Vol. 15 No.1 (January 2005), pp.58-63
GAY MALE PORNOGRAPHY: AN ISSUE OF SEX DISCRIMINATION, by Christopher N. Kendall. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004. 296pp. Hardcover. $85.00. ISBN: 0-7748-1076-9. Paperback. $29.95. ISBN: 0-7748-1077-7.
Reviewed by Claire Rasmussen, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware. Email: cerasmus@UDel.Edu .
The thesis of Christopher Kendall’s GAY MALE PORNOGRAPHY is as blunt and straightforward as its title. Kendall argues that gay male pornography is a form of sex discrimination and, therefore, its distribution is properly barred by Canada’s anti-pornography laws. He makes a bold argument against the general consensus of the Canadian gay and lesbian community which argued that the application of the sex equality test to gay and lesbian pornography was incorrect. Drawing from the work of anti-pornography feminists, especially Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, he views the representations of power relations in pornographic material as mere repetition and reinforcement of social relations of inequality. Picturing relationships of systemic inequality is also creating them. Underlying Kendall’s claim is clear critique not just of the pornographic material he sees as rightly banned, but also more generally of gay male culture. In making its primary goal liberation rather than equality, he argues, the movement has not only contributed to sex inequality but has also adopted a self-destructive group identity that is harmful to individuals. The argument is bold and bravely goes against the mainstream in gay and lesbian theory and activism. For this reason, this book is valuable as a provocation to think critically about big issues like the relationship between law and identity, and the state and sexuality.
The text provides a clear and useful overview of the two cases in question, the R. v. BUTLER decision of 1992 that first established the sex equality interest in the prohibition of pornography, and the LITTLE SISTERS BOOK AND ART EMPORIUM decision in 2000 that extended the interest to include gay and lesbian pornography. The legal history is fascinating, especially for Americans, plagued with a discussion of pornography that veers between the two extremes of the free speech absolutism in which (almost) any fantasy is merely a click away on the Internet and the values laden morality of post-Janet Jackson Puritanism. The Canadian courts eschew the moral debates about sexuality in favor of the equal rights, anti-sex discrimination argument that professes to tiptoe around personal sexual predilection while protecting the vulnerable. Kendall adds to this, drawing on feminist arguments about how and why pornography perpetuates sex inequality. Kendall argues that gay male pornography mimics the very inequalities it claims to overcome by presenting masculinized men in dominant positions and feminized (and often racialized) men in submissive positions. In doing so, he argues, gay male pornography does not celebrate, educate, or liberate. [*59]
Kendall’s argument is theoretically important, noting that gay men and feminists have much more in common than they often acknowledge. He makes the important linkage between the oppression of women and gay men in patriarchal (and heteronormative) society in which a dominant version of masculinity is privileged. In addition, he gives significant attention to racialized images in pornography, notably the frequent feminization and humiliation of Asian men. He sees these issues linked through, as the anti-pornography feminists have argued, the sexualization of power relationships in which sexual pleasure is linked with domination, usually of a feminized individual. Oppressive sex roles are repeated throughout pornographic imagery, regardless of the sex of those involved, in which masculine aggression is paired with feminine passivity. The lesson of gay male pornography is not one that challenges traditional gender hierarchies but one that enforces them by demonstrating that gay men can be “real men” too and retain their gender privilege through hypermasculinity, aggression, and domination. In doing so, he notes, they ironically reinforce the very gender binary that makes homosexuality a social taboo and requires subjects to be either male or female, and to behave appropriately. This leads him to the rather stark conclusion that “At its core, gay male pornography is quite simply, homophobic” (p.129). In other words, in repeating the power-laden dynamics of heterosexist society, gay male pornography reproduces the unequal gender relationships that make the gay male a pariah.
The linkage of feminist and gay/lesbian concerns is an especially important political and theoretical point, especially in a political atmosphere where gay marriage and abortion are considered a rallying point for conservatives under the banner of “moral values.” And Kendall is not as unreflectively dismissive of the state as a locus of social change as some gay and lesbian scholars have tended to be (see Brown 1997). However, Kendall makes surprisingly little reference to the vast literature, especially in queer theory, that has explicated the link between patriarchy and heteronormativity. Judith Butler’s GENDER TROUBLE gets a brief mention, but Kendall does not remark on Butler’s 1996 article directly addressing MacKinnon’s claims. Nor does he address the work of Gayle Rubin who, identifying herself as a sex positive feminist in opposition to Dworkin and others, has also written extensively on sex trafficking and exploitation as well as in support of socially shunned sexual practices, including pornography. And, given his attention to BDSM as representative of harmful literature, he does not explore any of the literature on the history of sexuality
Also glossed over is the work that considers the relationship between representation, interpretation, and material reality. As Butler has noted of MacKinnon’s analysis, the anti-pornography argument often depicts pornography as having causal power, as acting not merely as a reflection of sexism in society, but actually having the power to produce it. Conversely, the implication is that the absence of pornography would dismantle gendered hierarchies. While Kendall does not explicitly make this claim, he does [*60] attribute pornography with causal power: “‘Sexual imagery’ does not cause harm and inequality. Pornography does” (p.14).
Ironically, given his concern with sexism, women are notably absent from the text as well. He gives only brief mention to the lesbian pornography seized in LITTLE SISTERS and little to no notice to women as potential consumers of pornography, peculiar since women may now account for almost half of the consuming population (women are also consumers of gay porn). While Kendall is clearly centrally concerned with gay men as consumers of pornography, a removal of pornographic literature from its context and audience can often lead to a misreading of its consequences. In Kendall’s account, pornography has only one potential reading—sexual pleasure derived from subordinating others. Carl Stychin makes a similar point about the importance of context in reading and evaluating pornography that is summarily rejected by Kendall, who argues that Stychin is merely in favor of “mimicry,” or copying straight male domination to make up for their own sense of inadequate masculinity. I think this is a rather unsympathetic reading of Stychin who, as I understand him, makes a more sophisticated argument about the position from which the viewer interprets the image. While Kendall insists that pornography “tells the gay male” a singular message, Stychin seems to imply that gay men, like all consumers, are active in interpreting images.
Can we, for instance, distinguish between lesbian pornography as a genre and the ever popular girl-on-girl pornography produced mostly by and for straight men? How would Kendall interpret the (quite frequent) images of female domination (of men and women) in pornography? The reception of cultural images is certainly more complex than Kendall acknowledges; images rarely clearly command a single message, identity, or meaning. For instance, when I have my students view images of pornography in courses in order to analyze MacKinnon’s claims, their responses are varied and they are savvy consumers, often laughing at the absurdity of many of the images, expressing outrage at others, and usually offering a varied and complex view of the messages sent and received. The failure to theorize the relationship between images and reality more complexly is perhaps most evident in the passages on BDSM, or sadomasochistic images in gay male pornography. Kendall spends a great deal of time focusing on scenes of bondage and domination and rape fantasies and seems to take the images at face value as representations of violence and domination rather than complex performances of role-playing, negotiation, and play that are subject to interpretation. In establishing a direct causal chain between an image and its literal reproduction in society, the more complex relationships between desire, prohibition, and power are obfuscated (e.g. Noyes 1998).
Kendall’s literal reading of banned images seems to be not merely a reflection of his perception of the relationship between fantasy or image and the real but also of his own conception of a healthier gay male identity. Eschewing claims that gay male pornography represents sexual [*61] liberation and that liberation ought to be heralded by the gay movement, Kendall proposes an alternative: “What I long for is a gay male sexuality that includes and is compassion, sensuality, tenderness, intimacy, inclusive love-making, and the equality found only in a life-affirming reciprocity that does not depend on reciprocal harm” (p.xix). This kinder, gentler gay male identity in which sex is transformed into “love-making” may strike some gay activists as dangerously close to what some call Will and Grace assimilationism, a non-threatening homosexuality that is about compassion but not passion, or politics. While Kendall believes that the very existence of egalitarian relationships is what is most threatening to patriarchy, he is thin on the details of how. The almost singular focus on banning the offensive material, rather than considering strategies for cultivating different and perhaps better forms of sexual expression, leaves the (probably mistaken) impression that this healthier sexuality is about saying no to sex.
Finally, while devoting a chapter to the homophobic enforcement of the ban on pornographic material, Kendall does not adequately address the underlying reasons for the tendency of the law, even one written with progressive goals, to reflect societal homophobia. Consequently, he can acknowledge but not rectify the problem that the progressive intent of Canadian obscenity law is often lost in its application. He notes that in practice traditional, heterosexual pornography has been largely unaffected, depictions of queer sexuality (gay, lesbian, and other forms of sexuality considered abnormal or deviant) have clearly been disproportionately targeted. Indeed, the enforcement of obscenity laws in both Canada and the United States has often meant a suppression of sexuality that the majority considers, for lack of a better term, “icky.” The interpretation of certain images as normal, healthy sexuality, and others as deviant, strange, and dangerous generally reflects pre-existing bias toward heteronormative sexuality. Indeed, Kendall himself often falls into the ugly trap of demonizing the very gay culture he seeks to save, focusing on supposed trends in “barebacking,” and even coming close to endorsing David Chambers’ claim that gay men should give up anal sex (pp.144-5). At times he even falls into the rather dangerous practice of presenting a slippery slope from more unusual but consensual sexual practices to illegal and nonconsensual acts, as if kinkiness inevitably leads to rape and child abuse. Consider the following chain of actions, presented in a list as if they were related: “Sadism, bondage, water sports, fisting, bootlicking, piercing, bestiality, slapping, whipping, incest, branding, burning with cigarettes, torture (of the genitals and nipples, with hot wax, clamps, and the like), child sexual abuse, rape, and prison rape are presented as erotic, stimulating and pleasurable” (p.63).
The apparent equivalence between water sports and child sexual abuse seems uncomfortably close to the absurd slippery slope arguments that gay marriage inevitably leads to bestiality, incest and marrying inanimate objects (see Scalia’s dissent in LAWRENCE v. TEXAS where he makes a similar comparison). While I seriously doubt Kendall intends to imply that nipple clamps are related to child abuse, lumping together “weird” practices [*62] indicates the danger in normalizing sexuality. Distinguishing between genuinely harmful practices and socially constructed taboos is not easy, and inviting state action in the sex and fantasy lives of gay men should be seen as flirting with disaster.
Kendall’s ultimate goals—forging greater relationships between feminists and gay men, providing alternative and potentially empowering models of gay life, and undermining sexism and homophobia—are both admirable and worthy of further consideration. However, they seem somewhat ambitious given the presumed engine of change, a legal prohibition on pornography. This raises important questions not only for scholars of the law, social movements, and gay activists alike. The first is the ever-present debate over the relationship between law and social change, particularly for marginalized groups. As I read this book it was impossible not to reflect on the gay marriage firestorm and the debate among queer theorists about the wisdom of placing marriage at the center of the gay rights agenda. Inviting the state to recognize and potentially regulate sexual relationships is always a delicate and complex matter. GAY MALE PORNOGRAPHY is as provocative as its title suggests and, if not entirely convincing, is nonetheless a valuable read for scholars interested in probing this ever-contentious relationship between sexuality and the law.
Brown, Michael. 1997. REPLACING CITIZENSHIP: AIDS ACTIVISM AND RADICAL DEMOCRACY. New York: Guilford Press.
Butler, Judith. 1990. GENDER TROUBLE: FEMINISM AND THE SUBVERSION OF IDENTITY. New York: Routledge.
Butler, Judith. 1996. “Burning Acts: Injurious Speech.” 3 UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO LAW SCHOOL ROUNDTABLE. 199-221.
Halperin, David. 1997. SAINT FOUCAULT: TOWARD A GAY HAGIOGRAPHY. Oxford University Press.
Larmour, David H.J., Paul Allen Miller and Charles Platter (eds). 1997. RETHINKING SEXUALITY: FOUCAULT AND CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. 1996. ONLY WORDS. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. and Andrea Dworkin (eds). 1997. IN HARM’S WAY: THE PORNOGRAPHY CIVIL RIGHTS HEARINGS. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Noyes, John K. 1998. “S/M in SA: Sexual Violence, Simulated Sex and Psychoanalytic Theory.” 55 AMERICAN IMAGO 135-53.
Rubin, Gayle. 1984. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of Sexuality.” In PLEASURE AND DANGER: EXPLORING FEMALE SEXUALITY. Carole S. Vance (ed). New York: HarperCollins. [*63]
LAWRENCE v. TEXAS, 539 US 558 (2003).
LITTLE SISTERS BOOK AND ART EMPORIUM v. CANADA,  2 SCR 1120.
R. v. BUTLER,  1 SCR 452.
© Copyright 2005 by the author, Claire Rasmussen.
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