Just A John – Part Two

Men’s choices and responsibility So, we live in a world in which men sell women to other men directly. And men also sell women to other men through mass media. These days, women are sometimes the buyers. And on rare occasions in recent years, women are the sellers. That is, there are women who consume pornography and a few women who make it. In this society, that’s called progress. Feminism is advanced, we are told, when women can join the ranks of those who buy and sell other human beings. All this is happening as a predictable result of the collaboration of capitalism and patriarchy. Take a system that values profit over everything, and combine it with a system of male supremacy: You get pimps and johns, and pornography that is increasingly normalized and mainstreamed, made into everyday experience. Because it’s profitable in a capitalist world. And because men take it as their right to consume women’s sexuality in a patriarchal world. When confronted with this, men often suggest that because women in pornography choose to participate, there’s no reason to critique men’s use of pornography. We should avoid that temptation to take that easy way out. I’m going to say nothing in regard to what women should do, nor am I going to critique their choices. I don’t take it as my place to inject myself in the discussions that women have about this. (A new book, “Not for Sale,” has interesting insights into those questions. http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/non-fict/nfs.htm) I do, however, take it as my place to talk to men. I take it as a political/moral responsibility to engage in critical self-reflection and be accountable for my behavior, at the individual and the collective level. For men, the question is not about women’s choices. It’s about men’s choices. Do you want to participate in this system in which women are sold for sexual pleasure, whether it’s in prostitution, pornography, strip bars, or any other aspect of the sex industry? Do you want to live in a world in which some people are bought and sold for the sexual pleasure of others? When one asks such questions, one of the first things one will hear is: These are important issues, but we shouldn’t make men feel guilty about this. Why not? I agree that much of the guilt people feel — rooted in attempts to repress human sexuality that unfortunately are part of the cultural and theological history of our society — is destructive. But guilt also can be a healthy emotional and intellectual response to the world and one’s actions in it. Johns should feel guilty when they buy women. Guilt is a proper response to an act that is unjust. When we do things that are unjust, we should feel guilty. Guilt can be a sign that we have violated our own norms. It can be a part of a process of ending the injustice. Guilt can be healthy, if it is understood in political, not merely religious or psychological, terms. Buying women is wrong not because of a society’s repressive moral code or its effects on an individual’s psychological process. It is wrong because it hurts people. It creates a world in which people get hurt. And the people who get hurt the most are women and children, the people with the least amount of power. When you create a class that can be bought and sold, the people in that group will inevitably be treated as lesser, as available to be controlled and abused. The way out of this is not church or therapy, though you may engage in either or both of those practices for various reasons. The way out of being a john is political. The way out is feminism. I don’t mean feminism as a superficial exercise in identifying a few “women’s issues” that men can help with. I mean feminism as an avenue into what Karl Marx called “the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.” We need to engage in some ruthless criticism. Let’s start not just with pornography, but with sex more generally. One of those discoveries, I think, is not only that men often are johns, but that the way in which johns use women sexually is a window into other aspects of our sexual and intimate lives as well. For many men, sex is often a place where we both display and reinforce our power over women. By that, I don’t mean that all men at all times use sex that way all the time, but that a pattern of such relationships is readily visible in this society. Women deal with it every day, and at some level most men understand it. We can see that pornography not only raises issues about the buying and selling of women, but — if we can remain ruthless and not shrink from our own discoveries — about sex in general, about the way in which men and women in this culture are commonly trained to be sexual. It’s not just about pimps and johns and the women prostituted. It’s about men and women, and sex and power. If throughout this discussion you have been thinking, “Well, that’s not me — I never pay for it,” don’t be so sure. It’s not just about who pays for it and who doesn’t. It’s about the fundamental nature of the relationship between men and women, and how that plays out in sex and intimacy. And if you think this doesn’t affect you because you are one of the “good men,” don’t be so sure. I’m told that I am one of those good men. I work in a feminist movement. I have been part of groups that critique men’s violence and the sex industry. And I struggle with these issues all the time. I was trained to be a man in this culture, and that training doesn’t evaporate overnight. None of us is off the hook. What is sex for? No matter what our personal history or current practice, we all might want to ask a simple question: What is sex for? A male friend once told me that he thought that sometimes sex can be like a warm handshake, nothing more than a greeting between friends. Many people assert that sex can be a purely physical interaction to produce pleasurable sensations in the body. At the same time, sex is said to be the ultimate act of intimacy, the place in which we expose ourselves most fully, where we let another see us stripped down, not just physically but emotionally. Certainly sex can be all those things to different people at different times. But is that not a lot to ask sex to carry? Can one human practice really carry such a range of meanings and purposes? And in such a context, in a male-supremacist culture in which men’s violence is still tacitly accepted and men’s control of women if often unchallenged, should we be surprised that sex becomes a place where that violence and control play out? This isn’t an argument for some imposition of a definition of sex. It’s an invitation to confront what I believe is a crucial question for this culture. The conservative framework, often rooted in narrow religious views, for defining appropriate sex in order to control people is a disaster. The liberal/libertarian framework that avoids questions of gender and power has failed. We live in a time of sexual crisis. That makes life difficult, but it also creates a space for invention and creativity. That is what drew me to feminism, to the possibility of a different way of understanding the world and myself, the possibility of escaping the masculinity trap set for me, that chance to become something more than a man, more than just a john — to become a human being. Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is co-author of “Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality” and is working with the producers of the forthcoming documentary film “Fantasies Matter: Pornography, Sexualities, and Relationships.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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