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Pornography is a left issue

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Anti-pornography feminists get used to insults from the left. Over and over we are told that we 're anti-sex, prudish, simplistic, politically naïve, diversionary, and narrow-minded. The cruder critics do not hesitate to suggest that the cure for these ailments lies in, how shall we say, a robust sexual experience.

In addition to the slurs, we constantly face a question: Why do we "waste " our time on the pornography issue? Since we are anti-capitalist and anti-empire leftists as well as feminists, shouldn 't we focus on the many political, economic, and ecological crises (war, poverty, global warming, etc.)? Why would we spend part of our intellectual and organizing energies over the past two decades pursuing the feminist critique of pornography and the sexual exploitation industry?

The answer is simple: We are anti-pornography precisely because we are leftists as well as feminists.

As leftists, we reject the sexism and racism that saturates contemporary mass-marketed pornography. As leftists, we reject the capitalist commodification of one of the most basic aspects of our humanity. As leftists, we reject corporate domination of media and culture. Anti-pornography feminists are not asking the left to accept a new way of looking at the world but instead are arguing for consistency in analysis and application of principles.

It has always seemed strange to us that so many on the left consistently refuse to engage in a sustained and thoughtful critique of pornography. All this is particularly unfortunate at a time when the left is flailing to find traction with the public; a critique of pornography, grounded in a radical feminist and left analysis that counters right-wing moralizing, could be part of an effective organizing strategy.


Left media analysis


Leftists examine mass media as one site where the dominant class attempts to create and impose definitions and explanations of the world. We know news is not neutral, that entertainment programs are more than just fun and games. These are places where ideology is reinforced, where the point of view of the powerful is articulated. That process is always a struggle; attempts to define the world by dominant classes can be, and are, resisted. The term "hegemony " is typically used to describe that always-contested process, the way in which the dominant class attempts to secure control over the construction of meaning.

The feminist critique of pornography is consistent with -- and, for many of us, grows out of -- a widely accepted analysis on the left of ideology, hegemony, and media, leading to the observation that pornography is to patriarchy what commercial television is to capitalism. Yet when pornography is the topic, many on the left seem to forget Gramsci 's theory of hegemony and accept the pornographer 's self-serving argument that pornography is mere fantasy.

Apparently the commonplace left insight that mediated images can be tools for legitimizing inequality holds true for an analysis of CBS or CNN, but evaporates when the image is of a woman having a penis thrust into her throat with such force that she gags. In that case, for unexplained reasons, we aren 't supposed to take pornographic representations seriously or view them as carefully constructed products within a wider system of gender, race, and class inequality. The valuable work conducted by media critics on the politics of production apparently holds no weight for pornography.

Pornography is fantasy, of a sort. Just as television cop shows that assert the inherent nobility of police and prosecutors as protectors of the people are fantasy. Just as the Horatio Alger stories about hard work 's rewards in capitalism are fantasy. Just as films that cast Arabs only as terrorists are fantasy.

All those media products are critiqued by leftists precisely because the fantasy world they create is a distortion of the actual world in which we live. Police and prosecutors do sometimes seek justice, but they also enforce the rule of the powerful. Individuals in capitalism do sometimes prosper as a result of their hard work, but the system does not provide everyone who works hard with a decent living. Some Arabs are terrorists, but that obscures both the terrorism of the powerful in white America and the humanity of the vast majority of Arabs.

Such fantasies also reflect how those in power want subordinated people to feel. Images of happy blacks on the plantations made whites feels more secure and self-righteous in their oppression of slaves. Images of contented workers allay capitalists ' fears of revolution. And men deal with their complex feelings about contemporary masculinity 's toxic mix of sex and aggression by seeking images of women who enjoy pain and humiliation.

Why do so many on the left seem to assume that pornographers operate in a different universe than other capitalists? Why would pornography be the only form of representation produced and distributed by corporations that wouldn 't be a vehicle to legitimize inequality? Why would the pornographers be the only media capitalists who are rebels seeking to subvert hegemonic systems?

Why do the pornographers get a free ride from so much of the left?

After years of facing the left 's hostility in public and print, we believe the answer is obvious: Sexual desire can constraint people 's capacity for critical reason -- especially in men in patriarchy, where sex is not only about pleasure but about power.

Leftists -- especially left men -- need to get over the obsession with getting off.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
 

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