Review of Pornography: Structures, Agency, and Performance by Rebecca Sullivan & Alan McKee, Polity Press 2015. (PB/HB). 219pp.
REVIEW BY MARTIN FRADLEY, University of Brighton
Has contemporary pornography lost its transgressive status, or does it remain the locus of conservative moral panic? A handful of media events as I was reading this book would suggest a little of both. The broadcast of Generation Porn (C4, 2019), the UK debut of much-hyped teen drama Euphoria (HBO, 2019- ) and the aborted rollout of the Conservative government’s so-called ‘porn pass’ are indicative of a social order that remains officially equivocal about explicit sexual media whilst simultaneously resigned to pornography’s status as a permanent fixture on the cultural landscape. As Rebecca Sullivan and Alan McKee wryly note, ‘[n]o longer is it adequate to state that one is ‘for’ or ‘against’ pornography any more than one is for or against musicals’ (2015: 12). To this end, their book consistently rails against pornography being used as a convenient scapegoat for a variety of (real or imagined) social ills, insisting upon understanding the genre as a complex product of the media entertainment matrix.
Pornography examines six key vectors of analysis: industry; technology; violence; pornification; governance and performance. From the outset, the authors are open about their ‘passionate commitments to feminist, queer, and pleasure-positive politics’ (2015: 2). While many readers will be sympathetic to this enthusiastically sex-positive outlook, the depressing flipside to the authors’ sexual libertarianism is an overfamiliar brand of anti-feminism which at times borders on self-parody. With monotonous regularity Sullivan and McKee target a wildly overdetermined enemy: a would-be radical-feminist monolith imbued with all the puritanical authoritarianism their imaginations can muster. So profoundly haunted is this book by the anti-porn feminism of the 1970s and 80s that I sometimes wondered whether Spectres of Dworkin might have been a more appropriate title.
Readers’ tolerance for sublimated misogyny notwithstanding, this book nevertheless offers an accessible introduction to some of the key debates surrounding explicit sexual media. This includes a useful overview of the increasingly fragmented digital sex industry and a lively engagement with the (queer) politics of sexual labour. The book is particularly infectious in its rallying cry for the destigmatization of pornographic sex work, for example. At its most frustrating, however, Pornography lapses into a brand of libertarian polemic which is likely to prove unhelpful to neophyte readers. Sullivan and McKee boldly decry long-running discourses which contend that citizens may be ‘harmed’ by exposure to pornography, arguing that this is symptomatic of a condescending nanny state which distrusts individuals with their own sexuality. As a result, entire conceptual frameworks — the patriarchy; sexual objectification; the ‘male gaze’ — are crudely dismissed as infantilising cis-feminist shibboleths. Elsewhere, Marx and Freud are unsentimentally purged for philosophical crimes against individual self-determination, while Foucault is entirely overlooked in a book that is otherwise wholly indebted to his work on biopolitics and governmentality.
In snubbing ‘Saint Foucault’, Sullivan and McKee genuflect tellingly towards Brian McNair’s Striptease Culture,[i] a celebration of neoliberal sexual democracy which has acquired near-totemic status in certain quarters. As such, large sections of the book tell us less about explicit sexual media per se than about the increasingly wearisome 21st century culture wars. Indeed, the carefully cultivated aura of scholarly impartiality soon proves somewhat disingenuous. Gail Dines’ thoughtfully prudish Pornland[ii] serves as a regular critical punching bag, and throughout there is precious little room for intellectual ambivalence in a volume where the default answer to any potentially troubling question about pornography is, inexorably, “more pornography.”
An otherwise engaging chapter on pornographic performance exemplifies this myopic worldview. Sullivan and McKee reject orthodox feminist critiques of pornography, offering instead an impassioned defence of creative sexual labour:
Feminist/queer pornographers … seek to redefine authenticity as a labour practice — not a natural disposition — that can potentially transform gender and sexual norms … Such a position recognizes differential privilege among porn performers and the need to build safer, inclusive, respectful environments where the work of pornography is regarded without scepticism, revulsion, pity or contempt. (2015: 167)
Admittedly, this all sounds fascinating — until, that is, one tentatively explores the work of self-identified genderqueer performer Lorelei Lee. As Sullivan and McKee’s illustrative pornographic labourer, Lee serves as something of an ideological pin-up for the authors’ valorisation of non-normative sexual praxis. However, readers intrigued by their heady rhetoric may be disappointed to find that Lee’s on-brand sexual repertoire — involving enemas, fisting, slapping, gagging and choking — turns out to be little more than a generic BDSM-inflected skillset. The authors repeatedly hail pornography’s democratization of diverse sexual practices but — in the febrile post-#MeToo cultural moment — it seems unlikely that their revisionist endorsement of violent sexual performance will gain popular traction.
This impasse sums up the book: where Sullivan and McKee celebrate Lee’s sexual dissidence and unabashed physicality, many others will find only a Marcusean parable of repressive desublimation.[iii] The authors conclude by stating that their book ‘details how the story of pornography has been told’ (2015: 177). If David M. Halperin is right to argue that there is an ongoing ‘war on sex’, then only time will tell whether the ardent counter-narrative of Pornography can be seen as a significant victory — or simply a minor skirmish imbued with so much sound and scholarly fury.
[i] McNair, Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratisation of Desire (Routledge, 2002).
[ii] Dines, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality (Beacon Press, 2011).
[iii] Herbert Marcuse coined the term ‘repressive desublimation’ to describe a late-capitalist cultural dynamic in which would-be libertarian forms of ‘emancipation’ are ultimately pro-hegemonic. See: Marcuse , One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Routledge, 2002).
Martin Fradley is Lecturer at the University of Brighton and has taught widely across the UK university sector. His most recent work appears in the anthologies Tainted Love: Screening Sexual Perversion (2017), The Politics of Twin Peaks (2019) and Make America Hate Again: Trump-Era Horror and the Politics of Fear (2019). He is co-editor of Shane Meadows: Critical Essays (2013) and the author of Straight Outta Uttoxeter! The Films of Shane Meadows (forthcoming, 2019).