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A Question for Professor Soble

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On the matter of the clitoris, University of New Orleans philosophy professor Alan Soble misses the point. He does, however, get an "A" for effort.

Soble's disquisition on the clitoris came up in the course he teaches at UNO titled "Sex and Love." The topic was pornography, which is also the subject of his latest book, Pornography, Sex and Feminism (Prometheus Books).

First, some background: Soble's professional and personal interest in pornography began when he got his first teaching job at the University of Texas in Austin in 1977. As he explains it, having finished his graduate studies, he suddenly found himself with a lot more free time on his hands. He began frequenting what he refers to as "titty bars," which he says he found fascinating, as he had never before lived in a place where a person could so easily observe naked women. Plus, his conversations with the women revealed what he regarded as a strange tension between their conventional Christian beliefs about love and sex and what they were doing for a living. It was an intriguing paradox, he thought.

And paradox is the manure of philosophy.

While in Austin, Soble also founded the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love, a gathering of scholars organized to discuss each other's research. During his 25-year-long academic career, Soble has written on topics ranging from Kant to masturbation. His published work includes Sexual Investigations and the Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Introduction -- books which he says are more often stolen from libraries than purchased from bookstores.

In the main, his work addresses an audience of fellow philosophers and academics. His newest book, Pornography, Sex and Feminism, assumes a more general readership. In it, Soble's narrative voice conveys a defense of a cherished hobby that is under attack. For example, the second chapter opens with a humid scene from his field research at Onyx, a strip club in eastern New Orleans: "Sky is wearing tight hot pants on the stage at Onyx .... The men in the audience treasure her ass and the way she shakes it while dancing .... [T]hey go nuts when they hear the opening strains of Juvenile's 'Back That Azz Up' and realize that Sky would be, in her second number, displaying her fantastic ass accompanied by that provocative tune."

Soble's book is his spirited counterattack against the feminists who have charged that pornography dehumanizes women. His primary targets are famous anti-pornography crusaders Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, among others; he charges them with a "failure of empathy" toward pornography, and with being "sexually naive," a state that renders them incapable of enjoying pornography and of understanding those who do. Soble explains in an interview, "What I found is that when feminists are objecting to pornography, they are really objecting to sex."

Pornography shows us true human sexuality that has been liberated from the illusion of love, says the twice-divorced Soble. His ideas, as stated in his latest book, go like this: "Most people in the real world are dirty, fat, ugly, dumb, ignorant, selfish, thoughtless, unreliable, shifty, unrespectable mackerel. ... How many people, really, are good for anything? ... [T]he illusion that is pertinent here [is] the belief that humans are more than their bodies, more than animals, that, therefore, there is something metaphysically special about humans, their essential dignity, their transcendental value, that makes using them, dehumanizing them, objectifying them, morally wrong. ... Pornography harshly unmasks the illusion."

Soble is doubtful about God, and he is certain that there is no proof of a soul's existence. The concept of human dignity is false, he says, as that belief generally arises from the presupposition of a soul. And once the philosopher has dispensed with such things as goodness, essential human value and the soul, there is nothing but an open road leading to pornography. The feminist -- or Christian -- argument that pornography diminishes human dignity becomes a lot of empty chatter.

Soble says his argument hinges on the concept of "polysemicity," which is that an image does not have a fixed meaning. The message in an image will shift according to the beliefs of the viewer, and the interpretation of an image says at least as much about the interpreter as it does about the image. This idea has guided modern art criticism for a long time, but somehow it has been skipped over in discussions of pornography. The example offered by Soble in his book -- and in his classroom -- is that when someone bends over and shows you his or her backside, the message could be a hostile "kiss my ass" or the friendlier "come get me," depending on the viewer's sense of self esteem.

He demonstrates this during his pornography class by throwing a piece of chalk on the floor and then bending over to pick it up, deliberately showing his backside to his UNO students, who appear more baffled than instructed by the display.

When MacKinnon and Dworkin say that an image of a tied-up-and-whipped woman performing fellatio is demeaning, says Soble, these feminists are actually speaking about their own sense of humiliation. "They think that fellatio itself is demeaning and so of course an image of fellatio is demeaning," Soble says, adding that another viewer might see that type of sexual experience as friendly. In any event, as Pornography, Sex and Feminism establishes again and again, there is no rational basis for the claim that humans deserve not to be degraded.

So if pornography does degrade a person, writes Soble, "big deal."

In both his book and his classroom lecture, Soble reveals his personal attitude toward sex. He repeatedly describes face-to-face heterosexual intercourse as "vanilla sex," an obvious way of indicating boring, unimaginative, timid sex-for-squares. Soble also states that face-to-face heterosexual intercourse is the least intimate type of sex, while two gay men "fist f--king" is the most intimate. His rationale is that with "vanilla sex," people sometimes allow their minds to wander during coitus. That is likely less possible during "fist f--king."

The logical conclusion in Soble's book is that if you don't like pornography, you don't like sex. Yet the professor readily allows that the majority of pornography exists exclusively for the delectation of men and that most women react to pornography with boredom, amusement or anger. He explains this difference by stating that women are not capable of enjoying pornography because they are not capable of being honest with themselves about their truly crude, primitive and animalistic sexual nature. Society makes women think they have to pretend they're not animals --men have somehow escaped this socializing influence.

What Soble does not address is that it's probably difficult for a woman to recognize herself in the typical pornographic scene. Though the genre takes on many exotic aspects, in its most basic form, the pornographic "story-line" contains three characters: a man, a woman and a penis. As a genre that seeks to flatter and entice an audience of men, pornography gives the male sexual organ the status of personhood, while the women characters are more like furniture. To consider that this is a typical male fantasy would likely alienate a lot of women -- and not just the sex-hating feminists that he targets in his book.

As a male-oriented genre, pornography must be "read" as an exaggeration of men's hopes and fears around sex. Soble acknowledges this when he says pornography is an attempt by men to demystify female desire. Women characters tend to express their desires blatantly in the pornographic scene -- no mystery there. That never happens in real life, says Soble. In real life men are forever pondering that old Freudian question: "What do women want?"

During his class on pornography, the professor attempts to answer this question -- and here is when he considers the clitoris. When women recover from the pernicious socializing influence that has robbed them of their true sexual nature, then maybe they will start making pornography for themselves. And then we can see what they really want. He suggests that when this happens, female-oriented porn will look essentially like the male-oriented variety, only with the clitoris as a featured player, rather than the penis.

At this point, a student raises her hand to ask, "What is a clitoris?"

There is a muffled cry of dismay from a student on the other side of the room, which Soble politely ignores. Instead, he turns to the blackboard and writes what looks like a cluster of parentheses, commas and a colon, which is supposed to be a drawing of a woman's torso, thighs and sexual organs. It does not accurately represent female anatomy -- Soble is a philosopher after all, not an artist -- but one has to admire the respectful manner in which he conveys the information. As for the student who asked the question -- well, she will probably have to go home and figure it for herself, but at least she has a start.

Another student raises her hand to continue the discussion on the clitoris and pornography by offering the opinion that woman-oriented pornography already exists. She suggests that Hollywood produces a lot of so-called mainstream movies that really are just pornography for women. These are the movies about relationships between men and women, where there is a lot of conversation and dancing, plot and character development. And then the sex happens at the end. This is what arouses and excites women, she says.

The professor doesn't respond to his student's comment. Maybe he's not listening. If he were, he might hear that she has made an interesting point: if woman-oriented pornography already exists (and it probably does) then it will look wholly and fundamentally different than man-oriented pornography. It will differ probably for all of the reasons that female sexuality differs from male. Perhaps it will differ in the same way that a woman's orgasm differs from a man's, in that it is more diffuse, less local -- and therefore perhaps harder to identify.

But then if you are still not sure, you can always ask -- and listen.

Author and UNO Professor Alan Soble
  • Author and UNO Professor Alan Soble

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