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Bitch Reads #2

Defending Pornography
by Nadine Strossen

Ok, I agree with all of Strossen's major points: that censorship is in general the enemy of feminism; that pornography is impossible to define; that "pornography" can be positive; that no government can be trusted not to use its power against those it is ostensibly supposed to be protecting. Above all, "Far from advancing women's equality, this strong tendency to equate any sexual expression with gender discrimination undermines women's equality" (p. 24).

It's her minor points I have a problem with. She decries student complaints about murals of bare-chested women and posters of nude paintings, claiming their squeamishness is caused by "sex panic." While she is absolutely right in asserting that the solution to these situations is not censorship, in so doing she creates a category called "art" that is excused from critique—well, Western art has a long misogynist history. Does that make it any better? I don't think so. She also disingenuously ignores issues of power as they intersect with free speech, taking the old-school liberal view that free speech is absolute and not linked to the accessibility of certain educational and financial resources. And sometimes her statements slide toward the ridiculous: "Sexually explicit materials may well be the only source of sexual information or pleasure for many people who, for a host of reasons, do not have sexual contact with others—shy or inhibited people, people with mental or physical disabilities, people with emotional problems, gay people who are confused about their sexual orientation or are afraid to reveal or express it, people who are quite young or old, geographically isolated people, unattractive people," (p. 164). Geographically isolated, maybe (although it's hard to imagine someone quite that alone). I'll even buy shy. But this list simply serves to reinforce the perception of certain groups as desexualized and/or "abnormal," a misperception that gays, lesbians, and people with disabilities have been struggling to correct. And I'm sorry—but unattractive people? Whatever.

The book's biggest flaw is that Strossen oversimplifies her opponents' arguments to the point of distortion. "This distorted concept of sexual harassment [that sexual speech equals sexual harassment] reflects two false assumptions: first, that all sexually oriented expression is gender discriminatory; and second, that all such expression is harassing," (p. 119). This is blatantly false, in view of the fact that plenty of men have filed complaints based on the hostile-environment definition of harassment. And this "distorted concept" simply serves to point out that harassment is often in the eye of the beholder and should be treated as such—to my knowledge, no one has suggested that certain words or phrases be barred from usage in any and all cases. Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin come in for the same kind of treatment. Their anti-pornography ordinance—the horrifying anti-feminist and homophobic Canadian results of which Strossen impeccably documents—is misrepresented as a ban on materials that depict the subordination of women, rather than being constitutive of that subordination. This is a distinction that MacKinnon goes out of her way to emphasize: showing a woman in a physically subordinate position is not the same as putting her in a politically subordinate one. I fully admit that this is a fine line, and one that might be particularly hard to find in dirty pictures, but the fact that MacKinnon believes that it's there automatically makes her more reasonable than Strossen would have readers believe. Strossen is a very smart woman; I have no doubt that she understands the distinction. The fact that she glosses over it in her analysis only serves to weaken her position.

Regardless of its many flaws, however, Defending Pornography is an important feminist book, most notably for its vivid demonstration of the ways in which censorship is bad for feminism of all stripes. Readers will find it impossible to see censorship as a viable solution to the "problem" of pornography; they may even recognize that pornography is not a problem at all. —LJ

Gender Wars
by Brian Fawcett

"For the minority of us humans who are not condemned to scramble for food or superior military weapons, gender relations and sexuality are in a state of destructive and violent confusion." And so begins Brian Fawcett's Gender Wars, a stylistic novelty masquerading as a sorely needed commentary on the bruised
sexual psyche of the white male in today's society. The gimmick is that a work of fiction and a series of short, often clinical monographs on various sexual aspects and practices (e.g. "Head," "Pheromones," etc.) exist simultaneously on the pages of this book, the narrative in black ink, the other text in red. Gender Wars becomes interesting through the juxtaposition of these dueling elements, rather than through the base content. The fictional sexual odyssey of Fred Ferris, acknowledged early on as Fawcett's alter ego, goes on for page after page of hand-wringingly earnest exploits. The problems that develop stem from Fawcett's reliance on standard male/female emotional stereotypes—women as hysterical, men as rational and detached—to define the carnal morass of Ferris's life. The parade of Ferris's consorts reads like a list of case histories from the DSM-IV. There's the daddy-obsessed rape victim with a thing for God, the rich widow who shoplifts for the thrill of being manhandled by the police, and the manic, dependent Annie whose suicide attempts kick off Ferris's whole self-relective flashback.

The above quote, taken from the narrative entitled "Mexican Standoff" that functions as the book's introduction, sums up both the aims and the failures of this type-dense work: it's an attempt to address so many large issues at one time—politics, social conditioning, psychology—in a pat, tidy fashion while dragging the narrative on endlessly. An added irritant are the sidebars detailing various war crimes in Northern Ireland and Saigon. So, like, Brian, duh, what's your point? Ironically, these and other self-consciously postmodern, overwrought touches make the book what it is—without them it would just be more morose fiction about how confusing those darned females make life for men like Ferris who think the height of male sensitivity is liking to perform oral sex.

To be fair, Fawcett does provide some interesting observations on human sexuality. The best and most enjoyable writing in his book is contained in the bits that don't play at being fiction. His "technical" essays combine anatomical and social reality with comfortable humor. From the essay on male erections: "The barnacular erection is an instrument of singular, simple, and fundamentally onanistic pleasure. Women should beware of men who only have this variety of erection. They're likely to have other personality traits of barnacles. In the end, the woman will be better off with a dildo or a vibrator, because at least then the person on the operating end of it will be capable of caring for them." Fawcett's enthusiasm for sex in all its forms, his respect for its power and importance, and his ability to fuse personal experience and biological factoids into object lessons without seeming whiny and self-important are all redeeming features. What would be really great is if Brian were to just chuck the whole po-mo is-it-autobiographical-or-does-he-just-want-us-to-think-that? fiction angle and go ahead and write a sex manual for the single, confused, disaffected individual. —AZ

Talk Dirty To Me
by Sallie Tisdale

There are a lot of good things about Tisdale's book, not the least of which is that she forthrightly describes and clearly relishes her own feelings of lust for both men and women. When she writes about that, when she describes her forays into porn shops, and when she recounts her conversations with sex workers, Talk Dirty to Me is at its best: one articulate woman's point of view on the fun and games, the embarrassments, the contradictions of erotic life. But her attempt at an overarching history of human sexuality is boring at best; only half of her comments on gender relations are perceptive—the other half are clichéd. I'm not sorry I read it, but unfortunately, I wouldn't be sorry if I hadn't. —LJ

Going All the Way: Teenage Girls' Tales of Sex, Romance, and Pregnancy
by Sharon Thompson

With 400 interviews conducted over ten years, Going All the Way is promising. I wanted a frank view of desire, descriptions of pleasure in girls' own words, an orgy of wild, crazy, and unconflicted teen sex. Well, two out of three ain't bad. Time to get my own expectations in line with reality; of course Thompson's narrators are plagued with insecurity, guilt, confusion, ignorance, and all the other nasties that come with adolescence—they are, after all, adolescents. And because Thompson offers deft analysis of the socio-cultural underpinnings of these issues and more, I can almost forgive her for the moments—and to be fair, there aren't all that many of them—when she slips lazily into conventional explanations for her subjects' behavior. And if the book's organization sometimes feels imposed from without, if it feels like these interviews have barely scratched the surface of the collective experience of teenage girls, that's probably because it was, and they have. But what more can you expect from a first attempt at this kind of primary research? Groundbreaking books are never complete or complex enough—they are by definition the start of something. And what a start this is. You'll be entranced by the voices of these girls; you'll wish that you'd been there in their living rooms and hangouts, listening to every word they shared with the author. You'll want to talk back to them, to tell them that they shouldn't care about that particular asshole guy anyway and to share that you, too, felt that intense and undeniable curiosity about what another person's body might feel like. —LJ

Unnatural Dykes to Watch Out For
by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel's sixth Dykes to Watch Out For book is just like her fifth, and fourth, and...you know. Which is to say that it's
a fabulous and funny continuation of the lives of some racially, ethnically, erotically, and neurotically diverse lesbians. Overt sociopolitical commentary—Mo's tirades, Jezanna's concern that "Bunns & Noodle" superstores are stealing her feminist bookstore's customers with their corporate imperialist tactics like covering the cost of discounts by over-working perfectionist employees and compensating them well below the level of a living wage (oh, excuse me, I was having an employment flashback), and the crew's trip to Stonewall 25—always keeps a sense of humor and never gets pedantic. As for more covert stuff—just make sure you read the headlines on all the newspapers in the strips. In fact, some of the best touches, like the book titles on display at Madwimmin (Written on the Booty; Sex, Art, American Culture, and Me) go unnoticed unless you look at absolutely everything. If you've never read Dykes to Watch Out For, start at the beginning. And if you have, then you'll be just as excited as I was to read the new one. So when can we watch out for number seven? —LJ

Reviewed in this issue: Defending Pornography, by Nadine Strossen; Gender Wars, by Brian Fawcett; Talk Dirty To Me, by Sallie Tisdale; Going All the Way: Teenage Girls' Tales of Sex, Romance, and Pregnancy, by Sharon Thompson; and Unnatural Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel

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