Wednesday, November 14, 2007

So how do you feel about porn?

You see, I'm working on this article (or maybe its a book chapter...) on neighborhood efforts in South Minneapolis to rid their commercial strip of "adult businesses" in the 1970s and 1980s. My interest in this topic comes not out of an interest in pornography, but rather from obsession with public space: how people use it, perceive it, and struggle over power and identity when in it. The neighborhood "claimed" the strip as part of their neighborhood and then used that authority to challenge some of businesses that had cropped up there. The area was vulnerable -- relatively working class area, with light industrial uses on its edges, mixed housing (single and multi-family), close to downtown and then strangled by the addition of a freeway with no exit to the area (35W) -- so it is not surprising that these "fringe" adult businesses (legal but suspect) would locate here.

Anyway, neighborhood groups started lobbying for new criminal statutes (making "obscenity" a crime -- something that was based on "community standards" after the Miller decision in 1973), better zoning laws, civil rights legislation, more zoning, licensing laws, and even buy outs of the businesses in question. Many of their arguments are based on the impact of these businesses on the feel, function, and perception of the neighborhood (stuff I am interested in) but then the arguments slide into territory I am less interested in -- morality, in particular, as more of the churchy folk get involved in the late 1980s and even just "straight ahead" feminist arguments about the exploitation of women and the violence of women encouraged by the materials and performances that these businesses offered. That's where it gets icky to me... my eyes glaze over and I start thinking about dusty the top of the fridge...

As I work on this and talk about it to friends, acquaintances, circulation desk attendees at the library, and grocery store clerks... the question inevitably comes up: so how do you feel about pornography? Unable to draw a firm line between my scholarly interests and my personal ones, I usually fumble the answer, but here is where my brain is today.

On the one hand, I am deeply sympathetic to the neighborhood groups who worked for a decade to (successfully) get rid of the adult businesses in their immediate communities. They were right, businesses that blatantly traded in sex created environments hostile to women -- and because of the geography of the area neighborhood women had to pass the doors of these bookstores and theaters to get to the bus stop, the grocery store, and the laundromat.

But then the members of the gay community that objected to many of these neighborhood efforts had a point -- the legal changes sought meant police and city attorneys now had a new arsenal of laws to use against gays and the physical spaces that they used to find each other. What laws are designed to do means relatively little until you see how they are interpreted and applied. All the good of the neighborhood groups, then, could be negated with the persecution of a politically vulnerable population. (I haven't yet done enough of the research to know if this happened.) Of course changes since the 1980s have made this less of an issue -- gay communities have more, new, and better spaces (real and virtual) than at any time in the past.

While it pains me to say this, because I am all about space, this whole approach seems off to me. It accepts the negatives associated with commercialized sex.

I do remain leery of adult businesses -- I routinely skip blocks where they are, especially the theaters -- but then I am not anti-porn. Really. I've enjoyed a bit of sexual entertainment myself over the years... especially as porn has proliferated and it is not just stuff made for and by str8 guys. That there are places like Toys in Babeland and events like the Dirty Show, that good little feminists like myself can like porn, that cool women such as Chloe can make erotic movies means there is a way to "do porn" in our society. The key to non (okay, how about just less)-exploitative, still-values-human-rights porn (and how about porn with decent production values? that would be good too!), however, is to take it out of the realm of the seedy. Part of doing that would be the minor [snicker] undertaking of making sex in general less shameful in our society. Ultimately the work of the neighborhoods in Minneapolis, then, appears shortsighted. They lobbied for eradication and relocation ("put it in the warehouse district downtown where no one has to see it..."). Maybe it is time to lobby for it to be better instead of being gone.

2 comments:

DrPattiS said...

Oh man, what a tough one. Kudos to you for tackling it.

I don't have a problem with video porn, when it is shown to consenting ADULTS and features consenting ADULTS. It spices things up, IMHO.

I never really thought about porn shops, strip clubs, etc. until I started driving to work up 8 mile. Holy cow! There are strip clubs a' poppin. I have to wonder what seeing that sort of thing, day in and day out, does to kids, especially males. I mean, if the aliens landed there, they'd think women existed mainly to take off their clothes.

So I guess it then begs the question: does being exposed to that sort of thing lead men to view women as objects (I would think it does, to some degree at least) and if so, does this lead men (and women, I guess) to commit violent crimes against women without feeling like they are hurting a "person" (i.e. only hurting a "nice rack", "set of tits", whatever). I do not know the answer, and I'm not sure one could ever know, unless one could mine the minds of criminals to get at their true motives.

I will say this--one argument that I HATE is when people say, "Those women love to strip because it's empowering!" I just don't agree. While some people might find it empowering (hell, "some people" like to see donkey sex), I just don't buy that as a feminist argument. Nor do I buy the idea that throwing your junk around in slutty outfits is empowering, but that's another post!

Teacher Patti (from Bike Ypsi :))

biscodo said...

Seems all academic/ponderable for a while, which I can surely nod and mumble appreciatively about. But then you go and make the leap of "Maybe it is time to lobby for it to be better instead of being gone."

On a personal level, I totally agree. The reason I don't watch porn movies is because they're typically terrible. The cinema snob in me can't stomach them. If I'm going to watch for more than 5 minutes, I expect something more than just grunting and moaning and thrusting.

But on an abstract level, I think that sex and The Public isn't so simple (well, duh...). There's always a spectrum. Along with sex, throw in food, alcohol, recreational drugs, extreme sports and other human behaviors. Everyone's experience can be classified as falling somewhere within the bounds of, on one extreme side, total abstinence/non-participation. On another extreme side, the behavior is life-sapping abuse. Somewhere in between is healthy, well adjusted use, and no matter where that healthy point is, "society" will stipulate, either through laws or mores, the boundary between "healthy use" and "abuse".

There will always be a boundary between acceptable and not, and it will always move. The Victoria's Secret billboard of today would have been considered obscene 50 years ago. That doesn't mean that we're on the road to utopia, it means that the line has shifted.

If you think you are outside the norm, fighting for justice and your way of life against the repressive conservative (or liberal) Establishment, remember that there will always be someone more extreme/fringey than you that wants their way of life to be normalized as "human right". At what point does sexuality in public have to be restrained? The vast majority of Americans agree that child molestation/pornography is wrong. The vast majority probably agree that the swimsuit part of the Miss America competition is ok. Different societies agree or disagree.

The crux(es) of the question: How do we find that line? When do we move it? And how is it decided?

And when you balance the needs and desires of disparate groups, remember that a compromise solution is guaranteed to do one thing - make EVERYONE unhappy because no one gets their way. Only in that way do we find equality.