Inefficient Intimacy

Recently I was forwarded an e-mail from activists protesting CafePress, a company that prints messages on T-shirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, and such. The e-mail took issue with CafePress printing a T-shirt with a message commemorating the “donkey punch”. For those of you who don’t listen to Howard Stern, the donkey punch is a maneuver by which a man surprises a woman with a punch to the head during sex when he’s about to come so that her vaginal muscles allegedly contract, heightening his sexual pleasure. Or he may hit her to distract her so that he can sneak in some anal sex. Ha-ha, right?

Now, I doubt that there are many men who really do this, and I don’t think any men are going to be convinced by a T-shirt to start such behavior. But that’s not the point. These shirts are made, sold, and worn because they allow men to advertise a cavalier attitude about violence toward women and about sexuality itself. Wearing T-shirts such as this lets you show the world that you scoff at the idea that sexual intimacy is anything other than a zero-sum game in which you must extort your own pleasure from your partner at her expense. It’s an almost transparently desperate attempt for men to proclaim that they are not “pussy-whipped”, that womanish emotionality doesn’t dictate their behavior.

Left to their own devices, few men in isolation would conceive of this kind of pointless hatred for the women with whom they are intimate. But concepts such as the donkey punch work like myths; they capture a cultural fantasy that transcends any individual consciousness, in this case one that derives from and sustains patriarchy, one that’s necessary for a commercial consumer culture that revolves around misdirected libido. Jokes like the donkey punch reflect the humiliation and subordination that a bureaucratic, hierarchical society inflicts on many of its members (the men) and redirects them at an even more vulnerable target (the women), thus giving men a vested interest in the whole system’s perpetuation — it’s funny!

Of course, plenty of people probably think the donkey punch, like misogynist rap music and bodacious beer commercials and pugnacious reality-dating shows, is no big deal. What ever happened to the First Amendment? What happened to freedom of speech? What happened to your sense of humor? they ask. If you actually were spurred to activism by such a thing, they probably offer some friendly counsel against it: You don’t want to become a humorless prig, do you? You don’t want to become an Andrea Dworkin.

Until her recent death, few hesitated to invoke Dworkin’s name as a way to stifle protest, and once the memory of the obligatory hagiographizing in her obituary fades, it will be used that way again. One of the most trenchant and vituperative critics of pornography, Dworkin’s caustic invective stood in marked contrast to the various casual, offhand ways our society normalizes sexual violence. However, her visceral and vengeful contempt for the misogyny, objectification, and implied violence that is part and parcel of pornography earned her few plaudits; instead she was reviled and ridiculed by many mainstream commentators from both ends of the political spectrum, and even among academics her name became shorthand for that bogus stereotype of the castrating feminist who hates men and thinks all sex is rape.

Part of this bogus stereotype is the idea that to be against pornography is to be against sexual pleasure in general. Dworkin and her antiporn compatriot, Catharine MacKinnon, are usually held in contempt by anti-censorship types who view the porn industry as a pillar of a liberated culture, where “the man” doesn’t tell you what kind of sex you can have. But pornography is rarely about sexual pleasure. The “pleasure” men get from launching crumpled-up dollar bills at a naked woman’s vagina in places like Al’s Diamond Cabaret or The Pink Pony or Spearmint Rhino, has nothing to do with sex. But it has a lot to do with power.

The chaos of male sexual desire, stoked by a invasive culture of commercialized sexuality and idealized beauty, tends to make them feel powerless, out of control, subject to woman’s whim. Men are constantly invited to lust for beautiful women who are always inclined to withhold their favors. (This is part of the donkey punch myth — women must be coerced into giving pleasure.) Even as it foments that desperate, debilitating desire and reinforces the sense that beauty is forever remote, pornography at the same time enacts a kind of political theater that restores men’s sense of mastery over women: that a guy can commission a woman to perform acts he regards as servile and degrading renews his faith in his categorical superiority. There’s power, too, in the illusion that he can claim a property right with his gaze alone. And the property relation is the only one he seeks with a woman: the real emotional connections, the real intimacy, as Eve Sedgwick argues, occurs between men, with the body of an objectified woman on hand to disguise male bonding’s scary taint of homosexuality.

That Dworkin and MacKinnon’s arguments are routinely misrepresented of being “anti-sex” suggests the vested interest many people, male and female, have in preserving existing sexual power dynamics, showing how deeply entrenched is the tendency to want to commodify experience, even intimate sexual experience. Advocates of the sex trades usually claim that female sex workers are willingly capitalizing on the opportunities the industry affords them, that porn “empowers” them to use their body as a money-making tool, and that patronizing anti-porn activists refuse to recognize female autonomy when it dubs sex workers “victims”. This argument mirrors those made by certain kinds of academic pop-culture aficionados (the ones lambasted by Thomas Frank in One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy Anchor, 2001) to defend consumerism, namely that consuming pop culture is actually an enriching and quite possibly subversive act of self-production, as if the culture industry doesn’t want you to make an identity for yourself out of its junk. Those uptight prudes who find pornography abhorrent are like those arrogant elitists who dismiss pop culture. Those alarmists who call the female sex workers “victims” are like those ignorant critics who mislabel the participatory pop-culture audience as “the masses”. Just as pornography is consumption carried to its logical conclusion, arguments for pornography simply extend the same arguments used to defend consumerism: it grants audience agency, it enables people to discover who they are, it permits subversive nodes of resistance within a climate of conformity, it provokes passion and fulfills desires and enables creativity.

But actually, pornography achieves just the opposite. It stifles the truly creative impulses that lead people to engage with each other. Through porn, the mystery of eros is tamed into a zeal for collectibles. Once the Internet made it profitable for pornographers to exploit even the most obscure niches, pornophiles were suddenly able to take a connoisseur’s approach, dabbling in women of various ethnicities, scatological perversions, and fetishes of every sort. The resulting diversity is less a triumph over conformity than a triumph of consumerist ideology, which champions ownership (rather than participation) as the fundamental pleasure of being alive. Shopping is reimagined as a new frontier: as Arlie Russell Hochschild points out, “instead of ‘going somewhere’ the individual ‘buys something.’ And buying something becomes a way of going somewhere.” (The Commercialization of Intimate Life: Notes from Home and Work, University of California Press, 2003)

Consumerism promises a private, autonomous fantasy world of ever-replenishing desire to launch oneself into through a revolving cycle of daydreams about various branded lifestyle goods. Like the frontier myth, the fantasy space of commodity-induced daydreams permits perpetual reinvention, of always being able to eschew your past and start fresh in unbounded territory; goods don’t care who you are, or where you’ve been, or what you did in the last town. Goods allow you to imagine a new you. In looking for “new places to go” in shopping, we inevitably push into pornography. Pornography simply sexualizes this fantasy space, embedding it in deeper psychological terrain. Internet porn quests become a proxy for real experience, sexualizing curiosity in general while desire is rerouted into the circuits prepared for it in the market.

The cultural-studies discourse of audience empowerment merely provides a plausible alibi for voracious porn consumption, one that’s much more credible than the Townshendite excuse of “doing research”. But with the frontier of what can be commodified pushed deep into our intimate lives, no place is left where a core of emotions not already manipulated by the market can exist. Nothing is left inside us that can serve as even a provisional basis for judging authenticity or “true happiness” or “true identity”. We can only continue to shop around.

It’s a mistake to think restricting pornography restricts sexual expression and inhibits one’s sexual potential. After all, pornography exists precisely to accomplish those ends. By commodifying sexuality, porn streamlines it; it’s sex made convenient. In this way porn adapts sexuality to the values of consumer culture — that which is most efficient and most convenient and most quantifiable and collectible will provide the most pleasure. (This is why porn is the quintessential commodity, the inevitable product of the logic of capitalism, as I argued in “Indecent Consumption”.) But genuine sexuality, like all forms of intimacy and interpersonal communication, is authenticated by its difficulty, by the happy struggle it requires in order for it to sanctify deep human relationships. In the drive to make intimacy efficient, we destroy the inefficiencies that define it — the “wasteful” sacrifices of time and energy necessary to understand and respect another person. In fact, it’s likely that we only recognize that we might be “in love” when we notice a sudden willingness to be inefficient.

But as we absorb the values of the working world, we begin to cherish efficiency and convenience as ends in and of themselves. We may start to resent intimacy (sexuality, the family sphere, home) as a source of ceaseless hassle and whining, and see the workplace as a relative haven. As Hochschild argues in The Commercialization of Intimate Life, people begin to search for shortcuts to intimacy through goods, a process exacerbated by consumerism: “Consumerism acts to maintain the emotional reversal of work and family. Exposed to a continual bombardment of advertisements though a daily average of three hours of television (half of all their leisure time), workers are persuaded to ‘need’ more things. To buy what they now need, they need money. To earn money, they work longer hours. Being away from home so many hours, they make up for their absence at home with gifts that cost money. They materialize love. And so the cycle continues.”

Consumerism thus exacerbates the problem it is supposed to cure. Goods cannot provide the happiness that comes from relationships, they can only serve to replace those relationships, or mediate them so as to reduce them to merely instrumental exchanges — to make them efficient. (And capitalism, voraciously sucking up all productive energy into its profit machine, leaves no energy behind for the production of family space, family life. No one has the time to make real families, so they end rapidly in divorce. Hence, as Hochschild points out, many people have more spouses then they have jobs over their lives, making family the source of upheaval and insecurity while the workplace remains stable and comforting. Never mind that the workplace initiates the pressures that ultimately blow apart families.) Once love is materialized, it has essentially become pornography.

Once you believe that inefficiency and hassle is the core truth underlying all the nicey-nice cover-up cant about “love” and “intimacy” and “sharing”, then you’re likely to accept pornography as inevitable. Then it would be only natural for you to try to leverage their stake in porn for as much as you can get, looking for ways to exploit your own body as a means to express social power. You’ll believe you’re in control when you can induce a man to throw a crumpled up dollar at your vagina. You will see that expression of sexual behavior as “truer” than the kind where you try to share pleasure with a mate, whose trust will always threaten you because it will always seem like a lie and a facade. Sex that is not controlling will be uncomfortable, confusing, disturbing, whereas sex rationalized by the porn industry, sex made into a convenient and efficient kind of shopping, will seem logical, safe, explicable, manageable.

Rationalizing pornography as just another consumer good may help make its enemies seem like unreasonable free-market enemies. But MacKinnon, in a brief interview in the March 10-16, 2005 Time Out New York (of all places), is very concise and astute about the absurdity of making pornography the site of a battle between liberal freethinking and conservative Puritanism: “Pornography isn’t about decency, and it isn’t about sex per se. It isn’t about smut or perversion or dirt. It is sexual bigotry. For women, it’s degrading, and for men, it’s conditioning their sexuality to objectification and abuse.” There’s not much to add to that. Pornography’s main function is to remake male libido into a selfish, isolating, distancing desire for ownership and property collecting and to make women into that willing property. In this it epitomizes what consumer culture achieves by and large, encouraging us to think of ourselves as the sum of what we own rather than what we do and whom we do it with. In the porno-consumer world, we’re always doing ourselves, and we’re always doing it alone.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.