Thursday, May 1, 2008

Lynn Jamieson's "Intimacy, Negotiated Nonmonogomy, and the Limits of the Couple

Lynn Jamieson’s article “Intimacy, Negotiated Nonmonogamy, and the limits of the Couple” (oh look at that—nonmonogamy isn’t a word according to Microsoft Word; neither is classism, by the way) explores case studies of non-secret non-monogamy. Jamieson draws on existing literature and her pilot interviews with four couples—two heterosexual and two homosexual.

In order to place her studies within a historical context, Jamieson offers a brief history of “the couple” from the 1950s to the 1990s. Although the norm of “the married domestic couple who were also the loving sexually monogamous couple” (39) dominated in the 1950s, relationships between two equal adults have taken a variety of forms since then. She introduces the theories of Giddens, and renames Giddens’ concept of “confluent love,” calling it “disclosing intimacy” (40). According to Jamieson, Giddens’ view of intimacy focuses on privilege and exclusion; although Giddens’ theories may leave room for nonmanogamy, they suggest “certain limits to the nonexclusionary possibilities of couple arrangements” (41).

Jamieson discusses challenges and opportunities present in non-monogamy, focusing on the tension between the needs of the couple and the needs of the individual, a tension that Askham identified in the 1980s. According to Askham, exclusivity is a possible point for this tension to emerge; withdrawal and privacy are necessary to retain autonomy, but can be “threatening to the stability of the couple relationship” (41). As she explored case studies of nonmonogamous relationships, Jamieson found that couples emphasized communication about rules, specifically about disclosure and silence. Jamieson also noted the tendency of nonmonogamous couples to label one relationship the most “special,” even when special may refer to emotional rather than sexual intimacy.

The interviewees also discussed nonmonogamy in context of their social worlds and peers. In two of the case studies, close friends of a nonmonogamous couple would become lovers, which had the possibility of “simultaneously generating a sense of open extended family and guarding the primacy of their own relationship” (48). In terms of social support, one couple (Shona and David) said that her friends did not support their decision as much as they could have; it seems that social stigma about nonmonogamous relationships can contribute to their downfall.

I’m particularly intrigued by Jamieson’s view that autonomy is the impetus for nonmonogamous relationships. As she discussed the tension between disclosure and silence in order to keep all partners’ feelings protected, I couldn’t help but think what a strain that would be on an individual, and that the nonmonogamous individual could potentially give up more autonomy that s/he would have in a monogamous relationship. While I think deconstructing the social norm of monogamy is important, I’m interested in these polyamorous relationships’ effects on autonomy and one’s relationship to community, etc.

I’m also curious about how we see these ideas at play in our own immediate social context at St. Olaf. As we discussed with Bauman and Giddens, our campus is probably more on the conservative side in terms of relationship norms. I know of a few couples who negotiate nonmonogamy, but they are definitely outside the prescribed norm for St. Olaf couples (I’m judging this by the incredulity with which most people talk about them). In most relationships that I’ve observed, communication is much more difficult to foster than it seemed to be for the cases in Jamieson’s article. Most couples I know aren’t even comfortable talking about their own sex life, let alone the introduction of new systems and patterns. Do others have similar experiences?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Anthony Giddens: Chapters 8-10

Gidden's last three chapters each offer a different perspective on the transformation of intimacy. Chapter 8, "Contradictions of the Pure Relationship," examines the concept of the pure relationship that he defined earlier in the book as "a situation where a social relation is entered into for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association with another; and which is continued only in so far as it is thought by both parties to deliver enough satisfactions for each individual to stay within it" (58). In this chapter, he almost goes so far as to use the lesbian relationship (as evaluated by responses from the Hite study in the 1970s) as the ideal, because, as Giddens says, these women’s sexuality “no longer contains the detritus of external compulsions, but instead takes its place as one among other forms of self-exploration and moral construction” (144). Although Giddens’ generalization of lesbian relationships (and his assumption that no “heterosexual element” [34]—which he does not define, but what I presume to be social pressures?—is present) is problematic, his advocacy for a relationship motivated by self-reflexivity, self-exploration, and moral construction is an intriguing addition to the third wave discourses that we have been studying. He justifies this relationship model with both social and psychological research, acknowledging both the historical construction and the personal/interpersonal dynamic of intimacy.

Chapter 9, “Sexuality, Repression, Civilisation,” outlines the theories of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. Both Reich and Marcuse suggest that society is full of problematic repressions, and that we must move backward in to a non-repressive state in order to move forward. Conversely, Foucault argues that society is obsessed with sex. After examining both viewpoints, Giddens calls for something in between. He asserts that sexual repression is present in our society, and that it stems from the social sequestration of sexuality and unequal gender power. In order to have a psychic and social change occur on these levels, social sequestration would need to be replaced with plurality and gender power with equality. In such a transformation, plastic sexuality does not imply a moral-less permissiveness, but rather a pluralism with an ongoing conversation about sexual ethics. Giddens argues for this approach because he sees it as feasible, as something that would work from the ground up.

Chapter 10, “Intimacy as Democracy,” re-enters the personal and demands that it hold the principles of democracy. He outlines David Held’s four requirements for political democracy—the creation of circumstances in which people can develop and express diverse qualities, protection from coercive power, involvement of individuals in deciding the conditions of their association, and expansion of economic opportunity to develop available resources—and applies them to intimate relationships. Although he uses the heterosexual couple as an example, Giddens argues that these principles can be applied to all relationships: “The democratization of personal life, as a potential, extends in a fundamental way to friendship relations and, crucially, to the relations of parents, children and other kin” (182). There are specific conditions that apply to intimate democracy just as they apply to public sphere democracy—discussion/negotiation/mediation must be ongoing, public accountability must be present, rights come with obligations. In describing these conditions, Giddens offers concrete actions, or “mechanisms,” as he calls them. He demands self-reflexivity for individuals to examine their own conduct and its implicit justifications (193), and even talks about the possibilities of democracy in the sex act. He says that “difference can become a means of communication” (196), and that beginning with equality and democracy on an intimate level may promote these ideas on a global level.

Giddens’ argument comes full circle in his last paragraph. He explains that our sexually addicted society is one where “death has become stripped of meaning” (203) through various social occurrences in the last few centuries, and that a solution to this societal problem is a “life politics” which “implies a renewal of spirituality” (203). I think this puts our discussion about sexual addictions in an interesting light—after his expansion on democratic intimacy in chapter 10, we can see it as a larger part of his argument about democratization.

Some questions…How feasible are Giddens’ proposals for democratic intimacy? Do you agree/disagree with his concrete proposals (see pages 192-193)? Would they work in your intimate relationships, sexual and non-sexual? How do you think Giddens’ concrete proposals would apply for people who are not consumers of a therapy/self-help culture, i.e. people who were less open to these ideas in the first place? Are there some race/class/social location assumptions inherent in Giddens’ arguments that might not make his model of intimacy applicable to a global society (195)?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Kipnis' Polemic Against Love

Laura Kipnis’ Against Love: A Polemic is indeed, as the Boston Globe review says, “smart, witty and withering.” Kipnis begins her polemic with a necessary reader advisory, something I kept referring back to when I began the book so I wouldn’t become to emotionally attached to her ideas. In this advisory, she asks whether our “uniformity of opinion” about love—the way in which we idealize it without questioning it as a social institution—is “a bit worrisome” (3), and thus justifies the need for a polemic against it. The purpose of a polemic such as this one, she says, is to “poke holes in cultural pieties and turn received wisdom on its head” (4). She calls the reader to proceed with her book in a “conflicted and contradictory spirit” (4). And so I did.

In her prologue, Kipnis puts the reader in what is presumably her position—wanting more than what has become the banal and mundane in a marriage, straying toward adultery. This second-person, fairly sarcastic narrative did allow me to read in a “conflicted and contradictory spirit,” and I found myself taking her seriously and reacting in protest at first. But reading in such an emotionally attached way didn’t really allow me to get a full grasp on how Kipnis’ voice fits into a larger third wave consciousness, so I soon abandoned my ferocious margin-scribbling and allowed myself to be a little more detached so as to grasp Kipnis’ frame of mind. After all, she did warn us not to take her too seriously and to recognize the purpose of a polemic. So I read on.

In chapter one, “Love’s Labors,” Kipnis discusses the “contradictions, large festering contradictions at the epicenter of love in our time” (13). She uses infidelity as the entry point to these contradictions, arguing that the divorce rate (among other things) in our country may be saying something about this universal, idealized concept that we have about love. She claims we have set standards for love, and that we have incorporated the Puritan work ethic into our relationships with the mantra “good marriages take work.” She goes so far as to say that wives, husbands and domestic partners are “choke-chained to the status-quo machinery” (19).

In this chapter, Kipnis takes a decidedly constructivist viewpoint, saying we’re “social creatures to a fault” (24), and argues that love is a social construction that promotes “cultural uniformity” (25). Her only solution thus far in the reading, however, seems to be adultery—she calls adultery “the nearest thing to a popular uprising against the regimes of contemporary coupledom” (28). She says that therapy/counseling and the mass media are perpetrators of this regime, socializing us all into functioning within the social structures that already exist instead of questioning the social structures themselves. Additionally, this regime is highly regulated and upheld at any cost.

At the end of the chapter, Kipnis mentions the physiological affects of “unplanned exposures” such as adultery—if I’m getting this right, I think she argues that when one’s socialized ideal of love (with a monogamous partner) and his/her practiced ideal of love (with someone other than the partner) don’t line up, ailments such as “insomnia, migraines, cold sore, digestive ailments, heart palpitations, and sexual difficulty” will arise (48). I found this particularly interesting in light of our discussion of pushing a body to its limits and body-reflexive practices. In this case, how much is the body responding to social expectations of it, and how much is the body’s own intrinsic limits?

In her second chapter, “Domestic Gulags,” Kipnis gives us more of the same, criticizing the way in which our society upholds the traditional love story. She disagrees with the way in which we uphold “mature relationships,” mature translated by her as “a depressing badge of early senescence and impending decreptitude” (58). She launches into a discussion of “couple linguistics 101,” quoting people on their answers to the question “What can’t you do because you’re in a couple?” What follows is 9 pages of answers, most of which I didn’t relate to. But perhaps that’s because of my age, and Kipnis says that the content doesn’t really matter. It’s the fact that the “operative word is can’t,” she says, and that marriage imposes this list of interdictions on the individual that matters. That, says Kipnis, is what makes marriage a “domestic gulag.” Our traditional love story emphasizes the process of falling in love and ends with marriage, she says, but doesn’t address what Kipnis sees as the more realistic question: “What the hell now?” (100).

I think Kipnis makes some relevant points, especially in debunking something that we see as universally good. However, I’m interested in coming to a more practical and balanced discussion in class as a result of our reading. I’m also curious about how Kipnis’ view reflects her social location—not in an attempt to be politically correct, but because race and class are essential parts of third wave discourse to me. bell hooks’ book All About Love poses another view of love, one where love can be transformed into justice and seen from many perspectives. How might these two opposing viewpoints reflect the individual experiences of their authors?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Masculinities: Intro, Men's Bodies, The Social Organization of Masculinity


R.W. Connell’s introduction to his (side note about the pronouns: according to wikipedia, R. W. was formerly Robert William and has had a sex change and is now Raewyn. I haven’t found other sources to support this, and while pronouns shouldn’t be as binary as they are, I’m just going to use “he” because it fits into the hegemonic linguistic pronoun use that I use in papers…) book Masculinities sets the book in context of current issues that interact with the text—namely masculinities as a field of study, debates and difficulties, and globalization. Connell summarizes the international study of masculinity; applied research of masculinity in education, health, and issues of violence, fathering and counseling; and intellectual applications. He outlines the debates and difficulties that the subject has encounters in the recent past (about the last 20 years) and the directions in which the field of study might go. He also notes that we must “shift our focus from individual-level gender differences to ‘the patterns of socially constructed gender relations’” (quoting Smith, xxi) in response to an increasingly globalized society.

His goal with Masculinities is, as he puts it, “to show that studies of masculinities and men’s gender practices formed a comprehensible field of knowledge” (xiii), and he the field he explores in this text is inextricably linked to other fields of knowledge.

Chapter 2: Men’s Bodies

In this chapter, Connell argues that experiences of gender are inherently “embodied” and that bodies interact with social practice by being both objects and agents of it. Under the subheading True Masculinity, Connell refutes three common views of bodies and gender—biological determinism, social symbolism (semiotics), and a combination thereof—saying that “we can arrive at a better understanding of the relations between men’s bodies and masculinity” (46). In the section Machine, Landscape and Compromise, Connell explores sociobiology and social constructivism, highlighting the limits of each approach. Although his bias is against sociobiology (he argues that it is deterministic and far too influenced by prior social discourses to be legitimate), he also finds limits to a pure social constructivist view, namely that “the signified tends to vanish” (50). This approach reminded me of some of our conversations about Butler’s social constructivism, and I was happy when Connell further explored this point in chapter 3. Connell claims that a compromise between sociobiology and social constructivism “will not do as the basis for an account of gender,” but also acknowledges that “we cannot ignore either the radically cultural character of gender or the bodily presence” (52). He proposes an approach that sees the body as an entity actively engaged with society—the body and society have a dynamic, constantly changing relationship.

In the last four sections of this chapter, Connell explores this relationship through what he calls “life-history study.” Personal accounts are given and analyzed, and Connell elaborates on the ways in which men express different aspects of cultural scripts interacting with their bodies. He seems very interested in the interplay of many complex factors: “the performance is symbolic and kinetic, social and bodily, at one and the same time, and these aspects depend on each other” (54). He does not deny the presence of constructed masculinities—indeed, he emphasizes the importance of physical expectations (i.e. in sports, or in general ability, p. 54-55) in gender construction. But unlike Butler, he does not see these bodies as a canvas upon which social scripts are painted. Rather, he states: “The bodily process, entering into the social process becomes part of history (both personal and collective) and a possible object of politics. […] [Bodies] have various forms of recalcitrance to social symbolism and control” (56).

Connell uses the rest of the chapter to explore these various forms of recalcitrance, emphasizing bodies that have not conformed to social expectations (i.e. men who have tried to fit into a binge-lifestyle to adhere to a somewhat hegemonic form of masculinity). He coins the term “body-reflexive practice,” referring to the process of “practice itself forming the structures within which bodies are appropriated and defined” (61). According to Connell, bodies are both objects and agents of practice, and this “embodied-social” realm has political implications.

Chapter 3: The Social Organization of Masculinity

This chapter builds on many of the concepts outlined in chapter 2, further defining theories and relationships between several discourses in gender studies.

Connell begins this chapter by defining the term “masculinity.” He breaks down some of the presuppositions that inform the term, such as assuming “that one’s behavior results from the type of person one is” and presupposing “a belief in individual difference and personal agency” (67, 68). He outlines four main strategies that have been used to “characterize the type of person who is masculine” (68):
1) Essentialist definitions usually rely on a feature to define what is at the core of masculinity. The obvious problem here is that what forms the “essence” of masculinity is arbitrary and varies from scholar to scholar.
2) Positivist approaches try to get to a fact-based definition of what men actually are. Connell notes that this theory is fraught with presuppositions, requires the presence of binary sex, and eschews the view that women can be masculine and men can be feminine. 3) Normative approaches set a masculinity standard for what men “ought to be,” and say that men can live up to this standard to varying degrees. Connell notes the “unwarranted assumption that role and identity correspond” that is rampant in this theory.
4) Semiotic approaches have already been examined in chapter 2, but here Connell defines these approaches as focusing on “symbolic difference in which masculine and feminine places are contrasted” (70). He notes that it can be limited in scope because it does not talk about “relationships of other kinds too: about gendered places in production and consumption, places in institution and in natural environments, places in social and military struggles” (71).

Under the subheading Gender as a Structure of Social Practice, Connell states that “gender is a way in which social practice is ordered” (71) and calls for “at least a three-fold model” of the way gender is structured (73). This approach, he argues, should distinguish relations of power (dismantling patriarchy), production (gender divisions of labor), and cathexis (emotional connection). He emphasizes the importance of going beyond gender to explore connections with race and class (among other things).

Connell then explores four relations among masculinities: hegemony, subordination, complicity, and marginalization. As this blog post is getting quite lengthy, I’ll tell you the most important part of this whole analysis: hegemony, subordination and complicity comprise one overarching type of relationship, and marginalization/authorization comprise another. These two types of relationship provide a framework for analyzing specific masculinities, and allow masculinities to enter fluid, relational domains instead of being static boxes. Connell ends the chapter by talking about Historical Dynamics, Violence and Crisis Tendencies, revisiting his tri-fold approach to gender relations.

As I read Connell, similarities and differences between this work and Butler’s struck me. What is each scholar’s place in the essentialist/constructivist debate? How does each scholar occupy space outside of this binary discourse, and what are the ways in which each scholar buys into them?

I’m also very interested in Connell’s concept of “embodiment” as it interacts with the social realm. How can we determine how active our bodies are in this script, and how much agency they really have? I'm interested to discuss this text and how others reacted in class tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Troubling Gender: linguistic and bodily solutions at the end of an epic narrative

Section 3, chapter iii: Monique Wittig: Bodily Disintegration and Fictive Sex

Butler begins the second half of her “Subversive Bodily Acts” section with a discussion of Monique Wittig’s “bodily disintegration and fictive sex” (151). She compares Wittig’s claims with those of Simone de Beauvoir: according to Butler, Wittig’s claim that “the category of sex is neither invariant nor natural, but is a specifically political use of the category of nature that serves the purpose of reproductive sexuality” (153) is congruent with Beauvoir’s insistence that women are made, not born. However, Wittig’s claim that “woman […] only exists as a term that stabilizes and consolidates a binary and oppositional relation [later defined as heterosexuality] to a man” (153) opposes (or perhaps takes further) Beauvoir’s claims about the existence of sex as a category. According to Wittig’s second claim, a lesbian would not be defined as a woman, because she exists not in oppositional relation to a man, but in, as Butler says, “a category that radically problematizes both sex and gender as stable political categories of description” (153). To Wittig, the category of sex is “discursively produced” (154) and relies heavily on language. She claims that the language of sex (the category) “forms perception by forcibly shaping the interrelationships through which physical bodies are perceived” (155). Even in naming parts of the body, says Wittig, we restrict them; we are reducing our bodies to fragmented sexual parts instead of a whole.

Butler continues to discuss Wittig’s views on language and compulsory heterosexuality. According to Wittig, there are two levels of reality, the “discursively constituted reality” and a “pre-social ontology.” Although Wittig doesn’t adhere to the concept of ontology in the traditional structuralist sense (i.e. that something original existed and we just put our cultural scripts onto it—at least that’s how I’m understanding it), she does acknowledge a pre-social ontology in order to emphasize how strong a force this discursively constituted reality actually is. In fact, she goes so far as to say that this force—specifically through the linguistic act of “naming” sex—is “an act of domination and compulsion, an institutionalized performative that both creates and legislates social reality” (157). Additionally, the “straight mind” (compulsory heterosexuality) oppresses lesbians, women and gay men by assuming that heterosexuality=subjectivity in discourse (in other words, if you are straight, you are a person, recognized as legitimate and able to have subjectivity in language—just because of the linguistic constructions that exist). Wittig also proposes the idea that there may be not two but many sexes, an idea that Butler expands in her next section on bodily inscriptions and performative subversions. According to Wittig, a “reverse discourse of equal reach and power” (163) is necessary—instead of letting linguistic realities be imposed on us (especially as women, lesbians and gay men, who do not benefit from the heterosexual imperative of subjectivity in language), we can impose our realities on language.

Butler takes some issue with Wittig’s exploration of lesbianism, or at least with her binarism between gay and straight. She says this kind of separation “replicates the kind of disjunctive binarism that [Wittig] herself characterizes as the divisive philosophical gesture of the straight mind” (165), and maintains that homosexual relations do not exist in a vacuum—they are “embedded in the larger structures of heterosexuality” (165). Butler does not want to transcend heterosexuality, but rather advocates for the “subversive and parodic redeployment of power” (169) that she discusses in the last chapter of this section. Additionally, she says that even lesbianism as a refusal to adhere to compulsory heterosexuality still maintains “a radical dependence on the very terms that lesbianism purports to transcend” (169). Lesbian sex is still constructed, Butler says, and ends her chapter by saying:

What a tragic mistake, then, to construct a gay/lesbian identity through the same exclusionary means, as if the excluded were not, precisely through its exclusion, always presupposed and, indeed, required for the construction of that identity.

As usual, Butler refuses to accept a new rigid system of categories as a solution to dismantling the gender binary. But what does she advocate? She actually gives some insight into this in the next chapter and more extensively in her conclusion.

Section 3, chapter iv: Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions

This (much shorter) chapter introduces the concept that Butler is famous for: performative gender. Butler puts many of her philosophical ideas to practice by applying them to the concept of “the body.” Just as gender is created, sex is too—whereas we see the hegemonic concept of the body as completely normal, Butler once again questions the genealogy of such an idea: “How are the contours of the body clearly marked as the taken-for-granted ground or surface upon which gender significations are inscribed, a mere facticity devoid of value, prior to significance?” (176). She draws on Foucault’s idea of “expos[ing] a body totally imprinted by history” (qtd. in Butler 176), but dismantles this concept of an imprinted body even further. She states that we have created boundaries and norms even within the way we see our bodies: “If the body is synecdochal for the social system per se or a site in which open systems converge, then any kind of unregulated permeability [i.e. oral and anal sex, as she says later] constitutes a site of pollution and endangerment” (180). I found this statement particularly interesting in light of what we had “gut reactions” to when reading CAKE. How socially informed were these so-called “intrinsic” reactions?

Butler explores gender performativity in light of drag—especially emphasizing the concept of fabrication. She states that drag “implicity reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well its contingency” (187) and says that gender is not a stable construction. Rather, she describes it as “instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts” (191). I got particularly excited when she talked about this repetition as forming gender—I’m really interested in the cognitive patterns that form our everyday lives, especially those that we see as inherent or natural but that are really just there because we have repeated them time after time. I’m also curious about what acts we can dismantle and repattern, and where our impetus would be for doing so would be rooted.

Conclusion: From Parody to Politics

In her conclusion, Butler restates many of the points she made in Gender Trouble and, surprisingly, brings them to a level of practical application. Her goal is to open up and destabilize categories and identities that we have always taken for granted as stable, and she starts (just as she began the book) with the feminist “we.” She counters the traditional identity politics of feminism by saying that “there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but rather that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed” (195). This theory maintains that these deeds are “discursively variable construction” (165) and in changing, they create new and constantly changing identities. The process of becoming a subject (especially in language) works the same way—she uses the example of our usual and “exasperated” lists of predicates—“color, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and able-bodiedness [that] invariably close with an embarrassed ‘etc.’ at the end of the list”—to indicate the potential for an “illimitable process of signification itself” (198).

She closes with the idea that I got so excited about—“repetitive signifying.” After having stated that no “original” concept of gender or identity ever existed and that we constantly reconstruct our gender through changing discourse, she states the same for patterning actions: “there is only a taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very ‘taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there” (199). She talks about practices of parody and light-heartedness as a way to dismantle hegemonic oppressive systems, saying that inhabiting “ontological locales that are fundamentally uninhabitable” has potential for “depriving the naturalizing narratives of compulsory heterosexuality of their central protagonists: ‘man’ and ‘woman’” (200). Ontology is always normative, she says, based on constantly-changing discourses. In order to “redescribe those possibilities that already exist, but which still exist within cultural domains designated as culturally unintelligible and impossible,” (203), Butler says we must inhabit those spaces. In doing so, we can dismantle our assumptions and sufficiently trouble gender.

I’m curious about what inhabiting these extra-discursive (to apply Hollway’s term here) spaces actually looks like, especially in terms of behavior patterning. Can you identify situations in your life or others’ lives where this happens? What are the cultural implications involved, especially on a local (social) level?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Making "the fair deal" fair

Braun, Gavey and McPhillips’ article offers a complex and nuanced view of reciprocity, specifically sexual reciprocity, in heterosexual relations. They focus on the orgasm as a “measure” of reciprocity, though they do acknowledge in their article and notes that orgasm is by no means the only measure of pleasure or reciprocity in relationships.

Braun et al. begin this article by placing their study in context of other discourses of reciprocity, asserting that “we can see heterosex practices, and accounts of these, as being produced and taking place within a social context shaped by competing discourses of heterosexuality” (238). They then acknowledge the influence of Wendy Hollway’s three overarching heterosexual discourses: 1) male sexual drive (the “men need to come” mentality), 2) the have/hold theory (traditional romantic ideal: especially applies to women—getting more out of a relationship than just sex), and 3) the permissive discourse (anything goes as long as no one gets hurt). This acknowledgement allows Braun et al. to use Hollway’s terms in analyzing their study, and it also places their article in a certain strain of poststructuralist feminist discourse.

Braun et al. then introduce the concept of reciprocity, noting its presence in popular and academic discourse, particularly in radical feminist critiques of heterosex. To Braun, Gavey and McPhillips, a study by Gilfoyle, Wilson and Brown produced the most “pertinent examination of reciprocity in heterosex:” the “pseudo-reciprocal gift discourse” (240). In such a discourse, women “give” themselves (their bodies, their vaginas) to men to help them achieve orgasm; in return, men must “give” women orgasms. Braun, et al. note the complex definitions of giving and receiving in this discourse, as well as its gendered nature. This idea, they say, is problematic for women despite the promise of an orgasm: “Men are positioned as active, as agents, giving and taking pleasure. Part of the problem, therefore, is what is seen to be a lack of ‘real’ reciprocity” (240). Based on their study, Braun et al. agree with Gilfoyle et al.’s critiques, but wish to push the argument forward to include more complexities than the “men=abled and women=disabled in sexual encounters” model.

Braun et al. interviewed 15 men and 15 women, most of whom were college-educated and of European descent. All had experience of heterosex, and ranged in age, work, parenthood, and relationship history. The researchers then analyzed the data with discourse analysis influenced by feminist poststructuralist theories of language, emphasizing that “language and discourse constitute meaning, and hence particular discourses enable and constrain people’s options for how to be and act in the social world” (241). This was interesting to me in light of last year’s Women’s Studies seminar, “Women and Language,” which focused on linguistic models for gender relations.

I their study, Braun et al. observed a pattern of sex in their participants that went something like this: fondle, touch, man goes down on woman and she has an orgasm, man enters woman and coitus ensues, he has an orgasm. Braun et al. note the more active status of the male in these accounts: the man produces his partner’s orgasm, but she does not entirely produce his. Braun et al. also emphasize the presence of the “coital imperative”—the expectation that coitus constitutes the end goal of sex—in their subjects’ accounts. In their responses, male subjects tended to associate coitus as their only option for orgasm, which Braun et al. call “the conflation of male orgasm with coitus.” In the way of reciprocity, an “orgasm imperative” was present, and reciprocity came to mean “her orgasm in exchange for the promise of his orgasm through coitus” (244).

From these responses emerges what Braun et al. call a “discourse of reciprocity” in which both partners having orgasms is deemed fair and right (245). In their examinations of non-reciprocal sex, Braun et al. concluded that this discourse is prominent in heterosex, but also that the female orgasm is often deemed less important and that male orgasm usually signals the end to “sex.” Factors contributing to this attitude, they say on page 248, might be the continuing debates about the female orgasm and the influence of the have/hold discourse (the thought that women might legitimately get more out of other aspects of a relationship than they do out of sexual pleasure). Braun et al. also note, in congruence with the quote offered at the beginning of the article, that men can gain positive identity through women’s orgasms—they can feel sensitive and unselfish, and also feel proud of their “sexpertise” (249).

As they unpack reciprocity, Braun et al. give more attention to women’s experience in particular because, as they argue, “the potential drawbacks of this discourse on women are greater than on men, both materially and in terms of subjectivity” (250). They focus on the actions and identities that are “constrained or enabled by particular constructions of heterosex” (252), acknowledging the complex potential links between entitlement and obligation.

Braun et al.’s main claim in this section of the article is that while women should be allowed to have orgasms and that it is wonderful that the idea of women’s pleasure has been opened up, this entitlement may become tied up in obligation, in an expectation to have an orgasm in order to be normal. Furthermore, this expectation can be tied up with men’s feelings of status or self worth: her orgasm signifies that he is a good lover and that he is not selfish. The practice of women faking orgasm further illustrates this feeling of obligation on the part of women.

Ultimately, Braun et al. see reciprocity as a both/and discourse: it can be “both oppressive and/or genuinely reciprocal” (255). Unless we examine these (potentially coercive) obligations that can and do take place in the discourse and practice of reciprocity, it will be impossible to move into a straightforward and truly reciprocal model.

To me, this article seemed to problematize CAKE a little, but it a good way. I could see traces of Levy’s argument present in the study—what does it mean for men’s pleasure that women are needing to fake orgasm (or at least feel obligated to have an orgasm) even in a system of reciprocity? Though I would never complain that women are allowed to have orgasms, implications of this pressure do exist in heterosex. I think CAKE’s demand that women have pleasure is a step in the right direction toward a true discourse of reciprocity, but I think moving outside androcentric discourse/language would have allowed CAKE readers to express true reciprocity more fully.

Moving beyond pure discourse and into practice (and solutions of sorts), what does reciprocity imply in our own relationships? How does this relate to Hollway’s concept of extra-discursivity? Is there a way to move outside the obligation-saturated reciprocity model and into a true, practiced model of reciprocity?

Also, I’m curious about this model outside of heterosex. Do these patterns manifest themselves in homosexual relations as well? If so (or if not), what implications does that have for this poststructuralist feminist discourse that seems to be incorporating elements of psychoanalysis and social analysis?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sabo's new vision of new porn

Professor Anne Sabo’s article “A vision of new porn” brings together many of the themes we have been discussing over the past couple of weeks. She begins by introducing the anti-porn/pro-sex division in feminism that continues to manifest itself in texts such as Levy’s book and Gallagher and Kramer’s CAKE guide. In her introduction, Sabo acknowledges the “growing popularity and legitimacy of porn” (222) alongside a culture that still holds onto “lingering experiences of gender inequality and oppressive gender roles” (222). In light of these two cultural elements, Sabo proposes that we examine porn for what it can offer young people as they explore and discover their gendered identities.

Sabo presents and analyzes porn made by women in the United States and Europe, explaining how plot lines, artistic expression and other filmic elements contribute to an overall aesthetic and sexual message. She begins the section “Porn as discourse and film: the predicaments of language and pleasure” with Simon Hardy’s claim that porn might be a way of “transforming the traditional balance and pattern of heterosexual eroticism” (qtd. in Sabo, 223), contrary to what anti-porn feminists such as Brownmiller, Dworkin, Morgan and MacKinnon may have argued. Although Hardy advocated an anti-censorship view in his article, Sabo draws our attention Hardy’s caution against being blind to power. As Sabo says, Hardy “advises us to be attentive to the formation of new power formations” in erotic expression (223). This point—the fact that we have the power to configure new kinds of power in erotic expression and not just adhere to the active/passive dichotomy—was, to me, one of the most poignant in Hardy’s article. As we see later from Sabo’s descriptions of pornography, filmmakers are using various techniques to demonstrate equality (among other things) in erotic expression. This is something I don’t think CAKE does very well—I think Gallagher and Kramer may still be stuck in the dichotomous view of heterosexual erotic expression. While they could have expanded this definition of power like some of the porn producers in this article, they chose to adhere to a dichotomous view of power in which one partner is dominant, be it male or female.

Sabo also draws attention to the power of porn to elicit bodily sensations and therefore its power to “speak to a new generation of women,” to “move its viewer,” and to simultaneously keep “a critical eye on its appropriation of language” (224). She then launches into description and analysis of porn films from the United States and from Europe.

In her analysis of porn in the United States, Sabo highlights the work of porn producer Candida Royalle, who co-founded an erotic film company called Femme Productions in 1984. Sabo chronicles Royalle’s Eyes of Desire (1998), drawing attention to its complex plot and Lisa’s (the main character’s) desire and pleasure. She also highlights Royalle’s unique use of the gaze in Eyes of Desire, stating that the film “capture[s] a gaze that is mutual and democratically exchanged between two individuals” (226). Sabo says that “Royalle legitimizes both the activity of looking at sex, and the pleasure of being the object of someone’s gaze” (226), and I believe this democratic exchange has more implications than the mere reversal of power suggested in CAKE. Although I have never seen Eyes of Desire and may have a different or more complex opinion after I do, this gaze seems to propose a new kind of power, an erotic, sensual power that is founded in equality.

Sabo also engages Hardy’s analysis in her argument about Royalle’s film, saying that Royalle’s response to the hegemonic heterosexual erotic discourse is to “engage it reflectively and ironically” (226). This can be seen, Sabo says, in the ways Royalle’s characters overcome shame, fear and inhibition, and in the emphasis the characters have on playing their parts, not being their parts. Sabo also notes that all sex in the film is consensual, warm and loving in addition to being playful.

Next, Sabo analyzes Royalle’s Under the Covers, an erotic film that highlights the paradox of a sexual consumer culture in the United States paired with a conservative government that emphasizes abstinence-only education. Although Sabo says that some of the aesthetic quality of the film is lost, it emphasizes the message of sex education (through the character of a sex therapist) and the notion that “sexual repression is defeated by pleasure” (228). Sabo states that the film has potential to give voice to a young generation of sexual men and women in the United States.

In her section titled “Shagging in Europe: A different kind of porn,” Sabo highlights the work of British porn producer Anna Span, whose work is currently widespread in Scandinavia. Span’s work and popularity reflect a cultural comfort with sex in Scandinavia, according to Sabo. Span’s work de-emphasizes the seriousness of Royalle’s films and instead concentrates on “frolicking in some jolly good sex mainly for the fine fun of it” (231). Sabo notes that this difference in the two women reflects cultural and generational trends (Royalle was born in 1950 and lives in the United States; Span was born in 1972 and lives in England). Although the two producers use humor differently as a result, neither uses humor to rise above the plot of the film, says Sabo in a footnote. They both engage the viewer fully, using the bodily experience that Sabo mentioned earlier to do so.

Thirdly, Sabo highlights the work of Swedish porn-maker Erika Lust, who produces porn with a “revamped look” similar to a music video. Lust’s porn, according to Sabo, “reflects the range of real twenty- and thirty-something women and men today across Europe and the westernized world” (233). She sees this reflection as a potential voice in the “gap between the ideal and the practice of gender” (Hardy qtd. in Sabo 234). Sabo sees this as “one of the most intriguing aspects of re-visioned porn” (234).

In her conclusion, Sabo re-emphasizes the power of porn alongside women’s consumption of porn as a force for social change. While I agree with Sabo’s claim that “commercialization is easily dismissed as the enemy, but in a commercialized age, denying access is tantamount to denying a voice” (235), something about the female consumption of porn still retains a classist quality to it that male consumption of porn doesn’t seem to. Although I’ll need to research this claim further, porn that favors male pleasure and desire seems widespread and available to people of all classes (in other words, free on the internet), whereas porn that highlights mutuality or female desire seems only available to “classy, well-heeled, middle-class professionals” (Attwood paraphrased in Sabo 234). If we accept the commercialization of porn, do we also need to accept the corruptions of porn that involve distribution without rights? I’m not sure if I’m well enough versed in the process of distribution to argue this point, but I pose it as a discussion question.

I'm also curious about whether these middle-class women deserve to be the only consumers of female-made porn. When one is revising the system to account for new visions and identities concerning power and gender and equality, does it seem classist (and a little ironic) to be posing this equality only for a certain class of people?