Gender Studies 101

Strangely enough, two of my daily reads, Salon.com and Slate, featured some “gender studies”-related articles yesterday. Reading them really made me miss college (which isn’t to difficult for me) and reminded me why I really should’ve been a women’s studies minor (which, it appears, my school has renamed to “gender studies”… there was a discussion we had during my senior year and it sorta of bothers me that it was renamed and may require a blog post in the future).

The Salon.com article, “Attack of the listless lads” is an interview with Benjamin Kunkel, who recently wrote a book called Indecision. Surprisingly, the interview was less about Kunkel’s book and more about Rebecca Traister’s (the writer of the story) desire to find out “what’s wrong with young American men” (and no, I do not take offense to that question).

Kunkel made some terribly fascinating points:

He suggests that dating around with the thought that it should lead to marriage (and doesn’t more than it does), has perhaps got men stuck in a vicious circle:

The idea is that dating should lead toward mating, and spread out before us is this array of choices that should lead toward a choice you can feel secure in. But I think the opposite happens. You become familiar with disposable relationships. So though they seem to be conducting you toward permanence and mating, in fact they’re just inculcating a habit of serial monogamy.

He also suggests that because women have made such gains in the workplace, that men feel inadequate and “unworthy” of dating the due to the “super-abundance of attractive, intelligent young women”:

I think men inherit — if from nowhere else than from the movies — the impression that in order to win the respect and love of a woman, you ought to be doing something meaningful in the world. And if you can’t hold your head up high in that sense, then why ask somebody to love you?

What I thought was the most interesting point he made had to do with consumer culture and the desire to always have something better. Instead of viewing love as a destiny, nowadays love is seen as a goal — a goal that can always be tossed aside once it has been achieved.

Kunkel explains:

Partly, a model of shopping has overtaken our experience of romance. Love, historically, has been associated with a sensation of destiny. It’s very difficult for us to attain a sensation of destiny where love is concerned anymore, because we think we can always look for something better, which is essentially a shopper’s mentality. There’s no destiny when it comes to buying pants or shirts or a dress. There’ll be the nicest thing you can afford this season. But then a new season will [bring] more attractive styles and you’ll actually be able to afford something better. I think that tremendous passion that we feel other generations had and that we missed was attached to a sense of destiny, and of permanent love that would survive changes in station and opportunity and fortune.

There is a bunch of other interesting cultural criticism in the piece dealing with things like bureaucracy, the “crisis of masculinity,” and “some mild sort of institutionalized promiscuity.” I’m not sure the interview makes me want to read Indecision, but it does sound like this guy has done a lot of thinking and has a fresh view on the male side of gender studies.

As for the Slate piece, what’s going on there is one of their Book Club discussions about Pornified and Female Chauvinist Pigs. (Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families by Pamela Paul and Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy.)

Discussing the book are Wendy Shalit of ModestyZone.net, Meghan O’Rourke of Slate, and one of my favorite authors/cultural critics, Laura Kipnis (who wrote the amazing Against Love: A Polemic. Kipnis also wrote Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, which I read parts of for my Advanced Media Studies class, so I feel confident in saying that she knows her porn! Also, she’s somewhat of a Freudian Marxist — two of, I think, the most impactful thinkers on the 20th century.

(Note: The second day of the book club discussion has already been posted, but I haven’t read that yet, so this will just highlight parts from day one.)

Kipnis, of course, makes the points that I agree with the most.

In her brief introduction/synopsis of Pornified, she makes this extremely witty remark:

… she’s utterly blinkered about the rest of society, or history, or politics; it’s as if sexuality occupied some autonomous world of its own. (Like a porn set.)

I just love that she compares the “world of its own” vacuum of Pornified with the porn sets that, undoubtedly, Paul criticizes. So smart!

I also like how Kipnis immediately kills the suggestion that porn has caused men to treat women badly. She notes that well before porn men were pigs. Kipnis dares Paul:

So, when exactly was the golden age of relationship bliss that Paul thinks porn has torn asunder?

She also channels some Foucault by suggesting that the more we rally against porn and sex, the more prevalent we make it in society:

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the two [mainstreaming of porn and abstinence-only sex education] aren’t exactly unrelated: They’re both products of a culture that’s deeply conflicted and hypocritical about sex… What comprises the majority of Web sites, aside from porn? Religion and shopping. A seething cultural compost of sexual prohibition and compulsive consumption… Public virtue and private lechery are also long-standing features of American sexual culture… We’re a culture that hates and fears sex, but can’t get enough of it.

Another assertion that Paul makes that Kipnis totally blasts is Paul’s suggestion that pornography is ruining men’s ability to have relationships with their girlfriends. Apparently Paul interviewed a number of men with girlfriends who claimed that, if they had to choose, they would take porn. This reminded me of some documentary/20/20-like show we watched during my media studies course in which a bunch of men sat around comparing stories about how porn ruined their lives. Please. They ruined their own lives, and if porn wasn’t the “poison,” I’m sure something else would have been. Similarly, Kipnis asks:

Yet Paul seems convinced that minus porn, somehow these guys would be fulfilling all the intimacy needs of their partners. Sorry, but who’s the compulsive fantasist?

Shalit makes some interesting points about the potentially self-destructive and self-hating nature of the “female chauvinists” (of Girls Gone Wild, etc.). She compares these women’s behavior with that of immature, sexually-driven, young men:

True, there have always been men who objectified women, but society also encouraged them to grow up at some point. But today, even grown women are taking their cues from the most immature males.

When she re-tells some of Paul’s stories of husbands who ignore their children while watching porn and a 21-year-old who wants to dump his 16-year-old girlfriend because she won’t get as kinky as he wants, I just cannot see how this is porn’s fault — yes, porn may make the problem more visible, but there is obviously something else wrong with these guys. To reiterate the point earlier, if porn didn’t exist, the dad would still be a bad father and the 21-year-old would still be objectifying his jailbait girlfriend.

Shalit seems to agree with this, and reiterates what Kipnis notes earlier:

As porn consumers become increasingly desensitized to viewing sex online, Paul shows how their tastes turn to the odd, the young, and the violent… I read Paul as saying that the availability and intensity of Internet porn is what’s new, and that because porn desensitizes us, we’d better wake up and pay attention… Is she implying that without porn, these men would be perfect partners?

But then Shalit falls prey to Paul’s horror stories and suggests that porn is indeed the problem:

I thought she was saying something far more reasonable: that if men weren’t learning about sex from pornography at age 8, or 10, or 13, then at least they’d have more of a chance to forge real intimacy with women.

… Yes, if it weren’t for porn, these poor men who were exposed to porn at an early age might have a fighting chance to forge real intimacy. Yes, these poor men who just need a chance! (Ugh!!)

Without reading Paul’s book, I shouldn’t comment, but it sounds like she is definitely trying to scare people into hating porn, and obviously it works. Shalit even admits:

At any rate, I found Paul’s stories quite shocking.

Nonetheless, I did find this statement by Shalit to be frightening and potentially true:

It’s like some big cosmic joke: The people who are supposed to be “sex positive” and enjoying their cultural freedoms are actually lonely and having terrible sex, whereas studies have shown that religious marrieds are the ones enjoying themselves the most. What’s happened? Perhaps without emotions involved, sex becomes boring.

I do see this happening — but again, I don’t see porn or being “sex positive” as the problem. I agree with Kipnis that it has more to do with hypocritical attitudes toward sex and the feelings of shame, excitement, perversity, etc. that they cause.

O’Rourke enters the debate as a moderator, or so it seems. She immediately (and rightly, I think), points out:

What I was struck by in each was how difficult it was for the authors—for all of us—to get past their (or our) own assumptions about porn and sex… There are murky issues just beneath the surface of each book. Yet those of us reading them quickly split along ideological (or gender) lines.

She also makes a rather bold suggestion that when it comes to the porn debate, perhaps women are the ones trying to force unrealistic fantasies on men. She asks:

Is men’s use of porn necessarily destructive, or is it simply women’s relationship expectations that make it seem destructive? Reading Pornified, I sometimes thought the women were simply allowing an unrealistic dream of imaginative fidelity to shape their response to their partners.

Additionally, she plays the devil’s advocate (or maybe not?) and asks whether porn is really as bad and degrading as conventional wisdom suggests:

I’m merely questioning the conviction that pornography is inherently degrading. Likewise, what if women who flash their tits on Girls Gone Wild are enjoying themselves—if not all of them, then a select few? What then?

She also tries to find a middle ground between Kipnis’ social/consumerism as the root and Paul’s pornography as the root argument. O’Rourke notes that porn is becoming so much more prevalent and so much more intense, that it cannot be ignored, as Kipnis vaguely suggests:

Porn doesn’t exclusively produce the relationship woes and female insecurities she describes. But in its new form it presumably contributes to the ongoing shaping of how we see the world and affects the behavior of those who use it.

Between the Salon interview and the Slate discussion, there is a lot to digest here, and I think it’s interesting that there is overlap between the two. How are relationships between men and women changing? And even how is sexuality changing?

My major critique of both of the pieces is that they are extremely heteronormative. I know from Against Love that Kipnis’ argument encompasses all sexual orientations, but in the Slate piece it is very geared toward men/women relationships. Where do same-sex couples fit into this? And how is the consumption of porn different for lesbians and gay men?

Lots to think about. Makes us all wanna be gender studies majors, eh?

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