by Tom Waugh
Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 30-35
INTRODUCTION: LABELS AND RED HERRINGS
Taking part in a debate about pornography, I am painfully aware of contradictions involved in my position as a person to whom a great many compromising labels may be applied (in alphabetical order: academic, anti-patriarchal Canadian, cinephile, contributor-to-a-magazine-on-trial-for-obscenity, cyclist, gay, male, socialist, teacher, thirty-five, unattached, vanilla-sexual, wasp, etc.).
I belong to a cultural and political context — the urban gay male community/ies — in which dirty pictures have a hard-won centrality, both historically and at present. I am also an individual consumer: I couldn't begin to describe the importance in my own political/personal growth of the erotic components in the work of Baldwin, Gênet, Pasolini, Warhol/Morrissey, Burroughs, Michelangelo, and even Gore Vidal (to begin as usual with the most respectable list), not to mention Tomorrow's Man (the crypto-gay physique magazine I discovered on the sports rack of the local newsstand as a trembling teenager in Presbyterian Ontario in the mid-sixties), and Straight to Hell (the underground folk-raunch magazine of readers narratives I discovered as a trembling grad student in New York City in the early seventies, when I was wondering whether marching in Gay Pride could blow my comprehensives).
How then am I to express my solidarity in words and actions with women's rightful denunciation of pornography as an instrument of antifeminist backlash, of the usurpation by industrial capitalism of the private sexual sphere, of the merchandizing and degradation of women's bodies, of the incitement of rape and violence against women? Can I do so without aping the standard liberal male guilt-trip or its "we're oppressed and alienated too" refrain? without echoing the occasional anti-feminist tirades in the gay press by beleaguered men who think they see women lining up alongside the cops? Can I do so while insisting that sexual liberation is still an essential component of political liberation and that erotica has a rightful, even indispensable, place in the culture and politics of sexual liberation — gay, lesbian, feminist, and yes, straight-male?
Is it enough for me to repeat that anti-woman pornography, a symptom, can only be eradicated by a fundamental transformation of society along feminist-socialist lines? And that, in the meantime, if I had time, I could support various proposed liberal stopgap measures by the bourgeois state towards curbing pornography's worst social effects. These would include, that is, measures short of obscenity provisions in criminal codes such as: the use of labor and criminal codes to halt child exploitation, forced labor, non-consensual sexual relations, and the incitement of violence. I'd support the regulation of an above-ground sex industry by means of unionization, taxation, labor codes, public visibility restrictions. In short, I'd support the kind of state intervention that regulates tobacco and alcohol (even though this kind of regulation has led in France to a kind of de facto suppression of gay culture). I also obviously support non-state strategies of consumer resistance like boycotts and education, such as those led around "non-pornographic" films as CRUISING, WINDOWS, and DRESSED TO KILL in which I have participated.
Censorship is both a red herring and a real issue, and often a means of halting debate (one Montreal writer demands that readers take a stand either for or against porn before establishing terms or definitions; a Toronto writer demands that readers choose between life and art). For me, a gay man struggling against continuing, in fact escalated, censorship of gay newspapers and films, and, in the Canadian context, resisting the most ferocious police suppression of our culture in any Western society, censorship is a real issue. Even though many of the most visible anti-porn activists have repeatedly renounced legal sanctions against pornography and some have stressed the necessity of gay-lesbian rights education as part of the anti-porn discourse, many mainstream spokespeople are not so careful. As just one example, in 1978, the year that The Body Politic, the Canadian national gay-lesbian paper, began its still ongoing struggle to survive in the obscenity courts, Canadian feminist spokespeople testified before a parliamentary committee and saw their proposals for revision of obscenity statutes (to provide for violence) manipulated and appropriated by homophobic liberals and the New Right alike. The coincidence may or may not be only symbolic, but we don't have time to wonder.
In 1980, the National Organization of Women in the U.S. resolved that pornography is not a genuine lesbian-gay rights issue, nor are pedophilia, sadomasochism, and public sexuality (all of which overlap with the issue of pornography). All four of these issues have been central concerns within the gay male community/ies since Stonewall, and favorite pretexts for our persecution. But some feminists, straight and lesbian alike, have tended to regard them as areas where we are struggling merely to exercise our full patriarchal privileges as men (a view that has sometimes been partly justified). Within the last few years, the lesbian-feminist community has learned not only that it will not be able to resolve these issues away but also that they are of utmost pertinence to feminism and lesbian liberation, and furthermore, that (who ever would have thought?) the interests of gay men and feminists on these issues are not necessarily irreconcilable. The so-called choice between censorship and pornography, art and life, is falsely formulated. Women's right to defend themselves against patriarchal violence and the right of women and sexual minorities to full cultural, sexual, and political expression, are allied rights, both threatened in the current conjuncture. To prioritize or rank them on our agenda greatly damages the anti-patriarchal movement (just as reproductive rights must not have less priority on the agenda than lesbian rights or vice versa).
The recent debate on sexuality within the feminist community, in the headlines of the alternative media since the Heresies sex issue, has already had some input from the gay men's movement. In all modesty, anti-patriarchal gay men still have an important contribution to make. It may be no accident that some of the first utterances of the new feminist sexual outlaws appeared in gay newspapers (with varying degrees of lesbian input, from a little (The Advocate), to some (The Body Politic), to tons (Gay Community News). Gay men were struck from the beginning by how much the new discourse of women's pleasure echoed but went further than the discourse of early gay liberation (in the era when gay groups used to call themselves the Gay Liberation Front instead of the National Task Force), profiting directly from two decades of feminist debate. Of course the anti-porn right saw our satisfaction as patronizing and the use of our media as conspiratorial:
Regardless of the obvious rejoinder that we are too busy molesting children to have time to be taking over women, I would like to explore in this article our stake in porn, to sketch some of the contours of our contribution to the debate on sexuality and porn. Specifically, I would like to situate gay male pornography in relation to straight male pornography in terms of its uniquely contradictory mixture of progressive and reactionary characteristics in its relations of production, exhibition, consumption, and representation. Far from wishing to offer an apologetics for gay porn against homophobic dismissals from within the women's movements, both from the NOW center and the WAP right (I realize that my refutation of such dismissals are open to being misread as defensiveness, an unnecessary attitude I may not be wholly successful in avoiding), I feel that an objective analysis of gay pornography will clarify and expand many of the terms of the current debate.
The following "topographical" chart is largely contemporary in its focus, that is, post-sixties, though reference is made to the historical evolution of gay pornography particularly since the establishment of embryonic modern-day gay ghettos following World War II (I also refer here and there to classical stag movies). My main object is a relatively loose comparison of gale male pornography to straight male pornography, referring wherever relevant to its major product divisions: theatrical films, hardcore and softcore; rental or mail-order video; arcade/adult-bookstore materials, mostly film loops and hardcore magazines; mail-order films and photographic sets (beefcake); glossy mass-distribution Playboy-imitation magazines like Blueboy; and finally, porn that may be called "artisanal," amateur or folk, both written and visual, e.g. Straight to Hell. (Obviously these categories sometimes overlap, as with video versions of theatrical films, and some exclusions are arbitrary — live performances, written materials except for the artisanal STH, and ancillary branches of the industry like gadgets).
The comparison is organized in terms of relations of production (making), exhibition (showing), consumption (looking), and representation (depicting). Obviously, this chart, with its illustrations and appendages, is a work-in-progress, and I welcome any corrections or additions. It may reflect also a certain unavoidable bias and a greater expertise in the gay male column which readers are asked to tolerate. On the sidelines, I also offer a brief reflection trying to connect the feminist conception of patriarchal public space to the gay ghetto and its pornographic cultural forms. And lastly, since we have often heard the question as to what a nonsexist pornography of the utopian future might look like, I conclude with an examination of Curt McDowell s LOADS, a non-commercial gay pornographic film from San Francisco (recently seized in Montreal incidentally) with the idea of wondering in concrete terms how far or how near we might be to that ideal
A NOTE ON DEFINITIONS
Much of the debate has been a war of definitions, of distinctions between sexist pornography and nonsexist erotica, between my art and your smut, and so on. All such definitions tend to be, for reasons of semantics, ideological rather than scientific. This is true whether explicitly so (as in any definition based on values, inherent artistic merit, or political or educational effectivity), or by implication, that is, expressed as formal/aesthetic, legalistic, physiological (Auden defined pornographic as anything that gave him an erection), historical, sociological or commercial (the definitions of pornographers themselves). I am not the first to insist that any advance in the debate must acknowledge all of the definitions currently in play since these definitions themselves are weapons in the ongoing struggle.
I will not add to the confusion by proposing a new definition (except insofar as the above caveat and a refusal to distinguish between erotica and pornography constitute a definition), since for gay people the definition imposed by police, censors and courts at any given point will always be the determining one.
However, since discussion of pornography is becoming increasingly acrimonious and difficult, and since misunderstandings are already being translated into social and legal practice, I will make a few prescriptions. Participants in the debate must situate themselves in relation to the definitions struggle and must specify exactly what images or texts they are referring to and exactly what social remedies they are proposing, if any.
This precision is indispensible in avoiding co-optation by the book-banners, the homophobes and the Moral Majority, who have gotten so far by blurred distinctions and misleading generalizations. Next, every exclusively single-issue intervention is a step backwards. Connections must be established at every point between the porn debate and the other issues of the anti-patriarchal struggle, especially reproductive rights, sex education, and lesbian/gay rights. I would go even further to say that every comprehensive intervention on pornography must acknowledge the existence of gay male pornography. To pass over the stacks of Blueboy lined up beside Penthouse is either homophobic (as in the case of the National Film Board of Canada's NOT A LOVE STORY) or misguided liberalism, misguided even if the evasion arises out of solidarity with gay people. General propositions about pornography that do not apply to gay pornography are inadmissible (for example, does, "All pornography degrades women", apply to gay male pornography? if so, how? if not, why not?). Progressive gay men have nothing to fear from an open and non-homophobic confrontation with gay pornography, nor from our own self-critical confrontation with the abuses of pornography within our community.
Finally, the following distinctions are essential to any meaningful discussion: between pornography and violent pornography, between consent and coercion, between consensual power play (SM) and violence, between images and actions, between individual sexual practices and collective sexual politics. This latter distinction is crucial. The personal may be political, but there is no such thing as a politically correct individual sexuality. By this I mean that we must support the full rights of sexual outlaws to act out their individual (consensual) desires, whether sadomasochists or drag queens or Phyllis Schlafly. Andrea Dworkin's statement that all fucking is inherently sadistic discredits her other work, some of which is useful. Specific sexual practices as depicted in a given image do not necessarily coincide with relations of exploitation or domination, nor with any other power relation. A man or woman portrayed as getting fucked cannot automatically be seen as victim. Gay porn in particular, and of course gay sexuality in general, undermine the widespread assumption in the porn debate that penetration in itself is an act of political oppression. A sexual act or representation acquires ideological tenor only through its personal, social, narrative, iconographic, or larger political context.
THE GHETTO: A NOTE ON SPACE
One way of looking at the evolution of the gay movement since World War II is as the growth of our claims to space. Our first claim was to the inviolability of our private space. (The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, said Trudeau, when he decriminalized consensual sodomy between two adults in 1969 — a reform only a minority of U.S. states have followed.) Our next claim was for the inviolability of the ghetto, our gathering places and neighborhoods. Our final claim was full open access to all public space of our society, and in fact, many of us insisted, to alter the terms of that society. Our claim to our media and to our culture, including our pornography, is part of all three of these claims to space.
When we talk this over with our feminist allies, we often fail to strike a sympathetic chord. The space that we have been demanding is only the space we have been conditioned to expect as men in patriarchal society, space that has been only partly withheld because we suck cock. Women have not yet achieved access to that space, either literally in terms of public territory, or metaphorically in terms of media of cultural, sexual, and political expression. In short, gay pornography profits from and aspires to the institutionalized presence of patriarchal power built on the absence/silence of women, and is thus complicit in the oppression of women.
This is true and it hurts. But it's not all of the truth. Firstly our claims to space, private, ghetto or public, have not been achieved except incompletely and provisionally, always subject to invasion and revocation. Ghettoized spaces, as women have always sensed in their kitchens and church basements and offices, are no substitute for autonomous political space; they are more like enclaves of self-defense and accommodation. Our pornography, in fact, reflects the recognition of this insufficiency. Of the 110 STH anecdotes I mention elsewhere, only eight take place in ghetto space (saunas, discos, backrooms, cinemas), whereas about forty take place in our private homes and the rest all take place in non-ghetto public space. Our greatest visibility may be in the ghetto, but our fantasies and our everyday lives are elsewhere.
Pornography has become one of our privileged cultural forms, the expression of that quality for which we are stigmatized, queer-bashed, fired, evicted, jailed, hospitalized, electroshocked, disinherited, raped in prison, refused at the U.S. border, silenced, and ghettoized-that quality being our sexuality. Our pornography is shaped both by the oppression told by my long chain of participles and by our conditioning as men in patriarchy. We must direct our claim to our pornographic culture, not towards occupying our share of patriarchal space, but towards shattering that space, transforming it.
ON GETTING FUCKED
Richard Dyer's assertion in the accompanying article about the dominance of heterosexist modes of sexuality in gay porn narrative needs some qualification:
This may be true of many or even most theatrical films (though I think this requires further research — certainly lots of individual sequences I remember contradict this). However, passive penetration fantasies are extremely common as narrative principles in many non-commercial films and anecdotes I have encountered (as are fellatio fantasies, active or passive, which do not seem to be organized around the narrator's ejaculation). Perhaps the non-commercial or artisanal origin of the examples that come to mind says more about the porn industry than our erotic culture as an audience, but that remains to be seen. What does a passive penetration fantasy or a submissive fantasy look or sound like? This question is not only of academic interest. The active penetration fantasy is such a dominant one in the straight male porn industry and in patriarchal culture in general, that, in looking for alternatives, we should analyze the other side of the coin. I've talked about this with some women who, like many gay men and perhaps straight men, are aware of and often disturbed by fantasies of passive penetration, of submission, even of rape.
I propose this advertisement for a San Francisco gay bar, and this abridged citation from a STH anecdote from Meat, both as a footnote to Dyer's generalization, and as evidence for an investigation it may be profitable to pursue:
MEN'S PORNOGRAPHY, GAY VS. STRAIGHT:
Relations of Production
Gay Male Pornography
Straight Male Pornography
Relations of Exhibition
Gay Male Pornography
Straight Male Pornography
Relations of Consumption
Gay Male Pornography
Straight Male Pornography
Relations of Representation:
Gay Male Pornography
Straight Male Pornography
(Continued on next page)