When (Gay) Porn and Academia Collide: Pornography as Emancipation?

Never in my life did I think that I’d be writing about porn within an academic setting, but I guess there is a first time for everything (especially if you work in areas such as gender or queer studies)!

While surfing the web and perusing through Buzzfeed (a website that provides a snapshot of the viral web in real time), I encountered an article titled “Why Are We Afraid to Talk About Gay Porn?,” written by author, teacher, and gay porn star Conner Habib. According to Habib’s fact sheet, he pursued an MFA in creative studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he also taught literature, creative writing, and composition for three years. He also claims that he is perhaps the only person who has won awards for his teaching, his writing, and his porn performances. Talk about a triple threat!

Habib

Writer, teacher, and gay porn star Conner Habib.

Recently, the web has been abuzz with news that Habib’s presentation on sex and culture–to be offered at Corning Community College–was cancelled after the college’s president found out that he was an active porn actor. Of course, this may be unsurprising to many seeing the staunch resistance that people in general have when it comes to the discussion of sex within a public space–indicating that indeed, Michel Foucault was absolutely right when discussing the enclosure of sex within the private sphere.

As a doctoral student myself, and particularly as a scholar of literature and gender studies, I often find it surprising that many students, classmates, and colleagues have this almost mystical fear of discussing sexually-charged topics within the classroom. And if the topic has somehow come up within the class, people speak with either scorn or hesitation.

According to Habib, the president of Corning Community College decided to cancel his presentation after finding out that he immersed himself into the porn industry after (not prior to) becoming an educator–thus cementing the notion that progressive sexual politics should not be linked in any way to pornography. This notion echoed the sentiments of many of my classmates in the Theory and Practice of Gender course that I am taking at Notre Dame: according to some of them, pornography is a social ill or evil that is linked to the patriarchal values that are degrading our society. Never mind that fact that there are many around us who watch porn on a regular basis, yet they refuse to “confess” this fact. My question is: what about those porn actors who are empowered by their work? Is porn always degrading? Can porn be viewed as emancipatory or liberatory in any way or fashion?

The discussion that took place in the classroom was inspired in part by a discussion of Catherine MacKinnon‘s views towards pornography, sexuality, and patriarchy. In her (dated) article titled Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: ‘Pleasure under Patriarchy’, MacKinnon offers us the expected and typical view of pornography as an anti-feminist and patriarchal embrace of all of the attitudes and desires that force our culture into a so-called state of stagnancy and repression. Focusing mostly on the brutal and “degrading” aspects of pornography, MacKinnon presents a defense in which many audiences are denied a voice and a presence within the market of porn.

The article does not take into account the fact that there are plenty of women (I know dozens of them) that watch porn, it does not delve deeply into the implications of gay pornography, and in all honesty, it can be said that MacKinnon focuses on the pornographic genres focused on abuse, masochism, and brutality–even going as far as to depict soft core porn as a genre portraying the fantasies of possession and objectification. As she herself puts it:

Pornography permits men to have whatever they want sexually. It is their “truth about sex.” It connects the centrality of visual objectification to both male sexual arousal and male models of knowledge and verification, connecting objectivity with objectification. It shows how men see the world, how in seeing it they access and possess it, and how this is an act of dominance over it. It shows what men want and gives it to them. From the testimony of the pornography, what men want is: women bound, women battered, women tortured, women humiliated, women degraded and defiled, women killed. Or, to be fair to the soft core, women sexually accessible, have-able, there for them, wanting to be taken and used, with perhaps just a little light bondage. Each violation of women-rape, battery, prostitution, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment-is made sexuality, made sexy, fun, and liberating of women’s true nature in the pornography. (326-327)

First and foremost, it must be made clear that MacKinnon wrote this article in 1989. Much has changed since then, but it is eerie to realize that many of these attitudes are very prevalent in today’s society. Now, I will be the first to admit that porn is definitely not an accurate presentation of reality: it is a deliberate construction or staging, in which sex is depicted in a way that is meant to provide both entertainment and arousal. Porn is also rhetorical in nature, in that it is meant to reach specific audiences with particular tastes and expectations. But is it productive to approach porn solely as a patriarchal and repressive agent? Do we want to go as far as to link pornography with deviant sexual acts such as rape, abuse or molestation, such as MacKinnon does in her discussion?

Admittedly, there is porn that is catered to people who enjoy portrayals of rape and abuse. MacKinnon may have a point when it comes to porn that projects abuse, torture, rape, or other social ills. This, I imagine, is not the aim nor the purpose of all the porn that is out there. Yes, porn’s mere existence thrives on objectification, but I’d question whether the aim of this objectification is at all times patriarchal or repressive. Furthermore, when it comes to the existence of pornography that is catered to women or gay men, do we necessarily want to imply that these genres also perpetuate the same exact ideals and ideologies that MacKinnon presents in her discussion? I do not have a concrete answer to this question, but others certainly do.

What I found so innovative and refreshing about Habib’s views is that he approaches porn, and specifically gay porn, as a medium that is intricately tied to the LGBTQ rights movement. Through Habib’s perspective, porn is not viewed as an agent of repression or patriarchal objectification, but rather, it is viewed as a liberatory or emancipatory agent that gives a voice, and a sense of belonging, to those that live within the socio-cultural margins of society. As Habib himself puts it:

Where I grew up, just outside of Allentown, PA, I watched, right through my adolescence into adulthood and early college years, while straight people paired off and experienced sex. They were able to engage with a basic aspect of human life that seemed unavailable and distant to me. Unlike today, there was no discussion about gay marriage, nor were there many gay characters on TV. But even if there had been, neither would have rounded out my experience as a man with homosexual feelings because so many of those feelings were — unsurprisingly for a young man — sexual. Gay sex was a lonely venture. It wasn’t easy to find, and was only mentioned in slurs and the butt of jokes. “Cocksucker” and “butt fucker” were insults; stand-ins for “faggot.”

Whether I bought it from the adult video store or, later, downloaded it, gay porn helped me encounter positive images of gay men enjoying the act of sex. Gay porn was a window into gay sexuality that was free of shame and guilt, and revealed a different world where sex wasn’t a lonely prospect, confined to the shadows or just my imagination. (Why Are We Afraid…)

Conner Habib makes some very interesting assertions about the freeing nature of gay pornography, assertions that only increase in intensity when bringing in notions and conceptions of race. As a performer of Arab descent, Habib admits to receiving countless letters and feedback from countries in which homosexuality is criminalized, for he portrays sex in a way that is free, unrestricted, and honest. Thus, from their perspective, gay porn is viewed as a Utopian fantasy that, according to Habib, provides a sense of empowerment and fosters a sense of imagination. Although from this perspective porn can be harmful in that it fosters a desire for that which is not lawfully permissible, I do agree with Habib’s views of gay porn being able to spark empowerment (and perhaps resistance to the status quo?) .

In due course, Conner Habib points out that an acceptance of LGBTQ individuals entails not only an acceptance of their public lives, but also of their private lives. This is no easy task, especially when focusing on the private nature of sex, generally speaking. Regardless, I think that Habib does add a lot to the conversation of pornography within academia, and he is pushing us to ask ourselves questions that need to be addressed. Furthermore, part of understanding gender, and even more so, part of understanding culture and society in general, entails an exploration of the good, the bad, the ugly… the private and the public… the “speakable” and the unspeakable.

Perhaps porn and academia should collide more often, especially if we’re not comfortable with the collision in the first place. Just that fact that it provokes discomfort gives us much to say about culture and the human condition in the first place.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s