Sunday, December 24, 2006

Something old and different

I took part in a discussion last week on Antiprincess' blog about the musical legacy of Yoko Ono and the different roots and strands of avant-garde music since the 1960s.

It got me reading about some post-punk and No Wave music I hadn't listened to in over 20 years, especially some of the "girl" bands of the time. It turns out a lot of this obscure, long out-of-print stuff is now circulating around on MP3 and some of it is quite excellent.

Some highlights – the Bush Tetras, who's "Snake's Crawl" and "Too Many Creeps" are sheer angsty avant-funk excellence. Or the lovely pop minimalism of the Young Marble Giants.

And of course, there's the almost-forgotten Inflatable Boy Clams, best known for "I'm Sorry". Not a song exactly, but one of the best comic dialogues ever:

MP3: I'm Sorry

Monday, December 18, 2006

Another silly meme, but what the hell....

I've seen this book meme going around recently, notably on Anthony Kennerson and Belledame's site. Using a series of Google Blog searches, the meme seems to have arisen on Livejournal about 2 years ago. Anyway, here goes, with some tweaks of my own:

1) Pick up the book that you are nearest to with 123 or more pages. (According to early versions: Don't search around and look for the "coolest" book you can find. Do what's actually next to you.)
2) Turn to page 123.
3) Locate the fifth full sentence in that page.
4) Copy that and the next two sentences that follow.
5) Tag three more bloggers to do the same.

I get:

Gills usually adnate but sometimes adnexed or slightly decurrent, close to crowded (120-150 reaching the stalk), soft, slightly waxy; white at first but soon flushed pink and developing purple-red to vinaceous stains in age. Stalk 3-10 cm long, 1.5-3.5 cm thick, usually rather stout; solid, dry, smooth, equal or tapered below; white, soon stained or streaked pink to reddish or vinaceous. Veil absent.

(Description of Hygrophorus russula from "Mushrooms Demystified" by David Arora.)

OK, so not very elegant. I'll cheat and throw in the book right underneath:

It was all tiny houses, miniture chapels over each grave. Sabina could not understand why the dead would want to have imitation palaces built over them. The cemetary was vanity transmogrified into stone.

(From "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera. Which reminds me that I need to take it back to the library.)

For my three tags, I pick Audacia Ray, Amber Rhea, and Greta Christina. But consider the tagging "open", just leave a link in the comments box if you've self-tagged after reading this.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Ellen Willis "Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life"

With the unfortunate and hopefully temporary demise of Bitch|Lab's blog, I figure I'll take one of her blogging traditions, namely posting pieces of important theoretical works for perusal and discussion. I'm posting Ellen Willis' 1979 essay "Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life". I reread this after Susie Bright read an excerpt on a recent episode of her Audible podcast memorializing Ellen Willis. The essay is written half in jest, but nonetheless really gets to the heart of what so much of what is at issue in the "Sex Wars" (both conservative vs liberal/radical and sex-poz vs radfem). Its not so much an issue of pro-sex vs anti-sex (though there are some extremist conservatives and radfems who could earn the latter tag), but a conflict over different modes of sexuality. More on this in later posts; in the meantime, Ellen Willis at her finest:

There are two kinds of sex, classical and baroque. Classical sex is romantic, profound, serious, emotional, moral, mysterious, spontaneous, abandoned, focused on a particular person, and stereotypically feminine. Baroque sex is pop, playful, funny, experimental, conscious, deliberate, amoral, anonymous, focused on sensation for sensation's sake, and stereotypically masculine. The classical mentality taken to an extreme is sentimental and finally puritanical; the baroque mentality taken to an extreme is pornographic and finally obscene. Ideally, a sexual relationship ought to create a satisfying tension between the two modes (a baroque idea, particularly if the tension is ironic) or else blend them so well that the distinction disappears (a classical aspiration). Lovemaking cannot be totally classical unless it is also totally baroque, since you can't abandon all restraints without being willing to try anything. Similarly, it is impossible to be truly baroque without allowing oneself to abandon all restraints and so attain a classical intensity. In practice, however, most people are more inclined to one mode than to the other. A very classical person will be incompatible with a very baroque person unless each can bring out the other's latent opposite side. Two people who are very one-sided in the same direction can be extremely compatible but risk missing a whole dimension of experience unless they get so deeply into one mode that it becomes the other.

Freud, the father of the sexual revolution, was a committed classicist who regarded most baroque impulses as infantile and perverse. Nevertheless, the sexual revolution, as it is usually defined, has been almost exclusively concerned with liberating those impulses from the confines of an exaggeratedly classical puritanism. The result, to my mind, has been an equally distorting cultural obsession with the baroque. Consider, for example, that quintessential expression of baroque angst (a contradiction in terms, the product of Jewish guilt; Christian guilt is classical all the way), Lenny Bruce's notorious monologue about fucking a chicken. Or, come to think of it (puns are baroque), Portnoy's adventures with liver. I mean seriously (classically, that is), is fucking chickens and livers what sex is all about?

Curiously, contemporary sexual "experts" never mention this crucial polarity. This is because they have a vested interest in what might be called establishment or middlebrow baroque-really an attempt to compromise with proclassical traditionalists who insist that sex should be somehow worthwhile, not just fun. Thus the basic axiom of establishment baroque is that consensual sex in any form is wholesome and good for you; a subsidiary premise is that good sex depends on technical skill and is therefore an achievement. Kinsey, with his matter-of-fact statistical approach to his subject, was a pioneer of establishment baroque. Masters and Johnson belong in this category, as do all behavior therapists. The apotheosis of multiple orgasm is an establishment baroque substitute for the old-fashioned classical ideal of coming together, Real baroque sex has no ideals. Much as I hate to admit it, what I have in mind here is a sort of middlebrow baroque projectto report on the two kinds of sex in everyday life.

Time: Night is classical; so are sunrise and sunset. High noon and half an hour before dinner (or during dinner) are baroque.

Location: Outdoors is classical, except for crowded nude beaches. The back seat of a car is classical if you're a teenager, baroque otherwise. The shower is classical; the bathtub is baroque.

Number: Two is classical. One or three or more is baroque.

Lighting: Total darkness is ultraclassical except when it's a baroque variation. Dim lights and candlelight are classical. Floodlights and fluorescent lights are definitely baroque.

Clothing: The only truly classical outfit is nothing. Clothing evokes fantasy and fantasies are baroque. Black lace underwear is of course the classic baroque outfit. Red is baroque, as is anything see-through. Frilly white nightgowns are a baroque impulse with classical content.

Food: Eating in bed is baroque, although artichoke hearts and sour cream are more classical than potato chips and pizza. Tongues, tastes, and flavors are inherently baroque. Comparing sex with food is usually middlebrow baroque, except when a classicist, quarreling with the baroque idea that getting off is getting off no matter how you do it, points out that "Steak and hamburger may both be protein but they still taste different." Putting food anywhere but in your mouth is superbaroque.

Drugs: Wine and marijuana are classical. Cocaine and quaaludes are baroque.

Music: Comparisons between sex and music are classical even if the music itself is baroque. Rock-and-roll is a good mixture of both sensibilities. My favorite classical sex song is Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night"; my favorite baroque sex song is "Starfucker." Rock-and-roll is usually more classical than disco.

Pornography: Porn is basically a baroque phenomenon. Much of it (Hustler, most X-rated movies) is belligerently anticlassical and therefore a form of inverted puritanism. Some of it (Playboy) is pure middlebrow baroque. Many porn classics (like Fanny Hill) have a fairly large classical element. The larger the classical element, the likelier that a piece of pornography will be judged to have redeeming social value. If it is classical enough, it stops being porn altogether and becomes art, but this is a very subjective and relative matter. Lady Chatterley's Lover was once considered pornographic because it used certain baroque words, but by contemporary standards it is cornball classical. (Actually, Lawrence seems to have intended a classical celebration of the joy of the baroque, and he might have pulled it off if it weren't for all that solemn phallic worship and particularly those ridiculous flowers. One thing he did accomplish, though: he made "fuck" into a classical word without sacrificing its baroque connotations.) Pornography also becomes art when it is so baroque it is classical, like The Story of O.

Sex manuals: Love Without Fear is echt-classical. The Kama Sutra is baroque with classical trappings (all that religious overlay). The Joy of Sex, with its sections headed "Starters," "Main Courses," and "Sauces and Pickles," is middlebrow baroque except for its rather classical illustrations.

Devices: All technology is baroque, including contraceptives, vibrators, and air conditioning.

Sexism: Classical sexism is the mystique of yin and yang, masculine strength, feminine surrender, noble savage and earth mother, D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer. Baroque sexism is the objectification of women, black garter belts and six-inch heels, Larry Flynt, Helmut Newton.

Feminism: Classical feminism is a vision of total equality, the transcendence of artificial social roles, love and respect for one's partner as an individual. Baroque feminism asserts women's right to be baroque, traditionally a male prerogative; rejects preconceptions about what is natural and moral; insists that anything goes for either sex so long as it feels good.

National characters: The Italians are classical. So are the French, though they pretend otherwise. The Communist countries and Sweden are middlebrow baroque. As a rule, wildly baroque countries exist only in their conquerors' imagination. Americans have classical leanings, but the world headquarters of baroque is New York City. In Manhattan you can eat a chicken and the waiter won't even notice.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sex Wars: The latest dispatches from the front

Yet more battles in the feminist blogosphere over whether particular sexual acts are inherently degrading to women or not. A few months back, there were the so-called "blowjob wars". More recently, there's been a "double penetration war" going on in several threads on Renegade Evolution's blog.

This started when RE criticized male radfem author Robert Jensen for his implication that no woman enjoys double penetration. (This was in the context of an argument that men specifically desire porn which feature sexual acts that men "know" women find degrading.) RE countered that this is just one more example of a man making some rather large assumptions about what women do and don't desire, this time in the guise of "feminism". (Something male radfems like John Stoltenberg and Dim Undercellar have been criticized for before.) In other words, whatever their concern for women's welfare, these guys are essentially paternalistic.

Much debate followed about whether the fact that some women enjoy DP validated it in feminist terms, and the argument was raised that no matter whether some women enjoyed it or not, men always saw it as degrading toward women and enjoyed it on that level.

That last argument makes some rather large and rather nasty assumptions about male sexuality that to me point out some of the problems with radical feminism. Many radfems (female and male) seem to think themselves experts on how men in general think and feel about sex. (Much the way Jensen can so blithely declare how women in general feel about DP.) From where I'm sitting, as a man with a pretty typical heteronormative male sexuality, their criticisms bear no resemblance to how I think or feel about sex, women, dominance and power, etc. Maybe radfems know my sexuality better than I do? Somehow, I doubt it.

Similarly, there have been a few mini-wars around various topics, like the one between me and LK in the comments of this thread on whether girl-girl porn is specifically anti-woman or not, or a recent discussion on Witchy-Woo's blog on whether dirty talk between partners is OK. And this is not to mention the "wars" going back decades on PIV intercourse, BDSM, etc.

This obsessive focus on specific sexual acts seems to be missing the point, IMO. What matters in issues of sexual exploitation, violence, etc. is whether or not the act is consensual – a gang-bang can perfectly consensual and a kiss on the cheek can be a sexual assault, all depending on the context. It has little to do with the specific act and everything to do with whether two or more partners freely consent to what they're doing. This is simply Sexual Ethics 101.

This brings up the old "Are radical feminists just a bunch of prudes?" argument, which apparently respectful sex-pozzes aren't supposed to go nowhere near. I'm not going to speculate on the sex lives of individual radfems, but I will say, the obsessive focus on which sexual acts are OK and which are "degrading" seems pretty prudish to me, speaking more to a sense of moral panic than a serious consideration of real issues around sexual power and consent.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Ellen Willis, 1941-2006

I just found out over on Bitch|Lab's blog that Ellen Willis has died of lung cancer. BL has several posts about Willis running currently on her blog.

A New York Times obit can be found here. The Wikipedia page about her (largely written by me) gives the basics about her ideas and includes a bibliography and a fairly thorough list of links to Willis' essays that are available online.

Ellen Willis was a huge influence on me politically, and not just on feminist/sex-positive topics, but on ideas about culture (and its relationship to politics), media, consumerism, free speech, war, and Israel/”The Jewish Question” as well. I think her instincts were some of the most consistently anti-authoritarian I’ve seen in any political writer – moreso than many anarchists, in fact. (About the only place I part company with her was in her devotion to Freudianism and Reichianism, which don’t disagree with on a philosophical level so much as I think scientifically they’re dated ideas about how the mind works.)

It could be pointed out that the sex-positive movement has a lot of good writers, but very few theorists. Willis was one of the few who did "theory", and did some in-depth essays on exactly why things sexual freedom and free speech are so important, and indeed, why they are (or at least should be) important radical values.

Its unfortunate that an untimely death (she was only 64) robbed the world of such an incisive and insightful thinker. She'll certainly be missed by me.


There's also a good obit on The Nation website titled "Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday". Very right-on quote:

Writing about feminist anti-porn crusades, she urged women not to "accept a spurious moral superiority as a substitute for sexual pleasure, and curbs on men's sexual freedom as a substitute for real power."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Nina Hartley speaks

I just heard about a Nina Hartley book tour. Most of the dates are already passed, but there are a few dates listed in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, in case any local readers are interested.

I also came across a flier at my uni, San Francisco State, for an appearance at SFSU that's not listed on Nina's website. Tuesday, November 14th at 2PM, in HSS 124. Not sure if that appearance is part of the book tour or something else, but I'll definitely be checking that out.

Interestingly the flyer for the SFSU even list Nina Hartley as "adult actress, sex educator, SFSU alumnus, radical feminist". I never thought of Nina as a "radical feminist", but if she wants to reclaim that label, more power to her. "Radical feminist" wasn't always synonymous with "anti-sex work", after all.


I hope nobody actually went all the way over there based on this post. (I have no idea if I have local readership.) I was basing it on the fliers I saw last week and was wondering why the fliers were all taken down – they had the wrong date and room that's why. Anyway, Friday, November 17th at 2-4 PM, in HSS 154.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

1st PornfilmfestivalBerlin

Over on Eon McKai's site, I just came across news about the 1st PornfilmfestivalBerlin that had just wrapped up. From looking at the schedule, they seem to be showing a range of films from Richard Kern's "Cinema of Transgression" work, to the more explicit end of queer cinema (by directors like Todd Verow and Maria Beatty), to straight-ahead alt-porn by Eon McKai, Benny Profane, and Octavio Winkytiki (including the premiere of McKai's "Kill Girl Kill").

The film festival is scheduled to follow a related Conference on Post-Porn Politics, as well as coinciding with a photo exhibit, "Achtung! FSK 18", featuring work by Nan Goldin, Charles Gatewood, and Richard Kern, among others.

There seems to be a definite theme at work about breaking down barriers between art and pornography, even adopting the logo "What is the difference between art and pornography? Art is more expensive!" My sentiments exactly.

There have been scholarly pro-porn conferences before, most notably the 1998 World Pornography Congress (which generated more than its fair share of bad press). Those conferences were more about academic discussion of porn, whereas the Berlin conference seems to balance the academic commentary with presentation of porn itself.

Its hard to say whether such a festival could have been pulled off on the US right now, in spite of our "pornified" culture. Even barring the inevitable political backlash, taking porn seriously generates all kinds of snarky commentary, and not just from the tabloid press.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

"The Lusty Lady loses its innocence"

There was a really interesting article in this week's San Francisco Bay Guardian titled "The Lusty Lady loses its innocence". Its about the ongoing struggle of the Lusty Lady, a collectively-owned peep show business here in San Francisco, to try to live up to a sex-positive, but still strongly feminist ideal and still make a buck in the sex business. It seems like they haven't been doing too well, mainly because they've tried to implement the idea of non-discrimination based on appearance, only to find that customers aren't exactly coming in droves. (ha, ha) As a result, they're barely getting by financially.

Its also an object lesson in the kind of wars that sometimes take place within co-operative businesses, especially when you have one faction that's very idealistic and one that's more entrepreneurial. (And it somehow doesn't surprise me that one of the male support staff wrote such a less-than-diplomatic memo that started all of this, considering what surly bicycle messenger-type dudes they hire as support staff.) Its also a lesson in trying to do something different with the sex business, yet running up against the reality of the free market, issues that are touched on in Audacia Ray's recent post on the realities of shooting a porn movie.

The issues with the Lusty Lady are something I know very well, since I was a frequent customer of the LL when I lived in Seattle and am an occasional customer of the collectively-owned San Francisco one. (The two businesses used to be under the same ownership until the SF location was bought out by its union.) I used to go the Seattle one quite a bit and often spend more money there than my better judgment should allow for. Their stage show has the same kind of dynamic that drives SuicideGirls – super-cute somewhat alt-looking college-age girls (and some older dancers as well) getting naked, and often doing pseudo-lesbian stuff as well. Basically, something that's inherently hot for 95% of the straight male population and something that they'll part with their money in order to see.

Without picking on SF Lusty Lady too much, basically, the above description is not what you'll see there, and quite a few of their dancers are not exactly what you'd call attractive in the conventional sense. Hence, even though I think its great that they've collectivized and gotten control of their own business, I'm not a regular customer there (they did have a dancer there for a while I really liked, but she quit recently). Its the same reason I'm not a member of the website NoFauxx – its all very nice and idealistic, but there's nobody there who makes me want to part with my hard-earned money just to see them naked. (And being a brick-and-morter operation with a local customer base, the Lusty Lady is inherently more limited than an internet site in being able to make money catering to fringe tastes.)

Its an open question whether the SF Lusty Lady is ever going to find its niche and be able to make money in ways that the dancers find acceptable, or whether it will simply go under. Time will tell.

Update (October 2):

The Matier and Ross column in the San Francisco Chronicle has another take on the story, this time with details that weren't mentioned in the Bay Guardian story. It seems like the impetus for this was a 'Big Beautiful Women' strip night, that sounds like it might have been unannounced. This resulted in a mass customer walkout. It really sounds like some of the dancer/owners from the Lusty Lady feel that if they can beat people over the head with decidedly non-standard ideas about beauty, viewers will rethink their ideas about beauty. Instead, it just resulted in a bad scene for the customers, staff, and the big women on stage.

Also, a couple of discussions (link, link) about this are up at SFRedbook, the San Francisco "johns" board.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On objectification and objections to it

There's some interesting discussion in the blogosphere recently on the problematic concept of sexual objectification.

Renegade Evolution ventures into the fray with some thoughts on just what "objectification" means to her, when its problematic, and when it isn't. Also, what kinds of stereotypes (another form of objectification, really) both feminists and men who patronize sex workers have as a result of the objectification of "whores".

Also notable about this discussion is the participation of an anonymous radfem, saying to RE, based on the how she dresses and the fact that she's a stripper – yes, in fact, you are the enemy. Her childish denunciation of RE for being conventionally attractive and therefore in some way hurting other women sums up in a nutshell why radical feminism sucks so badly.

Anthony Kennerson follows up by reposting some of Nina Hartley's writing on objectification.

RE's post on her own blog is a followup to a post she made on one of the Livejournal feminist communities about the demonization of conventionally attractive women. Unfortunately, many of the responses that followed were simply variations on "skinny white women have it coming because they're privileged / you're just defensive about the challenge to your undue privilege". Which seems to be the standard refrain for any criticism of any kind of pettiness that emerges out of identity politics.

Amber Rhea has a post similarly critiquing the new meme of "real women" and how conventionally attractive women are in some way are not "real women".

A few months back, Belledame wrote a series of posts that were an in-depth analysis of the concept of objectification, both in feminism and in broader philosophy. (And it is important to remember that sexual objectification is a subset of the larger phenomenon of objectification.) She leaves many of the basic feminist assumptions on sexual objectification unchallenged and personally, I find many of these assumptions questionable. However, her analysis is nonetheless very good.

For my part, it bugs me more than a little that so little effort is made in feminist philosophy to differentiate between the social phenomenon of sexual objectification and the interpersonal phenomenon of sexual attraction. (Even if the two are in some ways related.) While I think it may very well be the intention of many radical feminists to moralistically censure the very idea of sexual attraction based on visual/physical cues, but that's hardly the view of all feminists. Also, there seems to be an underlying assumption on the part of many feminists that male sexual objectification by necessity denies female sexual subjectivity, which seems to me to be giving men way too much power.

Discussion of objectification also raises other questions – Is all objectification negative? If so, what do you do with not just pornography, but most artwork? (Since most works of art say more about the artist's view of the artistic subject than the subject's subjectivity – got that?) Is a completely non-objectifying art or a non-objectifying sexuality even possible or desirable?

Obviously, "sexual objectification" and "the objectification of women" are concepts in serious need of clarification, and hopefully, these discussions will go some way towards that end.

Oh yeah, and I can't post about this without throwing in one of my favorite quotes from Lisa "Suckdog" Carver: "On The Ricki Lake Show, audience members are always standing up to shriek self-righteously that old cliche, as if they had just invented it: 'ITS WHAT'S ON THE INSIDE THAT COUNTS!'  Well, what about the outside, doesn't it get any credit?"


I almost forgot to include Petitpoussin. She recently posted on the topic of "Youth and Beauty" and problems associated with the links between the two concepts. (I argue in the discussion that I'm not sure the topics can be unlinked.) She also has an earlier post on "Sex Blogs" in which the discussion turns to social standards of beauty.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A comic interlude

A cute take on interpersonal sexual politics by Sophie Crumb, from Belly Button #1. (More here and here.) Sex roles aren't always what you'd expect, and Sophie points this out better than I can.

(Click on the picture to enlarge.)

Monday, September 11, 2006


"9/11 changed everything" – George W. Bush (?)

"The more things change, the more they stay the same." – Alphonse Karr

Perhaps more coherent thoughts later.

In the meantime Belledame and Anthony Kennerson have a good posts on the subject.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Utne "Porn Culture" articles

I was browsing over the magazine rack again recently and came across the latest issue of Utne. I don't usually have a very high opinion of this "best of the alternative press" magazine, but I'll usually thumb through it when I see it. This issue had a "Porn Culture" section that looked interesting. I was going to go to a library and copy the whole thing, but later found that the whole issue is online.

The articles are kind of disappointing and I don't find that most of them get beyond the "Porn Debate 101" level of analysis. An article by Julie Hanus points out that porn is now more available than ever and has influenced the larger culture in all kinds of ways. (Yes, and?) An article from Dissent against censorship more or less holds that "rough sex" videos like Forced Entry are the price we pay to be able to read works like Lolita. (True enough, but not exactly a defense of pornography.) The antiporn side is covered in an article by Charles Foran called "Damage on Parade" that essentially rehashes the recent books by Ariel Levy and [gag] Pamela Paul to come to the conclusion that porn is BAD BAD BAD. Foran cites the usual litany of accusations about the supposed effect of porn on relationships, apparently believing that viewers of porn are inherently incapable of maintaining any kind of sane, healthy perspective about their sexuality or that of women.

I also noted this passage:

Paul cites a 1998 study that concludes that two-thirds of prostitutes suffer from symptoms identical to those of posttraumatic stress disorder-twice the percentage that was found among American soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam. "There is something twisted about using a predominantly sexually traumatized group of people as our erotic role models," she writes. "It's like using a bunch of shark attack victims as our lifeguards."

The above-mentioned study, of course, is one of Melissa Farley's studies, and like so many of her studies, surveyed San Francisco street prostitutes. The above statement from Pamela Paul shows how much Farley's studies of the most marginalized and disempowered sex workers are generalized as being typical of all sex workers under all circumstances.

The issue also has an interview with feminist porn filmmaker Candida Royalle. I found a lot of what she had to somewhat problematic and raising enough issues of its own that I'll post about it separately.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

An actual post about something other than sex

Greta Christina has been on kind of a roll lately, with a very good post taking on the subject of new-agey science-bashing. Its a good defense of science and reason from somebody who's had her share of psychedelic experiences and been profoundly affected by them, but refuses to give way to the kind of New Age irrationalism that many "experienced" (in the Jimi Hendrix sense) people unfortunately give in to. (She also has an earlier post on the same topic that's worth reading.)

Like me, Christina lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. While the Bay Area is one of the most progressive (and sex-positive) places in North America, there is a certain smug mentality that one encounters here that can be very frustrating. We think of ourselves as more enlightened than xtian fundamentalist hotspots like Kansas or South Dakota, but the Bay Area has its share of New Age irrationalists and political fundamentalists who can be just as wacky as any six-day creationist. (Berkeley is a notorious hot spot for this, though at least a few people have a sense of humor about it.)

(Don't even get me started on class issues in the SF Bay Area – for all the professed left/liberalism and rhetoric about "diversity" around here, this is probably one of the hardest places in the US to live if you're at all poorer than upper middle class – economically speaking, the SF Bay Area is up there with New York City as one of America's worst gated communities.)

In the responses to Greta's column, I wrote about some of my experiences with New Age types and my thoughts on this kind of irrationalism:

I haven't read any of Morford above and beyond the columns you've presented, so I don't know what he normally writes about, but his mentality toward science is highly frustrating.

As a scientist (studying the taxonomy of Psilocybe mushrooms, no less) living in the Bay Area, I run into this "New Age" mentality a lot.

I remember talking to somebody a year back about medicinal and toxic plants – she expressed quite matter-of-factly that for any poisonous plant or mushroom, there will be another plant growing nearby that is its specific antidote. When I said I thought this idea was nonsense and could think of plenty of examples to the contrary, she seemed a bit offended. She defended the idea not on its merits, but on the fact that she'd learned it from a medicinal plant guru (forgot his name) who was supposed to be incredibly knowledgeable. When I come across this kind of "fashionable nonsense" among apparently educated people here, I think that perhaps the "progressive" parts of the country like the Bay Area really aren't that far ahead of supposed bastions of ignorance like Kansas. People here just pick different anti-intellectual poisons.

They seem to think that somehow science, and reason and logic in general, are in some way detrimental to an appreciation of the wonder of the universe or some kind of sense of holism. These people really seems to want shortcuts to knowledge, and seem to think there can be an understanding of the whole without understanding of the parts. In fact, they dismiss understanding of the parts as "reductionism", without understanding that both reductionism and holism are vital parts of science.

Daniel Dennett calls this a "skyhook" mentality, a kind of "greedy holism" that demands a grand understanding of the whole without building on an understanding of the parts. Admittedly, its opposite, "greedy reductionism", the idea that you completely understand a phenomenon when you really only understand a small part of it, is a real problem with some scientists. The "gay gene" hypothesis and much of evolutionary psychology are examples of this.

Of course the error that "new age" types make is that they reduce all of science to the caricature of greedy reductionism and use this straw man to defend their own deeply problematic greedy holism.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

A long post on sexual vanguardism

Wow, this turned into a long one:

A couple weeks ago, Greta Christina had a particularly nice blog entry about Girls Gone Wild. Specifically, it was not about Joe Francis (now regarded as a scumbag by practically everyone); rather, it was about the girls of Girls Gone Wild, and taking on the idea of whether what they're doing is inherently degrading and exploitative. (She also links to a longer "think piece" she wrote for the "Everything You Know About Sex Is Wrong" anthology about the content of GGW, and finds some of their XXX-rated stuff surprisingly sexy.)

Even though I like porn, particularly girl/girl porn, I have always disliked GGW, even before the recent Joe Francis scandal. Christina seems to dislike many of the same things I do about GGW (the whole retarded screaming frat-boy aspect of it is pretty repulsive), but seems to find the idea of regular girls doing stuff they wouldn't normally do to have a high erotic charge.

She's a bit overly dismissive of the exploitation and consent issues around the videos – the girls may not be so drunk that they can't consent to sex, sure, but the fact that they're not only drunk, but also ambushed and pressured is a problem. I've been internet pen pals with indie pornographers before, and I've heard the horror stories of having one of your top models suddenly decide it was a mistake to do porn to begin with (an issue typically brought on by a revelation to a new boyfriend who proceeds to freak out about it) and demands that you withdraw the videos from circulation immediately. (Never mind that people have been buying the videos for the last year and that the proverbial horse is already far from the proverbial open barn door.) Given that possibility, ambushing drunk girls and having them appear in porn, even pretty soft porn, is the very opposite of "best practices" when it comes to hiring models. And the fact that they don't even pay the girls they make so much money from speaks for itself.

She has some excellent stuff about whether or not what the girls are doing is inherently degrading. She finds such criticism elitist:

Which brings me to my second point: the "they're squandering their feminist heritage" argument.

This is the one that really bugs me. It's as if sexual liberation is only for those of us with the right sex-positive feminist credentials -- not for yahoo sorority girls who want to pull their shirts up on camera. Like they don't deserve to have sexual choices, because they'll make the wrong ones.

But we all deserve sexual liberation. We all deserve the freedom to make sexual choices -- even dumb ones or crass ones. As someone whose name I can't remember once said, not all censorship battles can be about Ulysses. (Does anyone know the source for that quote, btw? I couldn't find it.) And the battle for sexual liberation and the right to sexual expression can't always be about brilliant sex-themed performance art, or beautiful ecstatic lovemaking in loving long-term relationships. Sometimes it's about college girls at big drunken parties pulling their shirts off for the video cameras. That's the whole point of feminist sexual liberation -- we don't get to go around scolding other women for their consenting sexual choices. (Not on moral or political grounds, anyway. On aesthetic grounds... that's another story.)

I've seen arguments that the problem with GGW isn't the girls whipping their tops off for the camera -- it's the people behind the camera, the crassness of the videos and the company and the grotesqueness of the main man behind them. It's not liberated or empowering if you're whipping your top off for exploitative assholes, or so goes the argument. But while I'm certainly not going to defend the motives of the GGW empire (especially not now), I still think we should support the sexual agency of the wild girls themselves. Do you think every single porn movie that Annie Sprinkle or Nina Hartley ever made was a delicate work of artistic beauty and profound insight, made by sensitive feminists, with the profits going to rape crisis centers and saving the rainforest? I sure don't. I'm sure that at least some of their movies were silly and dumb, and that the profits from at least some of them went to pay for the sports cars and coke habits of nitwit Silicone Valley porn producers. That doesn't negate Nina and Annie's sexual agency and power.

Its a pretty spot-on critique and addresses an issue that's been bugging me even about sex-positive writing. Namely, the condemnation of porn where the sex acts or appearance of the models is too "mainstream" or not "transgressive" enough. For example, this from a recent post on Susie Bright's blog:

They ask sexually-oriented bloggers each week to nominate, among themselves, the best posts of the week: be it erotica, "porn," or sexual politics/philosophy/confessions of all kinds.

[...]I found some new personal sex bloggers I really like.

Other links didn't do much for me, or were more conservative than my taste. And by conservative, I mean "not changing the dominant paradigm of porn-cliches and gender roles" kind of conservative. As for as explicitness or kink goes, they are not at all conservative!

(Disclaimer: I'm normally a big fan of Susie Bright.)

Or this from Bay Guardian piece on SIR Video by Michelle Tea from a few years back:

Made by dykes, for dykes, the video features real, local dykes fucking the way real dykes fuck – these are not career porn actors with skinny, unadorned bodies and silicone tits. The only silicone in Hard Love/High Heels is the stuff strapped between the girls' legs, and even in this Hard Love/High Heels differs from the mainstream. Big-budget porno's generally employ low-budget sex toys, the plasticky, weird stuff found in porn stores throughout the USA, not the quality sex accessories found in women-centric shops like Good Vibrations and used in most dykes' bedrooms.

If you used mainstream porn as a guide to real lesbian sex, you'd think that women enjoyed being sloppily stabbed in the cunt by a jabbing tongue, spent hours in the ridiculous 69 position, or had long, gently sensuous make-out sessions that ended with lots of showy tongue-touching. The girls in S.I.R.'s video fuck hard. Like real dykes, they have embarrassing process sessions with their exes; then they have conflicted, complicated, and raw fuck sessions.

But probably the most important and obvious difference between Hard Love/High Heels and any other "girl-girl" video on the market is that Hard Love/High Heels shows butch dykes – a lesbian reality the man-made flicks unsurprisingly ignore. For Rednour and Strano – a femme-butch couple who have been involved in the specifically Bay Area sex-radical and sex-education scene that brought us Susie Bright, the San Francisco Sex Information hotline, and Good Vibrations – showing butch dykes having hot sex was both essentially authentic and politically crucial.

I can say right out that I share a few of their criticisms. Porn, generally speaking, isn't diverse enough, it often doesn't seem to cater to anybody outside of a presumed audience of middle-aged "NASCAR dudes" who want to see nothing more than an army of Pam Anderson knock-offs submit to the cock. Often it seems like they're just shooting basically the same sex scenes over and over again over thousands of videos per year. I'm kind of a snob about the porn I buy, and I'm really only interested in the small percentage that's both well-produced and plays into my sexual tastes. And I'm glad that other people are producing porn that caters their non-mainstream or otherwise marginalized sexual tastes. So far, we're on the same page.

The problem with the kind of dismissive attitude in the Bright and Tea pieces is not in their dislike of mainstream porn – to each their own after all. The bigger problem is that they seem to enshrine their tastes into a kind of sexual vanguardism and dismiss the sexual tastes of something like 75% of the population as hopelessly cliche. Apparently, if you're not queer, or not into seeing guys fucked with a strap-on, or are a lesbian who doesn't find the 69 position "ridiculous", or like women who are, horror of horrors, conventionally attractive, the implication is that there's something wrong and regressive about your sexuality.

It seems to be related to a kind of lifestyle elitism that came out the 1960s and still inhabits much of the cultural left. Ellen Willis wrote about it last year in a very good essay on utopianism:

A milder form of authoritarianism, which owed less to Marxism than to a peculiarly American quasi-religious moralism, disfigured the counterculture and the women's movement. If the original point of these movements was to promote the pursuit of happiness, too often the emphasis shifted to proclaiming one's own superior enlightenment and contempt for those who refused to be liberated; indeed, liberation had a tendency to become prescriptive, so that freedom to reject the trappings of middle-class consumerism, or not to marry, or to be a lesbian was repackaged as a moral obligation and a litmus test of one's radicalism or feminism. Just as communism discredited utopianism for several generations of Europeans, the antics of countercultural moralists fed America's conservative reaction.

(Note: a few days ago, Bitch|Lab discussed the implications of a similar sentiment about "lifestylism" Willis expressed some 35 years ago.)

Christina is right to call bullshit on this kind of sexual elitism – sexual liberation shouldn't be merely be reserved for self-proclaimed queers and other people with non-mainstream sexual tastes. If sexual liberation doesn't apply to everybody – queer and straight, kinky and vanilla, male and female, monogamous and slutty – then it ultimately doesn't apply to anybody. And sex-positivity, an idea that really needs greater currency in our culture, isn't going to win over anybody outside of the usual lifestyle ghettos if you start excluding most peoples sexual tastes as "conservative".

Friday, August 25, 2006

Strawfeminists vs Strawsexpozes

God, I don't know why I bother to continue to post to the Punkassblog prostitution thread. Must. Resist. Temptation...

I hear much complaint on that end about arguments against "strawfeminists", eg, the unfair and stereotypical view that feminists are a bunch of hairy-legged, man-hating, sex-hating bitches, etc, etc. Obviously, its best not to argue against a stereotyped position, though harder in the case of radfems, since some of the stereotypical attitudes of feminists come a bit closer to the truth in the case of hardcore radical feminists.

There is a corollary to this, though, which I've been calling "strawsexpoz". A caricature of the sex positive position, putting words in our mouths and claiming we do some pretty terrible things.

A strawsexpoz:

  • Is always entirely uncritical of the sex industry – trafficking, pimping, the antics of Joe Francis – strawsexpozes are fine with anything that brings them more porn and whores.

  • Sees all sex work as inherently positive and liberating.

  • Views any criticisms of porn as inherently censorship.

  • Claims to favor absolute free speech, but really just endeavors to silence and censor radical feminists at every opportunity. (Nobody really believes in that free speech shit, after all, do they?)

  • If male, is probably a john and a rapist, and a fan of "cheesy-ass boring as all fuck porn" to boot.

  • If female, is probably one of the "tiny minority" of basically happy whores, and only cares about keeping her johns spending money at the expense of all other women, or alternately, is just trying to make her boyfriend happy, or, if a lesbian, just wants to be a man.

Some of the above are exaggerations – eg, there are some "whores", porn enthusiasts, and even johns in the sex-positive camp, but that's far from everybody on the sex-positive side. Most of the above are just distortions, caricatures, or outright lies.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A new low in journalistic ethics

There's an interesting post over on SugarBank on the "outing" of popular UK sex blogger and bestselling author, Girl With a One-Track Mind by the Sunday Times. Its a good example of the kind of sexual shaming that often masquerades as journalism.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Further dispatches from the Melissa Farley Wars

By odd coincidence, just a couple days after the dust-up on Punkassblog after I posted a link to Ronald Weitzer's critique of Melissa Farely's methodology, anti-porn blast-from-the-past Nikki Craft turns up on Wikipedia, specifically on the Melissa Farley article, to demand an end to "unsubstatiated and false accusations against Melissa Farley", which is odd, because an article on her barely exists. Craft gets into a debate with me (posting under my real name) and another user, Craft strangly gets downright pissy with the other user (who describes herself as an "a nice older LGBT female"), but oddly not with me. Craft then floods the page with a huge list of quotes from Farley and a list of articles that read like her entire CV, but strangely adds nothing to the actual article. I take a standoffish approach, as I'm losing my taste for hot-and-heavy edit wars. Other user again attempts to build bridges with Nikki Craft.

Very little of any substance actually added to the article after all of this.

Gotta love Wikipedia process!

Some porn clips

I came across a couple of porn trailers recently, representing two very different ends of the emerging altporn hardcore video scene. (Note, if you have issues about young-looking actresses, you'll probably be really offended by the Girls Lie clip, even though its not all that graphic. It should go without saying that neither is "work safe".):

Girls Lie clip
Psychocandy 4 clip

Girls Lie is a relatively big-budget video directed by Eon McKai. Its produced by VividAlt, which is a new imprint by Vivid, the General Motors of porn, and basically their attempt to cash in on the altporn phenomena (and also to breathe some new life into the DVD porn industry, which has taken a hit in the last few years from the growth of web porn). Obviously, I'm kind of wary about that, but as with indie rock and independent film, it obviously had to happen sometime – the avant-garde to mainstream path is pretty much built into capitalism, after all.

On the plus side, Girls Lie doesn't look anything like a typical Vivid video (thank God!), and it looks to be one of the few porn videos out there where the filmmakers looks like they understand even basic cinematography. (It also makes me think of this scene from Boogie Nights: [RealAudio clip])

Benny Profane's Psychocandy 4 is a lower-budget video coming from the still-independent side of altporn (and featuring America's favorite intellectual porn star, Audacia Ray, who's plugging it over on her blog). Its definitely rawer and less glamourous-looking. I have to admit, I like the more glamorized stuff better, but at the same time, I'm glad that there are still people shooting their own porn in their basements and tiny apartments as well.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Bitching with $pread (part 3)

Here's the second of some excerpts from the Bitch interview. This covers the "exploitation or empowerment" debate and whether its too simplistic. Its timely, because there's been a debate raging on Punkassblog about sex work, and as of today, the inevitable "exploitation or empowerment" question has come up. From the interview:

It's frustrating that debates about sex workers' rights too often get reduced to the "is it exploitation or empowerment?" question. How can we move people beyond that?

Rachel Aimee: There's a misconception about the sex workers' rights movement that it's all about how sex work is empowering, whereas in fact many sex worker activists find that an annoying or at least mostly irrelevant argu­ment. If sex work is empowering, it's generally in that it allows people to make more money than they would oth­erwise be able to make and therefore raise their living standards. I don't think many sex workers find the act of sex work empowering in itself. $pread is trying to move beyond the simplistic debate by presenting a whole range of sex workers' experiences, from the positive to the negative and everything in between. I think the most useful way to frame the debate is in terms of choice: Do you believe people should be able to choose what they do with their own bodies?

Audacia Ray: I think that the empowerment-vs.-exploitation debate is a good one to keep having. Polarizing those issues is not so helpful, but it's a useful framework, because it's the way that people get introduced to these concepts. But what's really important is to listen to the variety of experiences that sex workers have – it doesn't make for good soundbites, but it's important to see the various perspectives. It's okay to be muddled about it, to not be able to say "It's definitely a good thing" or "It's definitely a bad thing." For myself, I have different opinions on different days. [Laughs.]

Sex workers can have a difficult time voicing their opinions because generally [other] people come at this issue with their minds made up, and that can be really threatening when it's your life. It's tough to have people shake their finger at you and tell you what you're feeling.

I've always identified as a feminist, and to deal with feminism from the perspective of being a sex worker has been really jarring to me. Right when I started working on $pread, the Village Voice had a piece about me and someone else, about our lives as sex workers, and it got picked up by the blog Feministing. The comments that people left about us almost made me cry. It was awful because I read that site religiously – I mean, these are my people. And getting these reactions made me realize these are not my people; they hate me.

[Note: Bitch|Lab also blogged today about the above mentioned Feministing debate, including links to several responses Audacia Ray posted in her own blog. – IACB]

Sex – whether commercial or not – is an emotional issue. It's a really challenging thing to talk about. When you talk about sex, people assume that you're talking about them, or that you're talking about sex for all women. And it's just not the case. But those reactions come from it being such a personal thing.

Quite simply, framing sex work as either inherently degrading or inherently empowering is utterly simplistic. (I posted several days ago about the huge range of situations that come under the heading of "sex work".) Certainly, there are many situations that are clearly exploitative, most notable anything that involves coercion or taking advantage of extreme social marginalization – trafficking, pimping, and so on. On the other hand there are some kinds of sex work that could actually be called "empowering" – for example, somebody producing their own porn that is an authentic expression of their own sexuality and that gives them pleasure from showing off their sexuality. The majority of sex work falls at various places in between those two points. Debating whether the whole of sex work is exploitative or empowering is a simplistic Feminism 101 level of debate that doesn't even begin to address the real issues.

(To be fair, I don't know of many people in the sex-positive camp, or at least the sex-positive feminist camp, who are arguing that all sex work is inherently empowering. The owners of SuicideGirls worked the "empowerment" angle for a while before receiving lots of negative publicity to the effect that it wasn't exactly the warm and fuzzy feminist porn site it claimed to be. Ariel Levy also claims that many of the women she writes about refer to their "female chauvinist pig" activities as "empowering", but I'm not sure if that isn't just Levy putting words in their mouth.)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Bitching with $pread (part 2)

The first of a few excerpts from the Bitch interview with the editors of $pread. There's some interesting comments here on the difficulty of unionizing, because 1) the work itself is often illegal, 2) sex workers themselves aren't always interested in unionization – they often like the unregulated nature of the sex industry for reasons of their own, and 3) the existing organized labor movement doesn't exactly reach out to sex workers.

So, to lay it out: What are the primary labor issues affecting sex workers?

Rachel Lynn: The primary issue for prostitutes (including private call girls, streetwalkers, agency escorts, etc.) is the fact that prostitution is illegal in this country: The fear of being arrested makes everything more dangerous. If your job is illegal in the first place, you cant call the police if you get beaten up or raped by a client. For strippers, there's the issue of exploitation by managers, because it's now become the norm for strip clubs to charge strippers a house fee in order to work. Strippers often end up paying out over half their tips to the house, or even going home in debt, because in some places the house fees are so high.

Sex-industry workplaces tend to be more exploitative than most workplaces, mainly because even the legal industries are still usually run in a somewhat under-the-table manner, with workers getting paid in cash and many workers not having legal work permits. The managers can get away with more because they're not regulated. Most sex workers don't have contracts, so they can be fired anytime; they don't get sick pay, paid vacation time, health insurance, etc. But this is a very tricky issue, because many sex workers would prefer to take their chances in a semi-legal, unregulated, exploitative business environment where they can make money off the books, not have to pay taxes, have a flexible schedule, take vacation time whenever they want, etc., rather than be tied down in a 9-to-5 job, even if it means forfeiting the benefits. So when people talk about wanting to unionize and regulate the sex industry, that's not necessarily what the majority of sex workers want. There are even some prostitutes who don't want their work to be decriminalized because they're concerned about what the change would mean.


Is sex work considered a legitimate locus of organizing within the labor movement? Do existing labor unions want to be aligned with the sex industry?

Eliyanna Kaiser: The U.S. labor movement isn't working to unionize sex workers; that's just the reality. And it's not because union leaders or staff aren't progressive enough, although that might also be true in some cases. $pread editors are split on this, but it's my belief that there is no [organized] sex workers' rights movement in the United States. And until sex workers have achieved a minimum of self-organization, there is no reason why the mainstream labor movement should be expected to lift a finger to do that work for us.


When I interviewed [labor movement veteran] Bill Fletcher Jr. for $pread, the main issue that he raised was morality. And there's no point in underemphasizing the role that morality plays in how sex workers are able to work with other movements. Until sex workers can achieve a broad consensus for our rights – at least in the progressive left – it's silly to think we will be able to do anything significant to achieve real change. Movements are not comprised of their constituents. They are dynamic coalitions that require that the affected constituency is talking to others who have found common cause in struggle. Workers in the labor movement don't look at sex workers right now and see their mirror image. This is our challenge, and it starts with organizing ourselves to talk.

An attempt to put a tiresome debate to rest

Since I'm feeling a bit lazy, I figured I'd repost something I posted to the Usenet newsgroup soc.feminism back in 1997 on the "porn vs. erotica" debate:

...the whole pornography/erotica distinction is a subjective and rather useless one. IMO, “erotic” and “pornographic” are just adjectives for describing different qualities of sexually-oriented materials; the degree that something is pornographic has to do with the physicality and amount of explicitness of the presentation, while eroticism has to do with the mental and emotional aspects of sex. Good sex is stimulating to both the body and the mind and good sexual materials should do likewise; unfortunately, by creating the ossified categories of “pornography” and “erotica”, we end up with material that only focuses on one side of sex. Hence, there’s plenty of erotica which is all about feelings and metaphors, but steers clear of the actual physical act (and often steers clear of the body entirely) and plenty of pornography that shows the act in copious detail, but the sex has a very fake unfeeling quality to it. In both cases, what you end up with is pretty boring. Pornography, erotica, or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t have to be this way, but that’s what were stuck with as long as we take “erotica” and “pornography” to be two mutually exclusive categories, and Steinem, Russell, etc. are doing a real disservice in trying to keep this division going.

This idea of "erotica" (vaguely defined) as the acceptable alternative to pornography used to come up a lot in feminist porn debates. It seems to come up less today, probably because so much of the debate now focuses on women in "pornstitution" and less on the merits (or lack thereof) of the final product. I still see this debate come up a lot in other areas, though, like in discussions of erotic comics or photography (often cast in the language of "porn vs. art") and it still strikes me as just as wrongheaded.

Since I posted this in 1997, there thankfully have been some good directors and photographers popping up on the porn end who are pretty knowledgeable about their technique and actually have a good sense about what's erotic. Richard Kern, for example, who wins my "high art/low art" award for being probably the only person I know of to have their work appear in both Artforum and Barely Legal. Bellezza Video, Little Mutt, Abby Winters, and Tom Hunscher are others come to mind as examples of pornographers with a good artistic or erotic sensibility.

On the "straight" film end, there have been a bunch of "art" films over the last 5 or 10 years that have been incorporating explicit sex. 9 Songs, in my opinion, was clearly the most successful from an erotic point of view, mainly because it was pretty unapologetic about showing explicit sex in a joyful, arousing way. Unfortunately, many of the other explicit arthouse films of the last few years have been absolute depression-fests which seem to want to "legitimize" the use of explicit sex by putting it in a punishing, anti-erotic context. Baise Moi and Anatomy of Hell come to mind immediately in this regard. (Both French films, actually, which brings to mind a quote I heard to the effect of "Americans behave badly when the don't think about what they do, while the French behave badly when they think about it too much.")

There's some interesting stuff on indie pornographer Tony Comstock's blog about what makes a sexy film and what makes good porno. This is another blog I highly highly recommend, BTW.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Bitch bitches with $pread

I was browsing through the magazine rack over at Green Apple Books the other day. (Print magazines – how 20th century, right?) I came across the new issue of Bitch, which had a really good interview with the editors of $pread, a magazine for sex workers that's been coming out for the past year. (I looked around for it on the same magazine rack, but didn't see a copy, so I have yet to see it first-hand.) The interview was very interesting and gave an insightful take on many of the issues that myself and other sex-positive bloggers have been discussing. From the intro:

The term "sex worker" means different things to different people, but it often means something extreme – glamorous high-priced escort at one end, desperate crack-addicted streetwalker at the other. Among feminists, perceptions are no less polarized – sex workers are either fully empowered agents using their sexuality in unassailably positive ways, or victims of a job that degrades them by its very nature. Most feminist dialogues about sex work sound more like monologues; defensiveness, mischaracterizations, and willful ignorance abound, making casualties of complexity and nuance. Until recently, few publications – feminist or otherwise – have tried to grapple with these issues and move the debate forward. Enter $pread, which published its first issue in the spring of 2005 with the subtitle – "illuminating the sex industry."

The $pread editors have some very interesting things to say about the complicated relationship between the sex-worker rights movement and sex-positive feminism (and feminism in general) and why they don't label their magazine "feminist", about trying to get the rest of the organized labor movement to get past their moralism and take sex worker issues seriously, and about how limiting the old "is it exploitative or empowering" debate gets when dealing with real issues around sex work.

The website for $pread can be found here (no articles to be found on their site, unfortunately). I also noticed that one of their editors is Audacia Ray, a name I recognize from the blogosphere, but had almost forgotten about, since for some reason, few sex-poz blogs link to her. Her blog is called Waking Vixen, and it’s a site that all sex-positive readers should follow. (Actually, its also a site that anti-pornstitution folks should read as well – you might actually learn something.)

I'll post more excerpts in later postings. In the meantime, have a look at the article if you get a chance.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Not a Monolith

Renegade Evolution had a thoughtful post the other day comparing the supposed "harm" caused by the sex industry with the harms caused by other industries who's products many of us regularly consume, wondering why people didn't get nearly so up in arms about consumption of these products.

It reminded me about how much people are able to draw fine distinctions about all other aspects of consumption, and yet view the entire sex industry as one big monolith – "pornstitution" as anti-porn feminists have come to call it over the last couple of years. I also hear a great deal of rhetoric that the sex-industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that escapes criticism from otherwise-progressives supposedly blinded by a sex-positive ideology.

The problem with this line of thinking comes when we look at a range of concrete examples of what makes up "pornstitution". The production end of the sex industry might include:

  • Companies like Larry Flynt Publications who make annual profits in the tens of millions.

  • A self-employed model like "SilkyKitty", who's set up her own porn site and webcam that she operates out of her home. Still has her day job, working as a bookstore clerk.

  • FataleMedia, a small adult video production company run by a lesbian couple, making videos primarily for a lesbian audience.

  • The Lusty Lady, a worker-owned San Francisco peep show.

  • Tom Hunscher, a Portland-based photographer. Shoots explicit nudes of freelance models for his own websites and as stock adult content.

  • Jet Set Productions, a gay porn production company, best known for an online porno soap opera, Wet Palms.

  • Abby Winters, an Australian "independent porn" producer, highly regarded for girl/girl videos that are considerably more erotic than the typical "hetlez" formula.

  • Feck, a company that operates sites like IShotMyself and BeautifulAgony featuring content shot and submitted by the models themselves.

  • Girls Gone Wild a company that's made a small fortune selling videos of drunk women publicly flashing and making out, and occasionally going back to a hotel for paid sex. Owner Joe Francis has recently received a great deal of negative publicity as a bully and alleged rapist.

Workers in the sex industry (past and present) might include:

  • The above-mentioned "Renegade Evolution", a stripper and fetish model. In her spare time runs a blog defending, among other things, her choice of profession.

  • "Markedformetal", also a stripper and blogger. Sometimes writes about how much she hates her chosen profession

  • Jenna Jameson, who became rich and famous as a porn star. Appeared in 120 videos over the course of 12 years, but yet claims she dislikes watching her own sex scenes.

  • The late Linda Lovelace, the first "porn star", who entered the industry while under the control of a severely abusive husband. (Whether she loved, hated, or was ambivalent about porn in general depends on which of her five often-contradictory authorized biographies you choose to believe.)

  • Nina Hartley, who's still working in porn after 22 years and 717 films. Still a major name at an age (47) when the "Porno Valley" studios she often works with don't exactly encourage actresses to stick around. (No need to recount her history of sex education and activism yet again.)

  • SilkyKitty (see under producers, above)

  • The worker-owners of the Lusty Lady (see above).

  • A woman illegally held captive and trafficked from China to the United States and forced to work off her "debt" in a massage parlour.

  • Kira Milan, a Portland-based freelance porn model active several years back under several any of several names. Did solo and girl/girl porn for a handful of porn sites and adult videos, but soon dropped it in favor of nude art photography modeling. Still a cult favorite on the internet several years later.

  • Eve Angel, a Hungarian freelance model working in Prague and Budapest (the present centers of the Eastern European porn industry). Appears on scores of videos and websites under any of a half-dozen names.

  • A woman who prostitutes to feed a drug habit, working the stroll in places like San Francisco's Polk Gulch, generally between 2AM (when the bars let out) and dawn.

  • A young woman I met once who worked as a porn model and sometimes escort (primarily answering Craigslist ads from men offering sex for money). When not taking a semester off to earn money this way, is a Women's Studies major at one of the "Seven Sisters" women's colleges.

  • Wanda, a Stockholm-based escort who's website quite openly advertises what services she provides and for how much. (Yes Virgina, there is still prostitution in Sweden – it just moved indoors.)

  • Goddess Athena, a San Francisco dominatrix who started the "dominatrix collective", Sirens.

(I'll note here that Dim Undercellar of the Biting Beaver blog has written a post claiming most of the "First World" sex work of the kind I've mainly discussed above is done by trafficked women from poor countries. This contention, however, is based on little evidence and much supposition on his part and on the part of the anti-prostitution organizations from which he gets his "facts".)

Clearly there are some people on this list who clearly fall into the categories of exploiters and victims to varying degrees. There's also a large number of people who don't fall into either category. What's quite clear is that the above list, on both the producer and worker ends, includes some very different people under very different circumstances. Trying to get justice for the most downtrodden sex workers by wiping out "pornstitution" is a bit like trying to obtain justice for exploited farm workers by wiping out not only agribusiness, but small organic farms, farmworkers' unions, and restaurants all together. Yes, this would be the "radical" solution, but only in its sheer overkill.

At this point I should mention another anti-porn contention – that if anybody is hurt at any time under any circumstances in what can be broadly called sex work, then its best to uproot the whole thing. If there's the slightest demand, the argument goes, someone will inevitably be exploited to fill it. (See Dim Undercellar again on his ideas about the supposed "acceptable losses" of the sex industry for a fuller exposition of this idea.) To me, this is simply an argument for blanket repression, for not looking at context, and for a rather extreme application of the precautionary principle. Its a bit like banning clothing in order to get rid of sweatshops or uprooting all religion to deal with any manner of religious abuse.

To the protest that "porn liberals" don't treat the sex industry like any other industry, I say its the "anti-pornstitution" crowd who fail to treat it as such. The proper way to deal with the sex industry is to oppose those manifestations of it that victimize or exploit people while encouraging those parts that meet peoples needs, both as consumers and as workers. The same way we treat issues around the production of food, the production of media, or the production of anything.

By Way of Explanation

I've decided to launch this blog, since I've found myself rather interested in the latest manifestation of the "Sex Wars" as they've been playing out on the blogosphere. By way of introduction, I've been interested in issues around pornography and sex work for a long time. To be rather "confessional", I like sex, I like pornography, I like visual art in general (particularly film, photography, and comics), and I've long held very strongly anti-authoritarian political beliefs. The politics of sex and porn is kind of an intersection of all of those issues, and I keep coming back to.

I'm old enough to remember the 1980s "Feminist Sex Wars" and have seen the sex-positive position go from despised minority to conventional wisdom. After many years, the Sex Wars seem to be back in a big way on the blogosphere. (What cultural and political trends this new "Sex War" represents and whether it will play out beyond the blogosphere is a subject for another post.) I've been contributing to articles on Wikipedia on these topics and occasionally contributing comments to sex-poz blogs. I finally broke down and decided to start a blog of my own. (I'm not sure how often I'm going to be able to update it – I'm going to shoot for at least a few posts a month and see if I can eventually go more frequently.)

The main topic of this blog will be the politics of sex and porn, however, I don't only want to discuss pornography in the abstract – as I said, I actually watch a fair amount of porn and am a fan/critic of it as much as any other art form I'm into. Some trends I find interesting right now are the rise of altporn, and the trend in toward sexual explicitness on otherwise "straight" narrative films, like 9 Songs. In other words, this blog will try and cover actual porn as much as "the issue" of pornography – I'm thinking a kind of cross between SmackDog Chronicles and Fleshbot.

So far I've referred to this as "sex-positive" blog. I haven't referred to it as a "sex-positive feminist" blog. I have my own issues around feminism. Its not that I'm actually anti-feminist per se (though there are some specific feminisms that I find pretty loathsome, and I think you can guess what those are). However, I do have issues with using the label myself – I'm male and I don't think I'd want to wear any label that inherently privileges the feminine above the masculine. Also, self-described "male feminists" I've come across rub me the wrong way – mostly they seem to anti-porn types with either a noticeable mean streak, like John Stoltenberg (Andrea Dworkin's other half) or blogger Dim Undercellar, or are annoyingly good-boyish like Hugo Schwyzer. I don't want any part of that. More generally, I have a hard time with "isms" and ideological straight-jackets in general. I like to refer to myself as broadly left libertarian, but beyond that, I'm pretty eclectic. I'm really more interested in ideas and actions than grand ideologies and movements.

Since the issues covered by this blog are contentious and prone to inspire flaming, I'll mention my rules around comments. I'm pretty loose and more inclined to make this a "free speech zone" rather than a "safe space" for my way of thinking. I'm not afraid of opposition or criticism. That said, this blog is my forum, and I reserve the right to block anybody if their behavior gets out of hand, at my discretion. Of course, I also reserve the right to hand you enough rope to hang yourself. ;-)