Sugar Daughters: why “Sugar Daddies” bother me more than johns

I’ve got a short piece (a blog post rather than a more thoughtful column) at GMP today on the Sugar Daddy phenomenon: Buying ‘Sugar Daughters’: What’s Really Wrong With the Sugar Daddy Phenomenon. Riffing on this Amanda Fairbanks piece in the HuffPo, I note that I’ve known students who’ve sought out these “arrangements” with varied results. And I touch on why the Sugar Daddy phenomenon bothers me far more than traditional prostitution:

By blurring the lines between a genuine romance and prostitution, the sugar daddy relationship is more problematic than a traditional john/hooker encounter.

That pretense of intimacy is inherent in the term “sugar daddy” with its hint of the incestuous. While the term “john” (for a male client of a sex worker) suggests anonymity, “sugar daddy” reeks of emotional (as well as sexual) boundary violations. The implication is that the real fathers of these young women have failed to provide the right combination of emotional and financial support; the term reinforces the not-entirely inaccurate trope that younger women who seek older men have “daddy issues.” And it suggests that the older men who seek out “sugar babies” are looking for young women whom they can spoil and fuck, deliberately blurring the line between paternal indulgence and sexual objectification.

The real question is whether the term “sugar daddy” is an unfortunate misrepresentation of what’s going on, or an all-too-accurate description of something dark and especially ugly.

Read the whole thing.

See also this terrific Alternet piece from Sarah Seltzer.

Defending Sex Work, Celebrating Monogamy

In her most recent post in our series of exchanges, Meghan Murphy asked me to answer a number of questions. Some of those questions were inspired by a commenter at her place named “Pisaquari”, who wanted to challenge me on my views about pornography and sex work as they related to my own life. I had written:

I reject porn use personally because it is incompatible with how I want to live my sexual life. I want my sexuality to be radically relational, where my arousal is inextricably linked to intimacy and partnership. I also want my sexuality to be congruent with my feminism, and for me personally, that means rejecting porn.

Meghan asked me to clarify, sensing (as did Pisaquari, apparently) a disconnect between my private behavior and my public views. While there are plenty of men who condemn pornography and sex work in public and then indulge in one or both in private, it’s a bit rarer to take the opposite tack I’m taking: affirming sex work and the possibilities of feminist pornography while remaining “personally opposed.” (It sounds a lot like the famous position of Mario Cuomo on abortion, who said he couldn’t countenance abortion personally but was strongly supportive of abortion rights.)

Answering Questions

Meghan asked a number of questions; I’ll tackle the first four here.

1) Why is pornography use incompatible with your sex life? What are the specific lines of impasse between your sex life and using pornography?

I’m a big fan of monogamy. Mind you, I don’t think monogamy is morally superior to all other ways of arranging sexual relationship. As long as we’re talking about mutuality, enthusiastic consent, and radical honesty, I think that there are many equally valid ways of living out one’s sexuality with other people. I want my sexual energy to flow towards my wife and no one else, even in fantasy. Since looking at porn (and presumably masturbating to it) would involve fantasizing about other people, that’s not something I see as compatible with my vision of monogamy.

I’m not a naturally monogamous person. I don’t know if many people are. But I like the discipline of total monogamy, which I find very rewarding and fulfilling. That really is more personal predilection than anything else. I no more expect others to share that same value system than I expect other people to share my fondness for soccer and my dislike of baseball.

2) Is pornography use incongruous with your feminism? What tenets of your feminism are not in line with pornography use?

It’s not incongruous with my feminism. It’s incongruous with my personal value system about sexuality at this point in my life. I used a lot of porn when I was younger, almost all of it before the internet era. (I wrote a tribute of a sort to Bob Guccione last year.)

But I do think that there are many different types of porn, much of which is blatantly anti-feminist. From my perspective, what I find to be the most loathsome genre of porn is the one that follows a deception narrative. A porn actress pretends to be a naive ingenue looking for a modeling gig and then is tricked into having sex with the photographer or his friend. I assume (or hope) that the deceit is only feigned. But I find the idea of being aroused by another person’s manipulation or humiliation to be fundamentally incompatible with feminism. Enthusiastic consent is sacred, or ought to be. And porn that ties the viewer’s arousal to the violation of informed consent — that strikes me as deeply problematic.

So, if the question is “can a heterosexual feminist man look at porn” without being a hypocrite, I think the answer is yes. But we need to ask what kind of porn he’s looking at. Being aroused by the naked body of someone you’ve never met, gazing with desire on another human being — that’s not inherently anti-feminist. The conditions under which those images were created matter. The story line connected to those images matters. And the way in which the use of those images affects the viewers’ relationships (specifically their views of women) matters enormously. Continue reading

Feminism, Porn, and SlutWalk: part one of a conversation with Meghan Murphy

One of the many benefits of being involved with the SlutWalk phenomenon has come in the form of new allies. But it’s not just allies I’ve met in real life and online. I’ve also had some vigorous discussions with folks who disagree with the very premise of the SlutWalk movement. Some of these conversations have revealed more heat than light. But some have been good, and I’m particularly pleased to have had the chance to meet Meghan Murphy, a graduate student in gender studies at Simon Fraser University who blogs with British Columbia’s F-Word Media Collective. Meghan also hosts the F Word Show on Vancouver’s Co-Op Radio, airing Mondays at noon Pacific time.

Meghan’s written a series of posts taking on SlutWalk, particularly around the willingness of some SlutWalks to form alliances with sex workers without a concomitant criticism of the sex industry itself. My views on SlutWalk are clear, and I’m currently developing a project in conjunction with sex worker advocates.

So in the interest of cutting through some of the rhetoric, Meghan and I decided to have a frank but civil exchange of views. She’d ask me five questions, and I’d respond; I’d ask her five questions, and she’d respond. What appears below the cut are her five questions to me and my responses. Jointly posted here and at the F-Word Blog, this will be followed on Wednesday with my questions and Meghan’s answers. Continue reading

Change and disclaimers

I’ve been blogging at this site for more than seven years; my archives go back to January 2004. And though my views on many issues have remained unwavering, there are a few topics about which I’ve had a fairly profound shift in recent years. Particularly around pornography and sex work, I’ve moved from a fairly traditional, hostile view to one that is far more nuanced. As anyone who reads through my archives will notice, there’s a fairly big shift that takes place in my writing around 2008.

Of course, people still cite some of my older work, and recently this post about the Suicide Girls reappeared, quoted both approvingly and critically. And I re-read it for the first time in a while, and I winced. I don’t repudiate the spirit of what I wrote, but I squirm at the reflexive paternalism I sense now. This post from last fall better reflects where I am now.

My views on my own sexual relationship haven’t shifted at all. I still call myself “Eira-sexual”, still working with a calm certainty on directing all of my sexual energy towards my wife. Even in prolonged “dry periods” (as when we had first become parents), I sent all of my sexuality towards that relationship. Not out of guilt, of course — but out of a sense that this kind of unidirectional sexuality was and still is the best path for my own growth. But I’m more leery than ever of extrapolating universal truths from my own experience. No one needs a smug puritan.

It’s no accident that my views on sexuality (including porn and sex work) became substantially more liberal when I became a Dad, something I’ve touched on before and need to touch on again.

But for now, the question is this: do I need to revisit everything I wrote about porn and sex work before 2008 and stick a disclaimer on it? Do I take the older posts down altogether? Thoughts welcome.

Sex work and the classroom: double standards abound

Anna North has this story in Jezebel: Female Professor Fired For Burlesque Performance. See more at Inside Higher Ed.

Only the latest in a string of cases in which women have been fired from teaching positions as a result of legal off-campus sex-work, I find this story and others like it to be disheartening and maddening. Though it was a different era, the mid 1990s were not eons ago — and I was notorious on this campus as the young, untenured prof who was sleeping with a great many of his students. And as I’ve written, the administration looked the other way — as long as the women involved didn’t complain, I was golden. I slept with students while traveling to conferences on the college dime, and the most the vice-president for human resources could say when that story was “Hugo, you’re quite the rascal!”

Not that I have any intention of finding out, but I’m not sure that things have shifted all that much in the past decade and a half. But while administrators might still look the other way when exuberantly irresponsible male academics sow their proverbial oats, they are still unable to grasp the reality that a woman can be an erotic performer off-campus and still maintain her intellectual gravitas in the classroom. In 2011, that’s infuriating and shameful.

“He Might Rape”: the myth of male weakness and the convenient exploitation of low expectations

The indispensable Figleaf (not necessarily a work-safe site for all) has a terrific commentary up today on the recent study, reported in the Guardian, on men who visit prostitutes.

Fig quotes one of the more troubling passages of the Julie Bindel piece:

One of the most interesting findings was that many believed men would “need” to rape if they could not pay for sex on demand. One told me, “Sometimes you might rape someone: you can go to a prostitute instead.” Another put it like this: “A desperate man who wants sex so bad, he needs sex to be relieved. He might rape.” I concluded from this that it’s not feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and myself who are responsible for the idea that all men are potential rapists – it’s sometimes men themselves.

It’s not hard to see that this belief — part of what I refer to as the myth of male weakness — serves a particularly important self-justifying function. “I need to have sex with prostitutes”, the line goes, “or I might rape.” We see something similar in arguments about pornography, in which men (often husbands or boyfriends) explain that the use of erotica “prevents cheating”. Call it the “You should be bloody grateful that this is all I’m doing” narrative.

Many women who are uncomfortable with their male partners’ porn use (or visits to strip clubs, etc.) tell themselves (and concerned friends) that they’re grateful that their guys “don’t do anything worse.” Perhaps there are some who genuinely believe what the men in the Guardian study claim to believe: that prostitution provides a necessary sexual outlet for fellas whose supposedly insatiable needs cannot be met in any other way. This is the soft bigotry of low expectations writ large, with the twist that the most painful consequences affect those who hold these assumptions — rather than those about whom the expectations are held.

It’s worth noting that the two men quoted in the Bindel piece use the second and third person to describe what “you” or “a desperate man” might do. Perhaps this is a way of claiming cover under the myth of male weakness without risking the sobriquet of a potential rapist. On the other hand, perhaps these lads don’t use the first person because in their hearts, they know it isn’t true. The “prostitution is necessary because otherwise men would rape” thesis is useful enough to be repeated; it is hoped that wives and girlfriends will believe it, and thus co-sign men’s hiring of sex workers as the lesser of two evils. But because these guys know well enough that in their own experience, lust is not a catalyst for rape (anger is, but that’s a different story), they are unwilling to use the first person singular or plural. They want the myth of male weakness to work because it serves their agenda; they know that in their own lives, the myth is oversold. This is cynical, yes, but devastatingly effective.

Until we dismantle the narrative of uncontrollable male sexual desire we cannot build a just and safe world for all.

Bonding through revulsion and desire: a note on homosociality and strip clubs

A reader named Sarah recently wrote in about a conversation she had with her husband about strip clubs:

My husband today mentioned the time he took his younger brother to a strip club when the brother turned 21. I laughed a bit, and said, “wow! i never heard that story before!” A few more teasing words were said between the 3 of us, and Imentioned that if he ever took our (still non-existent) son to a strip club i’d be furious. I assumed no more needed to be said, as the whole idea of it was so ludicrous and that my husband wouldn’t do something so creepy and so anti-women with a son of ours.

My husband shocked me by saying that yes, he would take our kid to a strip club and he doesn’t see why it would matter to me if “our son is getting married, and we all go to a titty bar for the bachelor party. it’s not like i’d encourage him to cheat!” I was left sputtering and a little disturbed, and totally unsure on how to proceed with this conversation as my husband is a man who’s always respected women and agreed on these matters. (or I obviously wouldn’t have married him!)

I’m no fan of strip clubs for a host of reasons. But Sarah’s email isn’t really about strip clubs — it’s about the problem of homosociality, a topic I’ve written about many times before. (Homosociality is the notion that for American men in particular, the approval of other males is of paramount concern, even more sought after than validation from women.) One of the most odious features of homosociality is the way in which it employs women’s bodies as devices for bonding men together. For example, many women are perplexed (as well as infuriated) by the habit young (and not-so-young) men have of cat-calling female pedestrians from passing cars. “Why do they slow down and whistle at me, making those comments?” a young woman asks; “Do they really think I’m going to get in the car with them?” The answer, of course, is that the fellas in the car are far less interested in the woman they’re harassing than in bonding with each other. They demonstrate their heterosexual bona fides to each other, and in the process of humiliating women on the street, forge a closer homosocial relationship. (It’s more than anecdotal to point out that groups of men, having just harassed a woman sexually, will high-five each other; one of the most devastating depictions of this comes in the rape scene from “Boys Don’t Cry”.)

Going to a strip club, of course, isn’t necessarily analogous to participating in a gang rape. But fathers and older brothers have been taking their sons and younger brothers to “titty bars” and brothels for a long time; in parts of Latin America, the practice is particularly common. The stated purpose may be an “initation into manhood” for a teen boy, or a bacchanalian farewell to bachelorhood for a man about to be wed. But there’s invariably more to it than that. Wives and girlfriends, not unreasonably, suspect that the motive is sexual: fathers and brothers may claim to be doing it as a favor for a son or a sibling, but in reality they’re just looking for an opportunity for “justified infidelity” of one kind or another. That may be true, but there’s a deeper and more common reason: a longing for homosocial intimacy.

Going to a baseball game is the paradigmatic “father-son” bonding activity. But for many men, sporting events are less effective than strip clubs as homosocial strategies. Women haven’t been excluded as spectator from ball parks for generations; very few wives and mothers actively disapprove of sports. (They may find watching sports dull, but that’s hardly the same.) Men in our society, as countless scholars of gender have pointed out, are socialized to find particular delight and meaning in activities from which women are excluded, or which most women find repugnant and objectionable. American boys prove their manhood, after all, through their rejection of their mothers’ values; to care too deeply about what mom thinks is to be a sissy, a mama’s boy. And need I point out how many American men have relationships with wives and girlfriends that closely resemble the mother-son dynamic? Mama might not object to taking little brother to the Yankees game — but she’s likely to be less pleased with a sojourn to the titty bar down the block.

The effectiveness of strip clubs as a homosocial bonding strategy is thus linked to two things: the shared sense the male patrons have that their wives and mothers disapprove of their being there, and the opportunity to establish their credentials as “red-blooded, straight American guys” by sharing the experience of objectifying women’s bodies. A single man in a strip club, nursing a beer, is seen as a vaguely pathetic — or perhaps threatening — figure; a group of men on a “stag night” in that same club are anything but. What is unacceptable in solitude is admirable and manly when done in solidarity with other males.

For men who, perhaps like Sarah’s husband, who have not yet done the vital work of learning how to establish intimate relationships with other men which do not require the objectification of women as “bonding glue”, the homosocial appeal of the strip club experience is tremendous. But women aren’t cement to hold together that which can’t otherwise be joined. Emotionally competent adult males don’t use either women’s revulsion or women’s bodies in order to establish closeness and cameraderie with each other. And men’s universal capacity to become emotionally competent — at a relatively young age — is very real. The fact that so many choose not to exercise that capacity is not evidence that they lack it.

Of getting naked, and getting naked: of truth-telling, vulnerability, sex work, and the right to a past

After yesterday’s post in the continuing series of posts on the subject of disclosing one’s sexual past to a partner, I got an email from a woman who is a regular reader and a Facebook friend. She writes:

My question comes from your “exclusivity” post. I’m wondering, if in a similar vein, how one should go about in terms of discussing such information such as having nude photographs taken, working as an exotic dancer, etc?

It’s a good question, and there are a couple of different queries buried within it. First of all, the issue of nude photos has changed enormously since the advent of the digital camera and the internet. Back in “my day”, it was difficult to get naked amateur pictures developed; many developers would simply throw away any film (including the negatives) that they judged obscene. I recall that a number of my friends, valuing their privacy, took Polaroids as a result of this longing for discretion and a permanent reminder of either nakedness or a specific sexual encounter. Today, with film more or less a thing of the past, it’s much easier to take — and more ominously, easier to send — naked photos of oneself. A couple of years ago, one of my youth group “kids”, then aged 16, took a topless photo of herself standing in front of her bathroom mirror, and e-mailed it to a boy she “thought” was her boyfriend. He shared the picture with friends, and the miracle of technology meant that half her school saw the photo. (At the time that one of my co-volunteers and I counseled her, we never realized that in some jurisdictions, this teen could have been charged with sending child pornography. She was, thankfully, never in legal trouble, but her humiliation endured.)

I don’t know what percentage of young people today take naked pictures of themselves and their friends with digital cameras. I imagine quite a few do, and that promises to delete the photos are as unreliable as similar promises about burning love letters were in the past. One waits for, oh, about 2025, when a Supreme Court nominee is forced to withdraw his or her name from consideration after nude pictures and a salacious college Myspace profile are uncovered by zealous journalists. And then, by 2045 or so, the ubiquity of these pictures and the cyber-indiscretions of the once-young will be so commonplace that this sort of thing will not be a disqualifier for high office. So, bottom line, I don’t think that the existence of amateur naked photos is going to remain a serious issue for years to come. What was once shocking will very quickly become banal, as is the way of most things.

That said, I don’t think my reader was writing about the topless photos one takes of oneself in the mirror with the trusty Canon SuperShot. She’s writing, I suspect, about whether to tell a new partner about one’s past experience of getting paid to pose nude, or to strip for money, or to do other things that would fall into the broad category of “sex work.” And that’s a much trickier question. Continue reading

Pornography, empathy, and the misuse of the disease model: some further thoughts on a way forward

I’m easing back into blogging this week. I have a bad cold, my first in months, probably contracted over the course of various recent travels. My wife and I spent Rosh Hashanah with the Kabbalah Centre International in Dallas, Texas last week; on Friday we flew up to Northern California for a weekend at our family’s country place in the hills northeast of San Jose. We went, in the damp and the bluster of an early autumn storm, to the Cal-Arizona State Homecoming game in Berkeley on Saturday afternoon. And our plane finally landed at Burbank Airport at 10:30 last night. I’m a bit groggy, but hoping to feel better as the week goes on.

And the emails! Folks, if you’ve emailed me recently, please be patient. I’m more than a little swamped. (Seven — count ’em, seven — with questions about older men/younger women relationships in the last week alone. Flattering but overwhelming.)

The discussion thread below my post on “rethinking a virulent anti-porn/sex work stance” is approaching 200 comments, and is still quite active (and, all things considered, reasonably civil.) Amber Rhea put up a lengthy and thoughtful initial response at her place, and both she and Ren took issue with this remark I made in the original post:

I am keenly aware that porn can play a part in reducing our ability to connect with each other as full and complete creatures of light. Porn, it still seems to me, is the enemy of empathy.

That deserves some more explanation.

Empathy, of course, is the ability to not only imagine what an other person might be feeling(sympathy), but actually to understand what an other person understands, feels, and experiences. Contemporary English often confuses empathy and sympathy to the point that even many scholars seem to disagree as to the precise boundary that separates one concept from another — a point driven home to me in a few minutes of googling about this morning! Here’s one possible definition, from an article for physicians:

The origin of the word empathy dates back to the 1880s, when German psychologist Theodore Lipps coined the term “einfuhlung” (literally, “in-feeling”) to describe the emotional appreciation of another’s feelings. Empathy has further been described as the process of understanding a person’s subjective experience by vicariously sharing that experience while maintaining an observant stance. Empathy is a balanced curiosity leading to a deeper understanding of another human being; stated another way, empathy is the capacity to understand another person’s experience from within that person’s frame of reference.

I like that last bit, and it’s relevant to the experience that I think a great many men have with heterosexual pornography. One of the valid criticisms that gets thrown at Robert Jensen is that as a man writing about men’s use of pornography from a feminist perspective, he centers men’s experiences and reactions; his Getting Off contains relatively few women’s voices. (Given that he was writing a book about how pornography impacted men, rather than an overarching cultural critique of commercialized sexuality, this seems like a fairly reasonable editorial decision to have made. The problem, if there was one with Getting Off, seems to lie in his fairly brief and caricatured descriptions of the women who work in pornography — more certainly could have been done to hear what they were saying.) In any event, both Jensen and I come to the same conclusion: almost regardless of the conditions under which pornography is produced, the impact upon the men who “consume” it regularly is often a decreased ability to connect and empathize with other human beings. Continue reading

Bridging the Porn Divide: sex, feminism, empathy, and the commitment to stop pathologizing the other side

If you ask most folks who have been blogging for a while, they’ll remember the one “break-out” post that got them noticed, or first attracted a significant number of comments and hits. For me, it was this post about pornography back in April 2004. I wrote in response to news that several major stars of the adult film industry were infected with HIV.

I wrote that post, and many subsequent posts on pornography from two over-lapping perspectives. I wrote as a pro-feminist steeped in the anti-pornography tradition of one branch of feminism; I wrote as someone who was moved by the desperately sad story of Linda Lovelace, moved by the razor-sharp incisiveness of Andrea Dworkin, challenged by the dazzling legal theory of Catherine MacKinnon. But my intellectual response to porn was mixed with my own experience of “addiction” to pornography, and a long struggle to overcome the compulsive use of sexually explicit material. Porn addiction, particularly in my youth (long before cyber-erotica became available) had done tremendous harm to me — and as a consequence, it had damaging repercussions in many of my relationships. So my feminism, my faith, and my own intense desire never ever to go back into that addiction combined to form a very strong anti-pornography stance.

It has been a long time since I’ve “used” pornography of any kind. But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the possibility of relapse. Heterosexual married men in my position — teachers, pastors, mentors — are famous for living sexual double lives. (The examples, sadly, are too many to list.) While some fall from grace in spectacular ways –Ted Haggard — others commit “adultery” only with their computers. I know my own tendency towards workaholism and Calvinist striving; I know that that Puritanical streak can, left unchecked, feed a dark side. It’s so easy, after all, to feel heroic doing what I do: mentoring, teaching, volunteering, advising, chairing committees and giving lectures. It’s easy, too, to buy into the lie that I’ve “been so good” and I “deserve” a little “me time.” For a lot of men, including myself for many years, that “me time” involved the compulsive consumption of pornography.

I learned early that a fulfilling sex life with a partner or a spouse is not a prophylaxis against porn addiction. I’m very clear these days that it isn’t my wife’s job to keep me sufficiently sexually sated that I don’t stray, even in my mind. It’s my job. And staying faithful in body and mind involves many things, of which willpower is actually the least important. Staying faithful to my commitments is made much easier by honoring the needs of my body as they arise. I was much more prone to use porn when I was hungry, angry, lonely, or tired; I have become much better (thank God) at recognizing my triggers. I listen to the needs of my body, and I don’t suppress them. That doesn’t mean I indulge every imperious demand! It means I do take the naps I need; it means I do get the (very non-sexual) professional massages that release the tension and the ache in my flesh. It’s when I bottle everything up, I know, that I am at risk of “acting out.”

But writing about pornography from the perspective of a recovering addict is problematic. Most saliently, it leads me — as it obviously did in that 2004 post — to be dismissive of those whose experience with pornography was radically different from my own. I’m not talking about the Larry Flynts of the world, mind you; I have little time for them. I’m talking about feminist voices, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, voices of women who work or have worked in the sex industry. Like so many folks, I’ve been more willing to hear the stories that match up with my pre-existing world view. I confess I’ve given more credence to those who spoke of the sex industry in negative terms (exploitation and abuse and addiction) than to those who talked about genuinely enjoying the work they were doing.

What I am most guilty of is pathologizing those whose experiences do not match my world view. I am not alone in this; many of my fellow anti-porn feminists do the same. We of all people, who ought to know better, still regularly suggest that women who work in the sex industry (or merely those who enjoy watching porn) are — take your pick — “deceiving themselves”, “working through childhood abuse issues”, “filled with a self-loathing they cannot acknowledge.” Sometimes, we infantilize female sex workers, suggesting that they are in desperate need of “rescue” by we the enlightened, the middle-class, and the sexually vanilla. Continue reading