Break (Pornography)

Larry has a post up on pornography. I have been wanting to engage with him for some time (note to self: nothing you write will sound quite right). But I am saving all my fully-formed sentences and paragraphs and (one hopes) arguments for the dissertation right now. So, I offer only a few fragments in hopes of an encounter.

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Toward the end of his post, Larry points to possible future topics including the (inferior?) quality of gay porn vs. straight porn. Before his escape into “real life,” Bernard (who Larry should remember) had a long, informative email about the financial aspect of creating black gay porn. (I realize how useless this statement may seem, how incestuous, but I’m in the world of porn, where Onan reigns.)

But the unqualified question of “quality” also raises questions about what we want when we watch porn. We want the encounters we see to be “magical,” to convey pleasure, to hide aspects of “labor.” While we may want to see vigorous action, high energy, sweaty brows and shifting muscles, we are reluctant to see scars, to see evidence of editing, to recognize the bored faces and tired performances of workers who are paid to elicit desire. (Indeed, the awkward performances of many younger actors can be a huge turn-off *ahem* cocodorm, as can the overly stylized, bland rituals of Bel Ami and Falcon twinks.)

We want to see professionals (and, a quick scan at xtube comments will reveal a vast appreciation for them). If not professionals, we want to see youth awakening to its possibilities. We want a certain kind of romance. We have less tolerance for bodies that seem to be old and worn out (even when young); we heckle at glazed eyes and limp dicks, seeing them as symptoms of personal failure as opposed to conditions produced, perhaps demanded, by the nature of pornography as labor.

There is much more to be written here. I simply want to note how the question of quality, in addition to being financial, also has to do with our expectations about sex work, and, quite often, our unwillingness to think of sex as work.

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I think that the issues of cross-identification in pornography might be a little more complex than Larry grants. When watching gangbangs, where white women are targets of black men, for instance, the sites of allegiances and attachments, the acts that elicit our desire and attention, might be multiple and shifting. It is not simply the case that a black male viewer in such a scenario necessarily identifies with the black men.

Indeed, one common argument made by “gay recruiters” (straight-seducers?) is that many so-called straight men seem more interested in watching male performers than women, and not merely in a comparative his implement is x size way; see Mutumia. This interest is touted by straight-seducers as evidence of latent gay tendencies. I have no intention in adjudicating a faulty argument, but I do think it raises interesting questions about how pornography scrambles, orders, and re-orders modes of identification. No doubt performance scholars would have a lot more to say about the way pornography functions.

This shifting site of identifications (here, I’m thinking psychically and much less politically, insofar as the two can be separated) is one of the reasons porn can be such a complex phenomenon to analyze. To use the handy language of gaydom, no matter one’s own preferences, one might be seduced by watching another person’s experience. “Tops” might enjoy watching and even identify with “bottoms.” People who may disdain kissing in the real world might be incredibly turned on by it in a movie; people who claim not to experience cross-racial or inter-racial desire might find their fantasies populated with all sorts of border crossings.

I am not claiming that experiencing such modes of identification and cross-identification necessarily speaks the “truth” of one’s desire. That is, I am not claiming that when gay men watch heterosexual porn they express a desire to be heterosexual, or even, as Larry would put it, to be in the position ostensibly occupied by heterosexual men. In part, I think this reading of identification and cross-identification is complicated by the temporality of porn: the shifting clips and multiple angles; the way, for instance, in a 15 minute scene, 2 minutes might be really hot, the rest unremarkable. Or, how in a gangbang, only one performer out of, say, five, may elicit interest. How, that is, the segmented aspects of pornographic action demand an attention to fragmented, multiple sites of identification.

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The taste for a particular kind of porn does raise questions about one’s desires and kinds of identifications. Swept up by the pre-condom nostalgia, for instance, I have a fondness for movies of a certain era. Turned off by the vapid models of hairless wax that pass for “attractive” and “desirable” in much commercial gay porn, I find the amateur antics available on xtube, featuring “real people,” to be much more interesting.

But every so often I break out of what I like to try what I might like or find curious or interesting or fascinating—various kinds of fetish porn have their appeal. I found myself intrigued by foot worship recently. (Given that I come from a place where many people walk around barefoot, foot worship is, to say the least, bewildering; it would be akin to playing with dry concrete.)

And this, I think, is one valuable way to think about how porn functions as an index of ever-capricious, ever-changing desire. (Didn’t we have a plan to start a Gikuyu-themed porn company, Mutumia?)

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Porn complicates all kinds of politics.

When we adopt a “save the women” attitude, we refuse to recognize the legitimacy of sex work. At the same time, we must acknowledge that most porn actors are not unionized, have crap benefits, and are vastly exploited. (Sounds a lot like Wal-mart.) We cannot claim a special place for pornography within struggles over labor. If we claim it is more inherently exploitative because it involves bodies, we dematerialize many other forms of embodied labor. I’m sure a lot has been written on this. So I move on.

I am uncomfortable with any kind of political stand or position that would seek to discipline the work of fantasy and desire. Despite many “convincing” arguments, Law and Order has yet to convince me that the unconscious is an instruction manual. Does watching porn and enjoying it compromise any politics (not just feminism) that believes in the worth of all people? To answer that would require unpacking the various meanings attached to sexual play and, for those of us who embrace the term queer, to explain our resistance to modes of social discipline.

Is watching people have sex any different from watching people eating or walking or riding bicycles? Those of us who study race and gender and class and ethnicity and nationality might think, for instance, about the “pornography” of identity categories, the nakedness of difference.

Yet, I use pornography advisedly, for I do think there’s something incredibly powerful about our (relatively recent) turn to the metaphorics of pornography to speak of the vulnerabilities, privations, and pleasures of contemporary life. (Given how few of us actually experience “orgasms,” the expression “orgasmic” owes more to porn than “real life.” Yeah, I said it!)

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IF you’ve been patient enough to read this (my loyal readership of 1), reward yourself. Go play on

6 thoughts on “Break (Pornography)

  1. When it comes to sex, I’m more prepared than you are to acknowledge the unconscious as an instruction manual.

    A conversation which I have and assume is common, is a conversation to encourage safer sex and ways to prevent HIV infection. These conversations seem useless because they try to impose conscious decisions on what we prefer not to think too much. Nevertheless, guys do use condoms, so the “instruction manual” must indeed include conscious premeditation. Still, the awkwardness of these conversations suggests that guys don’t like to admit to too much conscious thinking about sex.

    I’m off to xtube;-)

  2. First off, you are the only person I know who can make statements like “I use pornography advisedly” and get away with it. And yes, our empire in all its (non foot worship fetished!) glory awaits. I’m so scared though that the first statement out of the KeguMutu Productions (you go first:)) gates will be as >d predicted, “Athamia!”

    I can’t stop giggling at the mental picture of some random guy from say, Kabati Murang’a being asked to just spread his toes (“…ruta nginyira”) … but the fact that Moi ruined the image of the foot with his Nyaoyo-ism might also have something to do with it no?

    and sweets I’m sorry but I have to disagree with you re airbrushed perfection. Didn’t the peer reviewed BET comic view state that the highest earning strippers (and by extension porn maidens) had stretch marks and bullet holes? I think in the world of porn, girth and length rule (see one Ron Jeremy e.g.).

  3. Because I always follow you willingly . . .

    Porn aesthetics differ; the wisdom used to be that heterosexual male viewers were threatened by good looking male actors. Not to mention porn was so disreputable, those who didn’t have to, didn’t. Now, I think, market demands–the women who watch it, the number of bisexual men, and, I suspect, the number of younger viewers raised to prize a certain kind of aesthetic look–have changed the nature of the market. But I’m no expert.

    In much gay porn, young and airbrushed or older and airbrushed still rules. But I’m no expert.

    Since I believe in reclaiming terms for better purposes, bringing pleasure where there was pain, I can so imagine a porn line called Nyayo Milk . . .

    Next to the Athamia line. (so much better than random vids of hustlers in Kenya paid to masturbate for the camera by some random European dude then posted online.) But I’m no expert.

  4. you’re a jerk for not mentioning this post to me.
    got me holding stand-offs just to get comments and you’re over here keeping all the good thoughts to yourself.


  5. I think this is the first time I have ever been termed a jerk, at least in English. I feel interpellated into American discourse. I have arrived.

    But, you see, you had arguments and pictures and even changed textual colors. I have fumblings and hesitations and much censorship.

    My super-ego and I are best friends.

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