Does the Internet Make Kink No Longer Kinky?

Last week, after I connected the ugly internet harassment of women to the nasty tone of Republican politics, one reader wrote to say: "Way to politicize everything." So let me explain in one short paragraph why politics and sex are always inseparable:

The life force goes hand in hand with death. All attempts to establish norms of behavior—marriage is between a man and a woman, for example—are attempts to wall off "disease" and death by defining the Other as dangerous and therefore forbidden. But where do you stop? Is interracial marriage normal? Is oral or anal sex normal between straight couples? Or only permissible between adults, as a bill drafted by Virginia state senator Thomas Garrett recently proposed? Over and over, we discover that the journey from purity campaigns to pogroms is short and littered with graves.

Which brings me to today's topic, the ongoing provocation that is internet porn as viewed by contemporary academics. In a recent book called Why Internet Porn Matters, a Goucher College philosophy professor named Margret Grebowicz outlines some of the knotty political and philosophical issues that she and her colleagues have discovered among the infinitely proliferating boobs and cocks of tube sites such as YouPorn and xHamster. She begins with an argument conservatives might find surprisingly congenial:

"Judith Butler makes this argument when she talks about the politics of coming out—she says that when we come out, what we really do is enter another closet, the gay closet rather than the straight closet. So now we're in this new closet and we become over-determined by the norms of what it means to be gay or lesbian, polyamorous, kinky or whatever."

Online, she writes, this leads to a kind of "ecstasy of community" where everyone who shares a kink talks to other people with the same kink. Which is exactly what I thought was good about the internet—find other freaks with the same kink, and you're more likely to accept yourself as you are and less likely to get suicidal or alcoholic.

But when I made this argument to Grebowicz, she told me I was making things way too simple. "You're right, but it's a matter of trade-off—what am I getting when I enter into a community around kink versus what I lose when I enter a community around kink. What's important is that we ask the second part of that question. We can't afford, in our liberationist fantasies, to not ask the second part of that question."

I wasn't sure I understood her point.

"Once you enter into a community you enter into normative thinking," she explained. "It just happens to be kink-normative. If you enter into a BDSM community online and engage in language of BDSM as they use it in that community, that immediately starts shaping the kind of behavior that's possible for you."

Example, please.

"Let's say I identify as sexually dominant or sexually submissive. That means certain things already. There is a kind of foreclosure of the revolutionary potential of the kink—it's already been played out. The revolution has already happened. So now you could even be called 'conservative' in the sense that you're 'conserving' the BDSM that's already out there."

I see her point now, but I don't think most people want to have what she calls "critical sex." Don't most people in the real world just want to be reconciled to their own sexuality, such as it is?

"I'm sure you're right," she says, "but then there's nothing perverse about it anymore."

This is starting to sound very French, I fear.

"If you want sex to be revolutionary," she continues, "if you're going to hold on to this idea that there's something politically important about sexual practices, then there has to be space for what post-structuralists call 'the event,' this thing that completely shatters the horizon of what's possible—the potential for destabilization has to be there."

I sense the name "Michael Foucault" on the horizon. He was the great French philosopher who decided the only way to be authentic about ideas like these was to kill himself by deliberately catching HIV.

She doesn't disappoint. "I would point you back to Foucault and say that, in conditions of modernity, the power/knowledge system is constantly at work to stabilize and normalize sexuality, and this includes the discourse of perversity—so the discourse of perversity just normalizes sexuality from the other direction."

By this, she means that when we define perversion, we are really defining what normal sex is—so "articulating perversity" isn't nearly as liberating as it first might seem.

At which point, my brain hurts. This is why I left graduate school. And even if all this is true, I feel like I still want to hold onto my naïve notion that seeing your kink normalized on the internet is liberating for the poor perverts who have been so marginalized, oppressed, tortured and imprisoned.

Grudgingly, she says that might be true if you're "self-determining" as a pervert, meaning that if you decided you were a freak all by yourself without reference to a social norm or the DSM-4 psychiatric manual. "But I don't know if that even works—the moment you get a community going, it's 'Ha ha, we're the perverts.' It's like punk rock. When you say 'We're punk rock and here is what that looks like,' it's just a bunch of people with tattoos and spikes. But the power of real counterculture is that it destabilizes social meanings, rather than just offering a new club to join."

That I understand. When Kohl's started to sell studded leather jackets, punk was truly dead. But it still seems like she's invoking this romantic French idea that unless you kill yourself in search of some kind of ecstatic revolutionary limit, then you're just participating in the normative prison.

"But what if it's true?" Grebowicz says. "I don't want to have sex with animals or be a pedophile, but those are the new perversions. Perversion is distasteful. It does separate you from social life."

At this point, I groan.

"I'm sorry," she says, "but you're not going to get it both ways. You're not going to get perversion and social acceptance and equality and a nice parade."

But the real point of her book, Grebowicz tells me, is to focus on the internet itself. She resists the idea that it's just a tool of individual liberation. "What interests me is thatit works as a form of social organization, which is something people don't realize."

She cites Jonathan Crary's book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, which discusses (according to the Amazon blurb) how the internet's "interminable non-time blurs any separation between an intensified, ubiquitous consumerism and emerging strategies of control and surveillance." As Grebowicz explains it, Crary compares the internet to cars and television and how we think of them as liberating the individual when actually "we fail to realize those individuating technologies are producing particular social relations—we become a society of drivers alone in our cars, a society of people alone in their apartments watching their flickering screens. The internet works the same way."

And so does internet porn, she argues. We don't have to go to the adult bookstore store and run into someone we know, but behind the illusion of privacy, the NSA and Google are tracing our every move. So all we did was unplug from society and plug into the Matrix—or, in Butler's terms, move from one closet into another.

But again, I keep returning to simpler questions. For most people, the question of sex is how to live with their own particular sexuality. These ideas about critical sexuality are interesting, but how do they relate to the average guy back on earth?

She sighs. "Because there is no such thing as 'their own sexuality.' Because sexuality isn't a private matter. I don't generate my sexuality from within myself. Sexuality is socially determined and collectively determined from the outset, which is why it's such a big deal politically—it isn't something private. In fact, the whole idea that it's private is misleading."

Maybe, but I'm still having trouble with the idea that sexuality is completely a social construct. I hate to sound all Republican about it, but you know: men hairy, women curvy. That's where it starts, right?

"There's a new way of thinking about sex and gender," Grebowicz informs me. "The old school is that there is biological sex, and it acts as a substratum that is real. Then the social construct is gender—how mommy and daddy teach us to be. That's 30 years old already."

Me D-U-M.

Patiently, she continues: "Now we talk about the social production of gender, which is a little different. The way Judith Butler puts it—you're going to hate this—is that the sense of a real, original and stable gender is an effect of the performance of gender, the residue of this endless repetition of performances. This is the performative theory of gender, which is important to all feminist work now."

In the face of my ongoing incomprehension, she tries again: "If there were a real gender, would we need to be constantly re-performing it? Masculinity and femininity needs to be reiterated precisely because they are tenuous."

Okay, that I get—and the more tenuous your masculinity is, the more you need to re-perform it. How else can you explain Rick Santorum? But aren't most people aware of this? Don't women who act all girly with makeup and lingerie know they're putting on an act, like geishas giggling? Nobody really thinks that's real, yet it's fun because it kind of relates to the underlying reality.

For once, she almost agrees with me. "But you're saying there is some kind of real femininity underlying all of that that generates the performance, and I want to say, 'No, there isn't—or at least we can't assume there is. It's like drag. Drag is fun, and it's funny and it ironic. But the drag queen isn't a 'real' woman underneath her performance, right? That's why Butler says all gender is relatable back to drag."

For me, this is a new idea. And it's what I love about thinking about sex. Maybe it's not all a performance, but there sure are people who take the performance of traditional masculine and feminine roles way too seriously—specifically, in my old-fashioned wannabe revolutionary view, the conservatives who feel most destabilized by modern ideas like these.

Plus, I love the idea of Santorum as a kind of drag queen.

So maybe I also start to see her point about the complications that rise when perverts normalize their kinks within internet communities. They too are putting up a wall against the Other and calling it forbidden, only now the Other are the ones performing the drag called "normal." Roll that around in your mind long enough, and the "potential for destabilization" might still arrive. You might even end up having some critical sex.


John H. Richardson is the author of My Father The Spy, In the Little World and The Vipers Club.

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