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Inside the Prosex Wars

Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights
By Nadine Strossen
Anchor Books

By Joanna Frueh
University of California Press

Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America
By Laura Kipnis
Grove Press

For a while there in the '80s the feminist porn/sex debate got pretty scary. Rank-and-filers whose First Amendment principles weren't shored up by a personal attraction to pornography were so reluctant to go against the flow that there seemed a chance women's libbers would exhaust themselves jousting with the sex merchants the way their 19th-century sisters had veered off into temperance, with Andrea Dworkin our very own Carry Nation. But all that had really happened was that prosex feminists had taken too much for granted. As the likes of Ellen Willis, Carole Vance, Jane Gallop, and Pat Califia, to name just a few, launched their diverse attacks on the Robin Morgans and Catharine MacKinnons, a fundamental fact reasserted itself: Whether sex is an irresistible physical urge or an elaborate social construction, 20th-century American women are as determined to enjoy it as 20th-century American men, and no amount of specious prudery is going to stop them.

'Nuff said? Sometimes I wish--after almost two decades, the debate often seems rather ritualistic. Words matter tremendously in sex; anybody who needs Foucault to figure out that moral codes and subtler verbal phenomena profoundly affect how human beings disport their genitals and activate their erogenous zones enjoys a more unimpeded communion with his or her sacred essence than I managed at 16, 18, 23, 27, 30, 32, 38, 40, 43, or 49 (although now, of course, I'm beyond all that). But basically, the lines are drawn regarding censorship and pornography as well as the right of women to do what they want with their bodies and fantasy lives. Certainly most Voice readers know which side they're on--the right side, the pleasure side, rah rah rah. And though dissections of Camille Paglia and interviews with lap dancers may still mean a lot to young women and men painfully working out their unique sexual identities, the porn controversy and its numerous offshoots often have the aura of a summer-camp color war.

Only a bluenose would want discussion to cease altogether--real human suffering, and also real human ecstasy, are still at stake. No one has gotten near the bottom of such essential concepts as abuse, harassment, or, especially, desire, and in this era of market-driven political volatility it isn't just paranoia to fear that an American fascism might yet put an end to eros as we know it. There are plenty of bad people out there thinking up new ways to say sex is sinful, and a distressing if small proportion of them do so as feminists. The fact remains, however, that few adults are likely to change their minds about this stuff just because some post-Lacanian has reconceptualized the varieties of phallic experience. So when I thumb through Lisa Duggan and Nan Hunter's strong-principled Sex Wars, say, I get irritated with Duggan for poking fun at poststructuralist rhetoric without bothering to juice up her own. And as I soak up Straight Sex's superbly useful overview of modern feminism's interface with the erotic, I wish Lynne Segal could render her empathetic intelligence in a prose that transcended the utilitarian.

It's snobbery to posit any essential connection between verbal and sexual pleasure. The ability to write well is one thing, the capacity to fuck well another. But there are metaphorical connections: Readers have as much right to be turned on as do sexual subjects (and sex objects), and putting some jam into your style is an excellent way to tone up your ideas. So it's too bad Nadine Strossen's Defending Pornography is the kind of book you read fast not because you can't put it down but so you can. As legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Strossen has done as much to make the world safe for sexual speech as any player in the debate. But she writes like a lawyer marshalling evidence rather than a thinker examining nuances, and Oliver Wendell Holmes she's not. Her prose is devoid of grace or wit; recounting a rib-tickler about lesbian pornography, she takes 100 words to get to the punch line, which she carefully explains before it arrives.

At times, too, Strossen's one-sidedness becomes irritating. Surely there's something to the notion that pinups can be used to harass in the workplace, even if that doesn't mean they should be taken down, and her preferred vision of porn actresses as imaginative freelance contractors is a good deal rosier than the evidence warrants. Nevertheless, she has produced a sobering book. However boring the old points may seem in a liberal enclave, the sex debate gets scarier than ever when Canada's MacDworkinite porn law is selectively applied to political undesirables--such as feminists (many of them lesbians) with ideas about sex (including Andrea Dworkin herself). It's easy to forget how big a horror MacKinnon is--a hypocritical powermonger who means to establish her aversion for erectile tissue as the only feminist truth. Taking her on won't be a rhetorical exercise until she is totally defeated.

Not surprisingly, many of the battles Strossen describes occur on college campuses--with their rampaging hormones, their behavior codes and thought police, their theorists working out liberationist abstractions in a hothouse where any piece of horse dookie can have its moment in the sun. Fortunately, both University of Nevada art historian Joanna Frueh and Northwestern University filmmaker Laura Kipnis make a point of opposing all the pieties of this sexualized environment--not just the repressiveness of collegiate antisex leagues, but the intolerance, evasiveness, and elitism of their own prosex allies. Moreover, these university-press books take explicit exception not just to earlier scholarship, which is how scholars make their livings, but to the specialized lingo all such books are expected to share.

Although it would be possible to pass Frueh off as one more academic hustler, her unutilitarian verbiage is convincing and sexy. Erotic Faculties collects not essays but lectures, complete with stage directions. Vain and proud of it, Frueh lovingly describes her outfits, her tone of voice, her bared navel and buffed limbs. "Erotic scholarship is lubricious and undulant, wild, polyvocal, cock- and cuntsure," she proclaims, and whether she's attacking "the Postmodern Mysteries" in "Fuck Theory" and "Pythia," celebrating her marriage in the pornographic "Mouth Piece" and the contentious Louise Bourgeois hommage "Jeez Louise," or gazing upon her own inevitable decay through the eyes of postmenopausal and dying artists, she keeps her word. Frueh may not persuade everyone to seek out the work that inspires her poetic criticism. But she makes the most of the truth that, in the end, art is what the viewer makes of it.

Declaring poststructuralism's "old refrain of revolution" merely "reformist," Frueh posits her subjectivist paradigm-busting as an alternative, but that's just the usual radical one-upspersonship. When Laura Kipnis talks revolution, she has the decency to mean class struggle. As the 1991 essay and videoscript collection Ecstasy Unlimited demonstrates, she was one of the earliest theory mavens to come out against theory's avant-gardist pretensions. Claiming popular culture as people's culture rather than an image bank for tenure-grubbing bricoleurs, she climaxed with a half-finished defense of Hustler's antibourgeois grotesquery that grew into Bound and Gagged. Assuming that pornography merits "critical exegesis" as much as any other art form, these five connected essays on s&m fantasy, transvestite self-portraiture, soft-core fat mags and flicks, Hustler's unremitting attacks on the rich and famous, and MacDworkinite reaction deploy the conceptual arsenal of theory and cultural studies in language a disinterested outsider might take for forceful, coherent English prose--educated to be sure, but so full of feeling and ideas it's worth the reasonable effort it requires.

Structurally, Kipnis's only problem is how to follow a magnificent first chapter, an essentially journalistic investigation rooted in many hours of taped evidence and interviews with Daniel DePew, a gay s&m bottom-turned-top now serving 33 years for conspiracy to film kiddie porn. Not only does Kipnis establish beyond a reasonable doubt that DePew was entrapped, she makes clear that he regarded the entire police-initiated scheme as a courting ritual, and provides a picture of DePew's actual sex life that can only be called touching. This is as clear a take as one could expect on the intertwining of sexual fantasy and reality, and Kipnis isn't just scoring points when she emphasizes that the cops' gruesome snuff and kidnapping scenarios appealed far more to the law enforcers than to the "perverts" they thought they were bringing to justice.

The rest of the book interprets more and reports less, and Kipnis's failure to find any genital buzz of her own in the analysis leaves her looking a tad detached. (Somehow the assertion that porn is "not just friction and naked bodies" always rubs me the wrong way.) But the material she's found, the playful and sometimes surreal fatty stuff especially, constitutes impressive original reasearch. And throughout she remains true to her class analysis, seeing men as well as women as sexually victimized by their upbringing and material circumstances--without pretending that Hustler doesn't gross her out. She also tosses choice barbs at Allan Bloom and Jeffrey Masson as well as Masson's inamorata MacKinnon. So rah rah rah. To wonder whether the porn/sex debate has gone on too long isn't to suggest that either subject has lost its intrinsic fascination. Especially when rendered in a language that generates a seductiveness of its own.

Village Voice, July 30, 1996