By Dr. Amy Marsh
This is going to be a tough post to write. It’s not a comfortable topic. And I may have to use a bit of academic jargon, which I usually don’t enjoy. However, sexology and erotology’s need for intersectionality awareness has been much on my mind this month, thanks to examples of cultural appropriation like these:
- An STD alert app for iPhones, given the brand name of “Hula”…even though hundreds of thousands of Native Hawaiian ancestors died from foreign borne diseases, starting with syphilis and gonorrhea. (Hawaiians are actively protesting this brand name, which also appropriates their most sacred and valued cultural tradition.)
- Nicole Daedone (of One Taste) recently publicizing herself as “the Jimi Hendrix of orgasm…”
- Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, The Doors, which I’d never seen and have just watched on Netflix. Stone included many gratuitous scenes of supposedly shamanic hallucinations of Indians who were stuck in the script—I guess—to somehow bless the Jim Morrison character as he behaved so very badly on drugs.
But before tackling this convoluted topic, I’d like to share the “Johari Window” below. It’s a way we can think about the difficulties we encounter as we struggle to understand various intersections of oppression and privilege, particularly our own. The Johari Window was created by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1969, as “a model of different sorts of knowledge that affect self-development” and I found it in Julia Wood’s excellent book, Interpersonal Communication—Everyday Encounters (6th ed., 2010, p. 57). When we’re asked to recognize our own privileges (especially the ones that contribute in some way to other people’s oppression), I think it can be difficult not only because we may feel put on the spot, but also because entrenched privilege resides in the blind area. We may have a tough time seeing these sorts of privileges, because we’re so used to having them, but others can spot them from a mile away.
Known to Self
Unknown to Self
|Known to Others||
Information about ourselves that is known to us and to others.
Information others know about us but we don’t know about ourselves.
|Unknown to Others||
Information we know about ourselves but don’t reveal to others.
Information that we don’t know, and others don’t know. Untapped talents & resources, unknown reactions to situations that haven’t occurred.
However, just because privilege resides in the “blind area” (a poor choice of words, actually, and reflective of a certain kind of privilege!), this doesn’t let us off the hook. Once these things are pointed out to us, it’s open information. Still, I bring up this model so we can all be a little kinder to each other (and to ourselves) as we consider the rest of this blog.
According to Wikipedia, “intersectionality” is a feminist theory named as such by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. It is an attempt to chart and analyze the relationships between all the oppressive mechanisms, categories, and identities that can be used to create injustice and inequality: race, sex, class, gender, species, ability, sexual orientation, and so on. The “matrix of domination” (a term credited to Patricia Hill Collins) refers to the various operations and assumptions of privilege and forms of discrimination which may be operating upon us—sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, and so on. The matrix, indeed!
Intersectionality is complicated, and this is a superficial introduction. It’s too vast a topic for this simple blog. So, please just read about intersectionality, and think about how these complexities operate in your life and in the lives of those around you. My intention is to swing us back now to a more practical, and more focused, discussion which might actually have some use for erotic writers!
The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality is one of the few places in the world which offers courses in erotology. When I studied there, Dr. Jerry Zientara offered us the following criteria for formal and content analysis of erotic art (similar to art history analysis):
- Artist(s) (this includes visual artists, writers, directors, etc.)
- Models(s) (represented in visual art)
- Formal description of the work
- Content description
I’ve also tried to understand erotica in the context of Dr. Loretta Haroian’s concepts of sexually permissive, sexually supportive, sexually repressive, and sexually restrictive societies. In other words, I try to find out if the artist created the erotic work in alignment with or in opposition to the values and assumptions of his/her/hir society and historical period.
However, I also see a need to incorporate awareness of intersectionalities into analysis of existing erotic work. Last year Claire Litton, a sexologist who had attended the 2013 IASHS Summer SAR (an 8-day “sexual attitude reassessment” program), wrote several critical blogs about her experiences. She particularly expressed a desire for more awareness of issues pertaining to intersectionality. Litton was particularly horrified by one of the explicit posters hanging in the IASHS corridor. This poster depicts a cartoon cowboy with a lasso-long penis, twirling it toward a horrified Indian woman who was running away. I know this poster. It’s been on the IASHS walls for a long time, and while the artist might have intended it as an ironic, x-rated commentary on settler colonialism, native genocide, and rape of native women (and then again, maybe not), I agree that this is an image that many people will find offensive beyond its sexual content. Litton was troubled by this poster, and questioned IASHS staff about it. Unfortunately, she did not get the kind of response from IASHS that she was seeking.
So this brings up the stickiest part of this discussion: it’s one thing to include intersectionalities in our critiques of existing erotica, including awareness of the histories of the matrix of domination: oppression, genocide, social injustice, sexual trauma and other forms of violence. It’s another to ask ourselves to refrain from producing erotic work which feeds into and perpetuates that matrix.
In the United States (and many other places), people who create erotic work—art, film, literature—are generally not given much social approbation or recognition. This kind of creativity is considered deviant by many. Erotic artists, writers, and filmmakers become artistic “outlaws.” Part of the allure of creating erotica includes the artistic freedom to deal with taboo content and imagery. Our sexual fantasies are seldom tidy, sometimes problematic (even to other parts of our own minds), and not always actionable in real life without causing harm. What’s more, we might find joy in pushing limits, or even exploding them. However, sometimes the characters or images we create are described in ways which are offensive to people who have suffered from generations of imposed and brutal trauma. So I wonder, how much of this kind of portrayal—like the cowboy and Indian poster—comes from people who are so entrenched in the privileges inherited from settler-colonialism that they can’t understand how these characterizations affect others? (There’s that Johari Box problem again!).
Anti-porn feminists (and, perhaps needless to say, I’m not one of them) have been talking about sexism, violence, and misogyny in porn for years. And, I’ve gotta say, with regard to certain films or books, they’re often right. However, while this doesn’t mean that making erotica or porn is wrong in and of itself, it does mean that erotica and the people who make it are not exempt from intersectional analysis.
So for those who consider such matters, the question quickly becomes one of personal responsibility, like deciding to NOT dress your latest erotic heroine like a “Pocahottie” or NOT using people of color as plot or movie props.
In the U.S., we are slowly beginning to understand that certain stereotypes and behaviors cause harm and perpetuate various forms of oppression—and are, therefore, simply not acceptable. Sports teams, entrepreneurs, entertainers, and governor’s daughters are now catching hell for actions which range from entrenched racism (parodies of Native Americans as sports mascots) to spoiled entitlement (wearing a lipstick-coordinated “warbonnet” as a fashion statement) to blatant commodification (the “hula” app). As erotica becomes increasingly accessible and even more mainstream, I expect that many artists, writers, and filmmakers will also find that their work has come to the attention of activists and academics, and that some producers of erotica will find that they being held accountable for elements which have nothing to do with the kind of sexual actions they’ve portrayed.
Ideally, this issue should be less about censorship (self or social) and more about raising awareness, including our own. While I realize this post is hardly the last word on a very complex topic, generally I like to think that eros flourishes in the least oppressive circumstances for everyone involved.
Blogs and Sources:
Haroian, Loretta. Child Sexual Development. Feb. 1, 2000. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality. http://www.ejhs.org/volume3/Haroian/body.htm
Harris, Tamara Winfrey. Five of Cultural Appropriation’s Greatest Hits. Sept. 3, 2013. http://www.racialicious.com/tag/cultural-appropriation/
K., Adrienne. Open Letter to the Pocahotties: The Annotated Version. Oct. 9, 2013. http://nativeappropriations.com/2013/10/open-letter-to-the-pocahotties-the-annotated-version.html
K. Adrienne. Dear Christina Fallon. March 7, 2014. http://nativeappropriations.com/2014/03/dear-christina-fallin.html#more-1888
Uwujaren, Jarune. What’s the Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation? Oct. 8, 2013. http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/hesaid-whats-the-difference-between-cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/
Amy Marsh, EdD, DHS, CH, CI, is a clinical sexologist and AASECT certified sex counselor, certified hypnotist and hypnosis instructor, and an associate professor of human sexuality at the world’s most radical sex school. She is a former Carnal Nation columnist and author of the recently published first volume of the Love’s Outer Limits series, Sex Squicks & 100 Other Things You Didn’t Know About Sex. Learn more at dramymarshsexologist.com or follow @AmyMarshSexDr on Twitter.