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Audre Lorde’s concept of ‘the erotic as power’ evaluated in relation to contemporary queer-feminist pornography.

January 8, 2021

This essay addresses the questions of how people engaging in, or with queer-feminist pornography respond to Audre Lorde’s argument that pornography signifies female oppression and that women engaging in it are being used merely as objects. It also presents how queer-feminist porn theorists and/or practitioners conceptualise the erotic and how they deal with the question of female empowerment in and through pornography. This piece does not contribute to the discussion about whether pornography is inherently good or bad or whether it empowers or oppresses women. The focus of many porn studies in the tradition of pro vs. anti-porn is very limiting and leaves out the possibilities for examining pornography in a holistic way. 

Meret Yannice Wälti

Regular Contributor of Solidarity Collective

Meret holds a BA in Social Anthropology, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and Sociology (University of Bern, Switzerland) and a MSc in Women, Peace and Security from London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She has conducted research on the victimization of sexworkers in Switzerland and on the colonial imaginaries of Switzerland’s gender equality policies. Passionate about writing, she is working as a freelance grant writer for visual artists and researchers, where she combines ethnographic methodologies and anthropological theories with art. Her long-term goal is to become a writer and a professional within the international feminist peace movement.

The Sex Wars and Audre Lorde 

“The Sex Wars is generally understood as a conflict between feminists who were against pornography and certain sexual practices, e.g. s/m, and ‘sex radical’ feminists. Anti-pornography feminists argued that pornography was inherently sexist and promoted violence against women”1 states Sara Ellen Strongman. She refers to the era of the 1980’s, a time when women’s sexuality was strongly contested in activism and scholarship. Pornography, ‘prostitution’ and practices like BDSM were topics that feminists quarrelled about. Some saw those practices as objectifying women, whereas others argued that they proved a source of female empowerment. The porn industry at that time was booming, between 1950 and 1970 hundreds of pornographic films were produced, and since the publication of Deep Throat in 1972, thousands, if not millions of pornographic materials have started to circulate globally. This has resulted in the fact that pornography is omnipresent and still highly contested, re-negotiated and re-invented. Beatriz Preciado, therefore, calls the new world regime ‘the pharmaco-pornographic regime of sexuality’2, given that we are constantly exposing ourselves to the public. 

From time to time in history, there are different stages where sexuality gets discussed and politicized more intensely than in other times. Gayle S. Rubin argues that “in such periods, the domain of erotic life is, in effect, renegotiated”3. A very influential author who was actively involved in the re-negotiation of the erotic in the time during the Sex Wars, is Audre Lorde (1934-1992). Lorde, an Afro-American, lesbian feminist, poet and English professor from NYC, was an advocate of the anti-porn movement as she saw ‘the pornographic’ as the opposite of ‘the erotic’, whereby she sees the latter as the source of empowerment in every woman. Her famous theory of the ‘power of the erotic’ is deeply embedded in the context of the debates about sexuality, sex, race, pleasure and power at the time.  

The Erotic vs. the Pornographic

Audre Lorde amazed other feminists with her fearlessness to speak about topics which weren’t part of the dominant feminist discourse. When Lorde, in her essay called The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (published in 1978), speaks of the erotic, she often uses the term ‘we’ to address other women. The erotic is inside of each woman, and at the same time it is feared by men, who are therefore not interested in examining it. Lorde’s definition of the erotic is the following one: “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives”4. The erotic, once a woman recognizes and embraces it, refers to women’s “deepest and non-rational knowledge”5 and to women’s satisfaction. It is therefore a spiritual, sensual, physical, emotional force, which women feel in everything they do: when they dance, when they work – in every activity of their lives they should feel joy. The erotic pushes women to see their own excellence, which has been neglected for so long. The erotic is seen, especially in Western culture, as something superficially erotic, something only related to sex, something women should embrace only in men’s service. The erotic beyond its superficiality is feared because it is truly transformative, however only when shared: When two women’s self-connection is shared, differences between them can possibly be transcended. Only when both women are in touch with their erotic, a relation is truly equal; if they are not, they use each other and “use without the consent of the used is abuse”6. What Lorde is arguing is that when we engage with others without recognizing the erotic within us, we reduce ourselves to the pornographic, which she sees as the opposite of the erotic. Pornography for Lorde is “a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling”7. If the erotic and the pornographic are contrary, pornography signifies powerlessness, vulnerability, ‘despair, depression and self-denial’8, and not being in touch with your truest self. Lorde further explains that pornography emerged because the human need to share deep feeling has been misnamed in Western societies. There are only certain erotic encounters promoted, which she sees as an ‘abuse of feeling’9. Lorde therefore pledges for the recognition of the erotic, that in turn entails the elimination of the pornographic. 

It is important to keep in mind that Lorde wrote her essay in a particular historical moment of feminism, and that concepts are defined depending on the geographical, socio-political and personal context. Gill and Orgad argue that the contestation of sexuality (sex work, FGM and pornography) has always divided feminism: “Too often they [the contestations] have taken place along deep lines of stratification between feminists of North and South, secular or religious, heterosexual or queer”10. When writing about pornography or any other ‘feminist issues’, we have to irrefutably take the intersections of race, class, age, sexuality and ability/disability into account; in order to deconstruct the hegemony of white, middleclass, Western-centric feminist understandings. Especially when we talk about pornography, we have to also talk about race, because “representations of porn are never neutral to discourses of race and colonialism”11. Consequently, Lorde’s background undoubtedly influenced how she thought about pornography – especially about Black female pornography and Black women in BDSM. For Lorde it is not erotic to play with power. The erotic is not exclusively related to the bedroom and therefore dominance and subordination are also neither only bedroom-topics. Those practices are embedded in the wider social power structures, which is the reason why Lorde sees pornography as ethically problematic.  

Queer-feminist pornography 

Candida Royalle is often identified as the first representative of feminist pornography. She has been active in the industry since 1975 and her main idea was to take the emphasis away from genitalia. Royalle writes that “we wanted to portray a sense of connectedness, tenderness, communication, passion, excitement, and longing. We wanted to portray women with real bodies, of all ages and types, whom our female viewers could relate to and identify with, and men who seemed to care about their partners, who wanted to please and satisfy them”12. Ms. Naughty adds that her films are about the depiction of the female pleasure and the female orgasm, and therefore one of the important things for her is to abolish the ‘cum shot’ or ‘money shot’13. In ‘the Feminist Porn Book’ the authors aim to challenge the normative representations of gender, body shape, class, race, ability/disability and age which exist in mainstream pornography. Feminist pornography instead focuses on agency and pleasure and sees those concepts in their ambiguity and contradiction14.  

Queer-feminist pornography thus often distinguishes itself from mainstream pornography in stating that they don’t produce for mass-consumption, but rather with an artistical and political aim in mind, where sustainability is more important than profit. Alessandra Mondin calls feminist porn ‘fair trade, organic porn’ as it centers on the humanity and value of the performers, is produced in a cinematographically high quality and is therefore considered to be more ethical than mainstream porn. Queer-feminist porn producers try to ‘change the game of the market’, but the ways in which they do this drastically depends on the producer15. The film culture of queer, feminist and lesbian pornography is, thus, very heterogenous due to the fact that the three categories hold different activist backgrounds. Feminist and queer pornography are movements actively engaging with other social movements (sex worker’s rights, LGBTQ rights, sex-positive movement etc.).  

The Erotic in the field of queer-feminist pornography  

Actors who are actively involved in queer-feminist pornography belief that pornography is not violent, no more violent than mainstream media. The strict pro-censorship position that Lorde embodied is mostly criticised by queer-feminist pornographers/theorists: they agree upon the fact that through pornography, the erotic can be negotiated and embraced, while emphasising that erotic pleasure always exists “within and across inequality, in the face of injustice”16. As queer-feminist pornography shows different gender identities and various sexualities, traditional, normative conceptualizations of sexuality can be challenged, which is something Lorde didn’t consider in her concept of the erotic. She exclusively addressed women when she talked about the erotic as power, excluding important discussions about different gender identities. Since particularly queer sex or queer intimacies are banned from public spaces, it is even more important to publicly show them17. Making those identities visible in public spaces is something which pornography makes possible. Censuring (certain) sex, which in her most famous work Lorde advocated for, is a mechanism used by states to ostracize it to the private sphere and is undoubtedly problematic.  

The four Black feminists Ariane Cruz, Amber Musser, Jennifer Nash and LaMonda Stallings engage with queer-feminist pornography and theorize Blackness, sexuality and pornography. They address the contradictory relation of Black feminism and pornography, although they take up a different position than Lorde, as they recognise pornography as a site of empowerment. They also show to what extent Lorde’s conceptualization of the erotic as female empowerment and the pornographic as female oppression and the resulting anti-pornographic attitude prevents us from understanding the nuanced relationship of Black sexuality, race and pornography.

Cruz’s main goal is to reconcile Black feminism and pornography. She acknowledges the existing tensions between the two, but nevertheless tries – in opposition to Lorde – to focus on the (unspeakable) pleasure within pornography. Cruz developed ‘the politics of perversion’, a concept which she uses as a tool to show that pornography is not wholly oppressive, but that sexuality can be a ‘technique of power’. Cruz investigates Black women’s engagement in BDSM or race plays, where racism is employed as an “erotic tool of power exchange”18. Another Black scholar, Mireille Miller-Young, shows that Black women engage in erotic economies in order to be professionally autonomous and economically independent. She calls this process of negotiating their own agency and erotic pleasure while living in an exploitable body ‘the erotic sovereignty’ and explains how this process takes place in an environment of policing and structural inequality19. Jennifer Nash, in responding to the question about the usefulness of the erotic in relation to race, speaks about ‘race’s eroticism’, which describes the phenomenon that “racial excess and hypersexuality can be limiting and also deeply enabling in permitting sexual imaginations to flourish”20

For Amber Musser the erotic does something similar as it does for Lorde, in that it gives people the opportunity to get together. But it should here be noted that she uses the term ‘people’, whereby she includes people who identify with other identities, not only ‘women’. Musser says that “sexuality, pornography and the erotic are sites that bring into relief the construction of race and the simultaneous pleasures and violence in/and of race”21.    

What differentiates her account of the erotic from that of Lorde, is that she sheds a light on the fact that through the erotic people can deploy a restricted form of agency, not this ‘absolute’ empowerment Lorde mentioned. By embracing the erotic, Musser thinks that people can engage with themselves and their desires. Jennifer Nash hereby agrees with Musser, adding that especially the naming of those desires which are seen as infelicitous, is an important act that many of those who work in the field of pornography embrace. Pornography for her does this naming (making public) work and is “one of the few places where we see our bodies – and other people’s bodies – and thus it becomes kind of instruction manual on how bodies in pleasure can look”22. Pornographies are a way to imagine and desire even more, and they are educational. Cruz states in relation to the erotic, that she wants to learn about how BDSM in pornography can produce “erotic pleasure in Blackness, on Blackness and with Blackness”23.  

What the above scholars all have in common is their emphasis on a middle ground between Lorde’s binary of the erotic as empowerment and the pornographic as oppression. Shoniqua Roach adds that there are “multitudinous possibilities for Black eroticism”24 depending on the site and on the social and political context the woman is located, as pornography does affect people in different ways.  

Lorde additionally argued that differences between feminists are important and can be softened through the recognition of the erotic, whereupon Sharon Patricia Holland counters that the erotic is ambivalent and can either dissolve those differences or strengthen them. Community and the sharing with others were deeply important for Lorde and can be understood to still be significant for feminists engaging with pornography today. Ingrid Ryberg therefore developed the concept of the ‘ethics of shared embodiment’: “Thought of as an activism oriented towards means rather than ends, queer, feminist and lesbian pornography invites an embodied understanding of positions and experiences that differ from one’s own and calls forth an ethics of shared embodiment, susceptible to otherness and respecting of difference. […] it demands awareness that there might always be another point of view”25. Within this film culture, the ethics have to be negotiated due to the existing heterogeneity and the disagreement, but especially these discussions and conflicts make this kind of pornography so valuable.  

Lorde’s and other feminist’s strict anti-pornography position therefore gets a lot of criticism, as it doesn’t allow for a holistic understanding of pornography. MacKinnon e.g. is one of the loudest voices in the anti-porn movement and doesn’t publicly debate pornography with porn advocators. The problem of the abolitionist attitude towards all pornography is that it goes hand in hand with the phenomenon of sex-negativity, which in turn entails that women who consume and enjoy pornography feel guilty about their sexual and erotic pleasure.  

 

Concluding remarks   

Lorde’s anti-pornographic position – as much as I personally adore her poems and her contributions – can be criticized from an academic point of view and from the perspective of individuals who engage in or with queer-feminist pornography. Pornography is ambiguous, highly contested and embedded in wider political movements and an analysis of pornography can tell us a lot about our reality. Pornographic representations are racialized, sexualized and gendered, and as the feminists considered in my analysis reaffirmed, they can be a source of empowerment for women, as well as for people who identify as queer. 

Lorde’s concept of the erotic as power is not rejected by queer-feminist porn theorists and producers, rather they re-interpret it: to recognize and embrace the erotic does not require an abolition of pornog-raphy. On the contrary, it is through pornography that the erotic can be negotiated and embraced, within structural inequalities. Especially contemporary Black feminists still refer to Lorde’s concept and thus try to reconcile the difficult relation of Black feminism and pornography. They all agree upon the fact that pornography is a space where non-normative desires and sexuality can be expressed, which can be extremely powerful especially for (queer and Black) intimacies, which have been politicized and policed for so long. Concepts like ‘the erotic sovereignty’, ‘race’s eroticism’ or the ‘politics of perversion’ are attempts to make meaning of the negotiation of agency, erotic pleasure and race within pornography.

References

1 Strongman, S. E. (2018). ‘Creating justice between us’: Audre Lorde’s theory of the erotic as coalitional politics in the Women’s Movement. Feminist Theory, 19(1), 41-59. (p.45).

2 Preciado, B. (2008). Pharmacopornographic Politics: Towards a New Gender Ecology. Parallax, 14(1), 105-117.

3 Rubin, G. (1984) 1993. Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, In Abelove & Halperin (Eds.), The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (pp. 3-44). London: Routledge. (p.143).

4 Lorde, A. (1978) 2017. The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In Lorde, A. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (pp. 6-15). UK: Penguin Random House. (p. 9).

5 Lorde, A. (1978) 2017. The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In Lorde, A. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (pp. 6-15). UK: Penguin Random House. (p. 6)

6 Lorde, A. (1978) 2017. The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In Lorde, A. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (pp. 6-15). UK: Penguin Random House. (p. 13).

7 Lorde, A. (1978) 2017. The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In Lorde, A. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (pp. 6-15). UK: Penguin Random House. (p. 7).

8 Lorde, A. (1978) 2017. The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In Lorde, A. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (pp. 6-15). UK: Penguin Random House. (p. 13).

9 Lorde, A. (1978) 2017. The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In Lorde, A. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (pp. 6-15). UK: Penguin Random House. (p. 14).

10 Gill, R. & Orgad S. (2018). The Shifting Terrain of Power and Sex: From the ‘Sexualisation of Culture’ to #MeToo. Sexualities, 21(8), 1313-1324. (p.1316).

11 Mulholland, M. (2016). ‘The Pathological Native’ Versus ‘The Good White Girl’: An Analysis of Race and Colonialism in Two Australian Porn Panics. Porn Studies, 3(1), 34-49. (p.45).

12 Royalle, C. (2013). What’s a nice girl like you… In Taormino T., Shimuzu C., Penley C., & Miller-Young M. (Eds.), The feminist porn book: The politics of producing pleasure (pp. 58–70). New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY. (p.65).

13 Naughty, Ms. (2013). My decadent decade: Ten years of making and debating porn for women. In Taormino T., Shimuzu C., Penley C., & Miller-Young M. (Eds.), The feminist porn book: The politics of producing pleasure (pp. 71–78). New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY.

14 Taormino, T., Penley, C., Shimizu, C., & Miller-Young, M. (2013). The feminist porn book: The politics of producing pleasure. New York: Feminist Press at CUNY.

15 Mondin, A. (2014). Fair-trade porn + niche markets + feminist audience. Porn Studies, (1)1-2, 189-192. (p.189-190).

16 Taormino, T., Penley, C., Shimizu, C., & Miller-Young, M. (2013). The feminist porn book: The politics of producing pleasure. New York: Feminist Press at CUNY. (p.10). 17 Berlant, L., & Warner, M. (1998). Sex in public. Critical inquiry, 24(2), 547-566.

18 Chude-Sokei L., Cruz A., Musser A. J., Nash J. C., Stallings L.H. and Wachter-Grene K. (2016). Race, Pornography, and Desire: A TBS Roundtable. The Black Scholar, 46(4), 49-64. (p.381).

19 Miller-Young, M. (2014). A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

20 Chude-Sokei L., Cruz A., Musser A. J., Nash J. C., Stallings L.H. and Wachter-Grene K. (2016). Race, Pornography, and Desire: A TBS Roundtable. The Black Scholar, 46(4), 49-64. (p.55).

21 Chude-Sokei L., Cruz A., Musser A. J., Nash J. C., Stallings L.H. and Wachter-Grene K. (2016). Race, Pornography, and Desire: A TBS Roundtable. The Black Scholar, 46(4), 49-64. (p.56).

22 Chude-Sokei L., Cruz A., Musser A. J., Nash J. C., Stallings L.H. and Wachter-Grene K. (2016). Race, Pornography, and Desire: A TBS Roundtable. The Black Scholar, 46(4), 49-64. (p.61).

23 Chude-Sokei L., Cruz A., Musser A. J., Nash J. C., Stallings L.H. and Wachter-Grene K. (2016). Race, Pornography, and Desire: A TBS Roundtable. The Black Scholar, 46(4), 49-64. (p.62).

24 Roach, S. (2019). Black Sex in the Quiet. Differences, 30(1), 126-147. (p. 139).

25 Ryberg, I. (2015). The ethics of shared embodiment in queer, feminist and lesbian pornography. Studies in European Cinema, 12(3), 261-274. (p. 271)

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