Revisiting the Sex War: How Visual Politics in Sexual Imagery Offers Subversive Strategy in the Sex and Pornography Debate

Yi-Hui Lin


 

Introduction

In the 1980s, the radical feminist case against pornography stemmed from the increasing determination to eliminate violence against women (Highleyman and Shepard, 2015) and developed a new emphasis that defined pornography as discrimination against women, since the way in which it objectifies and degrades women can ultimately lead to violence against them (MacKinnon, 1989; Dworkin, 1981). In the view of the anti-pornography feminists concerned, bodily issues related to violence in femicide, domestic battery, rape, pornography, sex trafficking and prostitution have highlighted the significance of the gendered dynamics of ‘conquest/submission’, ‘activity/passivity’ and ‘masculinity/femininity’. These discussions have revealed that not all bodies are treated equally in the extent to which they exist as markers of social value.

From the outset, however, anti-pornography legislation was controversial, with many feminist pro-pornography supporters standing in opposition. Recognizing that the theoretical impetus of radical feminism as untenable to a politics that respects plurality (Segal, 1992), pro-pornography feminists have pointed out that the anti-pornography arguments relied too heavily on a fixed referentiality of the female body, which, from the inception of the anti-pornography movement, engendered attempts to presume a stable ‘feminine’ subject.

The purpose of this essay is to interrogate the form of the ‘position-making’ taken by anti-pornography feminists in the 1980s and to critique the logic(s) behind the anti-pornography movements. While this essay acknowledges the important theoretical insights advanced by radical feminists, it also recognizes the monolithic reading of sexuality in their theoretical framework. The body, in terms of its association with violence, has become a discursive vehicle in the feminist anti-pornography rhetoric, seeking to impose a sexless position on the female gender. By utilizing the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, this essay seeks to complicate the feminist anti-pornography narratives that have situated female empowerment in a dichotomous position that has generated its own rules and exclusions (Rossdale and Stierl, 2016: 2016). Furthermore, it argues that a deconstructive approach to female embodiment entails an interpretation that captures modes of power and governmentality, as well as modes of resistance and subversion; a theoretical insight that is absent in feminist anti-pornography literature.

The essay argues that the bodily trope offers an adequate account for the ways in which feminine subjectivities can be re-envisioned. As a theoretical tool, the ‘body’ can capture an alternative mode of subjectification, from which can be built an empirically-informed, yet distinctive approach to the analysis of women’s sexuality and identity. Employing Butler’s (1992) argument, this essay does not intend to apply ready-made concepts of the body. Instead, it seeks to explore how a theoretical approach that starts from the body generates an analysis that reconsiders how women’s sexuality can be (re)formed, thus, advancing an alternative discussion about embodied sexuality and alternative representation(s) of women’s sexual agency.

These arguments are outlined over two sections. The first revisits the radical feminist framing of pornography and sexuality and traces the historical emergence of the type of subjectivity formed through exclusion. The second half of this essay offers a conceptualization of one possible form of the subversion of female sexual passivity, which it refers to as “creative visual counter-conducts” (Malmvig, 2016: 258), which in turn, “[gives] rise to a different gaze” (Butler, 2007: 964).  In developing a subversive framework to rethink and recreate sexed bodies, this essay employs a discussion of Ren Hang’s sexually explicit photographs in order to engage with the issues of embodied politics, pleasure, and empowerment.

 

The ‘Sex War’

The core of the feminist anti-pornography argument was that men construct their power over women through sex. This argument suggested that pornography is a form of sexual discrimination (Highleyman and Shepard, 2015) that has negatively influenced the image of women as ‘sex objects’ (MacKinnon, 1989: 27). In the view of the feminists concerned, this highlighted the significance of how social understandings of femininity are constituted.

Scholarly interest in pornography in the 1980s was motivated by the need to expose this connection and the effect that pornography has on gender and sexuality (Cornell, 1991). MacKinnon (1985, 1989) and Dworkin (1981) observed the dominance of the masculine in the pornography industry in Western societies. Their works posited that the role of the male gaze and the sexual objectification of women from the male viewpoint in the pornography industry fundamentally degrades women. The crux of their argument was that pornography readily reduces women to bits of bodies available for servicing men, thus unveiling how the sexual objectification of women functions as a mechanism for the construction of sexuality and gender.

MacKinnon (1989, cited in Schaeffer, 2001: 700) proposed that sexuality ascribes the notion of male/female duality and that this difference constitutes gender dominance. Heterosexual intercourse became a key aspect of the evidence demonstrating male forms of dominance over women (Bright, 1993). As Segal (1992) clarified, once female sexuality is understood as non-existent, it becomes politically possible to ascertain the consequences of male sexual powe. And indeed, as anti-pornography feminists have argued, sex, when applied in terms of the male model of knowledge and in the form of male biological sexual arousal, is the literal cause of numerous types of physical and sexual abuse of women, and pornography is the medium that influences how women are viewed and ultimately treated by men (MacKinnon, 1989).  Thus, argues MacKinnon, women are always, by definition, victims (Papadaki, 2015).

The primary goal of anti-pornography feminists in the 1980s was the eradication of violent pornography and this required the state to recognize the public presence of women prior to its legislative operations. The lack of regulation surrounding the pornography industry, in which the objectification of the female occurs, promoted the dominance of one gender over the other. As a consequence, when the law treats women as no different from men, their unequal status is rendered invisible and thereby immutable. It was precisely this reflection on male power that led MacKinnon (1989) to question the nature of the systemic role played by the state in sustaining a patriarchal relationship in liberal societies. She argued that it is the state’s commitment to the legislative neutrality of the pornography industry that entraps women in a state of subordination. Thus, the anti-pornography movement was reacting against an ingrained gender inequality, seeking to open up new avenues for positive intervention by the state (Cornell, 1991).

The Dubious Sex War Logic

From its start, the authorization of the feminist anti-pornography argument was its rhetorical deployment of ‘sexuality’ on two levels: first, by reducing it to a causal by-product of sexist materials in pornography. The key problem with this explanation is that it reduces feminine sexual difference to victimization (Cornell, 1991: 2248). Such exposition is unsatisfactory, because disciplinary power does not causally turn bodies into subjects, but rather it forms only one dimension of a power/knowledge network, which constitutes the conditioning of the bodies concerned (Oksala, 2005: 102). Secondly, it employs a simplistic view of sex as being either a good or a bad thing (Smith and Attwood, 2014). One major drawback of this view is that it allowed anti-pornography campaigns to garner support from traditional moral conservatives (Duggan, 1985).

Critics have questioned MacKinnon’s empiricist assumption regarding the nature of sexuality and what it means to be gender–conditioned, since there is a danger that such an overview casts sexuality in ontological terms of the shaping of gender identity, ahead of other social conditions of being, such as socio-economic and those of race and culture. For example, Butler (1994) contended that MacKinnon likened sexual domination/subordination to the social meaning of being a ‘man/woman’, which entailed the meaning of subjectivity possessing one gender and/or one sexuality. In a sense, this practice of ascribing a foundation to the cause of the anti-pornography campaign reproduced a position of hegemonic power by assuming that it was speaking for a universal category of the female “we.” When viewed in these terms, the legislation of anti-pornography law necessitated further examination of the impact(s) of tightened regulations. Scholars have highlighted the censorship of pornography as being disempowering, critically questioning whether expended legal ‘protection’ would allow significant freedom for diverse expressions of masculine and feminine sexuality (Brown, 1992; Duggan, 2006).

As sex-positive feminists argued, censorship possesses at least two notable repercussions: first, the anti-pornography feminists’ accounts of victimization, which assume heterosexual behavior to be the norm, for example in the assumption that men are perceived to be stronger sexual beings, has advanced a category of female subjectivities that occludes behavior outside of heterosexism (Butler, 1994). Meanwhile, ‘bad’ sex came to encompass other areas of controversial sexual expression, including public sex, BDSM-practice, sexual role-play, lesbian sex, and sex work (Smith and Attwood, 2014). The personal struggle of women who are situated outside of the accepted forms of sexual practice came to be defined as inferior, marginal and deviant in the language and discourses of the dominant culture (Gibson and Kirkham, 2014). In support of the view of sex as disciplinary, Highleyman and Shepard (2015) stated, “a civil rights interpretation of anti-pornography law was established by Canada’s 1992 Regina versus Butler high court decision; ironically—but not surprisingly—the first materials to be targeted were lesbian and gay erotica” (2015: 854).

The second way, in which the feminist anti-pornography rhetorical deployment of sexuality has produced “violence” (Butler, 1992: 18), is evident in the means by which active state-regulation became the ‘conduct’ governing women’s sexual agency. Conduct, as Foucault (2007) explained, holds a broad range of meanings, from “impos[ing] a regimen”, as a doctor does to a patient, to governing a client in the sense that support-groups, legal, and medical advice clinics “support, provide for and give means of subsistence” (Louiza, 2016: 183). By claiming that power relations are the products of the subjects, Foucault (1977 cited in Oskala, 2005: 95) understood the subject to be entangled with power and knowledge. Meanwhile, MacKinnon’s category of women lay in a principle of intelligibility, regulation and production that “direct[s], lead[s], guid[es], tak[es] in hand… collectively and individually throughout their life and at each moment of their existence” (Golder, 2007: 167). In claiming that anti-pornography politics emerged as a domain of pastoral function, the nuances of which this political conduct delimits the number of positions women may adopt in exercising their own agency, are indicated.

An example of the way in which ‘knowledge’ establishes authority over the sexed body can be found in the constructed nature of women’s sexual experience. In other words, women’s entitlement to and attitude toward sexual pleasure (Orenstein, 2016). While women may feel entitled to and confident about engaging freely in sexual behavior, they may struggle to enjoy sensuality and pleasure with men (Segal, 1994). For women, many reasons exist for participating in sexual activity. For example, it makes some women feel desirable; while for others, it can be a means of extracting themselves from an awkward social situation. Sometimes, women believe it is something they do for their partners, and others believe that it is strictly for purposes of reproduction. The key problem with the anti-pornography rhetoric is that it offers a prescribed female-subject model, which is understood to value denying the advancement of male sexual domination at the cost of repressing women’s entitlement to sexual pleasure. Disciplinary power addresses how, despite the alleged freedom women possess, the historically constituted experiences and modalities of embodiment are both individualizing and totalizing in the sense that women may struggle in different ways with their own sexual fulfillment.

Given the contested nature of the foundational premise of the anti-pornography movement, there is the political necessity to release the category of ‘women’ from a fixed set of descriptive representations. The anti-pornography foundationalist reading of the body-subject is an account situated in a given circumstance. Historically, the attempts to establish a set of foundational meanings to the real nature of women sought to theorize against the liberal exclusion of women (Cornell, 1991). Thus, the historically-situated effect of the subject of the empowered female of the 1980s represents the dichotomous opposite of the maternal ontology, whilst affirming power relations by standing contrary to the masculine liberal practices of its time. In turn, this construction of the subject and the reifications of sex in the process of subjectification, produced a new position in terms of hegemonic power by installing an ultimately heterosexual character to sexuality (Butler, 1995) and a disinterest in pleasurable sex (Segal, 1994).

Hence, it is important to comprehend that to refuse to assume a foundational subject is not the same as negating such a notion altogether (Butler, 1992). On the contrary, the body is useful to the extent that, through deconstruction, it generates analyses, critiques, and political interventions since it necessitates that a greater attention is given to a political imaginary that facilitates progress beyond some of the impasses by which it has been constrained. The focus on corporeality suggests that “to deconstruct the subject of feminism is not to censure its usage, but to release the term into a future of multiple significations, to emancipate it from the maternal ontologies [and from its dichotomous opposition] to which it has been restricted, and to give it play as a site where unanticipated meanings might come to bear” (Butler, 1992: 16). Unlike the foundational politics to which the anti-pornography movement is subscribed to, an inclusive approach to articulate women’s equality is to subvert the anti-pornographic framework and notions of discourse imposed upon the female subject.

Theorizing Photography in Counter-conduct Practice

By employing Foucault’s Security, Territory and Population, this essay argues that a ‘counter-conducts approach’ highlights how resistant practices function to ‘counter’ the conduct of power on the bodies. To counter conduct encompasses a broad range of meanings: for example, as a “struggle against the processes implemented for conducting others” (Foucault, 1978: 268), or as also argued by Foucault (2007, cited in Odysseos, 2016), as a process that “[does] not always take the form of rejection or refusal of conduct”, but aims to “redistribute, reverse, nullify and partially or totally discredit pastoral power”. Foucault’s concept of counter-conduct can function as an analytic to explore the practices of a specific form of resistance.

One such way in which feminist politics can emerge from gender identity construction is through a critical engagement with art practice, such as photography, video, and drawings, since visual art representation highlights the capacity to ‘re-present’ and re-work the subject (Malmvig, 2016) for the production of female subjectivities.

In Rossdale and Stierl’s (2016) useful analysis of Foucault, they showed that Foucault’s idea of power as relational indicates that subversive practice can function only if it moves beyond “dualisms of governance/resistance and creation/destruction (Rossdale and Stierl, (2016: 163). It might be claimed that highly muscular female bodybuilders posing for softcore pornography readily serve as an emancipatory tool that challenges established visual-discursive fields. However, this essay problematizes this assumption, arguing that practices of resistance can never be thought to be in opposition to power structures (Malmvig, 2016: 263). Although female bodybuilders posing nude invokes both an act of dissent and an expression of empowerment in that it challenges the stereotypes of feminine passivity and victimhood, such visual narratives can serve to obscure the more ambiguous practices of existing power relations. Yet, conceptualizing resistance through visual counter-conduct adds what Davidson (2009, cited in Odysseos, Death and Malmvig, 2016) would call an “explicitly ethical component”, while maintaining an approach to alternative modes of seeing and being seen.

Given the above discussion of what creative counter-conduct is not, Foucault’s view of power draws attention to the very specific transformation proved to be possible. That is, “although there can be no overall liberation from power, there can and will be ‘particular’ emancipations from different systems of dominance” (Oskara, 2005: 177). If power is to be understood as productive, relational and inescapable (Death, 2010), the disruptive potential of a photograph could be understood not as instantiating a pure form of resistance to reverse, but a rereading of the marginalized subject position. To understand the effectiveness of visual politics, the following turns to the work of Ren Hang, whose work, as he himself noted, was never intended to “push boundaries” (Qin, 2017). Before proceeding to examine his work, it is important to make clear the question posed: how are the affective responses to Ren’s explicit and erotic photographs – where nude body parts are arranged in absurd poses (Gosling, 2016) – brought out?

To substantiate the political efficacy of still photography, it is helpful to turn briefly to Hansen’s approach to discourse analysis. Employing Hansen’s (2011) argument, this essay has contended that photographs are not empirical objects, thus suggesting that they do not possess meaning in or of themselves, rather their meaning is linguistically constituted in discourse. The linguistic emphasis of discourse analysis suggests that language is constitutive of that which is brought into being. For example, women’s lived experience is created through discourses that construct their subjectivities. Hansen (2006) summarized the means by which discourse constructs subjects, stating, “‘Woman’ is defined through a positive process of linking emotional, motherly, reliant and simple, but this female series of links is at the same time juxtaposed to the male series of links through a negative process of differentiation” (Hansen, 2006: 17).

The concept of discourse is a radically novel way to think about how the ‘social world’ can be analysed systematically, and, more specifically, how it permits a consideration of the response one has to erotic imagery as dependent upon a “discursive reality already being established” (Butler, 2007: 951). In other words, the material signs and actions revealed in a photograph engage with the discourses already in place (Hansen, 2011), which provide structure for the reading (Brown, 2005) of the visual text. Individual’s different takes on sex and desire discourses contribute to the composition of subject positions. For Derrida (2001, cited in Brown, 2005: 55), different interpretations arise from each person viewing a text from two or more different structures.

The sexual discursive reality in China is demonstrated by one aspect of the sexual taboos Ren rebelled against. Referring to taboo, Ren once said, “people are more bound by traditional and conservative attitudes toward the body. They think it’s a degradation, even a demoralization, to show what they think should be private. They generally abhor nudity” (Qin, 2017).

This sexual display of bodies of which Ren explored also remains very much obscene in the American public mind. Certainly, sex has something to do with bodies in Western thinking and nude bodies are believed to remain unexpressed in private realm (Segal, 1994: 57). This contrasts with Ren’s work in which clothing is a rarity. In his photographs, there are just bodies piled on top of one another; multiple hands arrayed around the nipple, the breast, the vagina, and the body; a penis placed next to a flower, a snake, a body, a face—or, urinating into the air, and on another body. All one sees is the figure of the individual or a group of people, usually expressionless and still. The faces are on the whole neutral, expressionless, and composed. The nude bodies presented in unconventional ways seem in general to prompt a way of being otherwise.

A photograph always comes with a textual context (Hansen, 2011). An image never stands alone. One thing that fascinates Ren’s viewers is his unique way of depicting nudity. Given the general conflict of sexual politics in the US (Duggan, 2006), Ren’s erotic images comprise a negative contextual element for an US audience, which, according to Scott (2017), is accomplished by an active commission of omitting something. The details – such as the subject’s expression, background, and clothing – in a photography are what would have normally caught the viewers’ attention. Often the photograph is even accompanied with a title, a caption, and/or a text (Campbell, 2004). These signs convey information and yet these are usually missing in the pictures taken by Ren.

With very little material and textual signs, the frank displays of “organ in a fresh, vivid and emotional way” (Hang, 2013) portray the male and female genitals as strange, comic, and vulnerable. As much as the photographs are about “sex, love and porn”, his work is not seeking “to [deterministically] make people feel desire” (Tung, 2013: 84). This near absence of context presents an alternative textual context. In other words, since meaning, according to Hansen (2006: 14), is constructed through the juxtaposition between a privileged sign, e.g. the ‘active’ penis, on the one hand and a devalued, e.g. the ‘passive’ vagina, on the other, Ren’s images succeed in producing a dis-identification. By doing so, the bodily images in Ren’s work are opened to more than one meaning for viewers to interpret. His portrayal of the nude bodies affirms a stance that suggests ‘bodies’ are fluid and heterogeneous. Consequently, it is difficult to pin any label on them along the symbolic resonance of activity/passivity and conquest/submission. Thus, Ren’s surrealistic images of naked models captures a reality that would otherwise stay invisible.

 

Conclusion

This essay has offered a clear evaluation of the pornography ‘sex’ debate by further linking it to current political developments. Through exploring the ways in which the politics of sexuality – in particular relation to pornography – must remain an issue located within the realm of ethics, it has been argued that such ethical sexual orientations are critical in sustaining a progressive sexual and gendered politics in years to come. I have sought to illustrate this as such through drawing upon the empirical and theoretical elucidations of Foucauldian scholars and the erotic works of Chinese photographer Ren Hang, whose photographic imagery should be understood as and valued for its politically effective, symbolically-charged and socially challenging aesthetical juxtapositions.

 

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