Monday, 20 April 2015

How Pornographic is too Pornographic?

In my last post I explained the difference between pornographic and non-pornographic sex. In this post I will be continuing that theme by discussing how and to what extent the standards I put forward should be applied. 

Usually my posts can be read on their own, even when part of a series, but in this case, the previous post provides important background information, so read it if you have not already.

Defenders of pornography and BDSM sometimes wonder just how strictly their opponents want them to apply the principle that sex should be an egalitarian activity, free from dominance and submission. In the comment section of this Feminist Current article, a defender of BDSM, who calls herself “Strongly Submissive” (an Orwellian name, if ever I heard one) raises this topic, by asking “If you are drawing the line at “violence”, what is violence?”. She then lists a number of behaviours and asks whether they count as “violent/aggressive”. Simply put, she is asking “how anti-egalitarian is too anti-egalitarian?”

In my previous post I argued that egalitarianism is one of the key features that distinguish non-pornographic sex from pornographic sex. In this post I will be focussing on this criterion, since I believe it is the most important one, but the general argument I put forward can be applied to my other criteria too. Thus this post is a response to the broader question that is posed in the title. 

Despite what the title may suggest, this post is not about how much sexual content should be allowed in the mainstream media. Rather it about the character of sexual activities, including those featured in the media.  

The Black Jack Metaphor

The game of Black Jack begins with the players receiving two cards each, which always have a combined value of twenty-one or less. The players must then decide whether or not to accept an additional (unknown) card from the dealer. The players’ aim (as well as that of the dealer) is to obtain a set of cards which have a total value of twenty-one (or as close to twenty-one as possible.) The closer one’s score is to twenty-one, the more likely one is to win, so long as one’s score does not go over twenty-one. If your score goes above twenty-one (which is referred to as "going bust") you lose the round. 

Liberal, sex-positive feminists treat sex as if it were a game of Black Jack. In their view the more aggressive, degrading and generally anti-egalitarian a sex act is, the more “subversive”, “liberating” and praiseworthy it is. Sexual acts that lack such elements are deemed “boring”, “conventional” and “vanilla” (as if that were a bad thing.) At the same time, liberal self-proclaimed feminists claim that rape is wrong. Committing rape is the sex-positive equivalent of getting a value above twenty-one in Black Jack. Liberals aim to make their sexual activities as anti-egalitarian as possible, and therefore as rape-like as possible, without actually committing rape. 

If the goal of Black Jack were to get as low a score as possible, no player would ever accept a card from the dealer and thus no player would ever “go bust”, making the game far less interesting. It is the attempt to get as close to a certain “line” as possible without crossing it that makes the game exciting. However, the real life rapes of women are no game. Sex liberalism praises men for approaching the “rape line” (for lack of a better term) by introducing brutal and aggressive power dynamics into their sex acts. Thus liberals create a scenario in which some men will end up crossing the line and committing acts of rape or sexual assault. 

The Elusive “Rape-Line” 

Liberals spend a great deal of time debating the exact location of the “rape line” (they made an entire documentary devoted to it.) They ask questions like “exactly how drunk does a woman have to be before a man who has sex with her can be deemed guilty of rape?” or “how enthusiastic should her consent sound before it can really be considered consent?”. They fail to recognise that such questions would not even come up if our culture did not push the view that sex is an act of conquest and encourage men to mix drunkenness with sex or pursue sex acts which their female “targets” were likely to find horrific and degrading. 

Instead of trying to locate the elusive rape line, a far better approach to combating rape would be to insist that men stay as far away from the line as possible, by ensuring that their sex lives have as little resemblance to acts of rape as possible. This means ensuring that their sexual behaviours do not express a desire to dominate others or have them submit to such domination, for dominance and (unwilling) submission are the defining characteristics of rape.  Thus those who ask “how pornographic is too pornographic?”, “how anti-egalitarian is too anti-egalitarian?” or “how rape-like is too rape-like?” are asking the wrong question. 

Reframing the Question 

I have to admit that my response to the “how pornographic is too pornographic” issue comes from a Christian fundamentalist video series that I used to watch when I was really bored, in order to poke fun at their absurd and reactionary beliefs. It seems I have a strange interest in discussing views I find ridiculous (as evidenced by the current title and contents of this blog.) The episode that (kind of) inspired my answer discussed the question "how far is too far?”, with regard to pre-marital, sexual behaviour (after a long boring segment denouncing the supposed evils of abortion.)The Christians responded to the question by arguing that instead of trying to get as close to committing a sexual sin as possible (without actually committing it), one should try to stay as far away from sin as possible.

I do not believe that there is such a thing as God or sin, nor I do believe that pre-marital sex is inherent immoral, but there are ways of behaving that are immoral. Instead of asking how many morally questionable elements (such as dominance, submission, conquest, superficiality, etc.) one can introduce into their relationships or sexual acts (before these acts become deserving of criticism), we should be aiming to rid our sexual activities of such elements and make them as egalitarian and loving as possible. Applying this principle will mean different things to different people. For some, it will mean rejecting outright sadomasochism. For others, it will mean practising conventional sexual activities (which include kissing, hugging and other forms of “outer course”) more gently. Anything that increases safety and reduces physical pain (particularly if it does so without reducing sexual arousal) is a step forward. 

Liberals will no doubt be outraged that I took an idea from a conservative source and think that I must therefore be a conservative myself. I guess the idea that one should be “open-minded” and try to learn from others does not extend to liberalism’s political opponents. I, however, think that any movement, no matter how vile or right-wing it is, can make claims that are true and useful. Thus we should consider what our opponents say, but that does not mean we have to blindly agree with them or acknowledge that they have “their own truths”. The line between actual critical thinking and mindless relativism can be a tricky one to pinpoint, but at least being on the wrong side of it is not nearly as dangerous as being on the wrong side of the rape line.

To reiterate, I think the best way to approach the question of “how pornographic is too pornographic” when it comes to sexual activities, is to rephrase the question and instead ask “how can we make our sexual activities as loving, egalitarian and non-pornographic as possible?”. Unfortunately, many people (both men and women) have had their sexualities influenced by a thoroughly hierarchical political order (which consists not only of male dominance, but also of capitalism, white supremacy and other hierarchical systems) and resisting these harmful desires while attempting to form new ones will require effort. Some people will need to put in more effort than others, but that should not stop them from trying. 

I think the most effective way to create a world in which egalitarian sexual relationships can flourish, is to create a whole different political, economic and social order (one that rewards those who treat others like equal human beings, rather than resources to be conquered and used), but we should none-the-less attempt to free our sexualities from the short-sighted values of capitalist society, even while we are trapped within it.
Stay tuned for the final article in my series on egalitarian sex and relationships, in which I address some of the harmful views regarding romance and love that are promoted by mainstream culture.