Although anarchists have been debating questions of sex, desire, and power for quite some time now, little attention has been paid to the actual political actions which emerge out of people's positions on these questions. This article attempts to think about sexuality, gender, and desire in terms of how anarchist communities organize themselves. It comes out of my engagement with the anarchist bookstore collective here in Montre'al, where we have debated the intricacies of erotic magazines such as Taste of Latex (ToL).
A bit of background information is required: the collective has a policy whereby we will not accept material which is deemed to be racist, sexist, homophobic, or statist. For example, if a particular magazine carries amazing coverage of the environmental movement, yet publishes anti- feminist articles, we will not carry it. Sometimes we may make an exception, accepting a statist newspaper if, for instance, it presents material on, say, native land claims which is unavailable elsewhere. Less frequently, we carry a magazine but add a cover page or explanatory letter which outlines concerns collective members may have with a particular article. Some people believe that ToL contains violent images which are degrading to women. Thus, according to bookstore policy, we should not carry the magazine.
In what follows, I want to investigate the political effects of these argumentative strategies: if we believe that ToL is anti-feminist, how do we organize ourselves against it? If we endorse the magazine, then what do we do?
To adopt a position that "s/m is bad" assumes that other sexual practices (i.e., non-s/m sex) are inherently good. This argument obscures the negotiation which is a part of all sexual practices. Once the complexity of sexuality has been sidestepped, it can easily be regulated. The State's redefinition of "obscenity" in Canada relies on exactly this conception of sexuality-- that it is an objective entity that can be isolated, and that it can be further divided into "good" and "bad" camps. Many anarchists share the same position as the current Canadian state. By viewing sexuality as a fixed, definable thing, their arguments unwittingly support authoritarian administrative strategies, such as obscenity legislation.
Some people think that the images in ToL depict violence against women. If I understand them correctly, they argue that despite the fact that women may consent to sexual activity involving pain, pleasure, and mutilation, the actions remain "violent." It is the depiction of these "graphic" scenes, in other words, which is offensive. The distasteful nature of these representations justifies a political action of refusing to carry the magazine. Note the relation established here: what these pictures and stories mean determines how we act. Representation precedes the political.
While the ToL debates may seem to be specific to our situation here in Montre'al, I believe they are exemplary of dominant trends within anarchist politics more generally. The May-June 1992 issue of Profane Existence, for example, contained graphics with the words "SM=PAIN, DOMINATION AND POWER. DOMINATION IS DOMINATION, PAIN IS PAIN, POWER IS POWER."
I worry about an invocation of the words "violence," "power," "pain," and "domination" in this context. Who decides what constitutes violence? If I whip someone with a cat'o'nine tails is that "violence"? If I whip them with strawberry licorice, is that violence? If I tie someone up with steel linked chains, is that degradation? If I tie them up with skipping rope, is that? If my partner asks me to tie her up and fuck her brains out, and if I proceed to tie her up and fuck her brains out, or I proceed to tie her up but not fuck her brains out, does this mean I'm insensitive, bad in bed, or the ultimate tease? Again, who decides, and to what political end?
These are the kinds of questions an anti-s/m position cannot and will not ask. It refuses to consider the ways in which these representations, practices, and desires can be articulated in a mutual, consensual environment. The context in which these images are produced, or consumed, is not discussed, since these representations have already been condemned as "violent."
A critical perspective on sexual liberation, and I would include anarchist contributions to and definitions thereof, would allow for an investigation of desire, sexuality, and gender. I believe that we live in a world which is profoundly sex-negative, and profoundly erotophobic. I believe that one of the consequences of living in this world is that people take the risk of exploring their bodies and their limits.
The most obvious question, then, arises: how do we find out what we do and don't like if we never grant ourselves permission to play? How do we decide what is unacceptable if we never think about the layered nuances of meaning present in all representations, preferring instead to condemn them with that hateful word "violence!"?!?
Magazines like Taste of Latex are important because they encourage people to explore their limits, defying any easy classification of sexual identities and practices. They force us to account for the specific communities in which these representations are created and consumed. And they ask us to struggle against dominant power relations of sexism and compulsory heterosexuality, without sacrificing a reflexive, experimental sexual life.
One of the things I pointed out earlier was that the primary objections raised to ToL posit representation before the political. I think it is worth pointing out that this ostensibly "anarchist" position is markedly similar to that of the current Canadian state. February of 1992, a unanimous Supreme Court decision (known as "Butler") provided a new definition of obscenity, one which spelled out three related categories of "sex":
- explicit sex with violence, whether actual or threatened (almost always obscenity)
- explicit sex which is degrading or dehumanizing (may be obscene if risk of harm is substantial)
- explicit sex without violence which is neither degrading nor dehumanizing (not obscene unless involving children)
The strategy worked: a unanimous Supreme Court decision. Quite a rarity, and one which makes it extremely difficult to change the existing legislation. But LEAF's strategy depended on the by-now familiar position of "porn is bad." They were not interested in making distinctions about where this porn was produced, or for whom, nor did they envision a coalition among lesbians, gay men, and feminists. Quite simply, LEAF used the rhetorical argument of "s/m porn is violence" to support its own pro-censorship line. Their strategy reinforced a conception of women as passive beings, subject to pervasive control of men. In one foul swoop, LEAF reinscribed sexist and heterosexist understandings of women's sexuality.
In the year that has followed, Butler has been applied rather selectively: a high school fanzine in Windsor, a women's art exhibition, the lesbian periodical Bad Attitude, as well as almost any lesbian and gay periodical trying to make its way across the Canada-US border. Why is it that Butler, endorsed by pro-censorship heterosexual feminists, is primarily being used against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals and communities?
It is much too simple, I suggest, to posit a direct relation between representation and politics. What images mean, how they mean and for whom, remain questions worthy of consideration. Living in Canada, we must acknowledge that the state wants nothing to do with such a debate. And its primary weapon is the literal removal of these "obscene" publications. In this light, politics determines representation--what it means, where it can be seen, and who can see (or be in) it.
Indeed, the state relies on the simplistic logic embodied in statements like "porn is bad" for its effective functioning. Ironically, anarchist contributions to sexual politics have reproduced this faulty reasoning. "Domination is domination. Pain is pain. Power is power." "ToL is bad, it has s/m imagery in it." Once again, non-s/m sex is championed as some kind of pure ideal against which s/m perversions are measured. This argument obscures the manner in which negotiation is a part of all sexual relations, desires, identities, and practices. X and Y never just are, despite the rhetorical strategies offered by some under the banner of "anarchy." X and Y exist in relation to each other, and it seems to me that a valuable anarchist politic would discuss these relations, contexts, and situations.
The adoption of an "anarchist" line that "s/m is violence" prevents precisely this kind of discussion. In the midst of this flawed reasoning, we who choose to engage in these practices, we who adopt these identities, we who dare to be public about our desires: we are the first casualties in a never-quite-stated test of who is a "real" anarchist. Instead of taking the risk of exploring our individual and collective limits, this kind of anarchy remains trapped within an isolation of the worst kind: One where we focus on purging all undesirables from the circle-a movement.
And so, I submit that an endorsement of ToL is a political move entirely in keeping with anarchy. Indeed, to call for its banishment from the bookstore shelves on the basis of its "violent" images is to bolster the Canadian state.
As individuals interested in social change, we should do well to reflect on the similarities our argumentative strategies share with our allies and opponents. Is it not somewhat ironic that both the Canadian state and self-identified anarchists endorse an empty, rhetorical position that "pornography is bad"?! Is it not a paradox that the victims of masculinist violence adopt a proposition which relies on heterosexist conceptions of both men and women? And is it not interesting that once this position is adopted, little discussion takes place on what constitutes an appropriate intervention? Anarchist debates on the content and nature of material labeled "pornography" do not occur in a vacuum. However we choose to address these issues, we need to think about the ways in which our arguments and actions support, or challenge, hegemonic constructions of gender, desire and sexuality.
[Kiwi works at Librairie Alternative in Montre'al, can't decide on any one gender identity, and thinks that perversion is an integral part of anarchist politics.] *