Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Sexualizing curiosity

It will be interesting to see if Andrea Dworkin's ideas about pornography and patriarchy will get fair play in the coverage of her death, or if they will be subject to the usual histrionic distortions. The misrepresentation of her thought as being anti-sex merely because it is anti-prostitution and anti-pornography seems to indicate the vested interest people, male and female, have in exploiting sexual power dynamics, and it shows how deeply entrenched is the tendency to want to commodify experience, even intimate sexual experience. The Internet changed everything about the consumption of pornography, it seems to me, making it a low-overhead international business that can generate profit marketing to most minute niches imaginable, encouraging in porn consumers a connoisseur's approach to viewing different ethnicities, different perversions, different permutations of sexual behavior simply because it is available. Viewing all these behavioral extremities has the potential to make Internet porn quests into a proxy for experience, sexualizing curiosity in general while simultaneously instrumentalizing sexuality, making into an expression of acquisitive power. This was Dworkin's essential insight, one that seems absolutely indisputable, no matter how "liberating" you might think it is to be a stripper: Pornography is always about power relations, usually about gender, but never about sexual pleasure. The "pleasure" men get from launching crumpled-up dollar billls at a naked woman's vagina in places like Al's Diamond Cabaret has nothing to do with sex. But it has a lot to do with feeling power, with feeling superiority to the person you can commission to degrade herself onstage for you, with feeling superior to a gender who may often seem to hold all the emotional cards. Male sexual desire tends to make them feel a bit powerless, out of control, subject to woman's whim, and pornography is a kind of political theater that restores their sense of mastery over women to them, establishing at the same time the homosocial truth that real emotional connections and intimacy occur between men, sanctified over the body of a degraded woman. (Read Eve Sedgwick's Between Men for the classic expression of that theory.)

Having had several friends who have worked in the sex industry, I developed a sense that the majority of women in it were deeply emotionally damaged in some way; typically they had bee either abused or raped and had come to understand sexuality as mere power in an especially raw and pitiless way. If you believe that is the core truth underlying all the nicey-nice coverup cant about "love" and "intimacy" and "sharing," then you are likely to see pornography as inevitable, and possibly believe that you should try to leverage your stake in it as a woman for as much as you can get -- you will be a "pro-porn" feminist, looking for ways to exploit your own body as a means to express social power. You will believe you are in control when you can induce the man to throw a crumpled up dollar at your vagina. You will see that expression of sexual behavior as "truer" than the kind where you try to share pleasure with a mate, whose trust will always threaten you because it will always seem like a lie and a facade. Sex that is not controlling will be uncomfortable, confusing, disturbing. Where as sex rationalized by the porn industry will seem logical, safe, explicable, managable.

Porn is streamlined sexuality, is sex made convenient. But as I was claiming about the family, sexuality may be authenticated by its difficulty, by the happy struggle it requires in order for it to sanctify deep human relationships. If you make sex convenient, you strip it of its essential quality, and it becomes something else. It becomes shopping, a way of demonstrating power that's ultimately measured in dollars. Sexual love has no measurement (measurement, as the NYT Magazine article I mentioned yesterday about media measurement and ratings seemed to suggest, is a way of controlling and pre-determining an experience), and that is what many people in a consumer society find so threateneing about it, and why they react so negatively to women like Dworkin who point that out.

1 comment:

  1. To me there's something perversely, despairingly beautiful in the image of a creased dollar bill lying lengthwise across the labia of the stripper's (ahem, ... "sex worker's") upturned vagina. The beauty, I guess, rests in its maddeningly paradoxical implications: an intimacy that is truly estrangement, a contact that is not, that simply recalls to us the immense gulf between a being and all other beings. Metonymies, always metonymies, in an endless, centerless network that can never include entirely the being in her Being.

    The above-mentioned image eternalizes, hypostatizes an existential problem akin to that of the figures that are the subject of Keats's meditation in his "Ode to a Grecian Urn"--a meditation that culminates in a chiastic circularity: "Beauty is Truth; Truth Beauty." The sex industry, as you so ably pointed out, offers a homologous circularity: "Sex is Power; Power Sex." And perhaps, pace Keats, *that* "is all ye need to know on earth."

    Marriage, then, seems no more than a wishul attempt to slow this dizzying circularity, to establish or imbricate some sort of Foucauldian heterotopia in which we comport ourselves to an imagined fullness and authenticity that the world, in its true character, denies.

    The creased dollar bill upon the upturned vagina is, finally, the conditio humana redacted to its essence.

    Remember, on that dollar bill there is also a symbol of incompleteness: the unfinished pyramid.