I have recently read Robert Jensen’s Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, partially because a reader sent it to me (thank you, Denny, you are the best) and partially because at a certain point one gets tired of making fun of Twisty Faster and wants to engage with an extremist radical feminist with some real intellectual content.
The premise of Getting Off, for those who haven’t read it, is that pornography is oppressive to women: it encourages men to objectify, degrade and even be violent against women, corrupting male sexuality away from intimacy and towards a, well, “pornified” sexuality. This part will address male sexuality as degrading in the book, part two will address the critique of pornography and part three will consider what Jensen got right.
The meat of Getting Off, as a book, is a long description of all the kinds of degrading porn that exist out there. Double penetration! Verbal humiliation! Spanking! Throatfucking! Interracial porn! Gangbangs! Anal to mouth! Pissplay! A veritable storm of sex acts most people do not want to participate in.
The problem with this analysis, I think, is most cogently shown when Jensen describes a porn star’s responses as “difficult to interpret… as anything other than expressions of pain.” He then quotes the DVD commentary of the video, which features the cameraman saying “you see the expression on her face, like, you know what, ‘I’m really, I’m really enjoying this.'”
The point is that it is impossible to ascribe a single meaning to a particular sex act and, in particular, it is impossible to consider a particular sex act inherently degrading and unpleasurable.
Consider missionary-position heterosexual sexual intercourse. It can be a beautiful expression of love and connection. It can be an expression of contempt and hatred. It can be a fun way to spend an afternoon, no more meaningful than a roller-coaster ride. It can be a rape, a violation of a person’s inmost self. It can be a way of affirming life. It can be a rite of passage, gone through with eagerness or far too soon. It can be a way of cementing a relationship. If “regular” sex can be anything from a moment of purest joy to something sad and desperate and kind of pathetic, how could anything else be true of “kinky” sex?
If there’s a chick out there who thinks double penetration is hot because anal stimulation is hot and vaginal stimulation is hot and together they are double-hot, and a gentleman out there who thinks double penetration is hot because he likes the idea of giving her double pleasure, then in what sense are their double-penetration adventures degrading? Fun, mutually pleasurable, mutually happy sex is not degrading if you want the term to continue to have any meaning whatsoever.
I mean, fuck, it is weird to read a dude describing this horrible, degrading, objectifying, abusive sex that no woman would freely consent to and expresses the hatred the viewers have for women and be like… “huh. That was Friday night.”
Given that Jensen would have found this out if he, um, asked anyone who enjoyed participating in comeshots (seriously, comeshots are fun!), it makes me wonder about the source of Jensen’s preconceptions about sexuality. Presumably some of it is the natural human tendency to decide that sex acts the human in question doesn’t like are gross and no one should participate in them ever. (See also: homophobia.) However, I do think some of it has to do with people viewing male sexuality as inherently degrading.
The view of male sexuality as degrading is endemic in our sex-negative culture. Just look at abstinence-only education: women are considered to be precious flowers until the application of a penis, at which point they become lollipops everyone had sucked on or tape ripped off a lot of people’s arms or whatever disgusting and nonsensical analogy the teacher thought up this week. One of the most common forms of slut-shaming is calling a woman “dirty” or “filthy,” presumably because once a woman has had sex with a man she is ruined forever. Women are considered “pure” until they have sex with too many men, at which point they become “impure.” A “gentleman” doesn’t ask a woman to have sex too early on.
Jensen, and the Dworkinite strain of radical feminism he derives from, do the exact same thing. Why is a gangbang, freely and enthusiastically consented to, degrading? Well, because, uh, penises! More than one penis! In a vagina! And lots of men are getting off on it! And the woman is apparently enjoying it, says she is enjoying it, but we know she isn’t because, um, penises! In a vagina!
Porn shows a bunch of women who really, really enjoy sex. They crave and need cock. They call themselves “sluts” because they’re so full of sexual desire. Their enthusiastic consent could not get any more enthusiastic. And Jensen says it’s rapey because it creates the notion that all women are really like that deep down.
First of all, dude, it’s porn. They kind of have to show sex, it’s their job. However ethical it is, a man respecting a woman’s “no” to sex is not very good pornography. As long as they’re showing it, defaulting to showing women who are enthusiastic about sex is way less rapey than the other option.
Also, Jensen is not stupid. I’m sure he knows that most people are fully capable of telling apart reality and porn. Much as the average slash fan doesn’t think every man in real life is gay, and the average consumer of female dominiant porn is fully aware that women are not actually superior to the worthless worms that are men, the average vanilla porn consumer doesn’t think that all women are secretly gagging for his cock. That makes me wonder why he thinks that showing women who are enthusiastic about sex with men is so terrible.
Is it possibly because he thinks that women can’t really desire sex with men? Is it because he views male sexuality as degrading, and so the desire for male sexuality as more degrading still? Could the radical feminist possibly have some unexamined patriarchial narratives going on?
This week, on Ozy Is Annoyed At A Radical Feminist…
Critique of Porn, ur doin it rong.
It’s a common idea that sex-positives think porn should be exempt from gender egalitarian critique. Of course it shouldn’t be, any more than commercials or action movies or romantic comedies or any other area of popular culture should be exempt from gender egalitarian critique. All forms of media have sinned and fallen short of the glory of Social Justice, and it is our job to call them out on it when necessary.
However, it’s important to distinguish between critiquing the popular culture and critiquing the person. Action movies are not exactly what one would call excessively masculist; however, that won’t stop me from sitting down in front of Captain America with a big bowl of popcorn, ready to inform the world that everyone in the movie is secretly having gay sex. The distinction is especially important to make for issues of sexuality, which can be a very private and important part of a person’s life.
It is not wrong to get off on fantasies of non-consent. How could it be? The imaginary people in your head have no meaningful ability to revoke consent, and they’re hardly going to be traumatized for life. The only consequence is your orgasm. As long as you don’t actually want to rape people in real life, fantasies of non-consent are not wrong and can even be enacted with a consenting partner (and a safeword!). Sexual fantasies are almost impossible to remove. Shaming someone for getting off on non-consent (or humiliation, or degradation, or kink, or whatever) has only the effect of making them feel like shit for something they can’t help.
Which is not to say that it is wrong to critique porn. There are lots of very problematic aspects of mainstream porn. It presents a single body type as the most desirable. It shows sex acts that look good on screen more than sex acts that people actually enjoy. It presents unrealistic and exaggerated expectations of men’s sexual attainment. It left at least one boy of my friend’s acquaintance with the idea that women were naturally hairless.
Porn often reflects the sexism of the society that it’s a part of. Since society often views male sexuality as degrading, porn too often depicts value-neutral sex acts like double penetration as degrading. Since society shames sluts, porn too often depicts sluts as awful and worthy of shaming (hello, BangBus, how are you doing?). The objectification of women as tits and ass and vaginas and mouths and men as giant ever-erect penises is a concern. That’s not even getting into porn’s awful racial, queer and trans politics.
In addition, the industry itself has often had abuses. All you have to do is read the life story of Linda Lovelace to realize that, all too often, the porn industry has not adequately valued consent. Many amateur porn videos are leaked by one partner without the consent of the other partner, perhaps after a bad breakup. The straight porn industry almost never uses condoms, leading to several STI scares.
However, it is possible to critique these abuses without critiquing the concept of pornography itself. People are always going to be interested in watching other people fuck. It has been going on for several thousand years at this point– just look at ancient Greek vases! It is possible to develop a sex-positive porn ethos that values consent, safety and mutual enjoyment. Much critique of porn seems extremely sex-negative. After all, action movies are at least as sexist as porn, yet no one suggests that gender egalitarians should stop watching action movies.
One of the primary problems with pornography is that, all too often, given the woeful state of even comprehensive sex education, porn is treated as sex ed. Porn is a fantasy; learning about sex from porn is like learning about guns from action movies. (No, I will not stop with this analogy ever.) But the problem is not with the fantasy, the problem is with the lack of education.
I’m not suggesting people teach how to have anal sex in schools. However, I am suggesting that educational websites such as Scarleteen, sex ed books like the Whole Lesbian Sex Guide (fondly recalled from my middle-school tiny-confused-queer days) and sex-positive blogs that show how sex actually works need to become more prevalent. That way, porn can keep its true purpose– wank material– without interfering in people’s ideas of how sex actually works.
[The phrase “be a man”] is usually connected to one man’s demand that another man be “stronger,” which is traditionally understood as the ability to suppress emotional reactions and channel that energy into controlling situations and establishing dominance.
Be a man, then, typically translates as: Surrender your humanity.
–Robert Jensen, Getting Off
Reversed stupidity is not intelligence. Jensen is wrong, epically wrong, about male sexuality, and not particularly good at critiquing porn either. However, that doesn’t mean that everything he thinks is wrong, and in this post I’d like to highlight some of the things he says that I believe are actually interesting and correct.
Jensen summarizes masculinity as having three primary traits: the avoidance of of things too closely connected to women/femininity; the struggle for supremacy in interpersonal relationships and social situations; and the repression of emotions related to womanhood/femininity. I don’t think this is entirely correct (for one thing, he’s missing the whole “men are horny beasts who are always up for it” bit, which is a really obvious omission in a book about porn), but it’s an interesting starting place.
In the most striking metaphor in the book, Jensen describes masculinity as a constant game of King of the Hill, in which men compete to be the one man who has reached the pinnacle and can be considered a Real Man. But even the one man on the top isn’t safe: he must fear someone else, younger and stronger and manlier, pulling him down. The slightest slip or misplaced foot– getting fired from your job, crying, being your girlfriend’s “bitch,” discovering your love of My Little Pony– will destroy your status as King.
One of the most tragic effects that Jensen describes is the loneliness related to conventional masculinity. “The Man Who Would Be King,” Jensen says, “is the Man Who Is Broken And Alone.” Masculinity circumscribes the emotions that are acceptable to express: sexual desire, competition, anger and, most of all, stoicism. However, in order to maintain a functional romantic relationship, you have to express your emotions and communicate openly with each other– skills men in our culture are not encouraged to develop.
If your view of the world is based around a zero-sum competition of masculinity, a macho competition, a literal dick-measuring contest, it limits your ability to engage in real relationships. And that is, fundamentally, sad.
Jensen says, “whatever the benefits of it, whatever power it gives one over others, it’s also exhausting and, in the end, unfulfilling.” The Man Box is, in essence, a cage. It’s a nice cage, don’t get me wrong. You get gilding on the bars and a pillow and nice food. But it is still a cage; the bars being made of social opprobrium instead of iron doesn’t make them any less real.
Patriarchy harms people of all genders. It’s bad to be forced to be strong when you’re weak; it’s bad to be forced to be weak if you’re strong. The latter is just easier to see.