Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Chris Hall Dissects Bob Jensen's "Getting Off"

Chris Hall over at Sex in the Public Square has now posted his review of Robert Jensen's Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity;

A couple of excerpts follow:

Jensen, on the other hand, sees pornography as part of the “sexual exploitation industries” which include stripping, phone sex, and prostitution as well as the McPorn that comes out of the San Fernando Valley and the amateur sites that pepper the web. Jensen is a well-known activist and writer on other progressive causes, specifically racism and anti-war politics, and he sees his opposition to porn as the logical extension of that work (and vice versa). Men who are interested in social justice, he argues, can’t use pornography or patronize sex workers without betraying those principles at a fundamental level.

To Jensen, pornography is a mirror, a dark and violent one which few can bear to look into without flinching or deceiving themselves about what they see there: “Pornography forces women to face up to how men see them. And pornography forces men to face up to what we have become.”

The first two-thirds of the book are spent looking deeply into the mirror of pornography and the ethical problems that Jensen finds in its creation and its use. It is a personal narrative as well as a political treatise. For any man writing on pornography, either pro- or anti-, it could hardly be any other way; one thing that most men have in common is that we started out our sexual lives with porn. However we feel about that, it’s almost an inevitability, and now with the internet, is even more so than when Jensen saw his first pornographic magazine in the early sixties, or when, in the seventies, I found my dad’s Playboy magazines, filled cover-to-cover with naked Farrah Fawcett wannabes. It is, in a way, a language that we all speak, no matter how we feel about it, and so it’s even more urgent that we be able to speak honestly and openly about it.


Jensen starts immediately with some sleight-of-hand regarding pornography. In explaining where he wants to go with the book, he says very specifically that he's going to focus on a textual analysis of the content of mass-produced heterosexual pornography. In short, the main product of good old Porn Valley. In itself, that seems like a fair strategy. It wouldn't be illegitimate for a literary critic to write a book focusing on post-war hard-boiled fiction instead of writing about every subgenre of mystery fiction from
The Murders in the Rue Morgue to Carl Hiassen's latest. But we would expect such an author to draw conclusions about the style of Jim Thompson vs. Raymond Chandler — not about Arthur Conan Doyle's place in Victorian culture. The conclusions that Jensen draws from his narrow survey, in contrast, are sweeping in nature about how sexually explicit imagery affects our views of ourselves and others. Jensen's conclusions are not a critique about the mentality of Porn Valley, or of the specific kinds of porn that Porn Valley pecializes in, but are an assault on porn as a genre. Porn isn't a good thing made bad by greedy and stupid people. It's just rotten to the core.

Thirty years ago, Jensen might have been able to get away with that. Both the production and the audience for porn were more homogenized before every American home was equipped first with a VCR and then with a PC linked up to the Internet. More importantly, the conversation about genders and sexualities was much more homogenized. In those days, there were men and there were women; there were gays and there were straights. But some remarkable things have happened in the last twenty years or so; sexual politics has become radicalized in a way that Jensen and his ideological allies couldn't have imagined back then, and seem unable to appreciate even now when they're staring those radical notions straight in the face. We're now faced with the notion that gender isn't just x and y, but z or xy or yz *x or any number of other combinations. The notion of orientation as binary and immutable is considered by many of us not only as antiquated but repressive. Sex workers now demand the right to call themselves feminist without calling themselves victims of their work. Queer and feminist activists now look at power play of all kinds as a part their sexuality that enhances, rather than opposes, their radical politics. And women actively create and critique porn, not just for men, but for themselves.


Robert Jensen's passion is reserved for visualizing women's sexual pain. Never once does he turn that passion the other direction to look at the possibilities for women's sexual pleasure. There is not, in the end, so much difference between Jensen and the most misogynist, exploitative porn director; neither can imagine the sexual role of men as being anything other than to fuck, nor can they imagine women's roles as being anything other than to be fucked. And that's why, regardless of my doubts about mainstream porn, I can never, never imagine aligning myself with Jensen and his ilk. Because at the heart of his arguments, I see the same misogynist bullshit that I want to excise from pornography.

By all means, go and see the full review ASAP.

1 comment:

  1. what, then, is your interpretation of the link between pornography [mainstream, 'porn valley' opposed to the radical, feminist pornography that you and i support] and sexual violence?