One of the things I missed while I was away was news that the Good Men Project (producers of the excellent Good Men book and ancillary products) had signed a deal to have extended excerpts from the book appear in Penthouse Magazine.
Tom Matlack, the founder and director of the Good Man Project (GMP), explained his decision to work with Penthouse in this post yesterday. Tom begins by noting that GMP has heard from many irate and disappointed supporters as a result of the decision to work with the iconic porn magazine. He goes on to offer a few paragraphs in which he reiterates that the GMP isn’t about judging, or setting standards, including this stunner.
Hereâ€™s the thing: I am not good enough to tell you how to be good. I firmly believe that â€œgoodnessâ€ is like faithâ€”I shouldnâ€™t tell you what yours should look like, and you shouldnâ€™t tell me what mine should look like.
I read that yesterday in Dulles Airport, and again this morning. The more often I read those two sentences, the more viscerally I disagree with Matlack here, a man whose work I respect. Faith and Goodness, he suggests, are ultimately subjective. We are no better at discerning goodness than we are at proving the doctrine of transubstantiation. Virtue and decency (which are, after all, close synonyms for goodness) are matters of taste and belief, or so he argues.
But Matlack knows better. What would Matlack do with a fellow who says, “I am a good man because I used to rape other women but now I only rape my wife”? Is the founder of the Good Men Project really signing on to adolescent relativism, the sort familiar to every parent of a fourteen year-old who thinks the worst crime in the world is “to judge”?
As philosophers and theologians and ethicists will all tell ya, there’s a difference between condemning and judging. To judge is to say “I don’t like what you’re doing, and here’s why.” To condemn is to say “I hate what you did and I don’t want to have anything to do with you again.” The former maintains a relationship; the latter severs it. On the developmental journey from blind obedience to reflexive relativism to sensible discernment, most folks learn the difference between judging and condemning. But Matlack, perhaps deliberately, fudges that distinction. And that’s a huge mistake, particularly for an organization whose very identity focuses on building up “goodness” among American men.
I understand why Matlack would want the GMP in Penthouse. He wants, as he makes clear, to reach men “where they are.” He wants to make it clear that GMP isn’t censorious or prudish. “Hey guys,” he seems to be saying, “we’re so committed to starting a conversation with you about goodness that we’ll come wherever you, uh, come.” It’s savvy from a marketing perspective, and the appeal is obvious: a great many men will encounter the Good Men Project through the pages of Penthouse who might otherwise have never heard of it. Some may read the excerpts from the book and be moved to reflect on their own lives, perhaps making positive changes as a consequence. That’s a powerful argument for striking this Faustian bargain with the pornographers.
But mainstream pornography in this country has a long history of seeking legitimation by striking these deals with artists and writers. Playboy magazine started it more than half a century ago, featuring top notch writers whose work, both fiction and non, appeared alongside their airbrushed pictorials. Hustler Magazine followed suit in the late 1970s, positioning itself as a voice for political as well as sexual libertarianism and famously featuring articles by the likes of Noam Chomsky.
Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt knew damn well that few people pick up Playboy or Hustler for the articles, even if the quality of those written pieces is objectively outstanding. Hefner and Flynt wanted serious writers in their pages because they needed the cultural figleaf that those writers could provide. Not only could the articles help in obscenity trials (proving that the magazines had redeeming cultural value), they played a vital role in shifting pornography from the margins to the mainstream. The work of writers like Norman Mailer and Alex Haley and Noam Chomsky became weapons to be used against anti-pornography feminists in particular. When feminists pointed out the sexism in these magazines, the defenders of porn responded, “You’re trying to censor ideas as well as images!” Who, after all, would want to stand against the author of Roots or one of the greatest (and most progressive) political theorists and linguists of our time?
The pornographers gained enormous social cachet by creating the pretense that their magazines came with intellectual heft. They also helped play a key part in normalizing the sexual objectification of women as one male activity among many. With their articles about sports and politics, travel and music, wine and cars, Playboy and Penthouse sent the unmistakable message that middle-aged men masturbating to pictures of waxed and airbrushed teenagers was as harmless an activity as following college football, or taking an interest in Argentine Malbecs. And as a feminist and as a man, I don’t think that’s a good message. I don’t think the slick commodification of mostly blonde young women barely out of adolescence is remotely compatible with what it means to be a good corporate citizen. (It’s worth noting that even the feminist defenders of pornography rarely have much that is kind to say about magazines like Penthouse.)
Can good men use pornography, including porn like Penthouse? Of course. Good people are still people, still flawed. But the fact that good people do it doesn’t make it good; good parents lose their tempers with their kids, but they don’t insist that the loss of temper is somehow virtuous. Without condemning men and women who find value in pornography, we can still ask important questions about the message porn sends about society, about sexuality, about empathy. We can be brave enough to suggest that the kind of pornography that Penthouse represents is often a barrier to empathy for many men. We can say that the magazine’s narrow vision of what “sexy” is (mostly very young, mostly very thin, frequently surgically enhanced, usually hairless) does real harm to men’s understanding of women and women’s understanding of themselves. We can even say that the harm it does makes it, well, “not good.”
I’m sorry to say that I think the harm that will come from associating the Good Men Project with Penthouse magazine far outweighs the potential good. Though I am confident that the decision to work with the pornographers was made after much thought and reflection, it seems clear to me that the costs outweigh the benefits substantially. It’s not just losing credibility with feminists and their allies, though that matters. It’s Matlack’s insistence that “good” is so difficult to define that Penthouse’s worldview can be included under the “goodness” umbrella. And given what we know about the cost to all of us of women’s objectification and of men’s not-infrequent enslavement by mainstream pornography’s painfully narrow vision of what sex is and ought to be, I think it’s a colossal mistake to give legitimacy and intellectual respectability to a magazine that does what Penthouse does.
We can love men, Tom, and call them to account. Love is about more than acceptance of another’s behavior; it’s about loving them enough to challenge them to do better, to take on a new understanding of what it means to be good, to be kind, to be fully human.
With great respect, Tom, you and your project have missed the mark here.