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The Queer Pornographic Imagination

Quite a lot has changed in the realm of “the erotic media” since Susan Sontag wrote “The Pornographic Imagination” in 1967, but her core thesis holds up to this day: Pornography is not separable from “literature.” Pornographic material can be a route to understanding and expressing part of our collective imagination, and at their best, pornographic works intended to be “nothing more” than porn can have artistic merit.


One niche that has expanded quite a bit since the 60s is queer futurist pornographic productions, shorthanded as “queer pornographies”. These often take the form of drawn and animated content, erotic fiction, manga, and more esoteric forms of kink and roleplay. Examples include “rule 34” appropriations of mass media into sexual content, furry porn, vore, and extreme otherworldly depictions like monsters, aliens, and robots. Do these comics, images, animations, and stories have artistic value, and what can they say about queer culture?


In “The Pornographic Imagination”, Sontag delves into the “pseudo-literary” works of Bataille, Sade, and Apollinaire and elevates these works specifically because they are on the controversial edge between literature and “valueless” pornography. In fact, a large part of their literary value is the discussion on whether they have literary value at all. 


To further justify the interrogation of pornography as an art form, Sontag compares pornography to science fiction in several ways (which has at least some works accepted as artistic), namely that both genres have a multitude of low-quality and “low-brow” works, yet, this fails to discredit the many works of science fiction that are widely accepted in the cultural mainstream as having profound social and critical value. There is, in some sense, a torrent of “bad” pornography and science fiction (perhaps a large majority of these genres). If the value of just a few pornographic works can be justified, however, the value of the genre as an art form could emerge.


Mainstream pornography is materially different than it was when the essay was written in the 1960s - Internet pornography is almost an entirely new medium in itself. In particular, the amount of freely available and easily accessible generally low-quality content provides an entirely new mode of relation to the form. These massive volumes of free online pornography, pirated, reshared, or made for fun and exhibition, exists largely because of fraught capitalist pressures: distribution of material supported by its lacing with advertising, viruses, and scams, with users lured in with cheap bait. Regardless, this type of distribution of pornography opens up to us a new mode of study into pornography: analytic reports on mass scale user behavior in pornography search and consumption, like Pornhub’s Insights publications.


If we take the approach of viewing pornography as an expression of global society’s neurosis, the daydreams we are forbidden to speak and resolve through erotica, we have a clear diagnosis of our ills. Many of the top search terms are associated with racial fetishes (“Japanese” was the top searched term in 2019, with “Korean” and “ebony” not far behind), incest (milf, stepmom), male-gaze centric female homosexuality (lesbian), and sodomy (anal). There is very little here that resembles what we imagine happens in straight America’s bedrooms, yet here is everything that they want to see. Do these searches represent some expression of our desires that are otherwise repressed and unrealized?


It seems unlikely that the majority of the millions of people viewing this pornography secretly want to engage in the acts they are viewing and are prevented from performing by societal pressures. Instead, our libido is being stoked by the taboo, the obscene — the Pornographic Imagination. From this dreamscape, the unspeakable relics of our psyche are mined: by artists, profiteers, and algorithms.


In the world of queer pornography, furry porn is of particular cultural fascination — furries (albeit mostly the type who go to great lengths to draw focus away from the erotic parts of the fandom) have almost made themselves part of mainstream culture these days. Furry porn depicts creatures with animalistic characteristics engaging in sexual and orgiastic situations, which have a monstrous and repulsive quality that evokes bestiality, a variety of textures of fur and scales, impossible sexual prowess, domination, and many other things that are infused with both the taboo and the sensual. 


What is the appeal of this sort of extreme erotica and why is it appealing in queer culture?


The erotic appeal of monstrosity is explored by Ana Valens in “Trans/Sex: Inside the queer fascination with monster porn” - they perceive that the appeal of the monstrous to queer consumers of this content is a sort of personal identification of the transgressiveness of the queer lifestyle:


"Is this just a pervasive kink, or is there something else going on?

It seems to be both. We see our queer selves in monsters. We see the queer bodies we desire in their beautiful grotesqueness. We see the narratives that define our queer lives. There’s no better role model for the transgressive queer than the fantastical beasts of our collective imaginations."


Identifying with something impossible could be seen as a hallmark of queerness that has imprinted itself as much on our sexual imagination as every other part of our culture. Queer people definitionally exist outside of straight society. Queer life is a negative, insofar as living a queer life means saying no to established norms and values.


The existence of queer people compels society to understand itself as something that could have been otherwise, rather than something implied by “human nature” or “common sense.” At the same time, queer people come to understand themselves in part by understanding that they are shut out of traditional narratives of meaning, value, and success. Working this feeling of being incapable of living a life of blithe ignorance into a source of pornographic imagination is a classically Freudian turn. 


This diagnosis of identification as the pornographic compulsion rings partially true to our perspective - what might be added is the nature of pornography itself and the relation to the queer identity. While we can engage in body modification, dress, acceptance of non-normative ideas of beauty, etc. to become “monstrous”, most of the pornographic material reviewed in the article (The Invitation by InCase) does not describe anything like an obtainable or reproducible situation. Instead, it seems to be a scene from the queer subconscious — echoes of exaggerated manifestations of the wordless ruminations of the mind of a queer person.


All save a few who enjoy that work are not going to try to become demons themselves, yet they find the demonic angles compelling (not unlike the people searching for racial fetish erotica not leaving their monogamous partners for racially fetishized encounters). What could be happening is not a direct identification of the actual experiences depicted, but an expression of a particular queer state of mind.


The appeal of this type of work and the potential link between the pornographer and their art (in this case, perhaps queer pornographic culture generally as a collective creative response) is exactly what is outlined in the Pornographic Imagination:


[The artist]’s job is inventing trophies of his experiences — objects and gestures that fascinate and enthrall, not merely (as prescribed by older notions of the artist) edify or entertain. His principal means of fascinating is to advance one step further in the dialectic of outrage. He seeks to make his work repulsive, obscure, inaccessible; in short, to give what is, or seems to be, not wanted. But however fierce may be the outrages the artist perpetrates upon his audience, his credentials and spiritual authority ultimately depend on the audience's sense (whether something known or inferred) of the outrages he commits upon himself. The exemplary modern artist is a broker in madness.


Perhaps queers are predisposed to be more accepting of delving into these mad realms. The taboos of things like family members, non-monogamy, and transcending racial differences are not the prevailing dominating psychological undercurrent of queers. Instead, transgression and social rejection are more powerful sites of tension — concepts like ugliness and the consequences of exiting society are more pertinent. Perhaps we shudder at being the inexplicable monsters, and perhaps we are practiced in reconciling that - making an erotic engagement with the concept more complex. It represents both a neurosis of being repulsive and otherworldly with an ego level ability to sit outside of societal norms of decency and experience extreme thoughts directly. The obscenity of monster porn resonates with the societal obscenity of being queer — it both feeds upon that obscenity for its erotic appeal and directly uses the language of extreme pornography as a familiar tool for those queers who have most wrestled with these fears.


Compare the idea of “abjection” in queer theory — as Tim Dean puts it, “the abject threatens identity by virtue of transgressing those boundaries that differentiate one body from another.” The abject is something we — individuals or society — want to push out of ourselves, but at the same time, we find ourselves identifying with it, even desiring it. 


“There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable” - Julie Kristeva, Powers of Horror 


De Sade was particularly interested in abject bodily matter — mostly scatological — as was Bataille (who mentions piss play in The Story of the Eye) and it’s this combination of the abject and the erotic that gives their works a particularly repellant frisson. Queer pornographies also have a more intimate relation with the sexualized abject than we see in the majority of straight porn (this is something queer and more mainstream gay porn has in common). Degradation, humiliation, depersonalization, bodily fluids…all that we are socialized to feel disgusted by is represented in its inflorescence in queer pornographies. This is not because it is queer to enjoy these kinds of things. Rather, identifying as queer means accepting yourself as something outside society, something taboo, abject, dirty even, so sexualizing these symbols of abjection is a way to create a more fulfilling and pleasurable relationship to queerness.


Conversely, pornographic representations of being eaten, digested, flattened or otherwise taken in and destroyed by a larger being are somewhat unremarkably metaphorical of the tension between queer desire to be part of straight society and terror of the price they would have to pay for that absorption. 


Sontag expands on the obscene and how pornography channels the erotic in processing it:


Their work [Sade, Lautreamont, Bataille] suggests the “the obscene” is a primary notion of human consciousness, something much more profound than the backwash of a sick society’s aversion to the body. Human sexuality is, quite apart from Christian repressions, a highly questionable phenomenon, and belongs, at least potentially, among the extreme rather than the ordinary experiences of humanity. Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains of the demonic forces in human consciousness - push us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one’s consciousness, for death itself… Everyone has felt (at least in fantasy) the erotic glamour of physical cruelty and an erotic lure in things that are vile and repulsive. These phenomena form part of the genuine spectrum of sexuality, and if they are not to be written off as mere neurotic aberrations, the picture looks different from the one promoted by enlightened public opinion, for example.


This perspective puts some of the otherworldly queer porn into perspective. In what ways are do we simply identify with monstrosity, and in what ways are they expression of a more universal expression of the taboo, transcendence, and Thanatos that just happen to be more palatable to queer eyes?


The depravity and obscenity expressed in these queer pornographies have such unique, otherworldly, and unrealistic ideas and depictions that Sade would roll over in their grave. Ana Valens summarizes some of her pornographic ideas, which are not out of the ordinary in this subculture at all:

  • A robot trans girl and her trans lesbian creator realize their attraction to each other during an internal “calibration” process

  • A lesbian Medusa seduces and fucks an Athenian trans woman warrior who both fears and desires her

  • A gigantic cis woman devours a small, timid, yet masochistically eager trans girl

  • Two lesbians rip and tear into each other’s bodies, delighting in one another’s bloody flesh until nothing remains

Valens reflects that these aren’t real desires or aspirations and attributes them to “giv[ing] me butterflies in my tummy” for exactly the subconscious concerns we expect queer people to have:


Trans feminine art often includes elements of body horror, sometimes alongside suffocating, even brutal levels of physical intimacy. Fear and obsession over how our bodies will be perceived intersect with deep, traumatic desires to “fit in” with society. I turn to erotica to explore these gruesome, violent, self-destructive cravings.


Sontag’s essay makes the case that erotic feelings are not a categorically disqualifying set of emotions to be stirred in an observer of art — many great works of literature have sexually explicit and horrifying segments. The challenging medium in queer porn is coupled with its challenging subject matter for the same reasons that others sort of challenging and taboo content are coupled with other forms of erotica. It is further enhanced by the queer acceptance of taboo and the pornographic form.


Queer critics of the vast obscenity in queer pornographies make similar arguments seen in second-wave feminism on issues of sexuality. How can fantasies or relations to vile acts be acceptable? Surely, they should be toned down, lest they be seen as model behavior, an endorsement, or give people novel cruel ideas or encouragement to violence? The “ethical porn” movement tries to walk this line as well by having “safer” depictions of sexuality.


Gretchen Felker-Martin, a self-described author of “horrific” pornographies, writes on their experience of how to avoid an outcried response:


[...] If you're going to so much as talk about [horrific sexual acts] you need to do so at a 5th-grade level and behind the dual firewalls of safe, pastel-colored animation and explicitly education-based presentation. The art has to show you in painstaking detail the exact way in which to behave.


They go on to speculate on why these same critics cling to sterilized corporate media, like fandoms of Marvel. I have to wonder myself about the mindset and values of the pastel educational style of approaching these issues. Confronted by the shrill demands of “queer consent culture”, one could almost be forgiven for mistaking queerness for a simple moral position on how to approach sexuality, rather than a fundamentally sexual way of being in the world. As if one could identify as queer only because of taking a particular set of viewpoints on sexual morality — not who you fuck or decide how to live your life, but how you conform to talking about these issues. 


If queer identity involves embracing abjection, then the sterilized, aggressively wholesome, consent-centering variations of its pornography could be understood as a way to “purify the abject” — to reinforce and recreate the boundaries that exposure to gore, vore, and monstrousness has broken down. Exploring how queer people relate to queer pornography is a way we can understand how subcultures within the queer community have formed and the roles they play in our psyche.


Felker-Martin gives several examples of hallmark scandalous literature that arguably provided emotional and moral perspective to traumatized people:


Imagine a world where Debbie Dreschler never made her autobiographical comic Daddy's Girl, one of the most scorching, hideous things ever committed to paper. How many people would never have seen their own experiences with parental incest reflected in her work, and thus felt able to finally break themselves open and process their deep pain? When a subject becomes taboo we lose our ability to process the pain surrounding it, to talk about it openly, to understand why it happens.


...


Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden, a 1975 collection of women's anonymously submitted sexual fantasies, multiple Jewish women who had survived the Holocaust wrote with deep shame of their need to sexualize that experience, to relive it with their partners in a safe and loving environment. It's a relatable sentiment for anyone whose sexuality has been shaped by trauma, which can force shame and need against one another until they grow together inextricably. A close friend of mine was attacked as a "vicious anti-semite" for quoting the book.


Critics might be accepting of this apparent moral good but disgusted or hesitant about the eroticism presented as an inappropriate lens for others to read it through and associate the stirring of erotic feelings with the feelings of identification and endorsement. This is similar to any critique of pornography — should we distance ourselves from these relics of our neurosis and repress them, or approach these things differently?


Treating eroticism as a feared, invalid, and dangerous component of our humanity is often exactly what creates the repressions and traumas that are reconciled through erotica. And as we’ve argued here, these depictions are not (necessarily) aspirational and often represent the abject, even for those who don’t have a personal identifying experience. While this is not a blanket endorsement of all pornography, the arguments that attempt to vilify erotic appeals are suspect.


What, then, is the value of queer erotica? One locus of value is in elucidating what it means for something to be called “queer” at all. As Sontag talks about in her exploration of Bataille, part of the value of edge cases of literary obscenity is that they raise the question of how and why we draw these distinctions between literature and porn. Defining a piece of pornography as queer is not straightforward —  society understands the queer as something that does not sit quite right, that feels “off,” uncanny, slanted. A depiction of sex acts between two adult human-sized foxes is undoubtedly in the realm of the queer, no matter what the genital configuration of these yiffy monstrosities might be. Examining queer pornography gives us insight into what queerness is and how it is located within the landscape of the erotic.

The visceral reaction to obscenity and taboo is itself a source of value and identity-location for queers. What makes a “queer” identity separable from a sexual orientation is, these days, something like a commitment to radical politics, meshed with fluency in a conceptual language of consent, vulnerability, and trauma. The queer critique of society gets its power and relevance from being able to provoke, shock, and even disgust. A queerness that cannot reconcile itself with the obscenity of its pornographic imagination is little more than an aesthetic.

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