by S.M. Berg
[Article appeared in Off Our Backs, July/August 2005]
A report on Christopher Kendall's presentation at the 2005 Captive Daughters conference on pornography and international sex trafficking. Kendall is a professor of law at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, and author of the book Gay Male Pornography: An issue of sex discrimination.
The Harms of Gay Male Pornography: A Sexual Equality Perspective
Kendall effectively narrowed an area fraught with complicated identity politics into its most basic unit, the actual contents of gay male porn. Most of his speech focused on the issues raised in the 2000 Supreme Court of Canada case Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium v. Canada. Several lesbian and gay groups, including one directly involved with getting Canadian law to recognize the harms of heterosexual pornography years prior, attempted to justify gay porn as liberating and integral to constructing healthy gay identities. Canada's highest court decided unanimously that simply being gay pornography does not make the depictions egalitarian or harm-free.
Key to making his case was giving specific examples and examining what they suggested about gay male sexuality. If gay pornography is free speech, suggests Kendall, then what would a paraphrasing of the speech look like? Turns out it looks a lot like the same old homophobic, humiliating pornography for heterosexuals that eroticizes domination and sexualizes violence between a hypermasculine “top” and a feminized “bottom”. Instead of breaking down heteronormative gender binaries, gay porn reinforces oppressive sex roles regardless of the actual gender of the participants.
The following are two examples Kendall gave:
From Manscape Magazine,
“I pushed his meaty pecs together. They wrapped around my dick perfectly as I started tit-fucking him like a chick. His hard, humpy pecs gripped my meat like a vice. Of all the things I did to him that night I think he hated that the most. It made him feel like a girl.”
From Advocate Men, in a scene where a non-gay male convinces another non-gay male to rape a gay man,
“'The man’s got a tight, tight pussy, man,’ Phil told me. He wrenched his hand free and slapped Saul in the back. ‘Lean over and show this man your pussy ass.’”
In this way, feminized gay men are the subjects whose rape, battery and degradation are meant as a stand-in for women’s usual roles in pornography. Traditional masculinity is glorified and femininity is an instrument of abuse. Predatory, violent men attain the usual male position of superiority by mistreating less masculinized men to make clear one of them is the “bitch” or “cunt” and one of them isn’t. Such pornographic depictions promote inequality and subjugation as the preferred model of gay male sex as well as reinforcing homophobia and racism.
Kendall’s critique of the supposed libratory effects of gay male porn continued with observations about the intersections of sexual and racial identities. In heterosexual porn the hierarchy of dominance is evident from the fact of the males and females portrayed; with mixed genders we all know who’s the top and who’s the bottom, the alpha and the beta. While some plots reinforce traditional roles, placing scenes into thematic context is not as necessary with heterosexual porn as it is with gay porn. With two men, two alphas, the question of how to decide which man assumes the beta role is more complicated. Racial identity is the most common method gay male pornography uses to decide who is the “man” and who is the “woman”.
As heterosexual porn portrays Asian women in sexualized racist stereotypes, so does gay porn present Asian men as physically smaller, servile inferiors willing only to please. Black men are commonly portrayed as animalistic aggressors with huge penises who try to rape white men or who express the desire to sexually submit themselves to their white masters. Straight, white, middle-class men are at the top of the porn hierarchy whether the intended audience is gay or straight.
Many feminists have been trying for years to help people comprehend how rape is less about sex itself and more about eroticizing and abusing gendered power, and some feminists have been trying to show the basic premises of pornography are not so different from other parts of rape culture. The picture of gay male porn that emerges from Kendall’s investigations is one focused more on dominance, cruelty and power over others than explorations of alternative sexualities based on intimacy, dignity and mutual pleasure.
S.M. Berg is a radical feminist activist against pornography and prostitution. Her website is www.genderberg.com/