Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America.
Author: Laura Kipnis
Publisher: Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999
Review Published: January 2001
The May 2000 copy of the Law Enforcement Internet Intelligence Report crossed my desk recently. Of the four front-page stories, three centered on online child safety in the face of a vaguely-defined but ominously described rise in the number of sexual predators and traffickers in child pornography haunting the Internet. The fourth front page story was about firearms safety. The rhetorical punch this single page packs -- suggesting that firearms are much less of a threat than sexual predators -- is either laughable or depressing. I can't quite make up my mind. It does convey quite accurately the ever-rising tide of concern, fear, and moral outrage about Internet pornography in general, and child pornography in particular, that continues to issue forth in the media and public debate. Coupled with the increasing involvement of mainstream corporations in pornography and the exponential profusion of Internet sex sites, it is no surprise that Duke University Press has reissued Laura Kipnis' Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, first published in 1996 and certainly more relevant than ever.
Mercifully, Kipnis begins by promising that Bound and Gagged will not rehash tired arguments in favor or against pornography. The conventional opposition pitting anticensorship liberals versus either offended cultural conservatives or outraged feminists is the least useful approach to take when considering pornography. Instead, Kipnis begins with the observation that porn is a huge and hugely profitable industry and the premise that it offers a valuable lens with which to illuminate fault lines in American society. Kipnis notes: "Whether pornography should or shouldn't exist is pretty much beside the point. It does exist, and it's not going to go away. Why it exists, what it has to say, and who pornography thinks it's talking to, are more interesting questions than all these doomed, dreary attempts to debate it, regulate it, or protest it. Just what is pornography's grip on the cultural imagination?" (xi).
Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but estimates that the adult entertainment industry generates 10 billion dollars annually, that about 10,000 porn videos are released each year, and that there are some 60,000 adult entertainment Web sites are probably fairly reliable . More important, they certainly indicate the prevalence and force of porn in American culture and society. Given the prevailing views of the pornographer as despicable social outcast and the consumer of porn as a dysfunctional pervert, Kipnis' contention that porn offers a critical vantage from which to assess American society and culture is right on the mark.
The sheer variety of images and words which may be considered arousing (and thus pornographic) on the Internet also highlights the inadequacy of many conventional stereotypes about pornography. The one that Kipnis most insistently refutes is the blanket statement "pornography demeans women" insisted upon so resolutely by activists such as Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. What Web porn shows is that there are few, if indeed any, statements we can make about porn that apply to all of its many flavors. For example, how does gay geriatric porn do violence -- symbolic or by facilitation "real" physical violence -- to young women?
Beginning from this premise that porn is never one thing, but a vehicle for all manners of social, political, and psychological expressions, Kipnis explores subgenres of pornography somewhat removed from the mainstream. There are chapters on fat porn and transvestite porn, as well as a fascinating dissection of Hustler magazine's proudly low-class ambitions and relentless, deliberate vulgarity. Meant for more than a narrow academic audience, Kipnis often moves rather quickly from one topic to another. I found myself eager to read her analysis of such porno classics as the "I never thought I'd be writing a letter like this . . ." phenomenon only to find she had brought in Freud for a fast paragraph before moving onto an entirely different topic. Still, Kipnis makes her point and, most valuably, demonstrates the potential this kind of cultural reading has to offer. Less forgivable is the utter lack of illustrations in Bound and Gagged. Without the book becoming what it sets out to study, it surely would have been possible to perform readings of some of the cartoons, photographs, and personal ads that figure prominently in its pages. Indeed, I imagine this could have strengthened her arguments and suggested additional avenues for consideration.
Throughout the book, Kipnis picks her topics carefully, looking for the most emotionally-charged topics because those are the ones that most suit her ethnographic task of mapping the boundaries of American culture. Nevertheless, by focusing on these particular flavors of porn, Kipnis neglects many common varieties of porn and with them the chance to say something about a prominent feature of much porn: its mundane, repetitive, even boring side. Consider browsing for porn on the Web through one of its more common gate sites. Users quickly enter a veritable tangled web of postmodern intertexual fantasy, where every page seems to endlessly defer pornographic images in favor of links, banners, and pop-ups that lead only to more of the same. Despite extravagant promises ("Hot Lusty Babes!") all too often the viewer without a credit card to subscribe to pay services finds much smoke but few flames. It takes more effort than most parents and critics might imagine to get beyond the mundane morass of "Nude babes, Sexy babes, Lingerie babes, Hot Thong Bikini babes" sites so, well, incestuously linked together. For every innocent search that flashes pornographic images before unsuspecting or outraged eyes there are surely many frustratedusers intentionally trying to hunt down those same pictures. Nor does Kipnis have much to say about the abundant but conventional, Playboy-type pornography on the Web. Far less useful for a mapping of the politics of fantasy, this endless stream of soft-core porn and scanned images (tame by almost any standard) still deserves attention.
The longest chapter in Bound and Gagged -- the first -- examines the notorious case of Daniel DePew, sentenced to thirty-three years in prison because of the content of his unrealized fantasies. Located by law enforcement officers through sex-related computer bulletin boards, DePew was repeatedly invited, cajoled, and even intimidated into trading fantasies in a bugged hotel room with undercover officers who pretended to have the same interests. Ultimately the fantasies centered on a "snuff film" scenario in which DePew and the others would kidnap, sexually dominate, and perhaps kill a young boy. Trading fantasies with no intent of actually carrying them out was a common-enough form of foreplay in DePew's circle, but a Virginia jury quickly equated fantasy with intent and found him guilty. More than $1 million was spent developing this sordid hotel-room entrapment, and over one hundred law enforcement agents involved in round-the-clock surveillance and investigation, at one point panicking when DePew no longer wanted to be involved. The tragic and comic elements of this case are beautifully highlighted in Bound and Gagged, including the ways in law enforcement officers (and the rest of us too) are more like DePew than we imagine: "When DePew joined them in a hotel room to spin out tall tales of sex and violence in what he initially thought was going to be a seduction scene, weren't they all doing the same thing-lying to get their man? In magnifying those rambling stories of DePew's into evidence of intent, the prosecution deliberately overlooked just how common fantasy and hyperbole are when it comes to sex: certainly at this very moment people are lying and exaggerating in order to get someone into bed in hotel rooms around the world. Did the prosecution imagine that pillow talk is conducted under oath?" (60-1).
It would be nice to conclude that the DePew case is an aberration, an unfortunate product of law enforcement's early and awkward efforts to bring existing obscenity laws online that is now behind us. Unfortunately there is little reason for comfort. Rhetoric about sexual predators and traffickers in child pornography has intensified, and will only continue to escalate as the porn business continues to boom. Indeed, the scare over online predators and child porn resemble nothing so much as earlier scares about the "red menace." Like pernicious communist infiltrators of yesteryear, these fiendish and relentless criminals are both invisible and looming around every corner, ready to pounce when our vigilance fails. Like that threat, this one too bedevils the American way of life and assures that the measures we take, no matter how extreme, cannot ever be enough to guarantee safety. Furthermore, identifying this threat coming from outside reinforces our own sense of moral righteousness. As Kipnis writes: "The overarching fantasy is that the powerfully monstrous bad thing is somewhere else, that it can be caged, and most crucially, that it's "other." Violence isn't here, it's there. Not in the family, but in that Satanic cult disguised as a daycare center; not the criminal justice system, but in the psychopathic stranger. Violence never has a history; it's born from itself, residing in the random and the anomalous, not the mundane and the everyday. Not in us, but in Daniel DePew "(7).
Seen through the lens of the kind of cultural analysis Kipnis advocates, this rhetoric points to an attitude of ill-ease regarding the explosive and largely uncontrolled growth of the Internet. This is particularly prevalent among law enforcement officials, whose very reasonable and desirable effort to control crime both is thwarted and fueled by the nature of the Internet. The almost ghostly reality of the Internet as a place (metaphorically) where reliable knowledge, sound borders, stable institutions, and predictable behavior is non-existent makes it the perfect villain. On it can be projected all our fears and insecurities as easily as porn sites represent our projected fantasies. Simultaneously, it provides users with privacy and anonymity, eroding the force of guilt and the public stigma once attached to being spotted in the adult video aisle. Our animal nature can, it seems, run amuck.
The way pornography online admits this infinite variety of psyches, this multitude of unconscious needs and desires, traumas and fantasies, is powerfully destabilizing. It admits no limits and expands in all directions. Given enough persistence, you can find sites that titillate and perhaps even satisfy any secret predilection. Do you want to see "two lumbering CEOs in bifocals and boxer shorts fondling each other"? (165) How about every shade of gender-bending, transsexual fantasy you can envision (and some you probably can't, too)? The ability of the Internet to offer seemingly direct access to the deepest fantasies of this planet's denizens; the possibility of navigating steamy webs of exhibitionism, voyeurism, role-playing, and fantasy; and the ease with which we can systematically transgress social mores and imagine a radically different social order explain pornography's potency and popularity. Laura Kipnis' demonstration of how to make sense of this undeniable feature of our world is a tool to be welcomed and a call for a serious examination of our own discomforts and their meanings.
1. Timothy Egan, "Technology Sent Wall Street Into Market for Pornography," New York Times, October 23, 2000: A1 and A20.
William Cummings is an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Science at the University of South Florida. An ethnographic historian by temperament, his research interests include the sociology of the body, transformations in cultural perceptions and usages of the body, and the nature of historical consciousness in early modern Indonesia. He is currently working on tattooing and body modification as forms of historical expression in modern American culture. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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