The following is an interview with Whitney Strub, author of Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right
Question: Why “Perversion for Profit”? Won’t people think the book is about the economics of the porn industry?
Whitney Strub: Hopefully not. I lay out the main emphasis in the subtitle! I chose the title for a few reasons. First, it was the name of an early-1960s antiporn short film distributed by Citizens for Decent Literature, which crystallizes some of the key methods of modern antiporn discourse—a secular veneer of legalisms and social science that tries to conceal a substantive moralism; a freewheeling construction of “perversity” that barrages the viewer with everything from bestiality to “your daughter, lured into lesbianism,” a dizzying array of perversions that share only their imagined contrast to the heterosexual nuclear family; and also the enticement of an opportunity to wallow in some perversion for a while, under the alibi of fighting for decency.
So the film Perversion for Profit occupies a place of centrality in the politics of pornography; my students laugh at the film today, but its tactics are still operative when politicians speak of the “debilitating effects on communities, marriages, families, and children,” as George W. Bush did in 2003. No meaningful evidence to speak of really supports that, but it’s the sort of trope the New Right mastered in the late 1960s and continues to employ to great effect—the displacement of material issues by moral ones. (Deindustrialization, economic and environmental deregulation, and the massive upward redistribution of wealth debilitate more communities, marriage, families, and children than porn, but you never heard Bush discuss those impacts.) That undergirds the other meaning of the title—that the modern Right has profited immensely through its use of various “perversions” for political gain. I argue that pornography played a crucial role in the formulation of the social-issues agenda that ultimately included comprehensive sex education, feminism, gay rights, reproductive rights, and other elements of modern sexuality that conservatism has very effectively construed as attacks on its monolithic notion of “the family.”
Finally, I liked the alliterative aspect of the title. It rolls off the tongue, and in a book that frequently invokes debates over the social merits of pleasure, I hoped to make the act of reading itself as enjoyable as possible. It’s a scholarly book, no question, but I’m a believer in textual pleasure, at the very least.
Q: In the book, you present pornography and other social issues as a “discursive displacement” of such political issues as race and class. Isn’t that a bit simplistic?
WS: If phrased as such, I suppose so, but I try to offer a more nuanced version than that. There’s no question that the mobilization of the New Right had a lot to do with the formulation of a deliberately race-neutral language in which coded terms like “law and order” or, later, “welfare queens” (if one can even consider Reagan’s crude targeting of single black mothers “coded”) served to perpetuate racial divides and hierarchies without actually speaking of race. The attack on the welfare state, in which the white working class was wooed away by a party that ill befit its economic station, is also a familiar narrative with undeniable racial elements that worked against class solidarity, from school busing controversies through the mass incarceration facilitated by the mislabeled “war on drugs.”
That story has been told, and told well, by a number of social and political historians. What I hope to add to that narrative is an understanding of where sexual politics fit into the trajectory—how, for instance, politicians like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms discovered the new language of a specifically partisan moralism at the precise moment that their longtime racist platforms of segregation fell into disrepute. Ostensibly race-blind policy was one response to that, but moralism provided an equally powerful rhetoric into which an entire constellation of perceived social threats—from pot-smoking antiwar protestors to porn and the sexual revolution—could be bundled into a set of perversions attributed to liberal “permissiveness.” Thus, just as other sources of conservative support also ran dry—anticommunism carrying less weight in 1968 than it had in 1956—a new political fault line was invented, one that allotted a monopoly on what ultimately came to be known as “family values” to the emerging New Right. Richard Nixon’s “benign neglect” of the urban crisis—undertaken while he deliberately generated moral outrage over a series of porn-related “controversies”—was only the most obvious and cynical example.
This, I think, constituted a displacement of the issues raised by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs (whatever their faults, arguably America’s most direct ever engagement with racial and class inequality), but not merely a displacement. The language of New Right moralism, as refined in porn debates of the late 1960s, also frequently reconstituted old-right tropes. Who was to blame for obscenity? The Supreme Court! In the South, this carried special resonance. I use Memphis as a case study to show how antiporn language frequently implicitly redeployed familiar concepts, from massive resistance to (cultural) outside agitators. Race is invisibly grafted into the New Right’s moral agenda, then, even though you’ll rarely hear any overt mention of it in the surface rhetoric. When Jerry Falwell shifted gears from railing against the African-American civil rights movement to pornography and gay rights, the targets moved but the arguments stayed remarkably stable.
Q: Didn’t liberal politicians offer a counter to these conservative mobilizations?
WS: Not an effective one, in my assessment. Obviously, modern liberalism is a whole lot more pluralistic and tolerant than modern conservatism when it comes to sexual diversity, but there’s no getting around the fact that tolerance is less than affirmation. In chapter 2 of the book, I argue that modern liberalism is built on a fundamentally heteronormative framework, one that left it defending both “family values” and personal freedom/free expression. When the Right effectively defined those positions as mutually exclusive, liberalism never responded with a progressive affirmation of sexual freedom, but instead retreated to expressions of privacy, First Amendment rights, and other abstractions that have never captivated the American public the way the Right’s narrative of family values has. I think this failure to cultivate a national identity of sexual diversity and freedom is a major shortcoming of modern liberalism, and one that allows the Right to roll out its antiporn, antigay, antifeminist platforms time and again without effective rebuttal.
Further, it’s not as if pornography necessarily resides comfortably alongside gay rights or feminism, which are clearly and unambiguously progressive platforms. As something deeply vested in both capitalistic and patriarchal values, porn understandably draws the wrath of many progressive activists for its complicity in systems of subjugation and inequality. However, that is rarely the language of mainstream liberal politicians; only feminist critics have been willing to engage in the messy analyses of gendered power imbalances, where I’d contend that liberalism’s more facile feminism is a sort of superficial (though not unimportant—necessary, but not sufficient, one might say) emphasis on quantitative representation of women within existing power structures. So when liberals talk about porn, it’s rarely about gender and power, but instead about good and bad sexuality—normative terms that always play into conservative hands of policing sexual freedoms by setting up norms to be enforced.
Q: These issues all sound rather fraught—as writing about pornography generally must be. How did you avoid turning Perversion for Profit into a polemic? What kind of sources did you use in fashioning your arguments?
WS: Well, it’s true that there’s very little neutral ground in discussions about pornography in our political reality, but I don’t think the book is a polemic. It takes an interpretive stance, one some people will presumably disagree with, but I’d like to think my analysis is guided by the evidence. I chased the paper trails as far as they went, spending half a year driving around the country in a minivan doing archival research from California to Arkansas to Massachusetts (and ultimately about 25 states), and so my presentation of the history is grounded in the primary sources. I used everything from legal evidence in obscenity case law, to the records of local antiporn organizations, to the internal papers of the American Civil Liberties Union, to cultural documents showing the place of pornography in American culture and society, and I tried to let the historical record speak for itself.
My archival research shaped my interpretation; for instance, I write about heteronormativity and the ways obscenity law was used to suppress queer representations during the cold war era. That’s not something I went in looking for; it’s a pattern that I noticed in sifting through material in Los Angeles. But it became a major theme, and a driving force in the ways I thought through the numerous ways obscenity/pornography operated as a site on which much larger contests over the regulation of sexuality and “normalcy” played out.
I imagine some of my personal stances come through—there’s an entire chapter on antiporn feminism, an issue on which neutrality is a pretty rare phenomenon (for the record, I take a fairly critical stance toward the tactics and arguments of the antiporn movement, though I certainly do so as someone who wholeheartedly supports feminism but thinks some crucial aspects of diversity and self-determination were sacrificed in the name of an oversimplified universalism in the movement’s thinking)—but I think the tone is generally measured. I spent my adolescence as a pretty dogmatic punk kid. I’d like to think that’s out of my system by now.