Friday, 3 February 2012

Voyeurism & Pornography

Despite the title, this is going to be a grown-up post. I'm thinking about the act of watching, the direction of the gaze, and the impact of being the subject.

Yawn. Sorry, stick with me - this stuff is interesting, I promise.

The act of looking, or being looked at, is actually very aggressive. We all know that meeting an animal's eyes implies some kind of power challenge. Try and have a stare-out with your dog and I bet it looks away pretty quickly. Either that or it'll rip your face off. It might be an interesting way of testing who's really the boss in your house... Rotterdam zoo was forced to distribute 'gorilla glasses' after one woman was mauled by their 400lb silverback. Apparently she was turning up every day and staring deep into the animal's eyes. She thought they were bonding. He thought she was a rival and one day he snapped, broke out of his cage and mauled her half to death. The gorilla glasses make it look like you're looking to one side, allowing you to stare directly at the animals without unwittingly endangering your life.

Staring at another human being is equally confrontational. If you're sat with friends / family and you happen to stare at someone, for whatever inane reason, chances are that in a matter of seconds they'll start getting uncomfortable and ask you what you're doing: and these are people that know and like you. Now imagine you're walking home after a late night out. You're on your own, the street is dark. A man appears at the other end of the street, walking towards you. As you get closer, you realise that his gaze is fixed directly on you, and doesn't waver. Man or woman, a tenner says you're scared. Why? He's only looking at you. He might be curious about his fellow night-time-wanderer. But the way he's looking at you will have provoked a fight / flight instinct that you can't ignore.

It is ingrained in us to think of eye contact as a sign of dominance, and breaking that contact as a sign of submission. Lovers make and maintain eye contact during intimate moments as a sign of trust. A look is never just a look.

Not all gazes are aggressive: some are desiring. Traditionally, women are the objects of the desiring gaze, they are looked at, they do not look back. Of course desire and aggression are as closely linked as love and hate. Desiring, wanting, is an act of dominance in itself: it is possessive and implies ownership. That doesn't mean that it's unwelcome. Just ask the dowdy girl who walks past a silent building site, moments after Jessica Rabbit's real-life twin has been subject to whistles and catcalls by the same men.

That doesn't mean that women don't look at men in the same way. Increasingly they do, and they're getting more brazen about it. It's part of the "laddish" culture that emerged in the 90s. When the media bemoan the fact that young women no-longer act like ladies they will often cite the example of groups of girls out on the town catcalling at the men. There are words for such women, unpleasant ones. Society at large still tries to supress such behaviour and leave the desiring gaze as the exclusive domain of men. Make of that what you will.

Evidence of the desiring gaze is everywhere. In the novel I'm working on at the moment  (97,000 words and counting!!) the narrative is told in third person from Christo's POV as he begins a relationship with Damien, a work colleague. As such, Damien is the object of the gaze, there is far more description of how he looks; acts; dresses than there is of Christo. Across literature as a whole it generally holds true that one character is the object. Whose gaze, though? Who is the person doing the looking?

Well that, dear reader, is you. Literature enables us to indulge in the ultimate act of looking, without being seen to look. There can be no challenge to the implied dominance of the gazer when the subject cannot look back. And that is why literature - romance in particular - has always been a woman's realm. Where else but in a book could a respectable, well-brought-up lady stare with undisguised pleasure at a Mr Darcy or a Heathcliff? In real life she'd be branded a floozy if she so much as fluttered her eyes at such a man, but if that man is fictional then she's free to gawp as much as she likes. Why do you think that image of Colin Firth coming out of the lake is so popular?

Just look at him. Look at that white shirt gone all transparent and clingy. And the way he's looking off-camera allows the real viewer - not the girl on the banks of the lake, but the person watching the film - stare and stare without him ever asserting himself by staring back. Why do you think women (and men) still swoon over that image in their thousands? Whether he likes it or not, Mr Firth has been dressed up as the ultimate piece of man-candy, and despite his broad shoulders and firm chest, it's a completely feminised image.

Authors have been aware of this fact for centuries, and often play about with it. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, more typically known as Fanny Hill, is often credited with being the first pornographic novel written in the English language. It was written by a man - John Cleland - about whose sexuality there have long been rumours. It is the story of a whore, told in first person (in epistolary fashion), narrating her descent into prostitution, her experiences with both men and women, and her relationship with, and ultimate salvation by, a young man named Charles.

In 1748, when this novel was published, one doubts that many women would have been able to get their grubby mits on it. Therefore we must assume that it was written by a man, for men. And here the problem arises, because the whole novel is told from Fanny's POV, and Fanny likes men. A lot. There are sweeping and epic descriptions of every part of the male physique, always couched in the most erotic terms. You have to hunt pretty hard for much description of women once Fanny's initial foray into lesbianism comes to an abrupt halt. In fact, most of the women in the book are described in terms of the grotesque, much like the women in the Victorian homosexual novel Teleny: or, The Reverse of the Medal.

Cleland knew exactly what he was doing. Part of my thesis for my Master's was an analysis of anal eroticism in Fanny Hill. Fanny quickly progresses from non-penetrative lesbianism, to vanilla vaginal sex, to role-play and BDSM before things start to get really interesting. First, Fanny and a friend attend a drag ball: her friend pulls a lovely young man who is convinced that she is really another man in a frock. Then Fanny finds herself in a room in an inn when two young men arrive and are placed in the room next door to her (actually the same room, divided by a thin partition to make the innkeeper more money). She gets herself all excited, thinking what she could do with those men. Then she hears a funny noise... Through a hole in the partition, she sees them kissing, and immediately decides that they must be young lovers and the woman is dressed in drag to avoid recognition. Right until the 'woman' pulls her pants down and gets her cock out.

Cleland doesn't pull any punches with the narrative of the encounter between these two men, which Fanny watches in its entirety. I particularly enjoyed the line: if he was like his mother behind, he was like his father before. The most striking thing about this scene, however, was the tenderness displayed between the men. Fanny's story is one of being objectified for sex. The romance at the end of her narrative is late coming. Penetration, in Fanny's world, is painful: it is the ultimate act of violence. One would think anal penetration would be described as even more so, but that is not the case. It surprises her to see how well the men fit together, and the dominant partner kisses the other man tenderly during the act. Fanny has never had a man be so caring with her - not even her beloved Charles, when he took her virginity. At the point at which it occurs, this scene between the two men is by far the closest thing to lovemaking that has appeared in the novel.

What is Fanny's reaction? She turns to the door to go report them and have them arrested. Had they been caught they would have been tried and (minimally) pilloried. Given that Fanny, as witness to the whole affair, could testify to the 'emission of seed', they may even have been hanged. Sodomy was notoriously difficult to prove without a witness, which is why the death sentence wasn't imposed as often as people suppose. Fanny's evidence could well have secured that. But what happens instead? Our heroine forgot that she'd got up on a chair to peer at them, fell, and knocked herself out on the floorboards. Hilarious? Absolutely. By the time she comes round the men have long gone: warned, no doubt, by the sound of her fall that they'd been discovered. Fanny literally gets slapped in the face for trying to punish the men.

All of this, let us remember, occurs in a book obstensibly written by a man to titillate heterosexual men. Seems unlikely, doesn't it? Is it more likely that the author was deliberately subverting the desires of his readers, so subtly that what he was doing wasn't even noticed until the 1980s? And then there's the fact that we have a (potentially) queer author, writing for straight men in such a way as to encourage them to find other men attractive. Cute, isn't it?

There is a scene from American Dad that I love, where the father of Stan's gay neighbour Terry comes to stay. Terry bottles coming out to his dad (a retired pro footballer), and pretends that Stan's wife Francine is really his wife, and his partner Greg is really with Stan. There's a scene where father and son are "watching a guy plow a girl" together in the den at the father's insistance (because it's what men do) and Stan bursts in to tell him the truth. Tank Bates, football star, doesn't have much patience for the man he considers the queer neighbour. While Terry sits on the couch and cringes, Tank indicates the porn and says "I guess you only like this 50%, huh, fairy? Me, I like this 100%."

Surely that makes him bisexual?? It always struck me as an odd line, but it makes an interesting point: when straight people are watching straight porn, how much of it are they enjoying? I'm not implying that every straight man watching straight porn is really a closet-case getting off on covert sneaks of another man's junk. Maybe, however, as human beings we're programmed to find any display of overt sexuality titillating on some primal level. What else explains the prevalence of straight porn? I doubt there's that many couples out there who watch skin flicks together, not when you think of the millions and millions of images and films there are available. Certainly there are more men (and women) who watch porn alone, one can safely assume. In which case, shouldn't gay / lesbian porn be more popular?

Well it should and it shouldn't. The problem with homosex is that it's percieved as threatening. No man wants to watch two women who genuinely have no interest in him, and no desire for him. Neither do women want to watch men prove that they're redundant. Everyone wants to be wanted, and part of the fantasy of porn is that the people on screen want you - the viewer - that you can climb through the TV and take the place of the guy / girl in question. If I had a pound for every time I've told some guy who's tried it on that I'm gay, only to have him say "it's okay, I'll watch" I'd be a very rich woman. Because that's what I live for. When that generous offer gets knocked back, without fail their attitude changes. I get "oh, you're that kind of lesbian." (Said with a sneer). What, a real one? Yeah, sorry, I am.

It never fails to surprise me how popular m/m romance is with straight women for this very reason. Do they realise that the narratives they're enjoying actively exclude them? Maybe it's safer, especially as many of the women are in their 30s and 40s and married with children. Lusting after an "accessible" (i.e. heterosexual) man, even a fictional one, is still bound up with guilt and overtones of infidelity. Maybe, on a subconscious level, lusting after a man who has no desire for women is the perfect compromise.

Kate Aaron is an author of contemporary and fantasy m/m romances.
Find all her books on
Amazon, ARe, B&N,  iTunes, SW, Sony, Kobo, & Diesel

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