While the alternative culture “celebrates political disengagement,” what it attacks are conventions, morals, and boundaries. It comes down to a simple question: Are we after shock value or justice? Is the problem a constraining set of values or an oppressive set of material conditions? Remember that one of the cardinal points of liberalism is that reality is made up of values and ideas, not relationships of power and oppression. So not only is shock value an adolescent goal, it’s also a liberal one.
This program of attacking boundaries rather than injustice has had serious consequences on the left, and to the extent that this attack has won, on popular culture as a whole. When men decide to be outlaw rebels, from Bohemians to Hell’s Angels, one primary “freedom” they appropriate is women. The Marquis de Sade, who tortured women, girls, and boys—some of whom he kidnapped, some of whom he bought—was declared “the freest spirit that has yet existed” by Guillaume Apollinaire, the founder of the surrealist movement.63 Women’s physical and sexual boundaries are seen as just one more middle-class convention that men have a right to overcome on their way to freedom. Nowhere is this more apparent—and appalling—than in the way so many on the left have embraced pornography.
The triumph of the pornographers is a victory of power over justice, cruelty over empathy, and profits over human rights. I could make that statement about Walmart or McDonalds and progressives would eagerly agree. We all understand that Walmart destroys local economies, a relentless impoverishing of communities across the US that is now almost complete. It also depends on near-slave conditions for workers in China to produce the mountains of cheap crap that Walmart sells. And ultimately the endless growth model of capitalism is destroying the world. Nobody on the left claims that the cheap crap that Walmart produces equals freedom. Nobody defends Walmart by saying that the workers, American or Chinese, want to work there. Leftists understand that people do what they have to for survival, that any job is better than no job, and that minimum wage and no benefits are cause for a revolution, not a defense of those very conditions. Likewise McDonalds. No one defends what McDonalds does to animals, to the earth, to workers, to human health and human community by pointing out that the people standing over the boiling grease consented to sweat all day or that hog farmers voluntarily signed contracts that barely return a living. The issue does not turn on consent, but on the social impacts of injustice and hierarchy, on how corporations are essentially weapons of mass destruction. Focusing on the moment of individual choice will get us nowhere.
The problem is the material conditions that make going blind in a silicon chip factory in Taiwan the best option for some people. Those people are living beings. Leftists lay claim to human rights as our bedrock and our north star: we know that that Taiwanese woman is not different from us in any way that matters, and if going blind for pennies and no bathroom breaks was our best option, we would be in grim circumstances.
And the woman enduring two penises shoved up her anus? This is not an exaggeration or “focusing on the worst,” as feminists are often accused of doing. “Double-anal” is now standard fare in gonzo porn, the porn made possible by the Internet, the porn with no pretense of a plot, the porn that men overwhelmingly prefer. That woman, just like the woman assembling computers, is likely to suffer permanent physical damage. In fact, the average woman in gonzo porn can only last three months before her body gives out, so punishing are the required sex acts. Anyone with a conscience instead of a hard-on would know that just by looking. If you spend a few minutes looking at it—not masturbating to it, but actually looking at it—you may have to agree with Robert Jensen that pornography is “what the end of the world looks like.”
By that I don’t mean that pornography is going to bring about the end of the world; I don’t have apocalyptic delusions. Nor do I mean that of all the social problems we face, pornography is the most threatening. Instead, I want to suggest that if we have the courage to look honestly at contemporary pornography, we get a glimpse—in a very visceral, powerful fashion—of the consequences of the oppressive systems in which we live. Pornography is what the end will look like if we don’t reverse the pathological course that we are on in this patriarchal, white-supremacist, predatory corporate-capitalist society.… Imagine a world in which empathy, compassion, and solidarity—the things that make decent human society possible—are finally and completely overwhelmed by a self-centered, emotionally detached pleasure-seeking. Imagine those values playing out in a society structured by multiple hierarchies in which a domination/subordination dynamic shapes most relationships and interaction.… [E]very year my sense of despair deepens over the direction in which pornography and our pornographic culture is heading. That despair is rooted not in the reality that lots of people can be cruel, or that some number of them knowingly take pleasure in that cruelty. Humans have always had to deal with that aspect of our psychology. But what happens when people can no longer see the cruelty, when the pleasure in cruelty has been so normalized that it is rendered invisible to so many? And what happens when for some considerable part of the male population of our society, that cruelty becomes a routine part of sexuality, defining the most intimate parts of our lives?64
All leftists need to do is connect the dots, the same way we do in every other instance of oppression. The material conditions that men as a class create (the word is patriarchy) mean that in the US battering is the most commonly committed violent crime: that’s men beating up women. Men rape one in three women and sexually abuse one in four girls before the age of fourteen. The number one perpetrator of childhood sexual abuse is called “Dad.” Andrea Dworkin, one of the bravest women of all time, understood that this was systematic, not personal. She saw that rape, battering, incest, prostitution, and reproductive exploitation all worked together to create a “barricade of sexual terrorism”65 inside which all women are forced to live. Our job as feminists and members of a culture of resistance is not to learn to eroticize those acts; our task is to bring that wall down.
In fact, the right and left together make a cozy little world that entombs women in conditions of subservience and violence. Critiquing male supremacist sexuality will bring charges of being a censor and a right-wing antifun prude. But seen from the perspective of women, the right and the left create a seamless hegemony.
Gail Dines writes, “When I critique McDonalds, no one calls me anti-food.”66 People understand that what is being critiqued is a set of unjust social relations—with economic, political, and ideological components—that create more of the same. McDonalds does not produce generic food. It manufactures an industrial capitalist product for profit. The pornographers are no different. The pornographers have built a $100 billion a year industry, selling not just sex as a commodity, which would be horrible enough for our collective humanity, but sexual cruelty.67 This is the deep heart of patriarchy, the place where leftists fear to tread: male supremacy takes acts of oppression and turns them into sex. Could there be a more powerful reward than orgasm?
And since it feels so visceral, such practices are defended (in the rare instance that a feminist is able to demand a defense) as “natural.” Even when wrapped in racism, many on the left refuse to see the oppression in pornography. Little Latina Sluts or Pimp My Black Teen provoke not outrage, but sexual pleasure for the men consuming such material. A sexuality based on eroticizing dehumanization, domination, and hierarchy will gravitate to other hierarchies, and find a wealth of material in racism. What it will never do is build an egalitarian world of care and respect, the world that the left claims to want.
On a global scale, the naked female body—too thin to bear live young and often too young as well—is for sale everywhere, as the defining image of the age, and as a brutal reality: women and girls are now the number one product for sale on the global black market. Indeed, there are entire countries balancing their budgets on the sale of women.68 Is slavery a human rights abuse or a sexual thrill? Of what use is a social change movement that can’t decide?
We need to stake our claim as the people who care about freedom, not the freedom to abuse, exploit, and dehumanize, but freedom from being demeaned and violated, and from a cultural celebration of that violation.
This is the moral bankruptcy of a culture built on violation and its underlying entitlement. It’s a slight variation on the Romantics, substituting sexual desire for emotion as the unmediated, natural, and privileged state. The sexual version is a direct inheritance of the Bohemians, who reveled in public displays of “transgression, excess, sexual outrage.” Much of this ethic can be traced back to the Marquis de Sade, torturer of women and children. Yet he has been claimed as inspiration and foundation by writers such as “Baudelaire, Flaubert, Swinburne, Lautréamont, Dostoevski, Cocteau, and Apollinaire” as well as Camus and Barthes.69 Wrote Camus, “Two centuries ahead of time … Sade extolled totalitarian societies in the name of unbridled freedom.”70 Sade also presents an early formulation of Nietzsche’s will to power. His ethic ultimately provides “the erotic roots of fascism.”71
Once more, it is time to choose. The warnings are out there, and it’s time to listen. College students have 40 percent less empathy than they did twenty years ago.72 If the left wants to mount a true resistance, a resistance against the power that breaks hearts and bones, rivers and species, it will have to hear—and, finally, know—this one brave sentence from poet Adrienne Rich: “Without tenderness, we are in hell.”73