Saturday, August 29, 2009

What Men "Using Porn" Actually Is and Does

This post is a partial response to finishing the book, Love and Pornography, by Victoria and Garry Prater.

My primary frustration, my anger, at Garry is that at no point does he seek out an understanding of his behavior as political, as privileged, and as loaded up with male supremacist entitlements. To see oneself, as a man, only as a person who was hurt as a child, who was parentified at an early age, loaded up with responsibilities no child should be burdened with, who carries deep sexual shame that warps one’s sense of self, is to miss other key components of what any man is, and what sex has increasingly become due to men's patriarchal practices.

I don’t wish to minimize any of the ways Garry was hurt as child, and was manipulated by a society that condones just about every horrible act imaginable. But for all the ways men go on and on about how much will and power women apparently have who are in pornography, it is curious, to say the least, that men’s male supremacist agency and power seems never to register or mark the radar screen when it comes to men analysizing and intervening in each other’s behavior that hurts women.

Garry, in the book which is a partial chronicle of a portion of his life with Victoria, gets to be loved as a hurt, vulnerable man-child. He repeatedly and convincingly argues an entitlement-invisibilising case for continuing to use pornography while living with her, knowing full well it is not comfortable in the least for her to live with that arrangement. She is not alone in being a woman who wishes to live her life with a man but without pornography. But one gets the feeling she’d have to live alone, without him, if she weren’t accepting of his terms and definitions of what he is actually doing that disturbs her so much. He never owns the degrees to which he is being a male supremacist. This self-serving ignorance doesn’t make him a bad man. It makes him a typical one.

The West, particularly and especially the United States, has been about as fucked up about sex as any nation to date. It has both Puritanical influences, fusing shame with sex at every turn, while mandating a European-rooted patriarchal form of men’s sexual subordination of women, through marriage and intercourse, as natural and healthy regardless of whether such institutions and practices do, in fact, benefit women. What we know is this: they definitely benefit men.

Patriarchal men commit atrocities such as marital rape, child molestation, and incest, and experience those acts as “sexual”. What the White Right and the White Left have in common is a desire and support for the production of patriarchal sexxxuality, for sex acts that both bolster and foster the social degradation of women as a class, and the abuse and murder of many individual women, seen as utterly dispensable by men. In this view, women in prostitution are not really human beings, and any woman who is assumed to be one isn’t either. Add to this the misogynistic, racist pornographic myth that all women, deep down, are really whores, and you can begin to understand how sex crimes become commonplace and normal in patriarchal societies.

In a so-called post-sexual revolutionary era, where many have left their traditional houses of religious worship to worship patriarchal capitalism’s products instead (with mall as monastery), we have reached an era where many men feel free to talk about things like their masturbatory habits and various uses and abuses of women as “fun activities” that are, irrefutably, “harmless”. For the use and abuse of women to be harmless, women cannot be human. It is that simple. Either harm hurts or it doesn’t. Either use and abuse humiliates and degrades or it doesn’t. For men acculturated to seeing incested and pimped women as merely “images of naked women” and their masturbatory or other uses of those women as recreational relaxation, means they have become terribly dehumanised, to the point of being a danger to women’s freedom and political status as human. This dehumanization includes disregard and callousness to the suffering and harm that constitutes and defines a society that produces pimps, violently subordinates women sexually, massively reproduces and markets such images of this degradation and violation. In short, men who “use porn” participate actively in the process of manufacturing contempt for women as a gendered class. This is men’s contempt for women, and men’s callousness to the harm done to women, including to the women in the lives of men who “use porn”. Unless images sought out on- or off-line are animations or otherwise completely technologically created—never involving an actual woman or girl, each picture or video of a woman is socially encrypted with information about that woman, her history, what happened to her, choices she made with varying levels of agency, and choices made for her by pimps, pornographers, prostituters, and procurers, often enough male members of her own family of origin or her boyfriend or husband and the men they know. If men did not coerce and manipulate girls and women, on both the institutional and individual levels, pornography, prostitution, incest, and rape could not exist as systematic practices and industries earning billions of dollars annually.

What men are actually doing and seeing when they seek out and find pornographic images or videos of women, unclothed or not, tells us a lot about what men are capable of doing to women who are not in pornography. To be clear: I am not saying (nor do I believe) all men who enjoy looking at pornography are rapists and incest perpetrators. I am saying that men who routinely and habitually use pornography are increasingly unwilling and unable to even know what sexualised harm to girls and women looks like. And, let’s be honest, many of the images many men seek out are of girls and women who are obviously being coerced into doing what some men want them to do. There are various and sundry rationalisations for continuing this “just looking” behavior. First of all, let’s be clear that men are not “just looking” when seeking out and finding and enjoying pornographic images of women. They are being male supremacists. They are practicing woman-hating. They are making some women around them uncomfortable, at least. They are reinforcing a key tenet of male supremacy: the right of men to have unquestioned access to women’s bodies.

Liberal and conservative, progressive and radical men “innocently” use images of pimped women in order to achieve a particular version of ourselves—either as empowered or shameful, depending on our upbringing and current sexual value system. We may obtain dissociated or non-dissociated sexual states of arousal and obsessively sought-after orgasms after a stressful day at work, or, increasingly, during that stressful day at work if our work provides us with a computer hooked up to the Internet.

I find no shame in men (and women) wanting to reduce stress. I find nothing shameful about men (and women) wanting relief from the oppressive realities of capitalist work life. But when one’s strategies for stress reduction and release from oppressive capitalist conditions require the rape of women, that’s one of many places that I think any humanitarian ought to draw the line of unacceptability. Men of some conscience, men who claim to care about women, or at least one woman, are able to shift their arguments from “What I’m doing doesn’t harm anyone” to “I won’t support gross exploitation and rape in order to get this feeling I’m after.”

At issue, centrally, is not “How can men become more humane?” much as that question needs to be asked and answered in action. The central issue is “What do men have to do to end the sexual subordination, exploitation, and violation of women?” While these endeavors are not an either/or enterprise, to privilege the first over the second is to maintain men’s focus on “what’s good for us”, a social and political preoccupation that has led us to where we are today.

One rationale for the men who accept that at least some women in pornography were coerced or forced to be there is that “The images on the Internet have already been made; the harm—if there is any—has been done; men looking at images days, months, or years after the images were taken doesn’t cause the girl or woman any [additional] pain.” For me, this is about as callous a response as you could conjure to a political condition that is nothing short of an atrocity.

But, lest we forget, it is common in a society in which every aspect of civilisation as we know it perpetuates genocide, gynocide, and ecocide to want to deny harm is happening when and where it is. Misogynist men are not alone in appropriating this level of callous disregard as we purchase goods produced by enslaved children, for example, hoping against all reason that maybe this garment was made by well-paid adults whose living conditions approximate the buyer’s. (Think again.) I do not find the kind of dissociative lack of awareness about what’s happening in the real world that men employ to continue to “use pornography” any more or less egregious and heinous than the kind of dissociative lack of awareness of so-called First World people involved in going about our days using many things that couldn’t exist if ecocide, non-sexual slavery, various forms of racism, and genocide weren’t happening endemically. If we shop, apply chemicals to our bodies and lawns, go on trips such as cruises, and own property, we are participatory agents of genocide and human slavery, inhumanity to animals, and the killing of the planet. It is difficult to be too self-righteous when my typing on a computer necessitates all of the above. But as someone committed to exposing and challenging misogyny, I do focus here on men who use pornography and call it a harmless activity, or, even more self-centeredly, “behavior which is only hurting me”.

This is one reason why many women I know are deeply distressed when they find out their male partners are “addicted to pornography”. They report to me their male partner’s self-absorption, lack of concern about the woman’s feelings and needs, lack of interest in examining the issue more deeply, and their fears that these men act out this capacity for dissociation (or not) and objectification against women and girls in other, more social, ways. In Love and Pornography, for example, Garry, who does actually care about his partner’s feelings, speaks about his practice of objectifying “pretty young” women in public settings including when his life partner, Victoria, is out with him. We do know at least a few things about men who sexually objectify women being pimped and mass marketed to men, women who—with or without meaningful levels of agency and free choice—are tangled up in various positions across the Web. And one of the things we know about such men is that they also objectify women who are not on the Internet and devalue women who do not look like the Web-tangled women.

Garry honestly assesses that he has been given permission, all his life, to look at these images, even while feeling shame for doing so because his parents taught him sexual feelings are shameful. Lost in this battle for sexual enjoyment without shame is any concern or awareness of patriarchal atrocities to girls and women.

A terribly inadequate analogy might be that when a Jewish man was young living in a kosher and orthodox home, his parents told him eating pig meat is a sin against God. But as he grew and entered other people’s non-kosher homes, the smell of sizzling bacon was irresistible, and sometimes, when at Gentile homes, he’d eat it enjoying every bite and chew. He’d then feel great guilt and shame, as he made his way back home, making sure his breath didn’t smell of pig meat. Let’s say this man lives in the U.S. And so the pig meat he sneakily eats is, for one thing, not kosher, and for another, mass produced in an industrialised commercial “farm” where animals are treated with great cruelty and callousness. Were he to actually witness and register the cruelty, the harm to these animals, the pain they endure so he and others can occasionally chew cooked corporate pig meat, he might decide “it’s just not worth it. I can live without eating pig meat if eating it requires animals to be so horrendously mistreated and so callously slaughtered. (I’m not sure there’s a non-callous way to mass slaughter pigs, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

If Garry, or any man, was the man being sexually violated at home by daddy, and once he left home was taken in and seasoned by a pimp and later passed along to several pornographers, he might actually relate to the woman whose image he stares at only to get a sexual fix and a somewhat empowered sense of himself. But there’s no guarantee of that. Those who are sexually violated when young are still quite capable of dissociation and objectification. I’m one example of that. As a teen and as an adult, I used to objectify men often, habitually; sometimes teen males, sometimes males in their twenties and thirties. I’m still capable of doing so. I just choose not to because I have made sure the feeling one has when being peered at in a violating way, in a consumptive if not also predatory way, in a voyeuristic and entitled way, in which the other person’s humanity is forgotten temporarily in order for objectification to occur, is not forgotten. That’s one of the two things that keeps me from visually violating other men. The other reason is that I’ve made commitments to women in my life, feminist women, to not participate in male supremacist sexual practices—objectifying and fetishising men being two of those practices. So due to a system of accountability and honesty, and a practice of identification with those I might wish to turn into sexual things, I can make the choice to not engage in behaviors which harm others, no matter how many men reassure me there’s no harm in it.

I gave up looking at pornography years ago, and have since occasionally, but not in the last years, looked at online videos of young men masturbating. I preferred to see videos where it seemed to be the case that the man was alone, and wasn’t being filmed by someone, which intensified the possibility he was being coerced or manipulated into performing for the camera man. But once I realised that my watching him was sanctioning him turning himself into a sex-thing for me or anyone else to watch, with no regard for his humanity, the appeal of seeking out and looking at such videos left me. I can still long to see them in some dissociated or depressed states, but fulfilling that longing isn’t more important to me than living my values, which I blab about so much online. I could stop blogging, end my friendships with feminist women, dismantle the systems of accountability that result from those friendships, and go on my merry masculinist way seeking out opportunities to look at those videos and also objectify young men in the non-cyber world. But, what kind of life is that? I’ve lived that life, and it’s sad and empty. It’s boring, and it’s heartless. But more importantly, it requires others to be or feel violated. If the humanity of other people is precisely as precious as my own, sexually objectifying other people, particularly but not only without their permission, is unequivocally unethical and harmful.