Lili Bee interviews Dr. Robert Jensen about what’s at stake when talking about our sexual differences.
Recently me and one of my best male friends, Lance, who happens to be gay, were talking about our love lives and then about work, when I detected a shift between us. As I spoke about my work with people who found themselves partnered with sexual compulsives, he grew quiet.
It was hard not to notice that the room seemed suddenly darker, lifeless; the air wasn’t charged any more with the sparkle that Lance always delightfully brings in with him. When I finally asked if he was ok, he replied, “I just hope you’re not going to turn into Anita Bryant on us.”
After getting over the shock of hearing my work with sexual compulsion being conflated with a fundamentalist, conservative, religious, homophobic political leader of yesteryear, I asked why he’d even make such a comment. His response was that Anita Bryant and Co. seemed terrified of their own sexuality and needed to control everyone else’s as a result.
Lance and I always trusted one another with details about our intimate histories. I suspected he trusted me with his sexual details because he could tell from mine that I neither blush easily nor do I condemn others easily. He knew I had a secular education site specializing in often badly-needed resources when there is sexual compulsion/ addiction present and he knew we work with all sexual orientations. Anita Bryant?!
He went on to say,“I’m only talking about how the anti-porn groups always lobby to get politicians into office who are totally right-wing assholes, who hate gays and anyone who doesn’t fit their picture of mainstream, and that’s a no-win situation for us.”
My center doesn’t advocate for legislation against pornography and we certainly don’t shill for any religious groups. I created my business precisely because I could barely find resources that weren’t religiously-based, when I desperately needed help myself years ago and searched everywhere. How ironic Lance might find it, then, that when people call us who require religious reinforcement for their beliefs that what their husband (or wife) is doing is morally wrong, we send them to another site that is overtly religious in their approach.
“Google ‘sex positive’ and read everything you possibly can,” Lance said, “it’ll help offset anything puritanical out there while you’re doing your work on helping people who are freaking about sexual practices they don’t approve of. And remember, Lili, you might be cool, but just be careful because all this anti-sex stuff just ends up damaging people. Those conservative movements would be happy to get gays back into the closet and besides creating otherwise restrictive environments. Everybody’s sex life should be their own business.”
“So…what, Lance, if someone doesn’t want the stigma of being called “anti-sex”, does that mean they have to condone porn use in their relationships, just as one example?”
“I don’t know, but…”, Lance offered, getting more frustrated by the minute, “I moved to New York because I want to live in a sexually free environment. I just feel that sexual conservatism is so, I don’t know….backwards, so puritanical. “
“Ok! But then, who gets to decide what sexual “conservatism” even is? Your ‘sex-positive’ peeps?”
“Yeah! Why not? I’ll take Anthony Weiner over Anita Bryant any day!”
“Do you really think there’s nothing in between?”
But Lance wasn’t interested in any further questions; he was firmly entrenched in a belief system, one I’d like to know more about.
Why couldn’t we work our way towards anything even resembling a constructive talk? Why was our conversation breaking down reliably into overly-simplistic categories of bad/ good? All the myriad distinctions worth discussing were being lumped into polarized categories: black and white, right and wrong. This was as bad as my childhood religion, and that was not a good thing in any way.
Whenever I tried to zoom out to discuss the big-picture implications of pull-out-all-the-stops, in-your-face, commercialized sexuality that many didn’t want questioned, he’d drop into using personal anecdote to shore up his point of view. I’d no sooner join him there in the personal realm, when he’d swoop back up into the higher strata of how my views would hurt the politics of the country. It seemed to me that trying to collect spilled mercury off the floor with a spoon would be easier than having this conversation.
I laid awake that night and wondered just how many educated, aware people like Lance linked anyone who had an opinion that didn’t conform to the “sex positive” ideology with that person being anti-sex, or sex-negative? What forces were at work, I wondered, that had all but obliterated any nuance, or even interest in all of us having an authentic, expansive, respectful conversation about sex, rather than frequently resorting to vitriolic put-downs of those with differing views?
I decided to include “Sex positive as a term” on my list of topics to bring up with one of my mentors, an educator and activist I most respect for his passionate, unapologetic and committed stance on politics, feminism, racism, patriarchy, classism and the military industrial complex, Dr. Robert Jensen. As Hurricane Irene barreled her way up the eastern seaboard, Dr. Jensen and I Skyped: me hunkered down at my storm-proofed lair in Manhattan, him out in Austin under a clear, blue Texas sky at the beginning of the fall semester where he’s a professor at University of Texas, Austin Journalism School.
We talked about a lot of things besides the sex positive issue. We talked about masculinity, humanism, erotica vs. porn, power dynamics between the genders, and some of the more profound and personal insights into the heart of intimacy I’ve had the privilege of hearing a man share with me. I’ll post those other portions of our talk next week.
Lili’s talk with Dr. Robert Jensen Part I
Lili: So, Bob, let’s talk about sex. In particular, let’s talk about what I’ll call a movement with a cheery sounding name, the Sex Positive movement.
First, let me just say I find the term challenging. For all it’s implied positivism, there are problems with it, such as who dictates which activities are accepted, or not accepted within that movement’s sanctioned forms of sexual expression? To me, it comes across as a movement that just grants carte blanche to any and all sex acts/ sexual lifestyles and the only real issue seems to be, well, if you have an issue with any of it.
Premised on that, then, if one is ok with many or even most sexual activities, but expresses objections to, let’s say, one activity in particular, there are those within the Sex Positive movement who are very quick to dismiss that person, to call them a conservative, a rabid feminist or a religious fundamentalist.
Can you speak to the term “Sex Positive” because I’m more aware of the divisiveness of the term?
Bob: I think the whole notion of it is absurd. The notion of a “Sex Positive” category or a sex-positive feminism is truly ridiculous since no one I know of in these arenas is sex negative. The only people who might be truly sex-negative are extreme religious fundamentalists who believe that sexual conduct is somehow inherently shameful.
Within feminism I know of nothing that one would call sex-negative; in fact, the term sex negative isn’t a meaningful category, it’s an insult and an attempt to undermine a critique of the underlying power dynamics in sex.
I come out of a tradition called “radical feminism” and anti-porn feminism, feminism that’s critical of the sexual exploitation industries, critical of the oppression inherent in men’s buying and selling women’s bodies. That movement is sometimes called “sex negative” and I’ve never understood what that means. I’ve met literally hundreds of people in that movement and I’ve never met anyone who’s against sex or who thinks sex is a bad thing.
Lili: I live in sexually progressive New York City and everywhere I look, I see so many varied forms of sexuality being openly expressed. I also grant that New York is not an accurate litmus test of how sexual mores are received elsewhere in the country. Let me say that up front.
The people who call themselves “sex positive” seem to be advocating a sexual freedom that’s a response or even a rebellion against any kind of sexual repression. Where do you see us at this point in time with regard to repression?
Bob: Well certainly there are elements of contemporary culture that are repressive sexual arenas, especially conservative, religious trends for instance which have problems with all sorts of sexual expression. To me, the question isn’t about sexual liberation versus sexual freedom, the question is:
How do we construct a healthy sexual culture that understands sex in the context of fostering healthy human relationships?
The so-called sexual liberation of the 1960’s did many positive things: it broke down some of those old, repressive mechanisms. Much of that had to do with feminists critiquing the sexual control, the domination/ subordination dynamic in patriarchy. But that period of time also reinforced patriarchy in certain ways, especially in the way in which the sexual exploitation industries became more normalized and more mainstream. And by sexual exploitation industries I mean prostitution, pornography, stripping—the primary ways in this culture that men buy and sell women’s bodies for the sexual pleasure of men.
So, you have to look at how this played out. Some of it was positive, from my point of view, some of it was extremely negative. Some of it challenged patriarchy: the claim of legitimacy for lesbian and gay people was a challenge to the patriarchy, and it’s constricting gender norms and sexual rules. The assertion that women are fully autonomous sexual beings and not simply objects or vehicles for male pleasure – that challenge to the patriarchy was extremely healthy and positive. But there was also a flip side to it that reinforced some of that patriarchal ideology.
So the question now is: How does one fashion a healthy, sexual culture and the question I use to frame that is to ask: “What is sex for?” Sex has a role in human life. Obviously it has a basic role in procreation but it’s much more than that. The question is, and at any given point in time, sex can mean many different things and what do we want it to mean?
To ask that question is not to impose a single answer, it’s to recognize that not all forms of sex are consistent with healthy, human relationships. The most obvious example is sexual assault- that’s a form of sex but no one would argue it’s consistent with healthy human relationships. And so those are the kinds of things we have to ask.
How do you build a culture in which human beings flourish? is the fundamental question – part of that question has to do with sex: How do you build a culture in which human beings flourish sexually? There’s no one answer to that, but that’s the conversation we have to have.
The sex positive or so-called sexual liberation perspective tends to assume that anything sexual is consistent with human flourishing but I think the evidence is quite clear that that’s not true. So, we have to fashion a sexual ethic, and by sexual ethic I don’t mean the assertion of rules that are imposed on people, but a sexual ethic that emerges from honest conversation. And as you’re pointing out, when especially women in contemporary culture resist the pornographic nature of this culture, by saying, “I don’t want to replicate pornographic sexual scenes in my personal life”, those women are often the targets of insults or pejorative labels like “sex negative” and that’s what we have to overcome.
Lili: When one looks at the tone of many of the comments following articles about porn use, one can really get a sense of the contention and hostility. So it leaves me wondering: Whom does it really serve to create distinctions like “sex positive”? Why even create the distinction?
Bob: Well, it serves the people who want to undermine critique by labeling any critique as being “sex negative”. That’s the only function it serves as far as I can tell, which is why I don’t use the terms and don’t accept the terms in conversations or debates I might be in.
Lili: So let’s talk about what I call the language of “shaming.” One of the questions recently posed to the Advice Columnist at GMP centered on a man who felt uncomfortable with the vast amount of attention his new girlfriend attracted by insisting on wearing very little on the beach—“three half-dollar sized pieces of cloth”, was how he put it. He was looking for advice on how he might share his request that she wear even a small bikini, vs. almost nothing.
And one of the female commenters told him, quite aggressively in my opinion, that he should stop “slut shaming” her and basically, to get over it. This kind of exchange appears frequently enough that I wonder if we’re using the “shaming” term as a way to shut people up who have a different view of sexuality than our own. What are your thoughts on this?
Bob: I think there are two separate questions about shame: one that has to do with men and one that has to do with women. So the question isn’t about shaming or not shaming in the context that you raise, the question is:
What leads people in an oppressed category to behavior that seems to intensify or deepen those oppressive forces?
So let’s say you have a society in which women are routinely treated as objects for male sexual pleasure, that is you have contemporary patriarchy in which women are routinely bought and sold for male sexual pleasure and in which women even outside the sexual exploitation industries are encouraged to present themselves as sexual objects.
The question when a woman engages in self-presentation like that is: “What is the motive force behind that choice of hers? Is she doing it because it’s some expression of her authentic sense of her own body? Is it an authentic style of hers? Or is she simply buying into the cultural pressure to present herself as a sexual object?” Because there are certain kinds of rewards for that.
I don’t know the answer to that in the case of any specific woman. If one is going to engage a specific person in that conversation, one would do it as you would engage people in any kind of difficult conversation: with respect, and with a sense of true openness, wanting to understand. But when you step back from any individual case and you look at the patterns, I don’t think there’s any doubt that women, especially younger women, increasingly engage in that kind of self-presentation routinely. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that one of the serious factors in that is the cultural pressure for women to present themselves that way. That has nothing to do with shaming, that has to do with inquiry into the nature of the society in which you live and how people shape their own sense of their own bodies, their own desires, and their own value in the world. Ok, well that’s what a decent society would do, to step back and look at those patterns, and ask: “What are the power dynamics in which those patterns are rooted?” and ask again,
“Are they consistent with human flourishing?
There is nothing new about this. Feminists have been critiquing the way women are pressured into self-presentation that objectifies themselves for male viewing—that critique’s been around for a long time, there’s nothing new about it. It’s just that, as you point out, in this particular moment, this fundamental feminist critique has been so marginalized, so beaten back, so buried, that it’s not part of the cultural conversation and that’s unfortunate from my point of view.
Lili: Yes, and when I do raise the question in conversation, it’s not uncommon to get a considerable amount of pushback from women, who’ll say, “No, I do love walking around in a see-through dress with no underwear on in public”, or “I love when I know my man is out enjoying himself at strip clubs” or any of these statements which I have to admit, sound bizarre to me.
And with the colossal amounts of money being made in what you call the sexual exploitation industries, I can’t help but wonder if as women, we’re being hoodwinked into adopting these stances that prove that we’re cool, we’re the fun girls that are down with whatever, with the unspoken threat being that if we resist or question it, we risk marginalization or worse.
I believe in everyone dressing to please themselves, yes, but I also can’t help think many of us would be much happier if we didn’t feel this tremendous pressure to conform to the cultural standards of beauty which can be pretty fascist and plenty sexist. I really believe we would stop stressing about those extra five or ten pounds we carry around but which render us not “porn-worthy” as one man characterized the cultural ideal in conversation with me.
Bob: Well, that’s right, and body size is another thing—it’s very difficult to have a sensible conversation in this culture because on the one hand, there are cultural pressures on women to be thin, cultural pressures on women to look a certain way, to have a certain body type and those are unhealthy. They lead to eating disorders and all sorts of things.
It’s also true however, that the celebration of non-traditional body types in a culture that has serious obesity problems and health problems is also difficult. The goal isn’t to impose a single body type on everybody. The goal is to ask, “What kind of nutrition and physical activity is consistent with a long-term healthy body?” It’s pretty clear that starving yourself to be model-thin isn’t consistent with that. It’s pretty clear that eating lots of high-fat, high-calorie, processed foods is inconsistent with that. The question is: “How do we shape lives that are sensible, sane and consistent with both physical, emotional and mental, long-term health?”
These are difficult conversations to have in a society that’s essentially gone mad, from my point of view.
People present themselves to other people in ways that have lots of different objectives, including the desire to be sexually attractive. There’s nothing psychologically pathological about wanting to be sexually attractive. The question is, “How much of our time are we spending on those activities around presentation, and how are those gendered?” “How are the pressures different on women than on men, for instance?”
The other question is, “How much of that comes from authentic desire?” and ‘authenticity’ is a difficult word in this context because all of our desires are in some sense, conditioned by society. I’m not sure anybody has individual, authentic desires. What I come to desire is always going to be, in part, shaped by the society around me. But we have to be able to ask, “How are those social pressures sometimes healthy, or unhealthy? How are they sometimes connected to domination/ subordination dynamics in oppressive systems like patriarchy? That also ties in not just to clothing and weight, but the growing prevalence of cosmetic surgery where people engage not only in dieting and such, to shape their bodies, but literally, to go so far as to mutilate healthy tissue to shape a body into some, what they think is socially desirable form. All of these questions, are, I think, profound indications of how disturbed this culture is.
Lili: And it’s not just women. I’m hearing more frequently now from men who feel pressured to conform to some often difficult-to attain ideal of male beauty. I’m not really seeing much of that, though, not even an iota of what I see we, as women, put ourselves through. Especially disturbing to me is how young it starts, too….
Bob: Well, there’s two points about the assertion that men are now under the same kind of pressure.
Number one, to some degree it’s true. There are certainly more intense pressures on men to present themselves in ways to be sexually desirable. But, number one, as you’re pointing out, are those equal to the pressures on women, especially girls…and the answer is obviously no.
And the range of presentation that men can engage in and be in the category of attractive is far wider than the range for women. So these aren’t equivalent. But, even if there are more pressures on men to look a certain way, that’s not a sign that we’ve reached equality. It’s just a sign that the culture’s degraded even further.
So then in patriarchy now, even though male dominance is still the defining dynamic, men have internalized some of the insanity themselves. I don’t see that as something to celebrate; it’s just another indication of the corrosive nature of this culture.
Here, we’re not just talking about patriarchy—of course, we’re also talking about capitalism. These are trends fueled not only by the dynamic of male domination / female subordination—they’re also trends fueled by the relentless, pathological quest for profit, especially in late-consumerism capitalism when we’ve been sold virtually everything we can be sold, so the market consistently tries to find new ways to generate profit, no matter how psychologically damaging they are to people. That’s the cosmetic industry, much of the fashion industry, and the non-medically necessary plastic surgery industry. They’re all a sign, from my point of view, of a culture in collapse, a culture in which human flourishing is subordinated to, in this case, the desire for profit.
Read Part 2 of the interview: Erotica, Patriarchy, and Pornography
About Robert Jensen, Ph.D
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice” (Soft Skull Press, 2009); “Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity” (South End Press, 2007); and several other books. Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing,” which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist.