Tuesday, 7 October 2008

"People finding satisfaction in being abused"

(xposted from my lj)

I probably shouldn't even bother as this makes utterly no sense, but Hugo Schwyzer has posted a new post about pornography (the previous one is here.) The post itself is thoughtful and interesting, but one commenter is so strange I can't even figure out what she's saying.

Here's a bit of the post itself, included because it actually talks about something I hadn't thought of:

It’s very difficult, I realize, for me to separate my own experiences with pornography from a range of other possible reactions. I have an addictive personality. I was addicted to alcohol and drugs for many years, and have now been clean and sober over a decade. I am not an “anti-alcohol” campaigner, however. I know perfectly well that plenty of people have this remarkable ability to do what I could very seldom do: have one or two drinks and then stop. At family dinners and at cocktail parties, I am confronted with evidence that not everyone who uses alcohol uses it the way I used it — so compulsively that it nearly took my life. I was addicted to prescription pills, too; on the very rare occasions in the past ten years where I have been given heavy-duty pain medication, I’ve always placed the bottle in the hands of a trusted friend or lover. Even now, frankly, I’d be uneasy about a bottle of Percoset in my medicine cabinet. And yet, I know plenty of people who use prescription pain meds as they were intended to be used.

It’s easy to separate alcoholism from alcohol. It’s easy to separate opiate addiction from pain medication. It’s easy to make this separation because there are so many abundant examples of folks who use medication and alcohol in responsible ways. But as someone who was also addicted to pornography in my younger years, what I don’t get to see — in as obvious a way –are folks (men in particular) whose relationship to porn has no negative impact upon their lives. For me, alcoholism was a progressive disease: one beer became eight shots very quickly, so I learned I could never even have the first beer. For me, pornography addiction worked much the same way: I wanted “everlasting novelty”, and was compulsive about seeking out new images. (And this was back in the days before the Internet!) I could no more imagine using porn for fifteen minutes a week than I could imagine having three sips of wine and calling it a night. And just as my addiction to drugs and alcohol fed my narcissism and destroyed my empathy (to the point that some folks thought I might be clinically sociopathic), so too my porn use did tremendous damage to my ability to practice authentic intimacy. But this raises the obvious question: was my lack of empathy rooted in the porn itself, or in the addictive way I used it? Can the two be separated?

Most of us don’t go to social gatherings where we get to see people using porn casually but not compulsively. We don’t get to see the men and women whose porn use brings them pleasure but doesn’t diminish their ability to connect with each other. Indeed, my experiences of talking to other men about pornography began in Twelve Step and pro-feminist men’s groups — settings in which there was an assumption that pornography would almost invariably be spiritually, politically, and psychologically damaging. And while I was aware that many men spoke of using porn without negative consequences, I had a presumption that they were as I had once been: in a state of denial. Like most recovering addicts, I had to fight a very hard battle against a smug sense that I “knew” that no one could use porn without harming themselves or their families. I extrapolated from my own experience, and the experiences of men with whom I worked in recovery or in gender studies circles, and assumed that “almost every” man would be the same. And when I came to Robert Jensen’s work, I immediately identified with his experiences and his views, so fundamentally close to my own. Talk about empathy! It was as if Bob Jensen was my twin brother.

I commented on this bit thus:


Thanks for this post. I think some of the trouble *I* have with understanding the anti-side has to do with never having seen anyone who was doing the “looking for more novelty” thing. It’s honestly so far outside my experience that I’ve always found myself really leery when I hear that. The only place I ever heard or saw it was from conservative religious groups or religious websites, and it struck me not as real people’s experiences but as… how can I best say this?

You know how there are religious groups who say that if you’re gay and struggling, it’s because the “gay lifestyle” is morally bankrupt, wild, and lacking in intimacy? And how those people encourage the confused and hurting men and women who come to them for help and answers to understand their experiences as something like an obsession with attention from people of the same gender? And it’s a whole explanatory framework that doesn’t fit at all with the way most people understand what it is to be gay?

That’s what I always thought the “end porn addiction” groups were like too. I didn’t really think anyone had the addiction. I thought people had, say, curiosity or kinks they felt ashamed of, and went “oh God, now I’m looking at BONDAGE! But I think bondage is BAD! The porn must be controlling me!” and ran off to a group, rather than “Hey, I keep finding myself interested in bondage. Maybe there’s a long-standing interest here I feel I shouldn’t acknowledge. Let me sit down with myself and figure out if I’m OK with this interest I have.”

So I always thought that that “needing novelty” thing was not real, but a way of shaming people for becoming curious about things outside standard heteronormative sex. “Oh, I fantasized about a threesome. Shit, I must be emotionally unfaithful because I was erect for a few minutes!” “Oh, I fantasized about…” whatever, where that’s being measured against the non-kinky, the perfectly egalitarian, or the cuddling with the lights off and only and always expressing eternal love. Which… well, that is some folks’ ideal, sure.

But human minds, in my experience, don’t stay focused on just that. And I feel that a lot of the anti-porn stuff I’ve seen, both from the conservatively religious anti-addiction folks and SOME of the feminist folks, is an ideal that people won’t ever think about non-intimate sex, or the kinds of kinky sex their ideology prescribes. And to me, even if you’re ultimately less permissive than me, that’s unrealistic.

I said a bit more there about my own personal use of pornography (some people in that conversation don't like the term "use" but the only other term I can think of right this moment is "relationship to pornography" which just sounds weird to me, kind of like that really Sensitive Guy-type English teacher on Daria) there, but this is basically my main observation.

I still do think that "porn addiction" is sometimes little more than a popular way of explaining sexual behavior deemed bad. I still worry that some people who are simply wrestling with kinky desires, sexual troubles in their relationships, or other personal issues latch onto the idea that they are addicts rather than doing whatever personal work they need to do, whether it's accepting themselves as kinky, talking with their partners, or dealing with problems they have with intimacy.

I worry that using the paradigm of addiction to explain an ever-expanding series of "bad behaviors" creates a way for people to avoid responsibility or personal hard work, because they can simply claim, as 12-step programs do, that one is "always an addict."

But Hugo's clear description of his propensity toward many different kinds of addictions suggests to me that in his case, and therefore in at least some others, "porn addiction" is an accurate description rather than a popular buzzword. That gives me something to think about, though I remain critical of the ubiquitous and buzzwordy use of the phrase "______ addict."

One commenter to that post, though, simply has my mind boggled. I think she's trying to talk about consensual BDSM or rough sex here, but she uses some very strange (and creepy) words to do so:

I of course don’t want to watch women being victimized or violated and it is, I think, particularly upsetting to watch women in a situation where they are contributing to their own exploitation by reveling in what appears to be straight abuse.

Now, when I was in grad school, we did discuss the possibility of consensual exploitation, so it's not like it's totally impossible. But that's really a question for the philosophers. This here... "reveling in abuse" is just totally bizarre. What would it mean to revel in abuse? And what would it mean to contribute to your own exploitation? I don't think you can presume that exploitation is consensual without giving a careful, and clear, statement of what you mean by consensual exploitation. And if consensual exploitation is something like, for example, "Yes, I'll take the job in the sweatshop because it's all I can get," it's very hard for me to see how a person could be truly enthused about it.

Or is she saying that the person is reveling in something that looks like abuse -- as in, we may know because she told us that she likes BDSM or rough or "gonzo" sex, but her viewers will not? And that they will, by Pavlovian frenzied masturbation, learn the "message" that women love abuse? That could be it. But if that IS it, why say that the women are contributing to exploitation? Maybe the idea here is that women in rough pornography are aware that other women will suffer as a result of their work, and don't care and should? But no, it says "their own exploitation." So apparently they are creating their exploitation, in an eager way.

Is it just me, or does this sound a whole hell of a lot like Freudian theories about female masochism that suggest that women crave not just consensual BDSM but actual abuse?

She "clarifies" later, and to my mind it just gets worse:

I don’t understand how there can be a solid connection between someone finding satisfaction in being abused and it being okay to abuse. They are actually two different ideas.

Just because an individual seeks abuse (which is what some workers in the porn industry seem to do) does not give another the right to abuse but it does not change the psychological issue with the individual seeking abuse that compels them to put themselves in a situation in which they can allow others to exploit them or where they can exploit themselves.

....One major problem that I have is the comparison between porn and domestic violence. Women who find themselves being abused by their spouse or another family member or friend certainly do not enjoy it I would hope. But there are individuals who will intentionally place themselves in situations where they are being abused and used and they find satisfaction in it because of an unhealthy self image and/or deeper psychological problem.

So some people have problems and it leads them to like being degraded. Sounds an awful lot like the popular stereotype of the masochist as someone who gets beaten because he believes he doesn't deserve better.

And yes, there may well be people like this. All kinds of strange propensities exist in humans. But she offers no way at all of understanding which sex workers these people are, who they are, or why she associates them all with rougher porn. Surely if this kind of thing is as widespread as her comment hints it might be, there are some people out there who do standard or even sweet-looking stuff because they've internalized the idea that they are good for nothing but sex. If we want not to see those people, how do we figure out what they're in? Simply avoiding kink because that's where we think we'll find it really doesn't narrow it down.

And if we do assume this is a widespread problem in the industry, why is the solution not watching these women's work rather than figuring out who they are and giving them alternatives? Simply boycotting their films for the sake of not being contaminated by consuming images of their exploitation doesn't help them to regain self-esteem, or stand up for themselves, or leave the industry if that's what's best for them.

It just strikes me as standard equating kink with abuse, wrapped in a layer of false (or at least useless from a practical standpoint) sympathy for women you're defining as victims without knowing anything about.


Anonymous said...

First of all, Robert Jensen is full of shit, at least when it comes to porn. He's guilty of recycling religious anti-porn dogmatism and making it palatable for politically correct leftists. People like me would respond publicly to Jensen, but then we'd have to come out of the closet publicly and face the wrath of comrades who are rabid anti-porn zealots.

As for your exchange here about porn addiction--I would point out that the person writing about porn addiction is doing so through the rose-colored glasses of the addiction industry. They are universalizing their experiences to apply to anybody who enjoys porn on a regular basis. I don't have any addictions and have no use for self help groups. I use porn frequently, but I'm not "addicted" to it. By minimal definitions "addiction" means that something has a negative effect on your life. My use of pornography isn't a problem, so it's not addictive.

There are probably a few people out there "addicted" to porn, but I think this language is being used by anti-porn people to problematize pornography.

Radical Male BDSMer

Trinity said...

"First of all, Robert Jensen is full of shit, at least when it comes to porn. He's guilty of recycling religious anti-porn dogmatism and making it palatable for politically correct leftists."

I agree with you completely. I don't really understand why people idolize him so much. He's a snake-oil salesman.

"As for your exchange here about porn addiction--I would point out that the person writing about porn addiction is doing so through the rose-colored glasses of the addiction industry."

Yes, he is... but at the same time, he's admitting that he may be wrong, and that all he's heard and done and thought has taken place within the rarefied air of people who specifically are IN those "porn addiction"-based social circles. So I actually admire his willingness to think about how his point of view ignored most people's actual lived reality. I'm not angry at him for universalizing right now, because he's trying hard not to.

And as far as whether he's an addict or whether he's deluded by an industry that labels everything an addiction... I've chosen to trust his own words about how he sees what he's doing, especially since he connects his thinking and behavior to other addictions. I don't find it productive to tell him whether or not he ever used porn in an unhealthy manner. I'd have to know him personally and know a great deal I don't know and don't really care to about the specifics of his personal life.

"By minimal definitions "addiction" means that something has a negative effect on your life. My use of pornography isn't a problem, so it's not addictive."

I agree with that, which is precisely why I continue to be wary of what you're labeling the addiction industry. I think that there is a very real danger of convincing people whose "problem" is nothing more than shame or insecurity that they have a serious problem (an addiction), and I think that way too many people are unscrupulous about this.

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