GAY MALE PORNOGRAPHY: AN ISSUE OF SEXISM
Speech Presented at "Speech, Equality and Harm",* held at the University of Chicago Law School, March 1993
Copyright © Christopher Kendall, 1993. All Rights Reserved.
The average gay male confuses me. As a gay man he lives with the fear and reality of the baseball bat and the crowbar. He knows hate and what it means to be a victim of violence. So why the gay male response to Butler, the Supreme Court of Canada's most recent, and successful, effort to address the harms of pornography? In Canada, when the Butler decision was released, gay men expressed outrage. As a white gay male, this reaction leaves me confused and, sadly, desperately in search of a community. For I consider gay male pornography to be an issue of power, a source of social inequality -- including my own.
Some view gay male pornography as integral to the formation of gay male identity, as something that challenges heterosexuality as a compulsory social construct. To my mind, gay male pornography is neither. It is hate speech. It is integral, indeed central, to the formation of a misogynist and heterosexually defined gay male identity. Gay male pornography does not challenge compulsory heterosexuality and male dominance. It supports it. When I see it, distributed en masse by those who profess to support a gay rights agenda committed to equality, I see the underbelly of current identity politics -- a gay identity that rejects compassion, affection, and caring between two men, and that instead promotes internalized homophobia, hate, and the harming of others. Gay male pornography presents hyper-masculinity, what it means to be a socially defined male." These images ensure that white male dominance is maintained and that those who have historically been denied equality will continue to be the victims of hatred and violence.
Let me emphasize that I am speaking about gay male pornography, not lesbian pornography. While I have little doubt that many of the issues I raise today apply equally to lesbian pornography, I do not intend to address it here. Rather, I will speak about what for me is closest to home.
In Canada, we are fortunate to have a Supreme Court that, in 1992, broke precedent and in the process reaffirmed its commitment to equality as the central Canadian right. The case of R. v. Butler does not represent the first time the court has been asked to rule on the claimed values and expressed harms of pornography, but it is the first time that the court has explicitly upheld laws against pornographic materials because their distribution and production undermine "respect for all members of society, and non-violence and equality in their relations with each other."
In Butler, the court recognized that pornography equals harm, arguing that:
the clear and unquestionable danger of this type of material is that it reinforces some unhealthy tendencies in Canadian society. The effect of this type of material is to reinforce male-female stereotypes to the detriment of both sexes. It attempts to make degradation humiliation, victimization, and violence in human relationships appear normal and acceptable. A society which holds that egalitarianism, non-violence, consensualism, and mutuality are basic to any human reaction, whether sexual or other, is clearly justified in controlling any medium of depiction which violates these principles.
Applying this analysis, the Court specifically rejected previous case law in which t was held that pornography should be regulated in order to maintain moral standards. Instead, it recognized that not all speech is equal and that some speech is, in fact, the very source of inequality. The court thus provided a new judicial standard for the evaluation of speech freedom-a standard that will assist in the ongoing struggle for equality.
Canada is also home to Chris Bearchell, a writer for Toronto's largest lesbian and gay newspaper, who, following Butler, had the following to say:
Canada's pre-eminent feminist law-reform organization, the Legal Equality Action Fund (LEAF) seems determined to curtail Canadians' newly enshrined right to freedom of speech before most of us ever get a chance to exercise it. ... The fact that public and expert witnesses believe that porn causes harm is due to the success of the past decade's anti-porn propaganda campaign, carried out by a dubious alliance of right-wing Christians and such feminist and anti-sex crusaders as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who helped develop LEAF's strategy in the Butler case. Thousands of dollars have gone to support women's groups which actively spread this misinformation. ... It is a sad comment on our time that a moral panic about sexual imagery is led by feminists; that their energy is channelled into an anti-sex backlash that hits queers first and hardest!
Chris Berchell believes that gay male pornography should not be "censored." Her arguments are based on the assumption that gay male pornography does not harm -- that is, that it does not result in behavioural and attitudinal changes that -ad to actual physical harm and which undermine social equality. To my mind, this analysis is both politically naive and socially regressive.
For all the effort expended on defending gay male pornography, it is telling hat there is little description or documentation of what gay pornography is -- that is, what it looks like, what it does, and what it says. If gay male pornography were liberating, then an analysis of how it is produced, by whom, and a description of who and what it represents as the source of that liberation would prove useful. Unfortunately, advocates of gay male pornography have failed to provide even basic information about that which they so adamantly defend. Focusing more on its perceived positive effect, they have tended to evade any realistic analysis of that from which this effect is derived. This, in turn, has tended to legitimize those arguments which, having ignored the reality of what is promoted, overlook its resulting harm.
Very little research has been done in the area of gay male pornography, but it seems to be an enormously profitable industry, with most profits going directly to some of people who produce straight pornography. (So much for a distinctly gay discourse, by us and for us!) In 1985 alone there were ten or more companies producing approximately one hundred gay pornographic films a year, each retailing for approximately forty dollars. No one knows for certain how many of these films are sold each year, but in 1985 alone, William Higgins, the self-acclaimed "king of the gay porno industry," grossed more than $2 million. That same year, gay pornographic magazines, which sell for seven to fifteen dollars each, had a distribution of more than 6oo,ooo magazines a month. That's more than 7 million magazines in one year.
Gay male pornography boasts cover titles like Nazi Torment, Slant Eyed Savages, Teen Bootlicker, Leather Rape Gang, Big Black Cocks, Stud Daddy, Oriental Guys, Inches, and Slaves of the S.S. Once inside, you get spreads with names like "Be My Sushi Tonight," "Caught Sniffing First Playmate's Dad's Uniform," "More Prison Violations: Spick Muscle Enslaves Anglo Cellie," "I was a Substitute Vagina," and "I Slapped Him Until He Came."
What one sees in gay male pornography is an almost pervasive glorification of the idealized masculine/male icon. Cops, truckers, cowboys, bikers, and Nazis are eroticized. Racial stereotypes are sexualized and perpetuated. Muscle, "good-looks," and youth are glorified. Ostensibly straight or at least "straight-acting" men rape and/or humiliate descriptively (frequently stereotypical) gay men. Sadism, bondage, watersports, fisting, bootlicking, piercing, slapping, whipping, incest, branding, burning with cigarettes, torture of the genitals and nipples with hot wax, clamps, and the like, rape, and prison rape are presented as erotic, stimulating, and pleasurable. In most of these materials, it is the white, physically more powerful, more dominant male who is romanticized and afforded role model status. In those scenarios where male sexual partners "take turns" being the "top," the characteristics of dominance and non-mutuality remain central to the sexual act. The result is a hierarchical and rarely compassionate or mutual sexuality.
This is gay male pornography. This is what pro-porn advocates are defending. This is their identity politics. While content and presentation may vary in degree and explicitness from one medium to another, what one gets from the above is an overview of what gay male pornography is. If we take ourselves seriously, and if we take seriously the question of identity politics, then we owe it to ourselves to examine what this politics consists of.
The identity politics that can be culled from gay male pornography is one of degradation, exploitation, assertiveness linked with aggression, strength equated with violence, physical power and the right to overpower, intimidation, control of others, lack of mutuality, and disrespect. If you defend gay male pornography, you also defend these qualities as central to gay male identity. You defend aggressive, non-consensual behavior as normal, even liberating and promoted as such.
The question to be asked then is whether the gay male politics it puts forward is supposed to result in my eventual liberation. I do not believe so. Rather, the identity politics will result in considerable harm -- precisely the types of harms addressed in Butler, which have been so readily dismissed as nonexistent within gay pornography and the gay community generally.
Given the description above, it is perhaps not surprising that gay pornography frequently places its "models" in scenarios that promote violence, cruelty, degradation, dehumanization, and exploitation. While deemed merely representational, hence "fictional," the "fantasy" offered in gay male pornography utilizes real people, a factor most pro-porn advocates overlook. The men used in gay male pornography are frequently involved precisely because they are psychologically and financially at their most vulnerable. They are easily exploited by an industry driven by its ability to manipulate those least likely to possess real life choices. Indeed, the lives and experiences of these young men are very much removed from the "fantasy" they invoke.
It is a disturbing reflection of the state of gay male relations that so little is known about, and ultimately done to assist, the men held out as the images from whence gay male identity is derived. Note, for example, the description of one young man (interviewed in 1985) involved in the production of gay male pornographic films and magazines.
Jim Y. was raised by abusive, alcoholic parents. When Jim told his parents he was gay, at age 13, his father tried to kill him with a large kitchen knife. Jim left home at 17. At 19 he met Frank H., about ten years his senior, who was to become his lover. Frank was making a porno film at the time he met Jim, and convinced Jim to appear in it. Jim played a new arrival to the big city who engages in S&M, including bootlicking, bondage, beating with a belt, fisting, and implied murder. This film was the first film to show fisting and Jim says he is convinced -that it created the gay interests in fisting as a sexual behavior. The film also reflected the S&M relationship that Jim and Frank were to share for the next decade. Jim has been seeing a psychiatrist for three years now. He has been trying to avoid S&M sex, and believes that his sexual behavior was a way he sought out contact with his abusive father. He also recognizes that much sexual "fantasy" can be destructive; when asked where it comes from, he said, "Well, to some extent, from me; from my films, that is." About one month ago Jim was diagnosed with AIDS, and now fears that he has lost whatever chance he might have had to turn his life around.
The daily reality of the young men used in gay male pornography should. at a minimum, indicate that the industry does not afford protection to the people it uses for profit. Many of these men, already susceptible to the effects of past emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, are further endangered by an industry that, to date, has done little if anything to promote safe sex practices and, as a result, does very little to protect the people who are supposed to present" positive and safe sexual practices. In addition, the industry is inextricably connected to the prostitution of these men, resulting in the increased risk of exposure of AIDS and the physical violence and exploitation commensurate with prostitution generally.
Similarly, it does not require too much insight to infer that scenarios of sexual violence and pain presented as pleasurable are in fact documentations of real degradation, which are neither pleasurable nor fictitious. While it is easy to articulate a liberation theory that overlooks or ignores the reality of what is speciously presented as "fantasy," the use and abuse of young men in scenarios of degradation, dehumanization, and violence cannot be justified, particularly by those who view their presentation as integral to the sexual and political awareness of all gay men. As LEAF so rightly argues in Butler, if anything violates a person's freedom and integrity more than direct sexual and physical abuse, it is the mass marketing of that abuse as sexual entertainment.
The gay male community has been reluctant to acknowledge that gay men do actually hurt each other, that this might be encouraged by pornography or t at there is anything inherent in the values expressed in gay male pornography that undermines equality. If these gay male publications were heterosexual in nature, however, and presented women and men rather than men and men, the Canadian courts would acknowledge that they are substantially harmful to women and society, based on research indicating that the production and distribution of heterosexual pornography increases the risk of violence against women and that the stereotypes and gender hierarchies promoted in pornography undermine equality. The last decade of research additionally indicates that heterosexual pornography harms women by negatively influencing individual and group behavior and by being used as a tool to force people to participate in non-consensual, non-egalitarian power relationships.
Do these harms result from gay male pornography as well? Or does the "gay" in gay male pornography make the pornography less pornographic? That is, is there something qualitatively different about pictures of men violating other men that makes gay male pornography harm-free, or outside the constraints of Butler?
Although research thus far has relied only on heterosexual pornography, I suggest that these findings are equally applicable to gay male pornography -- that is, that the presentation of real people in scenarios of violence and degradation (not to mention the exploitation involved in the production of these images) can in this case, too, lead to increased violence against real people. I do not argue that the harm and the degree of it are exactly the same, since men are not socially in the same position as women. But an analogy can be drawn-that in both cases certain images cause behaviors that harm real people.
Supporters of gay male pornography will reply that heterosexual pornography is damaging because it depicts men harming women-that it is the biological difference that renders women unsafe and unequal. Hence, gay male pornography eliminates the risk of harm because no women figure into its presentation. Any analysis that rests on biology, however, is misleading, as well as essentialist. It assumes that when men hurt and violate men it is not harmful -- an assumption that only reinforces dominant assumptions about acceptable male behavior and male aggression generally. More important, the danger inherent in straight pornography is not just its presentation of the biological male violating the biological female. Its danger also stems from the model of behavior afforded the biological male and sexualized as normal behavior. The legitimation of power for those who exhibit aggression and dominance reinforces male violence and systemic inequality for those who become their victims.
The maleness presented in pornography is in fact not a biological but a social trait. Two men can be made unequal if one man is viewed as a real man and his partner is not. Gay male pornography, like heterosexual pornography, creates a gender hierarchy in which masculinity equals power. It promotes male dominance, and this, in turn, results in considerable harm.
In their groundbreaking 1991 study on gay male domestic violence, Island and Letellier report that there are 350,000 to 650,000 victims of gay male domestic violence in the United States each year, the third largest health problem facing gay men in that country today. What is most interesting for an analysis of gay male pornography are the study's findings about the types of men who batter and how they perceive themselves and their partners.
Gay men who batter and abuse their partners have specific ideas of masculinity and what it means to be male. This is the result of a near-complete lack of positive gay role models, a homophobic environment in which being gay means being non-masculine, hence inferior, and the internalization of self-hatred and societal rejection. These men overcompensate for their sense of non-worth by seeking out value systems that they hope will provide control power, and more social acceptance. The gay male batterers in the study interpret assertiveness to mean aggression (and hence ignore the rights and feelings of others), think of strength as a license to be violent, see power as a license to terrorize, and view mutuality as a threat. As Island and Letellier explain, gay male batterers "act out" what they perceive as appropriate masculine behavior, follow a recipe for that masculinity and, when they beat their partners, excuse their behavior by claiming that this is just how men act.
Gay male pornography promotes "values" like power, brutality, and non-mutuality, exactly the same as those held by gay male batterers. Gay male pornography thus supports and sexualizes a view of masculinity that daily results in gay men abusing and killing the men who love them.
While no research has been done to determine if gay men who abuse their partners use gay pornography, there is no evidence that they do not. For many pro-porn advocates, gay male pornography serves as a learning resource, particularly in a society where gay male expression is suppressed. To these people I ask whether it is unreasonable to assume that a learning resource that promotes masculinity, taken to its extreme, once interpreted by men who feel they do not fit the desired norm and feel that they should, has the potential to trigger already severe feelings of insecurity and result in some particularly destructive behaviors.
In sum, gay male pornography encourages all that is masculinity (read "male" socially defined). Thus, in addition to encouraging male aggression resulting in physical harm, it also goes a long way in maintaining systemic inequality by promoting rather than undermining a gender hierarchy in which "male" is top and "female" (read all women and those gay men who fall or choose not to conform to the male construct and who are thus socially feminized) is bottom. Like heterosexual pornography, it thus glorifies those in our society who have always had the most power and who have benefited from male dominance and social inequality: white, able-bodied straight men. The result for society is a sexual politic based on a male/female dichotomy, a split between power and powerlessness, top and bottom.
By referring to gay men as feminized and therefore "female," I am not suggesting that gay men and women are equally oppressed. As Andrea Dworkin explains, "devalued males can often change status, escape; women and girls cannot." Nor am I suggesting that all gay men are equally oppressed. What I am saying, however, is that to the extent that some gay men do reject socially defined male behavior (as they must if systemic equality is ever to be attained) and express a sexuality and politics which have the potential to subvert male supremacy, their behavior is deemed unacceptable and devalued as such. The gay male who does so is, as John Stoltenberg explains, "stigmatized because he is perceived to participate in the degraded status of female" and, as such, assumes a position inferior to those who, not feminized, reap the benefits of male/female polarity. He is, in essence, penalized for not "changing status" -- that is, for not adopting those values and attitudes that maintain male dominance and the inequality that results from it.
Lesbian writer and activist Suzanne Pharr has written that when gay men break ranks with male roles through mutual bonding and display affection for other men, they are perceived as not being "real men" and are identified with women -- the "weaker sex" that must be dominated, and which is the object of male with hatred and abuse. Misogyny, she explains, gets transferred to gay men a vengeance. It is increased by the mainstream fear that gay sexual identity and behavior will challenge male dominance and compulsory heterosexuality. The gay male, socially feminized, internalizes this misogyny and seeks to mimic those behaviors that will, he hopes, allow him to pass for the man he is supposed to be. Masculinity, for those who have been penalized for failing to meet its criteria, promises privilege and a safety net with which to find support and acceptance.
This assumed safety net is exactly what makes gay pornography the homophobic threat to equality that it is. Rather than encouraging gay men to subvert oppressive gender constructs, it tells gay men that every sexual relationship must be hierarchical and that male power is at the top of that hierarchy. It promises the gay male a false sense of security that he too can gain more power if he can become that which epitomizes power-masculinity taken to its extreme. Unfortunately the power promised is a facade and does a great deal to further maintain male dominance-the very source of all that is anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-equality.
Gay author Seymour Kleinberg has argued that one does not defeat one's enemy by simply mimicking him. Mimicry only ensures invisibility. By dissuading the public expression of a sexuality that has the potential to undermine patriarchy, gay male pornography serves as little more than another homophobic source with which to silence gay men and reinforce an already deeply entrenched system of sex discrimination and social inequality.
Gay men state with conviction that "silence equals death." For many, this represents a call to action. To these same men I say: silence does equal death, and gay male pornography is your muzzle. Now let me see some real action.
Formerly a resident of Toronto, Christopher Kendall is now a law professor at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia.
- R. v. Butler  1 S.C.R. 452.
- C. Bearchell, "In Harm's Way: A Calculated Campaign Takes Aim at Sexual Imagery ad Free Speech," (1992) 3 XS: A Supplement to Xtra! Magazine 1.
- Some of the information about the gay male pornographic industry provided in this speech is derived from research conducted in 1985 by a student at the UCLA School of Law. His findings were not published (for reasons that are perhaps obvious in light of the risks associated with the industry studied and the circumstances surrounding the interviews obtained). Much of the information obtained was obtained in the strictest of confidence. As such, the name of the young man interviewed will remain confidential. I have also, at the request of the author, withheld the author's name.
- Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (New York: Putnam, 1980).
- John Stoltenberg, "Gay and the Pro-Pornography Movement: Having the Hots for Sex crimination," in Kimmel, ed., Men Confront Pornography (New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1990).
- Suzanne. Pharr, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism (Little Rock: Chardon Press, 1988).
- Seymour Kleinberg, "The New Masculinity of Gay Men and Beyond", in Michael Kaufman ed., Beyond Patriarchy: Essays by Men on Pleasure, Power and Change (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987).
- David Island and Patrick Letellier, Men Who Beat the Men who Love Them (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1991)
Many of the arguments presented in this speech are discussed further in:
Kendall, C. "Gay Male Pornography After Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium: A Call for Gay Male Cooperation in the Struggle for Sex Equality" (1997) 12 Wisconsin Womens Law Journal 21-82; and.
Kendall, C, "Real Dominant, Real Fun?: Gay Male Pornography and the Pursuit of Masculinity" (1993) 57 Saskatchewan Law Review 21-58.
Also see: Kendall, C, "Gay Male Pornography and the Sexualization of Masculine Identity", in Lederer, L and Delgado, R (eds), The Price We Pay: The Case Against Racist Speech, Hate Propaganda and Pornography (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1995) 102-122. Top of Page
Little Sisters, LEAF and the Sexism That Is Gay Male Pornography: A Gay Male Defends "Equality Now" by Christopher N Kendall.