Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What Is Gay Sex? Pornography Tries to Give Us the Answer, and Fails

[image of two white-appearing men kissing for a camera is from here]

Below are several passages from Audre Lorde's classic radical lesbian feminist essay, "The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power":
"The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling."
"The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need - the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love."

"There are frequent attempts to equate pornography and eroticism, two diametrically opposed uses of the sexual. Because of these attempts, it has become fashionable to separate the spiritual (psychic and emotional) from the political, to see them as contradictory or antithetical. [...]"

"Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe."

"The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our own oppression as women."

"When we live outside ourselves, and by that I mean on external directives only rather than from our internal knowledge and needs, when we live away from those erotic guides from within ourselves, then our lives are limited by external and alien forms, and we conform to the needs of a structure that is not based on human need, let alone an individual's. But when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering, and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like the only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within."


"To share the power of each other's feelings is different from using another's feelings as we would use a Kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. [...]"

"The need for sharing deep feeling is a human need. But within the european-american tradition, this need is satisfied by certain proscribed erotic comings-together. These occasions are almost always characterized by a simultaneous looking away, a pretense of calling them something else, whether a religion, a fit, mob violence, or even playing doctor. And this misnaming of the need and the deed give rise to that distortion which results in pornography and obscenity - the abuse of feeling."

"When we look away from the importance of the erotic in the development and sustenance of our power, or when we look away from ourselves as we satisfy our erotic needs in concert with others, we use each other as objects of satisfaction rather than share our joy in the satisfying, rather than make connection with our similarities and our differences. [This] is to deny a large part of the experience, and to allow ourselves to be reduced to the pornographic, the abused, and the absurd."

"The erotic cannot be felt secondhand. As a Black lesbian feminist, I have a particular feeling, knowledge, and understanding for those sisters with whom I have danced hard, played, or even fought. This deep participation has often been the forerunner for joint concerted actions not possible before."

"But this erotic charge is not easily shared by women who continue to operate under an exclusively european-american male tradition. I know it was not available to me when I was trying to adapt my consciousness to this mode of living and sensation." -- Audre Lorde, "The Uses of The Erotic, The Erotic as Power", in her book Sister Outsider

To understand what Audre Lorde was speaking about and to, I have had to completely and thoroughly examine, take apart, and largely destroy the sexuality that was given to me by a racist, misogynist, and heterosexist society. I have had to come to terms with the impact of men's sexual abuses and uses of me, with the violence, however subtle or extreme, that inheres in the entitlements and privileges given to me because I am a white man.

When I was growing up there were feelings so strong I didn't know what to do with them, and many seemed dangerous not because they would harm others or myself, but because they would assist me in the liberation of my sexuality from the confines and dictates of white heteromale supremacy.

This is a discussion about what is above and what is below. I offer the first two segments of an episode of The Tyra Banks Show, called "Gay for Pay", featuring two white heterosexual men who perform in "gay pornography films":

Segment one: Kurt:
 

Segment two: Aaron:


For those that don't wish to watch these two ten minute segments, here's a summary.

These two white straight guys--yes, they are heterosexual, heterosexist, and sexist--got into gay pornography because white male pornographers paid ten times more to do so than to have pornographic sex with women. The reasons for this are capitalistic and also complicated by patriarchal values which always make white heterosexual men, however crafted or corrupted by systems of abusive power, more exemplary of humanity than anyone else. Note that Tyra refers to them as typical All American-looking guys. (That means white, heterosexual, youthful, not physically disabled, and not poor.) Kurt is engaged to a woman and has three children with her. Aaron's girlfriend, to the applause of the audience, broke up with him. (Yay! He's such a jerk!)

I grew up having crushes primarily on white non-Jewish heterosexual men, both because I didn't know any out and proud gay men, and because heterosexual white Gentile men were the ideal. I was an remain often drawn to blond men, who tend not to be Jewish. But I am also not attracted to men who are not "Aryan-looking".

Both straight and gay men work at being and acting heterosexist. One can be heterosexist with women or with men, as a gay man or a heterosexual one. And this can happen in sex and in the areas of life.

When I was young, the feelings I had were not only invalidated, they were insulted and degraded. The feelings I had, the longings to connect with males intimately, passionately, were pressed through a white heteromale supremacist meat grinder, and integrity became impossible to achieve. Or so I thought. My sexual life and my non-sexual life were never integrated. As my ethical/emotional/intellectual life deepened and took root, my sexual life waned or found expression in the use of magazines like Playgirl, and later in seeking out videos of cute young men masturbating. I had become leary of any actual sexual contact with men, including watching scenes of it. So images or video of men alone was the only thing that appealed to me, someone who felt fully entitled to access such images and videos, who was not in any way by society discouraged from equating sex with objectification and sexual behavior with violation. When I got older I realised that to be a violator meant that I was a danger to other people, even those I "only" objectified. And that's mostly all I did. I've always had fears of very deep connection to men, for many reasons. While I am gay, I don't long to be with men who value being men. And I don't long to be with men who think being in drag shows means they are acting like women. I don't long to be part of a pornographically sexual society that tells me that sex is good when sex is empty, when it is commerce, when it is exploitation, or when it is abuse.

I make sure I only use computers with image barriers which prevent graphic objectification and sexual abuse from appearing before me. It's partly because I am still capable of desiring to see such "sexxx" that I won't use computers that allow me to access it. I thought this meant I would never have to look at pornography again.

When I began watching the first segment of the Tyra Banks program, I felt what I used to feel a lot: a desire to see white guys in a sexually aroused state. I wasn't clear when younger that this meant seeing men who were unconscious, often uncaring, and generally unwilling to know what it meant to present to oneself in ethical and responsible ways. I was less clear that it meant being unconscious, uncaring, and unwilling to know that I was not being present to myself--to my deepest feelings and wishes, which meant I could much more easily be dangerous to others. For if I made the mistake of accepting what society told me was ok to do, or bad to do but also secretly good to do, I was lost in modes of being that were both patriarchally destructive and dissociative. In my thirties, I began to realise that I was not entitled to a sexuality, if that sexuality required me to objectify or otherwise visually violate others. Or physically violate. Or exploit. Or even use another person as a thing. I was told I was entitled to it, and would be commended by men for being this way, but as my allegiance from an early age was with women and radical feminism, I knew that patriarchal men's standards for me were insufficient and savage. Savage, for me, is a word that is synonymous with civilised. Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin, and later Marimba Ani taught me that normal society, my society, will welcome and encourage me to use and abuse people with impunity. It will compel me to use and abuse people, as if exploitation and harm were socially good. "Civilisation" I would learn from Derrick Jensen, requires atrocity, thrives on destruction, and is most itself when it is killing Life. And less abysmal activities too: like "only" objectifying people.

So it was with my white male entitlements in place that I did an image check on Kurt, the first guy interviewed. He seemed really gentle to me. Sweet. And due to that he was attractive to me. He was not at all what I find white heterosexual men to be, usually--inside or outside the pornography industry. I despise men's arrogance, white privilege flaunted unconsciously, and heterosexism presented as natural. Kurt didn't demonstrate this, in the usual ways, at least. I was watching a program that didn't make it clear what pornography, of whatever "genre" exists to do. Liking pornography, and why so many of us are drawn to it as a way to gain distance from ourselves and power in the world was not a topic for review. The issue here was a flawed if intriguing one: why would heterosexual men perform in "gay" pornography? And was it "gay" if the actors are heterosexual? And, a tougher question that usually goes unasked and unanswered: is it "gay" if it is pornography?

I was surprised but not alarmed that an actual video clip of Kurt having sex with another white guy showed up on the monitor. (This is "moderate" safety settings lets through?) I know what's out there in cyber-pornography-land. And to say "it's not pretty" would be polite. These two white men were f*cking. Not an act I'm into watching, to be honest. But I watched the one minute clip that loaded before my eyes--I could easily have closed the window while the video clip was loading, but didn't. Willfully. I wanted to see Kurt in action. I didn't know how I would feel when seeing this, but anticipated it might be sexually charged.

But once I saw "the act" going on, I was, even in the course of one minute, increasingly turned off by what I was seeing. I haven't looked at any pornography in a long time, so was unfamiliar with all I'd just taken in. Listening to Kurt and the next guest talk about their experiences being in pornography films made sense of what I saw, and why I was turned off. I'm glad that I don't find pornography intriguing or enticing any more. I think one of my "wake up calls" was finding myself falling asleep while watching a "gay" porn video over twenty years ago. I think I've seen a half dozen or so. And by the sixth, it was just plain dull. People weren't behaving in ways I recognised as human, or humane. There was no care, no compassion, no consideration. Just "having at it" in ways that male supremacist men desire to do. As someone who has made myself into someone who is increasingly asexual, sexxx is not appealing to me any more. Nor is sex.

What I found out by listening to Kurt and the next guest was that for either of them to be in "gay" pornography, they have to be focused on something else entirely. In Kurt's less homophobic case, being admired and appreciated by a gay male viewing audience was sufficient. For the more homophobic second guest, he had to watch home-made pornography of his girlfriend and him in order to get aroused and, with viagra in his system, "peform".

In the one minute video, I noticed that while Kurt was there, he wasn't there in any way that reminded me of the person I saw speaking to Tyra Banks. It was that Kurt I thought was sweet and cute, not the one getting f*cked by some guy, for lots of money. In the video clip he was totally naked but not at all vulnerable. He was behaving in a way I understood to be male supremacist. It was a form of sexuality in action, but that is not anything that is erotic. (Read Audre Lorde's essay on The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power" for much more on this distinction.)

What the two men say about what they do in order to prepare for their "gay" sex scenes made sense of what I saw in one minute of footage. People were doing their best to "perform" sexually without being at all involved with one another emotionally or affectionately. How sad. How unappealing. I get why this is appealing to people, just as I get why white sugar is appealing to people. And cocaine. But all these white things have no deep value, other than providing capitalist business-men with cash at the expense of the health and well-being of the masses, including the people in pornography, who, it is clear, pimps and pornographers don't care about at all.

I suspect I was initially aroused because I haven't seen objectified naked cute men in a while and I used to be hard-wired, socially, to view men I was physically attracted to very objectifying ways. I used to find objectifying men to be the same thing as being sexually aroused. I remember learning that a study found many men could not experience arousal without pornography, and that was a huge alarm. And it sent me back to Lorde's essay, to understand several dimensions of what the danger was, to myself and others. Things that are harmful to me I can cope with. Things that harm others are no longer acceptable to me.

I don't any longer, in my body or in my mind, equate objectification with sexuality. I know that I live in a society where one presented as the prerequisite for experiencing the other. As I mentioned, in my teens and twenties "objectifying men" was usually required for me to have sexual feelings. I'm glad that's no longer the case. And It's no longer the case because I've spent years untangling that mess of patriarchal sexual imperatives from my own internal wiring and value system. It's possible to do, but it takes a lot of work. The work had to include accountability to others, and the will to not be normal in a society that presents and mandates pornography as normal sex.

This cute straight guy has "gay" sex, according to society. But I don't think that's at all what he's doing at all. I think he's having patriarchal sex, and he's doing it with a man for economic reasons. That's "capitalist" sex, isn't it? For me, there's nothing "gay" about that. Gay Pride marches are not about the fight to be unconscious and calllous capitalists. Or white male supremacists, I hope. I wouldn't know, really. I gave up going to them years ago when I suspected that white middle class gay pride was bound to all of that. And that's nothing for me to celebrate or endorse.

For me, "gay" sex would be eroticism expressed between men or by a man alone who is appreciating his humanity as a person, not treating himself or any other person as a thing. For me, being gay means being with other men humanely in non-haterosexist ways.

It means being with men intellectually, emotionally, and physically, with love and with delight, and in the fullness of human being.

That's not at all what "gay" pornography is, and in this sense, I think all pornography is the same kind of sex, which I call sexxx. Sometimes it involves raping women, turning women into girls for older men to exploit, or turning girls into women in atrocious ways. Sometimes it is the product of a man filming two women being sexxxual as if that's in any way a "lesbian" scene. Or gay men being together to show off how to be patriarchal men, or self-hating gay men, or heterosexual men getting it on for the paycheck. It's all one variation of an overarching heterosexist men's sexxx scene.

Lesbianism, according to the feminist lesbian women I know, is a practice that doesn't involve men or a celebration of male supremacy. And it's not necessarily a sexual practice. It's a spiritual/political/emotional/intellectual/erotic one. Audre Lorde's essay The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, describes this especially well, I think.

I am glad that sexxx is no longer sexual to me. And I'm very glad I don't desire patriarchal and industrial strength versions of commodified sex, or any white male supremacist versions of sex. I don't even want to see men having sex (or anyone else) in mainstream movies. I've seen enough. It's not that it can't appeal to me. It's that for it to appeal to me means I am, for the time being, becoming patriarchally dehumanised and empowered in a way I try not to be any more. I've been that way enough. Most of the sex I've had has required me to be dehumanised in various ways, due to being white, a man, and a survivor of child sexual abuse. Each of those realities has made intimacy with men a struggle. Because while I am attracted to men physically and on other levels, I am also triggered by sex.

So I don't generally desire to see "gay" pornography any more, because it has nothing useful to offer me as a person. It teaches me nothing I need to know about how to be humane. All it does is remind me of what sex used to be like for me: people pretending to be sexual when they're really just going through the motions. Gayness cannot be found in "motion pictures". At best it can be acted well. But it is never acted well in pornography, because as Lorde notes, pornography is the opposite of eroticism. And eroticism is found in the course of living life with some degree of integrity, which for me means a holistic concern for humanity and other life.

3 comments:

JENNIFER DREW said...

Thank you Julian for analysing so-called gay porn because to me there is no difference whatsoever between heterosexual, gay or lesbian porn, since the dynamics are always the same. Power, domination and control over someone else who is a dehumanised being.

As you rightly say, gay porn is all about promoting patriarchy's definition of what supposedly passes for human sexuality. Andre Lorde's essay on the erotic is commonly misunderstood and I believe that is because we have become so immersed in porn it is now seen as 'normal patriarchal sexual expression' - heterosexist men's sexxx.

Pornography is insidious because pornography is all about arousing the viewer but at the same time it is all the same, plastic commodification of human beings into sexualised commodities and the ones making the money are the pornographers. But of course we can ignore how pornography tells lies and promotes such lies as truth because hey, there always has to be a 'dominant and a submissive,' otherwise it isn't apparently 'sexxxx.'

Julian Real said...

Hi Jennifer,

Thanks for that comment. I know that white men like John Stoltenberg and, perhaps especially, Christopher N. Kendall have written about this, but it all just needs to be resaid occasionally.

I find what Audre Lorde has to say on the subject far richer, that what white men write, and more about the spirit of human beings, and how we--the oppressors and the oppressed--are led to live astoundingly shallow lives under white heterosexist male supremacy. Lorde makes connections in that one essay that I have always seen as central to "getting it" about what's harmful about industry pornography and the values of the pimps who mass produce it.

Patti said...

I'd rather watch my Airedale attempt to hump the overstuffed chair in the family room than watch any commercial porn....yeah, it's THAT enticing to me...

Linked to this older article during my read of the het male vampires one, and a couple of things that you stated, Julian, made me think of something that I read yesterday while perusing the latest chapter, entitled "Sexuality", of the online book-in-progress, The Masculinity Conspiracy. I don't know if I linked to it directly through the various links on right sidebar of this blog or indirectly via one of those links.

Julian, you have stated in this article and elsewhere that you have and are becoming increasingly asexual, and in this particular article you stated that, "For me, "gay" sex would be eroticism expressed between men or by a man alone who is appreciating his humanity as a person, not treating himself or any other person as a thing. For me, being gay means being with other men humanely in non-haterosexist ways."

And here is the portion from The Masculinity Conspiracy that sprang to mind:
"One interesting alternative on this spectrum that does not get the attention it deserves is the choice of a period of celibacy.
One reader of the previous chapters sent me an email stating that the greatest lesson of celibacy for him was “learning how to love a man and not have to possess a woman.”"