[Marxism] Reply to Jeff Rubard on porn, sex and Marx

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Mon Mar 1 21:52:08 MST 2004

Jeff Rubard queried:

"To take the horns of this dilemma in *oratio recta*: is there really so
much pornography for women?"

I think women's pornography just takes different forms than men's, that is
all, and, probably, women's pornographic expression dumbs down less.
"Pornos" is a Greek word for sex worker, harlot etc., i.e. sex abstracted
out, and made into a special activity, a specific function, a job of its

Generally speaking - judging by own experience and by research I've read -
most women just seem not to like the depiction of sexual or erotic acts
without some meaningful narrative (a story), whereas many men can get
irritated by all sorts of talk skirting around the subject, and want to
focus more on "the act" itself, or on bodies. That is just to say that what
excites women is not necessarily at all the same thing as what excites men.

We've discussed this topic before, and I have indicated my attitude, which
is different from petty-bourgeois Trotskyists. The main problem with porn I
think is that a lot of it is rather banale, but I don't think that is
necessarily because porn abstracts out sex, or decontextualises or
depersonalises it. After all, when sex has been abstracted out and focused
upon, it is possible to tell a meaningful story within that limited focus.

I am personally not against porn totally, but I am against bad porn and the
bad packaging of porn, and the inappropriate use of porn, and so its uses to
me are rather limited. To say "I am against pornography" would be like
saying "I am against books", that's just silly. Ernest Mandel suggested once
that "pornography is ultimately harmful" for human beings, but this is a bit
like saying that a hammer is ultimately harmful because you can use it to
bash a baby's brains in. It's more honest to say "pornography is ultimately
harmful for me" or "pornography is ultimately harmful for this specific
group of people" if there is evidence for that.

You could obviously argue that there are some use-values which are
ultimately harmful intrinsically because they can be put only to specific
uses harmful to human beings. For example, a weapon such as a nuclear bomb
or missile, or some kind of poison. There is some truth in that. But even a
military missile like that could be used to explode a comet which would
otherwise smash into the earth and cause a lot of destruction; or, the
threat of the use of a nuclear weapon could be sufficient to prevent a lot
of harm done to human beings in a specific situation.
Obviously, I am infavour of methods of conflict resolution which involve as
little military violence as possible, preferably none at all.

Pornographic depiction of one sort or another is as old as the world, it is
just that this use-value did not become an easily acquired exchange-value
prior to capitalist mass production, at which time the possibilities for the
reification of sexuality were more limited. If for example you look at some
18th and 19th century Dutch paintings it is difficult to interpret them as
anything other than pornographic, merchants would have these paintings of
naked women on their wall and call it "art".

Sometimes people try to discover a subtle distinction between pornography
and erotic art, in which case they use
pornography in a pejorative sense, as being not truly erotic. But in reality
all you can say is that what is erotic is rather subjective, and that
eroticism is really much wider than pornography because it is not simply
concerned with the depiction of naked bodies.

I don't think you have to make porn so that people learn specific things
from it, necessarily, but I just feel porn shouldn't really be intrinsically
random, arbitrary and meaningless. "Bad porn" inmy view is e.g. unreal
erotic depiction e.g. a woman in poses or situations
which do not express a facet of the nature of that woman or is specific to
that woman, bad photography, lousy facial expressions, soullessness. The bad
packaging of porn means that the user often does not know what exactly is
being shown and who is showing it, it's a sort of false advertising.

Porn can be useful for establishing for yourself what is really true and
false about what you feel about lust and desire, and what you like and don't
like, in a way where nobody else is telling you what to feel or think. And
that can be very useful. My father opined once that porn really signified
men's fear for women's sexuality, but that insight is also of limited

Personally, I am not an expert and I've normally liked only one or a few
segments or images in a film or series, I get bored with it, except that, I
might try to work out why exactly somebody is turned on by somebody else or
something, what the situation is. But often porn is very cruddy and
arbitrary, which means there is no rational or meaningful relationship at
all between reality and fantasy, the personality and the act, it's kind of
random and depersonalised, and often they aren't very arty and badly acted
and photographed. But some porn magazines these days try to mirror the
latest sexual fashions among the elites pornographically.

When I've discussed it with women, the thing they've objected to most of
all, is the depersonalisation of women in erotic depiction, and they would
object to prostitution on the same grounds. But obviously how you see that
is influenced by class cultures; both men and women engage in sexwork.
Depersonalisation is obviously not an intrinsically necessary characteristic
of pornography to be pornography, nor is it the true that women are
incapable of depersonalising men, because they easily can.

It is rather the phenomenon of depersonalisation (or dehumanisation) as
such, we ought to be looking at. Feminists often confuse "violence" with
"violation", and they aren't the same thing, and characteristic of bourgeois
ideology is the mystification of violence, such that violation is equated
incorrectly with violence, giving rise to a moral panic. But you can
obviously violate something without violence at all, that's just a
transgression of some sort. This dispute is just a facet of the differences
in emotional make-up, the emotional worlds, of different social classes. If
anything, pornography is more likely to be a non-violent violation. Porn can
signify sex out place, simple as that, or the inability to find an
appropriate place for sex. But it could also imply a legitimate demand for
sex as human need that hasn't got a place yet or is repressed.

Many socialists are against porn, because they consider it reifying,
unsociable, infantile, evidence of incapacity, and passive. There is some
truth in this, and of course a preoccupation with porn tends to be a phase
of life. But I don't think you can really discuss a cultural product as a
genre without examining precisely how that product is made, used,
distributed, consumed and the context within which that occurs. It evades
the question of contexts in which porn might be appropriately used, or
assist socialist politics, and the question of the satisfaction of human
needs which are constantly denied.

So porn could be oppressive, but could also liberating or offer relief. If
anything, one should show the appropriate things in the appropriate context,
i.e. use the medium appropriately. But what is appropriate use, and how can
you learn it without experimenting with it ? That itself is a site of
cultural battles. You cannot generalise easily about that sort of thing, it
involves relationships and contexts which you need to know specifically. To
me, a lot of war reporting is just straight-out pornography, and I think it
is much preferable to look at aroused naked bodies than to eroticise the
depiction of people killing and maiming each other.

But even this must be qualified; a feminist girlfriend told me once that the
Luftwaffe airdropped pornographic material on Poland, prior to the military
invasion,  at the start of the Second World War, which is an interesting
story suggesting how people could be distracted by sex from a more important
human problem (thus John Lennon sang, "keep you doped with religion and sex
and TV, and you think you're so clever and classless and free").

Much more interesting than deconstructing porn is investigating the actual
use of porn, how people actually utilise it, which can be brainless or
intelligent. This just suggests more that, other things being equal, is that
if there is something wrong with porn, it is that porn often doesn't
encourage you much to think about sex, or evaluate eroticism intelligently,
because the relationship between fantasy and reality is often arbitrary, it
has the capacity to "dumb down" and accentuate longings which can never be
realised in any way, without really defining what the unreality consists in
(this is quite possibly one reason why in Holland they talk about "old men's

Watching porn may be of course a dissociation, motivated by fear or guilt or
incapacity, or unwillingness to be active, and the porn may in fact
discourage a fantasy from being realised, and destroy a fantasy you created
for yourself, rather than enhance your sexual life. It may be the difference
between a talking mechanical doll and a child talking to a doll.  Also, porn
may intensify a distorted perception of the opposite sex. This is why I
the utilisation of porn has to be thought about, and that porn has to have
its appropriate place, and not infiltrate everything else. But that is just
an aspect of the morality of sexual motive.

A culture without limits is not culture, culture is doing the best you can
within the limits there are, the limits you can handle. It is just that
because of the fact of class society, different social classes define the
limits differently, and therefore revolutionary thought seeks to redraw the
limits by showing that the cultural limits set by the rulers are too
limiting for the ruled. But this does not mean that there are no limits in a
revolutionary culture, because the boundaries of the possible are still
boundaries, point is rather that what the limits are, must be argued out on
the basis of real evidence and experience.

I think perhaps men sometimes prefer trashy and mindless porn, because they
don't want there to be any "reason" for sex, they just want to "fuck or get
head" and so on, no reason, no big story, just do it, or just think about
it is just the fact, that we cannot manage to operate that in the flesh, in
the real world, because to operate that in reality, then we either have to
go through that process of winning
trust/confidence/assurance/interest/attraction through communicating with a
real woman, whose primary interest often isn't sex but love, attention and
care, or,
we have to be able to spot and catch a woman precisely at the correct time,
when she is both available, and/or horny and easily persuadable, i.e. solve
that logistical problem. (As regards Marx, he was engaged to Jenny for 7
years, and wooed her with poetry).

So ultimately the limit of porn I think must be something like: the
inability to create and realise your own fantasy and the inability to find a
living expression of your lust or fantasy. I.e. ultimately the important
thing about porn may be not what is there, but what is not there. The
question then arises, does porn really make you better able to do create and
realise fantasies ? Probably only under conditions of appropriate or
thoughtful use. But this is again paradoxical, because if you know how to
use porn appropriately and thoughtfully, then most probably you also know
how to realise your fantasy. In which case pornography is at most a "sign"
or "signal".

Generally I think fantasy is about what we are unable to do, wish to think
about without doing it, or have not (yet) realised in reality for any
reason, we can only conceive of it, and of course this is inexhaustible,
just like desire (eros), you can always have more of it, and this is what
makes people often uncomfortable about it, because the dream or desire may
go beyond cultural limits, and then people feel that we must regulate things

People sometimes say things like, "dare to dream" or "don't let go of your
dreams" or variations of that theme, because the dream is the ultimate
hopeful expression (even although maybe negatively expressed) of the urge to
realise something which you have not done yet or are unable to do yet, and
therefore it is linked closely to willpower, to ambition, to aspiration, and
to achievement.

And therefore, if you have no more dreams, then this impairs those other
things as well, it can stand in the way of self-emancipation. Thus, for
example, Martin Luther King says "I have a dream", which is a relatively
safe way of
putting across a very radical message (who could dispute with a dream - a
dream cannot be proved and the only thing you can do is understand the
meaning of it), but even Luther King's dream appears rather shocking or
confrontational to many people in bourgeois society.

You refer to "the slightly nasty Victorian conceit of Marx's alluded to
earlier is not also a limit which cannot be

I have no evidence than Karl Marx was conceited nor that he was "nasty" to
women, at most negligent. You can say he managed financial affairs badly, he
impregnated Helene Demuth, he didn't wash properly often, smoked too much,
understood little about medicine etc. You can also say that he was
influenced in his thinking and relation with women by his own class position
and the dominant bourgeois morality of his time, and thus, he was sometimes
inclined to see himself as a "knight in shining armour" with a duty to
protect women even when that wasn't really appropriate. But he loved his
wife and children, they loved him, and he parented his children quite well,
providing them with real insight in human life. He wasn't a liar or a fraud,
he despised characterlessness, indeed one reason why his work remains
influential and insightful is his passionate urge to uncover the real truth
and probe the depths of the human psyche.

There exists plenty evidence that Karl Marx could actually be quite bawdy
and salacious in his expressions. For example, writing to Engels when he was
49 (i.e. when he was published Capital Volume 1), Marx quoted the licentious
French satirist Mathurin Regnier (1573-1613), whose reflections on chaude
pisse he claimed had never been described more poetically anywhere else (see
letter of Marx to Engels, 19 October 1867). Later (Marx to Engels, 7
November 1867) wrote about a healthy father confessor who, after spending
twenty-four hours in a Russian convent, came out dead. "The nuns rode him to
death", he wrote, and added that of course father confessors "do not enter
every day". Criticising the Catholicism of David urquhart, a British Tory
diplomat, Marx said he was reminded of an Italian nun who prayed to the
Madonna: "I beseech you, Holy Virgin, give me somebody with whom I can sin".
I think Marx underestimated the social importance and power of sexuality,
and I 've done my bit to correct that.


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