November 16, 2005

Let's Talk About Sex!

Ah, I got your attention, I see. For the moment, enough about politics, war, death and destruction. Sex will be a welcome and much-needed relief. Besides, two reasons have led me to begin this discussion now. And talking about sex is good, clean, innocent fun! Or is it? Well, let's see what we find.

My first reason arises out of this post from last week [still to be republished], about Senator Brownback's anti-pornography crusade. My major concern in that entry was to rebut two very dangerous assumptions: that sex is inherently "dirty" and "disgusting," for reasons which are never identified; and that government has any business regulating and/or prohibiting the pornography industry. I maintain that it does not, and that it should not. The sexual behavior engaged in by consenting adults is none of the government's business, period. I emphatically include prostitution in that statement. Obviously, I am not referring here to actual criminal behavior, such as rape. But acts of that kind are already punished by the relevant criminal laws, as they should be. Here I am referring only to voluntary adult behavior. In large part, that post was simply a plea for an open, honest, informed discussion about sex, something which we as a culture still seem unable to have. The barriers that prevent that conversation from taking place is one of the areas that interests me so much.

But part of what I said in the earlier post was a badly mistaken oversimplification, and I neglected to take into consideration some complex, underlying issues. This passage is especially problematic:
It is certainly true that some pornography "involves exploitive images of men and women," although certainly not all -- unless sex itself is viewed as "morally repugnant and offensive." But such "exploitation" (which term itself requires careful definition) involves complex issues of gender roles and gender identity, among many other considerations. Government is singularly ill-equipped to address such concerns. More to the point, such "exploitation," if exploitation it be, is none of the government's business at all as long as it involves adults who voluntarily consent to be "exploited" in this way.
The error in my approach came to my attention by way of this entry from Echidne, and more particularly some of the comments. Echidne and I agree about the awful view of marriage offered by a woman who testified at Brownback's hearing, a view which sees marriage as an eternal manipulative battle where sex is a reward for good behavior. It's genuinely sickening. As Echidne observed:
Interesting that Pamela Paul knows so much about the negotiations supposedly ongoing between spouses before sex. Isn't there a single wife out there who tears her husband's clothes off when he gets out of the car after a long day at the office? And if there is, did she watch porn before this heinous act?
So we agree about that. Here are the comments that made me realize my error. Echidne wrote:
Arthur Silber's view is an interesting one, and I agree with quite a few things he says. But even he misses the point of what is deplorabl[e] about pornography: its male-centeredness. The idea in most of the porn I have seen is that women service men and that is it. This view of sex could cause some damage in real-world relationships, both to men and women.
This was followed by Miranda's comment:
I agree with you on this, Echidne. Silber's silence on the basic gendering of porn is a problem; another problem for me is his dedication to laissez-faire and individualism. Silber's a libertarian; while he's a good writer and has good commentary on many issues, the libertarian pov is not for me.
I appreciate the kind words. Because it's not relevant to this discussion, I won't engage the points about libertarianism. I observed recently in another post that what I mean by libertarianism is not what most other libertarians mean today, certainly not most self-identified libertarian bloggers. That is at least triply true with regard to the "libertarian warhawks," with whom I disagree about everything, beginning but hardly ending with every aspect of our foreign policy. But my entire approach differs radically from that of many contemporary libertarians, and our concerns are not at all the same. Furthermore, I think the issues they tend to focus on are the wrong ones in general, and singularly badly timed. I hope to begin a lengthier explanation of all those points soon. [I recently indicated that it might be most accurate to describe me as "leftist-anarchist-libertarian," if we use popular labels. I hope to have time to explain that in more detail soon.]

But about Echidne's statement that I "miss[] the point of what is deplorabl[e] about pornography": she's entirely correct. It was a bad oversight, and I'm very sorry I made that particular mistake. A large part of the explanation for my error is a simple one: I'm gay. I've hardly ever seen heterosexual pornography (leaving aside the very soft porn of Playboy when I was a teenager, but I quickly discovered the joys of Playgirl and never went back [well, almost never]). The pornography I've seen is entirely "male-centered," and I thank God for that fact almost every single day. (And since you ask, and I know you do: yes, indeed, I do watch and enjoy pornography. I even own pornography! Report me to Senator Brownback immediately.)

I don't offer the fact that I'm gay as an excuse. I could and should have known better. It's not as if I don't know a fair amount about non-gay pornography, or about the pornography business in general. Of course I do. We all do (if we're honest about it). My failure made me aware once more of a crucial issue: how important context is, including most especially our specific, personal context. When I first think about pornography, I think primarily about the pornography I've seen, and the function it serves in my life. When I wrote the post about Brownback's hearing, the point that Echidne makes honestly simply never entered my mind. The failure, which is revealed especially in my paragraph quoted above, was forgetting that much more was involved than simply what my own experience in this area has been.

Echidne states that "[t]he idea in most of the porn I have seen is that women service men and that is it." I don't know that from the porn I myself have seen but, as I indicated, I've read and heard enough about pornography in general over the years to easily believe that it's true. In fact, once I began to think about it, I realized that it had to be true. I say that because of the underlying issues that I began to reflect on. I wrote to Echidne briefly about this, and we exchanged a few emails on the subject. As we tossed some observations back and forth, I realized that there was infinitely more involved here than I had first realized -- and that I ended up with more questions than answers. So that's what I want to talk about now. In fact, I want to ask you some questions, and I sincerely hope that more than a few of you will respond, either on your own blogs or via email. I'm not even certain I'm asking the right questions, and I'm certain there are many more that haven't occurred to me yet.

Let me begin with a general observation. I try to avoid specialized terms in my writing as much as possible, so I apologize for employing some highly technical philosophic language here at the beginning. But I don't know any other way to say it. The more I thought about these issues last evening and today, I came to one conclusion above all others: most of what we think about sex in our culture is just nuts. Okay, enough technical lingo. It's not simply that our notions about sex are grounded in unexamined assumptions, although that's certainly true. And it's not only that our sexual views reflect deeply rooted and almost always incorrect views about gender identity and gender roles, although I also think that's true. And it's not only that many of those views are allegedly grounded in biology, even though I think that is demonstrably wrong. It's that virtually everything we think about sex arises from cultural and historic factors that we hardly ever examine. In that sense, but not in the sense that many people use the term, all our views about sex are "constructed." I think that almost none of the commonly held views reflect what is actually true, using "true" to refer to what the facts are out there stripped of the underlying cultural factors that explain them.

(For those who remember that, once upon a time, I thought very highly of certain of Ayn Rand's ideas, let me strongly state that I most definitely include Rand's major views about sex within the "nuts" description. Among other things, Rand believed that the essence of femininity was "hero-worship" and a woman's "surrender" to her particular hero. This led her to the conclusion, among others, that a "rational" woman would never want to be President and that, if she were, it would be a profound personal tragedy for her. Rand's sexual and romantic views are shot through with utterly traditional ideas about feminine submission and masculine dominance, and I think she was completely wrong on every point. I also think that these particular errors were especially dangerous ones, both because of the methodology from which they arose and because of their other implications, especially the psychological ones. I now think that it was that methodology and what it in turn relied upon that constitutes the particular danger of Rand's overall approach. If that were not enough, many of Rand's narrower conclusions are utterly arbitrary and without foundation in my view, a rather biting irony for a woman who championed logic and reason above everything else. But all that requires a much longer explanation, which I will get to in time. With regard to certain of the points that follow, the issues I identify apply to Rand, and in spades.)

After reading Echidne's post and as I thought about all this, I realized that our prevailing cultural views about pornography are only one symptom of the larger problem. Each of the issues listed below could easily be expanded into several lengthy essays, so here I will condense them as much as I can. And then I'll indicate the questions that I need much more information about. Please keep in mind that in what follows, I'm speaking very, very generally. There are obviously many exceptions and qualifications that need to be made about these points. Here, I'm only trying to get the "big picture" in focus, and we can all adjust the many details later -- and alter the big picture itself as necessary.

1. Cultural and Historical Factors

As I thought about the question of "exploitation" and the point Echidne made, I cast my mind back over history and the major cultures of the world. I realized one key fact: with only a handful of exceptions, women have always been in an inferior position in every civilization. This has been true (and is still true in many ways, even in the United States) with regard to every area: sexually, politically, economically, legally, and in every other way I can think of. The legal aspect is particularly revealing, I think, because of what it reveals about the other areas. Even in supposedly "enlightened" Western civilizations, including all the European countries and the United States, women were denied a number of fundamental legal rights until the twentieth century. Men could get a divorce; women couldn't. Men could commit adultery and often did, and were not legally penalized for it; women who committed adultery could be legally punished very severely. Men could own property; women couldn't. Men could vote; women couldn't. And then there were more general elements. Men worked outside the home; women didn't. Men served in government; women didn't. That is very far from an inclusive list.

To state it bluntly, women were chattel -- chattel belonging to men. Last night, I remembered a post I wrote several years ago, long gone now. It concerned the prohibition against incest. I may be misremembering some of the details, but I don't think so. (If you can correct me on any historical or other points, please do so. And if you can add further details, even better.) We tend to think that the incest taboo arose out of a fear of "inbreeding" and the "defective" or deformed children that might result. But historically, that in fact isn't true. In ancient tribes, women were partnered with outsiders to obtain property, to make peace with a former enemy, and for similar reasons. If women entered into alliances within the tribe, all those potential advantages were lost. Hence, the prohibition against women allying themselves with men in their own tribe. The relevant point is obvious: it had nothing to do with sex or inherited defects at all. And of course, that has to be true: until very recently, the very concept of genetics was unknown. A taboo such as the one against incest couldn't have arisen based on biological factors, certainly not in the sense that any such suspected dangers could be proven.

This exploitation of women for economic and social reasons has a long history, and is reflected in celebrated literature. Think about "Romeo and Juliet," or the novels of Jane Austen and many other English authors, as just a few examples. Women had to worry, and worry a lot, about the man they married. And if they never married, that could be a calamity -- not only for them, but for their entire families. Arranged marriages served to procure property or money. Women were part of the "property" used in the exchange. They became wives as part of a financial transaction.

You could multiply these kinds of examples a thousandfold. The point that concerns me is a simple one: in a very significant sense, women were not fully human the way men were. In many respects, they weren't people at all. They were objects, to be bartered and traded like other property.

2. What Those Factors Mean About Sex

The implications are unavoidable: sex was a service provided as part of the property women represented. I use "service" purposely: women were for procreation. Children were critical; a son was indispensable. Henry VIII, anyone? (Or a number of other English Kings, for that matter. The problem was not restricted to royalty: remember that women could not inherit property until very recently in historic terms.) Or as I mentioned earlier, women were needed for money or position. Women very rarely got married for love; that is an entirely modern invention, one which continues to be overridden even now by other considerations (although, one hopes, with somewhat more choice for the woman involved today).

If a man happened to find sexual and romantic satisfaction with his wife, that was a nice bonus. It was hardly ever a primary concern. When a man wanted to have fun sexually or experiment...well, that was what prostitutes were for. Thus, paying and receiving money for sex enters the equation. And note that men paid, and women received. Men chose and directed the transaction; women got what they could, and did the best possible. And the women who became prostitutes usually did so because they had no other choice; in that sense, it wasn't a choice at all.

The critical issue for me is this one: sex as an end in itself, sex engaged in solely because of the pleasure it provides, is fatally undercut on both sides. Sex as part of marriage was a duty, an act that was necessary for children, to ensure that the family name went on and that a son could inherit property. If sex within marriage was pleasurable, that was very nice -- but in the end, it didn't matter. The sex was required for other reasons.

And turning to prostitutes for sexual recreation was tolerated, but hardly approved of. It was viewed as "necessary." Men just have those urges and needs, you know. But it was clearly not "good" or "moral" or "admirable." It was unavoidable; accommodations had to be made. In more modern terms, sex for pleasure alone became "dirty." Besides, money was involved. Sex for fun involved business, too. So sex was a business transaction within the family, and also outside it. It was either a necessary duty, or a permitted dirty secret. (Sex outside of marriage was altered somewhat for the man who had a mistress he genuinely cared about. But even then, it was behavior that was tolerated, but not endorsed. And for the mistress, the arrangement was always extremely precarious and could be ended whenever the man chose. Think of "Camille," or the operatic version of the same story, "La Traviata," or Eugene O'Neill's version of the tale, "Anna Christie." Those stories never had happy endings, not for the woman.)

So we may have a large part of the answer to one of the issues I raised at the beginning. The idea of sex as good, clean, innocent fun barely existed throughout much of history. Even today, the idea is very new to us, and we still haven't gotten used to it or come anywhere near accepting it fully, let alone celebrating it.

3. The Myths Underlying these Views

I wrote the other day about the theme of this new blog : the power of narrative, and the power of myth. In connection with these issues, consider just one myth, one of central importance in Western culture: Adam and Eve. Think of just the central elements in that myth: while Eden remained a Paradise, it appears that Adam and Eve did nothing. They didn't work, they knew nothing about right and wrong, they had no idea what the concept of shame meant, and they never had sex. Who knows what they did. Enjoyed the garden, I guess.

And then the woman ate the forbidden fruit. Then they became aware of their bodies in sexual terms, and they were ashamed. Then they actually had sex, and they were overcome with guilt. Sex was Original Sin. And it was all the woman's fault. (Add to this that woman was created out of Adam's rib, to ensure her submission and obedience to him.) Part of the punishment -- visited with intended vengeance on the woman -- was menstruation. Until very recently, menstruation was very commonly referred to a "the curse." Now there's positive reinforcement for an entire sex's self-image! [I recently mentioned Elaine Pagels' important work on this general subject, and I urge you again to read her enormously enlightening book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.]

A brief autobiographical note: I grew up in a very well-educated, upper middle class family. My parents were both very leftwing in their political beliefs. Politics was very, very important in my parents' lives. They went on peace marches; we all went to the civil rights march in Washington in 1963 (I remember first hearing Martin Luther King's famous speech that day even now); my father had belonged to the Communist Party in the 1930s. They were seriously leftwing. My mother, a very intelligent and often very perceptive woman, casually and commonly referred to "the curse" all the time when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of her similarly intelligent women friends did, too. Many of these women were very accomplished and sometimes even very well-known, as activists or as writers. They all talked about "the curse." These attitudes have barely left us, and in some cases they haven't left us at all. It is still fairly common to hear people refer to someone as being "on the rag" (or the somewhat less crude, "Well, it's her time of the month") -- used to mean someone who's very angry or out of sorts, or who's behaving badly, or who is just generally unpleasant. I think people who still use phrases like those might want to think about their origins, and the kinds of attitudes and judgments they reflect.

There are other versions of the Adam and Eve story, and some of them are more "positive" in tone, both with regard to sex in general and women in particular. But the unfathomably negative one suffuses our culture, even today. It is almost impossible to capture just how negative and damning this myth is with regard to women, especially when you add in all the attitudes that flow out of it And this is just one myth.

4. The Implications for Prostitution and Pornography

So here is where I've temporarily arrived, having thought through some of these issues in a preliminary fashion. There is an enormous problem already built into any consideration of prostitution and pornography. And that is the fact that women enter into these professions from a position which is already one of diminishment, submission, disadvantage, discrimination and even deep condemnation. This is obviously true of women in many other professions, too, but I think it's especially relevant and obvious in the sexual ones. And sex itself has profoundly negative attitudes surrounding it, arising out of the factors mentioned above, and others as well.

For these reasons, I think it has to be true that women are being exploited in pornography, at the very least in general terms: they have been exploited in most cultures throughout history, and they continue to be exploited in many ways in our culture today. To put it another way: in terms of historical and cultural factors, women have almost always been powerless. I think that even today, many if not most men believe that to the extent women acquire power, they are taking it away from men. Most men seem unable to comprehend that there isn't a finite amount of power in the world. Most men compete with other men for power, money, position and prestige all the time. They also compete for women, of course. But the idea that a woman would take away some of the man's power, let alone most or all of it, is anathema to most men. That's certainly been changing, but I'm not at all certain how much it's changed. As just one significant indicator, remember that we still haven't had a woman President.

So this is one of the problems I'm left with in evaluating pornography from the perspective of exploitation: I think it's close to impossible for us to imagine pornography "pure," if you will, shorn of all these cultural and historical factors. What would it be like if women were genuinely, fully equal to men? And leave pornography aside: what would our sexual relations be like if women were fully men's equal? We certainly know anecdotally, hopefully from our own lives and perhaps blissfully including our own relationships. But we definitely don't know what our culture would look like if true and full equality suffused it entirely. Do we? I don't think we have any idea.

Well, shucks. That was a lot longer than I wanted it to be. I tried to condense it, I really did! So what questions do I have? I have questions about all of it. Am I correct, at least in general terms, about the historical and cultural roots of these attitudes about women, and about sex? Are there important differences between cultures of the East and West in these respects? What are they, and how did they arise? Are there counterexamples within the West itself to what I describe? What are they?

And what about myths that relate to these questions? What other myths shed light on these issues? What are positive myths about women, and in what respects are they positive?

And, of course, what do you think about pornography and prostitution? Am I right about the already inferior position that women have been forced into, and how that complicates our evaluation? If not, why not?

And on and on and on...oh, and there are at least five or six separate other issues that I haven't even gotten to yet. A major one is the idea that dominant and submissive roles in sex and with relation to gender identities more generally are rooted in biology. I'll be technical again: that entire notion is a crock in my view. Next time for that one.

So I hope that others will address these questions, ask new ones, and fill in some of the many blanks. I'm thinking through all this myself and, as I said, I'm not even sure I'm asking the right questions in the first place. (Email: arthur4801 at yahoo dot com. I'll be more than happy to post emails about this here, so let me know if that's alright and if you want to be identified or not.)

I look forward to hearing what others think about all this. And everyone loves talking about sex, right? So I hope the conversation goes on for quite a while. Thanks!

[I republished this essay in connection with a more recent one, about icky gay sex -- which, you know, isn't actually icky at all.]