One aspect of Western gay male culture that concerns me is the largely unquestioned prevalence of pornography. I think it's true to say that for many gay men the presence and use of pornography in their lives is simply a given. This should not be confused with what I believe is a certain gay male aesthetic, one that is drawn to highlight, affirm and create beauty in all manner of forms. I don't, for instance, consider the above image to be pornographic, although no doubt some might.
So what do I mean by pornography? Well, lately I’ve been re-reading Robert Jensen’s insightful book Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Regular visitors to The Wild Reed may recall that in December 2009 I shared excerpts from this book, here and here.
Jensen’s focus is on straight pornography, i.e., that type of pornography that “shows us how men who accept the conventional conception of masculinity see women.” He argues that this type of pornography accepts brutality and inequality. It has also become “normalized and mainstreamed,” which shouldn’t be surprising, he says, as pornography’s values “represent mainstream values: the logic of domination and subordination that is central to patriarchy, hyper-patriotic nationalism, white supremacy, and a predatory corporate capitalism.”
Now some may argue that this understanding of pornography (one that reflects a feminist critique of porn) has nothing to do with gay pornography; that gay porn is different. Yet the reality is that much of the pornography made by and for gay men, and indeed much of gay male culture in the West, has appropriated the wider (straight) culture's patriarchal notions of domination and subordination. I mean, think about it: terms and ideas such as top and bottom, butch and fem, top dog and bitch indicate a dynamic that assigns a gay man's position and value in a hierarchical power structure based on his physical position in the sexual act. In gay porn this is often exaggerated and reinforced by acts of body and speech that are cruel and degrading. Some see all of this as a manifestation of the misogyny at the core of patriarchal attitudes and structures. It's a contention that others – gay and straight, male and female – readily dismiss.
Perhaps less easily dismissed is the idea that gay porn often sets men up for disappointment and failure. It does so by setting standards of sexual prowess and physical appearance (from youthful looks to penis size) that are simply impossible for the vast majority of men to meet. For some men, though by no means all, this can bring about (once the thrill of the pornographic moment has passed) feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and despondency. Such feelings can, in turn, encourage some to forgo seeking and experiencing the “real thing” and to instead seek more porn and the fantasy and escape it provides. And that’s another problematic aspect of pornography: many men definitely experience it as addictive, or perhaps more accurately, as a compulsion that negatively impacts their relationships and lives. (See the WebMD.com article, "Is Pornography Addictive?")
Thus what Jenson says about straight porn applies, I believe, to gay porn: “Going through the pornographic door typically leads into a prison cell. . . . It is a dead end. It doesn’t give a way to expand our imaginations but a way to constrain them, handing us a sexual script that keeps us locked up and locked down.”
Because I think there’s definitely something of value for gay men in Robert Jensen’s critique of straight porn, I share today the first of three excerpts from Jenson’s book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. I look forward to any and all comments my readers may care to share regarding Jenson's perspective.
When people ask me the last time I used pornography – not as a researcher but as a consumer – my answer is “yesterday.” By that, I don’t mean that I watched a pornographic film yesterday, but that for those of us with a history of “normal” pornography use as children and young adults, quitting pornography doesn’t necessarily mean we are pornography-free. My sexual imagination was in part shaped by the use of pornography. I still have in my head vivid recollections of specific scenes in pornographic films I saw 25 years ago. To the degree possible, I try to eliminate those images when I am engaging in sexual activity today (whether alone or with my partner), and I think I’m pretty successful at it. The longer I’m away from pornography, the easier it gets. But the term is “to the degree possible.”
. . . What goes on in my body sexually is the result of not just what I think and feel in the moment, but a lifetime of training and experience. I wish I could neatly segregate and eliminate not only the effects of my past pornography use but the effects of all the ugly sexist training I have received in my life about sexuality. I wish I could wall myself off from the sexist messages and images that are all around me today. I wish I could find a way to create a space untouched by those forces in which I could live.
But if I am to be honest, I have to admit something that is painful to face: I still struggle against those forces. I have to work to bracket out of my mind – to the degree possible – those images. I have to work to remember that I can deepen my own experience of intimacy and sexuality only when I let go of those years of training in how to dominate. It’s hard to be honest about these things, because so much of what lives within us is rooted in that domination/subordination dynamic. But it’s a good rule of thumb that the things that are difficult are the most important to confront. That’s easy to say but hard to practice.
– Robert Jensen
Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity
Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity
Recommended Off-site Links:
A Review of Robert Jensen’s Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity – Terry Ornelas (Austin Chronicle, December 7, 2007).
Male Gay Porn: Coming to Terms – Richard Dyer (Jump Cut, March 1985).
The Price of Pleasure: Talking with a Vocal Critic of the Porn Industry – Shawn Alff (The Daily Loaf, January 24, 2011).
Porn Addiction Destroys Relationships, Lives – Regan McMahon (San Francisco Chronicle, February 22, 2010).
Is Pornography Addictive? – Martin F. Downs (WebMD.com).
The Porn Myth: Why Pornography Turns Men Off the Real Thing – Naomi Wolf (New York Magazine, October 29, 2003).
The Gay Male Quest for Democratic, Mutual, Reciprocal Sex (Part 1) – The Leveret (August 7, 2008).
The Gay Male Quest for Democratic, Mutual, Reciprocal Sex (Part 2) – The Leveret (August 17, 2008).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 1)
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 2)
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
Human Sex: Weird and Silly, Messy and Sublime
Making Love, Giving Life
The Holy Pleasure of Intimacy
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
A Wise and Thoughtful Study of Sexual Ethics
What Is It That Ails You?
The Allure of St. Sebastian
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 1)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 2)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 3)
Thoughts on Mallorca's "Naked Easter" Calendar
A Fresh Take on Masculinity
Learning from the East
Jesus Was a Sissy