I Like the Erotic and the Porn: Looking Back at Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic”

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea Plaid

I feel like I can’t call myself a “good” Black feminist if I’m not down with Audre Lorde. I feel fake if I don’t raise my fist or give an “Amen!” when another Black feminist or a feminist of color says/writes/puts on a t-shirt, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Then I add “sex-positive” to the “Black feminist” descriptor–I try to be of “do-you-with-lots-of-latex-lube-and-consent” crew–and then I feel like Audre and I don’t see sexing it up the same way, especially around ideas of what’s erotic and what’s pornography.

So, I sat down and reconsidered her essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.”

But first, some background about me: I came to feminist theory, as bell hooks says, to explain the pain of my surviving rape at the age of five. I needed an answer to the pain of someone feeling entitled to override my bodily integrity, my being able to sexually consent. I also looked at my late father’s porn at a very early age, too. My mom said a “good Black woman” didn’t have sex before she was engaged and the “facts of life” were explained via her old nursing books or when a biological event (like my first period), a TV show, or a book mentioning sex precipitated the discussion by her.

Something had to give—or synthesize.

The feminism I studied said I have that right to say yes to sex–though what that sex was, at the time, fraught with, to put it delicately, tension. The owner of the feminist bookstore where I worked was a staunch follower of the late Andrea Dworkin: deeply believed that anti-porn legislation was necessary because all porn exploited women; any sexual relations with men was tantamount to at least sleeping with the enemy and at worst rape; wearing nail polish was a manifestation of a woman bending to The Patriarchy. Yet I knew that hooks, Susie Bright, Lisa Jones, and Wendy Chapkis weren’t saying this –if nothing else, they were saying 1) that men can be—and should be–a part of women’s liberation, 2) fucking them–as well as whomever else I wish—didn’t make me a “bad” feminist, and 3) porn and erotica were OK as vehicles to explore sexual expressions. Yep, I witnessed the feminist porn wars…and I wiped my brow when the pro-porn side won.

Now, some context on this essay: Lorde presented this in 1978, the middle of the Second Wave of feminism and in the midst of arguments on whether pornography was a tool to oppress women. She tries to redirect the argument by redefining what erotic and pornography are.

…comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects – born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.

The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

[T]he erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.

The pornographic, then, “…is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes “sensation without feeling.” Furthermore, Lorde believes the pornographic degrades the erotic:

In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives.

We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.

It is a short step from there to the false belief that only by the suppression of the erotic within our lives and consciousness can women be truly strong. But that strength is illusory, for it is fashioned within the context of male models of power. As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge. We have been warned against it all our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities of it within themselves. So women are maintained at a distant/inferior position to be psychically milked, much the same way ants maintain colonies of aphids to provide a life-giving substance for their masters.

Lorde’s definition of the erotic affirm a woman’s way of knowing via feelings and living fully in and with those feeling to inform everything she does, be it working for reproductive justice, making jewelry, creating a blog, or sexing it up with herself and/or others.  Just do conscientiously and fully, whatever it may be.

However, Lorde defines eroticism and pornography so broadly that they almost threaten to desexualize what both words mean. For Lorde, “There is a difference between painting a black fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity. And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.” Pornography, on the other hand–”[w]hen we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. And use without consent of the used is abuse”–can define the US War against Iraq and the exploitation of undocumented workers as farmhands as well as the adult film industry.

I can see one reason why Lorde would want to expand both definitions: a basis for political action. So, a person who sees, for example, the US War in Iraq and the plight of im/migrant farm workers the same as the adult-film industry–as forms of human exploitation and destruction, of using without the consent of the used–then a person making such connections would be hopefully willing to fight to end all three or ally with folks fighting to end them.

Lorde steeps her approach to using the erotic in the “personal is political” thinking, a cornerstone of Second Wave feminism. As guest conributor and regular commenter atlasien wrote to me: “[Her] strategy of developing ‘the erotic’ sounds very helpful to many people. It could be unhelpful to others. If someone internalizes it to the degree where they judge themselves at every point—‘is what I’m feeling erotic or pornographic?’–it could also produce feelings of crippling inadequacy.”

Lorde’s definitions, however, as my collaborator Fiqah would said, don’t make me wet. Though fighting to end US involvement in Iraq and the undocumented agricultural workers’ continued exploitation may make me feel great–the biochemicals of shouting at a rally, the jump-up-and-down joy of hearing that a petition campaign led to raised wages–it doesn’t make me orgasm or even get aroused. Both porn (I personally connote it as the visual representation of sex acts, usually in the form of video or film) and its literary counterpart, erotica, does turn me on–and sometimes I want the sensation without the feeling. Lorde sees all pornography exclusively in terms of getting fucked over; the porn and erotica that I enjoy is about fucking with consent.

And that’s part of the problem: Lorde doesn’t directly address that industry or its products and players.  Yes, there are women–and men and children–who are used without their consent in it.  Then again, there are adults—and what I mean by “adult” in this argument are those people over the age of 18–who are happily and freely and consciously doing porn and thoroughly enjoying themselves. Lorde’s O Magazine-esque definition allows for her to squick around pornography just like her Second Wave sistren. Her essentializing men as using women’s erotic power for their own nasty ends falls a little too neatly into the “men=bad, women=good” rhetoric that has gotten some feminists into trouble back then and even now because it offers gender as a moral identity and disallows any nuance, complexity, or, ultimately, humanity for women and men.

Even the complexity to dig porn as consumers, producers, and actors.

Ever since Lorde wrote and presented this essay–helped along by the porn wars, the rise of sex-positivity, and the maturation of Third Wave feminism–women have more vocally embraced porn, for ill and for good. The mainstreaming of sex industries–helped along by the porn wars and the rise and maturation of the Third Wave feminist movement, among other factors–has been a mixed blessing: the latest reports of straight men “manscaping” and women getting labioplasty in order to gain the Perfect Porn Star body join with the loosening of US tongues to discuss sex toys on Oprah (and sell them at Target), have sex shops catering to the “mommy crowd,” and pole-dancing classes offered at gyms. And it untied the tongues of communities of color to read, write, and talk about what images we see and want to see in porn, if not try to do certain acts ourselves.

However, I don’t disagree with all of what Lorde says. I see a point where her words can be a mandate specifically for sex-positivity aimed at women of color not vibing on the current rhetoric that may leave WoCs feeling oversexualized because it may come off as fulfilling racialized sexual stereotypes. It rests with the this essay’s catchphrase: “[U]se without consent of the used is abuse.” As Lorde says:

When we look away from the importance of the erotic in the development and sustenance of our power, or when we look away from ourselves as we satisfy our erotic needs in concert with others, we use each other as objects of satisfaction rather than share our joy in the satisfying, rather than make connection with our similarities and our differences. To refuse to be able that might seem, is to deny a large part of the experience, and to allow ourselves to be reduced to the pornographic, the abused, and the absurd.

This is where Lorde and I (sort of) agree. Sexual consent, to me, means saying–and being fully able to say–yes to it, whatever those acts and expressions may be.  It means that, after a Black woman has considered it, she decides she want to seduce her Asian-American female lover by dancing like a rap video model on a stripper pole and the lover is game…between the two of them, I’m not going to argue because they said yes to it.  If the seducer is nervous and wants to get a drink to “help with the butterflies,” teetotaler me can understand. However, if the drinks were plied in order to coerce the woman into dancing…then no. Just no.

So, no, every White person or woman (and man) of color are moving, living people existing in this Otherland where whites (and even other PoCs) are inherently entitled to enact, and get us to enact, all those sexual things “they’ve heard about us or seen us do” (implication: the person saw some porn) without our saying that that’s what we want to do. However, we PoCs can’t front as if there is/are some unattainable PoC sexual expressions and acts that we continue to be deprived of since the arrival, installation, and maintenance of, to borrow from Lorde, “European-American male tradition” that lie outside of this system and its worldview. We also can’t police and shun consenting adults within and outside our racial and ethnic groups because they’re participating in safer consensual sex that makes us squick and use The Group as justification to criticize them and, by extension, defend our discomfort. We can’t use another group to dictate how we’ll sexually conduct ourselves because we fear we’ll be responsible in perpetuating stereotypes, either.

PoCs, for example, can’t start invoking the ancestors (or the children), The Race, or White people—including explicitly or implicitly saying that doing such acts means the participant isn’t “down with the Race”–when our PoC pals confide in us that they’re down with, say, rimming or race play in order to shame our friends out of what gets them off. I know the intention is to protect our friends and oppressed communities from disparagement and other negative ramifications. This thinking, combined with our understandable sensitivities to a groups’ historical sexual imageries have created and are still being perpetuated, coupled with their attendant harm, may give us the idea that, as members of those communities at whom these images and ideas are aimed, the prerogative to tell our friends to not jeopardize themselves and our groups. I fear that, when we do this, what we sacrifice is our unique sexual selves. I believe the most we can say to zie is, “Hey, it’s not me, but do you. And are you being safe with this, like using dental dams or having a safe word?” Going on and on about how wrong you and, by some self-appointed proxy, The Group, thinks of “such things” may have the intended effect of dampening…more than likely, your friend in confiding you again.

Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone of a particular group wants to hear your, ahem, love for them. It’s not cool, for example, a white guy to approach a random Latina at the park or the club and proceed to say all sorts of stereotype-based things about his Chicana sex partner. Trust, more than likely talking like that is not making her want to befriend or turning her on. Her being Latina is not the cue to roll up like that—and the speaker’s race or ethnic group is not an excuse, either. Such talk flattens her–and the speaker’s–humanities.

I think that’s what Audre Lorde gives to us in this essay: the permission to take agency in how we feel erotically, including sexually.  But her theory is one way–not The Way–to sexual freedom.  As atlasien wrote in our email exchange:

“[T]here really needs to be multiple strategies for getting from A to Z.  The path to sexual liberation for a white male is usually going to be different than that for a woman of color, and then within those broad groups there’s a lot of variation and overlaps.”

I simply wish Lorde could have seen how pornography, as problematic as it is, may still be a space for some people to explore their sexual expressions.

________________________________________________________

A bouquet of thanks to atlasien for her help!

Image Credit: Google