Monday, 16 March 2015

Non-Pornographic Sexuality (Yes, it exists)

Last year I wrote a three part series (begining with this popular post), which discussed the relationships between feminism and issues related to race and economic class. This new series of posts will discuss the need for equality within sexual relationships. 

If you know of any decent (non-liberal) Latin American feminists, please let me know. I need to practice my Spanish and cleanse from my brain the fake, sadomasochistic “feminism” that one of my lecturers tried to shove down my throat today.
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Introduction

Any pornography defenders who came across this article, would scoff at its title and tell me that all sex is pornographic, since pornography is just “videos of people having sex”. Meanwhile, those outside the sex industry may argue that they cannot possibly be having pornographic sex. Both views are wrong. The pornography industry claims to represent human sexuality, but it only represents one kind, the worst kind. There are better ways to experience sex, ones that promote positive values, like freedom, equality and compassion.

However, many people still imitate the sexuality promoted by pornography.This post will put forward criteria for determining how pornographic a sexual behaviour is, which can be applied to visual and textual depictions of sex, as well as to real life acts. It is thus relevant to those both inside and outside the sex industry. 

Criterion 1: Equality vs. Power Dynamics 

Sex acts involving dominance and submission are less egalitarian and therefore more pornographic. Those who are into BDSM openly brag about being either a “dominant” or a “submissive” (some even call themselves “masters” and “slaves”), but one can take on hierarchical roles during sex, without using such titles. Physical aggression, verbal aggression and degradation are all methods of dominance that are common throughout pornography and add to the pornographic character of a sex act.

I label acts as “physically aggressive” or “violent” if they involve deliberately inflicting pain or bodily damage upon a human (or sufficiently human-like) being. Restricting a person’s ability to move their body is also a form of physical aggression. All other things being equal, a person who is injured, in pain or restricted from moving is less powerful than an otherwise identical person who is not experiencing such things. Thus violence almost always produces or maintains power inequalities.

Definitions are never perfect, but my definition of “violence” is more in line with the way the general public uses the term than the definition used by pornography defenders. Self-proclaimed “sex-positives” argue that “violence is subjective”. They believe that consent alone determines whether behaviours should be seen as “real violence” or “kinky sex”. Thus they make no moral distinction between touching someone gently on the shoulder and whipping someone until they are covered in cuts and bruises. In their view, both acts are equally “violent” (and ethically objectionable) if the people on the receiving end do not give their explicit verbal consent and equally acceptable if everyone involved does consent. 

I find this viewpoint absurd. Why label shoulder-touching as “violent” when it does not involve any of the things people associate with violence? I am not necessarily endorsing non-consensual shoulder-touching (such behaviour can create awkwardness), but I do not view it as violent. On the other hand, propelling a hard or shape object (such as a whip or knife) towards a sensitive body part at a rapid speed is always violent, because such actions do cause pain and injury. These are real physical phenomenon that can (at least in theory) be examined through empirical studies.

Defenders of pornography and pornographic sex also apply a relativistic approach to verbal aggression (another common feature of pornography.) While no set of syllables is inherently aggressive, words do have social meanings that cannot be changed by individuals. Just because a person has their own non-insulting definitions for words like “cunt”, “fag” or “nigger” does not mean they should use these words to refer to people they encounter. While the meanings of words can change, such changes require time and occur alongside larger cultural changes. 

Like physical aggression, verbal aggression creates power inequalities. It diminishes a person’s sense of self worth and discourages them from resisting their oppressor. Some people are more sensitive to verbal aggression than others, but one cannot simply chose to not be harmed by it. The way in which words are repeatedly used gives them emotional power, thus the liberal tactic of attempting to feel empowered by words like “slut” and “whore”, has done nothing to solve the self esteem issues often experienced by women.

As for the degrading sex acts within pornography, sex liberals defend them by (you guessed it) claiming that degradation is a matter of subjective opinion. They argue that there is nothing inherently degrading about exposing sensitive body parts (such as the face and mouth) to urine and faeces or making a person vomit, but in what other context would such arguments be considered acceptable? 

Those who wish to highlight the horrors of slavery often point out that African slaves were brought to the Americas in overcrowded, unsanitary boats. According to this article, the slaves "would basically be lying in their own and others' waste, blood and vomit". Modern reactionaries may argue that such descriptions are exaggerated, but would they dare suggest that such treatment may not be degrading and that some Africans naturally like it? Any person who invoked relativism in such a situation would be branded a racist and rightly so. Even if one sets aside feelings of disgust, frequent exposure to faeces, urine and vomit causes diseases to spread (this is probably why most humans are disgusted by such things). Whether such exposure is inherently degrading or not, it is bad for human health and that is enough of a reason to oppose it, within both sexual and non-sexual contexts.

I do not wish to suggest that the violence and degradation experienced by those who play a subordinate role within what I call “pornographic sex” is more or less severe than what happened to African slaves. My intention is to show that pornography defenders are inconsistent in their promotion of aggressive and degrading activities. It is not anti-pornography activists who are biased against sex. Rather pro-pornography activists are biased in favour of sex. They view sex as an excuse to endorse things they would not otherwise endorse.  I believe that sexual acts should be evaluated by the same standards as other behaviours. The bedroom, like all other areas of society, should be as free from power dynamics as possible, since power dynamics are the very opposite of love, equality and liberty. 

Criterion 2: Personality-based Love versus Shallow Attraction 

By featuring frequent shots of their butts, breasts, genitals and abdomens, both soft and hard-core pornography place a great deal of emphasis on how people (particularly women) look. Such images imply that these features are more important than any inner trait a woman has. The only personality traits that are celebrated in pornography are dominance and submissiveness, which are not traits that those who favour equality between males and females should admire (see criterion 1).

To love a person is to celebrate the aspects of them that make them human. Inanimate objects can be pretty and even sexy (meaning that they are capable of causing sexual arousal), but only humans (and some animals) have thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Thus, all other things being equal, sex acts that result from genuine feelings of love (developed in response to the participants’ human qualities) are less pornographic than sex acts inspired by either person’s prettiness or ability to cause arousal.

Real love develops when people interact (in a non-sexual manner) and thus get to know one another.  Since this usually takes time, most sex acts which occur on the day that the two people involved meet or interact extensively for the first time will fail this criterion (making them more pornographic.) Yes casual sex enthusiasts, I am talking about you. My opposition to casual sex will probably be controversial, even among “sex-negatives”. Note that I place far less emphasis on this criterion than I do on the first one. The pro-casual sex position is one I recognise as a legitimate radical feminist viewpoint. It just isn’t one I agree with. 

Bear in mind that this list relates to depictions of sex as well as actual sexual activities. Part of the reason I included this criterion is because I want to see more films that show people learning about one another’s human traits, before they fall in love and have sex. Far too many films feature romantic and sexual encounters that occur between people who have done nothing but acknowledge each other’s prettiness/sexiness. Such superficial relationships are hardly better than casual sex. I am concerned that our culture’s obsession with physical appearance harms women’s self esteem and makes it harder for both men and women to form long-lasting, egalitarian relationships. 

Criterion 3: Genuine Desire vs. Economics/Conformity 

For a sex act to be healthy and non-pornographic, participants must enter into it with the intention of enjoying the act itself. In case this is not already clear, this enjoyment does not need to be purely physical. Those who have sex with people they love can experience emotional and, in some cases, intellectual enjoyment from their sexual activities. If one does not have affection for their partner, they should at least have positive feelings towards the sexual act. To pursue sex as a means to some other aim (e.g. economic resources, popularity, approval, self-esteem), like women in the sex industry do, is to increase the pornographic character of one’s sex life.

Opponents of the sex industry recognise that women who enter it often do so out of poverty and desperation, but economic concerns also influence sexual activities which occur outside the industry. Conservative men brag about how they provide money and other resources to their wives (who in turn provide them with sexual and domestic services), while mainstream culture promotes the gold-digger stereotype, as well as the belief that men who buy things for women are entitled to sex.Thus the view that women should trade sex for economic resources is not limited to the sex industry. 

Since liberals believe that society hates sex, they will object to the idea that social norms can motivate a sexual act. However, there are definitely sections of society, such as colleges/universities, the sex industry and the sex-positive movement itself, in which those who are willing to have sex receive more praise than the unwilling. Those involved in these subcultures may engage in sexual acts in order to prove that they are “sexually liberated”, rather than prudish or conventional. Not all sex-positives intentionally insult people who favour monogamous, egalitarian, “vanilla” sex, but being excluded from praise can feel almost as bad as being insulted. Relationship partners can also use praise (or the lack thereof) to obtain sexual favours.

Then there are people who seek self-esteem boosts from sex. Their motivations are largely internal, but have social origins.  Males in this category often wish to prove that they are “real men”, by “conquering” females, while women sometimes have sex in order to prove to themselves that they are sexually desirable. Women who do this often claim to be “doing it for [themselves]”. While they are indeed acting out of self interest (which is not necessarily a virtuous motive), they have blindly accepted the cultural notion that a women’s value is determined by her prettiness/sexiness. Thus their actions are in fact conformist. 

Of course, there are people who participate in sexual acts that I object too, without having such unhealthy motivations. Though genuine desire makes a sexual activity less pornographic, desire and consent are just one of the criteria that I use when evaluating behaviours. A genuinely desired sex act that involves physical violence, degradation or an obsession with physical appearance is still highly pornographic. However, engaging in such sexual activities with those who do not truly desire them is even worse. Thus consent matters, but not in the way liberals think it does. 

Conclusion 

While I acknowledge that sexual behaviours cannot be easily divided into two boxes, they can nonetheless be evaluated according to the criteria I have presented. In summary, dominance, submission, aggression, degradation, superficiality, economic concerns and conformity increase the pornographic character of sexual activities. Those who want a less pornographic sex life should omit these elements and replace them with egalitarianism, respect, love, genuine romantic desire and an emphasis on personality over prettiness. Those who call me a totalitarian monster for making claims about how people should behave are free to have a pornographic sex life. It’s not like I can stop them or anything.
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 While this post, which is the first in a series of three, is somewhat sex-centred, a later post will focus more on the relationship part of “sexual relationship”. So stay tuned.

2 comments:

  1. I've been thinking about this lately but haven't really formulated an idea about it, and you really nailed it on the head! Thank you so much!

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  2. I think the line between overwhelming desire and objectification/exploitation is very hard to draw. Some women--particularly those with a history of abuse, but all women who have been exposed to media and cultural stereotypes and have self-esteem issues--use sex to be liked, and submit to things they don't want to submit to. I think the pornographic nature of dominance-sex infects men's sexual desires too, and sometimes they don't even realize it...this may be less of an issue for less conventionally "sexy/pretty" women, if their partners are getting to know them first and growing more attracted to them as people, because of their human qualities; for more conventionally "sexy/pretty" women (particularly those who, like so many women--particularly "pretty" women who were "pretty" girls--use sex as a way to be liked and attractiveness as a stand-in for self-esteem) it may be harder for even the nicest guy to see beyond his objectifying desire to the character beneath (particularly if something in her ingrained unconscious behavior seems to invite exploitation, because of self-exploitation due to internalization of sexist social mores and other cultural indoctrination). I think some level of forgiveness is necessary, if both partners are trying--there is a lot of deconstructing to do of pornographic sex messages when you find yourself in an egalitarian relationship.

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