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December 11th, 2012 at 9:00 am

Whitney Strub — The Politics of Porn, Part 2: The Culture (Non-) Wars

“For that matter, Christian Grey of the Fifty Shades trilogy would be hard to pick out from a lineup of the ‘Opportunity Society’ wing of the GOP; I picture him with Scott Brown abs, Paul Ryan vocal inflection, and Romney hair.”—Whitney Strub

Perversion for Profit, Whitney StrubThis is the second post from Whitney Strub on porn’s place in America in 2012. In his first post, Strub focused on pornography’s place in politics, here he turns to popular culture. Whitney Strub is the author of Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right.

I ended the first post with the suggestion that the political disinvestment in porn as a partisan issue had something to do with its cultural mainstreaming. And indeed, it’s hard to rail against obscenity when your suburban voting base is immersed in a trilogy full of spanking scenes and handcuffs and erotic shaving.

Of course, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t the first time something vaguely smutty has carried mass appeal; Hugh Hefner was perfecting this trick over a half-century ago. And though occasional media stories highlight “new” aspects of the phenomenon, like the female audience (Candida Royalle was pioneering porn for women in the 1980s, not to mention those steamy Harlequin novels my good Catholic grandmother was always reading) or the central role of technology (Kindles and Nooks now, though VHS and Beta once before), probably the most interesting angle of the story was how Vintage Books managed to cash in on the free world of Internet fanfic that is often better written and more sexually explicit (full disclosure: it’s a pet peeve of mine when people pontificate about texts they haven’t actually read, so I bought Fifty Shades Freed, the third book and only one the South Philadelphia Target had, being sold out of the first two. I had every intention of reading it, and Reader, I tried, let’s leave it at that).

So this mainstream porn event is far from unprecedented. What’s more noteworthy is that the current scale of integration blurs boundaries until pornography itself becomes a less legible category (I can’t say less meaningful—it’s always been a semantic mess). If porn spent the last two decades of the twentieth century abandoning its outlaw status to learn the tricks of corporate capitalism, from product differentiation to branding, the twenty-first century mainstream cultural economy in turn simply absorbed pornography wholly. E.L. James’ Fifty Shades is only the most glaring recent example. Mainstream crossover, once rare, has grown commonplace enough to draw little mention. Where once Harry Reems lost a part in Grease on account of his smutty past, now porn phenom James Deen won a role alongside Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons precisely because of his. Of the two stars, he’s not even the most controversial.

It’s far from a foregone conclusion that smut challenges social norms. Fifty Shades’ (rather light) BDSM content might give it an edgy quality to some readers, but as Margot Weiss’ recent analysis of the San Francisco BDSM scene in her book Techniques of Pleasure argues, transgression is tightly bound (so to speak) with hypercapitalist tendencies. New forms of desire are always also new opportunities for monetization, and the chicken doesn’t always follow the egg. For that matter, Christian Grey of the Fifty Shades trilogy would be hard to pick out from a lineup of the “Opportunity Society” wing of the GOP; I picture him with Scott Brown abs, Paul Ryan vocal inflection, and Romney hair.

By way of contrast, take Samuel Delany’s gargantuan new novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. It challenges taboos against consensual incest, intergenerational sex, polyamory, and even nosepicking. The book is unquestionably pornographic (as its own author, a proud self-identified pervert, would assuredly agree), and genuinely subversive in its depiction of a queer utopia that chafes against the darker vision of kink that generally accompanies both conservative lamentations (which seek to pathologize it) and self-representations from sexual outlaws themselves (who have historically derived an undeniable frisson of pleasure from the illicitness of their non-normative pursuits—think Genet, think John Rechy, even think the Marquis de Sade). Delany’s world of kink is filled with warmth and affection—and instead of being hidden in some cultural underground, Through the Valley comes bearing blurbs from the likes of Pulitzer Prize winner and recent MacArthur Fellow Junot Díaz.

Where, then, does this leave the cultural politics of pornography in 2012? Though there is a realm of sexually explicit media out there that social consensus still designates pornographic, its boundaries are perhaps blurrier than ever before. The wave of arthouse films with graphic sex has slowed since the Brown Bunny/Nine Songs/Shortbus wave of several years back, but it’s also become more casual (the only person who seems really eager to talk about the sexual content of Lars von Trier’s forthcoming spectacle Nymphomaniac is star Shia LaBeouf, who mostly draws snarky internet mockery for his lack of self-awareness in finding it so revolutionary). Jenna Jameson, Ron Jeremy, and other porn stars are as mainstream as Oprah. Pornography as something cordoned off from mass culture seems a relic—even as I write this, breaking news announces the death of The Forum, Philadelphia’s “last porn palace,” obsolete in so many ways.

All of this makes it difficult to imagine a restaging of the infamous 1980s sex wars. The tensions there have not disappeared—witness the recent controversy over a risqué drag show staged at the Berkshire Conference for Women’s Historians, to which the Journal of Women’s History devoted a recent discussion –but the lines are less clear, especially with the proliferation of porn that speaks for marginalized groups, from the queer of color perspective of Delany or lesbian porn magnate Shine Louise Houston to the transgender self-representations of feminist-porn award winner Morty Diamond. Though antiporn speakers like Gail Dines continue to work the lecture circuit with arguments that seem to be frozen in 1990, in my teaching I often find undergraduates reluctant to take Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon seriously—which is a shame, because whatever conclusions one draws about their work, it deserves to be taken seriously.

So, without much governmental interference, or anything on par with the feminist antiporn movement, what are the possibilities for the contemporary politics of porn? I would like to think that a more rigorous analysis of social power might stem from thinking of it in conjunction with the outrage generated by the Citizens United opinion, which has called attention to the ways money shapes, informs, and, legally, becomes speech in modern America. This is not news to those legal scholars and proponents of substantive democracy who have been wrangling with the issue at least since the fateful 1976 Supreme Court Valeo v. Buckley case began the trajectory toward Citizens United. It’s also not news to antiporn feminist scholars like MacKinnon, who rightly noted that speech always occurrs within, and takes its meaning from, massive preexisting imbalances of social power. Fusing these two threads is not even unprecedented; Cass Sunstein attempted it almost twenty years ago in his Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech, when he called for “A New Deal for Speech.”

Sunstein operated within an antiporn framework that has, I think, been challenged, clarified, and superseded by the more nuanced feminist thought of the past two decades. And campaign money was simply not as sexy an issue then as it is now, with states from Montana to New Jersey trying in various ways to circumvent the ravages Citizens United places on democracy by opening the floodgates to unprecedented amounts of unaccountable spending. Porn is no longer something one can meaningfully be “for” or “against.” That thinking is largely obsolete. But hopefully we can learn from the polarized arguments of the past to think more clearly, and critically, about how structures of power shape and construct our political worlds, from super-PACs to smut. It’s not an easy task, but it never was.

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