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Does Porn Make the Man?

Most men have, at some point, feared not being masculine enough, especially in the bedroom. Pornography speaks to that fear.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, by Robert Jensen.

King of the Hill

The object of the children's game King of the Hill is to be the one who remains on top of the hill (or, if not an actual hill, a large pile of anything or the center of any designated area). To do that, one has to repel those who challenge the king's supremacy. The king has to push away all the other kids who charge the hill. That can be done in a friendly spirit with an understanding that a minimal amount of force will be used by all, or it can be violent and vicious, with both the king and the challengers allowed to use any means necessary. Games that start with such a friendly understanding can often turn violent and vicious. This scenario is also used in some video games, in which a player tries to control a specific area for a predetermined amount of time.

In my experience, both male and female children can, and did, play King of the Hill, but it was overwhelmingly a game of male children. It's one of the games that train male children to be men. No matter who is playing, it is a game of masculinity. King of the Hill reveals one essential characteristic of the dominant conception of masculinity: No one is ever safe, and everyone loses something.

Most obviously, this King-of-the-Hill masculinity is dangerous for women. It leads men to seek to control "their" women and define their own pleasure in that control, which leads to epidemic levels of rape and battery. But this view of masculinity is toxic for men as well.

One thing is immediately obvious about King-of-the-Hill masculinity: Not everyone can win. In fact, by definition in this conception of masculinity, there's only one real man at any given moment. In a system based on hierarchy, by definition there can be only one person at the top of the hierarchy. There's only one King of the Hill.

In this conception of masculinity, men are in constant struggle with each other for dominance. Every other man must in some way be subordinated to the king, but even the king can't feel too comfortable -- he has to be nervous about who is coming up that hill to get him. This isn't just a game, of course. A friend who once worked on Wall Street, one of the preeminent sites of masculine competition in the business world, described coming to work as like "walking into a knife fight when all the good spots along the wall were taken." Every day you faced the possibility of getting killed -- figuratively, in business terms -- and there was no spot you could stand where your back was covered. This is masculinity lived as endless competition and threat. Whatever the benefits of it, whatever power it gives one over others, it's also exhausting and, in the end, unfulfilling.

No one man created this system. Perhaps no man, if given a real choice, would choose it. But we live our lives in that system, and it deforms men, narrowing our emotional range and depth, and limiting our capacity to experience the rich connections with others -- not just with women and children, but with other men -- which require vulnerability but make life meaningful. The Man Who Would Be King is the Man Who Is Broken and Alone.

That toxic masculinity hurts men doesn't mean it's equally dangerous for men and women. As feminists have long pointed out, there's a big difference between women dealing with the constant threat of being raped, beaten, and killed by the men in their lives, and men not being able to cry. But we can see that the short-term material gains that men get in patriarchy -- the name for this system of male dominance -- are not adequate compensation for what we men give up in the long haul, which is to surrender part of our humanity to the project of dominance.

This doesn't mean, of course, that in this world all men have it easy. Other systems of dominance and oppression -- white supremacy, heterosexism, predatory corporate capitalism -- mean that non-white men, gay men, poor and working-class men suffer in various ways. A feminist analysis doesn't preclude us from understanding those problems but in fact helps us see them more clearly.

What feminism is and isn't to me

Each fall in my seminar class for first-year students at the University of Texas, I lead a discussion about gender politics that will sound familiar to many teachers. I ask the students about their opinions about various gender issues, such as equal pay, sexual harassment, men's violence, and gender roles. Most of the women and some of the men express views that would be called feminist. But when I ask how many identify as feminists, out of the 15 students in any semester, no more than three (always women) have ever claimed the label. When I ask why, the typical answers are not about the political positions of feminism but the perception that feminism is weird and that weird people are feminists.

This pattern is no doubt connected to the assault on feminism in the mainstream culture, captured most succinctly in the phrase "femi-nazi" made popular by right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh. One response to this by some feminists has been to find a least-common-denominator definition of the term, to reassure both men and women that feminism doesn't really aim to undermine established gender norms and isn't threatening to men. I believe that to be the wrong strategy. If feminism is to make a meaningful difference in the sex/gender crisis we face, and contribute to a broader social change so desperately needed, I believe it must be clear in its challenge to the existing order -- and that inevitably will be threatening to many men, at least at first. Feminism, then, should get more radical than ever.

In general, the term "radical" conjures up images of extremes, of danger, of people eager to tear things down. But radical has another meaning -- from the Latin, for root. Radical solutions are the ones that get to the root of the problem. When the systems in which we live are in crisis, the most honest confrontations with those systems have to be radical. At first glance, that honesty will seem frightening. Looking deeper, it is the radical ideas that offer hope, a way out of the crisis.

Because these ideas are denigrated in the dominant culture, it's important to define them. By feminist, I mean an analysis of the ways in which women are oppressed as a class in this society -- the ways in which men as a class hold more power, and how those differences in power systematically disadvantage women in the public and private spheres. Gender oppression plays out in different ways depending on social location, which makes it crucial to understand men's oppression of women in connection with other systems of oppression -- heterosexism, racism, class privilege, and histories of colonial and postcolonial domination.

By radical feminist, I mean the analysis of the ways that in this patriarchal system in which we live, one of the key sites of this oppression -- one key method of domination -- is sexuality. Two of the most well-known women who articulated a radical feminist view have been central to the feminist critique of pornography -- the writer Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, a lawyer and law professor. The feminist philosophy and politics that have shaped my thinking are most clearly articulated by those two and others with similar views.

What I also learned from this radical feminism is not just a way of critiquing men's domination of women but a broader approach to understanding systems of power and oppression. Feminism is not the only way into a broader critique of the many types of oppression, of course, but it is one important way, and was for me the first route into such a framework. My real political education started on the issue of gender and from there moved to issues of racial and economic injustice, the imperialist wars that flow out of that injustice, and the ecological crisis. Each system of power and oppression is unique in its own way, but there are certain features in common. Here's my summary:

How do we explain the fact that most people's stated philosophical and theological systems are rooted in concepts of justice, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people, yet we allow violence, exploitation, and oppression to flourish? Only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths, engaging in cruel and oppressive behavior openly and with relish. Feminism helped me understand the complex process, which tends to work like this:

  • The systems and structures in which we live are hierarchical.
  • Hierarchical systems and structures deliver to those in the dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits.
  • People are typically hesitant to give up such privileges, pleasures, and benefits.
  • But, those benefits clearly come at the expense of those in the subordinated class.
  • Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions of equality and human rights, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.
  • One of the most persuasive arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are "natural."

So, oppressive systems work hard to make it appear that the hierarchy -- and the disparity in power and resources that flow from hierarchy -- is natural and, therefore, beyond modification. If men are naturally smarter and stronger than women, then patriarchy is inevitable and justifiable. If white people are naturally smarter and more virtuous than people of color, then white supremacy is inevitable and justifiable. If rich people are naturally smarter and harder working than poor people, then economic injustice is inevitable and justifiable. And, if human beings have special status in the universe, justified either on theological or biological grounds, then humans' right to extract from the rest of Creation whatever they like is inevitable and justifiable.

For unjust hierarchies, and the illegitimate authority that is exercised in them, maintaining their own naturalness is essential. Not surprisingly, people in the dominant class exercising the power gravitate easily to such a view. And because of their power to control key story-telling institutions (especially education and mass communication), those in the dominant class can fashion a story about the world that leads some portion of the people in the subordinate class to internalize the ideology.

For me, feminism gave me a way to see through not only male dominance, but all the systems of illegitimate authority. I saw the fundamental strategy they held in common, and saw that if we could more into a space in which we were true to our stated ideals, we would reject those systems as anti-human. All these systems cause suffering beyond the telling. All of them must be resisted. The connections between them must be understood.

Enforcing masculinity

Systems of oppression are interlocked and enmeshed; perhaps the classic example is the way in which white men identify black men as a threat to the sexual purity of white women, requiring white men to maintain control of both black people and white women. While keeping in mind those connections, we can train our attention on how each individual power system operates. This book attempts such a focus on masculinity. The King-of-the-Hill Masculinity I have described is articulated and enforced in a variety of places in contemporary culture, most notably athletics, the military, and business, with underpinnings in the dominant monotheistic religions. We can look at all those arenas and see how masculinity-as-dominance plays out. In all those endeavors, the quality of relationships and human values become secondary to control that leads to victory, conquest, and closing the deal.

We teach our boys that to be a man is to be tough, to be acquisitive, to be competitive, to be aggressive. We congratulate them when they make a tough hit on the football field that takes out an opponent. We honor them in parades when they return from slaughtering the enemy abroad. We put them on magazine covers when they destroy business competitors and make millions by putting people out of work. In short, we train boys to be cruel, to ignore the feelings of others, to be violent.

U.S. culture's most-admired male heroes reflect those characteristics: They most often are men who take charge rather than seek consensus, seize power rather than look for ways to share it, and are willing to be violent to achieve their goals. Victory is sweet. Conquest gives a sense of power. And after closing the deal, the sweet sense of power lingers.

Look around in the contemporary United States, and masculinity is paraded in front of us, sometimes in displays that border on self-parody:

  • George W. Bush dons a flight suit and lands on an aircraft carrier; the self-proclaimed "war president" announces victory (albeit somewhat prematurely). John Kerry, fearing a masculinity gap, serves up a hunting photo-op in the 2004 campaign to show that not only does he have combat experience that Bush lacks but still likes to fire a weapon.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger moves from action-movie hero to governor of California, denigrating opponents he deems insufficiently tough as "girly men."
  • Donald Trump, a businessman famous mostly for being famous and attracting conventionally attractive female partners, boosts a sagging public image with "The Apprentice" television show that pits young wannabe executives against each other in cutthroat competition.
  • And then there is sex, where victory, conquest, and dealing come together, typically out of public view. Masculinity played out in sexual relationships, straight or gay, brings King of the Hill into our most intimate spaces. Again, this doesn't mean that every man in every sexual situation plays out this dominance, but simply that there exists a pattern. When I speak to mixed groups about these subjects, I often describe the sex-as-dominance paradigm, and then I ask the women in the room if they have any experience with men behaving in such fashion. There is considerable rolling of the eyes and many exasperated sighs at that point. I present it in light-hearted fashion because to put it too harshly makes most mixed audiences very nervous.

    And then there is pornography, where brings the private imposition of masculinity into public, putting King-of-the-Hill sex onto the screen.

    Pornography's whisper to men

    We think of the call of pornography as crass, like a carnival barker's. Like the neon lights of Times Square in its pornographic heyday. Men go to buy pornography in the "red-light" district, the "combat zone." Pornography seems to shout out at us, crudely.

    But in reality, pornography speaks to men in a whisper. We pretend to listen to the barker shouting about women, but that is not the draw. What brings us back, over and over, is the voice in our ears, the soft voice that says, "It's OK, you really are a man, you really can be a man, and if you come into my world, it will all be there, and it will all be easy."

    Pornography knows men's weakness. It speaks to that weakness, softly. Pornography ends up being about men's domination of women and about the ugly ways that men will take pleasure. But for most men, it starts with the soft voice that speaks to our deepest fear: That we aren't man enough.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of, most recently, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights Books).