I found myself spending the few days over the New Year period in a community deep in the UK countryside. Apart from sharing domestic chores, much of the time could be spent deliciously relaxing on sofas arranged around a huge wood burning stove.
On one such occasion I found myself sitting next to a total stranger. I will call this person Jim, a man in his early 60s. Jim’s opening question, after finding out my name, was to inquire what I do for a living. One question led to another and I told him that I am an academic currently writing a book whose deadline is looming.
At the mention of my book’s topic, internet pornography, his body showed an almost imperceptible, but intense, interest and then the concealing of it — an involuntary response to which I have now become accustomed. More unusually he became openly animated when I told him I am applying the thought of the philosopher/social theorist Michel Foucault and of numerous radical feminist writers to help provide my theoretical framework. He asked me whether we could have a fuller conversation the following day, after the impending New Year’s Eve party, because, he declared, he is fascinated by philosophy.
The conversation with Jim on New Year’s Day was clunky at first and without energy (although my hangover may have had something to do with that!). I explained I see internet pornography as playing a particular role in the impediment to women’s equality. Although there are many current and sometimes conflicting views about internet pornography, on the whole our society has arrived at a consensus that the production and consumption of pornography by adults signifies one of our human rights in a liberal democratic society; indeed, in contrast to more repressive societies, we understand pornography as emblematic of sexual freedom, free speech, and even women’s sexual emancipation. My book (forthcoming, called Internet Pornography: Disciplining Women Through Sexual ‘Freedom’), in contrast, argues that pornography is a reactionary, exploitative practice through which women in particular, but also men for that matter, are sexually disciplined and governed.
The perplexity in Jim’s eyes made me change tack! He was openly eager to “confess” his own pornography use so we settled down to discuss that. We both agreed that as a thoroughly “respectable” middle-aged man he belongs to a demographic of pornography user rarely societally acknowledged — namely the grandfather, father, husband/partner who masturbates to women (most of whom are young enough to be his daughter or granddaughter) and who keeps this secret from his partner. At my prompting he acknowledged that women are portrayed at best as sexual objects for male pleasure and as willing participants in their own degradation, and that much pornography eroticizes men’s actual violence to women. He took pains to let me know that I wasn’t introducing him to a set of ideas he hadn’t already arrived at on his own account, although he pointed out some women watch pornography too.
When I asked him how he reconciled his self-identity as a “nice” man with pornography use, he told me he didn’t identify as being nice. Indeed, he felt some shame. Despite his views about the equality of women, he admitted he feels compelled to use pornography. He experiences the gendered power dynamic erotic, but more than this, he has a strong sense of transgressing social rules, of rebelling against the familial norms of his childhood which made him guilty about masturbating, and finally of freedom to express his fantasies. When it comes down to it, he advised me, pornography affords quick and efficient ways to orgasm which gets harder for men with real partners as they get older.
I had a number of thoughts and feelings the next day. I knew more about this man’s private sex life than his partner who was also in the community. He had shared his secret with me and I felt, in this specific context, the imperative to keep it. However, I also felt slightly besmirched or complicit. This secretive aspect of middle-aged men’s pornography use prevents women, in particular middle-aged and older women (i.e. the category least familiar with the tropes and conventions of internet pornography), from knowledge of the degrading and violent images of other women their partners find erotic. Also, many women (who may have no views about gender politics), when they discover their partners have had a parallel sex life, experience it as sexual “cheating” and betrayal. My allegiance therefore is to women, and certainly not to keeping men’s secrets.
I place all of our sexual narratives, practices, fantasies, and desires within the context of their social shaping. Foucault’s genealogy of sexuality, for example, traces the history of sexology, from the 19th century to the present, and its fabrication of sexuality as key to the human psyche and indeed to the human “soul.” As modern subjects we take this particular historical construction of sexuality as eternal biological fact, and struggle for our personal and political freedom through its expression. In The History of Sexuality, Volume I: The Will to Knowledge, Foucault ponders whether one day we will wonder at the eagerness with which we declare sexuality to be repressed by religious and conventional mores when “our discourses, our customs, our institutions, our regulations, our knowledges” are continuously and forever “producing it in the light of day” and broadcasting it “to noisy accompaniment.” I am reminded very much of Jim’s narrative when Foucault argues the “irony of this deployment is in having us believe that our “liberation’ is in the balance.”
In an essay called, “The censoring of revolutionary feminism,” Sheila Jeffreys, a revolutionary feminist, comments on some women’s pleasure in pornography, and the idea that this makes pornography an example of sexual equal opportunity. She points out: “It is perhaps the greatest tragedy of our oppression that it can be from images and fantasies of that very oppression that we draw what we have been encouraged to see as empowering and liberating.” Rather than women accepting their own visceral responses to pornography as “natural,” Jeffreys argues “the fact that porn can turn us on should empower our rage, not our complacence.”
The now utterly conventional slur made by many pornography advocates is that feminists who raise critical voices about pornography are “anti-sex” and allied with the patriarchal and/or religious right wing. This ad hominem argument, which has been hegemonic since the early 1990s, is reductionist, misleading, and functions as a form of silencing. It inverts the central feminist claim that freedom lies in deconstructing and destabilizing the patriarchal, religious, and heteronormative discursive practices that have constituted men and women as gendered, sexual subjects. Neither Foucault nor Jeffreys is denying the importance of the sensual pleasure of bodies, the experience of pleasure alone or with others, or the life of the sexual imagination. They argue that if we are serious proponents of sexual freedom, it behoves us to consider whether, at the very moment we imagine we are sexually autonomous and anti-authority, this might be the very instant we are the most compliant and the most disciplined.
Within the feminist and Foucauldian frameworks that inform my own writing, I argue the libertarian discourses of pornography, as these have intersected with the official knowledges of sexology, shape us as subjects of sexual desire, rather than the converse. In knowing the knowledge and political forces that constitute us as men and women we are in a better position to resist them. Happy New Year!
Heather Brunskell-Evans is an academic at the University of Leicester UK with a particular interest in feminist philosophy and the politics of the body. Heather is also a founder member of Resist Porn Culture (RPC) a UK organization dedicated to resisting the pornography industry and the pornification of culture.