Wrapping Profit in the Flag
by Stan Goff
There was a period of time, when I was very young and chafing in my adolescence against all ‘authority,’ that I read the preposterous novels of Ayn Rand and eventually embraced libertarianism. That’s one of the two things I can find in my own experience to relate to the questions raised by the Nina Hartley response to Chyng Sun’s Counterpunch piece two days earlier in which Dr. Sun described pornography’s connection to male sexuality constructed as aggression. The other dimension I can relate to is pornography itself, which – along with prostitution – has been a perennial facet of the military culture where I spent most of my adult life.
Now there is a digital market distribution of pornography, which has blended prostitution with pornography in the capitalist drive to further commodify sex. That makes it easy for me, right now, to Google-search “porn,” get about a million pop-ups, and check the validity of Hartley’s contention that:
”None of the diversity of our vibrant, raucous and contentious creative culture seems to have attracted Professor Sun’s notice. By focusing on one or two examples she finds particularly heinous, she obscures the broader truth, which is that the marketplace of sexual entertainment contains products for almost every taste and orientation, including material made by and for heterosexual women and couples, lesbians and gay men. It’s not all Bang Bus, and by no means does all of it, or even most of it, conform to the author’s notions of porn-as-expression-of-misogyny.”
Actually, in the words of my great grandmother, an earthy Oklahoma Cherokee who would know, “That’s horseshit.”
Anyone who doesn’t believe me can bring up Google and have a look. I find a porn review site called “Pornliving” there, in which there is a menu of pornographic categories, which lists Amateur (which closer inspection reveals is not exactly true, since these are capitalist ventures), Anal, Asian, Big Tits, Black Girls, Black on White, Blow Jobs, Celebrity, Fetish, Gothic, Hardcore, Latina, Lesbian (in which none of the shaven, siliconed women featured bear the least resemblance to the lesbians I know), Live, Mature, Multiple Models, Pantyhose, Pornstar, Single Model, Soft Core, Teens, Video. In case the blatant racist-sexism of some of these categories or the dehumanization and objectification of women as body parts fails to even bump one’s outrage meter, a peek inside any one of the many sites listed typically describes key forms of sexual action (which is the commodity) – like ejaculating in women’s faces, stretching their anuses with various and often damaging forms of penetration, and gagging them during fellatio – and the vast majority of these sites refer to women in terms like cum-hungry slut, nasty little bitch, etc.
Ms. Hartley’s contention that this is an aberration within a much more benign industry is patently untrue. If she wants to defend it using the First Amendment, she should at least be honest enough to describe this industry accurately. The overwhelming majority of pornography consumers are men. They seek out specific content that arouses them in order to jack off. They are motivated by constructions of sexuality for which they have been socialized. Dominant constructions of sexuality associate masculinity with both misogyny and aggression. Period. The desire to ejaculate in a woman’s face, who you see as a ‘cum-hungry slut,’ is not innate.
The ubiquitous nature of internet commodified prostitution and pornography has only served to reinforce the notion of sexuality as an abstraction and to hide the concrete reality of sexual degradation and slavery. The reality of the world’s third most lucrative industry (right after weapons and drugs) is that it is a daily social catastrophe among millions of women… as well as millions of children, where in the real world beyond the white American comforts of so-called sex-radicals, these women and children have been thrown off the land and into various forms of sexual slavery. The sex libertarians of the porn industry won’t mention this, even though a significant number of the women featured in much of this new porn are precisely these refugees from global destabilization and poverty.
When Dr. Sun and others point out that this is an industry, all we hear from Nina Hartley and her partisans are paeans to so-called ‘sex radicals,’ like Carol Queen, who claim it is a culture. After Linda Marchiano (renamed ‘Linda Lovelace’ by her rapist-pimp husband, Chuck Traynor) went public about how Traynor had habitually beaten her, sold her to other men, forced her to have sex with a dog, and forced her to make porn films for his own profit, Hartley’s pal Carol Queen referred to Marchiano dismissively as “Linda-he-had-to-put-a-gun-to-my-head-to-make-me-fuck-that-dog-Lovelace.” This, presumably, is the ‘sex-radical’ take on rape and battering.
Pornography and prostitution – in the material world – are overwhelmingly not ‘choices.’ They are vast, exploitative, patriarchal-capitalist industries, largely violent, very lucrative, controlled by women-hating men, and destructive of the women (and children) who are victimized by them. Most of the women who are prostituted (including those who are used to produce pornography) are poor, disproportionately from oppressed groups, frequently drug-addicted, the vast majority showing clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and wanting out. The majority suffered from sexual abuse as children, and many were first ‘turned out’ as minors. Many new prostitutes are ‘broken in’ through gang rape, and constantly abused by pimps.
These claims are based on extensive research, not the anecdotal interviews with industry spokespersons suggested to Chyng Sun by Nina Hartley. The anthology, Not For Sale – Feminist Resisting Prostitution and Pornography, edited by Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant, cites this research extensively, for anyone who is interested in actually studying this predatory industry.
The ‘bad girl’ image coveted by ‘sex radicals’ is a pure exercise of class and national privilege that intentionally ignores how they provide cover for this industry and the dangerous, sometimes deadly, realities behind it. Their ‘choices’ always trump the reality of those trapped in prostitution and pornography, and their solution is not to attack the industry, but to call those enslaved within it ‘sex workers,’ and claim that what they need are unions. Presumably, the unions could sign contracts with the pimps to limit the ‘break-in-by-gang-rape’ periods.
In the sex radical analysis, there are good girls and bad girls. The good girls are those – whether heterosexual, lesbian, or bisexual – who engage in ‘vanilla’ (that is, non-commercial and non-sadomasochistic) sex. The bad girls are whores, women who use pornography, women who sexualize children, and women who buy prostituted women: ‘Whores, sluts, and dykes are bad girls, bad because we are sexually deviant’ (Queen, 1997). Sex Radicals define prostitution as a sexuality and then link that to homosexuality, the sexual use of children by adults, and sadomasochism, calling them ‘sexual outlaws’. They claim to be censored and discriminated against, not by pimps, tricks, wife beaters, racists, corporations, and daddy rapists, but by feminists fighting sexual violence, racism, and poverty. The sex radicals’ ‘good girl-bad girl’ analysis is nothing new or radical; it merely reproduces the conservative patriarchal dichotomy between madonna and whore. Sex radicals simply reverse the valuation attached to the two sides: here bad girls are to be celebrated for their rebellion and audacity, while good girls are scorned and mocked as boring, repressed, and obedient… Queen and other sex radicals have a rebellious, adolescent-style reaction to sex: what they perceive as being ‘different’ or rebellious is good, period. What sex radicals lack in thoughtfulness and feminist analysis they make up for by appealing to emotion. They channel women’s valid anger and desire to rebel against patriarchy into their political camp by misrepresenting the term sex radical. True sex radicalism would mean recognizing structures of inequality and oppression, working toward egalitarian relationships, and aligning with those who do not have social or political power – such as women and children hurt in pornography and prostitution…(Christine Stark, Stark & Whisnant ed., pp. 278-291)
The claim by ‘sex radicals’ – repeated by Hartley in her piece – that anti-pornography feminists (usually radical feminists, whose analysis of gender as a system of power is the most advanced) are either Victorian or opposed to the women who are engaged in prostitution and pornography is not only specious, it is a deliberate misrepresentation designed to interdict further study of the work these women have done.
Everyone I have ever engaged in a debate about Andrea Dworkin or Catharine MacKinnon, the nemeses of ‘Third Wave’ faux-feminists – and there has thusfar been not a single exception – has consistently attributed arguments to them that they had not made, and proven incapable of articulating exactly what either of them has said about pornography. These proponents of ‘sex radicalism’ that merely flip the patriarchal script, and who justify our own use of pornography or prostitution or both, and people who have never studied what radical feminists have written ingest these red herring and straw man critiques coming from the likes of Queen, Suzie Bright, Nina Hartley, and others.
Much of feminist theory and activism against pornography and prostitution has been and continues to be developed by formerly prostituted women, who are not judging or otherwise maligning prostituted people, but rather exposing pimps and rapists, he sex industry as an institution of male violence and racial and economic privilege… One of the ways sex radical women misrepresent feminist work against pornography and prostitution is by claiming that feminists are in bed with conservative religious groups. This accusation is false… (Stark, Stark & Whisnant, p. 278-291)
Under sex radicalism, the pornography and prostitution industry disappears along with class-based political analysis of sexism, racism, heterosexism… leaving a few, select, privileged women to write about how they can ‘choose’ to oppress or be oppressed. Sex radicalism turns away from feminism, embracing a captor/captive mentality as revolutionary. No matter how many cute ways one spells ‘boys’, celebrating the objectification of women is dehumanizing and reactionary, whether it’s men or women doing the objectifying. (Stark , Stark & Whisnant, p. 290)
This ‘sex radicalism’ beckons to Joy James’ critique of postmodern ‘radicalism’ generally, what she called ‘neo-radicalism,’ that absolves itself of any responsibility to mount a politics of resistance to actual social systems where material power is exercised – in gender, by men over women – by embracing individual ‘empowerment,’ which is one of the touchstones of consumer ideology.
Annie Sprinkle can indulge her adolescent rebelliousness by pissing on camera, and this takes the place of solidarity with the thousands of other women who end up in prostitution through years of systematic abuse. Hartley would have us believe that the pornography-prostitution industry is simply a “vibrant, raucous and contentious creative culture.” This is disingenuous in the extreme. As Grandma Isom would say, “Culture, my ass.”
Capitalist patriarchy is a system. Neither Hartley nor any of her partisans want to talk about this (gasp!) ‘Second Wave’ feminist preoccupation. Capitalist patriarchy, as a world system, incorporates the colonization of women at its very base. The exploitation of millions of desperately poor women around the world by this industry is a direct expression of women’s systemic subjugation. This makes it doubly offensive that Hartley characterizes this whitewashing of the industry’s true nature as class struggle… porn is a good way for working class women to get out of dead-end jobs.
The process of cultural polarization, without a critique of capitalist patriarchy itself, accounts for the inability of many putative feminists – calling themselves ‘sex positive’ – to understand the critiques that radical and left feminists continue to make of pornography and prostitution. Even the use of a term like ‘sex-positive’ is demagogic, implying that those of us who expose the real nature of these misogynist-capitalist industries are somehow… sex-negative. Note how this construction decontextualizes sex from social systems altogether.
The conservative patriarchal reaction against women’s sexual agency has actually contributed to liberal feminists’ abstraction of pornography and prostitution into expressions of women’s ‘freedom to choose.’ Of course, there is a good deal of political cross-dressing involved in propagating this argument, and Hartley’s Free Speech Coalition is a perfect example. It is a front group for the porn industry – which is concerned with its profits – that finds itself at loggerheads with right-wing Christians like John Ashcroft on one front, and that paints left critics of porn – who point out its misogynist content – as partisans of the Christian Right.
This is, of course, a red herring of record proportions. I myself have stood alongside these same rock-ribbed Baptist zealots to oppose a state lottery. Their opposition to the lottery was based on their general opposition to gambling, while we opposed it because it was a highly regressive tax with a shitty record in ‘supporting education.’ The ‘lottery for education’ campaign, cooked up by the gaming industry, was pushed by its own ‘freedom of choice’ front groups.
“We’re not for using the state to shake down people for immense profits, exploiting their desperation and false hope while encouraging a destructive compulsive disorder,” the gaming industry suggested (through Astroturf groups like the Free Speech Coalition). “We’re for harmless fun… and schools.”
In the same way, the pornography industry – which thrives on misogynistic social constructions of sexuality (no, Nina, sexuality is not just a matter of ahistorical “taste and temperament” – says, “We are just protecting your right to free speech.”
Meanwhile, the money is being made – lots of it – and a faÁade has to be constructed to conceal the reality of commodified sex, which for the enormous majority of its ‘workers’ is a relentless nightmare of violent exploitation.
It is not at all surprising that Hartley frames her argument as a commercial: “The marketplace of sexual entertainment contains products for almost every taste and orientation.”
The ideology is libertarianism… the neoliberal lodestar… the fallacy that ‘freedom’ can only be defined as an attribute of individuals, and then only ahistorically. It is based on the abstraction that a poor Black woman in a hopeless ghetto or a 14-year-old peasant girl decanted into Bangkok by land enclosure have the same ‘choices’ as Suzie Bright or Carol Queen or Nina Hartley.
Reinforcing this American ideology, and by extension, the myopia about pornography and prostitution, is the position of the United States in the world system. Our collective job in the international division of labor is to consume – to buy, buy, buy, and shop, shop, shop. This gives rise to an idea reflected from that practice, that life itself is a series of individual selections, of shopping choices, of lifestyles. This is consumerism.
“The marketplace of sexual entertainment contains products for almost every taste and orientation.”
Consumerism is itself an ideological product and an industry; it can be credibly defined as consumer-demand-production driven by the imperative to extend commodification into every available dimension of our lives.
High-speed, lightweight digital information/communication technology has also become a crucial technology for creating expanded consumer demand. Anyone really interested in ending the oppression of the world’s women needs to examine demand creation as not only characteristic of late capitalism, but how it determines new forms of sexual commodification – and what impact that is having on the millions of women around the world who will potentially end up listed at Pornliving at ‘hot, cum-slurping Asians’ or ‘horny Russian sluts.’
The eroticized degradation of women – cum-hungry teen sluts – brought into the privacy of your own home.
Internet pornography is a mass marketed form of prostitution, now state-protected as ‘speech,’ and however it gets spun by Larry Flynt or Nina Hartley, it still constitutes a huge setback for women who were struggling in an earlier milieu for a toehold on social power. Here is the cul-de-sac of libertarianism and the international system on display together.
D. A. Clark, in her essay “Prostitution for anyone: Feminism, globalization, and the ‘sex’ industry” writes:
The essential issues which traditionally inspired feminists to challenge and criticize the sex industry have not changed despite decades of effort. It has been remarkably difficult for feminists to make any progress on these issues. It is very difficult to get these issues taken seriously. Obviously one reason for that is that feminist activity has not changed the fundamentals of social power. Men still control decisive power blocs such as the armed forces, the higher levels of government, big business and media – and the ‘sex industry’ is a service industry for men. (Clarke, Stark & Whisnant, p. 152)
Decisively, (capitalist) men control the state. The liberal state. That very same one before which the masses genuflect while reverently whispering the worlds, ‘our founding fathers,’ and ‘the Constitution.’
But while no one reading this wants John Ashcroft, or his successor Alberto “de Sade” Gonzales, reading our emails, or spending public money to put linen drapes over the breasts of statues, or intruding into our bedrooms, we still need to be able to criticize the misogynist, slave-whipping, rapist founding fathers. And we need to talk about what the Constitution does and does not do. Because it sure gets hauled out into view every time privilege is endangered.
Let’s not forget that the First Amendment also protects the rights of giant corporations and brokerage houses to control the entire electoral process by calling campaign spending ‘protected speech.’ In this way, the First Amendment privileges the prerogatives of the rich minority while it undermines the popular sovereignty of the entire nation. In the very same way, the First Amendment as it is deployed by the pornography industry to give the cover of ‘rights’ to an abstract individual to protect the prerogatives of a concrete and collectively exploitative, misogynistic, and frequently violent global enterprise.
That’s how the liberal state works. It always abstracts an individual out of history in order to background the real history, and thereby protects power that existed socially, prior to the law, from any form of state intrusion. Those founding fathers were smart slaveholders and Indian-killers and wife-beaters, and they understood perfectly well what they were doing. They were inoculating existing systems of domination from forceful intervention, and making it look like they were doing the rest of us a favor. The very idea of a right of privacy was originally used to protect men’s right to batter their wives.
This disappearance of history is how whites can sue African Americans for ‘reverse racism,’ how California can call an anti-immigrant law a ‘civil rights initiative,’ and Nina Hartley can get away with calling herself, along with Camille Paglia and Katie Rophie and all their ilk, ‘feminist.’ Subtract the history, and the whole issue becomes an academic abstraction, infinitely malleable and permeable to the most outrageous political counterfeiting.
In an interview, Carol Smith, a survivor of pornography, contrary to the abstract libertarian version of pornography, explained how she was sexually abused as a small child, chemically dependent and severely affectively disordered by age ten, and cajoled into pornography at 19 by leveraging her drug dependency. She reports that this is actually the most common trajectory for porn ‘models’ and prostitutes… there is no Pretty Woman. Exactly when was she was capable of ‘consenting’ by libertarian standards? Perhaps at the age of eight when she was first sexually abused? This is certainly a real question in the real world. Her story – which includes her escape from pornography – is not typical. It’s not typical because many do not survive, and most remain addicted.
In her interview, she pointed out that her pornographic videotapes are still being marketed and displayed on the internet, even though she has tried to take legal action to stop them. This has had a tremendously damaging effect on her and her family, but the courts have sided with the pimp-pornographers, based on a contract she signed years ago – a contract signed by an addicted, affectively disordered, young woman, financially dependent on her pimp-pornographer, in a society characterized by male supremacy. This is how consent is defined using the libertarian fallacy in the male capitalist state. Her images, being sexually degraded under the influence of drugs, which have been shown by others to her children, are a pimp’s property.
Libertarianism has always been about one thing at its core – property.
Not only is pornography a service industry, as Clarke stated – a masturbation aid – it is, as radical feminists have long argued, a form of hate speech. Pornography is anti-woman propaganda. It is tantamount to placing pictures of hangman’s nooses in workplaces with Black employees. State protection of pornography (including pornography that is actually digitally distributed prostitution) is state protection of misogynist hate speech.
Hartley can slander me just as vigorously as she slandered Dr. Sun, when she claimed that Sun was “defaming males” and that Sun was sharing positions with the evangelical prudes. Sun did not advocate that anyone “erase all forms of sexual choice.” That was Hartley putting words in her mouth – making a straw man of her in order to tear her up. Neither am I calling for erasing sexual choice. I haven’t even called for legislation to stop pornography (mainly because I doubt it would work, given the depth of male misogyny inscribed on dominant constructions of sexuality). Hartley wants to make this debate about ‘rights,’ to decoy people off what we are saying about this industry – one that she serves now as a lobbyist. I haven’t called for stopping the Klan marches either (another libertarian fave – I’ll stick with rocks and bottles for the Klan.) The lion’s share of this stuff called porn is hate speech, whether you want to make an abstract libertarian defense of it or not.
Imagine if you will, a billboard along an American highway with the caricatured image of a grinning, bug-eyed Black kid in tattered coveralls grinning over a slice of watermelon. Clearly, this would generate an outcry that would result in its removal almost immediately. Yet we can see billboards everywhere that show shaven infantilized (male sexuality is constructed in many ways as pedophilic), hyper-sexualized women, yet there is not only no outcry – there seems to be little discussion of what those images do to our daughters, sisters, partners, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and friends. That’s how deep patriarchy is.
I would also note that it is also culturally ‘okay’ right now to display grotesque stereotypes of Arabs, since the United States government is involved in an active project of killing them by the hundreds of thousands.
Dr. Chyng Sun hit the nail on the head in her fifth paragraph:
“The pornographers want to derail any criticism of the often blatant misogyny of their product and are willing to wrap themselves in political principles to do that.”
Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin,
is co-author of “Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality” and is working with the producers of the forthcoming documentary film “Fantasies Matter: Pornography, Sexualities, and Relationships.” He can be reached at <mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org >email@example.com