatism, as sociologist Kristin Luker has shown, appears on both sides of the aisle. Moral panic over teenage sexuality and concern-trolling about women's ability to meaningfully consent to an abortion are equal-opportunity topics for Democrats and Republicans alike. Her narrative, however, mostly charts the sexual conservatism and politicking of Republicans. I waited in vain, for example, for her to talk about feminist anti-porn activism, which often paralleled and intersected with -- at least on a policy level -- with the work of people with otherwise diametrically opposing political views.

Cohen's work will be particularly interesting to those who enjoy thinking about strategy of electoral politics and policy negotiations, as well as those who may want a better grip on the broad sweep of sexual politics since the 1960s. However, for scholars and activists well-versed in much of this history, Cohen's narrative fails to add much of significance to what we already know about our sexual selves in relation to formal politics. That is, that our sex, sexuality, and gender identities and experiences are presently over-determined, or constrained, by the decisions of our elected representatives at the local, state, and federal level.


signal boost: scholarships: feminism & archives unconference

A few weeks ago, I shared an announcement for a feminism and archives unconference March 9-11 in Milwaukee. Conference organizer Joyce Latham has sent me the following:
The UW-Milwaukee Center for Information Policy Research (CIPR) is sponsoring student scholarships for attendance at the "Out of the Attic, Into the Stacks, Feminism and LIS unconference" scheduled for March 9-11, 2012 at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  To apply for the waiver of the registration fee, please submit your name, student status, and brief statement of how the participation in the conference will support your studies and/or practice to Adriana McCleer <amccleer@uwm.edu>. Successful applicants will be notified by March 5, 2012.
So if anyone is planning on attending as a student and feels the waiver of the registration fee will make attendance more possible, do let them know.


why I think porn can be positive

So I realized, after writing three mammoth posts about how wrong I think Gail Dines is regarding the inherently alienating nature of pornography, that I hadn't actually spent a lot of time talking about why I find her analysis troubling. I talked in general terms about the sexual subcultures and sexually-explicit materials she was choosing to ignore. But I didn't talk about why I think sexually-explicit fiction and images can be enriching rather than soul- and society-destroying (as Dines understands them to be).

So this is the post where I talk about why I read and write porn.

Back in the fall, I wrote about the pleasure of porn over at The Pursuit of Harpyness in a book review of the anthology Take Me There: Trans and Genderqueer Erotica. And to open this post, I want to quote from a couple of passages in that review. Because they pretty much get at the heart of why I think it's important -- vital even! -- to represent sexuality and sexual activities in our material culture.
There’s no simple answer to the question: “What am I looking for in porn?” At least, no simple answer for me. Sometimes, I’m looking for erotica that tells me stories about pleasure wholly unlike anything I would ever want in real life: dom/sub relationships, bondage, sensory deprivation, pain. In real life nothing turns me off faster than feeling trapped and out of control of my bodily experience; in erotica few things turn me on more quickly or reliably. Yet catch me on the wrong day and a story about BDSM is going to make me feel claustrophobic — and what I want more than anything is an established relationship, early morning kissing fic in which (as Hanna and I like to put it) “everything is gay and nothing hurts.”

... The joy of knowing and being known. This is my current answer to the question of “why erotica?” I’ve realized that my favorite stories — trappings aside — hinge on that moment of radical acceptance when two (or more) people become, metaphorically and actually, naked before one another — and all of the terror of rejection or fetishization, of being judged and found wanting, washes away in tenderness. Whether it’s an anonymous fuck or a thirty-year relationship, whether being known means being suspended in mid-air and spanked or demands languorous love-making at dawn (or both!), relational sex involves stripping ourselves bare, making ourselves vulnerable, being brave enough to expose our humanity in the presence of someone(s)-not-us.
You can read the whole thing over at Harpyness.

Our culture has an impoverished vocabulary for pleasure and joy. It's true that we also struggle to put unspeakable pain and grief into words -- and people have argued, in fact, that certain types of trauma are literally beyond the act of speech, that is beyond the ability to communicate, to connect, to understand. Due to some personal experiences in my teen years, I did a lot of thinking about the language of trauma and grief and how creative acts, how the creation of art, can help translate the unspeakable into (forever imperfect) speech.

And all of that was incredibly important, and needful. But eventually I noticed something equally troubling -- and that was our similar struggle to put unspeakable pleasure and joy into words. What I find almost more troubling, in fact, is the way in which our inability to articulate love, connection, and ecstasy, doesn't get the same attention as our struggle to articulate the pain, rage, loss, and cruelty. We privilege suffering in artistic expression, while trivializing joy. Yeah, I know this is an over-generalization, and I'm not out to play oppression olympics: both pleasure and pain are fundamental experiences of being human, and both deserve our attention. But since I first started noticing our discomfort with speaking of pleasure and love, I've been wondering about the discomfort and its cause. Why are positive experiences somehow less captivating to our cultural imagination than trauma? Is it simply a collective desire to process the fact we're all walking wounded? Is it that joy and pleasure seem self-evident while grief and pain demand explanation? Do we resent the evidence of other peoples' pleasure, while seeking solace in other peoples' pain? Or is there something more self-punishing going on -- guilt and shame over experiencing functional relationships, embodiment, contentment, grace?

I realize at this point you probably think I've strayed from the topic of porn. But bear with me. Because, see, I've been thinking these past two weeks about this moment in the porn debate where Gail Dines, attempting to locate the blame for sexual violence in sexually-explicit material culture, said, "When men become murderers and rapists and bachelors you are compelled to look to the culture for understanding unless you want to go down the hopeless route of believing that men are born wrong" (emphasis mine).

"And bachelors." In the same breath as "murderers and rapists."

Keep in mind that I'm coming at the notion of porn as a genre expressing the full range of human potential when it comes to sex. So obviously, yes. There's going to be pornographic material out there I find troubling. There's a lot of crap in the culture at large I find troubling. But I think that one passage tells me what a yawning chasm exists between how I think about the possibilities pornography represents and what Dines imagines when she hears the word "porn." Basically, she thinks that the people who engage with erotica are people who have failed. She understands them as alienated beings, perhaps reaching for human connection but in ways that are fundamentally destructive to creating and maintaining that connection.

She thinks the language we have for sex is the language of violence and alienation. She thinks the only language for sex we have is the language of trauma.

And on that slim spit of land where Gail Dines and I actually agree? If that actually is the vocabulary of sex that Dines has at her disposal? I also think that's a pretty shit state of affairs.

So I read (and write) porn because I don't want our vocabulary of intimacy to be limited to loneliness and destruction. 

I read (and write) porn because in my experience, erotica is where people are willing to get naked.  They get naked about what makes them feel connected. They get naked about what it feels like to be a body, grounded in the sensations of touch, taste, hearing, and smell. They get naked about pain and pleasure, and the delicate line that wavers between the two. They get naked about desire, love, want, about what makes us brave enough to open ourselves others, emotionally, physically, what allows us to trust. They get naked about the small details of another person's being-in-the-world that break your heart.

Sure, there's shit porn out there. Just like there's shit detective fiction, and shit made-for-television SyFy original movies. But the best porn? The stuff I've discovered and go back to again and again? Yeah, it totally makes me wet in the knickers. Yeah, it makes me hot and cold and so turned on I can't breathe. Sometimes it also makes me weep for what it struggles to say about connection and disconnection, about feeling lost and coming home. It's a whole universe of visual and verbal solutions to the struggle we have, in our collective culture, talking about intimacy, vulnerability, nakedness, humanity, and love.

We laugh, as writers of fan fiction, about the tropes and the memes and the win-every-time formulas for getting each pairing together. But at the end of the day, I'm always bowled over by the specificity of another person's vocabulary for lust and love. Even if it's not my own, even if it's the last thing I'm ever going to think is hot, it's a pleasure to know what other people find pleasurable. Read fan fiction long enough and -- far from the commercialized, plasticized, one-size-fits-all Gail Dines imagines to be our only shared vocabulary for sex these days -- you discover even in the bad stuff there's details that will expand your world.

The erotica I read actually works in direct opposition to the messages of sameness Dines believes porn, as a genre, propagates.* The porn I read and view tells me over and over again: Someone out there finds that sexy. Far from making me judge everyone I see by some corporate definition of "sexy," pornographic materials have opened me up to a world in which virtually everything is sexy to someone. A world in which, as I walk down the street, I can feel myself being less judgmental of peoples' bodies, less worried for them that they'll experience rejection -- because I know, somewhere out there, there's someone who sees them as beautiful.

My engagement with erotica is deeply, deeply informed by my feminism and my spiritual practice. I realize that I bring myself to pornographic materials and their potential just as much as Gail Dines does. What I hope, though, is that this sort of feminist, lovingkindness-informed approach to pornography and sexual discourse can begin to offer the anti-pornography folks a new vision for an ideal world. One that isn't predicated on the eradication of porn but on the creation of awesome porn. One that's predicated on generating a rich vocabulary of love and lust, of sex and intimacy, of fucking and bondage, of a little pain with your pleasure (if that's the way you like it), and sexual, sensual variety. As a writer and reader of smutty stories, I'm proud to be involved in co-creating that future.

As a writer and reader of smutty stories, I think that future is a helluva lot closer to now than Gail Dines seems to think.

*Mainstream porn does, often, reify these notions of sexy sameness. As researcher Anne Sabo recently pointed out at her New Porn By Women blog, pornography conveys cultural messages both positive and negative, as does all media. I've said it before and I'll say it again: there is much about the mainstream conception of human sexuality, on the political left as well as on the political right, that I find shamefully lacking. But porn as a medium can assist us in insisting on the truth of human sexual variety. We can use it, are using it, to set the record straight (er ... queer?).


the porn debate: further thoughts

whipping girl?
Note: This is part three of my series of posts related to a screening of The Price of Pleasure and discussion about pornography that took place at the Boston University School of Public Health on Friday, 10 February 2012. Part one can be found here and my review of the film itself was published last Thursday. Today we wrap up* with a more thorough analysis of the post-screening discussion.

On my first thoughts post, I received an anonymous comment in which the reader observed, "That any institute of advanced learning was able to arrange to have a Dworkinite to have a conversation with someone like Dr. Queen is a major step in communication. In almost every case over the last 30 years the sex-negative academics will not allow any other female voice to be heard." I'm too young to remember first-hand the feminist "porn wars" of the late 1970s and early 80s -- times of deep division that, as both Gail Dines and Carol Queen made clear in their stories of relating to pornography, are with us still in a multitude of ways. In Gayle Rubin's Deviations, she recalls the protests and personal harassment that followed her to various speaking engagements, the fury and fear that met her research into the subcultures of S/m sexuality, and her openness about being a person who enjoyed kink. That the BU School of Public Heath was open to hosting an event in which pornography was openly debated deserves congratulations all 'round -- to the faculty who organized the evening, to the invited speakers, and to the students and guests who attended.

There's no question that exchanges grew heated at times, and opinions were certainly partisan. As a queer woman who creates and enjoys erotic material that would certainly be seen as beyond the pale by Dines, I experienced a profound sense of erasure sitting in that room. And I know from post-event conversations that my experience was not an isolated one. I'll talk more about that below. But despite that (pretty glaring) marginalization of non-normative sexualities, there were no guests whose object was to bring the evening to an end, there was little interruption or shouting-down of opinions with which some disagreed, and I'd like to hope, from my own pro-erotica perspective, that some of the students that night who went in thinking of porn as something monolithic, evil, and shameful, might at least be aware that there are other interpretations of sexually explicit materials out there, and that not all of those interpretations are talking points from the Porn Industry. I have it on good authority that at least one class last week was given my first blog post as recommended reading (hi everyone, and thanks for stopping by!). So there are signs that an actual respectful communication may eventually be possible.

Yup. Sometimes, you find yourself setting the bar that fucking low. 

And now, to the debate itself.

Following the screening of The Price of Pleasure (review here) Drs. Gail Dines and Carol Queen got up on stage, each with their own podium and mic, and the conversation began with a question from Emily Rothman, who asked:
So I'll start with this very general question, and this is from Caitlin Masters who's in my sexual violence class. Caitlin asks, “What past experiences shaped your views of porn? What do you think were the biggest influences on your opinions? Have your views changed from when you first began learning about porn to now?”
Here's how they both responded. I'm going to reproduce these answers in full because I think each person's response set the overall tone for the discussion that followed.** Carol Queen got things rolling:
That's such a terrific question. I was thinking about this earlier today when I was sort of making some notes for myself and thinking about stuff and I actually want to say that I – I didn't start out with the identity of “anti-porn feminist” but in my late teens and early twenties I definitely would have called myself that. It was the 70s. It was a period of time when that identity was sort of coming forward. I'd begun to see porn when I was in Junior High and High School, but not very much of it. Not in moving pictures – we barely had those in those days! [general laughter] But I did see Penthouse and Playboy and things like that. And I started to see movies with my girlfriend Ellen when I went to college and we were interested in checking out porn. And in those days you came to a theatre with this many people or more and looked at the movie together. The advent of video had not yet happened. And I used to huff that porn insulted my intelligence, my sense of the erotic, and my politics – at least one if not all three. And I'll be very honest with you, there are days when it still does? I'm pro-porn anyway, in a particular way, or at least I wanna be anti-censorship and I wanna talk more about that as I'm sure the questions are going to bring that up.

Thething that was probably the most important to me as far as porn was concerned, and watching porn, was when I started doing my PhD program at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, which is the sexology grad school in San Francisco that I attended, and I started in the late 80s at a time when I was gearing up to do AIDS work and other kinds of sort of – really sort of public health type stuff. And I got derailed in sexology proper – or improper, depending on how you think about it. And part of that program – I'm going to use this work because it was its real title – was called the “Fuck-o-Rama.” And Fuck-o-Rama is a dozen to twenty-five or so porn images showing on all three walls around you, all at the same time. And it used to be that you couldn't do this with a video camera, computer, so you can just imagine how many little old machines there were making this happen. All kinds of porn. The kinds of diversity we saw in Price of Pleasure plus other things that weren't depicted there – 'cause Price of Pleasure decides to show only certain kinds of porn to you – and all kinds of stuff. And I realized the first time I saw the Fuck-o-Rama that I had never really looked at porn, that I had been afraid of it, that it had not only made me feel sort of overwhelmed in terms of the sexual feelings that I had, but I also didn't know what to do with feeling those in the context of not sex – or not in a sexual relationship. So it gave me a lot to think about, and I watched – you saw some of the young academics working on that study coding porn. I did that. None of my tic marks said “gender victim” on them but I did a lot of porn coding. And watched a lot and still watch – porn has changed a lot in twenty years but is also very much the same in other respects. So. I'm gonna end it right there and turn to Gail.
And this is Gail Dines' response:
So I have to wonder, what's a nice Jewish girl from England doing as one of the most well-known anti-porn activists in the world? And I'm sure everyone in my family, also, who tries to run away from me, also thinks that. [laughter] So I wasn't destined to do this, I was actually destined to be a radical Marxist, that was my introduction to radical politics, was reading Marx at sixteen and thinking, “This makes absolute sense!” The idea that you have a bourgeoisie and a proletariat and that the bourgeoisie control the means of production – and especially, as Marx said, the means of mental production. So this all made sense to me, and I wasn't that into looking at pornography. I was into feminism.

And then I got a job at the rape crisis center, my first job out of college, to do the research. And I was reading all these police reports and they kept saying that serial rapists were found with tons of pornography in their home. And this was the first time I'd really thought about pornography. And then one day somebody said to me – I was living in Israel at the time – and somebody said to me, “There's a feminist from America doing a feminist anti-porn slide show, do you want to come?” And I never really thought about it that much, I said “Why not?” And that night my life forever changed. I could not believe the images I was seeing. I couldn't believe that a) men made these images, or that b) that other men found them arousing. Now, this is what pornography was for me. It's like, I had studied patriarchy but nothing delivers patriarchy to you like a bullet between the eyes as when you look at pornography. There it is crisp, clean, succinct. And I, in a way, got an introduction to patriarchy in a way that no book, no Andrea Dworkin, no Catherine MacKinnon, had ever given me.

So what happened was, I was doing my Doctorate at the time on media and I changed my thesis topic to actually do a Marxist theory of culture as applied to pornography. Because my argument was: If capitalism requires a propaganda system to reproduce inequality, then surely patriarchy is the same. And what better propaganda system of patriarchy than pornography? So for me it was such a profound awakening, that moment. Now, had somebody said to me, twenty years ago when I started this, that today mainstream pornography would be as violent and as cruel as it is I would have said, “Absolutely not. There's no way people are going to sit by and let the culture be taken over like that!” And I would have been wrong. So I have to say, how has my views changed on this? Well, I always make a joke about how good an activist I am. When I started this work, pornography was five billion. Today, it's ninety-seven billion. So that really speaks volumes about how good my activism is. [general laughter] So, how have my views changed? I think nothing, nothing can ever change from that first day ever when I saw pornography. It was an awakening of a type I've never had before.
What strikes me first and foremost about these two responses is that Carol Queen's narrative is one of change and Gail Dines' narrative is one of stasis. On the one hand we have openness and curiosity, a sense of self-determined exploration; on the other we have a clear sense of threat and subjection to something unwanted, and the determination from that point forward to make that unwanted thing go away. If you want a thumbnail sketch of the two parallel understandings of pornography running through the evening's debate, you could do a lot worse than reference these two opening statements.

love me some vintage poly
Queen describes how she began as a young woman who would have identified, in some measure, with anti-porn activism in the feminist movement: "I used to huff that porn insulted my intelligence, my sense of the erotic, and my politics – at least one if not all three. And I'll be very honest with you, there are days when it still does?" She then describes having to revisit her understanding of what pornography is, in the context of her graduate studies. She describes discovering the "diversity" of pornography, and how she was overwhelmed by the visual images and her response to them -- and how this prompted her to go away and think about pornography some more, and to gather further information about it. Throughout the debate that followed, I felt like Queen maintained this dual sense of speaking both for her own subjectivity (her experience of finding pornography both overwhelming and meaningful to sexual exploration) and from her more objective perspective as a sexologist and a sex educator ever-mindful of sexual diversity. She spoke with the voice of a researcher who finds human sexuality -- and cultures of sex -- complicated and endlessly interesting. As she observed toward the end of the evening:
I think the answer to problematic cultural discourse is always more cultural discourse. We talk about it, we make different kinds of material, we make different things available to people, and we call out what is problematic in the context when we see it's problematic. I think that's what we do.
Dines, by contrast, tells a story of political awakening in which there is a single defining moment, a call to action: "So, how have my views changed? I think nothing, nothing can ever change from that first day ever when I saw pornography. It was an awakening of a type I've never had before." Whereas Queen describes her introduction to pornography in the context of mid-century men's magazines and porn films watched with college friends at the theater, Dines' introduction to pornography came in a much different form. Her introduction came as part of an anti-pornography slide show at a feminist event in Israel. These slide shows were assembled and sent around on tour as political messages, not as tools for personal sexual exploration or as cultural evidence of human sexual diversity. And if the creators of the slide shows were doing their jobs, the selection of images were assembled purposefully to evoke a negative emotional response. These anti-porn activists were employing the politics of disgust to spur feminists into action. At a time when pornography was far less available to the average consumer than it is now, people who viewed the slide-show would have had fewer previous encounters with pornographic material to measure the slide-show against. There was also a lot less information out there about specific sexual subcultures, so that folks were comparatively more likely to view BDSM scenes as violent non-consensual assault than as a negotiated scenario. Even today, as a general public, we're woefully illiterate when it comes to human sexual diversity and therefore highly likely to react to stuff we don't like as if it were stuff that no one would ever like.

I've heard some troubling stories about post-debate class discussions in which students and professors both openly suggested that stuff we don't like shouldn't be allowed as part of our cultural body of sexual materials (basically because "think of the children!"). This argument erases teenagers who might find non-normative sexual fantasy and experience erotic in positive ways. And I speak as someone who at the age of twelve or thirteen knew I liked certain things which were situated as icky and wrong by Dines & Co. I'm angry that people who think the way Dines does made me feel shamed and guilty for knowing what turned me on and for wanting to find healthy ways to act on those desires. And I've been growing increasingly angry on behalf of anyone else in the room that night who was overtly shamed by Dines from her position of authority for experiencing pleasure in ways she finds icky. Such reflexive invocations of a politics of disgust ignores how much we can learn, safely, about what we do and don't want in our personal sexual lives by reviewing and digesting a wide variety of sexual material.

But back to Dines' own narrative. She understands herself as a feminist who draws upon the framework of Marxism to understand the culture and political realm in which she lives. She uses Marxism to analyze pornography as work (which, to some extent, I'm cool with -- I'm all for workers not alienated from the means of production), and also as propaganda produced by those in power (men) in order to maintain their position of power over the masses (women). This second porn-as-propaganda bit I'm less persuaded by. I'm definitely on board with the notion of media literacy and of encouraging people to think about what messages different types of pornography are conveying. I'm just not willing to accept Dines' thesis that pornography as a genre is inherently exploitative and inherently patriarchal. Sexually explicit material is just that: sexually explicit material. What we choose to say with that material, and how we choose to respond to it, is our decision both individually and collectively. Porn isn't the enemy -- pornography is merely a cultural medium.
cuddles + sexytime reading = for the win!
But Dines sees pornography as inherently patriarchal, and as a tool of sexual (and racial) inequality. And she approaches it not in an exploratory way, but in a political way. Throughout the debate she responded to questions with rabble-rousing calls to action -- although like with The Price of Pleasure I was never quite sure what she wanted us, as an audience, to do. At the end of the evening she challenged the audience in this way:
I would like to think that hopefully you're going to live your life as activists. And if you believe in gender equality, if you believe in any type of equality, then we simply cannot have this with this juggernaut breathing down our necks. This is destroying women's lives, it's destroying children's lives, it's telling men that they have a right to fuck women both in and out of the bedroom ... If this is the world you want to live in, if this is what you think you can navigate, your children want to navigate, then fine. But I for one feel that we deserve better than this. That we are better than the pornographers, that we have the ability to create a more life-loving sexuality and that these predatory capitalists do not have the right to rob that which is rightfully and authentically ours.
The problem I have with this rabble-rousing call to arms is that Dines doesn't make clear what she wants if not Queen's argument that "we make different kinds of material, we make different things available to people, and we call out what is problematic in the context when we see it's problematic." As a queer feminist who moves in circles with other queer women, and some men, of various inclinations, I'd argue that we're already working to create that world Dines says she wants. Except she refuses to acknowledge that work we're doing because for her, pornography is only created by the evil overload capitalists for use by straight men who see women as objects to fuck. By defining pornography in this way -- and ignoring all sexually explicit materials (or producers and consumers of this material) that don't fit her pre-conceived notion of what porn looks like -- she's actively creating a world in which nothing we do to create alternate forms of sexuality counts.

Seriously: The more I've thought about it over the past two weeks, the more frustrated angry I've become. Dines and I are never going to see eye-to-eye about what is and is not acceptable sexual fantasy. At one point during the evening, Carol Queen observed, "part of my responsibility [is] to talk about the degree to which, in these kind of discussions, violence and sexualities like BDSM get conflated and mixed up, and to be able to say they're not always talked about in ways that are clear enough for my comfort." And I heard Dines making a lot of judgments about other peoples' consensual sex lives interchangeably with judgments about violence and non-consensuality. Non-consensual sex is a form of violence that we should all be able to agree is not okay, but Dines' insistence on conflating non-normative sexual material and activities with violence just puts us that much further back in terms of addressing sexual violence in a meaningful way. She's rendering sexual violence within non-normative communities invisible by insisting that membership in the community itself (basically engaging in sexual activity she finds gross) is itself an act of violence. It renders everyone in that community either a perpetrator or a victim -- an act of erasure so angry-making to me, as a queer person involved in several of Dines' victim/perpetrator subgroups, that I really don't know how to begin picking apart the problems.

And not even queer sexuality -- let's talk about the poisonous effect of figuring hetero men as predatory addicts. Dines argues that part of the reason she's on a crusade against pornography is that she refuses to see all men as rapists. Yet in virtually the same breath, she argues that "men very quickly get desensitized to pornography" and need more and more "extreme" scenarios in order to become aroused. This argument subsumes sexually graphic material under the category of violent material, assuming that sex is something morally objectionable or distasteful we need to become desensitized to in order to tolerate. Setting aside the sketchy correlation of exposure to fantastical violence with carrying out actual acts of violence, can we talk about the problem of framing sexual activity as violence? Speaking as someone who enjoys sexually explicit material and discusses the pleasure of erotic material with friends, I'd like to suggest that rather than becoming desensitized to erotic content, exploring sexually explicit materials leads to discovering what you like and seeking out more of it. This the endless well of hurt/comfort, established relationship, first time, or "aliens made them do it" fan fiction on the 'net. Not to say that what you're interested in exploring sexually never shifts throughout your life. But those shifts are going to be due to all manner of things, rather than over-exposure to erotica.

these genies don't belong in bottles
In the two weeks that have passed since the debate, I've found myself circling back to the question of why Dines doesn't include the full diversity of sexually explicit materials in her analysis, or seek to complicate her understanding of how we humans interact with erotica. Is it because she just doesn't know where to look for (oh let's just take something at random) fan-created m/m first-time 'making love' erotica? Do her students at Wheelock College not point out that there's ethical porn on demand available Smitten Kitten's website? Wouldn't it be way more fun (and less overwhelming) to create the world of erotica we want to have, rather than spend so much time and energy trying to take down "the porn industry"? Dines herself seems pessimistic about the effectiveness of her approach when she observes in her opening statement, "When I started this work, pornography was five billion. Today, it's ninety-seven billion. So that really speaks volumes about how good my activism is." So why not try a different approach? The cynical part of my brain suggest that Dines is a reactionary who isn't actually interested in changing our discourse about human sexuality. In her own words, "you can't put this genie back in the bottle outside of a national organization and a movement of outraged citizens who think the pornographers should not decide our sexuality, outside of that there's no going genie back in the bottle." So in her ideal world, we'd be shoving all this sexual diversity -- and the difficult conversations around identity, ethics, and politics that come with acknowledging it -- "back in the bottle."

While she's allowed to have her own opinion (and is given a pretty big soapbox from which to broadcast it), I was struck at the debate by the degree to which Gail Dines refused to engage in good-faith discussion about these complicated issues. She was using the stage to rally her troops and (attempt to) humiliate the opposition. She was a poor listener, responding to questions with sound-bites, and her body language when Carol Queen was speaking telegraphed her simultaneous disinterest and displeasure. When she herself wasn't speaking, she was checked out. She also repeatedly credential-dropped and hip-checked with identity words and phrases like "as a Marxist feminist" or "as someone who teaches media studies" as a way to discredit Carol Queen's perspective, despite the fact that no one in the room was actively challenging Dines' authority to speak or her professional-political identity. At one particularly low point in the evening, Gail Dines took it upon herself to speak for all "impoverished feminists" and challenge Carol Queen (as if she wasn't also a self-identified feminist doing non-profit educational work) to basically agree to tow Dines' line when it came to the harm pornography supposedly causes society as a whole. Queen called her on it immediately, but I find it a creepy and toxic move for Dines to have pulled in an academic forum where mutual respect should really be the baseline expectation for conversation.

time out for kissing. because these boys win all the things every time.
From my point of view, Dines behaved in an unprofessional manner and while Queen remained civil and refused to play the game of political point-scoring, Dines' unwillingness to be a genuine participant in a two-way conversation was bullying behavior. I hope that if Boston University holds similar events in future they will look for guest speakers who will participate in full good faith. It's disgraceful that any students or audience members walked away from the event with the feeling that their sexual selves are somehow fundamentally complicit in the world of violence against women which Gail Dines believes pornography to be. Despite the fact that this debate was a baby step in the right direction, there are much bigger steps we as a culture could be taking toward having a meaningful discussion about human sexual variety and the creative expression we generate around our sexual selves.

*I'm actually working on a forth post (I know! I know!) about how I think porn can be positive. So look for that to go live on Saturday.

**On a brief technical note, all direct quotations from the debate are transcribed from a digital recording I made for personal note-taking purposes. I'm hoping to make the audio and full transcript available eventually, but haven't gotten the go-ahead from the event coordinator yet. Keep your fingers crossed!


on the one hand yes ... but also, no.

Back in January, someone on my Twitter feed reblogged the following message from Dr. Ruth:

click through for original tweet
And I definitely have my friend Minerva to thank for the fact that this set alarm bells off in the back of my skull (thanks M.!). Because I think I understand what Dr. Ruth is getting at here, since she couches it in terms of a "vow": that making an abstinence pledge or the like might not be the best way of facilitating human sexual intimacy and connection. Drawing a hard and absolute line around yourself and saying "I will remain pure and purity equals not having sex," might be disappointing to a lot of folks. And I appreciate that she softens her position by acknowledging that not everyone is looking for a partner ("and that can be sad"). So yes, kinda sorta, ... but also no.

No, because Dr. Ruth is making some pretty sweeping assumptions about relationships here -- namely that "not having sex means not having a partner." Wait -- what? Did you just say -- oh, yes. Yes, you did.


Because me, with no formal training in the relationship advice arena, can think of a number of ways in which "not having sex" can co-exist with "having a partner."

1. Two or more people who identify as asexual and are comfortable with no sexual activity (or exclusively solitary sex) forming a partnership.

2. The person who doesn't want sex (either because of identity or other factors) partnering with one or more people who
     a) are content to enjoy solitary sex in the context of the monogamous relationship;
     b) are content to enjoy sex with those in the poly relationship who enjoy sex, and non-sexual intimacy with the person who has chosen to abstain;
     c) or form a negotiated open relationship in which the sexually-active person can have relational sex with other partners, in addition to maintaining their partnership with the non-sexually-active person.

And in addition to this, of course, there's the many ways in which non-partnered people can have rich relational lives. (And I say this as a joyfully partnered person). They can join religious orders, co-housing and communal societies, nurture their relationships with extended (blood or chosen) families, and generally practice really good friendship skills. Having a "partner" isn't the only way to be in relationship, any more than being sexually active is the only way to be in a partnership.



to me, being "progressive" actually means supporting family diversity and resource equity -- not just putting the kids in public school

So Dana Goldstein has a piece over at Slate.com about how "progressive homeschooling" is an oxymoron because parents who remove their children from the public school system are thumbing their noses at civic responsibility. She argues that: 
[Liberal homeschooling and unschooling] is rooted in distrust of the public sphere, in class privilege, and in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families, in which at least one parent can afford (and wants) to take significant time away from paid work in order to manage a process—education—that most parents entrust to the community at-large.
The idea that education outside of school is the sole province of crazed Christian fundies and upper-middle-class elites would certainly surprise my partner, whose family lived below the poverty line for much of her childhood and yet still chose to home-educate her until ninth grade. It would likely also surprise the family of my best friend growing up, whose mother was a divorced parent who worked part-time and yet still homeschooled her two daughters throughout their childhood. The notion that homeschooling requires "at least one parent ... to take significant time away from paid work" to function would surprise another friend of mine whose parents both worked from home and thus shared the parenting and income-earning responsibilities equally when their children were young.

I realize that anecdotes do little to refute data, and it is certainly irrefutable that financial and cultural resources (i.e. social privilege) confer choices.  The ability to sit down as a family and co-create a home life that runs counter to the dominant culture is, no doubt about it, much, much easier when (and therefore, more prevalent in families where) you're not juggling multiple minimum-wage jobs, worried about losing your mortgage, or wondering whether you can afford to get that needed root canal. This ability to not only name our desires but also (at least to a point) act upon them is a function of class privilege, and in evidence among families where children attend public school as it is among families who make other arrangements.

Sure, there are homeschooling families who are privileged assholes (I've met some of them), but privileged assholery is not a symptom of home-education. It's a symptom of, well, being a privileged asshole.

See, I think Goldstein's argument about how education that takes place outside of school (whether we call it "homeschooling," "unschooling," or something else entirely) is crap progressivism turns family diversity into a proxy for talking about class. Because class is really hard to talk about in American culture. We don't want to talk about the unequal distribution of economic resources, and how we've lost the war on poverty (or just surrendered to it). We cling to the notion that education (via public schools, or charter schools, or elite prep schools, whatever) is the pathway out of that inequality when, in fact, better distribution of economic resources is the pathway out of that problem.

Maybe schools should be better. I'm not, as a person who grew up outside of school, opposed to that. My siblings both made use of the public high school in our town. A lot of families I know who have engaged, or currently are engaging, in some type of home-based education avail themselves of the public school resources they pay taxes to support. Home-educated kids often go to colleges, some of which are state-supported. Goldstein sets up a world in which there are two oppositional communities: families who use public schools, and families who home-educate. This simply isn't what the world looks like. While I don't necessarily fault her for this outsider's assumption -- much of the literature in the lefty home-education movement does see institutional schooling as fundamentally flawed and/or inhumane -- that narrative ignores the reality that these two populations are flexible, fluid, and inter-twined to a high degree.

Since homeschooling families stopped living in fear of prosecution if they were discovered by local authorities, many kids move back and forth between out-of-school learning and institutional learning. Whether it's participating in extracurricular activities, attending one or two classes a term, going to school for a year or two to try out that way of life, or some other creative option, civic involvement in the form of using public school resources is often a daily reality for home- and un-schooling families these days. There are public school teachers home-educating their kids, and former unschoolers teaching in public schools. Goldstein's all-or-nothing argument values rhetoric over reality.

That's the "we're more normal than you think" point. Now I want to make the "why are you scapegoating our non-normative lives?" one. Goldstein's argument is that all "good" or truly progressive families should support the public school system by sending the school-age members of the family to school. Because:
Government is the only institution with the power and scale to intervene in the massive undertaking of better educating American children, 90 percent of whom currently attend public schools. (And it’s worth remembering that schools provide not just education, but basic child care while parents are at work.) Lefty homeschoolers might be preaching sound social values to their children, but they aren’t practicing them. If progressives want to improve schools, we shouldn’t empty them out. We ought to flood them with our kids, and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing.
I agree with Goldstein that high-quality socialized childcare and education should be available to families that want them. And I imagine that a majority of families would take advantage of those resources, if the continued feminist-led campaign for affordable high-quality daycare is any indication. The life choices of middle- and upper-middle-class families who have viable options suggest that few families these days would opt for full-time parenting and out-of-school learning for their youngest members. So I don't think full-scale flight from institutional schooling is any realistic vision of America's future. As much as it might personally pain me to say it, unschooling will never be a majority family-life choice.

But neither will polyamory, or open marriage. And data suggest that even acknowledging human sexual variety (and right-wing fears to the contrary) the majority of households in our country will never be headed by couples, threesomes, or moresomes of the same sex and gender identity. Dykes To Watch Out For is (again disappointingly!) the wet dream of our future utopia only in my little corner of the universe.

Yet I doubt Goldstein would argue that supporting the ability of people to form consenting, mutually-supporting relationship agreements of whatever kind works best for the folks in question is not a "progressive" (dare I say liberal? leftist? radical?) value. If families work best when they are organized to meet the needs of their constituent members, then it seems common-sensical that there would be no one-size-fits-all solution to dependent care-giving, to wage-earning, to physical home arrangement, to negotiations over who does what, when, where, and with whom.

In fact, it seems fundamentally non-progressive to argue for a one-size-fits-all model for parenting and education -- which is what Goldstein is essentially doing when she argues that good liberals should all use public schools. How is that different from the conservative argument, all evidence to the contrary, that children thrive best in a two-parent household in which one parent is a man and the other is a woman? How is that different from the argument mothers are innately suited to care for dependents? How is that different from asserting that the heterosexual dyad is the only type of union that should be recognized by the sate?  It's not. It simply replaces one restrictive notion of good parenting with another. Instead, we should be recognizing that "good" parenting, and meaningful education, will inevitably have as many embodied forms as there are human beings to embody them.

I'd argue that, rather than re-hashing the tired argument that non-school-based learning is inevitably the preserve of the elite, we should be asking ourselves how to more equitably share our resources so that all families will have the highest degree of agency to decide how to put together the activities of parenting, employment, and learning. Bickering about which site for learning is optimal for most obscures the reality that no single site of learning will ever be optimal for all. It also perpetuates the myth that public school education can fix the problems of inequality -- when, in fact, only fixing the problems of inequality will fix the problem of inequality.

Don't make children and parents whose lives are atypical scapegoats for a society that has failed, en masse. to deal with its issues of class privilege.


movienotes: the price of pleasure

Note: This is part two of my series of posts related to a screening of The Price of Pleasure and discussion about pornography that took place at the Boston University School of Public Health on Friday, 10 February 2012. Part one can be found here and my discussion of the post-screening debate can be found here.

The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality, and Relationships (2008) is a documentary with a message. Although it can't quite decide what that message is. The many-tentacled porn industry is fucking with our minds and our sexuality? Men who watch porn are more likely to be misogynist racists and sexual predators? All women are victims of porn, both in its production and its consumption? One way or another, pornography -- we gather from the film -- is bad. The Price of Pleasure tells the following story: In the hands of unscrupulous corporations run by men, the "porn industry" exploits female performers and relentlessly pushes a commercialized version of (heterosexual) sex that is, in turn, consumed by (heterosexual) men. The sexuality of male consumers is shaped by the narratives of "porn" -- narratives which are sexist, racist, and violent, in short about different types of domination and control. Then these men turn around and bring pornography's poisonous narratives into their own (heterosexual) sex lives. Individuals in the world of Pleasure -- both porn-watching men and the women these men are in relationship with -- are figured as populations almost totally lacking in self-determination and agency. And the documentary clearly wants us to get upset about this state of affairs -- and I would, if I thought it were true! What the film's audience might do to resist the porn industry's grip on human sexuality is much less clear.

How did The Price of Pleasure make its argument for pornography as harmful to our sexuality? In part through interviews. Women interviewed in Pleasure describe feeling subjected to watching porn with their male partners (or sometimes abusers), or feeling pressure to conform to the hypersexualized imagery of womanhood peddled in consumer culture. Men describe sexual behavior that is shame-ridden, secretive, obsessive. The men and women interviewed about their consumption of pornography were all young Those in the porn industry, interviewed largely at an industry expo in Las Vegas, come across as product pushers, while the anti-pornography talking heads (interviewed against a black backdrop, in professional dress) come across as measured, authoritative experts. The talking heads are, for anyone who follows the discussion of pornography and culture, a cast of usual suspects: Gail Dines, Robert Jensen, Pamela Paul, Ariel Levy. While I've read some of these authors' work, and find much to admire there, I also depart from their final analysis about what porn is and how it works as a cultural medium. So I definitely felt cranky, while watching the film, about how these authors were positioned relative to those in the porn industry -- about the lack of any dissenting voices who were similarly situated as credentialed researchers. I might disagree that an individual with a doctorate and a long list of publications is a more authoritative source than the owner of a porn production company -- but there's no way that the industry insider is going to carry the same weight of someone positioned as an objective researcher.

I found myself noticing the visual choices being made in the film, and how these visual choices worked to support the documentary's main porn-is-a-threat argument. The visuals we got of both the porn itself and of porn producers were rapid out of context clips. As a viewer, I felt visually assaulted by the rapid change of images that lacked any explanation, other than the understanding that these were typical images in porn. The scary voice man hired to narrate the film (if you've wondered what he does between election cycles, now you know) describes what you're seeing -- i.e. a female porn actress sucking off a group of men before the ejaculate on her face. But documentary context is very different from pornographic film context. "Porn" in The Price of Pleasure is synonymous with exploitative working conditions that, in turn, produce visual images and narratives that encourage men (and always men) to replicate those exploitative scenes in their own lives. We're shown what does, much of the time, look like a violent, non-consensual sexual assault or torture scene. And as viewers we're not given the information needed to evaluate the particular example of pornography in any meaningful way.

For example: Was everyone on the set consenting, in a meaningful, non-coerced way, to being there and engaging in the activities depicted? Were the activities specifically negotiated prior to shooting the scene by everyone, and were the activities and conditions agreed to in that negotiation adhered to? Were all of the individuals hired for the production paid a working wage? Were health and safety concerns addressed and ensured throughout production? In terms of the depiction of sex the film conveys, is it clear to the viewer of the film that these activities are consented to and negotiated, that adequate safety measures are being taken? These things matter. Does the woman (or subordinate partner) in the scene enjoy being bound and gagged, in the context of a role-playing scenario, or not? Power play doesn't have to be exploitative as long as it's play, and clearly demarcated as such. But The Price of Pleasure never acknowledges these distinctions, instead choosing to use shocking, non-contextualized imagery in support of its argument about how pornography is, in and of itself, an assault on our sexual selves.

The other, most glaringly obvious, problem with The Price of Pleasure was that the film-makers never defined their terms. What did they mean by "porn"? From the examples shown in the documentary, it was clear that "porn" meant very specific types of pornography videos, usually produced with an archetypal heterosexual male consumer in mind. In the world of Pleasure only men willingly produce pornographic films, only men who desire women consume pornographic films, and any other type of producing/consuming demographic and/or genre of sexually explicit materials is rendered invisible -- because (I would argue) it fails to fit within the scope of the film-maker's argument -- namely, that "the porn industry" is destroying our sexual self-determination and ability to find sexual pleasure in non-destructive, equitable ways. Their argument thus becomes somewhat circular: limiting the discussion of porn to porn which appears, as presented, grounded in narratives of sexual dominance, abuse, and inequality, then it seems self-evident that pornography equals these things. And from there, it is but a small leap of logic to argue that consuming these messages about gender, race, and sexuality inform how we approach race-, gender- and sexual relations in our real lives (though the film makes this seem like a very simple causal relationship, when in fact I would argue the dialogue between fantasy and reality is much, much more complicated!).

Where, in the narrative this film is constructing, are the many genres of gay male and m/m erotica (film, textual, photographic, and otherwise?) Where is the feminist porn, the lesbian porn, the porn created within and for the many sexual identity communities -- from swinging couples to polyamorous lovers to trans-identified queer folk to asexy kink lovers? Where, in this film, is there space to talk about amateur porn, whether in the form of the home videos once circulated via mail-order catalogs or xtube porn videos made by couples of all persuasions who have fun getting it on in front of the camera? What about amateur and professional erotica writers? Textual erotica is the pornographic medium I'm the most personally familiar with, and I can tell you that the variety of flavors is pretty much endless. And while "non-con" and "dub-con" erotica exists, the volume of fiction produced in which people consensually and joyfully get it on attests to our overwhelming desire, as a readership/authorship, to construct sexual worlds in which sexual intimacy most often means a surfeit of needs being met rather than alienation or social control.

There is a very interesting documentary to be made -- or even more than one! -- comparing and contrasting the various pornographic mediums, porn creators, and porn consumers. There are, to my mind, endlessly fascinating questions to be asked about how erotic materials figure into our sexual lives -- whether we're talking about our individual sexual selves or those selves in sexual relationship. Instead, by depicting both pornography and the creators of pornography in a monochromatic, sinister light -- and by depicting male consumers (and all women) as victims of "porn" -- this film closes the door on any conversation about the productive intersection of sexually explicit, erotic materials with human sexual expression. In Pleasure, pornography is constructed in opposition to authentic human sexuality, as the producer of false sexual selves. These false selves then serve to obscure, rather than open a pathway for, our (authentic) desires and the realm of possibility for acting on those desires. I was disappointed (though not surprised) that alternate narratives of pornography as a more positive force in society were absent.

I concur with the film, and with porn's many critics, that there is a serious and urgently important conversation to be had about the economics and politics of sex work, and the exploitation of individuals through the making of pornography. Just like with any other industry, worker exploitation should not be countenanced, and employers should be held accountable by law for ensuring workplace safety and respect for workers rights. However, I don't believe these conversations are at all advanced by positioning all men as the aggressors, all women as the victims, and pornography as the medium through which patriarchal oppression is produced and reproduced in culture. People of all sex, gender, and sexual orientations and identities work in pornographic production, and we should be supporting those workers on a community level to articulate their needs and goals for improvement to their lives. But although The Price of Pleasure makes clear its belief that workers (women particularly) in the porn industry are, as a class, badly done to, there are no solutions put forward in the film about how to go about supporting porn actors who want to change their (individual or collective) situations.

This is perhaps the final problem with The Price of Pleasure: that they fail to offer any sense of direction for change. If the problem, as the documentary film-makers see it, is the strangle-hold of "the porn industry" on our means of sexual expression, as a viewer I would have appreciated more explicit suggestions offered as to what the solution to this problem might be. As it is, The Price of Pleasure leaves us with an ominous sense of pervasive subjection, of helplessness, and no explicit pathways to liberating ourselves. I have my own suggestions, of course, for alternatives to non-consensual, unsafe, and exploitative sexual narratives -- but I suspect the makers of Pleasure would not appreciate them. Thus, this film, in the end, simply reinforces the very sense of victimization the film purports to document.

Cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness.


booknotes: the trouble with nature

This week's adventures in queer theory came in the form of anthropologist Roger N. Lancaster's The Trouble With Nature: Sex in Science and Popular Culture (University of California Press, 2003), which caught my eye on the shelves of Raven Books on Newbury Street. Yes, it really is the sort of thing I buy myself as a weekend treat.

Lancaster's wide-ranging examination of narratives around sex, gender, sexuality, and nature in both scientific and popular culture can be read as a single monograph or as a series of fairly free-standing topical essays. Grounded in research done largely in the 1980s and 90s, Lancaster charts the various ways in which evolutionary psychology and sociobiology have been deployed across the political spectrum to argue for a stable "human nature" in the face of social and political flux. "What is most obvious about these naturalistic and naturalizing representations [of sex and gender] is that they are so emphatic on matters which recent history has been so equivocal," he observes (8).

The language of the natural sciences are seen, in contemporary culture, as the voice of authority on the realm of the possible. Queer activists draw on the authority of supposedly innate desires to argue that they were "born this way" and therefore are eligible for equal treatment. Some strains of feminist theory ground their vision in an understanding of women as innately nurturing, pacifist, or cooperative. Religious conservatives, likewise, often utilizes the language of natural science to argue for a particular theological vision of destiny (consider the case made for intelligent design, or the "natural" complementarity of heterosexual relations). Free-market libertarians argue that human beings have a "selfish gene" and to put forward a communitarian alternative to capitalism would be inevitably futile.

In contrast to these fatalistic, mechanistic notions of humanity, Lancaster draws upon his training in cultural studies and anthropology to argue for the irreducable complexity and variety of human sex, gender, and sexual expression across time and space. While acknowledging that we are, indeed, physical bodies, those bodies are in turn never separable from the meaning we make of that matter: "Hormones, odors, and appetites do count -- but their effects are always called forth within a cultural context, which is to say, they count in dynamic and non-reductive ways ... it matters less that they are biological than that they are creatively articulated within a framework of arbitrary meanings and contingent practices" (204). To put it less jargonistically, "the body is enmeshed in social facts and human acts," not an ahistorical constant (205).

Lancaster's book is far from the most articulate or persuasive account of the cultural context in which science around sex and gender is practiced (the works of Anne Fausto-Sterling, Rebecca Jordan-Young, Cordelia Fine, Jeffrey Weeks, Gayle Rubin, and obviously Michel Foucault all come to mind, many of whom he draws upon in this work). If you're not already at least sympathetic to the notion that scientific research is done in the context of human culture, then you will not likely be convinced by The Trouble With Nature. However, what Lancaster contributes to this field is a thorough survey of the ways in which "bioreductivism" filters into (and draws upon) the language of sex, gender, and sexuality so as to become a feedback loop of "common sense."  He examines how, over the course of the twentieth century, the languages of sociobiology and evolutionary became the undisputed voices of authority on human behavior -- a realm once shared with practitioners in such fields as anthropology, history, and sociology.

Most interesting to me was the way in which Lancaster, himself a gay man, is uncompromising in his criticism of queer activists who use "innatist" arguments to advance the rights of non-straight sexual identity groups. "At best ... the new innatist claims carve out a protected niche for homosexual exceptionalism," he writes. "At worst, they reify the prevailing logic of heterosexual metaphysics and thus actively contribute to the reproduction of an exclusionary homophobic -- and sexist -- environment. For gays can only be gay 'by nature' in a 'nature' that already discloses men and women whose deepest instincts and desires are also different 'by nature" (275). As someone who shares Lancaster's skepticism that a "born this way" argument is a sound long-term political strategy for ending heteronormative policies and prejudices, I appreciated his articulation of an approach to queer rights activism that doesn't ground its authority in the notion of a fixed non-straight orientation, but rather the infinite variety of human sexual desires.

With that in mind, I'm closing this review with a lengthy quotation from the introduction to The Trouble With Nature in which Lancaster sketches out the talking points for how one might re-frame the political debate over human sexuality and queer practices. "The long-standing demand, made by religious conservatives, distraught parents, and liberal helping professions alike, is but this: Change your unnatural desires. Time and again, the response is given: I can't change them -- They're part of my nature," Lancaster writes. "Would it be as convincing to own one's sexuality in a volantarist fashion, to say, simply, 'No, I won't change them -- I'm as queer as I want to be?' " (22).  He suggests it might be possible to do just that:
"Desire and identity are inherently ambiguous," a different kind of contention might begin. "Some of us are more or less exclusively homosexual for most of our lives, many more are exclusively heterosexual," the argument might continue, rightly acknowledging the salient facts. "But sometimes even straight men find themselves infatuated with their best friends and -- as any veteran of feminist consciousness-raising can tell you -- women who think of themselves as heterosexual sometimes discover lesbian potential they didn't know was there. It's not unheard of for gay ment to fall for women, or lesbians to sleep with men." 
Now for the theory: "Freud believed that all human beings have bisexual potential. Research by Alfred Kinsey, Laud Humphreys, and others suggests that a lot of people act on that potential at some point in their lives. Anthropological studies of other cultures have shown that human sexual practices are remarkably varied -- that there's more than one way to organize the institutions of family, kinship, and sexual life. Some societies even require every male to engage in same-sex relations for extended periods of time. What all of this means is that nothing in 'human nature' gives us a heterosexual norm and a homosexual minority. Sexuality is largely what we make of it." 
Then, a dash of social context to make sense of how we "make" sexuality: "In modern America, people are very much in the process of making new things out of sex and sexuality. All around us, relationships are in flux: gender roles are changing, sexual practices are changing, all at a dizzying speed. None of this means that people 'choose' their sexuality the way a person might choose a pair of socks. But in fact, many individuals do change over time." Segue into the argument: "So much variation, experimentation, and change makes some people very nervous: they come up with absolutist claims about an unchanging nature, or, they fall back on the premodern idea of divine law as the last recourse in these matters. But 'nature' explains nothing here. And nobody really knows very much about why people have the feelings they have." 
Then, cut to the chase: "None of this is an illness or a disease. None of this means that the end of the world is at hand. There's nothing wrong with any way that people can express love, make community, or find consensual pleasure. What's wrong is trying to make people feel sick or evil or perverted about things that are just part of being human. What's wrong -- and dangerous -- is trying to narrow the range of pleasures people find in our wondrously human bodies" (23-24).
While I doubt The Trouble With Nature is a great starting place for those interested in the cultural history of human sexuality, I think Lancaster's book has a lot to offer on the subject and I'm glad I made it an addition to my growing library of sexuality literature.


the porn debate: first thoughts

but is it porn?
Last night, thanks to my friend Minerva, who is currently at the Boston University School of Public Health, I was able to attend a screening at BUSPH of The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality, and Relationships (2008) and the subsequent Q&A-cum-debate with anti-porn activist and author Gail Dines and sexuality educator Carol Queen. Lots to process. I'll be writing a review of the film and a more coherent summary and reaction to the debate portion of the evening once I've had some time to organize my thoughts. But meanwhile, are a few first responses.
  • The Price of Pleasure had an agenda which wasn't very subtle -- and that was to make porn appear monochromatic, exploitative, and seedy. This wasn't a surprise, but I found myself fascinated by the way the construction of the film itself conveyed that narrative. More about this in the review. It was a fairly masterful piece of propaganda ... if you didn't sit there with your media literacy lenses on and go "what just a minute!" (And if anyone wonders what the scary voice man does between election cycles, he was totally hired to do the voice over in this documentary).
  • I was struck by the level of powerlessness expressed by people interviewed in the film, by Gail Dines in the Q&A, and by some of the audience members who asked questions. Commercially-produced video porn is depicted as an all-powerful, pervasive, thought-controlling medium that somehow renders consumers (and even non-consumers) incapable of imagining or practicing alternative sexualities. Since my experience has been that a) avoiding porn one doesn't like is relatively simple, and b) finding or creating porn one does like is also pretty easy, I can't say I understand this line of reasoning. Having just finished Amy Schalet's new book Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex (review forthcoming) I can't help wondering if this feeling of helplessness doesn't go back to what Schalet terms the "dramatization" (vs. normalization) of sex in American culture.
  • I understand there's a larger argument being made about how the narratives in porn reflect and shape some of the crappy narratives of our society (for example, society is racist and sexist -- surprise! porn is also racist and sexist), but I don't understand why the solution presented is not the two-fold critique and creation solution we'd use in virtually any other field. That is, 1) encourage people to watch porn with a critical eye, much like Jenn Pozner encourages people to watch reality television with a critical eye (see Reality Bites Back), and 2) support the creation of better porn. See for example the feminist porn awards and the recent piece by Erika Christakis, Is it Time for Fair Trade Porn? For some reason, when it comes to porn, all of our usual skills for working to change culture are jettisoned out the window? That doesn't seem right to me.
  • I continue to be frustrated by the way "porn" and even "sexually explicit material" has become short-hand for "video pornography." I took an online survey recently designed to capture information about women's consumption of online porn -- and it became apparent almost instantly that they were assuming the porn in question was filmed live-action sequences. Why aren't we talking about sexually explicit fiction and nonfiction, photographs, erotic audio, and other materials that depict sexual activities and are designed to elicit arousal? This isn't to say video porn is bad either, but I feel our analysis of the genre might be more nuanced if we looked across mediums, rather than focusing just on film.
  • If Carol Queen hadn't been there, no one in the room would have spoken to the fact that pornography is, in fact, not solely a product of the heterosexual male imagination, created for consumption by heterosexual men. The discourse about porn in the film and throughout most of the Q&A rested on the erasure of women and queer folks who create and consume erotic material without being coerced or exploited into doing so by the patriarchal overlords. Dines seems to believe that in her perfect (socialist feminist) universe, no one would make porn she didn't like, because of course no one would voluntarily make pornography that squicks her out. I didn't hear any evidence last night that Dines would have been able to make sense of me as a queer woman who creates and consumes erotic materials, in both solitary and relational contexts. Who has both an incredibly egalitarian, loving sexual relationship with another woman and enjoys some kinky and rough sex fantasies, which work together symbiotically to enrich my relational life. In Dines' narrative of porn, my experience is rendered completely invisible -- and while one person's experience does not a data-set make, that dissonance makes me doubt her theory's explanatory power.
  • Also, while we're at it, men who enjoy sex with women are not, in fact, controlled by their dicks -- and men's penes aren't somehow inherently threatening and oppressive to women who enjoy having sex with men. Male sexuality is not some mysterious, all-powerful, aggressive, violent, controlling force that must be contained and managed externally (i.e. "domesticated"). I believe people of all sexes, sexualities, and genders, are equally capable of exploring their sexual desires in ways that aren't -- for lack of a better word -- "antisocial."
I come to this conversation with my own experience of pornography, obviously. I've seen a vanishingly small amount of video porn -- most of it filtered through secondary sources like documentaries or embedded within feature films (where we just call them "sex scenes"). I've never experienced sexually explicit materials in the context of emotional coercion or physical abuse, and have never felt the presence of sexually explicit materials compromised my intimate relationships. Aside from some early childhood peer-to-peer situations that made me passingly uncomfortable (and probably deserve a post at some point), I've basically felt like I had bodily autonomy and sexual self-determination. My teenage years and young adulthood were characterized by self-directed exploration of human sexuality and my own sexual desires, mostly through fiction and non-fiction, and solitary sex. When I didn't find sexually explicit narratives that satisfied me, I decided to create my own.

Did I have sexual struggles? Certainly. I was reflexively anti-porn early on because I'd imbibed the cultural narrative of "porn" as relationship destroying, the last resort of the lonely, as anti-feminist objectification. At the same time, I was discovering that mild bondage scenarios and actual mild bondage were a huge turn-on for me. Together, these two conflicting messages me feel like a bad feminist, and made me feel overwhelmed by my own sexual desires. But if pornography hadn't been demonized by those around me, maybe I would have realized before my mid-twenties that fantasizing about ceding control in a sexual situation isn't the same as wanting to be literally helpless. I don't wish my younger self hadn't been exposed to bondage imagery or narratives -- I wish I'd been given better tools with which to analyze both it and my responses to what I saw.

I just don't experience the existence of sexually explicit materials -- even if its porn I'm turned off by -- as threatening to my own sexual self-determination or my ability to find, and form meaningful connection with, other sexually-compatible human beings. I don't see "porn" as an enemy.

Overall, I wish we -- as a culture -- could move beyond the moral panic that sexually-explicit material seems to engender in a fairly high percentage of the population  and talk instead about all of the tools we already have at our disposal to critique unhelpful cultural narratives in porn, to advocate for workers' rights, and to develop our own sense of sexual self-determination. I heard Carol Queen making a bid for that shift to take place last night, and I heard Gail Dines resisting it with all her rhetorical might.

Since writing this post, I've published a review of the film, The Price of Pleasure, and a more thorough summary and analysis of the debate itself. Finally, some thoughts on the positive potential of porn.


booknotes: the secret lives of wives

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a pre-review review of Iris Krasnow's book The Secret Lives of Wives (Gotham, 2011). From those notes, it should be clear to you that I had major issues with the book -- and to be fair, I expected to have major issues with any book by someone whose previous books were titled Surrendering to Marriage and Surrendering to Motherhood. Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. Or at least, the choice of language by which it is marketed. The breathless wording of the title ("secret lives" and "what it really takes"), along with the temptation-of-Eve cover we're rocking here, signaled to me we were in for a rocky ride.

And to be honest, that's part of the reason why I requested the advance review copy of the book. Because on some level I'm fascinated by people who continue to buy into -- and actually seem satisfied with -- the heteronormative, gender essentialist assumptions about what it means to be men and women, relate sexually, and form families. I didn't grow up in a household where gender normativity was enforced, and while my parents have enjoyed a 35-year marriage -- which at times took a lot of active work to maintain -- they have never pressured us kids into partnerships, marriage, or parenthood, hetero or otherwise. So I just don't get the concern trolling over kids-these-days being somehow unfit and unable to establish intimate partnerships.

Part of me hoped that Secret Lives would offer really interesting first-person narratives about long-term partnerships. I'm an oral historian by training, after all, and even when autobiographical narratives turn on values I strongly disagree with I still find life stories an absorbing read. And a preliminary glance at Krasnow's website also suggested that at least some of the "secrets" to a successful marriage were going to be fairly benign: maintain strong relationships with male and female friends outside the marriage, don't expect your spouse to meet every emotional need, make space and time for being alone or pursuing independent projects. Who's really going to argue with those fairly basic pieces of advice for well-being? So while I went into this book with the expectation that there would be much to disagree with, I was also prepared to find something -- anything! -- redeeming in its pages.

Wow, that was hard. As my preliminary notes suggest, the "points for" list I started in the front cover was quickly overtaken by the "no points for" list. But I'm going to lay into this book fairly hard in a minute, so let me begin by observing what I felt Krasnow did -- if not "well" at least "decently." She situates herself in the introduction as a curious journalist, not a sociologist or psychologist, and (at least initially) acknowledges the anecdotal nature of her research. She later goes on to consistently generalize from that research, but we'll deal with that below. In so many words, she acknowledges this is a book about heterosexual couples, though doesn't talk about her reasons for limiting the study in this way. The fact it's all about wives rather than husbands and wives is something that is never specifically addressed, though I think it's tied to the fact Krasnow sees women as primarily responsible for securing and maintaining a marriage (more below).

She does acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for marital happiness, writing that "there is no gold standard for marriage," although I think her later arguments undermine this initial claim. As I said above, she is fairly consistent in maintaining that individual people are responsible for determining -- and seeking out -- what will help them thrive (in other words, don't expect a husband to equal instant happiness). She argues for the importance of maintaining adult friendships outside long-term partnerships, and she encourages wives to maintain independent lives through work, travel, exercise, and other activities that will take them out of domestic life. Basically, "It's okay to do things without your husband sometimes." Which I think is pretty sane advice for partners of any persuasion (and I'm not sure it really counts as a "secret" given the number of people who know and agree with it).

And I realize this is a super-low bar, but I'm going to offer her maybe half a point for at least acknowledging the existence of women in hetero marriages who don't have children with their partners, couples who aren't white, and couples who aren't upper-middle-class. With the exception of ethnic diversity (which isn't really clearly delineated, though one woman is identified as African-American and one Bengali) there's one example of non-parenting, and one example of a non-professional-class couple. Other than that, we're basically talking about white upper-middle-class wives with children, most of whom have advanced degrees and are married to individuals similarly situated. Couples with the financial resources to support multiple homes or summer-long vacations abroad, hire (and have affairs with) gardening staff, choose to be a single-income family (and not suffer financially for it), etc. Her profiles of individual women include throw-away details about fur coats, caterers, manicures, high-end spas, and other markers of incredibly privileged lives. Granted, social and economic privilege has never proven to shield individuals from emotional distress or relational impoverishment -- but I wish Krasnow has been more upfront about the demographic she was actually studying.

Okay, so those are the okay-ish things about Secret Lives. Things that limit the book's generalizability, but aren't particularly harmful if you take them for what they are. Several of the life stories Krasnow includes -- if you can grit your teeth and get passed her editorializing -- are actually really awesome. I particularly appreciated the one interview she did with a married couple, Phil and Pat, since it included both partners' voices. Phil and Pat were articulate in describing the ways in which sexism made Pat's career (in the tech industry, alongside her husband) more difficult, and how together they learned how to resist the external forces trying to push Pat out of the business world, or pit them against each other as competitors. Similarly, a couple of women -- interestingly enough the wives who used "we" most often -- described the way they re-negotiated their marriage arrangements in times of stress, to better share the tasks of child-rearing, or to open their marriage to other partners (more on the one swinger couple below). The women who used "we" were much more likely to describe equal partnerships in which they'd worked with their husbands to build a home life that supported both their individual needs and the nurturing of their relationship. Often through active re-negotiation of terms when the original assumptions or agreements had failed to serve one or both of them adequately.

So what are Krasnow's secrets for a successful (note: "successful" in Krasnow's world means long-lasting -- no marriage which ended in separation or divorce gets a place in the book, and cautionary tales of people who did divorce feature prominently) hetero marriage? And what ideas concerning gender and sexuality is she promulgating on the way by?

Secret #1: Heterosexual marriage is what every woman "needs" because it is "essential." So while I have no problem, per se with a study that focuses on one group of people (in this case wives) due to the questions being asked or simple logistics, I became increasingly suspicious of Krasnow's decision to focus exclusively on "wives" as the book went on. She begins with a chapter about "why marriage," as in why should she focus on describing successful marriage. "Who needs marriage?" She asks rhetorically, answering herself, "Women do, of this I'm convinced" (8). While Krasnow includes handful of throw-away lines to the effect that some marriages are abusive and should end, the actual message of the book is that marriage, virtually any marriage, is better than dating (and yes, if you're single you're assumed to be looking for a partner). The women who fail to keep their marriages intact in Secret Lives are seen as failures who gave up, who had unrealistic expectations, or who made a rash decision they now regret. "Better to stick with the first flawed union if you can; the second could be worse" (32) she concern-trolls over and over. 

This understanding of marriage as something women "need," and the focus specifically on "wives" also speaks to the pervasive gender essentialism Krasnow offers up, in which women pursue marriage ... with men whom she depicts as emotionally unavailable and brutish (I'm serious, she and Caitlin Flanagan should just go to housekeeping together) and frankly not all that appealing. While she insists that marriage is the essential ingredient for ultimate life-long happiness, her own descriptions belie those claims. In other words, Krasnow should be approached as an unreliable narrator.

Secret #2: The work and compromise of making a marriage successful, that is to say life-long, falls to the wife. There's a telling scene early on in the book where Krasnow describes a point in her own marriage when she was a full-time mother with four children under the age of five and her husband was the full-time wage-earner. She describes her frustration at making breakfasts and lunches for the entire family while her husband sat at the breakfast table with the paper, ignoring the chaos around him, and then disappeared to work leaving her to clean the house and care for the kids. She describes calling her mother and announcing her intention to leave her husband -- because anything would be better than the status quo. Yet in the end, she and her husband remained together and things got better. (Sort of. Frankly, the descriptions Krasnow provides of her husband and their interactions are filled with a level of animosity that belies her protestations of marital bliss. I was really uncertain what we were supposed to make of her more personal anecdotes and their place in the story, since they seemed at odds with one another.) But anyway, she fills the book with similar narratives in which women are miserable with the status quo, yet consistently turn back to themselves as the source of the problem. I agree that to focus on assigning blame rather than solving the problem can be counterproductive, but I cringed at sentences like this: "Recently, Alice has been 'working on herself' and blaming Chris less, fueling a discovery that he isn't so bad after all" (66). Relentlessly, the exhausted mother of young children is counseled to stick it out, rather than speak up and say "This isn't working, can we figure out how to make this more equitable?" These marriages all take place in a vacuum where sex and gender politics on a wider scale don't exist, and it's simply women's lot to be the full-time parent with an unresponsive husband (who will start paying attention to her again once she stops wallowing in self-pity and bothers to put on tight jeans and sexy lipstick).

Lesson #3: Adultery is okay, as long as you keep it secret from your spouse, and having an open marriage is exactly the same as being an adulterer (except people with open marriages are mysteriously happier). So she has a really depressing chapter on women in relationships where either they or their husband maintain the marriage by cheating on one another -- and not talking about it. I realize everyone feels different about adultery, but I believe trust and honesty and fidelity are really important in any relationship, and if a marriage is going to involve multiple people in any way, it should be openly negotiated and agreed upon by all parties involved. Which is why the one swinger couple Krasnow profiles, I'd argue, seem so damn pleased with the way they've chosen to conduct their sexual lives. Yet Krasnow folds this couple into the chapter on adultery, and seems at a loss to explain why their extramarital relationships aren't causing anyone angst or despair.

Lesson #4: Youthfulness should be prized while young people are denigrated. Some people might see this as two separate issues, but I'm treating them together 'cause I think it's two aspects of the pernicious ageism that permeates our culture. Krasnow uncritically accepts that youthful looks are desirable (in women) and should be maintained (by women) in order to keep the interest of their husbands, etc. At the same time, she portrays young people -- I'm assuming any cohort younger than about age 35? -- as lazy gits who are unwilling or uninterested in putting energy into maintaining relationships. We've all grown up with the "divorce epidemic," I guess, and somehow technology has also made it easier to give up on people (it's unclear why, but Facebook and iPads feature as emblematic of ... whatever the problem is). I feel bad for her kids that she basically thinks they're uninterested or incapable of connecting. While this book is ostensibly a look at marriage in the "middle years" (read: after your kids have gone away to prestigious colleges), it's shot through with a heavy, heavy dose of judgement and unsolicited advice for younger folks who might think twice before marrying, not be interested in marrying a man, or who might try to re-negotiate the work/childcare arrangement with their spouse.

The entire book could really be reduced to a banner reading "Be Grateful You Have a Man, Any Man, Girls, Because Without One Life Isn't Worth Living." Which (and here's where my own personal bias might come in a teeny-weeny bit?) is a really weird message to try and send with a shit-ton of examples of hetero marriages that sound fairly dysfunctional and unhappy to me. Even when you discount the one or two that are actually out-right abusive? It's a fairly dismal bunch. Like I said, there are maybe three or four profiles in which the women speak with confidence about having negotiated a fairly equal arrangement with their spouse, and where the couple seems to be on the same page about their domestic life. But more often than not, there seems to be a lot of despair, resignation, rage, and yes, "secrets" that involve emotional and physical infidelity.

Seriously: I got to the end of this book and I was like, "If this is the world of straight marriage, I'm so glad I'm out." I am so thankful for all of the people I know who are married to other-sex partners who aren't actually acting out this sort of misery. Who are living lives of partnership and communication. Who don't assume all women "need" marriage, and who don't denigrate their own husbands by making snarky asides about how many hours per weekend they spend watching hockey.

I started out this post by observing that part of the reason I read books like this is to try and understand what people who think like this get out of their portrayal of women and men and marriage in this fashion. This book failed insofar as I still don't understand it. One could write a perfectly sane, thoughtful, book about the compromises and negotiations one makes in a long-term relationship. One that didn't hinge on making generalizations about how men and women operate and what they want out of relationships. But this is not that book.

P.S. I originally wrote this review prior to reading Samhita Mukhopadhyay's Outdated, though the review of that book went live on Tuesday. While I was reading Outdated I kept thinking of Secret Lives and how this book -- despite the fact it's not explicitly marketed as a dating advice manual -- fits so well into the paradigm of the hetero dating advice schlock Mukhopadhyay takes to task. Basically, if you're going to read Secret, keep Outdated close at hand as an antidote!

Cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness.