Porn and the Radical Left

by Ben Barker –

If the fight against pornography is a radical one, where are the radicals fighting against pornography? Earlier this year, the 18th annual Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair, an event that brings together radical activists from around the world, was held at the headquarters and production facility of so-called “alternative” porn company, Kink.com. Kink.com is known for its unique brand of torture porn.  As Gail Dines reports, women are “stretched out on racks, hogtied, urine squirting in their mouths, and suspended from the ceiling while attached to electrodes, including ones inserted in their vaginas.” But to grasp the agenda of Kink.com, we can just go to the source: founder Peter Acworth started the company after devoting his life to “subjecting beautiful, willing women to strict bondage.”url When the Anarchist Bookfair announced its choice of venue, feminists were outraged. The few who were billed to speak during the event dropped out. But ultimately, the decision was defended, the outcry lashed back against, and the show went on. Anarchists are my kind of people—or so I thought. When I first discovered the radical Left some eight years ago, I thought I’d stumbled on the revolution. The rhetoric seemed as much: brave, refreshing demands for human rights, equality, and liberation; a steadfast commitment to struggle against unjust power, however daunting the fight. It wasn’t long, though, before my balloon of hope burst. To the detriment of my idealism and trust, the true colors of my radical heroes began to show. Pornography was then and is now one such let down. Over the years, I’ve bounced between a diversity of groups on the radical Left: punks, Queers, anarchists, and many in between. But wherever I went, porn was the norm. Here’s the latest in radical theory: “We’re seventeen and fucking in the public museum. I’m on my knees with your cock in my mouth, surrounded by Mayan art and tiger statues. Our hushed whispers and frenzied breathing becomes a secret language of power. And us, becoming monstrous, eating-whole restraint and apology. The world ruptures as we come, but it isn’t enough. We want it all, of course—to expropriate the public as a wild zone of becoming-orgy, and to destroy what stands in our way.” I’m sad to report that this quote, and the book it comes from, reflects one of the most increasingly popular of the radical subcultures. Conflating perversion and revolution is nothing new. We can trace the trend all the way back to the 1700s in the time of the Marquis de Sade, one of the earliest creators and ideologues of pornography (not to mention pedophilia and sadomasochism). Sade was famous for his graphic writings featuring rape, bestiality, and necrophilia. Andrea Dworkin has called his work “nearly indescribable.” She writes, “In sheer quantity of horror, it is unparalleled in the history of writing. In its fanatical and fully realized commitment to depicting and reveling in torture and murder to gratify lust, it raises the question so central to pornography as a genre: why? why did someone do . . . this? In Sade’s case, the motive most often named is revenge against a society that persecuted him. This explanation does not take into account the fact that Sade was a sexual predator and that the pornography he created was part of that predation.” Dworkin also notes that “Sade’s violation of sexual and social boundaries, in his writings and in his life, is seen as inherently revolutionary.” Despite all they seem to share in common, most of today’s radicals actually don’t revere the Marquis de Sade. Rather, they look to his followers; namely, one postmodern philosopher by the name of Michel Foucault, no small fan of Sade, whom he famously dubbed a “dead God.” Foucault’s ideas remain some of the most influential within the radical Left. He has catalyzed more than one generation with his critiques of capitalism, his rallying cries for what he calls “social war,” and his apparently subversive sexuality. Foucault, who in fact lamented that the Marquis de Sade had “not gone far enough,” was determined to push the limits of sexual transgression, using both philosophy and his own body. His legacy of eroticizing pain and domination has unfortunately endured. So where are the radicals in this fight against pornography? The answer depends on who we call radical. The word radical means “to the root.” Radicals dig to the roots of oppression and start taking action there—except, apparently, when it comes to the oppression of women. How radical is it to stop digging half way for the sake of getting off? What is called the radical Left today isn’t really that. It’s radical in name only and looks more like an obscure collection of failing subcultures than any kind of oppositional movement. But this is the radical Left we have, and this one, far from fighting it, revels in porn. Just as we need to wrest our culture from the hands of the pornographers, we need to wrest our political movements from the hands of the sexists. Until we do that, so-called “radical” men will continue to prop up sexual exploitation under the excusing banner of freedom and subversion. This male-dominated radical Left is expressly anti-feminist. In a popular and obscene anarchist essay, “Feminism as Fascism,” the author—who is male, need I mention—ridicules feminists for drawing any connection whatsoever between porn and violence against women. He concludes that feminism—rather than, say, the multi-billion dollar porn industry—is a “ludicrous, hate-filled, authoritarian, sexist, dogmatic construct which revolutionaries accord an unmerited legitimacy by taking it seriously at all.” I’ve ceased to be surprised at the virulent use and defense of porn by supposedly radical—and even “anti-sexist”—men. The two have always seemed to me to go hand-in-hand. My first encounter with radicals was at a punk rock music show in the basement of a stinky party house. I stood awkwardly upstairs, excited but shy. Amidst the raucous crowd, a word caught my ear: “porn.” Then, another word: “scat.” Next, the guys were huddling around a computer. And I was confused . . . until I saw. More sophisticated than the punks, the anarchist friends I made a few years later used big words to justify their own porn lust. Railing against what they deem censorship, anarchists channel Foucault in imagining themselves a vanguard for free sexual expression, by which they really mean, men’s unbridled entitlement to the use and abuse of women’s bodies. And any who take issue with this must be, as one anarchist put it, “uncomfortable with sex” or—and I’m not making this up—“enemies of freedom.” The Queer subculture puts the politics of sexual libertarianism into practice. Anything “at odds with the ‘normal’ or legitimate” becomes fair game. One Queer theorist explained in specifics: “Sleaze, perversion, deviance, eccentricity, weirdness, kinkiness, BDSM and smut . . . are central to sex-positive queer anarchist lives,” she wrote. As the lives of the radicals I once counted as comrades began to confirm and give testament to this centrality, I abandoned ship. Pornography is a significant part of radical subcultures, whether quietly consumed or brazenly paraded. That it made me uncomfortable from the beginning did not, unfortunately, deter me from trying it myself. It seems significant though, that, despite growing up as a boy in a porn culture, my first and last time using porn was while immersed in this particular social scene. Who was there to stop me? With all semblances of feminist principles tossed to the wind, who was there to steer me from the hazards of pornography and towards a path of justice? The answer is no one. Why? Because the pornographers control the men who control the radical Left. Women may be kept around in the boy’s club—or boy’s cult—but only to be used in one way or another; never as full human beings. How is it a male radical can look honestly in the face of a female comrade and believe her liberation will come through being filmed or photographed nude? I have a dear neighbor who says, “There’s nothing progressive about treating women like dirt; that’s just what happens already.” My neighbor has little experience in the radical Left, but apparently bounds more common sense than most individuals therein. She, along with many ordinary people I’ve chatted with, have a hard time believing—let alone understanding—that people who think of themselves as radical could actually embrace and defend something as despicable as pornography. If the basic moral conscience of average people allows them to grasp the violence and degradation inherent in porn, we have to ask: what’s wrong with the radical Left? In a way, this let down is predictable. From ideologues like Sade and Foucault, to the macho rebellion of punk bands like the Sex Pistols, to the anarchist-endorsed Kink.com, justice—for women and for all—has been a periphery goal at best for countercultural revolutionaries. Of vastly greater priority is this notion of transgression, an attempt at “sexual dissidence and subversion which challenges the symbolic order,” the devout belief that anything not considered “normal” is radical by default. I can’t speak for you, but there are plenty of things that I think deserve not to be seen as normal. Take Kink.com, for example. Despite the cheerleading of shock value crusaders, I don’t really care how many cultural boundaries the company believes itself to be transgressing; tying up and peeing on another human being is simply wrong. If this sentiment gets me kicked out of some sort of radical consensus, so be it. What is transgressive for some is business-as-usual oppression for others. As Sheila Jeffreys explains, “Transgression is a pleasure of the powerful, who can imagine themselves deliciously naughty. It depends on the maintenance of conventional morality. There would be nothing to outrage, and the delicious naughtiness would vanish, if serious social change took place. The transgressors and the moralists depend mutually upon each other, locked in a binary relationship which defeats rather than enables change.” Transgression, she contests, “is not a strategy available to the housewife, the prostituted woman, or the abused child. They are the objects of transgression, rather than its subjects.” Being radical is a process, not an outcome. To be radical means keeping our eyes on justice at every instance, in every circumstance. It means maintaining the agenda of justice when picking our issues and the strategy and tactics we use to take them on. Within a patriarchy, men cannot be radical without fighting sexism. This is to say that radical activism and pornography are fundamentally at odds. Where are the radicals fighting porn? The ones worth the name are already in the heat of battle, and on the side of justice, whether or not it gets us off. As for the rest, we’re going to have to make them. As the current radical Left self-destructs under the crushing grip of misogyny—as it already is and inevitably will—it is up to us to gather from the rubble whatever fragmented pieces of good there are left. And it is up to us to forge those pieces into a genuinely radical alternative. Women have been doing this work for a long time. But it is by and for men that women’s lives are stolen and degraded through pornography. And it is by and for men that the radical Left colludes with this injustice. So it must now be men—the ones with any sense of empathy or moral obligation left—who take final responsibility for stopping it. Women have already mapped out the road from here to justice. Men simply need to get on board. It’s no easy task taking on the cult of masculinity from the inside, but it’s a privileged position in comparison to being on the outside and, thus, its target. And this cult needs to be dismantled. Men need to take it down inside and out, from the most personal sense to the most global. Men can start small by boycotting porn in our own lives, both for the sake of our individual sexualities and for the sake of the many women undoubtedly suffering for its production. Through images of dehumanized women, pornography dehumanizes also the men who consume them. Individual rejection of pornography is necessary, but social change has always been a group project. Men must put pressure on other men to stop supporting, and at the very least stop participating in, sexual exploitation. We can demand our movements and organizations outspokenly oppose it. We can disavow them if they refuse. As it stands, it’s hard to tell apart the radical Left and porn culture at large. Both are based on the same rotten lie: women are objects to be publicly used. As it falls, the male-dominated radical Left can be replaced by something new and so desperately needed: a feminist, anti-pornography radical Left. Its goal: not the transgression of basic human rights, but the uncompromising defense of them.
This article appears in the new book, VOICE MALE – The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement (www.robokun.net© 2014, and  in the Fall 2013 issue of Voice Male magazine (www.voicemalemagazine.org).