To Be Done With The Sex-Porn Distinction, To Be Done With The Erotic

The erotic is often set up as a counterpoint, an antidote to pornography. Often conceptualized as the deep inner source of power within the (female) body, the erotic promises a recuperation of the orgasmic force from the empty physical body-to-body exchange (i.e. sex) that is promulgated by pornography. The erotic can make having sex sexy again. Yet, what if there is no distinction between having sex and making porn? What if the search for the erotic is a wet dream imagined within pornographic reality?

The below passage is an edited excerpt from my honors thesis, titled: Choreographing Pornographic Mutations in the Biopolitical Era.

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What Is Pornography?

Pornography often assumes the kind of identification that Judge Porter Stewart famously proclaimed in 1954: “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it”[1]. While this kind of definition can be valuable to a certain extent in evoking the omnipresence of porn in the popular imagination, “I know it when I see it” quite naively reduces porn to the matter of “seeing”, ignoring the relations between bodies, matter and image that pornography (re)produces.

Hence, pornography cannot be fully understood as simply a representation of sexual exchange, but this representation has to also be located within the matrix of power relations that cut through a subject, asking questions of how pornography represents sex and what it does to sex. It is only when we see this constantly evolving osmosis of pornography and sex feeding into each other that we can examine the control of bodies and subjects through the “masturbatory cooperation” of pornpower, and more importantly, that we can later devise strategies to work on and against this logic.

One definition of pornography can be the technology through which sex is mediated with different techniques of capturing (writing, image, video), and distributed to elicit a sexual response. Understanding this way, pornography is “less about the encounter of bodies but more about the physical encounter with an eroticized technological apparatus”[2]. In other words, the sexual display on screen does not define pornography as much as the interaction between this eroticized display and the body does. Pornography is that which contains and controls the orgasmic force of the body.

What is circulated as pornography is in and of itself a stand-in techno-body that physically excites the consumer’s body and, at the same time choreographs this excitement into an irresistible ejaculatory release, forming the logic of “masturbatory cooperation”. It is not simply a representation of sex in a variety of audiovisual forms – rather, it is a representation that acts directly on the body and its affects, producing a kind of exchange that is not sex and not not sex.

Implosion of Sex and Porn

Watching and reading porn is arguably not the same as having “real” sex, but this sexual fantasy manages to mobilize the body to pleasure itself, and to shape a particular choreography towards orgasm in such an extent that “real” sex can never be conceptualized without pornography again. To quote Peggy Phelan’s elaborate articulation on this mode of mutual animation, “[t]he real is positioned both before and after its representation; and representation becomes a moment of the reproduction and consolidation of the real”[3]. The way the cock is being grabbed, the way the pussy is being vibrated, the toys being used, the different sex positions being enacted, the gender/racial/class role each person assumes within a scene, the rhythm of penetration, or the need for one, all of which serves as both a derivative of and a blueprint for “real” sex.

There is no longer a rigid line between the “fake” on screen, in picture or text and the “real” in our human body-to-body physical relationship: the dichotomy of pornography and sex undergoes an implosion where pornpower only acknowledges the presence of the orgasmic force insofar as it can be co-opted into the pornographic circulation of body-excitation-capital; and vice versa, pornography in order to exist demands for “real” sex to happen on screen – real kissing, real blowjob, real cunnilingus, real penetration, real ejaculation. Thus, this rigid dichotomy needs to be loosened up, to be destabilized in order to open our understanding to a process of active becoming, a mode of improvisation that porn and sex are constantly engaging in.

This skepticism towards “real” sex is certainly what Preciado has in mind when he writes about the pharmacopornographic process of “the invention of a subject and then its global production”[5]. In a way, the relationship between pornography and the act of having sex is very similar to the relationship between gender and sexuality, in which gender manages to performatively constructs the sexual materiality of the body. If gender is understood as the social meanings of sexual difference, both pornography and gender are often seen as that which comes after the physical, be it sex or sexuality, as that which belongs only in the realm of representation, and must be analyzed independently from the a priori physical, the “real”. In Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler debunks this artificial separation between the representation and the “real”, arguing for the ability of gender to eventually subsume sexuality through a “reiterative and citational” process, as the materiality of the genitals and the sexual body is only given meaning and legibility under the frame of cultural construction.

[T]his sex posited as prior to construction will, by virtue of being posited, become the effect of that very positing, the construction of construction. If gender is the social construction of sex, and if there is no access to this “sex” except by means of construction, then it appears not only that sex is absorbed by gender, but that “sex” becomes something like a fiction, perhaps a fantasy, retroactively installed at a prelinguistic site to which there is no direct access[6].

Here, Butler is referring to sex(uality) as the biological difference between male and female, often signified by the genitalia and the genetic composition as the scientific truth of sexual difference. However, this obsession with the difference in sexual materiality for her is only a fantasy, a “construction of construction” that cannot be conceptualized without gender, just as the sex act cannot be removed from the pornographic reality. If we replace “gender” with “pornography” from the above passage, and shifts our understanding of sex from the materiality of the body to the physical body-to-body exchange, this constructivist relationship still holds true. The biggest difference is that if gender is a kind of “persistent impersonation that passes as the real”[7], then pornography has infiltrated into the real, improvised the real, becoming the real but is constantly taken as a fake impersonation. Thus, it seems that the distinction between pornography and sex is redundant in this pornographic era. There is no unmediated sexual exchange – every sexual encounter and sexual body is shaped by and situated within the pornographic reality.

 

To devise strategies to work on and against pornpower, then, is to not get deluded by the depth of the erotic, the prelinguistic and prepornographic orgasmic force that only exists as a fantasy. When Audre Lorde calls for excavating the power of the erotic that has been suppressed by the society, she is yearning for an illusionary a priori feminine force that can undo pornpower: “But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling (emphasis added).[8]” Although this rhetoric is empowering towards marginalized identities that are marked as female or feminine, by occupying ourselves with this “true” feeling, “true” power, we are ignoring the very real pornographic process that mediates the body and choreographs its orgasmic force, further creating what we conceptualize as the “true”, natural body based on the pornographic body. Thus, I am arguing against the pursuit of this phatasmatic pre-pornographic reality, by looking at artists that are explicating the constructive effects of pornpower, creating the space for subjectivity to emerge not as a natural uncontaminated entity, but as a mode of pornographic mutation.


 

[1] Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the” frenzy of the Visible”, University of California Press, 1999, 5.

[2] Linda Williams, Porn studies, Duke University Press, 2004, 7.

[3] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London: Routledge, 1993, 2.

[4] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

[5] Paul B. Preciado, Testo junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2013,  36

[6] Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “sex”, New York: Routledge, 1993, xv.

[7] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1990, viii.

[8] Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984, 54.

 

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