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Sobles Pornography, Sex, and
Feminism is written in a brash, trash-talking mode the mirrors the text of
pornography. It certainly constitutes a
descent from the Olympian standards of traditional academic writing. Nonetheless, the book is pit-bull like in
its desire to consider wide swaths of academic assessments of pornography, no
matter how poor the arguments encountered within this discourse turn out to
be. And Soble convincingly makes clear
that a great many such arguments turn out to be pretty poor indeed.
Soble is to be thanked for having
taken the time to read though all the trash he evidently needed to write his
book, and for offering some of the most politically incorrect, masculinist
arguments in favor of pornography that have ever made their way from the pen of
a philosopher to a published work. If
it is argued that pornography dehumanizes, Soble will argue that the human is
overrated anyways. If a feminist critic
claims that men will have negative reactions to viewing pornography, Soble will
claim that most women writing on these subjects havent the foggiest idea of
what is going on inside mens minds when it comes to sex. If the case is made that older women are
punished by a lack of sexual attention from their spouses, Soble argues that
this is obviously not reason enough to keep these spouses from playing the
field with younger women. If Martha
Nussbaum argues that valuable sex requires the context of a normative
history, Soble imagines gazing at her body during an APA conference; and then goes on to dismiss Nussbaum as
being akin to a sexually protected young girl.
I think it is fairly clear that
Sobles book is a prime example of how not to write if you are working
within academia. Particularly when it
comes to Nussbaum, he goes well over the top.
Nonetheless, his brash, ultra-masculine voice is a much needed, fascinating
alternative to the feminist and conservative humdrum over which he
pores. Moreover, he is also able give
philosophical voice to the average views of the many countless male consumers
of pornography. Soble makes the case,
in clear terms, that pornography is good because it is exciting, pleasurable,
and useful in setting ones sexual horizons.
Sobles utilitarian case for pornography that is highly credible, but it
is nonetheless quite marred by a lack of philosophical sophistication. It appears that Soble just does not
understand Kant, and even admits as much.
In his defense, it must be noted that Soble puts the blame on Kant. However, his upfront approach on Kantian
ignorance fails to keep his broad, un-reasoned swipes at Kantian respect for
the subject from sounding extremely insipid.
Moreover, his attacks on Kantian feminists are bizarre in being
un-willing to accept that Kantian feminists do not have to re-establish the
grounds of the moral law every time they reply upon Kants arguments. Beyond such lacunas, and quite separate from
them, is Sobles apparent view that Kants false assumptions about sex somehow
invalidate any use of his theory in this area.
Kant felt that sex reduces us to the level of animals, therefore the
moral law is a joke would seem to be Sobles point of view here: and I am not particularly exaggerating. Sobles work could have been immeasurable
strengthen if Soble could have offered us a Kantian argument in favor of pornography,
along with the utilitarian one Soble uses, in order to balance the Kantian
criticism. Soble could have shown that
Kants system is able to embrace the position that, since pornography is
exciting, pleasurable, and useful in setting ones sexual horizons, it is a
good worth having within culture. The
only specifically Kantian grounds for rejecting pornography would require
conclusively showing that pornography involves treating its objects merely
as objects (i.e., means), and not also as subjects (who are paid, occasionally
titillated, granted rights, etc.).
Soble is un-willing to consider this case, preferring to wallow in
Related to this un-willingness to consider Kant as a potential
legitimator of sexual freedom is Sobles un-willingness to take seriously the
idea of narrative history being attached to sex an ideal. Just as Soble does not want to consider the
niceties of going over what counts as treating someone merely as an end,
he also does not want to consider that criticism of pornography might be made
from the position that sexual relationships involving mutual recognition and
narrative history might both have a great deal more to offer than the cold
fucks Soble is incessantly considering;
and also be extremely fragile affairs whose integrity can be corrupted
by a Soble-style de-emphasis on non-hedonic standards in the selection of sex
partners. Soble does not seem to
understand that Nussbaums restrained description of sexual relations is one
made in order to form into being a contemporary sexual culture that gives
Platonic eros and other forms of sublimation its place, rather than
being, as Soble argues, the product of some sort of evident inexperience in
The book is a kind of volcanic
eruption: it never was going to involve
itself into the subtleties, as the point was to burst through the sick web of
constraints our academic cultured has allowedand, more recently, even
furtheredwhen it comes to free expression on sex, and free sexual
expression. Soble is clearly keen to
set alight both sides of this web, and there are limits to how much we can
blame him when he stumbles in his rampages.
For it is, again, a deeply instructive rampage.
To give one example: the
section, Chestlers Complaint, provides a kind of slam-dunk criticism of
complaints that men are often interested in women much younger than them, and
that pornography is often the source of this desire, in that it offers images
of teen-aged girls and women in their early 20s. In responding to such complaints, Soble demonstrates the
absurdities involved in trying to give equality-mad glosses to the existence
of genetically-rooted male drives for women who are at ages of maximum
fertility. Soble helps along
philosophical discourse on sex by pointing out the foolishness of trying to
cover over serious theoretical consideration of such drives with banalities
about Playboy causing father-daughter incest, or the like. Again, Soble is to be thanked for having
taken the time to consider a lot of trash, most of it the product of
word-processors, not digital cameras.
For it does seem to me at least remotely possible that paternalist and
feminist minded thinkers who might be tempted to deal out the sort of trash
Soble took it upon himself to troll through may respond well to the treatment
Soble prescribes, and think againassuming, of course, that they dont simply
toss his book across the room a chapter in, which seems a distinct possibility.
such as Chestler seem to want to point to the sexual consequences that follow
from the lack of complementary, age-sensitive female drives about male
fertility as consequences that an enlightened culture can address by throwing
men and women into unisex jacket of the relationship of equality. Soble is clear that power equality is often neither particularly
sexy nor particularly useful. In making
this case, Soble does more than inoculate us to anti-pornography dribble. Soble touches a deep nerve in our
contemporary culture, one which curls into quite different issues of
gender: e.g., the status of housewives
v. working women, female participation in political structures, etc. Thus, however down and dirty his manner of
presentation may be, the fact remains that Soble has done quite useful work.
© 2002 Marcus Verhaegh
is a graduate student in the Philosophy PhD program at Emory University.