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".