For pleasure, for justice, and against shame: on acceptance as a prerequisite for growth

The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it.

– Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

While listening to Clarisse Thorn lecture in my women’s studies class last Thursday, this quote popped into my head. Though I didn’t mention it in my most recent post, it was already on my mind when I wrote about rethinking my dismissiveness towards the plight of men eager for “feminist dating tips.” One could substitute the word “feminist” for “spiritual” in the AA quote, I think, and get to the heart of what I’m wrestling with this week.

Theory has consequences. Ideas have an impact. That’s not a new insight for me or anyone else. But when it comes to writing about men, women, and feminist sexual ethics, I’m ever more keenly aware that those of us who seek to encourage the transformation of both the individual and society at large often end up inadvertently shaming the very people whom we are trying to inspire.

I wrote a three-part series a couple of years ago, praising Robert Jensen’s wonderful Getting Off. But when I actually assigned the book in my “Men and Masculinity” course, I found that Jensen’s radical anti-porn stance not only aroused disagreement (which is healthy) but shame (which isn’t). This past July, I wrote about rethinking my own anti-porn stance, and about my decision not to reassign Jensen’s book (which I still think is very useful) as mandatory reading for my masculinity course:

I loved Jensen’s thesis… Many of my students did too. But some of my students of both sexes who told me they viewed porn felt overwhelmed, shamed, guilt-ridden as a result. One young woman told me she had stopped looking at porn but felt guilty about the arousing images that still popped into her head. Another young guy, one of my best students, told me that he felt as if he’d been set up for failure, as if Jensen and I were positing abstinence from pornography as the sine qua non of being a decent male. “If I masturbate to porn can I still be a good man was the question I got from more than one anguished participant in the class. And if several of the students were willing to divulge such private pain to me, I can only assume that still others felt the same way but kept silent.

Clarisse is a well-known advocate for what is usually called “sex-positive” feminism, as well as an activist for BDSM acceptance. She takes the position that some folks may have an innate orientation towards BDSM, a stance of which I am deeply suspicious but not immediately dismissive. But watching my students’ reactions to her — and reading the emails and Facebook messages I got from several of them afterwards — I realized how important it is to have feminist voices that celebrate pleasure and desire. Theory matters to Clarisse as it does to me; justice matters to her as well. (In her real life, where she goes by her birth name, she is a committed activist for a variety of causes.) But though she recognizes that our culture is deeply corrupted by what is increasingly often called “kyriarchal” influences, she understands that all of us have to live and love and fuck and create and nurture within that culture. Just as ringing Sunday sermons in church aren’t of much use if they aren’t applied in the weekday lives of the congregation, so too a feminism that is heavy on inspiring classroom rhetoric needs to offer folks reassurance and encouragement in every other aspect of their lives.

One of the critiques that feminists of color had of mainstream white feminism a generation ago was that middle-class white feminists tended to prioritize “sisterhood” over all other values. Women of color who lived in what white feminists considered “patriarchal” and “oppressive” ethnic groups were encouraged to extricate themselves from their families and their cultures for the sake of individual happiness. Black, Latina, and Asian feminists insisted — quite rightly — on a different kind of feminism, one that could be synthesized with traditions and values that they held dear. What seemed hopelessly oppressive to well-to-do WASPy feminists was experienced very differently by many non-white women.

The same problem happens around sex.

So I’ve gotten the point: when I say that “using porn in inherently exploitative”, it’s the same thing as saying “Mexican culture is inherently sexist.” If I force a young person to choose between his or her sexual desires and feminism, it’s not far off from forcing a young Chicana to choose between her heritage and her commitment to women’s liberation. Our sexualities are influenced by the same things that mediate our experience of our etnhic origin: biology, upbringing, media, peers, faith, and so forth. Rather than condemnation, people need tools to negotiate and interpret and live out their sexual lives in ways that are just, safe, and life-affirming, just as they need tools that help them stay in their cultures and their families if that’s what they want to do. The feminist life is not just a theory. People have to live it.

Some of my students are going to have a BDSM-orientation (I’ve already had one email already from one, who was so moved by Clarisse’s candor that she’s ready to talk about an aspect of her identity she’s always considered deeply shameful.) Many of my students of both sexes look at porn, or have fantasies that aren’t perfectly congruent with what we might think of as the feminist egalitarian ideals. Some are working through abuse issues, some aren’t. But assuming that they aren’t actively engaging in the exploitation of another,or in non-consensual sexual activity, they could stand to be reminded that neither their human dignity nor their feminism (nor, for the believers, their faith) is on the line as they live out their intimate lives. This doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the way in which misogyny may have infected our thoughts and desires. It means accepting that excising injustice and woman-hating from our culture is a long and hard battle that we’ll be fighting for years to come. Living in sexual limbo until that happy day is an unhappy and unnecessary sacrifice.

In the meantime, living as we do between the “Already” of the sexual revolution that allowed us to have these conversations, and the “Not Yet” of the genuinely egalitarian and shame-free world for which we fight, we need to be easier on ourselves. Are our wantings shaped by an imperfect world? Sure. Does that mean that our wantings are invariably wrong, and should be subject to endless critical analysis and second-guessing? Hell, no.

Encouraging reflection, transformation,and growth is an important part of feminist pedagogy. But so too is encouraging self-acceptance and an end to shame. With both men and women, I’ve sometimes been too heavy on the former and too light on the latter. I’ve been wrong, and where I’ve fostered feelings of being “not good enough” — something I know I’ve done — I am so deeply sorry.

0 thoughts on “For pleasure, for justice, and against shame: on acceptance as a prerequisite for growth

  1. Others may disagree, but I personally never saw your posts as inherently. You’ve always celebrated male sexuality, especially compared to many other feminist blogs. The reason for the explosion of posts is that, yet again, you have been acting as a trailblazer. The lack of discussion regarding positive male sexuality is a flaw in the mainstream feminist movement- and it is a flaw, because if the movement is going to attack negative aspects of male sexuality, it must also provide an alternative. To my knowledge, you are, quite honestly, one of the first feminists, or even people in general, to open up a direct line of dialogue regarding the subject. Thus, you get this explosion. Hell, even the MRAs, one of the few groups that focuses on men as a social class, usually concerns itself with, a. negative aspects of women’s sexuality, or b. “reconstructing” the rigid traditional gender roles of the past.

    This is a first, and I for one think it’s a big deal. Kudos.

  2. “Hell, even the MRAs, one of the few groups that focuses on men as a social class, usually concerns itself with, a. negative aspects of women’s sexuality, or b. “reconstructing” the rigid traditional gender roles of the past.”
    Is this implying the roles of the past are considered “positive” aspects of women’s sexuality? I’d say yes, that MRA’s THINK that is positive sexuality for women…but when women disagree it becomes men dictating what they want of women…something I’d hardly want to do as a feminist…if I was misandrist…yes…feminist??? not so sure.

  3. bah…I guess what I’m saying is I can’t honestly say this is what women want you to be like..I know what I want out of MY relationships, but not what all people want out of theirs…I feel MRA’s try to speak for the entire group of men by outlining ideals..ideals that some men may not agree with, and ideals that some women wouldn’t agree with…It’s much easier to recognize negatives than positives…atheists kind of argue this when they say God didn’t instill an innate code of law that tells us wrong from right…we develop that on a sense of what we wouldn’t want done to us…while the spectrum for that can vary, it varies much less than the positives…most people want good things to happen, some people enjoy what others would perceive as “bad” (such as BDSM), and a lot of people wouldn’t want to be forced into something they didn’t decide for themselves..like rape or murder…in the case of some feminists the idea of what constitutes masculine or feminine…even then the discourse isn’t what people should do to become accepting of these roles…it’s what people shouldn’t do to become accepting of these roles.

  4. Kristina, in case I wasn’t clear enough I’m saying that it is not only feminists that fail to open this channel of communication (although they are not exempt), it is all of society. Even among the MRA movement, the focus is on hurling slurs at women and attempting to box men into traditionally “masculine” roles. It’s a bizarre combination of a bigoted reactionary philosophy. Quite honestly, I don’t think MRAs consider anything about women’s sexuality positive. They’re angry and they simply want to use women for their sexual pleasure, feeling entitled to them based on perceived slights in the past (this is where the movement breaks off from traditional conservatism).

  5. I too think that you’re being too hard on yourself, Hugo. You’re incredibly open-minded and it’s always been clear to me that you make a real effort to create space for alternative perspectives, approaches, and sexualities. I can still remember the first time I came upon your site and thought, “Well, it looks like he has a BDSM tag … time to wade in ….” I braced myself to read your BDSM posts, expecting to encounter a lot of awful stereotypes, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that your actual reaction was much more nuanced and accepting.

    For me, the most important part of what you say here is this:

    Rather than condemnation, people need tools to negotiate and interpret and live out their sexual lives in ways that are just, safe, and life-affirming, just as they need tools that help them stay in their cultures and their families if that’s what they want to do. The feminist life is not just a theory. People have to live it.

    I think that this is why I’ve resisted going to graduate school, for example, and I try to focus on an approach that creates real conversations around sexuality and gives real advice rather than becoming buried in theory. Making better tools for approaching sexuality is one of the most important things that I believe feminists can do. This is one of the reasons I blog so much about BDSM — many BDSM subcultures (though not all) are stuffed full of brilliant ideas about communication, consent, etc.

    I know you’ve seen these posts, Hugo, but here are some links to posts I’ve written about BDSM ideas on consent and communication, and how we can port those ideas into the “vanilla” world:

    * Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #1: Checklists
    * Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #2: Safewords and Check-Ins
    * Sex Communication Tactic Derived from S&M #3: Journal-Keeping

  6. Hugo,

    as I’ve said numerous times before – I think, your ability, and willingness, to question yourself and reconsider is something that is rare, and valuable. Particularly for someone trying to foster debate about topics such as the ones you’re writing about.

  7. If I force a young person to choose between his or her sexual desires and feminism, it’s not far off from forcing a young Chicana to choose between her heritage and her commitment to women’s liberation.

    Do you realize you (perhaps intentionally, given how much you hate porn) set those things up as opposites, right after you explained that they’re not? The young Chicana is only choosing between her heritage and feminism by your standards of feminism. You’re also, again, portraying porn as something inimical to feminism, but being all understanding about how hard it is for a good feminist to give that up.

    And you’re doing it out of the same myopic motives as the middle-class white feminists who can’t understand why black women won’t give up, say, their commitment to church. You had a porn addiction, you see porn as inherently and permanently anti-feminist, and you’re completely unwilling to question or examine that.

    So no, I’m not particularly interesting in a patronizing, myopic apology that in essence says “I’m sorry for expecting you all to be better people.”

  8. @myth: He set those up as opposites to make the point that it’s a mistake to do so. At least, that’s how it reads to me, but it seems pretty clear.

    I’m a part-time lurker, so maybe this has been brought up at some point, but when you mention Clarisse’s “real life” a question came to me… does she lecture as Clarisse Thorn or with her real name?

  9. Mythago, you’re one of my long-time readers, and you havent’s seen me question my views on porn?

    Here: http://hugoschwyzer.net/2010/07/19/the-price-of-shame-on-rethinking-a-harsh-anti-porn-stance/

    Here: http://hugoschwyzer.net/2008/10/06/pornography-empathy-and-the-misuse-of-the-disease-model-some-further-thoughts-on-a-way-forward/

    Being in dialogue with folks like Clarisse (or Audacia Ray, Amber Rhea, Renegade Evolution, etc.) has been something I’ve been doing for a couple of years now. The whole point of this post was that I was REJECTING rather than embracing the binary that suggests that porn and feminism are inimical. The idea that Chicanisma and feminism are incompatible is a false construct (my point in the piece you quote) and we shouldn’t foist that false construct onto folks. What I was rejecting you accuse me of upholding, which may be the failing of my diction rather than an intentional misreading on your part.

    I don’t see porn as monolithic. As I wrote in 2008:

    Can I start to acknowledge that while there is much within both mainstream and “gonzo” porn that is violent and degrading, other varieties of pornography may be redemptive, beautiful, and life-enhancing for user and performer alike? I think I’m getting to the place where I can say, “Yes, it’s a more complex issue than I have previously acknowledged.”

  10. Yes, I have seen you question those views. That’s why it’s particularly surprising to see you present it here in the patronizing context of ‘I understand you’re not strong enough to give up your stroke books yet so there’s no need to insist you choose feminism over them’. Acknowledging that it is a complex issue (and it is!) is far different that reluctantly granting permission for your less-involved feminist allies to enjoy the stuff without turning in their feminist card.

  11. Mythago, then the fault was mine for coming across as if I’m “reluctantly granting permission.” What I was trying to convey is that I’m “reluctantly letting go” of a lot of my old hubris and myopia. Or trying to.

  12. I didn’t find this post to be patronizing, Hugo, but the point I was trying to make (which may not be related to what mythago is saying, in hir view) is that while I know you don’t see porn as a monolith, this post makes it seem like you do.

  13. A lot of us have to negotiate space between ideals and practice. Hugo, those you’ve interacted with in the space of teaching and activism have had to make their way of it, as you’ve here described. You yourself are doing the same thing here: finding ways to make your theories and ideals cohere with the messy world you run into in your life and others’. We all need a bit of forgiveness and acceptance, and it starts with self-acceptance. I said in the previous post, Hugo, it matters less that you’ve done, in your own eyes, a poor job than that you’ve been one of the few to grapple with such complex issues in the first place. You ought to give yourself a bit of the acceptance of negotiating a tough path that you know that you owe to others.

    In my experience: as far as the broader topic goes, one can take personal ownership and responsibility for one’s own “fucked up-ness”, what a Jungian might call the “shadow”, what some folks here might call the product of a corrupt culture, and what I call being a perfect product of imperfect circumstances. Making that first step of acceptance, wherever one takes it, at least gives one some agency in the whole process, as well as an ability to negotiate the terms of the exchange (or, in other words, it’s not exploitation anymore if you’re doing it to yourself).

  14. Hugo, I appreciate that (and as you know, I’m certainly not saying that porn is immune from feminist analysis or criticism); but your post started off correctly nothing that there is not one Platonic feminism to which all must conform, but degraded into ‘I understand why it’s hard for you to choose the real, Platonic feminism instead of this mash-up compromise thing you’re doing.’

  15. Living in sexual limbo until that happy day [when injustice and woman-hating have been excised from our culture] is an unhappy and unnecessary sacrifice.

    I’d go further, Hugo. Living in sexual limbo until our society develops a perfect attitude towards women and sexuality is an unhappy and counterproductive sacrifice. There will never be feminist sexuality unless we create it. Standing on the sidelines in an attempt to remain pure of unfeminist behavior gets us nowhere. Women and men who want a feminist, egalitarian view of sex need room to have a sexuality and to make mistakes with it. What we create won’t be perfect, but if we can find our own sexuality in a way that is even slightly better than the sexualities that were on offer before we came along, then we’re getting somewhere.