Note: This is part three of my series of posts related to a screening of The Price of Pleasure and discussion about pornography that took place at the Boston University School of Public Health on Friday, 10 February 2012. Part one can be found here and my review of the film itself was published last Thursday. Today we wrap up* with a more thorough analysis of the post-screening discussion.
On my first thoughts post, I received an anonymous comment in which the reader observed, “That any institute of advanced learning was able to arrange to have a Dworkinite to have a conversation with someone like Dr. Queen is a major step in communication. In almost every case over the last 30 years the sex-negative academics will not allow any other female voice to be heard.” I’m too young to remember first-hand the feminist “porn wars” of the late 1970s and early 80s — times of deep division that, as both Gail Dines and Carol Queen made clear in their stories of relating to pornography, are with us still in a multitude of ways. In Gayle Rubin’s Deviations, she recalls the protests and personal harassment that followed her to various speaking engagements, the fury and fear that met her research into the subcultures of S/m sexuality, and her openness about being a person who enjoyed kink. That the BU School of Public Heath was open to hosting an event in which pornography was openly debated deserves congratulations all ’round — to the faculty who organized the evening, to the invited speakers, and to the students and guests who attended.
There’s no question that exchanges grew heated at times, and opinions were certainly partisan. As a queer woman who creates and enjoys erotic material that would certainly be seen as beyond the pale by Dines, I experienced a profound sense of erasure sitting in that room. And I know from post-event conversations that my experience was not an isolated one. I’ll talk more about that below. But despite that (pretty glaring) marginalization of non-normative sexualities, there were no guests whose object was to bring the evening to an end, there was little interruption or shouting-down of opinions with which some disagreed, and I’d like to hope, from my own pro-erotica perspective, that some of the students that night who went in thinking of porn as something monolithic, evil, and shameful, might at least be aware that there are other interpretations of sexually explicit materials out there, and that not all of those interpretations are talking points from the Porn Industry. I have it on good authority that at least one class last week was given my first blog post as recommended reading (hi everyone, and thanks for stopping by!). So there are signs that an actual respectful communication may eventually be possible.
Yup. Sometimes, you find yourself setting the bar that fucking low.
And now, to the debate itself.
Following the screening of The Price of Pleasure (review here) Drs. Gail Dines and Carol Queen got up on stage, each with their own podium and mic, and the conversation began with a question from Emily Rothman, who asked:
So I’ll start with this very general question, and this is from Caitlin Masters who’s in my sexual violence class. Caitlin asks, “What past experiences shaped your views of porn? What do you think were the biggest influences on your opinions? Have your views changed from when you first began learning about porn to now?”
Here’s how they both responded. I’m going to reproduce these answers in full because I think each person’s response set the overall tone for the discussion that followed.** Carol Queen got things rolling:
That’s such a terrific question. I was thinking about this earlier today when I was sort of making some notes for myself and thinking about stuff and I actually want to say that I – I didn’t start out with the identity of “anti-porn feminist” but in my late teens and early twenties I definitely would have called myself that. It was the 70s. It was a period of time when that identity was sort of coming forward. I’d begun to see porn when I was in Junior High and High School, but not very much of it. Not in moving pictures – we barely had those in those days! [general laughter] But I did see Penthouse and Playboy and things like that. And I started to see movies with my girlfriend Ellen when I went to college and we were interested in checking out porn. And in those days you came to a theatre with this many people or more and looked at the movie together. The advent of video had not yet happened. And I used to huff that porn insulted my intelligence, my sense of the erotic, and my politics – at least one if not all three. And I’ll be very honest with you, there are days when it still does? I’m pro-porn anyway, in a particular way, or at least I wanna be anti-censorship and I wanna talk more about that as I’m sure the questions are going to bring that up.
The thing that was probably the most important to me as far as porn was concerned, and watching porn, was when I started doing my PhD program at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, which is the sexology grad school in San Francisco that I attended, and I started in the late 80s at a time when I was gearing up to do AIDS work and other kinds of sort of – really sort of public health type stuff. And I got derailed in sexology proper – or improper, depending on how you think about it. And part of that program – I’m going to use this work because it was its real title – was called the “Fuck-o-Rama.” And Fuck-o-Rama is a dozen to twenty-five or so porn images showing on all three walls around you, all at the same time. And it used to be that you couldn’t do this with a video camera, computer, so you can just imagine how many little old machines there were making this happen. All kinds of porn. The kinds of diversity we saw in Price of Pleasure plus other things that weren’t depicted there – ’cause Price of Pleasuredecides to show only certain kinds of porn to you – and all kinds of stuff. And I realized the first time I saw the Fuck-o-Rama that I had never really looked at porn, that I had been afraid of it, that it had not only made me feel sort of overwhelmed in terms of the sexual feelings that I had, but I also didn’t know what to do with feeling those in the context of not sex – or not in a sexual relationship. So it gave me a lot to think about, and I watched – you saw some of the young academics working on that study coding porn. I did that. None of my tic marks said “gender victim” on them but I did a lot of porn coding. And watched a lot and still watch – porn has changed a lot in twenty years but is also very much the same in other respects. So. I’m gonna end it right there and turn to Gail.
And this is Gail Dines’ response:
So I have to wonder, what’s a nice Jewish girl from England doing as one of the most well-known anti-porn activists in the world? And I’m sure everyone in my family, also, who tries to run away from me, also thinks that. [laughter] So I wasn’t destined to do this, I was actually destined to be a radical Marxist, that was my introduction to radical politics, was reading Marx at sixteen and thinking, “This makes absolute sense!” The idea that you have a bourgeoisie and a proletariat and that the bourgeoisie control the means of production – and especially, as Marx said, the means of mental production. So this all made sense to me, and I wasn’t that into looking at pornography. I was into feminism.
And then I got a job at the rape crisis center, my first job out of college, to do the research. And I was reading all these police reports and they kept saying that serial rapists were found with tons of pornography in their home. And this was the first time I’d really thought about pornography. And then one day somebody said to me – I was living in Israel at the time – and somebody said to me, “There’s a feminist from America doing a feminist anti-porn slide show, do you want to come?” And I never really thought about it that much, I said “Why not?” And that night my life forever changed. I could not believe the images I was seeing. I couldn’t believe that a) men made these images, or that b) that other men found them arousing. Now, this is what pornography was for me. It’s like, I had studied patriarchy but nothing delivers patriarchy to you like a bullet between the eyes as when you look at pornography. There it is crisp, clean, succinct. And I, in a way, got an introduction to patriarchy in a way that no book, no Andrea Dworkin, no Catherine MacKinnon, had ever given me.
So what happened was, I was doing my Doctorate at the time on media and I changed my thesis topic to actually do a Marxist theory of culture as applied to pornography. Because my argument was: If capitalism requires a propaganda system to reproduce inequality, then surely patriarchy is the same. And what better propaganda system of patriarchy than pornography? So for me it was such a profound awakening, that moment. Now, had somebody said to me, twenty years ago when I started this, that today mainstream pornography would be as violent and as cruel as it is I would have said, “Absolutely not. There’s no way people are going to sit by and let the culture be taken over like that!” And I would have been wrong. So I have to say, how has my views changed on this? Well, I always make a joke about how good an activist I am. When I started this work, pornography was five billion. Today, it’s ninety-seven billion. So that really speaks volumes about how good my activism is. [general laughter] So, how have my views changed? I think nothing, nothing can ever change from that first day ever when I saw pornography. It was an awakening of a type I’ve never had before.
What strikes me first and foremost about these two responses is that Carol Queen’s narrative is one of change and Gail Dines’ narrative is one of stasis. On the one hand we have openness and curiosity, a sense of self-determined exploration; on the other we have a clear sense of threat and subjection to something unwanted, and the determination from that point forward to make that unwanted thing go away. If you want a thumbnail sketch of the two parallel understandings of pornography running through the evening’s debate, you could do a lot worse than reference these two opening statements.
Queen describes how she began as a young woman who would have identified, in some measure, with anti-porn activism in the feminist movement: “I used to huff that porn insulted my intelligence, my sense of the erotic, and my politics – at least one if not all three. And I’ll be very honest with you, there are days when it still does?” She then describes having to revisit her understanding of what pornography is, in the context of her graduate studies. She describes discovering the “diversity” of pornography, and how she was overwhelmed by the visual images and her response to them — and how this prompted her to go away and think about pornography some more, and to gather further information about it. Throughout the debate that followed, I felt like Queen maintained this dual sense of speaking both for her own subjectivity (her experience of finding pornography both overwhelming and meaningful to sexual exploration) and from her more objective perspective as a sexologist and a sex educator ever-mindful of sexual diversity. She spoke with the voice of a researcher who finds human sexuality — and cultures of sex — complicated and endlessly interesting. As she observed toward the end of the evening:
I think the answer to problematic cultural discourse is always more cultural discourse. We talk about it, we make different kinds of material, we make different things available to people, and we call out what is problematic in the context when we see it’s problematic. I think that’s what we do.
Dines, by contrast, tells a story of political awakening in which there is a single defining moment, a call to action: “So, how have my views changed? I think nothing, nothing can ever change from that first day ever when I saw pornography. It was an awakening of a type I’ve never had before.” Whereas Queen describes her introduction to pornography in the context of mid-century men’s magazines and porn films watched with college friends at the theater, Dines’ introduction to pornography came in a much different form. Her introduction came as part of an anti-pornography slide show at a feminist event in Israel. These slide shows were assembled and sent around on tour as political messages, not as tools for personal sexual exploration or as cultural evidence of human sexual diversity. And if the creators of the slide shows were doing their jobs, the selection of images were assembled purposefully to evoke a negative emotional response. These anti-porn activists were employing the politics of disgust to spur feminists into action. At a time when pornography was far less available to the average consumer than it is now, people who viewed the slide-show would have had fewer previous encounters with pornographic material to measure the slide-show against. There was also a lot less information out there about specific sexual subcultures, so that folks were comparatively more likely to view BDSM scenes as violent non-consensual assault than as a negotiated scenario. Even today, as a general public, we’re woefully illiterate when it comes to human sexual diversity and therefore highly likely to react to stuff we don’t like as if it were stuff that no one would ever like.
I’ve heard some troubling stories about post-debate class discussions in which students and professors both openly suggested that stuff we don’t like shouldn’t be allowed as part of our cultural body of sexual materials (basically because “think of the children!”). This argument erases teenagers who might find non-normative sexual fantasy and experience erotic in positive ways. And I speak as someone who at the age of twelve or thirteen knew I liked certain things which were situated as icky and wrong by Dines & Co. I’m angry that people who think the way Dines does made me feel shamed and guilty for knowing what turned me on and for wanting to find healthy ways to act on those desires. And I’ve been growing increasingly angry on behalf of anyone else in the room that night who was overtly shamed by Dines from her position of authority for experiencing pleasure in ways she finds icky. Such reflexive invocations of a politics of disgust ignores how much we can learn, safely, about what we do and don’t want in our personal sexual lives by reviewing and digesting a wide variety of sexual material.
But back to Dines’ own narrative. She understands herself as a feminist who draws upon the framework of Marxism to understand the culture and political realm in which she lives. She uses Marxism to analyze pornography as work (which, to some extent, I’m cool with — I’m all for workers not alienated from the means of production), and also as propaganda produced by those in power (men) in order to maintain their position of power over the masses (women). This second porn-as-propaganda bit I’m less persuaded by. I’m definitely on board with the notion of media literacy and of encouraging people to think about what messages different types of pornography are conveying. I’m just not willing to accept Dines’ thesis that pornography as a genre is inherently exploitative and inherently patriarchal. Sexually explicit material is just that: sexually explicit material. What we choose to say with that material, and how we choose to respond to it, is our decision both individually and collectively. Porn isn’t the enemy — pornography is merely a cultural medium.
But Dines sees pornography as inherently patriarchal, and as a tool of sexual (and racial) inequality. And she approaches it not in an exploratory way, but in a political way. Throughout the debate she responded to questions with rabble-rousing calls to action — although like with The Price of Pleasure I was never quite sure what she wanted us, as an audience, to do. At the end of the evening she challenged the audience in this way:
I would like to think that hopefully you’re going to live your life as activists. And if you believe in gender equality, if you believe in any type of equality, then we simply cannot have this with this juggernaut breathing down our necks. This is destroying women’s lives, it’s destroying children’s lives, it’s telling men that they have a right to fuck women both in and out of the bedroom … If this is the world you want to live in, if this is what you think you can navigate, your children want to navigate, then fine. But I for one feel that we deserve better than this. That we are better than the pornographers, that we have the ability to create a more life-loving sexuality and that these predatory capitalists do not have the right to rob that which is rightfully and authentically ours.
The problem I have with this rabble-rousing call to arms is that Dines doesn’t make clear what she wants if not Queen’s argument that “we make different kinds of material, we make different things available to people, and we call out what is problematic in the context when we see it’s problematic.” As a queer feminist who moves in circles with other queer women, and some men, of various inclinations, I’d argue that we’re already working to create that world Dines says she wants. Except she refuses to acknowledge that work we’re doing because for her, pornography is only created by the evil overload capitalists for use by straight men who see women as objects to fuck. By defining pornography in this way — and ignoring all sexually explicit materials (or producers and consumers of this material) that don’t fit her pre-conceived notion of what porn looks like — she’s actively creating a world in which nothing we do to create alternate forms of sexuality counts.
Seriously: The more I’ve thought about it over the past two weeks, the more frustrated angry I’ve become. Dines and I are never going to see eye-to-eye about what is and is not acceptable sexual fantasy. At one point during the evening, Carol Queen observed, “part of my responsibility [is] to talk about the degree to which, in these kind of discussions, violence and sexualities like BDSM get conflated and mixed up, and to be able to say they’re not always talked about in ways that are clear enough for my comfort.” And I heard Dines making a lot of judgments about other peoples’ consensual sex lives interchangeably with judgments about violence and non-consensuality. Non-consensual sex is a form of violence that we should all be able to agree is not okay, but Dines’ insistence on conflating non-normative sexual material and activities with violence just puts us that much further back in terms of addressing sexual violence in a meaningful way. She’s rendering sexual violence within non-normative communities invisible by insisting that membership in the community itself (basically engaging in sexual activity she finds gross) is itself an act of violence. It renders everyone in that community either a perpetrator or a victim — an act of erasure so angry-making to me, as a queer person involved in several of Dines’ victim/perpetrator subgroups, that I really don’t know how to begin picking apart the problems.
And not even queer sexuality — let’s talk about the poisonous effect of figuring hetero men as predatory addicts. Dines argues that part of the reason she’s on a crusade against pornography is that she refuses to see all men as rapists. Yet in virtually the same breath, she argues that “men very quickly get desensitized to pornography” and need more and more “extreme” scenarios in order to become aroused. This argument subsumes sexually graphic material under the category of violent material, assuming that sex is something morally objectionable or distasteful we need to become desensitized to in order to tolerate. Setting aside the sketchy correlation of exposure to fantastical violence with carrying out actual acts of violence, can we talk about the problem of framing sexual activity as violence? Speaking as someone who enjoys sexually explicit material and discusses the pleasure of erotic material with friends, I’d like to suggest that rather than becoming desensitized to erotic content, exploring sexually explicit materials leads to discovering what you like and seeking out more of it. This the endless well of hurt/comfort, established relationship, first time, or “aliens made them do it” fan fiction on the ‘net. Not to say that what you’re interested in exploring sexually never shifts throughout your life. But those shifts are going to be due to all manner of things, rather than over-exposure to erotica.
In the two weeks that have passed since the debate, I’ve found myself circling back to the question of why Dines doesn’t include the full diversity of sexually explicit materials in her analysis, or seek to complicate her understanding of how we humans interact with erotica. Is it because she just doesn’t know where to look for (oh let’s just take something at random) fan-created m/m first-time ‘making love’ erotica? Do her students at Wheelock College not point out that there’s ethical porn on demand available Smitten Kitten’s website? Wouldn’t it be way more fun (and less overwhelming) to create the world of erotica we want to have, rather than spend so much time and energy trying to take down “the porn industry”? Dines herself seems pessimistic about the effectiveness of her approach when she observes in her opening statement, “When I started this work, pornography was five billion. Today, it’s ninety-seven billion. So that really speaks volumes about how good my activism is.” So why not try a different approach? The cynical part of my brain suggest that Dines is a reactionary who isn’t actually interested in changing our discourse about human sexuality. In her own words, “you can’t put this genie back in the bottle outside of a national organization and a movement of outraged citizens who think the pornographers should not decide our sexuality, outside of that there’s no going genie back in the bottle.” So in her ideal world, we’d be shoving all this sexual diversity — and the difficult conversations around identity, ethics, and politics that come with acknowledging it — “back in the bottle.”
While she’s allowed to have her own opinion (and is given a pretty big soapbox from which to broadcast it), I was struck at the debate by the degree to which Gail Dines refused to engage in good-faith discussion about these complicated issues. She was using the stage to rally her troops and (attempt to) humiliate the opposition. She was a poor listener, responding to questions with sound-bites, and her body language when Carol Queen was speaking telegraphed her simultaneous disinterest and displeasure. When she herself wasn’t speaking, she was checked out. She also repeatedly credential-dropped and hip-checked with identity words and phrases like “as a Marxist feminist” or “as someone who teaches media studies” as a way to discredit Carol Queen’s perspective, despite the fact that no one in the room was actively challenging Dines’ authority to speak or her professional-political identity. At one particularly low point in the evening, Gail Dines took it upon herself to speak for all “impoverished feminists” and challenge Carol Queen (as if she wasn’t also a self-identified feminist doing non-profit educational work) to basically agree to tow Dines’ line when it came to the harm pornography supposedly causes society as a whole. Queen called her on it immediately, but I find it a creepy and toxic move for Dines to have pulled in an academic forum where mutual respect should really be the baseline expectation for conversation.
From my point of view, Dines behaved in an unprofessional manner and while Queen remained civil and refused to play the game of political point-scoring, Dines’ unwillingness to be a genuine participant in a two-way conversation was bullying behavior. I hope that if Boston University holds similar events in future they will look for guest speakers who will participate in full good faith. It’s disgraceful that any students or audience members walked away from the event with the feeling that their sexual selves are somehow fundamentally complicit in the world of violence against women which Gail Dines believes pornography to be. Despite the fact that this debate was a baby step in the right direction, there are much bigger steps we as a culture could be taking toward having a meaningful discussion about human sexual variety and the creative expression we generate around our sexual selves.
*I’m actually working on a forth post (I know! I know!) about how I think porn can be positive. So look for that to go live on Saturday.
**On a brief technical note, all direct quotations from the debate are transcribed from a digital recording I made for personal note-taking purposes. I’m hoping to make the audio and full transcript available eventually, but haven’t gotten the go-ahead from the event coordinator yet. Keep your fingers crossed!