Queering the Pornographic: A Response to “Why I Hate Porn”

by: Jonathan Doucette

I would like to take the opportunity to continue the important conversation raised by Timothy in his May 24th post, “Just as Pretty As You Want Them: Why I Hate Porn.” I come to this conversation not only as a fellow queer male who has, er, dabbled in the fine art of porn-watching, but also as a academic curious about the ways contemporary U.S. society uses pornography as a springboard to discuss anxieties about sexual subjectivity more broadly.

I should mention that my interest in pornography stems from my desire to unpack what the term pornography—perhaps what we can call “pornography-as-discourse”—does: what cultural work it accomplishes and what histories it calls upon. Rather than examine the ways the mainstream porn industry exploits its actors and engages in misogynistic, racist, ableist and sexist fantasies, I am interested in what the idea of this “new” subject position, the “pornography addict,” can tell us about the shifting sexual politics of our time. Also, just as important, how the rise of new technologies (free internet porn, anyone?) simultaneously incites internet viewers to relish within, while feeling guilty and shameful for, watching pornography. Whew.

Let us think, for example, about the ways pornography has been policed, regulated and legislated in the past: from obscenity laws in the 1920s, to critiques made by radical feminists in the 80s and 90s at the peak of the “sex wars” about the subordination of female bodies by men, to right-wing conservative religious organizations citing the immorality of watching porn and masturbating, it’s clear that pornography has been the cause of much anxiety in modern and late-capitalist American society. Indeed, this history haunts us today. Raise your hand (your free hand, that is) if you spent many a teenage night in your family’s basement, lights off, the blue midnight light from your computer blanketing your face, watching porn with the volume turned down way low so no one would hear, frantically closing your browser upon hearing what you thought might be your mother’s angry footsteps overhead, deleting your cookies and internet history and your AIM chat conversations just in case anyone were to discover your dirty secret?

I am torn about pornography and my relationship to its production and consumption. I am torn, on the one hand, because pornography offered me a window into the world of queerness in ways that I would never have had access to as a young queer in suburban Massachusetts. Then again, such images were often of hairless, white, skinny boys with unusually large packages engaging in uniform behavior: kissing, undress, blow-j’s all around, fucking, cum shot (we get two!) and cut to black. Repeat ad nauseum.

I have felt guilty, shameful, empowered, aroused, satisfied, pissed off, hungry, ambivalent and anxious about the porn I watch at various stages of my life. But to write off porn entirely? I feel strangely resistant towards such a bold claim. I mean, it feels so, well, conservative. How is it that we can find radical feminists in bed with conservative Republican leaders on this issue? And how has the “pornography addict” become such a newly visible subject position in recent years? Quite simply, what is at stake for these various parties in their attempt to contain, regulate, and discipline the American citizenry into a particular sexuality, one that is free from the vices of porn and one that leads individuals into “real,” “loving,” and “open” relationships, “undamaged” by the havoc reeked by pornography?

I want to thank Timothy for his post. I do not mean to criticize his claim that he is “addicted” to pornography. I have felt that way myself at times, having the urge to hurl my computer out the window after a particularly long pornography binge. I do not even wish to claim that pornography addiction is somehow a slippage into false-consciousness, that it does not “exist.” But what is more interesting to me—and what as a scholarly project is so difficult to navigate—is how emotions activated by conversations about pornography can bring to light the confines of appropriate sexual behavior for American subjects. What do you think of when you hear pornography? In locating these emotions—whether disgust, arousal, shame, or excitement—we may begin to see how such emotions drive us to reaffirm “appropriate” normative sexual practices.

If we truly wish to relish in queerness, why not (re)claim pornography as a cite of a radical queer fantasy? Rather than call for the destruction of porn, let us embrace the weird, the fetish, and the obscene in retaliation against society that would aim to limit our sexuality. For pornography is both fantasy and reality: real bodies are on screen engaged in real behaviors. And as for those of us IRL (“in real life”), fantasy is a way for us to voyage through the real: it is within fantasy that our sexual desires are realized. The two are not separate—they constitute and are part of one another. Can there exist a queer pornography that resists the normalizing practices of the mainstream porn industry (the pornography industrial project…)? One that shows bodies of size, of color, of dis/ability, of all genders engaged in blissful or hardcore or gentle embraces, sexual or otherwise? One with ethical working practices in staunch opposition to capitalist and neoliberal ideologies? Or are we too far gone?

I think (or hope) not. We can already see queer representations of porn that are both sex-positive and pro-feminist, particularly within queer female and trans communities. Even independent films such as John Cameron Mitchel’s Shortbus have attempted to act as interventions to our understandings of sex-on-screen. Yet to find such representations through the dearth of, um, how to put this… pornographic bullshit is not for the weak at heart. To say watching porn is “unhealthy” suggests there is a “healthy” sexuality out there within our grasp. Our (sexual) relationship with our computer screen is therefore deviant and queer. Well, why not embrace that? And find new possibilities for a postmodern, queer sexuality that spits in the face of those nay-sayers! Rather than ask, “Is pornography good or bad,” it may be more fruitful to ask what generalizations can we make about pornography and what such generalizations tell us about appropriate sexual embodiment more broadly.

I’m not quite ready to say I hate porn. I hate lots of aspects of the porn industry. Lots and lots. But instead of banishing porn to the relics of the past, let’s change the cultural conversation. Post your thoughts in the comment box below to continue this dialogue. Offer suggestions for sex-positive and/or queer pornography that challenges the status quo. Timothy will surely thank you. Let’s keep up this fight. Let’s find ways to queer the pornographic.

Jonathan Doucette often wakes up confused and disoriented, forgetting that he lives and works in rural Slovakia as an English teacher. He gets a sadistic rush when yelling at his students, and then feels guilty, allowing them to watch four episodes of the insufferable Big Bang Theory the following lesson. He also kinda likes The Big Bang Theory now. Don’t tell anyone.

One response to “Queering the Pornographic: A Response to “Why I Hate Porn”

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