Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity
by Robert Jensen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Jensen has written a wonderful 1970's-style second-wave feminist tract . . . in 2007. One might think some type of grappling with third-wave feminism (and I have to add my standard disclaimer whenever I use the wave metaphor that feminist theorizing and activism is a constant process that can't really be cut up into discreet waves as if nothing happened in between them) might be called for. Indeed, the back of the book even manages to promise something of the sort (and the same text appears on the Amazon page) when it notes that "Anti-pornography arguments are frequently dismissed as patently 'anti-sex'--and ultimately 'anti-feminist'." As someone who argues the anti-porn-->anti-sex-->anti-woman position, this intrigues me. But I don't think he's really interested in arguing with me, or any other feminist. (The things he doesn't seem to be interested in arguing about are legion, probably.) That's okay; the people who write book copy frequently miss the point. (Just look at the back of Heinlein's Time Enough for Love
.) At the end of the day, people on both sides of that discussion can be united at being against bad porn.
But who in his (since I think we're assuming it'd be a he) right mind would be for bad porn? Okay, I'm probably being naive, but I find it hard to believe than any of those people are going to actually bother to read Jensen's book. So what's the point?
Part of the disconnect might be that Jensen and I simply hold different understandings of the relationship between theory and activism, and how (and even if) apologetics should be done. For Jensen, all the side roads of definitions and such are distractions from his main project of showing men the damage of pornography. But my mind doesn't work that way. I could engage in a theoretical debate with another femnist, for example exposing heteronormative assumptions in their work, because I know there's a set of shared assumptions. But to argue against Jensen's quintessential porn user? For me, that would require showing all
one's work, not less of it. I know I'm not up to the task. (I've been wanting to make a post in my journal for years at this point on the "anti-sex is anti-woman" thing. There are objections I don't know how to answer.) The most I could possibly do right now (and probably ever) is try to sketch out my worldview with the hope that an interlocutor could at least understand if not adopt it: "this is what I believe, and why I believe it" but not "this is why you should believe this."
But at the end of the day, Jensen's book is only secondarily about porn or the porn industry. First and foremost, it's about masculinity, and I think recognizing that explains why he doesn't address some of the things he doesn't. If the fundamental question he is answering is, "How can a heterosexual man in a patriarchal culture mediate his sexual desires, experiences, and understandings through text and/or images?" then--well, I still don't think he's done a very good job of presenting a coherent vision, but he has at least put forth some do's and don't's, even if they're ones that might seem obvious to someone who is already a feminist, porn-positive or not.
I've seen a lot I like, too. His insistence that what is needed is an abolition of masculinity, and not just redefine it (144-145). (I'm not sure whether he thinks an end of masculinity would usher in an end to maleness, or not.) That men must join women in women-led causes as their primary mode of activism (147). And so forth.
I do think it's possible to step outside one'smaleness without stepping outside their heterosexuality--a project that, yes, I think would end up looking a lot like Jensen's. Indeed, it almost seems to me that any reconstruction of masculinity which starts on Dworkinist premises is going to end up in this trap, which is ironic because of course Dworkin was a lesbian, and her partner (and eventual husband) John Stoltenberg, who is someone I have read and is the main person I'm thinking of here other than Jensen, was a gay man. (And I see that Jensen's not a Kinsey zero either.) I'm not quite sure why I should even feel this should be so. Is it that they are just so deeply seeped in a 1970's second-wave aesthetic? Is it a result of positioning this reconceptualization as a primarily feminist move--which is to say making the moral criterion an essentially gynocentric one? Or is it even that any constructive project is by its nature opposed to the very project of critical, and thus queer, theory?
Now, as noted above, Jensen discusses the move to abolish masculinity versus the move to redefine it, arguing for, as would I, the former. This puts forward a possibility: any attempt to reconstruct masculinity is essentially an attempt to keep it intact, to re-inscribe separate gender roles, and since all sexism is ultimately heterosexist (and vice versa), this is heteronormative. I don't think this is the whole story, though--especially since the premise of my original question assumed the project was being (or at least, could be) heteronormative while still being feminist (which would presumably be to say, not sexist). It does raise the question, though: the two male feminists I know of who think that masculinity is something worthy of being discussed (instead of simply stipulating it as undesirable and then getting on with the feminist projects of radical critique and liberal activism) are both Dworkinists. Is this significant?
Similarly I think it is possible to step outside of one's heterosexuality without examining one's maleness. But these are probably unstable positions, and once one is used to the theoretical move of examining one's privilege, it does get easier with time.
One of the fundamental issues is whether (sexual) desire is, and/or has to be, transitive, with desirers and desireds--whether desire implies objectification--or whether an intransitive form can be hypothesized; if the former, then objectification would need to be in some way reclaimed and revalued, as giving up desire doesn't seem a viable option. I think the question needs to be asked whether specific instances of sexual objectification can be broken off from its support of gendered patterns of oppression. That at least some such instances can be such seems clear--it can be used to satirize, to deconstruct, or expose those patterns, for example. But writ large? Objectification would need to be something that people do to each other--like kiss or make love--but which (like kissing and making love) they don't do all the time, something which can be turned off instead of being embedded in a persistent gaze of one gender towards the other.
The best treatment I really know which is fair to both sides of this debate is Joanna Russ's Pornography and the Doubleness of Sex for Women
, as linked in the on-line essay That Classic Combination: Sex and Violence
, which I found helpful in its treatment of Russ' essay. View all my reviews