Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity

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It’s not immediately obvious, but Robert Jensen and I have a lot in common. We both grew up as scrawny, physically inept boys with no aptitude for athletics. We were the kind of boys who were by default identified as “faggots” by our peers and, at least in my case, sometimes by teachers. On the playground and the streets, our status as “sensitive” boys made us easy targets for insults and physical abuse.

Most importantly, we both grew into men with deep dissatisfactions with what our society told us we were supposed to be, do, and think as men, and with an appreciation for feminism as a vital tool for both men and women to break free of old, potentially lethal gender scripts. And both of us can go on at length about what sucks about porn.

It’s this last point where the differences between Jensen and I become too obvious to ignore; yes, I can go on for hours and hours about what irredeemable psychic flotsam the great mass of porn is, and could probably fill several volumes thicker than Jensen’s on the mediocrity, body fascism, poor production values, labor abuses and sexism that dominate mainstream porn. These are all things that people of good conscience should find troubling about porn as it exists today. And yet, even as I calculate all the sins of pornography to the nth degree, and catalog the ways that I find it disappointing and trivial in taxonomies so detailed that the Library of Congress would have to invent a whole new indexing system, there’s something else: I think that in porn lies our salvation. For those of us who hate the ugly gordian knot of fear and loathing that our society ties our sexualities into, porn is essential. We need a genre of literature and art devoted to sexual arousal just as much as we need those that make us laugh, cry, or cringe in fear. And at the same time, we need to develop a critical language that we can use to think and speak about pornography. Without these things, we’ve resigned ourselves to remaining forever mute about our sexual desires.

Jensen, on the other hand, sees pornography as part of the “sexual exploitation industries” which include stripping, phone sex, and prostitution as well as the McPorn that comes out of the San Fernando Valley and the amateur sites that pepper the web. Jensen is a well-known activist and writer on other progressive causes, specifically racism and anti-war politics, and he sees his opposition to porn as the logical extension of that work (and vice versa). Men who are interested in social justice, he argues, can’t use pornography or patronize sex workers without betraying those principles at a fundamental level.

To Jensen, pornography is a mirror, a dark and violent one which few can bear to look into without flinching or deceiving themselves about what they see there: “Pornography forces women to face up to how men see them. And pornography forces men to face up to what we have become.” The first two-thirds of the book are spent looking deeply into the mirror of pornography and the ethical problems that Jensen finds in its creation and its use. It is a personal narrative as well as a political treatise. For any man writing on pornography, either pro- or anti-, it could hardly be any other way; one thing that most men have in common is that we started out our sexual lives with porn. However we feel about that, it’s almost an inevitability, and now with the internet, is even more so than when Jensen saw his first pornographic magazine in the early sixties, or when, in the seventies, I found my dad’s Playboy magazines, filled cover-to-cover with naked Farrah Fawcett wannabes. It is, in a way, a language that we all speak, no matter how we feel about it, and so it’s even more urgent that we be able to speak honestly and openly about it.

The fundamental point that Jensen is trying to make in his book is that this is not a language about sex, and in attacking pornography, he is not attacking sexuality per se. “In fact,” he says, “this culture struggles unsuccessfully with pornography because it is about men’s cruelty to women, and the pleasure men sometimes take in that cruelty.” And although men masturbate to pornography for a quick orgasm or two, even this transient pleasure isn’t what Jensen sees as its primary appeal for men. What it’s really giving to them is reassurance of their manhood: “Pornography knows men’s weakness. It speaks to that weakness, softly. Pornography winds up being about men’s domination of women and about the ugly ways that men will take pleasure. But for most men, it starts with the soft voice that speaks to our deepest fear: that we aren’t man enough.”

From the very first page, the urgency and passion of Jensen’s feelings about pornography and what it says about manhood can’t be in doubt: every line says, without compromise, that this is a social crisis that we ignore at our peril. To do so allows great injustices to be done: injustice to the women involved in the production of pornography, because of economic and sexual exploitation; injustice to the women who are partners or family of men who use pornography; and even injustice to men themselves, who ostensibly pay the price of becoming emotionally numb from defining their sexualities via the images on the screen. Unlike the work of Andrea Dworkin, whose style and ideology heavily informs Jensen’s own (he dedicates this book to her), Getting Off addresses itself to men; it’s about manhood as much as it is about pornography. It’s as much about Jensen as it is about justice in the world that we all live in. But a book like that can’t stand on passion alone; it requires an extraordinary amount of honesty. And honesty about sex is the hardest kind in the world to come by. We’re taught from day one to lie about it to ourselves and others, and when we take it out for a good, close look, one slip is enough to tear you to shreds.

It’s this failure of honesty that lies at the heart of Getting Off’s failure to be the radical treatise that Jensen intends it to be. Nothing about Getting Off deserves to be called radical. It’s just old wine poured into a not-so-new bottle.

Jensen starts immediately with some sleight-of-hand regarding pornography. In explaining where he wants to go with the book, he says very specifically that he's going to focus on a textual analysis of the content of mass-produced heterosexual pornography. In short, the main product of good old Porn Valley. In itself, that seems like a fair strategy. It wouldn't be illegitimate for a literary critic to write a book focusing on post-war hard-boiled fiction instead of writing about every subgenre of mystery fiction from The Murders in the Rue Morgue to Carl Hiassen's latest. But we would expect such an author to draw conclusions about the style of Jim Thompson vs. Raymond Chandler — not about Arthur Conan Doyle's place in Victorian culture. The conclusions that Jensen draws from his narrow survey, in contrast, are sweeping in nature about how sexually explicit imagery affects our views of ourselves and others. Jensen's conclusions are not a critique about the mentality of Porn Valley, or of the specific kinds of porn that Porn Valley specializes in, but are an assault on porn as a genre. Porn isn't a good thing made bad by greedy and stupid people. It's just rotten to the core.

Thirty years ago, Jensen might have been able to get away with that. Both the production and the audience for porn were more homogenized before every American home was equipped first with a VCR and then with a PC linked up to the Internet. More importantly, the conversation about genders and sexualities was much more homogenized. In those days, there were men and there were women; there were gays and there were straights. But some remarkable things have happened in the last twenty years or so; sexual politics has become radicalized in a way that Jensen and his ideological allies couldn't have imagined back then, and seem unable to appreciate even now when they're staring those radical notions straight in the face. We're now faced with the notion that gender isn't just x and y, but z or xy or yz *x or any number of other combinations. The notion of orientation as binary and immutable is considered by many of us not only as antiquated but repressive. Sex workers now demand the right to call themselves feminist without calling themselves victims of their work. Queer and feminist activists now look at power play of all kinds as a part their sexuality that enhances, rather than opposes, their radical politics. And women actively create and critique porn, not just for men, but for themselves.

Many of these explorations in gender were made possible in part by the increased ease of viewing and making porn. In Getting Off, Jensen looks at a very narrow slice of pornography -- heterosexual, mainstream, mostly gonzo -- from which he cherrypicks the crudest examples that he can find, and then he tries to pretend that he's told the whole story. Corporate porn might be the elephant in the room, but it's not the whole story, not by half. As porn has become more acceptable, the voices and forms that are available have also become more diverse. Writing about corporate gonzo porn gives us little basis for insight into magazines like On Our Backs or its descendants; slash fiction (written largely by heterosexual women); sex blogs; alt-porn sites like ThatStrangeGirl (now defunct, but certainly influential) and I Shot Myself; or independent, sex-positive porn producers like Maria Beatty or Audacia Ray. You can praise or damn any of these subgenres as you will, but the fact remains that if you're going to do so, you have to look at them for what they are, not what you expect them to be based on what you've seen in a Slutbus or Seymour Butts production.

By using this thin sliver of pornography to talk about the whole, Robert Jensen has eliminated alternative genders and sexualities entirely. He doesn’t have to wonder what it means to have a transgendered man like Buck Angel making a good living billing himself as a “man with a pussy.” Dykes who make porn for other women, like the Cyber-Dyke network, are not even acknowledged. There is not even a whisper of the thousands of web pages and videos and magazines that focus on women dominating men, or cock-and-ball torture, or any other of a million practices. These sexualities do not even exist in Robert Jensen’s cosmology; he has written them out of existence as neatly as a respectable family who resolutely doesn’t speak the name of the cousin living as a “confirmed bachelor.” But all of these identities and practices come with legal and social consequences. To simply discard so many lives in a book that claims to honestly explore the nature of desire in our society is not only intellectually dishonest, but hateful.

There's also the fact that the textual analysis that Jensen says that he's going to do is like walking a tightrope while balancing a troop of crank-crazed monkeys on your back, even when your intellectual integrity is impeccable. Our vocabulary for deconstructing erotic art is extremely limited. As a culture, we are not any more comfortable with the idea of fantasy than we are with sex. Most artistic and literary analysis is done assuming that the work is morally prescriptive, like an Aesop's tale that can be summed up with a moral at the end. But when we venture into sex, we walk into a world of twisty contradictions and fantasy. The literal interpretations of most criticism doesn't work with porn. Sexuality is a grey, pliable area of our psyches, and to understand it, we have to be willing to accept the idea that things are attractive in fantasy that we don't want to happen in real life. Yes, as Jensen says, pornography is a mirror; but what it reflects is very ambiguous, and it tricks the eye easily. It's so taboo to speak of our fantasy lives that we can't really make authoritative statements about what other people see when they look at a given piece of pornography; often, it's hard enough to speak about what we're feeling, even if we're speaking only in a tiny whisper that no one else will hear. That's why I think that pornography is an opportunity, not a threat; if we accept the challenge to develop that critical vocabulary necessary to talk about fantasy and its place in our lives, even the crap can help us build that whisper into a clear, articulate voice about our sexualities.

Getting Off is emblematic of something else that I find disturbing about feminist anti-porn writing: passage after passage describes explicitly and luridly the scenes from gonzo porn films that Jensen finds most disturbing. Not once does he flinch from describing in detail the performers' sexual organs, orifices, sounds, actions, and facial expressions. And he does it repeatedly, to drive home to us the allegedly oppressive nature of these scenes, to make us realize as he does, that these films represent the desire of men to hurt women for their own pleasure. He is willing to show us that pain in excruciating detail, again and again and again throughout two hundred pages. He does, in fact, seem to take a perverse glee in describing these scenes for us and telling us how very, very bad they are.

Robert Jensen's passion is reserved for visualizing women's sexual pain. Never once does he turn that passion the other direction to look at the possibilities for women's sexual pleasure. There is not, in the end, so much difference between Jensen and the most misogynist, exploitative porn director; neither can imagine the sexual role of men as being anything other than to fuck, nor can they imagine women's roles as being anything other than to be fucked. And that's why, regardless of my doubts about mainstream porn, I can never, never imagine aligning myself with Jensen and his ilk. Because at the heart of his arguments, I see the same misogynist bullshit that I want to excise from pornography.

He does not, of course, ever say that we should just cloister ourselves and live lives of sexual abstinence. But when he does try to give solutions to the nightmare world that he depicts, Robert Jensen’s words lose their fire. His description of a positive sexuality is vague and bloodless, and speaks little of sex as a physical act but in semi-mystical terms about light and mystery and touch. It’s bland and dull, but even worse, it gives little in the way of practical advice. In the 90’s, I came away from reading sex-positive writers like Carol Queen and Susie Bright with sophisticated ways of thinking about safer sex techniques, talking honestly about limits, and what consent was and wasn’t. All that I get from Jensen is an admonition that we should try to make sex be more about light, and less about heat. (And god help me, I’m still not sure what that means.)

But that’s a relatively harmless aspect of the road that Jensen wants to take us down. Like a good puritan, he wants us to have more guilt.

From the first page, Getting Off is steeped in guilt and shame. One of the worst things about reading it is the overwrought, melodramatic tenor of the personal narratives, deeply reminiscent of Christian confessionals. It feels often like he’s drowning in his own need for forgiveness for being part of the patriarchy.

But toward the end of the book, he tries to make the personal political:

[S]hame tends to keep us locked in dysfunctional behavior, while guilt can be a step toward accountability for past actions and change in the future. If we reject shaming men about their use, misuse, or abuse of women, we need not reject the positive use of guilt, which can be a productive part of a process by which one comes to see that an action was morally unacceptable and by which one can rectify, to the degree possible, injuries done to others and begin the process of ensuring the bad action is not repeated.

Jensen differentiates between "shame" and "guilt" by saying that whereas shame is the sense that one's self is bad, that there is some inherent defect that makes one bad, guilt is the stirrings of conscience, the feeling that one has done a bad thing. This distinction is shaky, at best, given their use in everyday life; one can feel shame for an individual act just as well as on a broader, existential level. But Jensen's definitions become even blurrier in the context of his own book, which casts sexuality in such consistently ugly and shameful terms. Never does Jensen imply that the narrative can be written the other way, that women can fuck as well as be fucked, or that you can even do both at once. Patriarchy damns us to play out that one story, where men batter at women with their lust. In such a world, the lives of most men make their moral senses towards women so stunted that they might as well suffer from a congenital defect.

Jensen advocates repudiating "shame" (by his definition), but thinks that guilt should be encouraged in men to make them aware that they are committing wrong acts in using pornography or patronizing prostitutes, strippers, or other forms of sex work. Guilt, Jensen claims, will make men take responsibility for their attitudes towards women.

This is Jensen's worst idea in a litany of bad ideas.

Guilt is more than uncomfortable. It is crippling, self-indulgent, and when you’re talking about sex, often fatal, for both men and women. It is not just an intellectual dead end that Jensen proposes here: he is loading a gun and pointing it at those whom he claims to be defending. At women.

One of the things that keeps misogyny a thriving monster in our society is sexual shame and guilt. Violence against women and gays comes not from people who are comfortable being open about their desires, but by those who feel that their desires are somehow wrong. People have a limited capacity for accusing themselves. There are only so many times that a man will look at women and feel guilty about his lust before those thoughts whip around like a serpent devouring its tail. Then, the problem isn’t him. It’s that bitch in the short skirt, the whore who’s tempting him and who deserves whatever she gets. And then, we know the rest of the story. We’ve heard it too many times to forget. November 19 was the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and December 17 will be the 5th Annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers precisely because we know how the story of people driven by sexual self-hatred turned inside-out ends.

There is a sad joke in calling Robert Jensen “radical” in any sense of the word. He has nothing to give us but the same bitter fruit we were fed by hateful priests and timid parents.

 

 

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