Porn, Social Criticism, and the Marginalization of Kink


Please note: This piece discusses my personal sex life and sexual fantasies in a fair amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff, please skip this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Rocco animal trainer 5 Is it valid to criticize rough-sex porn for perpetuating misogynist images of women?

Or, to look at the question from the other side: Is it possible to critique rough-sex porn without marginalizing kink?

If you’ve been around the porn wars, you’ve almost certainly run across a particular form of anti-porn critique. “Erotica may not be inherently bad… but look at how misogynistic so much commercial porn is! Look at how it portrays degradation and violence against women as sexually pleasurable! Women being slapped and treated roughly during sex! Women being called sluts and whores and sex toys! Women being given forceful deep-throat blowjobs that make them choke and gag! Is that a vision of women and sexuality we want to accept?”

I was reading one of these screeds the other day (somebody linked to it in a Facebook conversation)… and I started spewing out a seriously annoyed mini-manifesto/ rant.

You know who finds that imagery hot? You know who gets turned on by images of women being slapped and roughed-up? You know who gets turned on by images of women being called sluts and whores and sex toys? You know who gets turned on by images of women having hard cocks forced down their throats until they choke and gag and cry?

Me.

I do.

And I am bloody well done with being told that I’m a bad person, or a bad feminist, for finding this imagery hot.

Consensual-sadomasochism I am a kinky person. I am a consensual sadomasochist. And I am bloody well done with having my desire to see kinky imagery, consensually engaged in as an acted-out fantasy, treated as a desire for actual, real-world degradation and oppression of women. I am bloody well done with having kinky sexuality marginalized by well-meaning concern trolls who supposedly have my best interests at heart.

When critics point to rough or kinky sex in porn as evidence of its misogyny, I think they often fail to realize that they’re marginalizing kink, and people in the kink community. Including — need I say it? — women in the kink community. Kink is already seriously marginalized: plenty of people see it as sick and sad at best, abusive and destructive at worst, self-evidently and by its very nature. Kinky people are already made to feel ashamed and guilty about what we do and what we like to think about. And it troubles me greatly when progressive, feminist people — people who are normally sensitive to a fault about marginalized communities, people who would passionately decry any attempt to say that (for instance) gay and lesbian sexuality is inherently sick and sad — are this tone-deaf about how their ideas are contributing to the guilt and shame and demonization of yet another sexual minority.

(And yes — the fantasies depicted in rough and kinky porn are consensually acted out. The myth of people being forced into the porn industry is just that — a myth. There are plenty of people who are willing to do this work for money. There’s no earthly reason for porn producers to force anyone into it at gunpoint. Sheesh.)

Okay. So that’s the manifesto/ rant. Which I was all ready to make the focus of today’s column.

But then I started thinking. (Always a danger.) And I started asking myself, “Is it really that simple?”

*

Here’s the conundrum.

I do, in fact, think it’s valid to critique popular culture — including porn — for the cultural messages it conveys, about gender or anything else. Regardless of whether those messages are being conveyed intentionally or unconsciously. Hell, I do it myself all the time. I criticize movies, TV shows, music videos, advertising, etc. — and porn — for perpetuating sexist and misogynistic imagery.

Lethal weaponFor instance. As a film critic and social critic, I might point out that action movies commonly perpetuate some very common sexist tropes: e.g., weak helpless women who need rescuing by strong male heroes. Now, someone who likes action movies might reply, “Hey, it’s just a fantasy that I enjoy. I’m not saying that I want a world in which strong men rescue weak helpless women, or that the world is really like that. It’s just an escapist fantasy.” And yet I think it’s valid for me to critique this trope and how common it is — even though it is just a fantasy, consensually participated in by the actors as well as the audience. The fantasy is exactly what I’m critiquing — that, and how ubiquitous it is.

So how is that different from someone critiquing rough or kinky porn for perpetuating sexist imagery of women?

Sex and the city Or similarly, as a film critic and social critic, I might criticize the “Sex and the City” movie for depicting women as vapid consumers whose emotional lives center on possessions. But someone who likes that movie might say, again, that it’s just a fun fantasy that doesn’t imply anything about the people who made it or the people who enjoy it. Why is it valid for me to critique these depictions of women in “Sex and the City”… but it’s not valid for someone to critique, say, “Rocco: Animal Trainer 5″ for depicting women as subjugated sex toys who exist to be used roughly by men and have cocks forced down their throats until they gag?

So if I’m going to defend my social criticism of the fantasy images depicted in action movies or “Sex and the City” — even if those images aren’t meant to say, “This is how the world ought to be,” or even, ‘This is how the world really is,” even if those images are simply saying, “This is a fun and entertaining thing to think about as a distraction” — why is it not valid for someone else to critique the fantasy images depicted in rough or kinky porn?

I want to be very rigorous here. I want to be sure I don’t reach my conclusion first and then contort my ethical thinking so I can get there from here. I don’t want to have my rationale be, “I like kinky porn, therefore it’s okay; I don’t like “Sex in the City,” therefore it’s not.” I don’t want my ethical thinking to just be a rationalization of my personal likes and dislikes.

So I’ve been thinking about this carefully and at length. And here’s what finally occurred to me. (Or, to be more accurate: Here’s what finally occurred to Ingrid. I chewed over this idea in my head for days without a solution; I ran it by nearly a dozen people who all came up with interesting questions and thoughts, none of which actually resolved the conundrum… and Ingrid thought about it for ten minutes and came up with the answer. I love being married to a philosophy major.)

Here’s what it is.

The problem isn’t with critiquing kinky or rough-sex porn for perpetuating misogyny.

The problem is with critiquing rough-sex or kinky porn for perpetuating misogyny… simply because it’s rough or kinky.

Ecstasy_in_berlin_1926 The problem with the “rough or kinky porn perpetuates imagery of women as sexual victims” trope is that it shows absolutely no awareness of consensual kink. It shows no awareness of kink as a consented-to activity among equals, in which fantasies of inequality or non-consent are played out with the willing and enthusiastic agreement of everyone. It shows no awareness of the complex layers and meta-layers of kinky fantasy and the acting-out of fantasy: the ways that kinky people can experience themselves simultaneously as victims/ perpetrators and as caring, affectionate partners giving each other what we most dearly want… and the fact that we often enjoy porn which acknowledges that experience and caters to it. It shows no awareness of the fact that there’s oodles of rough and kinky porn in which women dominate men. (Not to mention rough and kinky gay male porn — Loki knows there’s plenty of that — and by-lesbians-for-lesbians porn — there’s not a ton of that these days, but the rough stuff definitely makes up a solid chunk of what there is.) It shows no awareness of the fact that plenty of women enjoy these fantasies every bit as much as men… and that while men are more likely to be consumers of video porn, including rough or kinky video porn, women are avid consumers of these fantasies in other media. (Most notably fiction — especially in the blurry and increasingly non-existent line between romance novels and erotica.)

And it shows no awareness of how this reflexive criticism of rough and kinky porn plays into the marginalization of kinky people.

If people want to critique sexism in porn, I’m all for it. I’ve done it myself, more than once. And if people want to critique sexism in rough or kinky porn, I’m all for that as well. But the critique needs to be better-informed, and more nuanced, than just, “Look! Women being dominated and humiliated and slapped around! It’s so sexist!” It needs to not just reflexively say that any depiction of rough or kinky sex in which women are the bottoms is sexist… simply because it is rough or kinky sex in which women are the bottoms, purely on that basis alone.

Thanks to Ingrid, Ben, and the folks at the Center for Sex and Culture salon for helping me think this one through. This was a tough one, and I couldn’t have gotten here alone.

Comments

  1. Ramza says

    Thanks for talking about this because its something that I’ve been struggling with since reading something else you had written.
    I read a piece of yours talking about a male friend of yours writing fiction about economic coercion and how you felt he shouldn’t feel bad about it (http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2010/06/suspectability-of-male-sexuality.html, though looking back it seems that was only a small part of it). And it really bothered me and I thought about it and didn’t really come up with much.
    Truth be told I’m still not totally convinced that fantasizing about being the perpetrator of non consensual sex is good or healthy or compatible with feminism. I know fantasies can be just that and that kink has all kinds of consent build in but thinking about a man fantasizing about forcing a woman into sex just makes me really creeped out and a bit scared (I’m a guy so I don’t mean for my personal safety).
    I know feelings shouldn’t be a basis for judging things like this but I can’t help it. The analogies that come to mind probably aren’t fair but I think of a white guy fantasizing about a lynching and even if he has no intention of doing it it seems too fucked up to ever condone (which isn’t to say I think it should be banned or something).
    The other way around (a women forcing a man) doesn’t cause the same reaction which to me indicates I find this so fucked up because it goes along with the misogyny and rape apologia of our culture. Like in a perfect world where that stuff didn’t happen and get laughed off maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal but in this one I don’t know that I can feel at all good about it.
    All of this is a long winded way of saying that I guess I don’t know. Looking back on it this post doesn’t seem as similar to the other as I had thought
    I guess I’m struggling to understand how to relate to rape porn/fantasies from the point of view of the perpetrator which I think you find alright under at least some circumstances (if I’m wrong about that then I apologize). I don’t think I’m just a prude but looking at what I’ve written I can see a lot of similarities to that way of thinking so maybe I am.

  2. Reluctant to agree says

    I can see your point, but I once read an article on human sexuality which boiled the field down to two basic tenets:
    1. Men want.
    2. Woman want to be wanted.
    I’ve always felt as though that is the explanation for why I fantasize about situations that I wouldn’t at all want to actually be placed in. And that was all well and good … until I was forced into those situations in real-time. And experiencing it first-hand really fucked me up, and I started thinking about this subject more and more. I’m new to feminism, myself. And I wouldn’t call myself anti-pornography necessarily … but I feel that problems start to arise when kids these days are actually raised on porn. I’ve heard the argument that fetish porn can stop some potential sex offenders from committing their crimes … but what about those individuals who wouldn’t have otherwise been tempted? Does the accessibility of this kind of porn make younger people believe that these things are simply okay, without exception?
    I was not asked about my preferences when it happened to me. And I can’t help but blame the industry, because I can’t think of any other explanation that wouldn’t just make me afraid to ever have sex again, for fear of what might happen to me if I did.
    I’m still very uncertain about any of the conclusions I’ve come to regarding these issues, so I am really glad you’re blogging about it. However, I’m having trouble reconciling my horrific experience/s with the idea that just pointing out the degradation of women in porn isn’t enough to convict it of perpetuating the problem.
    I don’t have any suggestions, really … just that I don’t want to live in a world where I’m ashamed to be a woman, and I feel like that’s the world I live in. And sexually is the only way I’ve ever felt oppressed for those reasons.
    I get off on the idea, as much as the next person does. But … when you think of it as being pleasured by the thought of someone else’s pain and humiliation … does it not make you feel guilty? It does for me. And I don’t know if that’s just an after-effect of the trauma of my personal experience, or if it’s a feeling that might be conducive to finding an actual reality of the situation.
    Who knows …
    Glad someone’s blogging about it, at least. I hope to hear more from you!

  3. says

    I’m in agreement with you here. Again. ;) It’s fair to criticize potential sexism in porn. There are some movies that are worthy of such criticism. However – for the most part – I see that it’s consensual, it’s a job/career, and it’s not always cut ‘n dry. There are many movies with women dominating either gender/sex. If one is transsexual or transgendered, who calls sexism there? Just wondering…
    It’s all about finding what gets you off, whether it’s a specific fetish or a little bit of everything. And as a feminist, I’ve thought about this for a while. I have often heard the same types of criticism that you speak of. I have noticed that many women who complain about how awful porn is don’t necessarily hold typical feminist views on anything else. That is to say, some women will use the porn-is-sexist excuse just because they simply don’t like porn. Any porn. It hardly seems fair.
    I also agree with you on Sex in the City. :)

  4. ckitching says

    I once read an article on human sexuality which boiled the field down to two basic tenets:
    1. Men want.
    2. Woman want to be wanted.

    That sounds awfully like simplifying the entire field of physics into “particles interacting with each other”. Even if it were strictly true, it doesn’t really tell you anything useful. Worse, that theory doesn’t even explain animals whose mating rituals are far simpler than our own.

    I’ve heard the argument that fetish porn can stop some potential sex offenders from committing their crimes … but what about those individuals who wouldn’t have otherwise been tempted? Does the accessibility of this kind of porn make younger people believe that these things are simply okay, without exception?

    The problem is that you can make this argument about anything. Personally, the kind of porn that Greta is taking about makes me cringe. However, I have other interests that get the exact same treatment. I recently finished playing a game that revolved entirely around doing violent things and running across rooftops. I enjoyed it throughly. I can assure you that I have absolutely no desire to kill or hurt anyone in real life, or to run across and jump between rooftops. Yet, people will complain that these kinds of games are making people more violent, training people to kill, and prompting emulation. “And won’t somebody please think of the kids???” And yet, I’ve never been in even a fist fight, and my (mild) fear of heights would prevent me from ever trying to emulate the acrobatics from the game I played.

  5. LS says

    Thank you for this post.
    This is something I know I’ve struggled with mightily for a long time. I can’t change my sexually sadistic nature any more than a gay man can will himself straight. Not to be vulgar, but I can cite sadistic or dominant sexual fantasies from my past going back as far as second grade. And that’s not even when it started, that’s just the oldest memories I have which include specific details.
    Kink is part of my sexual identity. That doesn’t mean I’m not a good, feminist man. Hell, the only reason I found this post was because I was trying to explain male privilege to other commentators on another feminist blog.
    So, high five for you. You’ve made a statement which will help us towards the day when we can talk about this kind of thing more openly.

  6. Must Be Bunnies says

    Children. Can we just get this out of the way first? As adults, we can’t involve children *at all* without hurting them. That’s it, end of statement.
    I am personally horrified by rape / violent fantasies. My wife (I’m male) likes to be dominated, but I have problems with that. However, we talk about it and are working things out. That’s just us. I think that, as far as sex goes, the motto “As long as it isn’t harmful to you or anyone else, it’s OK” is what we should strive toward. I would like to see people be more accepting of sex and sexuality and the myriad of differences in them. Once again, Greta is right on the money. She sees both sides of the issue.
    A final note on sex offenders. There have been sex offenders since way before the internet. I remember 2 in particular when I was little. Sticking our head in the sand about kinky sex wont have any effect on whether someone will offend or not. They are, even in this digital age, a small (but extremely damaging) portion of society. I believe sex-positive education is the key to stopping them.

  7. John says

    In the same boat as LS: Still struggling with this, trying to work it out — I’m a white male who tries to be more feminist and more diversist (noun?) every day, and I’m making good progress…and yet my own identity is tied to (hee!) being a heterosexual Dom who’s more than a little sadistic. Thank you for this post, and some more food for thought.

  8. Puzzled says

    I’m not a kinky person. I tried to be, I wasn’t comfortable. I have no issue at all with the types of movies you’re talking about, though, assuming they’re made by consenting actors and actresses. I’m just saying that to exclude things like real rape films available underground.
    Anyway, here’s the kind of porn that I really do think can be problematic, especially if it’s widely watched by teenagers and others who are trying to figure out what it’s all about: porn where women pretend to enjoy activities that I’m pretty sure men like and women don’t. Basically, too much porn (most porn?) is premised on having a woman who has fantasies common to men. Sure, such women exist, but the problem is that teenagers who grow up on this stuff come to believe that this is typical of women. This leads to a form of rape apology “She liked it” and in general, to difficulty pleasing women. That’s why I’ve taken to buying porn at Babeland.

  9. Valhar2000 says

    Puzzled: I think you are right. Well, I’m not sure whether porn leads to “rape apologia” or not, but I do know that it creates unrealistic expectations about sex that teenagers then have to unlearn. However, I think that the right way to deal with this is the same way we deal with the unrealistic expectations super-hero cartoons create in children: more information, not less.
    Just as we explain to children that wearing a colored cape will not, in fact, allow you to fly, we have to explain to kids who are entering the world of sexuality that the things they see in porn, while fun to look at, are often not in any way representative of what real people do in the real world.

  10. LS says

    Puzzled, I appreciate what you’re saying. I’m really not feeling prepared to discuss this at length, but I have two notes you might consider.
    1) “She was asking for it,” “She seduced me” are the excuses for rape in countries like Iran, where Porn isn’t exactly commonplace. I know pornographers have been executed there, not sure what punishment awaits those who watch porn though.
    2) I can’t speak to whether or not kids who grow up with porn have unrealistic expectations. My life experience has been that in any relationship, both parties have fantasies their partner doesn’t share. They can either refrain from engaging in those fantasies, or accommodate one another, depending on preference. But I’ve done no study, and seen none whose methods I don’t question, so I can’t really say for certain on this issue.
    That aside, there is a growing movement withing pornography to create “Ethical Porn.” Perhaps the most notable occurrence of this is Sasha Grey’s (a prolific adult film actress) recent choice to appear with a full bush, which sparked a lot of disgust from male viewers, but also brought a lot of attention to the issue of what real, grown women look like.
    Again, I’m not attempting to refute or even discuss these issues in any meaningful way. These are simply my thoughts.

  11. says

    Oh man, another awesome article. I’m not going to ramble on and on because I basically agree, so thanks for this!

  12. jec says

    And I am bloody well done with being told that I’m a bad person, or a bad feminist, for finding this imagery hot.
    Well…good luck with that. I think you’ll find that many people regard taking pleasure in the image of women being hurt, humiliated, or otherwise degraded constitutes misogyny per se. That is, many people believe that finding this imagery hot does make you a bad person and a bad feminist. (All the more so if you can’t play the “but I’m a woman” card. You can imagine what those folks think of men who express this sort of desire.) The desire itself is a moral failing, regardless of whether it induces you to go out and commit assault or to discriminate in hiring and pay or what have you.
    I have a hard time reading anti-porn pieces like the one you linked to without suspecting that what the author is really troubled and offended by is not the porn itself, but by the desires which the porn gratifies. Because they know better than to set themselves up as the thought police, they reverse cause and effect, claiming — typically without evidence — that the porn creates the offensive desires, and that if the porn went away, the desires would disappear as well. But the aim remains the same: to stamp out the desire.
    I should add, though, that some kinds of porn might serve as a barometer for some kinds of social problems. For example, I don’t think it’s wildly off-base to suggest that the popularity material of the Bang Bus ilk indicates a frighteningly large amount of anger towards women on the part of a surprisingly large number of men. But imagining that gonzo porn is the cause of those feelings distracts from the very important work of figuring out where those feelings do come from and what, if anything, can be done to ameliorate them.

  13. Puzzled says

    LS – I imagine that in places like you mention, porn is available (I saw a study about the frequency of searches for ‘goat porn’ in Saudi Arabia) but difficult to get, and induces a stronger sense of guilt and disgust than here. Then in addition to ‘she was asking for it’ there’s also ‘she’s disgusting, too.’

  14. Mary Putana says

    You’re all wrong. Life is not about having fun. It’s about devoting your life to a fictional character, Hayzooz, and paying people to lie to you. Learn your gender roles right and don’t make waves. Sex is only about having babies for the lord.

  15. Zoe says

    Thank you, you said it all.
    I’m 16 and a virgin, and I’m already pissed off pr0n-haters, due to my lovely exposure to the blogosphere. How is sadomasochism inherently misogynist when my particular interest is in two ladies? Wtf? There’s about the same about of M/f as there is F/m, too… Confused bastards…

  16. crissy... says

    I think the people who produce this “kink” porn are doing more damage to the adult industry than any naysayers…

  17. says

    I think there’s a basic distinction between fantasies in which the participants (and, when relevant, the viewers) are aware of most of the important differences between how they act and feel in the fantasy world vs. how they act and feel in the real world, and fantasies for which this is not the case.
    For instance, I would guess that characters fitting sexist stereotypes in action movies (or holding materialistic attitudes in Sex and the City) is generally not thought of as an important attribute of the relevant fantasy world (or as an important part of the fantasy) that is being built up, but instead is hardly though of at all, or if and when it is, is thought of as part of the assumed cultural background against which the fantasy is constructed.
    My impression of a good amount of mainstream porn is that it fits this model reasonably well. A lot of the gagging, rough sex and other “degrading” activities in mainstream video porn seems to be done without an acknowledgment that it is an important part of the fantasy. Instead, it’s often treated as a commonplace part of sex, as just something that you do (yes there was a gagging scene, the performers also took their clothes off…).
    To me this doesn’t seem to apply to porn coming out of the kink community, which I would claim, by and large, to be quite aware of what goes on in the porn it produces, and to give a great deal of thought to what performers are doing and why.
    So I’d argue that there isn’t a problem with any sexual act (or act of violence, drug use, or prejudice) being depicted in fantasy. The problem comes when such acts are depicted in blasé way—in a way that shrugs them off as a cultural equivalent to white noise. To the extent we want to talk about producer responsibility, I would claim that the producers of kinky porn are responsible for presenting whatever is going on as something to be noticed and thought about, not shrugged off (unlike, in quite a bit of mainstream porn, the story).
    Also, I just discovered this blog…awesome blog!

  18. Paula says

    I would argue that rape fantasies in which you’re the aggressor (is that the right word? I don’t mean to be offensive or negative, so please forgive me if that word choice offends you, it isn’t intentional) and sadism are fine regardless of gender as long as you make sure that you carry out those fantasies only with people who enjoy being on the receiving end. I think the real sexism in porn isn’t in the type of porn where the women are doing things that seem degrading, it’s where the women aren’t enjoying what’s being done. In fact, I think you’re probably more likely to find sexist porn looking in the vanilla piv or anal section than you are looking in the kinkier stuff because I would imagine you’re more likely to make sure the performer is enjoying what they’re doing if it’s being whipped or burned or doing other things that seem like they would be less enjoyable than if you’re just having them get into some conventional position unrestrained and sticking a penis in them! Porn where the women are clearly not enjoying from the activity, whether vanilla or kinky, is sexist porn. The exception would be porn where the premise is nonconsent, but even then you can usually tell if the performer is ok with doing what they’re doing. MustbeBunnies, if it helps, by dominating your wife, you wouldn’t be bringing her unhappiness and while you might bring her pain, she would enjoy it if that’s one of her kinks. You would be doing things to bring her pleasure, so there’s no reason to feel guilty or too uncomfortable, just remember that she quite literally asked for it and she’s enjoying it even if it’s counterintuitive to you that she would enjoy whatever it is you’re doing.

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