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Sex, porn and conscience - A review of John Stoltenberg's Refusing to be a man

Refusing to be a man

By John Stoltenberg

Fontana/Collins, Suffolk, 1989, 218 pages, $11.95

John Stoltenberg's Refusing to be a man is a passionate manifesto for a new male way of being. It's a renunciation of sexual injustice and a call to action for all men of conscience.

John Stoltenberg is a long-time activist in the US men's movements. He's co-founder of Men Against Pornography in New York and chair of the Task Group on Pornography of the National Organisation for Men Against Sexism. Refusing to be a man is a collection of his speeches from 1978 to 1987, addressing such topics as male sexuality, violence, pornography and abortion.

Refusing to be a man is a very important book for the men's movement and for all men aware of gender politics. Stoltenberg uses his insider's knowledge of male identity and sexuality to write very directly to men. Yet the book is limited by Stoltenberg's particular understanding of pornography and sexuality and by his presentation of feminism.

Most of the several hundred books-about-men published in the last twenty years offer a depoliticised, soft-focus picture of men and masculinity. They use outdated sex-role theory to say only that men have had it rough and that we need to feel better about ourselves. Stoltenberg's Refusing to be a man stands out as one of the few concerned with dismantling gender injustice.

Refusing to be a man is a provocative book title. Stoltenberg simply means that men should refuse the current model of masculine sexual identity, and learn one built on a different set of ethics. The exploration of the ethics of male sexual identity occupies the first quarter of the book.

Men currently learn a sexual behaviour and identity in which the person to whom acts are done is seen as responsible for those acts. This, according to Stoltenberg, is central in explaining why men rape. Stoltenberg offers men an alternative, a sexuality based on intimacy and joy, ecstasy and equality. Three things are essential to this alternative sexuality: consent, mutuality and respect. Men have the choice not to let our sexualities be manipulated by the pornography industry, not to let drugs numb us through our sex lives, and not to fixate on intercourse. Stoltenberg later includes sexual objectification as another central aspect of male supremacist sexuality.

The second section of Refusing to be a man tackles father-son relationships, abortion and good sex'. While there are important insights in Stoltenberg's discussion of the first two subjects, I find his emotive and overly grand style hard to swallow. I was conscious of this throughout the book; Stoltenberg gives insufficient attention to political and historical detail, especially in his more psychoanalytic pronouncements on the psychosexual origins of men's behaviour. (The tendency to generalise is common to psychoanalysis, and no stranger to books-about-men.) Pornography is the arch-enemy of gender justice for John Stoltenberg, and he spends three chapters on the close relationship between pornography and male supremacy.

Pornography tells lies about women. But pornography tells the truth about men. Stoltenberg argues convincingly in Refusing to be a man that pornography creates a male supremacist sexuality. Porn makes sexism sexy: it makes domination, hierarchy, violence and hate feel like sex. Sexism is eroticised. Pornography is also one of the main enforcers of homophobia. According to Stoltenberg, gay male porn is no different in selling male supremacy to men.

The analysis of pornography in Refusing to be a man is for me the most problematic parts of the book. Stoltenberg's analysis is based on American anti-porn feminism and the work of Andrea Dworkin in particular. Stoltenberg presents anti-porn feminism as if it were feminism pure and simple. There is no mention of the major conflicts over porn within feminism. (See Worth reading below for works on pornography and feminism.) The chapter on Confronting pornography as a civil-rights issue omits all reference to the fact that the attempt to pass the Civil-Rights Antipornography Ordinance in Minneapolis depended on the support of fundamentalist Christian groups and right-wing politicians. In these senses, Refusing to be a man is dishonest. Stoltenberg's picture of the oppressive and brutal aspects of pornography is persuasive. I feel it's vital for men to know of the ways in which pornography teaches men a rapist and woman-hating sexuality, and the ways in which women are harmed in the making of pornography and in its consequences.

American feminism has shown a far greater preoccupation with pornography than Australian feminism. In American anti-porn feminism, men's sexual violence is seen as at the core of patriarchy, and pornography is seen as the theory behind the practice of violence. While there clearly are oppressive aspects to pornography, I also believe that different pornographies work in different ways and generate different meanings. Also, pornography is hardly the only site of sexist beliefs about and images of women. Finally, the focus on sexual danger in anti-porn feminism may blind us to the possibilities for resistance, change and sexual pleasure.

Refusing to be a man contrasts the civil-rights approach to pornography with that of obscenity law, and shows the advantages of the former strategy. It needs to be said however that obscenity law and civil-rights law are not the only two available strategies. Some men in MASA groups and elsewhere are interested in campaigns against pornography, or they're already assisting in the efforts of groups such as Women Against Demeaning Images (WADI) and the Campaign Against Sexual Violence Propaganda (CASVP). The question of strategy may therefore assume far greater importance. I'm certainly wary of any strategy that allows governments to censor lesbian and gay pornography or erotica, AIDS education or safe sex materials.

In part four of Refusing to be a man Stoltenberg asks what men of conscience will be doing in the 1990s. He knows full well the sorts of things men in men's groups (and elsewhere) do to justify not acting, not speaking out and only doing what makes them feel better about themselves. An unwillingness to compromise characterises Stoltenberg's brand of activism.

Refusing to be a man ends with men's common dilemmas about other men and, in a speech to men who counsel men who've battered women, a restatement of Stoltenberg's core idea of ethical accountability.

Stoltenberg has raised crucial questions for all men to consider. Yet his account of gender politics ignores class, race and country. Like so many of the books-about-men, Refusing to be a man makes universal generalisations about men when in fact they're based on the lives of white Anglo North Americans. When will men's movements catch up to feminist literature in its awareness of diversities of race, class and sexuality?

Refusing to be a man is not the book I'd suggest for men new to men's groups or men's politics. Collections such as Michael Kimmel's Men's lives or Vic Seidler's The Achilles Heel reader are more appropriate. And for introductions to the area of sexual violence, I'd suggest David Shapcott's The face of the rapist or Elizabeth Stanko's Intimate intrusions: women's experience of male violence.

In the end, I'm ambivalent about Refusing to be a man . On the one hand, I'd love it if more men shared Stoltenberg's passion and his critiques of pornography and rape. I'm in full agreement that consent, mutuality and respect are essential elements of a new men's sexuality.

On the other, Stoltenberg's anti-sexism is not the only way anti-sexism or pro-feminism can look. Other men may speak of sexuality and violence in other equally feminist-informed ways. Other men may focus instead on ending inequalities in workplaces or households. Other men may speak a language more open to ambiguity and diversity. Refusing to be a man is nonetheless an inspiring and groundbreaking book.

Worth reading on pornography

Berger, Ronald, Searles, Patricia and Cottle, Charles (eds) 1991 Feminism and pornography

Dworkin, Andrea 1989 Pornography: men possessing women

Feminists Against Censorship 1991 Pornography and feminism: the case against censorship

Kimmel, Michael (ed) 1990 Men confront pornography

Lederer, Laura (ed) 1980 Take back the night: women on pornography

Segal, Lynne and McIntosh, Mary (eds) 1992 Sex exposed: sexuality and the pornography debate.

 

 

First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 2(4), Summer 1992-93. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995