Pornography by Women, For Women, With Love

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Academic Commentary
Title: Pornography by Women, For Women, With Love
Commentator: Joanna Russ
Date(s): April 1985
Medium: print
Fandom: Star Trek: TOS
External Links: online here/WebCite
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Pornography by Women, For Women, With Love is a chapter in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans, and Perverts, a book of feminist essays by Joanna Russ. It is a revised version of the essay Another Addict Raves About K/S, published in the zine Nome #8.

This chapter discusses at length the appeal and meaning behind women writing K/S fiction.

An Excerpt

Vulcan and Human natures, or Kirk's Pride or everybody's scrupulousness and doubts and reasons not to – which sometimes goes on for sixty or seventy pages. These endless hesitations and yearnings resemble the manufactured misunderstandings of the female romance books (themselves sexual fantasies for women). In fact, so paralyzing are these worries and scruples and hesitations to the two characters involved that over and over again the ‘lovers must, be pushed together by some force outside themselves. Somebody is always bleeding or feverish or concussed or; mutilated or amnesiac or what-have-you in these tales.

Either both are starving to death on a strange planet, in which case they can at least die in each others’ arms, or- they are (temporarily) immured in a cave and Spock, concussed, thinks he's dreaming and acts on his passion for Kirk, or Kirk is suffering from brain/burn and is reduced, mentally, to childhood, in which condition he innocently makes sexual advances to Spock, who is horrified, not by Kirk’s innocent actions, but by his own response.

In short, the stories, over and over, set up situations in which the two are not responsible. Other (R and G-rated) stories present various beatings, blindings, and mutilations which necessitate not only intense emotional intimacy, but also one character’s touching and holding the other with an eroticism only lightly veiled in the story (arid probably not veiled at all in the readers). So far the material sounds like the irreverent description by two of my friends; “Barbara Cartland in drag.” But if that’s all K/S stories arc, why don’t the women who read them simply read romances and be done with it? Why the “drag"'? Why project the whole process on two male science fiction characters?

First of all, K/S is not about two men. Kirk is a man, to be sure, but Spock isn't, he's half human alien. Susan Gubar has speculated in a recent essay that when women s.f. writers write aliens they are very often writing about women. Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana Veith also suggest (brilliantly, I think) that although Spock is not literally female, his alienness is a way of “coding” into the K/S fantasies that their subject is not a homosexual love affair between two men, but love and sex as women want them, whether with a man or with another woman. Lamb and Veith cite many more details which support this view: briefly, that Spock‘s reproductive biology is cyclical and uncontrollable, that although “a prince among his own people," Spock is just another Fleet officer in a Federation led by Human men, that he is isolated both from Vulcans and from Humans (as nontraditional women are alienated from both traditional women and from men), that he has no command ambitions, that he often gets Kirk out of difficulties caused by Kirk’s impulsiveness and rashness (qualities Spock does not and cannot afford to display), that his Vulcan and human sides are at war, that Vulcan is matrilineal, that he must be self-controlled and guarded, and so on. (The argument is much more detailed and convincing than I can mention here.) I would add that the lovers come from literally different worlds (the stories constantly emphasize the difference in their natures and backgrounds), and that the sexuality in the stories is only nominally male. [1]

Reactions and Reviews

1986

I always like to see someone else take Star Trek seriously besides me, and if it is outside fandom, all the better. Recently, I discovered two scholarly books that concern themselves, at least in part, with Star Trek (I have the good fortune of being employed at a college library). One deals with American popular culture [American Monomyth] and the other with feminist issues, and I must say it has been fascinating delving into them.... My second find was a collection of feminist essays called Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts by Joanna Russ. In it is an essay entitled, "Pornography by women, for women, with love." In the opening paragraphs, she discusses the title and says something like, "Now that I've got your attention, let me tell you about Star Trek." She proceeds to take a look at the K/S literature and comes up with a decidedly "thumbs up" verdict. I'd like to point out that I had never read any K/S when I read this essay, and I wasn't sure how I felt about it except that it seemed a rather alien concept to me. Reading this essay, however, gave me a way of approaching K/S, and it provided me with a background which allowed me to enjoy the K/S I finally did read. I think the most interesting premise of the essay was that, although Kirk and Spock are both male, the stories are really not about male love. They resemble love and sex from a female point of view rather than a male one (a main example used is that in traditional male-female relations, women wait and men act. In many K/S stories, neither of these men act; they wait, and hem and haw and wonder if what they are doing is right). Other pluses: androgyny—Kirk and Spock are equals and take on equally both male & female roles in love; the celebration of male beauty, as Russ puts it. We (female) readers get loving descriptions of two terrific male bodies. The author's conclusion is that K/S is not pornography in the popular sense, which defines pornography as disgusting and degrading. K/S, seen in the light of Russ' article, is sexual fantasy of a sophisticated nature. It's not about S & M, even though violence is often done to the characters. It's about a satisfying love between the ultimate equals, the kind of love rarely found in reality. Well, I'm sorry if I've bored anybody who's been through all this before, from religion to K/S and back again, but talking about things like this is what makes being a fan fun and special for me. And isn't sharing what being a fan is all about? [2]

1988

I think that I, like most "/" connoisseurs, first read Joanna Russ' essay when it was originally published...but I hadn't seen the piece since then, and it was interesting to review her ideas. Her analyses struck me again as it had four years ago - as being at the same time too shallow, and too convoluted. But on the whole I agree with her conclusions, and believe that "/" is ingenious, creative, deeply rooted in feminist consciousness... and, for the greatest part, healthy. And have often wished that some enterprising psych student would do a thesis on the "'/" phenomenon...or, for that matter, on the whole phenomenon of fandoms themselves... [3]

1993

I got hooked partly by Joanna Russ's article, the version written for mundanes, and it drove me bananas, because this was when slash fandom, especially, was still quite closeted and afraid of lawsuits, and she has this little footnote that says, I really am talking about real people and real stories, but to protect their anonymity and safety, I'm not going to tell you who they are or how to get in touch. I'm like, argh! I want them! [4]

1999

A bowl of soup flies across the room in a display of anger by a person suffering from the cyclical effect of reproductive hormones. Who threw it? My friend, Belinda (who gets a bit tetchy at that time of the month), or even me? No. It is our favourite half-Vulcan/half-human, Spock, who is suffering from a severe case of hormonal imbalance.

When we first look at slash fiction, the sexuality of the protagonists would appear rather obvious. However, in the words of Ira Gershwin, "it ain't necessarily so"! I'm going to focus on K/S to explore the claim made by Joanna Russ that the sexuality in slash is only nominally homosexual.

Russ suggests that K/S is not about two men but rather that Kirk is a man but Spock is a half-Vulcan alien. She uses the notion of Patricia Lamb and Diana Veith that this alieness is a coding for the female (Russ, 1985: 83). Like a woman, Spock's reproductive cycle is cyclical and uncontrollable (which makes one wonder if Vulcans have pre-pon farr contingencies in their laws like our PMS ones). Despite being descended from Surak, Spock is just another star fleet officer, which is similar to the negation of women in our society. As well, through being isolated from both humans and Vulcans, Spock parallels the non-traditional woman who is alienated both from the traditional women and men. (I would hope that this alienation has decreased somewhat in the last 15 years since this article was written.) Taking all these points together, Spock encodes women, who constitute the vast majority of slash fandom.

Russ also notes that the descriptions of sex highlight that it is basically heterosexual sex, citing a variety of reasons including a "blithe lack of lubrication" (Russ, 1985:83). I would argue that this is more due to the naivete of the writers. In recent slash stories, there is a great deal more lubrication used, as evidenced by the "amber hued bath oil" put to such good used in "Turning Point" (Killashandra, 1995: 36). Indeed, much time is now spent by slash writers in detailing the great degree of preparation carried out by one partner on his soon-to-be-penetrated lover.

Taking this discussion out of the ST:TOS arena, we can find similar elements in some other slash fandoms. In The Sentinel, some slash writers have codified Blair into a virtual female, one that is frequently reduced to tears . This is possibly due to his longish, curly hair; his slighter build in comparison to Jim and Simon; his high communication and empathy skills, and his ability to display a greater emotional range than the cops he hangs around with these days! In The Professionals slash fiction, Ray Doyle has also been known to be described as fine-boned and slight, while his green cat's eyes frequently fill with unshed tears while in AU slash, he is often made elfin. This reading of slash does not appear to work in the Blake's 7 universe where it is hard to conceive of Blake, Avon, Villa, Gan or Tarrant as being codified as "female".

So, are all slash writers really penning heterosexual sex in the guise of homoerotica? While it is possible that some are, it seems unlikely. However, this interpretation does provide a different perspective from which we can gain insight in the sexuality expressed in slash fiction. [5]

1999

Joanna Russ’s 1985 essay “Pornography by Women, for Women, with Love” encompasses its entire argument in the title. Her provocative use of the word pornography is noteworthy in the context of the passionate debates on pornography fought within the feminist movement during the 1980s. In addition to her overt pleasure in the text (“I love the stuff, I love the way it turns me on”), she emphasizes the empowering nature of sexual fantasy, especially when combined with a community of women—women as writers, editors, and readers—free from commercial restrictions. In so doing, she supplements a mere textual analysis with the cultural force that is slash fandom: a community by women, for women.

Russ comments on the heavily cultured implementation that celebrates delayed gratification, monogamy, service, and suffering. By turning cultural expectations of women into virtues projected onto (alien) men, writers of the classic Star Trek Kirk/Spock slash she discusses carve out a space for sexual fantasy even as they fail to ultimately escape patriarchal ideology. Yet, Russ suggests, the cultural work that slash writers perform is important, not only in its all-female process but also by introducing explicit sexuality into a realm that used to fade to black just when things got interesting. Slash may have similarities with the genre of romance in the emotional gratification it offers its women readers, but it supplements this with a healthy dose of explicit sex.

Reading the essay today, Russ’s explanation of women’s identification with and projection onto male characters in same-sex romantic and sexual relationships is surprising in its insight and its limitations, particularly because of her own sexual orientation, an out lesbian. She acknowledges the desire for equality and the ability to desire men, yet she is stuck within a heteronormative framework, both in her oversight of nonheterosexual fans and her easy objectification of gay men. The essay remains important because of its overt discussion of pleasure, its focus on community, and its stance, so often seen in writings about slash, that slash is a way to rewrite or reconfigure cultural needs that goes against the grain of mainstream culture. [6]

References

  1. from Evalangui's Entrancing Eccentricities/WebCite
  2. from Interstat #108 (October 1986)
  3. from a Starsky & Hutch fan in Tell Me Something I Don't Know! #13
  4. a comment at a panel at Escapade #3
  5. From "Sexuality in Slash: My God, Spock, You're a Woman!" by Rachel Shave, posted October 18, 1999, accessed May 22, 2013
  6. From Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, The Fan Fiction Studies Reader (University of Iowa Press, 2014). 77-78.