Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The politics of pleasure

Some of you may have read about "The Price of Pleasure", an anti-porn film which is going the rounds in the US. I cannot comment on the content of the film, since I haven't seen it and as I do not think it will reach this part of the world, nor am I likely to. But the title itself in many ways tells me a lot
Firstly, it is catchy and to the point. It relates neatly to the subject of the movie - sexual pleasure bought and sold - and hints, alliteratively at the subject matter of porn.

I am more interested, however, in something that is implicit in the title - that sexual pleasure must have a price. Or, more precisely, a cost. And this is very much in line with on of the dominant themes within Christianity, in which sexual activity outside very strict limits is identified with damnation. I am not interested in the finer points of theology here, simply how those points have been transmitted into the cultural mainstream. A good example of such transmission can be found in the guidance given by their confessors to married couples in the medieval penitentials. A flow chart showing the decision making process that couples were exhorted to undertake can be seen on page 162 of James A Brundage's Law, Sex and Society in Medieval Europe in Google Books which is well worth a visit.

Such thinking is still with us - only the details change - and, according to it, some expressions of sexuality are licit and others beyond the bounds of decency. Although we hear that we are now living in a secular society, there is still a strong suspicion of sexual pleasure and a desire to regulate it. The language may have changed but the general message remains the same. The direct descendants of those medieval theologians are now ensconced in tenured positions in secular universities and may have no religious beliefs whatsoever but they do not seem a tmillion miles away in their tones of moral outrage and desire to rein in the dangerous beast of sexuality

Which is hardly surprising. I keep banging on about the all-pervasive nature of patriarchal thinking but it is true. Pleasure is, like everything else in patriarchal culture, put into a hierarchy and the pleasures of the flesh occupy the lowest level. And on this lowest level there are also degrees of virtue or vice. Consensual BDSM, for example, is considered by many to be less worthy than straight "vanilla" sex. Others will elevate lesbian - or gay - or bisexual - or celibate - or - or - the list goes on and in the end the label does not really matter. The way patriarchy conquered and retains its hold on our psyche is by the simple process of divide and rule. Mythologically this can be seen in the Babylonian story of Marduk's battle against the mother goddess, Tiamat. After killing her, he divides her body to create the material world. Similarly, the hebrew god creates the world through a series of divisions ans we still play along with his unwholesome (literally) game - earth and heaven, night and day etc - right down to man and woman - saint sinner. Sheep and goats. Wheat and chaff. Sex worker and anti-porn activist. Me and you. - the list goes on and on

On a link provided by Debi there is an account by Super Babymama of the way she enjoys sex. WARNING: NOT SAFE FOR WORK For her, sex is messy and passionate and is not interested in being acceptable or controlled. It is pornographic - or would be classed as that by many. Or, alternatively, it can simply be seen as the honest and guilt/shame-free enjoyment of all the pleasures of the senses. Others may enjoy bondage or submission - games by adults with full consent. Yet others may look to other ways. Why and how does it matter to anyone else? Sure, it is possible that some of these choices may be traced to patriarchal conditioning but, for Goddess's sake, who among us has not been so conditioned? It is in the air we breathe and therefore all our choices - even the anti-porn one - are inevitably conditioned. Surely the answer is to fully accept the conditioning and then move towards a new way of looking at sexuality - without the moral judgements that so plague us now.

Pleasure that is given and received with the true and informed consent of all affected parties is no business of anyone but the participants. And yet, The policing of pleasure is, and always has been, one of the principle activities of the patriarchs. And these patriarchs are not some shadowy group who meet in secret conclave to plot ways of control. No. They are in our own heads - they have colonised us so completely that we very often cannot even hear them as we grind the boots they have bequeathed us on the faces of other human beings. They exist in the judgements we make of our own desires- theirs are the voices we hear, telling us that pleasure must have a price.


wiccanwanderings said...

I have to agree with you here.

The problem with the patriarchy is that they want us to pay a price for enjoying ourselves, in whatever way that might manifest itself. Look at Prop 8! California, first bastion of LGBT rights, and the ability to be married and enjoy legal parity with straights denied, and by a wide margin.

We need to reclaim the power of sex and sexuality. It may seem ridiculous, but if we want to swing from the ceiling, we should and damn the wagging fingers!!

Brian Charles said...

This is the whole point. Whether one is pro-porn or anti-porn is in the end irrelevant. Surely what is truly important is that human beings can meet each other in love and respect and are free to express that in whichever way they choose? Without let, hindrance or moral posturing.