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Elliot Rodger and the Pandemic of Masculinity

3 Jun

I read Elliot Rodger’s manifesto yesterday. It was, without a doubt, the least surprising document I’ve ever read. It wasn’t hard to follow; it wasn’t bizarre; it wasn’t a collection of the meanderings of a mind that had lost touch with reality. Instead, it was boring, trite, obvious, and exactly what I expected it to be: a rant by a spoiled brat with an overweening sense of entitlement. To women, to sex, to wealth, to attention and adoration. Frankly, I suspected at times that it was written by a Marxist feminist satirizing privileged male entitlement in general and MRAs in particular.

Elliot Rodger wasn’t Holden Caulfield, he was a bratty little asshole who assumed he was somehow superior to everyone else and thus deserved rewards simply for existing. The rage that he felt wasn’t caused by the cruelty of others, but by his own unreasonable expectations, expectations shared by the majority of men. He may have been less equipped to deal with frustration than the average person, but his reaction to that frustration shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention to the directions the culture has been taking over the course of the last decade or so.

About that manifesto. I’d call it a memoir of a cult member rather than a manifesto, since it doesn’t contain an idea of any kind. Rodger spends 141 pages narcissistically recounting every detail of his privileged childhood, describing in excruciatingly boring detail each family trip to some “exotic” locale or other, each luxurious Japanese dinner, each wasteful birthday celebration, each time he and his family attended a media industry event as someone else’s plus-one. Save a few bits of ham-fisted foreshadowing, the story up until Rodger hits puberty reads like the autobiography of every kid I went to elementary school with in Southern California: upper middle class parents who have no interest in raising a child but plenty of money and help doing so raise a kid with a profound sense of both entitlement and abandonment. His family clearly had just enough money and social status to gain entry to the outer circles of extreme privilege, and to afford Rodger a glimpse of what could be his if only he were fabulously, disgustingly wealthy instead of just comfortable in the extreme.

In fact, the story Rodger tells of his life after puberty reads like a tale of the rude awakening to the fact that his parents were not that rich after all. He makes repeated reference to puberty as the mainspring of his disillusionment with life and humanity, as the catalyst to his confrontation with the cruel realities of the world, but he is clearly projecting a concept he has adopted from the Men’s Rights Movement and from the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) scene onto his own adolescent understanding of the world, while his recounting of his own memories illustrates a gradual realization that he was not, after all, a member of the Hollywood gentry.

Is it just me, or are there more cult-ish movements around these days than there were a few years ago? Rodger makes mention of his attempt to follow the advice contained in Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book that encourages readers to think they are multi-millionaires to whom life’s rewards flow unremittingly and without effort, which will result in them actually becoming one-per-centers. Though Rodger ultimately dismisses The Secret when putting its methods into practice doesn’t result in his winning the lottery and thus becoming a pussy magnet, the fact that he tried it in the first place, coupled with his wholesale adoption of MRA and PUA theories of how the world works, indicates that he shared something in common with tens of millions of people: the willingness to believe that disappointments and frustrations can be explained by nebulous, ill-fitting, simplistic principles propounded by self-help mountebanks in the pursuit of book and seminar ticket sales.

The culture told Rodger that sex, money, and attention were his birthright. When the system failed to deliver, Rodger flailed around, seeking an explanation. At first, it seemed that he turned his frustration inward and assumed that he was lonely because he was somehow defective. At that point in the narrative, I almost felt sorry for him. We’ve all been bullied, we’ve all questioned our worth as human beings based on the way that others treat us, and we’ve all wondered if life would be better for us if we were somehow constitutionally different than we are. It’s gross. Some of us respond to that kind of fundamental uncertainty about our value by entering into a pattern of self-abuse, some of us begin to question the system of social values that leads to such misery, and some of us fall prey to explanations that place the blame for our unhappiness on the people who reject us. Some of us do all three. But disorder arises when someone like Rodger fails to differentiate between fantasy and reality and never grows out of the expectation that life will turn out like a Bud Light commercial. Or a porn video.

So, what did the culture tell Rodger he could expect from the world? As a privileged child, he was given everything he expressed a desire for, it would appear. Rodger, cared for by a series of nannies, also grew accustomed to being doted on by young women in his childhood years. He grew up on the edges of Hollywood’s elite, a world in which power and wealth command attention and favors from what must look to a child to be an unending parade of young, beautiful women. Once Rodger learned about sex (from porn, naturally), he reached the seemingly obvious conclusion that he was owed sex due to his superior social position.

The culture tells all men that they are owed access to women’s bodies and energy. Sitcoms feature attractive women married to and putting up with mountains of bullshit from blundering schlubs. Movies hammer the idea into boys’ minds that young, hot women, though they may resist at first, will eventually fall into the laps of lazy, misogynistic, overgrown infants like those played by Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill in Judd Apatow movies (yeah, assholes, that’s right: your movies promote misogyny and male entitlement). Porn tells young boys with no other knowledge of sex that women are filthy pigs who just love being gangbanged and ejaculated on by abusive, sneering monsters.

I don’t know why girls rejected Elliot Rodger when he entered adolescence, or whether they even did. There seemed to have been a window in junior high — before he started consuming porn — when that was not the case. He might have been a little awkward, he may have lacked social skills, but it appears that his obsessive sense of entitlement to what he believed other boys enjoyed (whether that was the case or not) took over, coloring all of his interactions and probably preempting any chance he had at relating to girls. He was consumed by the foolish belief that porn and bullshit adolescent male bragging were reality for everyone but him. Once that set in, his anger and desperation probably became palpable in social situations to the point that women — who learn from a young age how to spot signs of danger in male behavior — steered clear.

Without any real contact with women, for Rodger, they became cartoon characters, aliens, beasts, non-human. They were an enemy to be vanquished, a prize to be collected for the achievement of having been born male, the source of all of his frustrated expectations. He absorbed those messages wholesale from mass media culture. Rodger’s memoir reads like a catalog of his consumption of popular media, from Pokemon through World of Warcraft through Halo 2, from Star Wars to the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Game of Thrones, to internet pornography, to MRA discussion forums populated by legions of men railing against women for not fulfilling the fantasies instilled in them by that same media culture.

Several feminist bloggers have made the argument that writing Rodger off as mentally ill takes the focus off of systemic misogyny and allows a worldwide epidemic of woman-hating and gynophobic violence to go unexamined. They aren’t wrong. But Rodger was mentally ill. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

A mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.

By that definition, Rodger was certainly mentally ill, and so are most men. What set Rodger apart was his willingness to participate directly in violence against women as women in order to punish them for refusing to provide him with the sex he felt entitled to, rather than simply doing so by proxy via the consumption of violent and degrading porn and other products of a capitalo-misogynistic society. The existence of masculinity requires that men be unable to relate to women, as masculinity and femininity are the institutions upon which male supremacy rests. A man who is capable of relating to women — who does not suffer from the mental illness known as masculinity — is incapable of abusing them, either in person or by proxy.

More like a-DICK-tion. Get it?!

3 Oct

Two contradictory pieces on the subject of porn and sex addiction emerged recently, both of which — naturally — virtually ignore the role of gender in the rise of the various social and cultural phenomena people have chosen to lump under the rubric of “sex addiction,” as well as the variety of and wide variations between the behaviors that fall under that ill-conceived label. The first, a salacious Newsweek cover story that warns of a growing epidemic of “sex addiction” brought about by the internet’s facilitation of porn use and casual meet-ups, spawned the second, a Salon piece critical of the concept of sex addiction in which Tracy Clark-Flory interviews Liberal Dude author David Ley, whose new book The Myth of Sex Addiction is due out soon. A cursory reference in the Newsweek article to “greater stigma” for women who engage in risky sexual behavior notwithstanding, neither piece even skirts the obvious questions anyone who isn’t personally invested in the perpetuation of patriarchy should ask (I know there are at least seven people who aren’t personally invested in the perpetuation of patriarchy).

While both articles mention the fact that behaviors as different as compulsive porn use, emotionally and physically risky sexual behavior, and the serial pursuit of unhealthy romantic attachments — to which has been applied the unfortunate label “love addiction” — have been grouped under the umbrella term “sex addiction,” neither pays much attention to why that might be so, and neither has anything to say about the ways in which that ham-fisted grouping shapes the “treatment” that this motley assortment of “sex addicts” receives.

Given that gender is a foundational social organizing principle and that assumptions about gender color nearly every interaction a human being engages in, ignoring the role of gender (as well, of course, as class and race) in discussions of sex addiction (and pretty much anything else) places huge barricades in the way of understanding what the hell is even going on, much less what to do about it. Addiction – whether it be to bourbon, benzos, or getting busy in a Burger King bathroom – means very different things for men and for women. Gender roles come with prepackaged social expectations, and the processes by which women and men become addicted to various substances or behaviors and by which they come to consider themselves addicts differ, as do the gendered social consequences that attach to addictive behavior.

Let’s assume for a second that sex addiction — as defined as compulsively engaging in in-person sexual encounters — exists (which I will get to later). If we want to treat it, shouldn’t we at least try to determine its real causes? Those who believe in the existence of sex addiction identify an insatiable need for validation in the form of sexual attention as its root for both women and men, but socially inculcated gendered behavior results in that need manifesting in very different ways, with different consequences for both the addict and her or his partners. Women, when seeking affirmation or attention, tend to self-objectify and to seek out interactions with the kinds of men who value sexual availability over all other characteristics. You know, opportunistic assholes. It’s not difficult for a woman to find a dude willing to use her for sex, nor is it rare for a woman to run across a date rapist or a man who can’t wait to take out his misogyny on her body. Being a female sex addict in the era of porn saturation is thus physically and psychologically dangerous business for the addict herself. From the Newsweek article:

For Valerie, sex was a form of self-medication: to obliterate the anxiety, despair, and crippling fear of emotional intimacy that had haunted her since being abandoned as a child. “In order to soothe the loneliness and the fear of being unwanted, I was looking for love in all the wrong places,” she recalls.

Women — despite the fact that their stories often lead pieces about sex addiction (how odd) — rarely show up at therapists’ offices or Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings claiming to be sex addicts. The Newsweek piece attempts to explain away the paucity of female sex addicts:

If discussion of sex addiction can seem like an exclusive domain of men, that’s because, according to sex therapists, the overwhelming majority of self-identifying addicts—about 90 percent—are male. Women are more often categorized as “love addicts,” with a compulsive tendency to fall into dependent relationships and form unrealistic bonds with partners. That’s partly because women are more apt than men to be stigmatized by association with sex addiction, says Anna Valenti-Anderson, a sex-addiction therapist in Phoenix. “We live in a society where there’s still a lot more internalized shame for women and there’s a lot more for them to lose,” Valenti-Anderson says. “People will say, ‘She’s a bad mom’ for doing these sexual things. As opposed to, ‘She’s sick and has a disorder.’ But very slowly, women are starting to be more willing to come into treatment.”

Despite the plain differences between male and female “sex addicts,” the therapy community insists on equating the kind of behavior Valerie describes with male sex addicts’ exploitative sexual behaviors:

“The addiction will take you to a place where you’re walking the streets at night, so keyed up, thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just see if there’s anybody out there,’” he says. “Like looking for prey, kind of…”

Addiction leads male sex addicts, it would appear, to obsessively seek female sex addicts. When they fail to materialize, most turn to prostitutes or to porn. While one could make the argument that renting women comes with the risks of sexually transmitted infections (though it’s usually male customers who insist on sex without condoms), there is a clear and gendered imbalance in the consequences for sex addiction. While male sex addicts might lose a romantic partner or two over their philandering, they don’t face the same level of social opprobrium women do for engaging similar behavior, nor do their risky sexual behaviors come with the threat of rape or murder as women’s do. In addition to avoiding the bulk of the consequences that their female counterparts confront, male sex addicts can be a detriment to many others beyond the romantic partners that they serially cheat on, because they often help create the demand in the porn and prostitution industries that allows for their continued existence and continued exploitation of women and children.

But let’s be serious. Is every character flaw going to become a disease that one can only escape from via rehab? If men are wandering around, glassy-eyed and thoughtless, in search of women they can joylessly fuck, is the problem really that these men are addicts, or is it simply that they’ve bought into the idea that life should be like Entourage and thus lost the plot? If there are women frantically seeking attention from soulless, predatory men who don’t value them for anything other than their breasts and orifices, are they diseased, or are they just manifesting the central lesson our warped social and cultural system has to teach women and girls: that they are valuable only to the extent that men find them sexually useful?

Note that every single person interviewed in the Newsweek article has a stake in the addiction recovery industry. The Salon interview — though it is guilty of get-with-it-ism as it presents porn addiction and sexual dishonesty as unproblematic save for their effect on the flowery sensibilities of puritanical weenies — at least takes note of the fact that those in the therapy industry have a personal financial stake in the mainstream acceptance of the addiction model.

I have an idea. Farting in public is rude and often costs people the respect of others, but there are people out there who just can’t help themselves and get a dopamine rush out of doing it. I’m setting up an in-patient farting-in-public recovery center in LA, complete with massage, fitness center, yoga classes, and personal nutritionists for each of our clients who will help them create meal plans that will minimize flatulence and hence help our patients avoid a key trigger for addictive behavior. We’ll take major insurance plans, of course.

That may seem absurd, but it looks like it’s where we’re headed. A pattern is emerging in late capitalism: leaders of a given industry will seek ways to create physical and emotional dependencies on their products among the public in order to ensure their own continued profits, those dependencies will eventually threaten the consumer’s emotional or physical wellbeing, and then a new branch of the therapeutic industry will materialize to make a profit off of helping consumers shake off their dependencies, thus replacing a dependency on the products of the sex, alcohol, drug, or processed food industries with a dependency on the recovery industry. As long as somebody’s making money, everything’s cool.

And the recovery scene is addictive. Where else but a twelve-step meeting can one narcissistically recount booze/sex/drug party stories in front of an audience that swoons over the most depraved details? And where else can one find a community of people who will repeatedly excuse any failure to abstain from damaging behavior as a disease that simply cannot be helped? Not only do twelve-step programs and therapists offer a convenient way out of trouble for those whose behavior has resulted in negative consequences, but they also provide excuses for continued poor behavior with the language of “illness” and “powerlessness.” That’s right: the addiction model tells us that the guy who jacks off to bestiality porn all day long and/or cheats on his wife with prostitutes a few times a week is powerless to control his own behavior. He’s sick, he needs help, he knows not what he does. The poor guy. What can his wife do to help him recover?

Sex is not heroin. Sex is not alcohol. The sex addiction model being put forth by the recovery industry is:

valley-girl science”… They will tell you, and [the Newsweek] article is a good example of it, that sex addiction is like an eating disorder, it’s like a heroin addiction. The reality is this is an incredibly weak form of argument, because it’s so subjective; and when they tell you that sex addiction is like an eating disorder, they don’t tell you all the things that are different about it. They live by anecdotes, because they don’t have good science.

Lumping porn use and compulsive promiscuity under one umbrella term doesn’t do us any analytical favors. Jacking off to porn all day long is not the same thing as compulsively engaging in casual sexual encounters, and they need to be approached as distinct phenomena. Further, treating sex addiction as if it were similar to alcoholism, etc. creates the assumption that the entirety of the problem is chemical or biological rather than behavioral. Yes, studies show that porn use can cause structural changes in the brain and can warp sexual responses to the point that the prospect of in-person sex with a real female human being fails to turn porn addicts on.  But no adult man (the topic of porn’s effects on children’s developing sexuality will have to wait until another day) wakes up one day unable to get a boner without porn out of the blue. It’s a process that occurs over time, and it’s a process that anyone with enough internet access to jack off thirty times a day has to be aware of, since it’s the hottest news story since the PS4 dropped. Even teenage boys are aware of that potentiality.

Sexual compulsions, even if they have progressed to such a point, are at base behavioral problems that can be corrected if there is any impetus to do so, even if correcting them isn’t a mega-fun fuckfest and requires that men exercise some self-control and empathy for the sake of others. Men possess free will. Let’s not get carried away with all this “addiction” business and turn them into hapless victims, thereby granting them impunity from the social consequences of their choices. Remember, they’re listening; Ariel Castro just attempted to use sex and porn addiction as an excuse for rape, kidnapping, and murder.

Does this guy sound like someone who deserves pity?

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The conflation of sex addiction with problems such as alcoholism reaches the realm of comic absurdity when it comes to treatment. AA has a marginal success rate. When it does succeed, it isn’t because the members “work the steps” and fervently adhere to Bill W.’s gospel, it’s because the AA scene (depending on the city in which one attends meetings) offers mid-range alcoholics the one tool that can help them avoid drinking: people to hang out with who don’t drink. Beyond that, it’s nebulous, fruity, quasi-religious self-help folderol that probably puts more people off than it helps. Since most twelve-step meetings for sex addicts call themselves Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous in the hopes of serving both men and women, they undercut the only useful aspect of AA/NA by creating a community that makes it even more difficult for people to abstain from whatever behavior brought them to the meetings in the first place. A room full of male “sex addicts” and female “love addicts” talking about sex is a recipe for unadulterated (hehe) failure, am I right?

David Ley argues in the Salon piece that part of the problem with the addiction model is that it leads people to measure sexual behavior against that of an idealized (and probably non-existent) monogamous, married, heterosexual couple. Anything that does not fit within those parameters is deemed pathological and “treatment” is recommended. That’s only part of the problem. Ley assumes an atomized individual subject without social relationships or responsibilities, and completely elides any discussion of the role of popular culture, male supremacy, or the sex industry in fomenting destructive behavior. The solution to the “sex addiction epidemic” is not to normalize sexual exploitation and sexual dishonesty in the name of smashing prudery, it’s to recognize what actually motivates compulsive sexual behavior and the anxiety that results from it. We have to decide what’s pathological based not on whether it offends Pat Robertson, but on whether it hurts anyone, and we have to deal with pathology by seeking its root. The solution to empty, hyperactive, and exploitative sexuality is political consciousness, not “treatment” or the fuck-first-don’t-ask-questions-later plan. Unfortunately, “treatment” enables men to continue to exercise their right to use and abuse women, while political consciousness comes with social, political, and emotional costs for them.

An Open Letter to Bang-on Custom T-Shirts

7 Dec

Dear Head Canadian T-shirt Bro (or, President and/or CEO of Bang-on Custom T-Shirts Ltd.) Craig Doyle,

I’m not sure that I expect much from people who are making novelty/faux-vintage t-shirts in 2012, but I felt compelled to write after a recent visit to your Atlanta, Georgia outlet in the carnival of ill-conceived attempts at rebellion known as the Little Five Points neighborhood. While perusing the otherwise banal and innocuous bits of disjointed pop culture detritus that make up the bulk of your t-shirt designs, I found myself facing the back wall of the store, where my eyes came to rest upon a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “I choked Linda Lovelace” in a VH-1-attempts-a-70s-look font.

While I can probably follow the train of thought that deposited your designers into the trough of depraved stupidity from which they dispatched this particular design, I wonder if you or your management team have done likewise. If not, you’re too stupid to run a company. If so, you’re too big of an asshole.

Let me elaborate. It’s likely (nay, it’s nearly impossible that it’s otherwise) that the dude who brought this sartorial satori to the world was just some thoughtless dick who doesn’t think much one way or the other about the porn industry and its effects on women. He’s probably heard of (or seen — retro porn to match one’s retro camera) Deep Throat, is familiar with the subject matter, and figured he’d stumbled upon a way to make an “I have a big dick” t-shirt clever and/or funny. While that’s a worthy pursuit, he’d have been far better off going with one that said “I have a big dick.” Instead, he submitted — and your company produced — a t-shirt that says, “To me, women’s bodies are just dick-measuring instruments in a never-ending contest between supposedly heterosexual men.”

Your design dude (one would hope) was probably not aware that Linda Lovelace was coerced into participating in the production of Deep Throat and several other works of pornography — including a bestiality film — and that Chuck Traynor, her “manager” and husband, beat her, raped her, allowed other men to gang rape her, kept her prisoner, and threatened her life with deadly weapons on several occasions. Whoops! Making a dick joke at the expense of a brutalized woman is a faux-pas all the way, dude.

As embarrassed as you ought to be by this bit of egregiously obtuse insensitivity, it’s only half of the problem. Let’s say — as might most dudes who are invested in believing that women enjoy being sexually abused so half-wit men like those who design your t-shirts can jack off more efficiently — that Lovelace lied about having been raped and actually participated in the making of Deep Throat willingly (despite never having received any compensation for her participation). Deep Throat is a movie about a woman whose clitoris is located in her esophagus, and who therefore seeks out opportunities to fellate men, inserting their penises down her throat to a point that would make anyone on Earth choke and likely puke. Quick, find me a real, live woman with a clitoris in her throat, or even one who reaches orgasm via deep-throating penises. Not one who is paid to pretend so, but an actual woman who has a clitoris in her throat or enjoys the sensation of impending organ damage. If you find the former, I’ll give you a million dollars. If you find the latter, I’ll be shocked, and I’ll show you a woman who has been so psychologically traumatized by men and the porn industry that her body no longer heeds its own instincts. No man believes that such a woman exists. Ergo, men who are excited by the concept or actualization of deep-throating find it arousing despite (or because of) the fact that they know it causes pain and instinctive fear.

Linda Lovelace — even though you’ve probably seen her blow someone on film — was a human being. I know that this is a difficult concept for porn users to grasp, but she had emotions, she had nerve endings that detected pain and bodily damage, she had an esophagus that existed to protect her digestive system from intrusion. Women’s bodies do not exist to be used and abused by men, even if men are willing to pay a lot of money for the privilege. No one wants to be choked, injured, or gagged for the sake of assuaging some narcissistic dunce’s penis anxiety, nor does the absence of a gag reflex indicate that a particular woman was created by the cosmos as a dick receptacle.

The lack of consideration for women’s humanity evinced in a t-shirt that reads “I choked Linda Lovelace” would be shocking if it weren’t so ubiquitous. That we have been so desensitized to the sexual abuse of women by the porn industry and by societal misogyny that people continue to shop at a store that sells a shirt that basically says my human dignity and bodily integrity are less important than the size of your dick ought to worry you enough to make you question your participation in the perpetuation of that idea. If that’s too much to ask, then at least stick to designs with less room for interpretation. Say, “Fuck Art Let’s Dance!” for example. It’s safer that way.

Until then, I’ll encourage as many people as I can to boycott your stores.

Sincerely,

ND

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Just the Tip

9 Oct

A few weeks ago, while wondering whether the avalanche of uterus-related GOP bullshit might just be an elaborate ruse by a few anti-Mormon Evangelical Republicans to ensure Romney doesn’t win the presidency and force us all to start calling him Heavenly Father, I overheard a few bros at the adjacent table at the coffee joint regaling each other with tales of their sexual exploits. One bro, somewhat jocularly ribbing the other for his lack of manipulative mojo, asked the other, “Dude, don’t you know the ‘just the tip’ trick?” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a “just the tip” “joke” this month. It’s become a ubiquitous meme in contemporary dude media to the point that urban Comedy Central intellectuals have begun to use it as a parody of the frat scene that they share everything but a sense of irony with but somehow still disdain.

That such a “joke” can reach the level of saturation that it has ought to indicate to the public that now isn’t the time to pare down our already gruesomely uncomprehensive definition of rape.

In case you live under a magical rock that shields you from rape culture, the “just the tip trick” refers to a dude pressuring someone into intercourse by striking a bargain in which he will purportedly insert “just the tip” into whatever orifice into which he’s seeking entry. No one has ever tried out the “just the tip” strategy on me, but as a heterosexual female over the age of fifteen, I’ve been privy to various other forms of male sexual deal-making and they’ve never turned out well for me (or any of the other women I’ve discussed this topic with). The reason for this is that there is usually a fundamental difference in the motives of the parties negotiating booty treaties, or it wouldn’t occur in the first place.

When one partner doesn’t want to be penetrated and the other refuses to simply accept that reality and fuck off, rape culture shows its smug, smirking face. Any bargain entered into in such a scenario constitutes an unrequited concession on the part of the penetrated made in order to get the penetrator to leave her (or him) alone. The penetrator, on the other hand, seeks to forge these bargains in the hopes that, once penetration has occurred, he can just continue on to do whatever he wanted to do before he was refused entry in the first place, following the logic of rape culture that assures us all that once consent to penetration has been given (or, once the penetrated has been worn down enough), even if the penetrated has only consented to “just the tip,” rape becomes an ontological impossibility.

And no dude in the history of the entire world, after having struck a “just the tip” deal, has ever held to his side of the bargain. Which is why it is imperative that we not only refuse to allow men of any political stripe to define rape and to usurp our emperorship over our own bodies, but that we step up and do the defining ourselves. “Just the tip” is a form of rape. “Just for a second” is a form of rape. “You have to carry a fetus you don’t want to carry” might even be called a form of rape.

If I have to memorize the name of one more smarmy, bank-owned suit rack who can’t tell the difference between a Penis Intake/Baby Delivery Module™ and a human being, I’ll run out of time for devising satirical Guy Fieri-isms (“Up next on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, the bacon pastrami dog at this joint in Annapolis will make you say, ‘Oh, snap-olis!'”). Thus, I’ll henceforth be referring to all men with opinions on my right to bodily sovereignty as Ryan Aiken.

Ryan Aiken and Ryan Aiken, likely preparing to pen new legislation on how women ought to pee

Feminist bloggers and activists have, over the course of the development of this new brand of lunacy that appears to “outpace parody,”* done a lovely (and often hilarious) job of calling to light just how comically incorrect these men’s proclamations about female anatomy and sexual experience are. But digging below the extreme-right GOP folderol unearths some basic cultural assumptions that just aren’t that funny.

Reading this piece  by Lissa Harris on her experience as a rape victim at The Nation a few weeks ago got me to thinking. I’ve been a little bewildered by my own lack of interest in Rapeapalooza, at least when I guiltily compare my own silence to the enraged repudiations of Ryan Aiken’s statements by other feminist bloggers and various political commentators. At least, that is, until I read this bit in Harris’s post:

Being myself a rapee, and also an empirically minded sort of person, I find myself wondering what would have been different about my life so far if I’d grown up under Todd Akin Law. And, being fully committed to empiricism even when it conflicts with dearly held personal beliefs, I have to confess: Not much.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t plan to sit around smoking weed and watching Through the Wormhole while a horde of Ryan Aikens legislates women back to the nineteenth century. But I, like Lissa Harris, don’t see a huge difference between the way the world works today and the way Ryan Aiken would like it to operate, at least with regard to sexual assault (abortion, of course, is another matter). (I suppose my lack of rage at reading and listening to arrogant, presumptuous quotes from smug phallocrats who are at best indifferent to the effect rape has on the individual woman or girl and on women and girls as a whole might be a symptom of rape fatigue, but I suspect I’ve been suffering from it for far longer than a few months, and that it has something to do with the paucity of posts around here. If the Kübler-Ross model is correct, then I’d say I’ve passed through the denial and anger phases and entered the acceptance phase in grieving the loss of the idea that men give a shit about women.)

There’s no real way to know whether Ryan Aiken even cares one way or the other about fetuses. He may have just decided to get on board with the GOP because he figured he’d have an easier time keeping his story straight if he went to work for the party that openly admits its absolute allegiance to big business and finance rather than the one that pretends otherwise. But it doesn’t really matter either way.  What matters is that some very large, very proximate, very important dots be connected.

In a culture saturated with misogynistic pornography, in a society in which “just the tip” describes the average male attitude toward women’s sexual autonomy, we ought to quit pretending Ryan Aiken’s ideas are all that bizarre. For Ryan Aiken, narrowly defining rape as “forcible vaginal copulation” and denying women the right to pursue their own reproductive decisions even when they have been robbed of the right to decide whether to conceive in the first place is the logical next step once male supremacists of all political leanings have just-the-tipped the public into the idea that abortion should be restricted at all and that rape is somehow less rapey when there is no visible physical trauma.

Rape culture exists with or without Ryan Aiken. Pornography, “just the tip,” and Ryan Aiken’s views on female anatomy and sexuality are all part and parcel of a rape culture in which women are seen not as fully autonomous human beings but as vessels and canvasses for male ambitions and desires. The Aikens might offer up some benzo-doped fish in a barrel, but liberal feminists are going to have to confront the fact that, underneath all of the borderline-satirical rhetoric, the Aikens’ conception of women hardly makes them outliers.

* See Ben Lerner, “Contest of Words: High school debate and the demise of public speech,” Harper’s Magazine, Oct. 2012.

Porn Part 11: The Difference Between Huffing Dong and Flipping Burgers

15 Mar

For some reason the end note on Porn Part 10 explaining my use of the phrase “commercial rape” has caused an uproar amongst several people who were apparently unable to understand the post itself or the difference between flipping burgers and letting people ejaculate all over you. One of the objections pseudo-intellectual Libertarian dudes like to bring to any discussion of porn and whether it amounts to rape is the fact that no one would consent to do their jobs were they not being paid to do so. This type of objector to feminist discourse casually saunters into an ongoing debate, barely skims the post, completely ignores the comments, plonks his point down in a single sentence surrounded by chimerical “gotchas” and the stench of unwarranted arrogance, and then dips out, assuming he has decimated decades of feminist theory with the epiphany-inducing proclamation he has blessed us womenfolk with.

Naturally, I delete the vast majority of these comments out of respect for the people on this site who actually read and think about what’s being discussed, but I suppose the argument that sex work is like all other work is raised often enough — even in radical circles — that I ought to address it.

In a capitalist economy, labor of any kind, whether physical, mental, or a combination thereof, is assigned an abstract value attached either to a set unit of time during which the work will be performed or to an individual task that is to be performed. All labor relations are considered by “free-market” capitalists to be contract relationships between the employer and the person performing the labor. The person performing the labor, as capitalist ideology goes, is a free agent who chooses the terms under which she or he will perform labor for recompense, limited in only the most basic of ways by federal labor and minimum wage laws. It is upon this idea of free contract labor that political participation and citizenship are founded in the US and most other developed countries.* The problem with the theory of free contract labor has been and always will be the reality workers face when making the decision to sell their labor. The value assigned to a given unit of labor is said to derive from its relative scarcity in a supply-and-demand driven market economy, rather than from the cultural context in which the value of the labor is determined, but that assessment relies on the assumption that markets operate in rational, predictable ways. Clearly, that is not the case.  The value of a given form of labor is not set by the laborer in a vacuum, but is rather constrained by the social, cultural, and economic conditions in which the labor contract is negotiated. There is a reason that most economic predictions fail: economists generally can’t figure out how to account for the often strange contingencies of human psychology and culture.

One of capitalism’s central features, at least according to orthodox capitalist ideology, is universalism. To each according to his merit, as it were. The problem, however, is that capitalism has required racism and sexism as fundamental components of its ability to function on a global scale. The history of the spread of capitalism is inextricably bound up with the history of slavery, imperialism, and the general devaluation of the labor (and lives) of women and people of color for the sake of increased profit. Capitalist ideology is simultaneously universalist, sexist, and racist, because it grew out of and flourished in an intellectual and political climate characterized by all three.**

Most radical anti-capitalism theorists unfortunately fail to recognize that patriarchy has existed far longer than capitalism has and will likely outlast capitalism, and hence must be taken account of if one wishes to devise a politico-economic theory that will actually end group-based hierarchy. Despite the presence of a vocal contingent of purportedly radical men who are pro-sex work, the numbers of those who are anti-capitalism, though growing, are still relatively small, and there are far more regular old dudes who make the “all work is exploitation so porn ain’t so bad” argument.

I’ll pretend for a second that the dudes — radical or otherwise — who take that position are simply expressing an honestly-arrived-at objection to the argument that porn and prostitution are commercial rape.

The value of a given form of labor is determined by demand for that form of labor in a sense, but both demand and the value assigned to labor are socially constructed. In your average office job, the amount of money a worker is paid is determined by how much her employer has determined her set of skills and time are worth, usually about 75% of the amount they would pay a male worker for the same work. Were market forces to operate according to capitalist theory, that pay gap would not exist. “The market” doesn’t work as indicated in this scenario because the market operates within a social system of beliefs. US law, for the majority of the last century, treated women’s work as supplementary to that of a putative male breadwinner, and thus as deserving of a lower wage than men’s work, regardless of whether the female worker in question was married. Despite the 1963 Equal Pay Act, the pay gap persists because the social and cultural expectations that undergirded prior laws and court decisions upholding sex-based wage discrimination continue to exist. Law and economics are not extra-cultural. Because the social and economic gender roles of the wider culture defined manhood in large part as the ability to provide for a family through either wage work or business ownership and defined womanhood as caring for a home, husband, and children, the law and the market followed suit by restricting women’s ability to do as they saw fit with their own labor and by devaluing that labor relative to that of men.***

Women’s labor, then, is undervalued in the sense that they are paid less for work that both women and men do. In fact, there are only a few forms of labor for which women are not paid less than men, and they have a very important feature in common: jobs for which women are paid more than men require both self-destruction and complicity in the propagation of misogyny. For example, female fashion models are paid more than male fashion models because female fashion models, through starving themselves and posing for photo spreads that will later be edited to make their already rare looks even more unattainable, help inculcate a sense of self-loathing among women when they realize that they don’t measure up to an ever-changing and impossible beauty ideal based on the sexual desires of men. Women in porn are paid more than men are because the women in porn play an active role in communicating messages about women that a misogynistic world wants to hear and which help to solidify and expand that misogyny. Consent, in a scenario in which women can only out-earn men by offering themselves up as objects to be debased and consumed, means something far different than it does to the men who love the concept so much. Under non-commercial circumstances, consent’s already noxious definition is “I’ll allow you” rather than “I want to.” In a commercial context, it means, “Because you are paying me, I’ll allow you even though I don’t want to and it likely hurts and makes me feel subhuman, and I agree not to call the cops afterward.”

Porn and prostitution are qualitatively different from other remunerative activities because penetration has long been a metaphor for and a literal act of domination. Most men conceive of their bodies as impermeable, discreet, sovereign units. They are aware that penetrating another human being’s body has a deep psychological impact on the person being penetrated, and it is thus no surprise that men reared in societies that valorize violence, aggression, and competition would come to equate penetration with vanquishing the penetrated.**** Women who participate in the production of pornography not only allow themselves to be penetrated — often violently and often by many men — but they usually evince (paid for/faked/half-hearted) pleasure, which communicates a very clear message to the audience: women like to be dominated, humiliated, vanquished, and used by men; a desire to be dominated is an essential component of femaleness that inheres in women in the form of a vagina, which exists for men to penetrate. It is on this view of femaleness and the use of sex as a tool of domination that societal misogyny rests.

So, yes, allowing one’s body to be penetrated for money, even if it causes a pleasurable physical sensation, is a greater acquiescence to exploitation than agreeing to make $5 Footlongs for $7 an hour, even though it pays more. Participating in the making of anti-woman propaganda requires far greater emotional, physical, and political compromises on women’s part than any job men do for equivalent pay. The relatively high (for women) wage porn work and prostitution command does not represent our society’s great love for the female form, it signifies the fact that we are willing to pay somewhat dearly to uphold and jack off to misogyny.

Of those men who come here and make the simplistic and dishonest argument that porn isn’t rape because all work requires us to consent to things we wouldn’t do for free, I would like to ask how much your boss would have to pay you to let him fuck you in the ass while you blow his assistant before he, his assistant, and the janitorial staff ejaculate all over your face. Video of the event would, of course, be posted on the internet and would be available to anyone with basic internet search skills until the day you die. I am truly interested in hearing the figures, which are surely more than $1000.

* See Alice Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America.

** See Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Ideological Tensions of Capitalism: Universalism Versus Racism and Sexism.”

*** Kessler-Harris, chapter 1.

**** See Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse.

Porn Part 10: The Rutting Dogs of Capitalism

16 Feb

running dog

… a literal translation into English of the Chinese/Korean communist pejorative zǒu gǒu 走狗, meaning lackey or lapdog, an unprincipled person who helps or flatters other, more powerful and often evil people. It is derived from the eagerness with which a dog will respond when called by its owner, even for mere scraps.

Capitalists are not often the root cause of social change. They just aren’t the geniuses capitalist ideology would have us believe they are. More often, they take note of social trends and find ways to latch onto and misdirect social change to their own benefit. Hugh Hefner was a shrewd capitalist. He saw the push coming from women for greater sexual freedom and autonomy, and he also rightly detected (probably because he was afflicted with it) the 1960s trend toward the idea that the only means to expressing one’s “true self” was through consumption. What looks like an ingenious anti-feminist usurpation of women’s liberation ideology in Playboy is really nothing more than Hefner’s realization that the women’s liberation movement had pushed sexuality into the public eye to the extent that he could now sell sex to men along with watches, colognes, and esoteric cigarette brands.

At the moment at which women seemed on the brink of overthrowing patriarchy, Hefner succeeded in turning women into yet another object for men to consume in the pursuit of projecting a fashionable lifestyle and thus — probably accidentally — in driving a wedge between those who could see what was happening and those who didn’t want to that has yet to be dislodged. The story from that point on is a familiar one that leads to the present, when anyone with internet access can find hundreds of pages of rape porn with very little effort.

The cultural journey from half-naked women frolicking in fields to readily-available gang rape porn illustrates a few of the fallacies and problems in capitalist ideology, especially as deployed by defenders of the porn industry. Pornographers claim, as does everyone else who makes a profit selling anything, that they are just meeting a demand (though pornographers doth-protest-a-little-too-much to a greater extent than those who sell products that can’t be shown to be direct causes of rape and human trafficking). Most readers of Playboy in 1969 would likely have been disturbed by the content of a modern mainstream porn clip. For that matter, most viewers of hardcore porn from the early 1990s would be at least mildly alarmed by what is readily available on the internet today. But once something becomes a legitimate target for commodification, all bets are off. Marketers left meeting demand behind nearly a century ago (see the BBC series The Century of the Self) for the more fertile ground of creating it themselves by means of hiring psychological experts to tell them how to manipulate people into believing that they truly needed what was being offered to them for sale. The porn industry is a leader in the psychological manipulation of its customers and makes use of expert advice on addiction psychology and neurological science in order to ensure its continued profits. Scores of studies have shown that long-term porn users find themselves compulsively viewing material that would have upset them had they viewed it months or years earlier, but pornographers disingenuously claim that they are just making what the people want. Horseshit. Some weirdo in Belarus might have decided one day that his ultimate dream was to see a woman get fucked by a dog, but it took the porn industry to create a situation in which every dude over the age of fifteen has seen a video of a woman getting fucked by a dog at least ten times.

Profit is the supreme end of capitalist ideology, and that renders capitalist ideology amoral. There is no realm of human existence that capitalist ideology cannot be applied to, which is one of the soundest arguments against capitalism. That is, if one realizes that there are certain aspects of human existence the application of capitalist ideology to which is immoral. War, health, and sex are the examples that spring to mind first. Capitalist ideology holds that profit is always good, even if extracting a profit from something adulterates or destroys it. The extraction of profit from commodified sexuality has reached a point at which it threatens to destroy sexuality even for those who do not consume its commodified form. (To give one relevant example, extracting profit from commodified sexuality routinely destroys the bodies and minds of those being commodified in the commercial rape industry.*) Pornographers, despite their patently absurd claims to the contrary, do not want you to have a healthy sex life. If you had a healthy sex life, their product would become irrelevant. When porn producers read studies of erectile dysfunction in men under twenty, they rejoice, because it means that they have scored a customer for life who cannot get his sexual needs met without creating demand in an industry that reflects and exacerbates societal misogyny and takes that misogyny out on real women’s bodies. When porn producers read articles about young women who believe that if they don’t embrace their own degradation and physical and emotional discomfort they will be as good as invisible, they shit their pants with glee at the thought of their labor costs decreasing as more and more women flood into the pool of willing performers.

Porn producers are capitalists. They justify commodifying and debasing sexuality to the brink of its destruction on the basis of the capitalist ideology that underlies the entire global power structure. They don’t do it to help the state or the managerial class to control citizens and employees, they do it to make money for themselves. The fact that half of the population is so obsessed with porn that they don’t have any spare time to spend on thinking about the ethical problems inherent in capitalist ideology is nothing but a by-product bonus that the porn industry happens to accidentally contribute to the global capitalist order. Beer companies don’t set out to keep the population mired in drunkenness, hangovers, depression, and alcohol-fueled family dysfunction to prevent them from reaching an emotional and intellectual position from which to confront capitalist ideology, they do so to ensure their own continued profits. That their interests dovetail with those of the managerial class and the world’s governments is a happy coincidence born of the ideology that drives them all. Therein lies the key: within the capitalist world system, everyone in a position of power, whether governmental or financial (the difference between which being diminished to a terminal extent at this point), approaches the task of making decisions from an ideologically capitalistic position. Government officials, when asked to decide whether to regulate the porn industry, don’t opt not to because they believe that the porn industry will keep the population docile by sapping all of its “essence,” they opt not to because they are products of the capitalist world system, the linchpin of which is a capitalist ideology that has assured them since birth that profit is always good.

It is truly bizarre to witness purportedly anti-capitalist or leftist men performing Libertarian mental gymnastics to defend their porn use when it is evident that the porn industry is one of the best examples the radical left could point to as an illustration of the flaws inherent in capitalist theory and practice. But even those who aren’t all that interested in political or economic theory ought to be aware that they’re being manipulated to their own detriment and understand the difference between their own interests and those of corporations for whom nothing matters save profit.

Men should stop using porn because the porn industry rapes, traffics, and kills women. Men should stop using porn because men who use porn make shitty lovers, terrible partners, and are an embarrassment to humanity. Men should stop using porn because men’s porn use makes women’s lives nearly unbearable. Clearly, none of that seems to matter to most men, so how about men stop using porn because it’s bad for men? The porn industry, in seeking to enrich itself, is turning men into sexually dysfunctional robots with no capacity for emotional bonding through the act of sex.

Men, please, have a word with yourselves. The porn industry does not give one fuck about you, and in fact they think you’re just as stupid as they do the women they abuse in the making of their product. They sit around in boardrooms laughing at the thought of you sitting up in your room at four in the morning with your dick in your hand jacking off to images of a bunch of other guys’ dicks doing something to a female human being who is at best incidental. They joke about turning you all gay by directing your sexuality away from women and molding it around other men’s behavior and genitalia. They know their product makes you feel guilty, empty, disgusting, and lonely. But they also know that they can only continue to exist to the extent that you allow them to control and damage your sexuality. Please, for our sake and your own, quit being such a bunch of fucking dupes.

* For those of you new to the site, I call the porn industry the “commercial rape industry” because the women in porn are paid for consent they would not otherwise furnish. If someone has to be paid to consent to something, they have not actually consented to it but have rather agreed not to make their non-consent an issue in exchange for money.

Introduction to Porn Part 10: The Rutting Dogs of Capitalism

12 Feb

The porn series needs an update, does it not? I’ve struggled a bit with what part ten should be about, assuming it ought to be the capstone to an anti-porn decalogue, but I’ve realized that this series will never actually end and hence post number ten need not be some kind of revelatory culmination. So I’ll just return to adding posts to the series as topics occur to me. Today’s topic, as it seems so timely these days, will be capitalism.

The title of this post at The Activists, “Pornography Is One of the Most Powerful Weapons in the Hands of the State and the Ruling Elites,” though it is a little reminiscent of a Rolcats caption, held enough promise that I decided to read it. Read the post if you must (especially if you are a dude who fancies himself a political radical but can’t be convinced by women that you should eschew porn because it’s one of the chief obstacles to the ending of women’s oppression), but it’s really not much other than a fairly ridiculous “what about the men” argument against porn use in which men are urged to give up pornography because it is a tool designed to control men. Reading that post shortly after this one from Valerie M at We Won’t Submit reinforced something I confront quite often: surely, the post was written by a man, and the responses I’ve seen to it thus far indicate that, while denigrating or ignoring decades of toil by anti-porn feminists, everyone is going to fall all over themselves for a chance to fellate any dude who makes an anti-porn argument, no matter how incapable he might be of identifying the real (or at least most harmed) victims of the pornography industry.

Well, everyone is going to have to fellate me instead, because I have a better understanding of the relationship between pornography and capitalism than The Activists do, and because I can express that understanding without resorting to jargon-laden, propagandistic language that would make even Komsomol alumni scoff at its lack of style and subtlety.

The problem with most radical anti-capitalist literature aimed at mass audiences is the inherent assumption that the reader is too dumb to understand the complexities of political and economic power. This leads propagandists to make reference to “capitalists,” “capital,” or “capitalism” as if referring to an individual or an entity made up of a small number of people who coordinate and direct the workings of vast social, political, and economic systems. There is a reason that Marxist/communist/anti-capitalist propaganda has essentially failed as a lasting means to directing the consciousness of large numbers of people: its simplistic formulas are easily undermined by complicated realities, and by the fragmented nature of capitalism as a world system lacking in a single identifiable center of power. When “the masses” try to understand the impact capitalism has on their lives, unless they’re anti-semitic fruitcakes who adore Alex Jones and believe the world is run by shape-shifting lizard descendants of the Knights Templar who present as Jewish bankers, they don’t envision their bosses sitting in a room with the CEOs of Anheuser-Busch and Countrywide hatching a plot to keep them in servitude.

Which is why telling men that “the ruling elite” and “the state” sap their vitality and “milk” them of their “essence” via the “pornographic machine” is unlikely to convince them to stop using porn. I know most men don’t need any convincing that they ought to conceive of jizz as their essence and the supreme indicator of their vitality, but the idea that “the state” seeks to enslave the male population by encouraging them to expend all of their semen is a bit much. Even with a firm grip on the interlocking relationship between capital and governance, no one is likely to believe that a cabal of employers and government officials sit around rubbing their hands together in maniacal glee at the genius of their evil plot to addict the populace to wanking to gang bangs. And everyone knows that most people will write off the entirety of a system of ideas once they detect deception or a perceived logical flaw in a facet of that system of ideas that requires that they do anything other than what they want to do at a given moment. Self-justification is the most formidable foe any activist movement faces.

Those who oppose capitalism need to develop new strategies that take account of the proclivities of the contemporary audience and are not proven failures (as is the case with propaganda tactics derived from the mid-twentieth century) to direct people’s attention to the underlying factor that allows the capitalist world system to operate as it does: capitalist ideology. The historical moment at which the long-term endurance of capitalism was cemented was the moment at which people came to believe that every facet of human reality could be quantified and reduced to a mathematical expression. And I do mean “believe,” in the sense that those responsible for capitalism’s development trusted that, despite the fact that abstract concepts such as labor resisted being reduced to numerical tallies, all it would take to tame the world and bring everything under their mental, and hence material, control was for someone to devise the appropriate means to quantify the as yet unquantifiable. Figuring out how to “count” and assign monetary value to labor opened the door to the commodification of nearly every aspect of human existence.

Just how the idea that it was not only acceptable, but desirable, to assign a monetary value to aspects of existence previously deemed uncountable spread across time and space to bring us to the present situation is extremely interesting to me, but I’ll spare everyone my history dorkery. For the purpose of this discussion, it doesn’t matter how everyone came under the spell of capitalist ideology. What matters is that we understand capitalist ideology and how it operates to perpetuate capitalism on a global scale despite the absence of a directing force.

The porn industry happens to serve as an excellent illustrative example of capitalist ideology in action and the extent to which it has come to direct our thinking. Over the course of the last few decades capitalist ideology has expanded, with the aid of the marketing industry, to dominate the totality of human existence in the US and most other developed nations and to encroach upon it nearly everywhere else.  As disposable income increased over the course of the twentieth century, the marketing industry expanded and its attempts to impress capitalist ideology on the populace in the form of consumerism gained a foothold. Marketers discovered that they could literally sell people a sense of self in the form of marketing lifestyles and the idea of individualism, which made it apparent that anyone who could contrive a new means by which to commodify some theretofore private aspect of human life and create a new “product” out of thin air and people’s desire for self-actualization (whatever the fuck that is supposed to mean) stood to make a lot of money. Sex, due to the misogyny and penchant for literal and metaphorical self-flagellation that characterize the Judeo-Christian ideological heritage the US struggles under, was one of the last frontiers in the commodification of human existence. Sure, women have been bought and sold for sex throughout human history, but American (and, to a lesser extent, European) society was too ashamed of the fact that people have genitalia to deal with sex being sold openly.

Until the sexual “revolution” and the Women’s Liberation Movement and the reaction to them, that is.

To be continued…

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