mari ruti and chris rock on porn and autism

I generally like what Mari Ruti has to say, and I’ve written about her stuff before (see here and here and here and here). She’s a Lacanian gender studies person, except that she writes clearly and has a lot of intellectual honesty. She has important things to say about the problems within gender studies itself.

Her latest book is called Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Costs of Everday Life. It’s more or less a statement of what should be common sense about neoliberalism and relationships. She diagnoses problems not everyone is willing to acknowledge:

Among other things, American culture appears to assume that sexual penetrability equals receptivity, which is in turn coded as being equivalent to obedience, vulnerability, and submissiveness. The result is that this culture is governed by a sexual imaginary of masculine aggression and feminine violation, as if straight intercourse were a matter of women being conquered by men.

I’m not talking about how straight people actually have sex; I’m talking about the American collective sexual imagination. And I can honestly say that before I arrived in the United States, it never once occurred to me to think of sex this way. When I realized that this is how many people in this country envision things, I kept saying, But why? What makes you think that penetrability equals passivity? Aren’t there a lot of active things that women do sexually? Now that I read American queer theory, I find the same bizarre equation between penetrability and passivity in the pages of books that otherwise promote sexual transgression, so that gay men who prefer to be penetrated are characterized as “feminine”, “passive”, and “submissive” bottoms whereas lesbians who prefer to penetrate are deemed to be active–read, “masculine”–tops. In this sense, mainstream American notions of straight sexually have “penetrated” (pun intended) even the most radical of academic thinking about queer sexuality. For me, the whole thing is just plain maddening.

What complicates things is that the penis can be used as a tool of domination; it can be used to rape women (or other men). Conversely, what complicates things for straight women, including straight feminists, is that even misogynist men can sometimes be a source of sexual fulfillment. This is one reason it has been difficult for women to present a cohesive political front. Their relationship to men is different from the relationship of racialized individuals to white people in the sense that, for them, the oppressor is also sometimes the source of some pleasurable things.

She admits true things about feminism and porn:

The fact is that my intellectual formation took place during the rise of queer feminism in the 1990s, which tends to be emphatically “pro-sex”, and vocally anti-MacKinnon, with the consequence that for two decades I flinched at the very mention of MacKinnon; like many pro-sex feminists, I thought of pornography as a way to sidestep a 1950s type of sexual prudery. It was interesting to me to discover that the twenty-something feminist (some of them do still exist!) who challenged me on this point was much more critical of the content of heteroporn than any of my closest colleagues have been willing to be–or that I myself have been willing to be.

In recent years I’ve had to reassess things, not because I want to endorse an anti-sex agenda but because I’ve come to see that the fact that the pro-sex side won the sex wars has contributed to a sexual culture that tells straight women that it’s never cool to grumble about porn (because supposedly it’s invariably sexually liberating and socially progressive). In other words, I’ve come to see that unqualified sex-positivity–the kin of feminism that, out of allegiance to the idea that erotic fantasies are intrinsically beyond reproach, celebrates all forms of sexuality–has closed off important critical avenues: it has made it virtually impossible to criticize heteropatriarchal sex culture without immediately being labeled puritanical and sex-negative. I’ve even known straight men who use “feminist” pro-sex arguments to bluntly silence their female partners who are bothered by their porn consumption.

The contemporary feminist nonchalance regarding the misogynistic (and racist) aspects of heteroporn is weirdly out of step with the generally critical attitude that academic feminism takes toward other components of mainstream culture. Notably, the same feminists who adamantly refuse to criticize porn adamantly criticize more or less every other aspect of biopolitics (in the same way that I’ve done in this book). This, I believe, is the biggest flaw in their thinking: it’s not logical to use Foucault’s theory of biopolitical conditioning to pick apart every element of present-day culture without admitting that the straight guy who cruises misogynistic porn on a nightly basis is getting an education on what sex is supposed to look like and on how he, as a sexual being, is supposed to act. It’s not intellectually plausible to exempt sexual fantasies from otherwise intense critiques of the biopolitical fashioning of human subjectivity, for it seems incontestable that today’s multibillion-dollar porn industry is one of the most powerful tools of this fashioning, fundamentally shaping the sexuality, and perhaps even the entire modality of being, of new generations of people, especially young men.

Paul Preciado may be right in speculating that if critics of biopoliticsl discreetly leave porn out of their analyses, it’s because they’re among its avid consumers…All the talk about the (supposed) liberation of sexuality that porn accomplishes can’t change the fact that much of heteroporn is designed to get men off on the abjection of women; it’s designed to make men feel powreful in relation to women whose main role is to serve them sexually.

Much of heteroporn folds the denigration of women into its basic understanding (and portrayal) of sexuality, which explains why some women–myself included–find it extremely difficult to watch; the truth is that I’ve always been bothered by the visuals of (not all but a great deal of) heteroporn but too afraid to admit this for fear of being called a bad (MacKinnon-esque) feminist.

So basically even the most radical of sexually progressive feminists would rather lose than be thought of as a frumpy man-hater. This is a profound failure of imagination.

For the last 20 or 30 years, feminism has failed to propose an alternative idea of sex from the one in porn.

It’s not that I’m pure as the driven snow and haven’t looked at porn. It’s just that, when I do, I’m aware that something sad and sordid is taking place as a way of substituting imagination for physical contact. Using a violently-produced consumer product to fill a void, like so many other things. It takes work to sift through all the videos and find a convincingly-simulated mutually enjoyable encounter. It can help to keep the sound off.

It wasn’t until after high school that I had better-than-dialup internet, and we had a shared family computer in the 1990s, so internet porn was the occasional slow-loading picture of a naked chick. I had the Jehovah’s Witness early upbringing, where sex is something that only happens between you and The One.

Probably more importantly, my dad was the Family Advocacy Representative, so I was starting to learn about all the different forms of abuse by the time I was 7 or 8. That includes verbal abuse. I knew you’re not supposed to say mean things to your partner and hurt their feelings. I knew that hitting is domestic violence. Before I was exposed to porn, I was exposed to a less degrading idea of sex and relationships. Here, Mari Ruti writes about the problems when feminism drops the ball and men get their idea of sex only from porn:

I find it hard to dispel the mind-altering fumes of spending fifteen minutes on Amazon.com. So I can’t imagine that the young men who started watching misogynistic porn when they were ten haven’t been in any way impacted by this practice. Generally speaking, online porn has changed my relationship to men: whereas a couple of decades ago progressive men seemed like allies, friends, intellectual buddies, and potential lovers, these days I mostly want nothing to do with them. Something in their eyes has changed.

Some men I’ve talked to admit that there are unwanted results to their porn usage. Some admit that they feel ashamed of having enjoyed watching pornography that humiliates women, that they don’t quite know what to do with the images that saturate their imagination, and that they consequently fin real-life sexual encounters challenging and bewildering; they find it difficult to reconcile the female-degrading images that they have relished with the reality of being attracted to women they admire, with the result that their offline sexuality is timid and self-conscious. This conflicted attitude seems common among profeminist men who want to treat women well but who simultaneously find online porn too seductive to resist.

Among such men, guilt about their online activities can even give rise to a desperate effort to idealize their partners, to see women as virginal creatures who are entirely divorced from the “dirty” images they see online; it can give rise to an attempt to redraw the age-old heteropatriarchal dichotomy between virgin and whore as a line between offline and online sexuality. One man mentioned that he would rather receive a kind smile from a woman than have sex with her; his desire is sublimated into gentleness, an idealizing love that flees from the disorganization of passion. Though this attitude may seem protective of women, it undermines women who would prefer robust sex lives, who would like to actually have sex with their partners rather than be worshipped as icons of purity.

Because nothing makes any sense if porn sex is the only idea of sex. The mind reels and the dick shrivels, if you’re missing that piece of the puzzle and you want to maintain your self-image as a decent person.

Sex feels good. It feels good to make someone feel good. Feeling good cooperatively. There’s nothing degrading about that, as a mental model of the situation.

In praise of “effeminate” men:

Another name for penis envy might be resentment. Nietzsche thought that resentment was the sentiment of the weak. So be it: measured against the heteropatriarchal fantasy of phallic power that I’ve outlined, most of us, including most men, are weak, and many ouf us have excellent reasons to be resentful. We also have a wide array of other bad feelings to choose from: depression and anxiety are perhaps the most obvious ones, but there are numerous others to fall back on, such as bitterness, loneliness, frustration, annoyance, irritation, and utter disillusionment.

The cultural fetishization of the penis may be one reason–though certainly not the only reason–that women have historically been especially prone to bad feelings such as depression and anxiety: it’s harder to feel good when you can’t hide behind a fantasy of omnipotence. Many creative, artistic, spiritual, and intellectual men have found themselves in the same predicament, for such “effeminate” men have never been convincing as pillars of phallic power. Nor have they necessarily been keen to emulate this power. Quite the contrary, many of them have chosen to stare right into the abyss of existence: instead of aspiring to phallic power and its illusory veils of protection, they have chosen to confront the intrinsic insecurities of human life head-on, with the result that they have produced works of unfathomably beauty while often feeling unfathomably awful.

While phallic men (and some women) fought wars, built castles, and forged empires, less phallic men–and the rare women who were given the opportunity to participate in public life–created the kinds of legacies of the mind that demand a courageous encounter with the nothingness (lack) at the core of human existence. Note that the divide here is not between men and women but rather between those who adhere to fantasies of phallic power and those who are either forced or prefer to contemplate the precariousness of life beyond such fantasies. Though the former are often portrayed as the heroes of history, the latter seem more heroic to me, and this is the case even though they have carried a greater burden of bad feelings, including penis envy.

In that light, the following passage was a bit jarring:

Sometimes I think that the recent epidemic of Asperger Syndrome as a specifically masculine pathology is merely the latest in the long list of excuses for why men are destined to wound women. I don’t mean to say that the syndrome isn’t real and debilitating to those who suffer from it. It just feels like its sudden prevalence has become yet another way to give men permission to mow women down with emotional insensitivity.

ARGH!!!!!

It’s especially annoying because there’s so much to say about autism and gender. See Authoring Autism, Autism and Gender, here, and here, and here and here. Much like normal people’s regressive gender ideas infect even queer theory, hating on autistic people infects everything.

She writes fondly of a schizophrenic relative who played a part in her intellectual development. Consequently, she’s not feelin’ Deleuze & Guattari:

Notably, more or less the only major European thinkers who, to the consternation of some of my graduate students, have left me completely cold are Deleuze and Guattari, who valorized schizophrenia as a politically subversive pulverization of subjectivity. What I saw my uncle wanting more than anything was the very antithesis of such pulverization: he wanted an examined life, a life conscious of its outlines, however incoherent and anxiety-saturated these outlines might ahve been. In a way, he taught me to aim for a space between the calm contemplation that we sometimes–because of ancient Greek philosophy–associate with the examined life and complete disarray.

This may be why I’ve never liked the idealization of self-shattering that characterizes important strands of contemporary theory, why the critique of this idealization is a thread that runs through my academic writing…For example, the self-disintegration that Deleuze and Guattari advocated suggests a life without any psychic or affective guideposts–what Lacan called “quilting points”–whereas even my schizophrenic uncle had such guideposts, including the authors (Freud, Nietzsche, Proust, and Plato) he referenced tirelessly while pacing up and down the kitchen, driving my mother crazy while (though I didn’t know this then) offering me an invaluable set of intellectual leads to follow.

Ironically, I perceive a lot of autistic themes in Lacanian psychoanalysis.

EVERYONE gets to use autism as an example of being terrible at sex, even Chris Rock in his new Netflix special Tamborine:

I was addicted to porn. I know, billion-dollar industry. Just me, right? I was addicted to porn. I was 15 minutes late, everwhere. I got some witnesses. When you watch too much porn, you know what happens? You become, like, sexually autistic. You develop sexual autism. You have a hard time with eye contact, verbal cues. You want everything to be routine. Like, you can’t choke your woman every night. You gotta mix it up. Choke-out Thursdays. And what happens, too, you watch too much porn, you get desensitized. You know? It’s like, when you start watching porn, it’s like, any porn will do. It’s like, “Ah, they’re naked! Woo-hoo.” Then, later on, now you’re all fucked up, and you need a perfect porn cocktail to get you off, no? I was so fucked up, like, I’d need an Asian girl with a black girl’s ass that speaks Spanish just to get my dick to move an inch. I’m a lot better now.

The porn thing was a factor in Chris Rock’s divorce. This is related:

That Rick’s girlfriend isn’t allowed to complain about his online activities is (for him) a given. When I pressed him on what he thought his girlfriend should do with her sexuality, it took him a while to understand what I was asking, because he assumed that women’s level of desire is not very high: “Everyone knows that they only fuck to please men.” When I said that I didn’t think that this was necessarily true, that I knew many women who liked “fucking” just fine, he finally seemed to grasp the dilemma: “So, you’re saying that if I get most of my sex from the internet, my girlfriend might feel deprived of sex that she thinks she deserves as my girlfriend?” Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. “Ah,” he said, as the lightbulb went on.

My conversation with Rick gave me my first,and thus far only, panic attack. To say that I felt bad is an understatement (even though I had absolutely no interest in dating this guy). I felt utterly defeated as a sex-positive feminist. Even though I know that Rick isn’t Mr. Every Guy, I don’t think that he’s entirely unusual either, and this terrifies me, for I recognize that when men like Rick tell their girlfriends that complaining about their porn consumption is prudish, heteropatriarchy has found yet another way to tell the same tired story: men get to have what they want (in this case, porn) whereas women’s preferences, including their sexual preferences, are deemed insignificant

When I finally told Rick (because the conversation was making me livid–this was not a “controlled” interview) that I didn’t care what he did with his sex life but that I would never want to date a man like him, a man with no regard for my preferences or feelings, Rick insisted that, like his girlfriend, I don’t have a choice because every guy out there is like him (even if they don’t like to admit it). Fortunately, I know that I do have a choice. Even though I certainly recoil from men more than I used to, I haven’t found it impossible to find ones who are willing to enter into the give and take of negotiating a mutually satisfying sex life…

Rick also clearly assumed that he should not be asked to make any choices in life, that of course he should be able to have his girlfriend’s love at the same time as he gets to keep his porn. This mixture of entitlement and pure gluttony characterizes many aspects of our consumer society. I learned a long time ago not to be surprised by the fact that it’s frequently expressed by young men of anticapitalist, in this case explicitly Marxist, inclinations.

For all these reasons, I’m not convinced that our postfeminist sexual culture is taking place on women’s terms. Men like Rick silence women who seek to voice their bad feelings about pornography, sometimes even–if they’re clever enough–claiming that being critical of porn turns a woman into an antiquated antifeminist. These are men who tell their girlfriends that if they’re feeling bad, they should learn to feel differently. This is one of the oldest tricks in the heteropatriarchal handbook: if you do something that makes a woman feel bad, make sure that she feels terrible about feeling bad, so terrible in fact that she’ll do her best to suppress that bad feeling.

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