Radical or Traitor?
I love your column! It's so gender and sexually inclusive. Here's my question. I consider myself a gender-queer feminist and enjoy porn that could be considered degrading to women or "for The Man." Does this distract from my credibility as a feminist? Also, is porn cheating on my partner if I keep it a secret?
Thanks for the compliments. But you've asked a question that's been ripping feminism in half ever since the late 1970s. I'm a sex-positive feminist, so my answer may be fairly predictable, but I continue to believe that it's the only sane and humane stance to take. While all of us, as activists, want to see justice, peace, and equality in the real world, we need to make a distinction between fantasy and reality. One reason we need to do this is to allow the Shadow some room to breathe. This Jungian concept of the aspect of human consciousness where we shove everything we can't deal with in the light of day is, I believe, a very useful one when trying to understand the many paradoxes that beset "liberated" sexuality.
How can a feminist enjoy porn that features, for example, women being submissive to men, or women being helpless, or anyone being coerced into sex or hurt? If you enjoy such stuff, aren't you secretly supporting the worst aspects of patriarchy and heteronormativity? A simplistic reading of the situation would say yes, of course, absolutely. And thus we have a so-called "feminist" anti-porn movement that still continues to speak to the media as if it were the official voice for the entire movement. At the peak of their power, adherents of this faction insisted that eliminating sexist and violent pornography was the key to ending rape, domestic violence, and male supremacy in general.
If you want to read more about these arguments, I recommend my book, Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex and Carole S. Vance's anthology, Pleasure and Danger. For the purpose of this column, I'm trying to sum up political arguments with a complex content and history. So please bear with me if I sound simplistic.
Where do these politically incorrect sexual fantasies and impulses come from? I don't know, but I suspect that human sexuality is hard-wired, for at least some of us, to include elements of conquering and surrender. But only a very stupid person would take that as some kind of blanket permission to rape or molest others. Thanks to the power of sexual fantasy and role-playing, it's entirely possible to have very hot, consenting sex that pleases everybody and leaves everybody feeling powerful and fantastic even if the theme was ostensibly "degrading." The BDSM community has done a great job of educating people on how to play both hard and safe. Two of the most exemplary manuals are The Topping Book and The Bottoming Book by Dossie Easton and her writing partner, Catherine Liszt.
The same goes for reading or looking at sexually explicit material. If you are a bigot or a misogynist and you want validation or permission to be an oppressor, I think you'd find plenty of that in the larger culture without resorting to porn. There's X-rated material that I find offensive, but I don't think censoring it is the solution. We need more and better porn that reflects the diversity of human sexuality in a hot and compassionate form. There's no one-to-one relationship between The Enemy and His Porn and The Good People and Our Porn. I know conservative, homophobic right-wingers who hate all porn or only like the most vanilla, soft-core stuff, and I know dedicated activists who are quite the opposite. I prefer to think that jerking off, to whatever make me grit my teeth and reach for my business, is potentially inspiring and energizing if we need to hit the barricades, and if I've already been pounding my head against the concrete wall of racism, classism, able-bodyism and transphobia for a few days, it's my reward for fighting the good fight.
Now on to your second question. Is using porn cheating on your partner if you keep it a secret. I actually think that leads to another question, namely—why do you have to keep it a secret? It takes a very controlling and immature person to imagine that their partner doesn't or shouldn't masturbate or fantasize. I could write another entire column on the insanity of monogamy when taken to this logical absurdity. Actually, I think I did that last month. But for now, let's just say that I think a partner who wants to replace your porn instead of sharing it with you or leaving you a decent amount of time alone to recharge your batteries is being a dunce. This isn't about enforcing monogamy as much as it's about being anti-masturbation in the most Victorian way possible.
In fact, the best way that I know how to seduce my partner is to write or perform some Spoken Dirty Words. I can't separate sex from erotica. What is thought, done, spoken, imagined—it's all an integrated skein of mental and physical experience. Is this a self-imposed taboo rather than one demanded by your partner? If so, get over it. Stop being so compartmentalized. Unless you have good reason to believe you'd traumatize your sweetheart by sharing some of your process, get dirty together. Prevents GQ bed death, I swear on my strap-on.