Pornography, Gender and Sexual Identity

There are certain elements to the history of pornography that are similarly found in that of other subcultures. Pornography has in the past – like punk, hip-hop and rap at the height of their popularity – “operated against political and religious authority as a form of social criticism”, (Kipnis, 2006: p.119). Besides some early allegorical depictions of political significance during the Victorian era, it has mostly done so by creating a realm of fantasy that insists only that society maintains a space for such fantasy within its reality. Furthermore, pornography can also be telling as to how society contributes to discussions of gender and relationships through the boundaries it imposes, the experimentation that might then ensue, and through feminist arguments for and against such exhibition.

However, that mainstream culture would reappropriate, diffuse, and commoditise the underlying meanings and critiques offered in porn seems an inevitability given that, even punk was reduced to “models smoldered beneath mountains of safety pins and plastic”, (Hebdige, 1979: p.96). This, to some degree, is made possible by the intellectual prejudice that such production might incur on the part of theorists and scholars alike: the only serious attention afforded to pornography would be sustained by those who oppose it. Much like the lyrical content of a song might be deemed even more controversial than Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses – in the Western world – pornography has always been defined by the controversy that surrounds it more than by its content “because its particular fantasies look like dangerous and socially destabalising incendiary devices”, (Kipnis, 2006: p.119). Pornography’s reappropriation has thus seen its once public visibility – as was the case in parlours and cinemas before the advent of home entertainment technologies – retreat into an individualised private domain in similar fashion to the well-documented case of music and television consumption. The objective being sought by the reappropriation of these very different media types is however, exactly the same: to sell mainstream products.  Erotic images are today used to sell almost any product – related to sex and the body, or not. What pornography might then also reveal about how society today negotiates gendered bodies and gendered relationships would be in direct correlation to the critiques offered by Jean Baudrillard on the body as object of consumption.

Sexuality ceasing to be a factor of cohesion and shared elation, becomes an individual frenzy for profit”, (Baudrillard, 1998: p.145).

In order to further examine these different critiques and then derive any underlying meaning inherent in pornography, an understanding of what exactly is being referred to when discussing gender and the body must first be established.

There are two very different approaches that could be taken in an attempt to define or ascribe gender. The first is more intrinsic to the sexual nature of the subject in a physical sense. ‘Biological Essentialism’ can be traced back to the latter part of ancient Greek times, and has been heavily disputed by sex researchers and feminists alike. It stemmed from Plato’s work, in which he presumed the construction of all natural occurrences as originating from a given amount of possibilities.

The phenomena of the natural world were simply a reflection of a finite number of fixed and unchanging forms, or eide, as he called them. The eide were renamed essences by the Thomists of the Middle Ages”, (DeLamater et al, 1998: p.10).

This historical approach to ascribing gender – with its inherent predetermination – was the basis for much of the discourse on sexuality. Its generic inflexibility had an inevitable effect on many important publications up until the late 20th century – as Janice M. Irvine points out (1990). Unsurprisingly, when faced with the realities poised by sexual diversity, biological essentialism proved problematic at best. In response, there came about strong oppositional views arguing that instead, there is a notable element of social construction determining one’s sexual drive.

This means that the human organism is capable of applying its constitutionally given equipment to a very wide and, in addition, constantly variable and varying range of activities”, (Berger & Luckmann, 1966: p66).

This argument is central to ‘Positivism’: a more befitting theory for a contemporary liberal society. For Michel Foucault (1978), notably, it was more about power over the body and repression of the mind – by the church, for example. For Judith Butler (1990) it was not even necessarily about sexuality and perhaps more about self identification. Either way, positivism then indicates a social – rather than biological – construction of sexual identity. It is this fluid definition of gender that will be referred to when discussing pornography, the gendered body, and gendered relationships.

The shock tactics employed by pornography when exhibiting bodies outside the norm – a norm that will be established forthwith – are not simply the result of a boundary transgressed once too often, but more the result of its politics at work. They speak of the aesthetic norms that society prescribes insofar as the sexualised body, and they also challenge those very norms each time this particular boundary is transgressed. Professor Laura Kipnis argues that in this way, pornography ensures all body shapes are equally sexualised, and therefore at some point, also the subject of someone’s desire. To this, she adds…

This watchfully dialectical relationship pornography maintains to mainstream culture makes it nothing less than a form of cultural critique. It refuses to let us so easily off the hook for our hypocrisies”, (Kipnis, 2006: p.121).

In the same way that pornography offers resistance to the socially constructed image of the ‘perfect’ human body often depicted in mainstream culture – or the norm that was previously referred to – gender is equally tested and scrutinised. As has been established, gender – although assumed by an individual – is generally understood to be socially constructed. However, mainstream culture constructs gender as a strictly dichotomous phenomenon.

Gender then, is a binary set of social meanings that typify female and male bodies as truly different”, (Crawley et al, 2008, p.39).

Nonetheless, Judith Butler theorises that one identifies with, and eventually constitutes his or her sexuality, through the performative repetition of a gendered persona – be it masculine or feminine by either a man or a woman.   

Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylised repetition of acts”, (Butler, 1990: p.140).

If one is to analyse these performative and repetitive sexual acts in mainstream pornography, it might then seem conclusive that they promote normality through heterosexuality – or that sex is normal when practiced by a young man and a young woman, both of whom might possess a physique deemed agreeable by mainstream media, and who act correctly within the boundaries of their biologically assigned genders. It is this pornography that mainstream culture would reappropriate for semiotic use, in its unbiased and unwavering commoditisation. This version of the gendered body might thus be considered “the finest consumer object”, or the one object “more precious and more dazzling than any other – and even more laden

with connotations than the automobile”, (Baudrillard, 1998: p.129). It has been re-appropriated to sell commodities, but also, the ideology that resides within the very notion of the patriarchal masculine figure and the subordinate feminine figure – a notion that has consistently generated strong feminist opposition (as shall be discussed in the analysis of gendered relationships that follows). John Storey turns to theories of subcultures by John Fiske when he explains cultural re-appropriation.

“…popular culture is a semiotic battlefield in which audiences constantly engage in semiotic guerrilla warfare in a conflict fought out between the forces of incorporation and the forces of resistance”, (2015: p.243).

This struggle often ensues across the class divide: a struggle in which art and other forms of popular culture are consistently being targeted and pulled in opposite directions. Mainstream pornography in this regard – or as depicted by ‘normal’ gendered bodies – might then be deemed more akin to high class erotica than perhaps hardcore depictions of geriatric sex, urophilia, or homosexuality, to name but a few examples. In mainstream pornography, erotica, and any other exclusively high class portrayals of a sexual nature, the gendered body is then no more than the sum of its biological anatomy. Such cultural products and depictions therefore constitute an inaccurate political representation of the gendered body in contemporary society.

This in itself suggests that what might not be deemed ‘normal’ insofar as a gendered body – at least as perceived by a higher class – is relegated to the middle and lower classes: or a substantially larger percentage of the populace. This ‘abnormal’ body might then be more representative of the true body: a realistic depiction of a body forged out of positivism. It is a well-documented fact that the class divide is increasingly becoming wider and un-traversable, and that the higher class is proportionally becoming smaller as those beneath become more voluminous. It might not then, seem improbable that the sub-categories of pornography usually associated with the lower classes might encompass a more realistic portrayal of the gendered body. However, from such discourse one can also derive that if ‘normal’ representations of the body in pornography might be deemed as high class, and ‘abnormal’ representations of the body in pornography might then be relegated to the lower classes, it is then the body itself – not pornography – that is indicative of class.

Class, after all, isn’t simply a matter of income, or neighbourhood. It’s also embedded in a complex web of attitudes and proprieties, particularly around the body”, (Kipnis, 2006: p.125).

Pornography merely serves its political function to illustrate these cultural attitudes surrounding the gendered body. These attitudes and proprieties could be simply illustrated in dichotomous fashion: erotica and porn, masculine and feminine, artistic and vulgar, young and old, thin and fat, straight and homosexual, high class and low class, biological essentialism and positivism.

What pornography can inform regarding gendered relationships might be considered polarising given the extremity of the arguments one encounters, and the lack of resolution thereto. Kipnis – renowned for her sympathetic views on pornography – argues that pornography helps to establish social boundaries that one can then explore, that it might be a source of inspiration for some, provide escapism for others, and can therefore be considered beneficial to the sexual expression of individuals and couples alike. In its defence she states that…

Pornography is both a legitimate form of culture and a fictional, fantastical, even allegorical realm; it neither simply reflects the real world nor is it some hypnotizing call to action”, (Kipnis, 2006: p.119).

She does, however, acknowledge the potential for negative consequences to manifest. When considering the individualised consumption of pornography within the private domain, there lies the possibility for festering and acting out of sexual violence on a partner. However, this situation only arises by virtue of the fact that pornography has been reappropriated by mainstream cultural practices in the first place – since the protective shell that is the private domain lies in contrast to the exhibitory nature of pornography. A more public mode of consumption – more representative of how it was consumed in its earliest conception – might then protect susceptible partners from any vulnerability in this regard.

Kipnis also calls into question the feminist construction of an anti-patriarchal discourse, by way of what might be deemed a rebuke on her part. Instead, she celebrates a sex-positive feminist approach – one that emphasises free agency on the part of women, in pursuit of their sexual pleasure – regardless of the understandably high opposition in lieu of this argument. Early pressure groups such as Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media – an early feminist driven, anti-pornography movement – would strongly oppose and criticise sex-positive feminist groups such as the Samois group: an opposition that is maintained to date by more contemporary organisations and numerous feminist writers. One such writer – Professor Sarah Schaschek – elaborates on how pornography can effectively denaturalise certain sexual practices in its reaffirmation of patriarchy, by the relatively simple process of constructing the frame.

It could be argued that Nostalgia reloads the money shot by way of visual structure. What is revealed by Nostalgia’s money shots is that images, rather than sexual practices, reaffirm apparently natural gender hierarchies”, (Schaschek, 2014: p.170).

That sex-positive feminists have consistently maintained a strong counter-argument also speaks about the politics of gendered relationships today: other than a heightened sense of awareness regarding such issues, not much progress seems to have been made. Any attempt to hijack pornography – other than for the commercial purposes already discussed – then seems to not trouble its production significantly. Pornography remains the discursive battleground on which society forges meaning in this regard. Ellen Willis – amongst many others – argues in favour of sex-positive discourse, but has ultimately come to realise that…

Despite the endless public discussion of sex, despite the statistics of ‘experts’ and the outpourings of personal testimony about our sexual desires, fantasies, and habits, we have achieved precious little clarity – let alone agreement – about what it all means”, (1992: p.3).

What this now historic disagreement has inadvertently resulted in has been termed ‘Cultural Essentialism’. The prolonged conflict between anti-pornography and sex positive feminists has given way to the normalisation of patriarchy as a ruling ideology. Without a significant challenge having been mounted by feminists of any persuasion, generations of mothers have then served to unwittingly cement a social infrastructure that furthers the distinctions – rather than the similarities – between men and women. Most notable amongst these are distinctions in their respective approaches to relationships and notions of commitment. An emphasis on fatherhood would then be an unlikely key to overturning this paradox – since feminists would interpret this as further dependency on men. Nancy Chodorow’s ‘The Reproduction of Mothering’ furthered these ideas and served as the basis for this new stage in the cultural evolution of sexology. Historian and sociologist Mari Jo Buhle turns to critic Toril Moi and her contempt towards Chodorow, when underlining how Cultural Essentialism thus serves to uphold this paradox just as unwittingly.

The Reproduction of Mothering, Moi claimed, reintroduced the age –old patriarchal dichotomy, that is, ‘a specific female nature pitted against an equally specific male nature”, (Buhle, 1998: p.264).

Pornography thus provides an overarching basis for patriarchy as – at times – depicted in its content, but more often than not, as constituted by the inability that feminists groups have demonstrated in coming up with any alternative and cohesive sociological structure – an inability in part fuelled by their disagreement over representations of women within pornography itself. The paradoxical effect this has had on relationships has thus been, to reinforce notions of the male dominant figure and the subversive female figure as fundamental differences in gender construction – but not necessarily through its intrinsic portrayal of sexual relationships, as might have been expected. Such is the story that pornography conveys regarding cultural attitudes to gendered relationships, one of a patriarchy then forged directly through its consumption, just as much as indirectly through critique and opposition – if not more so.

The passage of time has seen endless discussion surrounding the gendered body and gendered relationships. Contributions to these discussions have been seen to emanate from feminist pressure groups – sex-positive and otherwise – social theorists and scholars alike, except when such discussions lead to pornography and its interpretation of these social constructs. That feminist condemnation of pornographic material finds no significant contestation either from sociological or academic sources, has not deterred from its production or consumption. As such, pornography can, and does inform as to the nature of the gendered body and gendered relationships it so depicts.     

Pornography has thus seen representations of the gendered body being indicative of social class. Its depictions resonate with truth and fiction in similar dichotomous fashion as the gender roles that mainstream culture would impose – if unchallenged. The truth lies with the masses, their honest sexuality and their exhibitory tendencies. On the other hand, the fiction lies within mainstream pornography and its capitalist driven consumption practices, reappropriated for profit by the higher echelons of contemporary society. A truth in which identifying one’s gender increasingly resists categorisation, and a fiction arrived at through a binary system of gender assignment that simply does not exist. Pornography has equally contributed to discussions of gendered relationships. Having resisted a continuous assault on the part of anti-pornography feminists, pornography seems more entrenched in society than ever before. The fact that it has been seen to sustain a system of patriarchy seems not to do with the explicit content it portrays, but rather with feminism’s failure to produce a viable alternative sociological structure – partly because they have concentrated their efforts in fighting the wrong battles. This is in stark contrast to the sex-positive approach taken by other feminist organisations such as the Samois Group: one that seems to diffuse patriarchal discourse altogether.

However, the most that pornography can tell with regard to the gendered body and gendered relationships is that class continues its struggle to re-appropriate the body and its gender, and that the sexes continue their fight for dominance in relationships of all types. If pornography is thus akin to a resistance movement, then as in other forms of social politics, democracy might be the answer. Ellen Willis describes this particular brand of democracy as radical, and one that requires…

…a commitment to individual freedom and egalitarian self-government in every area of social, economic, and cultural life”, (1992: p.xxi).

Christian Gadd (2907 words).

Semester 6 (January – May 2016) : Gender, Media and Culture.

Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean, (1998), The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, London: Sage Publications.

Berger, P., L., Luckmann, T., (1966) The Social Construction of Reality – A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, New York: Penguin Books.

Buhle, Mary Jo, (1998), Feminism and its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Butler, Judith, (1990), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge.

Chodorow, Nancy, (1999), The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, Berkeley, LA: University of California Press.

Crawley, S.L., Foley, L. J., Shehan, C. L., (2008), Gendering Bodies, Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

DeLamater, J. D., Shibley Hyde, J., (1998) Essentialism vs. Social Constructionism in the Study of Human Sexuality, in The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp.10-18.

Foucault, Michel, (1978), The History of Sexuality – Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, New York: Random House.

Hebdige, Dick, (1979), Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London: Routledge.

Irvine, Janice, M., (1990), Disorders of Desire: Sex and Gender in Modern American Sexology, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Kipnis, Laura, (2006), How to Look at Pornography, in Lehman, Peter, (ed.) (2006), ‘Pornography: Film and Culture’, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, pp.118-129.

Moi, Toril, (1999), What is a Woman?, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schaschek, Sarah, (2014), Pornography and Seriality: The Culture of Producing Pleasure, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Storey, John, (2015), Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, Abingdon: Routledge.

Willis, Ellen, (1992), No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays, Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.

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About Christian Gadd

Christian Gadd
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