Christie Noble Walker, from Seattle, wrote me this week:
I've been reading this dialog on Slate this week discussing two recent books on Porn: "Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families," by Pamela Paul; and "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture," by Ariel Levy. I would love to read your thoughts on it on your blog!
Every time I read such "debates" about the value (or evil) of porn— and what it means for women and feminism— I get frustrated that people don't mention the difference of porn produced and consumed as an act of sexual expression, and how that vision is changed when we're talking about true dyke/queer porn— since the object is not to titillate men.
In particular, I'm talking about the "Girls Gone Wild" empire, which Slate mentions, and whose commercials I recently saw during a fit of sleepless TV watching!
Although some, like Laura Kipnis, (one of the debaters in the Slate article), argue that girls who participate in these videos are experimenting w/ their sexuality and finding some type of empowerment because of it, I find it hard to agree with.Yes, girls finally get the chance to make out with their best friends (!), but they are often doing it to please the male eye, or to score a GGW trucker hat while they're drunk.
I would love to see a debate like this consider the very different dynamic that dyke-produced and "preferred" (not sure if that is the right word) porn enters into the equation.
Christie, I'm grateful for your link, because this is just the sort of debate I like to sink my teeth into. I advise everyone to read the story before commenting so you'll get all the juice and details.
The conversation Slate sponsored is between Laura Kipnis, who's written a lot of thought-provoking material on sex, porn, and romance; Slate's own editor
Meghan O'Rourke, who tried to walk the middle line and ask pertinent questions; and finally, Wendy Shalit, the woman who wrote that feminist headache, "Return to Modesty," where she argues women had it a lot better when they wore bobby sox with their legs crossed.
I don't have a lot of patience with Wendy, or the new book "Pornified," because they aren't new at all— it's the same hand-wringing we've seen from bourgeois do-gooders since time immemorial. I think Kipnis gives an excellent historical reply to this garbage:
I must confess that this book made me very cranky. Not about the rise of porn, but about the decline of cultural criticism: Paul's analysis is as compartmentalized and shallow as the sex lives of her subjects. She has her nose pressed so firmly against porn culture that she's utterly blinkered about the rest of society, or history, or politics; it's as if sexuality occupied some autonomous world of its own. (Like a porn set.)
Here are a few of the many bad things Paul blames on porn: failing relationships, men's flight from intimacy, men judging women by harsh appearance standards, men liking large breasts, female body-image issues, general female insecurity, lack of sexual foreplay, male impotence, men demanding more oral sex, infrequent sex among couples—just about everything but acne. (Yes, a single explanation for every social ill is very convenient.) I'm no historian, but I'm under the impression that all these behaviors and predispositions long preceded the rise of porn. Men treat women like sex objects? Not exactly new: Consider the brilliant, crazy Valerie Solanas' 1967 S.C.U.M. Manifesto: "It's often said that men use women. Use them for what? Surely not pleasure." Women are romantically disappointed in men? Read—gosh, it's such an endless list—the collected stories of Dorothy Parker. Men are in flight from intimacy? I know from careful study of The New Yorker cartoons that when television was invented, husbands planted themselves on the couch and have yet to look up—unless it's to play golf, poker, flee to the office, or have affairs, all of which wives have been miffed about for decades.
So, when exactly was the golden age of relationship bliss that Paul thinks porn has torn asunder?
I am more intrigued in the implications of Ariel Levy's book, Feminist Chauvinist Pigs, since I know Ariel, and discussed the book with her a few months ago when we were both working on stories about Andrea Dworkin.
I consider Levy to be a "sex-positive feminist," if one must use a label. That is to say, I think sexual liberation and self-determination are an essential part of her feminist politics.
I also share her dismay at media like all that Spring Break crap where some ditz in bikini proclaims that she's "Making a choice! I'm empowered with my Bud!"
It's embarrassing, and you cringe to imagine what jerk is behind the scenes, pulling her strings. You realize that her Boomer mom was probably not exactly helping in the role model department, either.
This is another unhappy legacy: the truth is, the mainstream culture and economy has corrupted revolution at every turn. We've seen rock'n'roll turned to mush, civil rights become "The Cosby Show," gay liberation transformed into "The L-Word," etc. People who've played a genuine role as artists and activists are rolling in their graves, or are about to start digging.
I haven't read Ariel's book through yet, so this is only an opening shot. I wrote her yesterday:
Many people reading your new book believe that sex-positive feminism, whatever its intentions might have been, has led to a commercial, soulless depravity and mockery of anything that might have given women the slightest uplift. They look to feminist sex radical "pioneers" like myself, and say, "YOU! YOU! It's all your damn fault this turned out so pathetic!"
Yet my impression from talking to you, is that you don't hold me, or my ilk, responsible for "Girls Gone Wild." Is that true, or do you see a straight line from Betty Dodson to On Our Backs to Britney Spears making an ass out of herself?
Is there a difference, in your mind, between feminist sex radicals and porn-entrepreneurs who use feminist rhetoric as cover? Do you think the sincere 'FSR's have done a poor job of differentiating themselves from commercial exploitation, or protesting those developments?
What is the difference between the sad capitalist, sexist, racist, you-name-it sellout of a groovy idea, and the way we've seen other cultural revolutions turned into clown acts for mass consumption? Or is there any?
OF COURSE I don't think you & co. are responsible for this...the whole point of sex radicals is to explore new and different and more creative ways to represent— and to have— sex. I'm all for creativity. I'm all for exploration. I'm just not for the incessant reiteration of this one incredibly dull shorthand for sexiness... Wet t-shirt contests! Implants! Brazilian bikini waxes!
It's pathetically limiting. I'm tired of hearing about how liberating and empowering "raunch culture" is. I think it's the easy way out... as if when we buy a thong or a t-shirt with the Playboy bunny on it, then we don't have to question or face our own complicated desires. (But then you miss out on all the fun!)
You have always been about encouraging women to investigate what they really and truly want from sex. Raunch culture, on the other hand, is about performance, not pleasure. That's my objection.
As I say in my book, the women for whom this is *genuine* — the women who authentically get their kicks from flashing for GGW or stripping or whatever— have my best wishes. But I interviewed many other women who weren't prioritizing their own desires; they were only automatically re-enacting what they saw around them. One girl said to me,"It's like a reflex."
In terms of faux Feminist Sex Radicals, I think we'd have to talk about this on a case by case basis. (At the same time, sitting around pointing the finger isn't my all time favorite thing to do.) And in answer to your question about whether there is any difference between this sad capitalist, sexist, racist sellout of a groovy idea and other such co-optations, I really don't think so. I think it's same shit, different day.
I look forward to having Ariel on my "In Bed" show soon, and continuing this at length! Maybe I can even get her to do some finger-pointing... just a little!
In the meantime, Christie, you ask about lesbian-made porn in particular, and why no one seems to notice a difference between dykesex and pimp pandering...
This subject came up when I was first editing On Our Backs. We didn't make a lesbian erotic magazine because it was "safe territory" or politically defensible; it was simply our personal lives writ large at that moment! But it became clear to us that because lesbians were not defending a notion of heterosexual feminine virtue— "Someday I will be a worthy wife and mother"— we did not fear being slut-baited or disrespected. Being a lesbian out of the closet AT ALL already had you in that bag. Remember, this was 1983!
To make a more personal example, if I was looking for a girlfriend, I did not have to fear that she would reject me for being sexual, I would not be repulsed because I wasn't a "virgin". Those concepts had no meaning in lesbian social worlds at that time.
At the same time that I was involved in OOB, I started meeting a lot of "straight" women who were on the same page, in terms of sexual freedom and self expression. The women who developed that classic book, Caught Looking, would be at the top of my list. Then there was the feminist porn star group, that started with Candida Royalle, Annie Sprinkle, Veronica Vera, and others. Certainly you'd have to include Joani Blank and Betty Dodson, who started the whole vibrator revolution, which had nothing to do with gender preferences. Women who love men, and bi women, have every bit as much moxie and right to talk up their sexual ideas as dykes. Duh!
It's obvious to ME that the ripoff of sex positive feminism had nothing to with its progenitors; rather it's a betrayal. When I think of girls digging sex w/men and cock, do I think of Girls Gone Wild? Of course not! My role models for self-aware straight women would be the Sweet Action magazine coven: women who doing DIY gonza girl p.o.v., with no apologies, and as you will see from their mags, no bullshit to please anyone but themselves. They take my breath away. Look at the story Tristan Taormino wrote about them here.
But they are waaaaaaaay too radical to be picked up by Absolut Vodka or MTV. They are not interested in having some prick look down their shirt for a dollar. Yet what they are doing, their originality, is just like On Our Backs, in that it is tremendously influential and will be imitated. And no one will say wow, or thank you, or send royalties. This is the cycle, and it's a tough one.
You know, the very earliest women's libbers had to deal with the same annoyance of having Braless Bond Girls represent the new "liberated woman," when they knew it was all a lot of hooey. We knew that The Pill was not just a prize for horny guys, it really changed things for us. Loretta Lynn sang about it, and that was real. There's always been the REAL part of sexual liberation for women, and the phonies. It just seems like the phonies have taken over the world right now, and it's very difficult to know how to cope, fight back, or turn it on its head.
Your thoughts? I'll be reading Levy's book this week, and maybe she'll reply in the meantime to our blog.