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Making Sex Untouchable

Abby's picture

* This draft is rather incomplete.  I'm hoping to add more as I continue working... 


Abigail Sayre

Intro to Critical Fem. Studies

Anne Dalke



                Considering the saturation of my home country with all things explicit it’s a wonder that sex is so sterile.  Pornography isn’t so much a dirty little secret anymore.  We grow up aware of it, accepting it.  We have it thrown in our faces every time we click the wrong icon on our computer screen, every time we pass a “normal” magazine counter.  And yet, as “in-your-face” as the contemporary porn industry (a multi billion dollar one at that) is, the majority of the population, the very ones being smothered by pornography’s ruthless presence, are blind to its obvious crimes.  How does it happen that one incidence of rape reported in the news can inspire shock, outrage and disgust while thousands and thousands of documented rapes are labeled “sex” and sold for mass consumption?  Why is one woman’s battered face on channel 6 a horror to be shuddered at and another woman’s filmed abuse a stimulant for sexual arousal?  Why is one image to be condemned and another to be worshipped?

                My head swims with questions like this every fucking day.  Every time I drive by the ADULT PEEPS AND NOVELTIES store on Tilghman St. near my hometown.  Every time I hear of another friend’s experience with sexual assault, sexual harassment or rape.  It’s not really difficult for me to see the connection between prostitution, pornography and violence against women in every day life.  It hardly surprises me that at the same time widespread acceptance of pornography occurred so did domestic abuse.  Do I think sex itself is dangerous, that too much of it leads to a disturbing over abundance of energy and rapture causing orgies of bloodshed and tyranny?  No, I don’t.  But I do not think that sex, whether for pleasure, for procreation, within the bounds of marriage or outside of it is so sacred that it should be exempt from critique

                My question for pro-pornography feminists:  Why is pleasure so unquestionable?  What makes an orgasm worth more than someone’s life?  Why should we never have to question our desires, especially if those desires are of a violent nature?  In reclaiming the importance of the body, in asserting our right to pleasure are we not held accountable for where our pleasure leads?  I just don’t get it.  Why have we turned exploitation into a religion, porn stores into houses of worship, late night video watching into masturbatory prayers?  Why is the doctrine of sex-as-commodity so beyond criticism?

                (The truth is it’s not beyond criticism, not at all.  There is a wealth of written feminist opposition to the empire of prostitution and pornography at my disposal.  I have avariciously consumed these critiques just as much as I have those arguing for “freedom of speech,” “liberation” and, my personal favorite, “choice.”)

                The sense I make of this is that, as body to body as we are with sexual explicitness, as much room as we have made in our world for “freedom of expression,” we continue to make sex untouchable.   The body may do what it wants, want what it wants, and the mind has no place to intrude.  I make a clear distinction between body and mind because I think it exists.  Or at least, I think we can differentiate between the rumblings of our gut and the musings of our analytical selves.  It seems like sex gets confined to either one or the other.  And the rub of it for me is that the most abstract, removed and disembodied language is used to create a safety net for the most brutal physical abuse.  Is it impossible to conceive of sexuality that involves both mind and body?  I suppose the truth is that sex does involve both of these things, that if we are people of both mind and body our sexual acts would encompass both.  From this point of view, pornography seems like mind control. 

                It’s the subtlety of the porn industry that scares the shit out of me.  Maybe not the industry itself (I’ve already made a case for the belligerently outspoken presence of pornography and prostitution in our society) but rather the consumption of the industry.  The engrafting of cultural norms happens in small ways, private ways.  The weaving of a cultural tapestry does not happen on the public scale as much as the private one.  The fact that pornography aims to stimulate our most private selves means it has a tremendous store of power.  It manipulates us through our anatomy, imprints itself on our minds through the sexual release of our bodies.  I do think the body and mind, despite their separateness, are forever inseparable.  It is first the thoughts we have that become words, speech that becomes acts.  The line between fantasy and reality is thin, if it even exists at all.  What we imagine we make real. 

                I’m reminded of Paula Vogel’s “Hot n’ Throbbing.”  Vogel’s play, like many good works of art, has been claimed by both sides of a controversial battle.  It’s been labeled as both pro-pornography and anti-pornography.  What is most remarkable to me about the piece is the blurring that occurs between the world of thought (art, words, stories, fiction, etc.) and the “real life” of the play characters.  The erotica writing mother, adamant about her profession as a writer of erotica and not pornography, is ensnared in an abusive relationship.  Her children are distant and sexually unsettled in their own ways.  The play opens with the mother, simply knows as “Woman,” composing a piece of erotica.  The words of the piece come to us through the “Voice Over.”  The first image of the play is conjured by the disembodied voice, an image of a sadomasochistic sexual scenario dangerously similar to a scene of abuse.  “He was hot.  He was throbbing.  And out of control.  He needed to be restrained.  Tied down.  And taught a lesson.”This idea appears consistently throughout the whole play, the inability to distinguish between sex and violence in a porn saturated environment.  Even the title of the play is indicative of this.  ‘Hot n’ throbbing’ is not only descriptive of a sexual state.  As much as it can signify the aroused and pleasure ready body it also brings to mind a bloodied fist or a freshly punched face. 

                I can’t disregard the intimacy of sex and violence.  I can’t even pretend to believe that they do not constantly influence each other, feed off the other’s energy. I think every feminist would agree that sex and violence need to be disentangled.  The question is how to go about it.  For me, critiquing practices of prostitution and pornography has to have a part in the discussion.  Perhaps the bitter entangling of sex and violence has to do with our need to transcend.  Some vicious out of body ecstasy that we all crave, and somehow seek to attain through the body. 

                I just don’t want to believe that we can’t say something.  That we can’t do something about the inequity, injustice and violence that is inevitably linked to sexism and sexual exploitation.  What would a truly liberated society look like?  I don’t want to make an argument about the wrongness of filming sex, of representing it or talking about it or even making it public.  But in the world we live in these activities seem to inseparable from exploitation and harm.  I think sex is an important language, as important as any other we use to communicate, to examine, to question or to explore.  It is at our disposal and it is inevitable.  But I think we have to seriously consider the ways in which the language of sex is currently used and what it says about our society, our men, our women and what we value.  Do we value a man’s right to his orgasm more than a woman’s life and dignity?  Based on what I’ve read and seen, I think we do.


Anne Dalke's picture

The Uses of Language--and Sex

Seems as though you needed to write out all your anger and confusion, Abby; what comes through loud and clear here is how troubled you are by sexual violence, and how disturbed you are by analytical, academic accounts that seem to justify it: "Language is used to create a safety net for...brutal physical abuse." You say that you "don't want to make an argument" against explicit sexual representation, but also that such activities seem to you "inseparable from exploitation and harm." So it seems that you DO want to make such an argument, an argument about using art, using film, using language "to do no harm."

At the heart of what you need to be doing, I suspect, is an understanding of what language is and how it works. You speak of the thin line between fantasy and reality; you claim that "what we imagine we make real." Certainly imagining something can be a step toward its realization (that was what Shelley was aiming @ when he said that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," prophets in the sense of generating forceful visions that precede and make possible their later articulation in the world; see Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry).

But there are also differences (or there certainly can be differences) between our internal and external worlds, between what we imagine doing and what we actually do. And you need to actually do something more here than testify to your fear and confusion. What happened to the idea that you might a play, or several scenes from one? Explore a kind of language use that does no harm in the way you imagine it might? You say we value a man's orgasm more than a woman's dignity...what about the orgasms of women? Can we value those and still do no harm? Or is sexuality inherently tied with violence, and the expression of it inevitably damaging? What other texts have you read (i.e. where's your bibliography?)

Be sure also to look @ YJ's current draft, Towards a New Feminist Approach to Pornography, which tries to set these questions in a historical context.


hslavitt's picture

Thank you for speaking out

Thank you for speaking out against our culture's tendency to stimulate, perpetuate and perpetrate sexual violence and rape!It's disgusting and unacceptable and you articulate this so well.