Saturday, February 04, 2006

just a girl

Hello, ladies and gents; welcome to Busy Nothings. This is another Big Ideas post. Today we're talking about porn. And we're not going to worry about the creepy search hits it will generate. This is me thinking out loud; there's no central argument or neat conclusion; but the subject of porn has been running around in my head for weeks, driving me crazy, so I'm just gonna dump it all here and see what you all think.
Take this pink ribbon off my eyes
I'm exposed and it's no big surprise
Don't you think I know exactly where I stand?

Because, I'm wondering what kind of feminist it makes me if I own copies of both (anti-porn) Off Our Backs and the self-explanatory On Our Backs. Hypocritical? Confused? Or just a bad feminist? I've been reading a lot of feminist blogs lately arguing the pros and cons of porn and, being an indecisive Libra, constantly switching camps. It doesn't help that I'm pretty ignorant of the issue; I've never read Dworkin or MacKinnon, or seen much in the way of mainstream straight porn. So bear that in mind; I'm just talking about my own experience as a bookish, queer feminist. And in my own experience, "pro-sex" and "anti-porn" bloggers aren't really talking too much at all. They're yelling at each other: "Porn is EVIL you sell-out Tool of the Patriarchy!" "Orgasms are revolutionary you facist censorious prude!!" I'm being facetious, but honestly I don't see a lot of honest debate; mostly a big game of More Feminist Than Thou. You all do realize that you're on the same side, right? Because both pro and antis make the same claim: they like sex, and they're against sexual exlploitation of women. And who can't agree with that?
'Cause I'm just a girl, little 'ol me
Don't let me out of your sight
I'm just a girl, all pretty and petite
So don't let me have any rights
This is a really big, really complex issue, so I'm gonna put on my English Major Hat and approach this the only way I know how. Let's define our terms first. Pornography literally means "writing about whores", depictions of the cheapest sex slaves in ancient Greece. Sexually explicit material with the goal of sexual arousal, according to Wikipedia. Images on paper and film. Words. Text, then. Now I'm on more familiar ground; I know how to critically analyze a text. I know that words have no meaning outside of their context, like a good deconstructionist; that texts are read and interpreted in many different ways. There's nothing inherent in a book, for instance, that gives it moral value. It's the author, the reader, and the social milieu of the book that makes the difference between Mein Kampf and, say, Paradise Lost. And even Mein Kampf is a very different book when read by a WWII historian and a KKK member. If we define porn as sexually explicit material, that includes a lot of stuff beyond Hustler and Playboy. The paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec fit the Greek definition, for instance.
But that's not really what feminists are talking about, is it? They're talking about sexually explicit material intended to arouse men. Really horrible misogynistic stuff. Which, as a text, is simply reflecting a really horrible misogynistic culture. It's hard to discuss porn without bringing up prostitution, BDSM, sex trafficking, and rape culture, and I don't really have the time and space to go into that now.
I'm just a girl in the world
That's all that you'll let me be
But porn is connected to all that, it's part of a larger culture of rape, where women are the sex class, always available to men everywhere, always objectified, even by gay men, because one of the responsibilities of "woman" is to be decorative eye candy. Texts both reflect and create social constructs; so misogynistic porn is both a symptom and a cause of patriarchal rape culture.
I'm just a girl, guess I'm some kind of freak
'Cause they all sit and stare with their eyes
And that's what I think of when I hear the word "pornography"; more than just dirty pictures in Hustler, I think of the exploitation of women in general. And I hate it. I hate that every day I walk past a store window selling Playboy merchandise to little girls. I hate that most of my female students are more concerned with the state of their hair than their ability to conjugate the verb to be. I hate that I'm always, always subject to the male gaze, that I'm not even sure what the world would be like without it. I hate that every where I go I'm faced with gratuitous T & A in advertizements and media. Female body parts put on display like so many carcasses hanging in a butcher shop. And I hate even more that that analogy is pretty literal, that every day millions of girls and women are bought and sold in sex trafficking to realize this sick fantasy.
I'm just a girl, what's my destiny?
What I've succumbed to is making me numb
So why do I own copies of On Our Backs and Slit (a radical dyke sex mag from Australia)? Lesbian porn is still porn, and dykes can be just as misogynistic as the next man. Have I internalized the male gaze? Am I exploiting, objectifying those women too? Reiterating and participating in those oppressive discourses? The master's tools, says Lorde, will never dismantle the master's house.
I'm just a girl, living in captivity
Your rule of thumb makes me worrisome
But is porn inherently a tool of the master? The only answer I have is: yes and no. A tool is neutral; a hammer can smash a window as easy as nail a two-by-four. Porn is a text, and it depends who's making it, and who's reading it, and in what context. That's what my gut tells me. Though maybe I'm just rationalizing, making myself the exception, as people are wont to do. "Porn isn't bad, there's just bad porn"--is that my argument? It's not bad when I do it, just when other people do.
I'm just a girl, take a good look at me
Just your typical prototype
Honestly, there's a lot about these magazines I like. And pictures of naked, happy dykes--older ones and fat ones and butch ones and black ones and Asian ones and femmes and various combinations, owning and reveling in their sexuality on their own terms, without straight guys looking on--that isn't something that I can get very upset over. Especially since nobody's making money off it (at least not in the case of Slit). And the articles and columns have been a huge resource for me; I love "Uncle Lynee's School for Bois" in OOB. Slit, especially, is really fucking intelligent and challenging. Go ahead and laugh at me reading porn "for the articles"; I think it's funny too. But honestly, it's taught me alot about my sexuality; they've educated and informed me immensly, demystified sex and the body. That's not something I got anywhere else, really. Which helps me reclaim myself from a culture that tried to rob me of my sexuality (and I'm one of the lucky few; I haven't been raped or molested). That's really fucking empowering, to have the confidence and knowledge to own my sexuality on my terms and not put up with shit. Though I could have happily lived my life without seeing Annie Sprinkle's cooch, but whatev. So, on one hand, porn is simply a text like any other and can be used as a means of resistance, a means of creating an alternative culture that celebrates and educates instead of exploiting and degrading.
The moment that I step outside
So many reasons for me to run and hide
I can't do the little things I hold so dear
'Cause it's all those little things that I fear
But. It's a double eged sword. And when you lie down with dogs, you'll wake up with fleas. Just because you claim it's feminist or empowering don't make it so. The photos in these magazines aren't always my thing, but I haven't found anything too untoward. Ironically, it's not the pictures, but the fiction I have serious problems with. There are two or three stories that really bother me. In fact, they piss me the fuck off. They're about cop and rape fantasies (!!!!!!) and let me just say GUNS. ARE NOT. SEXY. These stories expose the lie that just because something's taboo, it must be transgressive and subversive as well. BULLSHIT. If a man wrote these stories they'd be roundly condemned; and I don't feel the fact that a dyke wrote them changes anything, in this case. Some things cannot be subverted; some things should not be "reclaimed." Which highlights the "choice" pseudo-feminism that I keep running into in "pro-sex" feminism. "I can eroticize power and dominate too" IS NOT EMPOWERING. It's not liberating. You're just internalizing and reifying oppression, which is pretty common in oppressed groups. You're not deconstructing or changing anything. Is there any way we can create alternative sexual spaces that are safe and freeing, without falling into this trap? Because it's all too easy to do, and that really worries me.
I'm just a girl, my apologies
What I've become is so burdensome
I'm just a girl, lucky me!
Twiddle-dum, there's no comparison
Yeah, I realize the irony of quoting Gwen Stefani, a woman who exploits and objectifies other women in a fashion that would make Larry Flynt proud. But I've always loved "Just A Girl", it was an early feminist awakening moment for me, and it really articulates the bind women find ourselves in. We're damned if we do, damned if we don't. We can't express ourselves sexually without constantly running the risk of having it co-opted, perverted, exploited, used against us.
So, the moral of the story is, I'll probably keep buying Slit and OOB, but I'll still feel conflicted about it.

8 Comments:

At 6:37 AM, Blogger FemiKnitMafia said...

Yeah, I'm permanently conflicted too, so I gave up trying to sort it out.

 
At 9:29 AM, Blogger HB said...

Great post - and it made me wonder: what did you think of Sarah Water's "Fingersmith" and the way she writes about porn?

 
At 4:13 AM, Blogger TP said...

Great post Andy.

 
At 6:58 AM, Blogger Eric the increasingly pasty said...

Very good post, as a man who likes porn it's interesting to hear the arguments against. I think, and this might be part of what you don't like, and would like to see taken out of sex-relations, that there is an inescapable element of physical dominance in heterosexual sex. And gay male sex. This dominance makes one person aggressive and the other passive, (relatively, hopefully), and then has psychological effects afterwards.. A passive partner becomes more like an object, and this makes for more easy objectification.

 
At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Cara said...

Thanks for a thoughtful essay from someone who has only picked up snippets of the much wider debate on pornography. I hope you correct your admitted lack of information about mainstream pornography and read some antiporn feminist criticisms of it then write more because I'd like to see what you would say after learning more about it.

 
At 5:22 AM, Blogger Andygrrl said...

Hey, thanks for all the compliments everybody! Wow. I feel all special.
HB: I was definitely surprised by the ending of Fingersmith! The way I read it, Sue and Maud working the system to their advantage. There's a line where Maud says something like writing porn is her expressing "all the ways I want you". Which is kind of subversive, if you think about it. They're not changing the system, because it's 1850-something; but they're using it to create a little bit of space and freedom for themselves. It's not a perfect resolution, but it's a realistic one, I think, given the circumstances.

Eric: Yeah, the prevalence of dominance and submission in porn and human relations in general is a huge problem for me. As is the commodification of women, which I didn't get to: porn literally turns women into product, with a price tag, bought and sold and consumed by men. Can't get any more passive than that. That's one aspect of Slit that I like, it's very anticapitalist, the only person who gets paid is the printer.

Cara: I've been dying to read Dworkin forever, I just haven't had a chance. Off Our Backs had a really great obituary for her. Anybody who pisses off that many people all over the political spectrum has got to be saying something important.

 
At 7:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

God, I love you.

-RC

 
At 1:48 AM, Blogger Andygrrl said...

I love you too babe. I miss you!

 

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