Untangling the Gordian Knot: An Analysis of a Lecture by Robert Jensen
Glossing Over Difficulties With Sex
After he mapped out his so-called “perfect storm,” Jensen discussed why people resist discussing the topic of porn:
“When you bring up the subject and people are a little skitterish about it, sometimes the explanation for that is ‘Well, people don’t like talking about sex. This is a culture that has trouble talking about sex.’ Which my response is, “Oh yeah? Look around. This culture has trouble talking about sex? Has anyone turned on a television set recently? Has anyone looked at a magazine? Has anyone seen billboards? This is not a culture that doesn’t know how to talk about sex. It talks about sex all the time. The reason the feminist critique of pornography is so difficult to discuss is not because it raises questions about sex.”
It’s true that our culture talks about sex a lot, and that doesn’t mean that we actually know how to talk about sex in a way that helps us foster our well-being. If we did, therapists wouldn’t see so many couples in which each partner is stuck because they don’t know how to talk with the other. There wouldn’t be so many workshops and self-help books offering advice on how to talk with a partner. And there wouldn’t be so much silence and shame around it.
In my view, our obsession with sex is a symptom of our inability to create a positive relationship with sex. It’s rather like the way someone with an eating disorder might think or talk about food incessantly, or the way that a junkie will often focus on getting the next fix. The fact that we’re surrounded by images and messages about sex is hardly a sign that we know how to talk about it. I agree that people often resist feminist (and other) critiques on the topic because they’re challenging. And if we actually knew how to talk about sex in healthy ways, it’d be a lot easier to lean into the discomfort of those critiques because we wouldn’t be juggling both that and our unease with the topic.
We could explore whether the images and messages in porn help us move toward a world in which there is less discomfort around sex and sexual topics. We could discuss steps we could take to make that happen. And we can’t have those conversations until we understand that our cultural obsessions around sex are not a sign that we know how to talk about it.
Coming back to the paradox that Jensen outlined earlier, he offered this:
“The way you resolve the paradox, in most cases, is by checking your assumptions. And I said ‘in a civilized society’. And I think the existence of pornography in its current form asks us a very simple question. ‘How civilized are we’? That for all the ways in which social movements of the last half century have, in fact, pushed this society forward, it is in many ways a much more decent place to live…so we can mark the progress and also recognize that there’s something underneath that that’s very disturbing. And that we may not, in fact, be as civilized as we think.”
The message that our sexual fantasies and desires stand in contrast to (or in opposition to) “civilization” isn’t anything new. And the irony of his saying that we need to check our assumptions when he made it clear that he has plenty of his own is profound.
Further, the idea that the underlying fantasies our society has are a sign of our not being “as civilized as we think” ignores the fact that there’s more going on. For example, during the Q&A session, one attendee asked how much of the increase in racism and sexism in porn is a result of the increased equality in society. And Jensen’s response was this:
“You’re talking about what’s often called the backlash hypothesis. As women made gains…men pushed back in places where they could push back, and one of those is in the realm of private sexual behavior. I don’t think there’s a way to definitively establish that but it makes sense to me, that when anyone in a position of power is threatened and can not push back in certain realms, they will find other realms to push back in.”
I’m quite sure that that’s part of the story. And if one accepts the notion that one reason for our sexual fantasies is the desire to gain mastery over our anxieties, one could also suggest that as White heterosexual men have lost some socio-political control, their anxiety about their new roles is inspiring fantasies that then prompt this development in porn. I don’t offer that as an excuse for sexist or racist porn, but rather, I suggest that the simple answers that Jensen provided don’t explain the whole puzzle. And while I didn’t expect him to go into detail about alternative perspectives, I think it’s worth noting that he never acknowledged these other possible explanations. It’s one more example of his larger pattern.
Where’s the Pleasure?
In order to end things on a more positive note, however, Jensen offered this:
“[I]t seems to me that in the realm of sexuality, even more generally in our lives, there are really three things that we want. We want a sense of identity. We want to be part of groups, or at least feel connected to other people. And we all recognize our identity is partly in that social context. We also want a sense of independence. We want to feel like we are individuals who can make our own choices. And we all, also I think, want intimacy, in whatever form that takes. Sexual and otherwise.”
Leaving aside the fact that this is yet another instance of his saying what “we all want” or what “we all recognize,” I do like his notion of identity, independence, and intimacy being three things that most people want, at least to varying degrees. He followed that up by asking whether porn helps us find those three things:
“Does the contemporary pornography industry help us establish a sense of identity? Membership in groups that we can feel comfortable with? Does it help us really assert our independence? And does it help us really achieve the intimacy that we seek? And if it doesn’t, then I think it’s a sensible project to say that we want to move beyond pornography.”
It isn’t clear to me, though, why he left pleasure out of his list of things that we might want from sexuality. One possibility that I can think of is that if we include pleasure as a worthwhile goal, that makes it harder to argue for “moving beyond porn.” I find it really interesting that someone can talk so much about porn and can even say that “pornography exists in the world to arouse sexually and it works,” without including pleasure in the list of things people might want out of sex.
My working definition of sex-positivity as the “the perspective that the relevant measure of a sexual act or practice is the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people who do it and the people who are affected by it” fills in the gaps, but as I’ve said before, I don’t think that Jensen understands sex-positivity. And if he’s not including pleasure in his list of things that people want out of sexuality, he may not understand sex, either.
After a bit more discussion of why he thinks that the feminist critique is the best way to come to terms with the issue of porn, and acknowledging the many difficulties people face in looking at their relationships to it, Jensen praised St. Mary’s College for having such a strong feminist awareness, which he acknowledged as being both supported and hindered by the church. And then he wrapped up by saying:
“You’re ahead of the game compared to us at the University of Texas. So that’s my upbeat ending. It could be worse, you could be in Texas.”
While I might agree with that sentiment (which is why I live in the San Francisco area, rather than in Texas), it does seem remarkably self-deprecating. I can only assume that he has some good reason to live somewhere that he takes such pains to denigrate, both at the beginning and the end of his lecture. His job? Family that lives locally? He likes the heat? Who knows? But whatever his motivation, his repeated comments about how bad it is in Texas stood out to me. I don’t think there’s any reason for him to feel bad for choosing to live where he lives, but apparently he does.
Judgment and More Judgment
After the lecture, Jensen took a few questions. Not surprisingly, there was quite a bit more judgment coming. For example, in response to a question about how he got started in this work, he said:
“And as I always say, when I was 29 years old, I knew a lot about feminism. I knew that feminists were ugly women who couldn’t get dates. That’s what I knew about feminism. In other words, I was an idiot. I knew nothing. I knew what the culture told me.
Feminism, I would say that feminism is not a threat to men. It’s a gift to us, if we’re smart enough to accept it.”
While I wholly agree with the sentiment that feminism has a lot to offer men, I think his use of the phrases “idiot” and “smart enough” is significant. The clear implication is that men who don’t accept feminism are stupid, which is incredibly insulting and patronizing. There are a lot of reasons why people (not just men) don’t accept feminism, and to collapse them all into a lack of intelligence is a barrier to helping people change their minds.
In further explanation of the value of the feminist critique of porn, Jensen says that there is
“…a large number of people who’ve never heard of the feminist critique of pornography, but especially women who intuitively are uncomfortable with porn and their uncomfortable with the way their male partners use it. But because they’re isolated, and they’ve never heard of the critique, they think that they’re crazy.”
This ignores the fact that some women’s discomfort with their partner’s use of porn is rooted in a belief that masturbation is bad/sinful/disgusting (an especially noteworthy omission to make at a Catholic university), as well as the common idea that one has a right to claim all of one’s partner’s sexual energy (i.e. the notion that masturbation is cheating). By validating women’s discomfort with porn uncritically, and without unpacking the sex-negative reasons for it that can exist alongside concerns about how women are portrayed, Jensen once again built cohesion among women at the cost of men.
This line of thought makes it easier for people to attack their partners for their desires or practices by focusing entirely on the socio-political dimensions while ignoring the more personal aspects of it. I see a similar dynamic when couples with different levels of sexual desire get into arguments about whether the person with more desire is accused of being a sex addict. It’s an easy way to score points in a fight, but it doesn’t help things move forward. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t real problems in the porn industry or that there aren’t valid reasons for many women to have discomfort around it. But those aren’t the only reasons for women’s fears and we can make room for that without telling women that they’re crazy. But instead, Jensen glossed over the ways in which sex-negativity and masturbation-phobia often come into play.
For that matter, by talking about “the feminist critique,” rather than “this feminist critique,” Jensen made it seem as if the only way one could be a feminist would be to agree with this particular critique. Given how often feminists have fought over who gets to use the term and who doesn’t, this seems particularly divisive.
One On One
After the Q&A session, I went up to Jensen to ask him a couple of questions. One of them was what he thinks is so bad about sexually-explicit media for the purposes of arousal. His response was that porn isn’t going to help us deepen our understanding of sexuality or the inherent mysteries of sex. I tried to pin him down a bit more by acknowledging that and by asking again why porn for the pleasure is a bad thing, and he asked me why we need porn for the purposes of erotic arousal.
I would suggest that that’s the wrong question. After all, many people sometimes enjoy food that has no nutritional value or games that have no intrinsic benefit. I believe that as long as you aren’t missing out on the nutrition you need and you aren’t contributing to harming others, there’s nothing inherently wrong with something that serves no purpose other than to feel good. I know that the role that porn plays in many people’s lives isn’t as healthy as that, but that means that we need to move toward a world in which it is, rather than saying that porn is always bad.
The other question I asked Jensen is why he creates false dichotomies, such as art/porn and features/gonzo, without saying anything about the nuances and complexities that exist. He said both that nuances get lost in a 30 minute talk, and that he focuses on the issues that are more important because they’re bigger and cause more damage.
I get that, and I also think he would do better by making room for different experiences instead of demonizing porn (and by extension, porn viewers). I think his arguments would be stronger if he explicitly recognized that how people think about and use porn isn’t evenly split along gender lines, that there are people who are trying to make porn that shows genuine connection and passion between performers, that the reasons that people have fantasies are complex, that the lines between art and porn are fuzzy, and that the reasons that people feel discomfort around porn are personal as well as political. It might not be as conceptually elegant, but it would be much more honest and that’s what we really need. I’ve always believed that a theory that isn’t based on fact is a house on a shaky foundation, and although Jensen’s take on porn might be emotionally satisfying, it’s on very unsteady footing, indeed.
The Overall Pattern
At the risk of repeating myself, I think there’s a pretty clear pattern underlying Jensen’s lecture. He consistently made sweeping statements about gender, the meanings of various sexual activities and the motivations behind them, the nature of the porn industry, and sexuality. He framed his lecture in ways that denigrated and demonized men, reinforced an us-versus-them mentality, offered one-dimensional explanations for complex behaviors, and ignored the large body of research and writing on human sexuality. He also presented his take on porn as if it’s the only way to approach the topic with a feminist approach. None of this surprised me, since Jensen made it clear that he approaches the issue from the perspective of Dworkin and Dines, both of whom do all of those things.
One of the biggest problems I have with most of the current discourse on pornography is that most of it seems to be uncritical of its assumptions. A lot of the anti-porn folks use a rather limited view of sexuality, gender, fantasy, and sexology in order to craft an equally limited analysis of porn. On the other hand, many of the folks on the pro-porn side either boil it all down to personal choice (leaving out the issues of pleasure and well-being), ignore the very real ways in which porn both reflects and reifies some of the deepest problems we face, or accuse folks who point out those flaws of being sex-negative.
In my view, we need both of these perspectives. We need to honor and celebrate sexual pleasure, and we need to be willing to look at the ways in which the content and messages of porn shapes how we think about sex. We need to make room for the voices of people who enjoy being in porn (and not tell them that their choices are inauthentic or that they have false consciousness) and we need to make room for the voices of people who were treated badly or hurt while performing in porn (and not tell them that they’re making it up or that it’s their fault for making a bad decision).
Further, although Jensen didn’t address the mechanisms of porn production in this lecture, I know that there are some common industry practices that need to change. Performers, especially the women, are often seen as disposable; there’s frequently a financial pressure to move further along the spectrum towards the “more extreme” acts; the sex is usually designed for the convenience of the camera (as well as showing a small sliver of the incredible range sexual practices), rather than to portray genuine pleasure; and there is generally little or no attention paid to the well-being of the performers beyond STI testing. These are all issues, among others, that I want to see challenged and changed.
But that’s not going to happen unless each side is willing to look at the ways in which its blind spots are hindering things. It won’t happen if we’re not able to examine the assumptions we make and compare them to reality. It’s definitely not going to happen if we keep pretending that the stories we tell about what porn is like are always true.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to keep calling out the anti-porn folks for shaming people, and for using people’s squicks and disgust to justify their attacks. I’ll keep on writing about the actual research on the effects of porn, as well as the problems with how sex is portrayed, the problematic ways in which issues of consent are sometime glossed over, why porn is terrible sex education, and how it creates unrealistic expectations.
I want to see more sex-positive folks take these issues on. After all, if you’re on board with my working definition of sex-positivity, then I think we have a responsibility to look at the consent, pleasure, and well-being of porn performers, too. We have a responsibility to look at how porn shapes and influences viewers, and ask whether it serves their well-being. If we don’t, then we’re leaving it up to the anti-porn folks to set the terms of the debate, and that is not a road I want to go down. I want to see more development of a sex-positive critique of the porn industry.
All of these are the sorts of questions that many of the feminist and sex-positive porn makers are asking. They prove that you can create sexual media that focuses on the pleasure of the performers, that you can capture authentic connections on camera, that you can show a wide range of sex acts, orientations, genders, body types, and races and still make a hot movie, and that you can operate under a business model that doesn’t pressure performers to engage in acts that they don’t enjoy or that are beyond their comfort zones. Whether they’ll be economically viable will depend, in part, on whether viewers understand what it is that they’re doing and see the value in supporting their work.
I concede Jensen’s point that, at the moment, this is a fairly small part of the industry. And one way to change that is to stop pretending it doesn’t exist, to help get the word out, and to let people know how and why it’s different from the same old porn. Another way to change things is to support the folks who are creating it. If you want to see better porn (or if you prefer the term, better sexually explicit movies), then buy it instead of pirating it so the visionaries creating it can keep up the good work. Here are some good places to start, in no particular order: