Interview with Prof. Chalidaporn Songsamphan

This article appeared in CGS Newsletter, Issue 12, Center for Gender Studies, International Christian University. HTML / PDF

Chico Masak (CGS staff, CM): What would you say your stand on pornography is?

Prof. Chalidaporn (SC): I think we should look at pornography as a form of sexual fantasy, which each individual should have the right in their private time to enjoy. But the problem is, when you look at pornography in detail, you’ll see complex relationships between pornography and so many other things. And pornography itself is so diverse. So it is very difficult to have a stand on it. Instead, you have to look at particular cases and details. You’ll probably have a different stand on each one. We tend to want some kind of theory or explanation to which all similar cases can be reduced. But it doesn’t work that way. We have to be very specific with everything.

CM: Do you think there should be any difference between the way we see pornography and its problems and the way we see other forms of art like painting?

SC: For me, there should be no difference. But the problem is, sex has a very special meaning in our culture. Pornography is looked at very differently, and I don’t think that’s a good idea. Remember Foucault’s example of punching someone in the face and inserting a penis into a vagina. These two acts have totally different meanings because of the position of sexuality in our cultural consciousness.

-Defining Pornography?-

CM: But pornography itself can be quite fuzzy in definition. For instance, it is not clear if the comic genre, boys love a.k.a. BL or what’s called slash, is pornography or not. It certainly serves that function for some people. So there’s always this demarcation problem of what’s porn and what’s not.

SC: The line, constituted through our understanding and interpretation, is actually moving all the time. Whether something is pornographic or not totally depends on how you look at it. Anything could be pornographic.

CM: But how do we negotiate with other views on pornography?

SC: We should acknowledge that various different interpretations exist. People like Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin tend to prescribe certain beliefs, saying, this is good and this should be like this. We should stop being judgmental and recognize the differences first, and then, the question is, how are we going to live with those differences?

-State Power v. Critique-

CM: Legally speaking, do you think there should be any state intervention in the distribution of pornography?

SC: The problem is, the state would need a very clear definition of what is porn and a strong idea about what we should do about it. When you have this kind of clarity, it closes the doors to other possible interpretations. That’s the problem with law. No debate. No negotiation. What a dangerous society! People should be able to talk about sex as a social activity. We should leave room for argument and discussion.

CM: Then what can we do as individuals to fight such representational injustices?

SC: I think the most important thing is to express your opinion and disagreement with the particular phenomenon. Just because you respect freedom of speech, it doesn’t mean you cannot say anything against pornography. You probably want to take an element or two from the work in question and express your discomfort with them. As for child pornography, some people say they don’t agree with the element of forced sex. And if someone disagrees with you, then they have to come up with their own argument, some reason, against you.

-Child Pornography and Feminism-

CM: I wonder what difference there is between the anti-child pornography that’s going around today and the anti-heterosexual pornography movement by MacKinnon and Dworkin. When I wrote the article, “Child Pornography and Feminism” (CGS Newsletter 011), I said that we were sort of jumping on the bandwagon to search for a quick, legal solution to child pornography. And there’s not as much opposition to it as there was to Dworkin and MacKinnon when people thought that there was no problem in pornography. Today, when it comes to child pornography, we sort of assume that it’s something inherently bad and we don’t really question our thinking. We should ask ourselves, is representation problematic or not?

SC: Yes, but you have to look at this issue very carefully. The existence of child pornography aggravates many middle-class people because the middle-class sexuality believes in the category of “children” as sexless, so pure and sexually innocent that they need to be protected in order to mature–and that’s a myth. Many laws have been passed because they were allegedly for the purpose of protecting children from sexual abuse by adults. The problem is, no one really cares about how we define the category. Feminists have been questioned numerous times to the extent that the identity category of “woman” itself has ceased to be convincing. We should question the category of children, too, asking, how do we differentiate between children and adults? There is no clear-cut definition or indicator that we could agree on. So when you talk about child pornography or child sexual abuse, people at the same table most likely disagree on many points. They probably have totally different images of children. Going into details like this can be a very threatening experience for the middle-class, and that is why it is so easy to put forth policies and laws “for the good of children” because you’ll most likely convince the middle-class.

CM: Yeah, like Megan’s Law and Jessica’s Law in California. By the way, when I think of child abuse, I always think of the law in the U.S. back in the 1890s, which said that a wife had to serve their husband sexually whenever they were required to. I think the motivation for working towards the prohibition of child pornography is the concern for the power relation between adults and children. Then, why shouldn’t it have been illegal for men to have sex with women when there was a huge difference between what men had and what women had in terms of power…

SC: I think, to them, consent is the most important indicator for differentiating forced sex from consensual sex.

CM: But if we accept that children cannot consent because of adult-child power relations, women must also have had no ability to consent due to harsh gender inequality.

SC: Actually, liberal thinkers and philosophers did not really think that women could consent. John Locke, for example, said women and children did not have the ability to reason, and that they must be represented by the male head of the household. It must not even have been a tiny problem for those liberal thinkers because they were not looking at women as the right bearers in the first place.

CM: It’s very interesting because now we understand that children and women are both put into the same category as immature, deprived of rights, and nonconsensual, but…

-What Kind of Sexual Diversity Are You For?-

Naomi Suzuki (CGS staff, NS): But women have no protection from the middle-class. What could be the difference…?

SC: What you said is another concrete example of the diversity of the ways people look at sexuality, because many people can accept many things that may contradict the hegemonic sexuality, but there are so many other things that they are still upholding. So when people say they are for sexual diversity, you should ask them what kind of diversity they’re talking about. People say heterosexual pornography is a form of sexual fantasy, and that we should allow individuals in our society to have the right to freedom of expression and freedom to consume it. But as soon as those individuals start to prefer child pornography, they are denied the same right. Many of us fail to see the contradiction here.

-Activism of Our Time-

NS: To me, it seems like you two have very similar takes on this issue. What would you say is the difference between both your approaches? Like when you actually take action…

SC: If we have to decide to take action, our stands might be different or very similar–it depends on the specific case. The point I’ve tried to make today is that we can be inconsistent because when you look at pornography in a very specific way, each case has its own meaning since each case has its own details. You cannot use the same theory to explain them all. You can be anti-censorship AND disagree with the acts you see in child pornography. I think that’s one of the strengths of social movements of our time–people can work together when they agree with each other, but when they don’t, they don’t have to, or they can still agree to disagree. Given such flexibility, we have to think carefully, define what we are talking about, and ask other people what they mean by, let’s say, “child pornography” because they might be thinking of different things when they seem to be talking about the same thing.

NS: The World Congress III and advocate groups seem strongly united with one another. But each member of these groups must have different opinions and definitions of child pornography, right?

SC: When they do political activism, they may suppress different ideas within themselves. But if you just let them work on that and draft a certain law, the differences will come up anyway. When their ideas become concrete about the issue, they will start fighting because drafting a law creates lots of debates. And at that stage, people cannot overlook the obvious disagreement among them.

CM: Well, it’s been very fun talking to you, Dr. Chalidaporn.

SC: It’s been fun. Thank you!

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Child Pornography and Feminism

This article appeared in CGS Newsletter, Issue 11, Center for Gender Studies, International Christian University. PDF

C. McKinnon and A. Dworkin argued that pornography targeted at the heterosexual male population, which most pornography is, not only reflects societal gender power relations but also perpetuates and reinforces them by depicting women in degrading ways and, ultimately, creating what I would like to call “irrigation canals of desire.” As a queer feminist, I am tempted to say any kind of desire should be respected however deviant or condemned. But as a queer feminist, I am more concerned about the irrigation of desire that precedes and provides for the formation of desire into homosexuality, pedophilia, etc., and most likely, heterosexuality. Within the system of the irrigation of desire exist complex forms of representation of differences based on the existing power structures (e.g. gender, race, ethnicity, age, class, physical features and dis/abilities). This is not to say that a form of desire that (necessarily) depends on social injustice must be “wrong,” nor do I intend to attack those who have such desires—-in fact, marginalized desires such as homosexual and pedophilic desires are not any freer than heterosexual desire from the norms. My intention here is to suggest that desire is not independent of the social and cultural.

When these two feminists brought to the public the issue of male-targeted heterosexual pornography, most people, however, just laughed at them, saying pornographic representation of women was not harmful at all. Now, why shouldn’t they have been joined by as many supporters so quick and willing to use their resources to protect women as anti-child pornography advocates recently did to protect children? The only difference between them is that the two feminists cared about women, young and old, black and white, Asian and Jewish, disabled and able-bodied-why did the public think that women should be allowed for public display of any kind? And ultimately, is representation problematic or not?

“What exactly do you mean by pornography?” asked anti-feminist libertarians and some feminists in response to McKinnon and Dworkin, but the intention of the latter group was to shed light on the possibility of subversion from within the existing power relations. Pornographic or not, representation has no control over the ways an audience interprets the material. Isn’t a painting of naked angels child pornography when somebody masturbates to it? Judith Butler argues in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative that although, or precisely because, desire is not independent of the social and cultural, quite the contrary, it is exactly within the normative codes of the representation of desire that subversion can take place. The demand for regulations such as censorship and lawsuit, which McKinnon and Dworkin held as their primary objective, is an appeal to state power that is to be granted monopoly over representation of the subject matter, now ready to redraw the acceptable/unacceptable line of sexualities (which has historically oppressed so-called ‘deviant’ sexualitites). That way, we will foreclose the possibility of seemingly (hetero)sexist pornography being received by the audience in unexpected, sometimes queer, ways that might rescue the residual complexities that have been filtered out during the process of representation which can never grasp that something in full. After Butler, many feminists now view anti-pornography arguments as somewhat still powerful yet highly questionable.

Now we must turn back to child-pornography and ask, is the anti-child pornography sentiment, shared by many today even globally, also as problematic as anti-pornography feminism? Why are we ignoring the long history of feminist debate on pornography and jumping on the bandwagon to search for a legal solution to child pornography? Why was the public so reluctant to acknowledge the issue of the degrading representation of women, resulting in abundant debate and the development of feminist discourses, while they are so quick to acknowledge the issue of the sexual representation of children without questioning even a tiny bit of it?