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Sexuality, masculinity and men’s choices


One of the most divisive issues on the left regarding sexuality has been the sex industry — prostitution, pornography, strip bars, and similar enterprises. Feminist critics have focused on the harm to women and children in these systems, while sex liberals have argued that there should be no collective restrictions, or sometimes even criticism of, what are assumed to be free choices of individuals.

This essay is rooted in the radical feminist critique, but speaks directly to men and men’s choices. It focuses on one aspect of the industrial sexuality of contemporary U.S. culture, pornography, but the argument applies more generally.

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Before we get to the debates about how to define pornography, or whether pornography and sexual violence are connected, or how the First Amendment should apply to pornography, let’s stop to ponder something more basic:

What does the existence of a multi-billion-dollar pornography industry say about us, about men?

More specifically, what does “Blow Bang #4” say?

THIS IS WHAT PORNOGRAPHY LOOKS LIKE

“Blow Bang #4” was in the “mainstream” section of a local adult video store. For a research project on the content of contemporary mass-marketed pornography, I asked the folks who work there to help me pick out typical videos rented by the typical customer. One of the 15 tapes I left with was “Blow Bang #4.”

“Blow Bang #4” is: Eight different scenes in which a woman kneels in the middle of a group of three to eight men and performs oral sex on them. At the end of each scene, each of the men ejaculates onto the woman’s face or into her mouth. To borrow from the description on the video box, the video consists of: “Dirty little bitches surrounded by hard throbbing cocks … and they like it.”

In one of these scenes, a young woman dressed as a cheerleader is surrounded by six men. For about seven minutes, “Dynamite” (the name she gives on tape) methodically moves from man to man while they offer insults that start with “you little cheerleading slut” and get uglier from there. For another minute and a half, she sits upside down on a couch, her head hanging over the edge, while men thrust into her mouth, causing her to gag. She strikes the pose of the bad girl to the end. “You like coming on my pretty little face, don’t you,” she says, as they ejaculate on her face and in her mouth for the final two minutes of the scene.

Five men have finished. The sixth steps up. As she waits for him to ejaculate onto her face, now covered with semen, she closes her eyes tightly and grimaces. For a moment, her face changes; it is difficult to read her emotions, but it appears she may cry. After the last man, number six, ejaculates, she regains her composure and smiles. Then the narrator off camera hands her the pom-pom she had been holding at the beginning of the tape and says, “Here’s your little cum mop, sweetheart — mop up.” She buries her face in the pom-pom. The screen fades, and she is gone.

You can rent “Blow Bang #4” for $3 at the store I visited, or buy it online for $19.95. Or if you like, you can track down one of the other six tapes in the “Blow Bang” series. “If you love seeing one girl sucking on a bunch of cocks at one time, then this is the series for you,” a reviewer says. “The camera work is great.”

Even a cursory review of pornography reveals that great camera work is not a requirement for success. “Blow Bang #4” is one of 11,000 new hardcore pornographic videos released each year, one of 721 million tapes rented each year in a country where total pornographic video sales and rentals total about $4 billion annually.

Pornography’s profits rely not on quality of camera work but on the ability to produce erections in men quickly. There are many pornographic videos less harsh than “Blow Bang #4,” and some that push much further into “extreme” territory with overt violence and sadomasochism. The company that produces the “Blow Bang” series, Armageddon Productions, boasts on one of its websites that “Vivid Sucks/Armageddon Fucks,” taking a shot at the reputation of Vivid, one of the industry leaders that is known for tamer videos with slicker production values, or in Vivid’s own words, “quality erotic film entertainment for the couples market.”

THIS IS WHAT QUALITY EROTIC FILM ENTERTAINMENT FOR THE COUPLES MARKET LOOKS LIKE

“Delusional,” a Vivid release in 2000, is another of the 15 tapes I viewed. In its final sex scene, the lead male character (Randy) professes his love for the female lead (Lindsay). After discovering that her husband had been cheating on her, Lindsay had been slow to get into another relationship, waiting for the right man — a sensitive man — to come along. It looked as if Randy was the man. “I’ll always be here for you no matter what,” Randy tells her. “I just want to look out for you.” Lindsay lets down her defenses, and they embrace.

After about three minutes of kissing and removing their clothes, Lindsay begins oral sex on Randy while on her knees on the couch, and he then performs oral sex on her while she lies on the couch. They then have intercourse, with Lindsay saying, “Fuck me, fuck me, please” and “I have two fingers in my ass — do you like that?” This leads to the usual progression of positions: She is on top of him while he sits on the couch, and then he enters her vaginally from behind before he asks, “Do you want me to fuck you in the ass?” She answers in the affirmative; “Stick it in my ass,” she says. After two minutes of anal intercourse, the scene ends with him masturbating and ejaculating on her breasts.

Which is the most accurate description of what contemporary men in the United States want sexually, Armageddon or Vivid? The question assumes a significant difference between the two; the answer is that both express the same sexual norm. “Blow Bang #4” begins and ends with the assumption that women live for male pleasure and want men to ejaculate on them. “Delusional” begins with the idea that women want something more caring in a man, but ends with her begging for anal penetration and ejaculation. One is cruder, the other slicker. Both represent a single pornographic mindset, in which male pleasure defines sex and female pleasure is a derivate of male pleasure. In pornography, women just happen to love exactly what men love to do to them, and what men love to do in pornography is to control and use, which allows the men who watch pornography to control and use as well.

When I do public talks on pornography and the feminist critique of the commercial sex industry, I describe — but do not show — these kinds of videos. I explain the other conventions of the industry, such as “double penetration,” the common practice in which a woman is penetrated by two men’s penises, vaginally and anally, at the same time, and in some of those scenes the woman also performs oral sex on a third man at the same time. I explain that virtually every sex scene ends with a man or men ejaculating onto a woman, most often in the face, what the industry calls a “facial.”

Many of the people in the audience, particularly the women, tell me that they find it difficult to hear about these things, even when the acts are described with the kind of clinical detachment I try to maintain. One woman approached me after a lecture and said, “What you said was important, but I wish I hadn’t been here. I wish I didn’t know what you told us. I wish I could forget it.”

For many of the women who feel so defeated by knowing, the most distressing part doesn’t seem to be simply learning what is in the videos but knowing that men gain pleasure from what is in the videos. They ask me, over and over, “Why do men like this? What do you guys get from this?” They want to know why the mostly male consumers spend an estimated $10 billion a year on pornography in the United States and $56 billion around the world.

It is an important question with, no doubt, complex answers. What does is say about our society when men will take home a tape like “Blow Bang #4” and watch it, and masturbate to it. What does it say about our society’s conception of sexuality and masculinity that large numbers of men can find pleasure in watching a young woman gag while a penis is pushed into her throat followed by six men ejaculating on her face and in her mouth? Or that other men, who might find that scene too extreme, prefer to watch one man have sex with a woman that begins with tender words and ends with “Do you want me to fuck you in the ass?” and ejaculation on her breasts? What does it say that such a video, made for men to masturbate to, is considered classy and upscale?

I think it says masculinity in this culture is in trouble.

A FOOTNOTE: WHY HAS THE FEMINIST CRITIQUE OF PORNOGRAPHY BEEN ATTACKED SO STRENUOUSLY?

There are many points in the pornography debate on which reasonable people can disagree. Legal strategies raise important issues about freedom and responsibility, and definitive connections between media consumption and human behavior are always difficult to establish. More generally, sexuality is a complex phenomenon in which wide human variation makes universal claims suspect.

But the feminist critique inspires an apoplectic reaction from pornography’s defenders that, to me, has always seemed over the top. The political debate that the critique set off, both within feminism and in the wider culture, seems unusually intense. From my experience of writing and speaking publicly, I can be fairly certain that what little I have written here so far will cause some readers to condemn me as a sexual fascist or a prude.

One obvious reason for the strength of these denunciations is that pornographers make money, hence there is a profit motive in moving quickly with maximal force to marginalize or eliminate criticism of the industry. But the more important reason, I believe, is that at some level everyone knows that the feminist critique of pornography is about more than pornography. It encompasses a critique of the way “normal” men in this culture have learned to experience sexual pleasure — and the ways in which women and children learn to accommodate that and/or suffer its consequences. That critique is not just a threat to the pornography industry or to the personal collections that men have stashed in their closets, but to everyone. The feminist critique asks a simple but devastating question of men: “Why is this sexually pleasurable to you, and what kind of person does that make you?” And because heterosexual women live with men and men’s sexual desire, those women can’t escape the question — either in terms of the desire of their boyfriends, partners, and husbands, or the way they have come to experience sexuality. That takes us way beyond magazines, movies, and computer screens, to the heart of who we are and how we live sexually and emotionally. That scares people. It probably should scare us. It has always scared me.

ANOTHER FOOTNOTE: WHAT IS THE FEMINIST CRITIQUE OF PORNOGRAPHY?

The feminist critique of pornography emerged from the wider movement against sexual violence in the late 1970s. The previous moral debate about obscenity between liberals and conservatives had pitted the critics of “dirty pictures” against the defenders of “sexual liberation.” The feminist critics shifted the discussion to the ways in which pornography eroticizes domination and subordination. Those critics identified the harms to women and children that are connected to pornography, including the harm: (1) to the women and children used in the production of pornography; (2) to women and children who have pornography forced on them; (3) to women and children who are sexually assaulted by men who use pornography; and (4) in living in a culture in which pornography reinforces and sexualizes women’s subordinate status.

There is much more to say about it, but that should suffice for now.

TROUBLED MASCULINITY

The focus of my work, and the feminist anti-pornography movement more generally, has been the harm to women and children. But that movement has long understood that coming to terms with the violence, sexual violence, sexualized violence, and violence-by-sex that are endemic in this culture requires the we confront masculinity. Just as we have come to see that racism is a problem of white people, we can say that sexual abuse and violence are problems of men. Just as we can start to deal with the pathological nature of the culture’s conception of whiteness, so also we can start to come to terms with the pathological nature of masculinity.

The traditional traits associated with masculinity in this culture are control, domination, toughness, hyper-competitiveness, emotional repression, aggressiveness, and violence. A common insult that boys hurl at each other is the accusation of being a girl, a being who lacks strength. No insult on the playground is worse than being called a girl, except perhaps being called a “fag,” a derivative of girl. Feminism and other progressive movements have tried to change that definition of masculinity, but it has proved to be difficult to dislodge.

Not surprisingly, pornography reflects that conception of masculinity; men generally are trained to view sex as a realm of life in which men are naturally dominant and women’s sexuality should conform to men’s needs. Like any system, there is variation both in how this plays out and how specific men experience it. To point out patterns of male dominance in socialization and behavior is not to say every man is a rapist. Let me repeat: I am not asserting that every man is a rapist. Now that I have said that, I can be sure of only one thing: Some men who read this will say, “This guy is one of those radical feminists who believes every man is a rapist.”

So, let me put this in the first person: I was born in the United States in 1958, the post-Playboy generation. I was taught a very specific sexual grammar, which Catharine MacKinnon has succinctly summarized: “Man fucks woman; subject verb object.” In the world in which I learned about sex, sex was the acquisition of pleasure by the taking of women. In the locker room, the question was not, “Did you and your girlfriend find a way to feel passionate and close last night?” but “Did you get any last night?” What does one get? One gets “a piece of ass.” What kind of relationship can one have to a piece of ass? Subject, verb, object.

Now, maybe I had an idiosyncratic upbringing. Maybe the sex education I got — on the street, in pornography — was different than what most men learn. Maybe what I was taught about being a man — on the street, in the locker room — was an aberration. But I have spent a lot of time talking to men about this, and I don’t think so.

My approach to all this is simple: Masculinity is a bad idea, for everyone, and it’s time to get rid of it. Not reform it, but eliminate it.

MASCULINITY, NOT

While most everyone agrees masculinity needs to change, few are interested in eliminating it. Take the “real men don’t rape” campaigns. As a response to men’s violence, those campaigns ask men to think about redefining what a “real man” is. It’s hard to disagree with the goal of reducing men’s violence, and one can see how as a short-term strategy it might work. But I don’t want to redefine masculinity. I don’t want to identify any set of traits that adhere to being biologically male. I want to get rid of masculinity.

But wait, some might say. Just because at this point the traits assigned to men are pretty ugly doesn’t mean we can’t assign different traits. How about redefining masculinity as being sensitive and caring? What’s wrong with that? There is nothing wrong with asking men to be more caring, but the question raised is obvious: Why are those specifically masculine traits? Are they not human traits we might want everyone to share? If so, why label them a feature of masculinity?

Real men, in this sense, would be like real women. We would all be real people. Traits would not adhere to biological categories. But once we start playing the masculinity/femininity game, the goal has to be to find some things that men are and women aren’t, or vice versa. Otherwise, there is no sense to assigning the same qualities to two groups and pretending that the qualities are masculine and feminine, male and female. If that is the case, they are human traits, present or absent in people to varying degrees but not rooted in biology. The fact that we still want to assign them to sex categories shows only how desperate we are to hang onto the notion that the sex categories are indicators of inherent social and psychological attributes.

In other words, so long as there is masculinity, we’re in trouble. We can mitigate the trouble in some ways, but it seems to me much better to get out of trouble than consciously deciding to stay stuck in it.

"BLOW BANG" REVISITED, OR WHY PORNOGRAPHY MAKES ME SO SAD, PART I

Like many men in this culture, I used pornography through my childhood and early adult years. But in the dozen years that I have been researching and writing about pornography and the feminist critique, I have seen relatively little pornography, and then only in very controlled settings. Five years ago, a co-author and I did an analysis of pornographic videos that required more exposure to pornography than I had had in many years, and my reaction to the material took me by surprise. I found myself struggling to understand the sexual arousal I felt while watching, and it took me some time to deal emotionally with the brutality of the material and my sexual reaction to it.

When I undertook this recent project, a replication of the earlier work to look for changes in the industry, I was prepared to deal with my physical reactions to the tapes. I had come to understand that it was completely predictable that I would be aroused by videos, which after all were produced specifically for the purpose of arousing people like me. I talked through things beforehand with my co-author and other friends. I was ready to do the work, though I wasn’t looking forward to it. A friend joked, “Too bad you can’t subcontract this job out to someone who would enjoy it.”

I had about 25 hours of tape to watch. I treated the work as any other scholarly project. I went to work at 8 a.m., setting up in a conference room at the university where I work. I had a TV and VCR, with headphones so that no one in adjoining rooms would be bothered by the sound. I typed notes into my laptop computer. I took a lunch break. At the end of a long day, I put the tools of the task away and went home for dinner.

I was alternately aroused and bored by the tapes — predictable given how intensely sexual, and at the same time rigidly formatted, the genre is. I was prepared for both of those reactions. What I wasn’t prepared for was the deep sadness I felt during the viewing. During that weekend and for days afterward I was flooded with a wild range of intense emotions and a deep sense of despair.

I assume this was partly due to the intensity of watching so much pornography in such concentrated form. Men usually view pornography in short bursts to achieve a sexual result; pornography is primarily a masturbation facilitator. I suspect men rarely watch an entire videotape, given the heavy use of the fast-forward button. If men finish their masturbation before the end of the tape, it’s likely most don’t finish viewing.

When viewed episodically like that, the sexual pleasure dominates the experience of consuming pornography. It’s difficult to see what lies just beneath one’s erection. But when viewed one after another, in this numbing fashion, the pleasure wears off quickly and the underlying ideology becomes easier to see. After a few tapes, it becomes difficult not to see the concentrated woman-hating and subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) violence that saturates most of these “mainstream” videos. I think that leads to empathy for the women, something that the typical pornography consumer doesn’t experience.

Such empathy is a pornographer’s nightmare. The men using pornography are supposed to identify with the men in the video, not the women. If men ask the question, “Do women really want to be penetrated by two men at the same time?” the pornographic game is over. Women must remain less-than-human if pornography is to work. If women become anything more than — in the words of notorious “extreme” pornography producer Max Hardcore — a “cock receptacle,” then the men seeking pleasure might stop to ask how it feels for the real woman in the scene, the woman-who-is-a-person.

“Blow Bang #4” was the sixth tape I had watched that day. By the time I put it in the VCR, my body had, for the most part, quit reacting to the sexual stimulation. At that point, it would have been difficult not to wonder how the woman in one scene felt as eight men did their best to make her gag by grabbing her head and pressing it down on their penis as far as possible. On tape, the woman said she loved it. Indeed, it’s possible that woman enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but wonder how she felt when it was over and the cameras were turned off. How would women who watched this feel? How would women I know feel if it were happening to them? That’s not denying women’s autonomy and agency; it’s simple empathy, caring about another human being and her feelings, trying to understand the experience of another person.

If empathy is part of what makes us human, and pornography requires that men repress empathy, then we have to ask a rather difficult question. While men watch pornography, are men human? More on that later.

WHY PORNOGRAPHY MAKES ME SO SAD, PART II

At the end of the first day’s viewing, I was driving home. With no warning and no apparent provocation, I began to sob. The images from the videos flooded over me, especially the young woman in “Blow Bang #4.” I found myself saying to myself, “I don’t want to live in this world.”

I realized later that the sadness was very selfish. It wasn’t at that moment primarily about the women in the videos or their pain. I believe that at that moment, the feeling in me was a reaction to what the videos say about me, not what they say about women. If pornography helps define what a man is sexually in this culture, then it’s not clear to me how I can live as a sexual being in this culture.

I live in a world in which men — lots of men, not just a few isolated, crazy men — like to watch and masturbate to images of other men ejaculating onto a woman-made-less-than-human. The videos forced me to remember that at one point in my life, I watched. I am past feeling guilt or shame about that; my reaction is more about my current struggle to carve out a place for myself in a world in which being a man is associated with sexual pleasure at the expense of women. I don’t want to always have to fight that association, in the world or inside my own body.

When I watched those videos, I felt trapped, as if I had no place to be a man and be a sexual being. I don’t want to associate myself with masculinity, but there is no other obvious place for me to be. I am not a woman, and I have no interest in being a eunuch. Is there a way to be a sexual being outside of what the culture tells me I should be?

One possible response: If you don’t like it, then create something different. That is an answer, but not all that useful. Trying to build a different approach to gender and sex is not a solitary project. I have allies in that project, but I also have to live in the wider society, which constantly pulls me back into the conventional categories. Our identity is a complex combination of the categories that the society we live in creates, of how the people around us define us, and of who we actively will ourselves to be. We do not create ourselves in isolation; we cannot will ourselves to be something new, all alone, without help and support.

Another possible response: We could talk honestly about why these images exist, and why we use them. We could try to answer women’s questions: “Why do men like this? What do you guys get from this?”

Do not mistake this for self-indulgence or whining. I am aware that the people who bear the most serious costs of this sexual system are the women and children who are most vulnerable to sexual invasion. As a white adult male with privilege, my psychological struggles are relatively insignificant compared with the pain of those others. I talk about this not to focus attention on my struggle, but to connect to the collective struggle against masculinity. If men are to join in the project of taking apart masculinity, we must have some sense that we can find an identity to replace it. If we don’t talk about the sadness and fear that come with this struggle, masculinity has nothing to worry about. It will endure in its present form. Men will keep marching off to war. Men will keep slamming into each other’s bodies on the football field. And “Blow Bang #4, and perhaps someday #104, will keep doing a brisk business at the adult video store.

THE HUMANITY OF MEN

To be clear: I don’t hate men. I don’t hate myself. I am talking about masculinity, not the state of being a male human. I am talking about men’s behavior.

Feminists are often accused of hating men. Radical feminists in the anti-pornography movement are accused of being the most man-hating of the feminists. And Andrea Dworkin is typically held up as the most fanatical of the fanatics, the ultimate castrating feminist. I have read Dworkin’s work, and I do not think she hates men. Neither does she. Here’s what Dworkin has written about men:

“I don’t believe rape is inevitable or natural. If I did, I would have no reason to be here [speaking to a conference of men]. If I did, my political practice would be different than it is. Have you ever wondered why we are not just in armed combat against you? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.”

Feminists believe in the humanity of men, against all the evidence of rape and battering and harassment, of discrimination and dismissal. That faith in men’s humanity is true of every woman — heterosexual and lesbian — I have met and worked with in movements against sexual violence and the commercial sex industry. They are women who have no illusions about the way the world works, yet still they believe in the humanity of men. They believe in it more deeply, I suspect, than I do. There are days when I have my doubts. But indulging such doubt is a luxury of privilege. Dworkin reminds men of that, of how hiding behind our shame about what we do is cowardly:

“[Women] do not want to do the work of helping you to believe in your humanity. We cannot do it anymore. We have always tried. We have been repaid with systematic exploitation and systematic abuse. You are going to have to do this yourselves from now on and you know it.”

Maybe a first step is identifying the markers of humanity. Here’s the beginning of my list: Compassion and passion, solidarity and self-respect, the ability to love and the willingness to struggle. Add your own to it. Then ask this question:

Can we men acknowledge our humanity if we find sexual pleasure in watching three men penetrate a woman orally, vaginally, and anally at the same time? Can we and live our humanity to the fullest if we find sexual pleasure in watching eight men ejaculate onto a woman’s face and into her mouth? Can we masturbate to those images and truly believe they have no effect beyond the rise and fall of our penises in that moment? Even if you believe that such sexual “fantasies” have no effect in the world outside our heads, what does that pleasure say about our humanity?

Brothers, this matters. Please don’t let yourself off easy right now. Don’t ignore that question and start arguing about whether or not we can really define pornography. Don’t start explaining that social scientists have not yet established a definitive link between pornography and sexual violence. And please, don’t begin explaining how it’s important to defend pornography because you really are defending free speech.

No matter how important you think those questions are, right now I am not asking those questions. I am asking you to think about what it means to be a human being. Please don’t ignore the question. I need you to ask it. Women need you to ask it, too.

WHAT I AM NOT SAYING

I am not telling women how to feel or what to do. I am not accusing them of having false consciousness or being dupes of patriarchy. I am not talking to women. I am speaking to men. Women, you have your own struggles and your own debates among yourselves. I want to be an ally in those struggles, but I stand outside of them.

WHAT I AM SAYING

I do not stand outside of masculinity. I am stuck in the middle of it, fighting for my life. I need help, not from women but from other men. I cannot resist masculinity alone; it must be a project we undertake together. And Dworkin is right; we have to do it ourselves. Women have been kind to us, kinder perhaps than is in their own interests, no doubt kinder than we deserve. We cannot rely on the kindness of women any longer; it is not inexhaustible, and it is not fair or just to continue to exploit it.

Here are some ways we can start resisting masculinity:

We can stop glorifying violence and we can reject its socially sanctioned forms, primarily in the military and the sports world. We can make peace heroic. We can find ways to use and enjoy our bodies in play without watching each other crumble to the ground in pain after a “great hit.”

We can stop providing the profits for activities that deny our own humanity, hurt other people, and make sexual justice impossible: pornography, strip bars, prostitution, sex tourism. There is no justice in a world in which some bodies can be bought and sold.

We can take seriously the feminist critique of sexual violence, not just by agreeing that rape and battering are bad, but by holding each other accountable and not looking the other way when our friends do it. And, just as important, we can ask ourselves how the sexual ethic of male dominance plays out in our own intimate relationships, and then ask our partners how it looks to them.

If we do those things, the world will be a better place not just for the people who currently suffer because of our violence, but for us. If you are not moved by arguments about justice and the humanity of others, then be moved by the idea that you can help make a better world for yourself. If you cannot take the pain of others seriously, then take seriously your own pain, your own hesitations, your own sense of unease about masculinity. You feel it; I know you do. I have never met a man who didn’t feel uneasy about masculinity, who didn’t feel that in some way he wasn’t living up to what it meant to be a man. There’s a reason for that: Masculinity is a fraud; it’s a trap. None of us is man enough.

There are men who know this, more men than will admit it. We are looking for each other. We are gathering. We search each other’s eyes with hope. “Can I trust you?” we ask silently. Can I trust myself? In the end, will we both get scared and rush back to masculinity, to what we know? In the end, will we both reach for “Blow Bang #4”?

In a world full of the pain that comes with being alive — death and disease, disappointment and distress — being a human being is hard enough. Let’s not add to our troubles by trying to be men. Let’s not add to the suffering of others.

Let’s stop trying to be men. Let’s struggle to be human beings.

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Robert Jensen, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and co-author of Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality . He can be reached at [email protected]

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