- Gay Male Pornography: An Issue of Sex Discrimination
The characterization of pornography as sex discrimination has come to the fore of academic and policy debate due largely to the writings and activism of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. Yet for many gay and lesbian activists who support the suppression of heterosexual pornography, the differences between heterosexual and homosexual sex justify viewing gay and lesbian pornography as not only harmless but equality affirming and, indeed, necessary to gay and lesbian freedom. In Gay Male Pornography: An Issue of Sex Discrimination Christopher Kendall, dean of law at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, argues forcefully against that view. To Dean Kendall, gay and lesbian pornography (to be distinguished from nonharmful erotica) presents, as his title implies, an issue of sex discrimination every bit as serious as that presented by the heterosexual variety. Based on that conclusion, Dean Kendall argues for legal restrictions on gay and lesbian pornography (again, as implied by his title, focusing his attention on gay male pornography) not only as harmful sex discrimination but as inimical to the very goal of gay equality.
The main thrust of Kendall's argument begins by confronting the most obvious argument in defense of gay male pornography, namely, that it does not present an issue of sex discrimination because it portrays only men. He rejects this argument as resting on a biological essentialism that conflates anatomical maleness with socially constructed ideas of masculinity. To Kendall, the fact that only men appear in gay male pornography misses the point that it, just like its heterosexual counterpart, portrays socially constructed maleness as dominant and the only valuable quality and socially constructed femaleness (in gay pornography the recipient in insertive intercourse and in [End Page 210] scenes of sadism, humiliation, and degradation) as worthless, shameful, and subordinate. Thus, Kendall critiques gay male pornography for replicating society's sexist message that to be female is to be inferior, even if the female role is played by men. Beyond this message-based harm, Kendall also argues, in a parallel fashion to Dworkin's and MacKinnon's claims, that gay male pornography directly inflicts serious harms on the performers (69–86) and causes even broader harms by encouraging readers/viewers to idealize and mimic the violence and degradation portrayed in the material, often by imposing it on unwilling partners (87–104).
Gay Male Pornography makes a powerful argument that gay pornography is problematic both in the immediate harm it causes performers and those victimized by its consumers as well as in the direction it sends gay equality advocates, whom Kendall views as mistakenly defending gay pornography as a vehicle of liberation rather than of unwitting self-oppression (not to mention oppression of women). But Kendall overstates his case. In particular, he undervalues, in my view, the role gay pornography can play in subverting ideas of male dominance and of socially constructed maleness in general. Kendall considers this claim but rejects it. In his view this alleged subversion simply allows men to take turns playing out the male-dominant and female-submissive roles without questioning the underlying idea that maleness, hypermasculinity, or "topness" should be seen as worthwhile—indeed, as the only worthwhile quality. Kendall thus sees the role-reversal potential of gay pornography as offering to gay men, when they "play the top," the chance merely to act out a socially constructed maleness that perpetuates gender hierarchy. To quote Kendall, "what this focus on role play and role reversal as a means of undermining gender hierarchies overlooks is that the pleasure found remains the pleasure derived from dominance and submission. Although these roles can be reversed, they are still clearly defined roles. . . . Hierarchy—inequality—thus remains central to the sex act" (112).
In my view the picture is more complex. Undoubtedly much gay pornography reflects and eroticizes power relationships. But in placing men in both roles, gay pornography decouples the biological male from the masculine role in that relationship. This decoupling is a powerful force; indeed, it has been argued that...