Tuesday, August 5, 2008

On Pornography, Feminism and Women's Desires

I've been trying to read a lot of feminists texts recently, mostly so I can figure out what I believe in by weaving a patchwork of various ideologies. One of the major branches of feminism that fascinates me most is sex-positive feminism and differing opinions on pornography. A lovely J&J reader e-mailed me "Everyday Pornography" by Jane Caputi, which afforded me simultaneously lustful and awkward looks from the businessmen I was sandwiched between while reading it on the train home. Caputi purports that most pornography is inherently "phallocentric." She calls for the creation of porn that doesn't just define sex as intercourse and instead recognizes women as "desiring objects" with satisfiable libidos.

I agree with her that there need to be more women making porn. Half the porn I watch strikes me as gross and vaguely disturbing because it is made by men for men. I'm not sure if it's the "phallocentricism" that turns me off, or the fact that watching a cumshot just doesn't personally do it for me. Caputi writes:

Pornography supports the sexual politics of the status quo. It capitalizes, literally, on the ignorance and shame induced in us through sexual repression and colonizes what Audre Lorde class the "erotic"-- the force of freedom, ecstasy, exuberance and creativity, the potency that enables us to act and create, to grow and transform, and to resist oppression. Many defenders of pornography argue that porn, which is sexually explicit and often a turn-on, is therefore automatically liberating and "sex positive." Yet pornography is no real alternative; it emerges from the same sex-negative worldview that reinforces many of the most fundamental precepts of mainstream morality, for example, a split between spirit and sex, mind and body.

Caputi continues with a description of how porn capitalizes on morality instead of working to eradicate it. The "ignorance and shame" can be inherent in sex, due to societal stresses. Porn, then, fetishizes the moral implications of sex: if something is considered "wrong" or "bad," it's most likely going to turn us on even more.

Porn does nothing to get rid of shame, and instead perpetuates it by turning it into something to lust after. This strange combination of morality and shame in porn turns religiosity on its head and incorporates it into the sexual images we know and love.

I'm having a tough time deciding whether or not I agree with Caputi. While I do believe that more woman-friendly porn needs to be made, I also can't help but wonder about those feminists who are turned on by phallocentric porn. What if girls enjoy being punished or shamed or even doing something as simple as getting down on their knees and sucking a guy off? If a woman is turned on by this kind of sexual behavior, which could perhaps be construed as "anti-woman," does this make her a "bad feminist?" How much bearing do women's personal sexual preferences have on their political and gender beliefs?

Caputi continues:

Both pornography and godly morality ordain women (and indeed all of creation) to have been created for men--as objects of service, whether nurturant or sexual. Both endorse sexualities based in dominance and submission, whether found in marriages where women are promised not only greater saintliness but also hotter sex if they will just shut up, graciously submit, and surrender or in sadomasochistic pornography where women are literally bound and gagged before they are fucked.

But what if some feminists enjoy the dominance/submission paradigm?

Caputi concludes:

Pornography depends on very conventional notions of masculinity and femininity. Male and female are defined as inevitably oppositional and inherently unequal, yet ineluctably attracted to each other. The male partner is supposed to be taller, stronger, richer, older and colder--in short, more powerful. The female partner is supposed to be shorter, weaker, better looking, vulnerable, younger and warmer-- in short, socially powerless.

This seems to be factually true. But again, what does it mean if women are turned on by this situation? Take, for instance, one of my personal favorite porn scenarios: girl walks into classroom, girl subtly seduces her professor, professor eventually fucks girl. There is obviously a power dynamic here at play (yeah, yeah, I'm destined to forever lust after my bosses and teachers). But how did this happen? Is it learned or inherent? Do I long to be dominated by a powerful man because it's just my "type," or is it because it's something I've learned - due to muted societal goading - to desire?

And furthermore, does finding this scenario hot make me a bad feminist, because it plays into gender stereotypes? And what about women who enjoy being shamed during sex? Is it fair to assume that those desires point to something deeper, and more troubling, than simple sexual preference? I was talking to a friend about this, and he brought up the fact that when Howard Stern would interview porn stars on his show, they frequently had a history of sexual abuse. Is it fair to assume women who are overly promiscuous or enjoy "anti-woman" sex only do because of something wicked in their past? Is it even possible to enjoy that type of sex without this history? I think Caputi would argue that it's not, and that there's a difference between sex-positive feminism and enjoying something really obscene a la 2 Girls 1 Cup. But who gets to define that line?


1 comment:

Bill Cammack said...

Interesting points, Jess. I tend to do the same thing, as far as absorbing texts from people that have differing world views and seeing whether I choose to add some of their ideas to my own, reject all of their ideas as ridiculous / uninformed or "agree to disagree".

Disclaimer: I have no idea (though I can guess) what the difference is between sex-positive and sex-negative feminism, and I'm not going to look it up now so it can taint what I'm thinking about right this second after reading your post.

As far as pornography being "phallocentric", it has to be. Ultimately, porno isn't done as art. It's a business. They want to sell videos. The people they're going to sell those videos to are GUYS. Guys want what they don't already have. Granted, I think there's a large market for, let's call it "female-based pornography" that isn't being tapped. However, in order to tap that market, you have to prove that it exists and in the numbers that justify going through the expense of production, advertising and distribution.

Take for example the prostitution industry. There are [virtually] ZERO brothels where women can go to pay men to have sex with them and meanwhile there are INFINITE locations where men can go to pay women to have sex with them. I'm not talking about gigolos or independents. I'm talking about an establishment with at least four walls haha where there are guys waiting around with nothing to do except service the female customers that will eventually walk in the door to get some. The reason for this is that the expenditures aren't justified by the potential for revenue & profit.

Therefore, similary, pornography will remain "phallocentric" as does prostitution.

It's clear that pornographers have no interest in depicting what women have to say or what women want and that porno is made FOR men BY men. I think it would be a good idea to recognize women as "desiring objects" with satisfiable libidos, except, again, being that porno is a business, one would have to justify these changes in terms of ROI. Being a guy, I'm literally REACHING to imagine the type of porno that's being described here, haha I suppose I'm already brainwashed. :)

One thing you didn't mention about the industry, not that you were trying to be all-inclusive, is the difference in the turnover rate between men and women. It seems like the same six guys do every single porno movie but they rotate the women every couple of years. This is most likely for physical reasons, as the women's bodies become not what producers think their customers want to see, but I'm sure it has an additional psychological effect on the guys AND girls that watch it.

I also agree that porn capitalizes on morality, but that's not the pornographers' faults any more than it's the fault of grocery stores that they capitalize on the fact that we dont' grow our own food anymore. *I* can't plant corn, haha can YOU? :D So we have to get it from the store, and we pay them to make corn available to us. Similarly, because of the restrictions imposed by "moral leaders", it's tougher to get some things than other things from women who live their lives by those codes. This calls for a trip to the store, to go see what the guy was thinking about anyway, but can't get his real-life girlfriend to do. So I don't think it's so much of a fetishizing of the moral implications of sex as much as the guy wants it no matter WHAT he tells his girl, and if she doesn't have it for him, he's gonna get it somewhere else. It's not that he wants it because it's "bad" or "wrong"... He wants it because he wants it. :)

Having said that... By removing ALL the mental input a woman might have in the video as well as any vocal input she might have that might INDICATE some sort of intelligence or lovability, pornography definitely does a disservice to women in that intelligence and personality are not seen by guys that enjoy the videos as necessary AT ALL in order for them to fully enjoy a woman's company. I would think that if they can find ways to make female-oriented porn and have it still be sellable, that at least having more character development of the females would be helpful, at least a LITTLE bit. :)

Again, I haven't read anything about feminism other than the S.C.U.M. Manifesto, haha but I don't see how "basic" sex can be considered anti-woman. That would be like saying bringing home flowers is an anti-man thing to do. In either situation, one person is doing something with the intention of pleasing the other person. This is right up there with the concept that (for lack of a better term, sorry, haha) Doggie-Style is a demeaning position, but Missionary's respectful. That's COMPLETELY retarded, because it's intercourse either way. The problem, in EITHER situation is if the man isn't interested in the woman's satisfaction. However, I'm sure there are tons of women that would rather have it BAD from the front than GOOD from the back.

As far as feminists in general potentially being turned on by D/s, I see where that would appear to be a contradiction, but it actually isn't.

First of all, there are female dommes, so a female who considers herself to be a feminist can also be a sub at the same time without feeling submissive to men in particular. It's apples & oranges. Men haven't cornered the market on domination and women haven't cornered it on submission. Second, you're talking about what turns her on and not what she thinks is right or fair in the world. Again, two completely different things. Are there a lot of feminists who forgo situations that they feel deep inside they would really enjoy because they can't mentally reconcile that with their political and social beliefs? I'm sure there are quite a few.

The personal fantasy scenario you bring up isn't EVEN a D/s situation, IMO. In your own words, "girl subtly seduces her professor". That means SHE has power AND control over the situation, which isn't subbing. That's known as topping from the bottom... 'Forcing' someone else's hand. Ultimately, without HER input and desires, that scenario never escalates to intercourse, so that's not a submission fantasy at all.

On top of all that, even if a feminist desires to submit to ONE man, that doesn't mean she feels submissive towards ALL men or even ANY man other than the one she's feeling like that. As far as your own personal potential interest in domination, you're the only one that will honestly know whether it's something you naturally feel or something you 'picked up along the way'. Either way, I think your goal at this point should be to find healthy ways to express yourself as well as attempting to gain a deeper understanding of the differences and similarities between what floats your boat and what your political and social beliefs are.

As far as your final point, I don't think that a "bad feminist" has anything to do with your desires being along the lines of gender stereotypes. I imagine a "bad feminist" would be a woman whose sexual turn-ons render her entirely incapable of fighting for what she believes women deserve in life.