COMMON RUIN

“Ars longa, vita brevis”

Anarchists in the Dungeon

PREFACE:
I had started this piece in March, when the topic was still relevant, but I did not have the opportunity to complete it until now. I assure readers that I am not deliberately attempting to avoid controversy, nor am I trying to be fashionably late, by posting this well over a month after the event occurred.
Forget free love, some Bay Area anarchists are prepared to endorse outright libertinism à la de Sade.

Forget free love, some Bay Area anarchists are prepared to endorse outright libertinism à la de Sade.

Prior to the 18th Annual Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair the left-wing blogosphere was embroiled in fervid debate over the organizers’ decision to rent space in the San Fransisco Armory to host the event. For those of you who are unaware, the Armory is currently owned by the hipster entrepreneurs responsible for Kink.com—a pornographic website specializing in BDSM and related fetishes. The Book Fair Committee realized that their decision would be divisive within the anarchist community, and, to make a long story short, basically claimed budget constraints were the primary reason for choosing that particular venue.

I am moderately familiar with the Bay Area anarchist milieu (the people I encountered at the Bound Together Anarchist Collective Book Store on Haight Street, for example, were nice enough), but I have yet to attend one of these events. I trust that the members of the organizing committee were conflicted about the choice in venue and would have preferred a less alienating location. However, I also believe the event should have been canceled since a suitable neutral site could not be arranged; the choice was controversial enough among committed anarchists, I cannot begin imagine how such a venue would be judged by the general public—who the organizers, presumably, wished to attract. Of course, one can find fault in any conceivable location in late capitalist America, but there is an undeniable qualitative difference between hosting a book fair at, say, a local park, and hosting it in property owned by people who amass profit from the torture (whether simulated or actual) of the psychologically damaged,[1] economically desperate, and naïve segments of society.

With that said, I am less concerned with the Committee’s rationale than I am over some of the arguments anarchists made in defense of hosting the book fair at Kink’s sex dungeon. “Sex positive” feminists and their allies (often male porn aficionados) across the blogosphere chose to frame the debate as one between the audacious avant-garde who support sex workers and the prudish, quasi-conservatives whose fear of sexuality leads them to neglect the rights of said workers. Needless to say, that was a preposterous straw man argument. By way of comparison, an opposition to the wanton deforestation the lumber industry engages in does not necessarily mean that one overlooks the plight of the workers involved in that occupation. Radicals are ever mindful of the interests of all workers, including those employed in professions we seek to abolish.

Being that I am a syndicalist, the sex industry’s exploitation of labor is reason enough for me to oppose it.[2] But even within a hypothetically non-exploitative setting,[3] the production and consumption of pornographic material would continue to harm women and distort sexual social relations. For instance, studies routinely find that pornography has a deleterious effect on relationships,[4] exacerbates sexist attitudes among men,[5] and engenders callous responses to rape and other forms of abuse directed against women.[6] As it happens, violent porn—of the sort Kink.com produces—does the most to generate these outcomes.

What is missing in the analyses of the anarchists supportive of the sex industry is an acknowledgement of these negative externalities, and that betrays a fundamentally liberal approach to examining the subject on their part. Of course, the “sex positive” anarchists could respond by arguing that monogamous unions are an epiphenomenon of capitalism and, therefore, whatever might disrupt them is unworthy of concern. I happen to find such a notion unpersuasive,[7] but even if one were to grant that economistic assumption, it would still fail to address the other two harmful effects pornography has been empirically shown to cause, namely: exacerbating sexism and inducing indifference towards sexual assault. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the polyamorous relationships many of these anarchists favor are genuinely more radical than monogamous ones. The French revolutionary syndicalist Édouard Berth put the matter thusly:

The fact that the anarchists only represent bourgeois social decadence emerges with complete clarity if, disregarding for the moment the metaphysical theses concerning the reality or non-reality of social existence, we examine their way of addressing the question of the family, that primary manifestation and unmediated form of social life. . . . [E]veryone knows that anarchism conceives of the sexual partnership as a free, temporary and ephemeral union; and that, as a result, love is reduced to a volatile passion and marriage to a revocable ad libitum contract, a civil contract of the same nature as other contracts, lacking any sacred or religious character. . . . Anarchism, then, puts its denial of the social idea into practice; the idea of freedom, raised to the status of an absolute by anarchism, dissolves the family [and] nothing remains but the individual with his ephemeral passions and his disordered romanticism. And who would dare to deny that this is a frantic and decadent bourgeoisism? It will be objected that [our thesis of the] sexual union [as] an irrevocable and indissoluble union. . . . [of] love [being] subordinated to justice by marriage, because the very symbol of justice is the androgynous couple. . . . [is an] ultra-reactionary idea and that both the socialists and the anarchists have [instead] adopted, with regard to the issue, the extravagant ideas of Fourier. In any event, this is not to the credit of socialism, which in regard to this as to many other questions has deplorably followed in the footsteps of the bourgeois tradition rather than the working class tradition and has sought to inoculate—as Jaurès said—the emerging proletariat with the corruption of the moribund bourgeoisie.[8]

Similarly, Vladimir Lenin was unconvinced that polyamory was to be the end result of the dialectical processes of history. In fact, contrary to the views of “sex positive” leftists, he believed promiscuity was a residuum of bourgeois excess. His opinion is worth quoting in full:

The changed attitude of the young people to questions of sexual life is of course based on a ‘principle’ and a theory. Many of them call their attitude ‘revolutionary’ and ‘communist.’ And they honestly believe that it is so. That does not impress us old people. Although I am nothing but a gloomy ascetic, the so-called ‘new sexual life’ of the youth—and sometimes of the old—often seems to me to be purely bourgeois, an extension of bourgeois brothels. That has nothing whatever in common with freedom of love as we communists understand it. You must be aware of the famous theory that in communist society the satisfaction of sexual desires, of love, will be as simple and unimportant as drinking a glass of water. This glass of water theory has made our young people mad, quite mad. It has proved fatal to many young boys and girls. Its adherents maintain that it is Marxist. But thanks for such Marxism which directly and immediately attributes all phenomena and changes in the ideological superstructure of society to its economic basis! Matters aren’t quite as simple as that. A certain Frederick Engels pointed that out a long time ago with regard to historical materialism.

I think this glass of water theory is completely un-Marxist, and, moreover, anti-social. In sexual life there is not only simple nature to be considered, but also cultural characteristics, whether they are of a high or low order. In his Origin of the Family Engels showed how significant is the development and refinement of the general sex urge into individual sex love. The relations of the sexes to each other are not simply an expression of the play of forces between the economics of society and a physical need, isolated in thought, by study, from the physiological aspect. It is rationalism, and not Marxism, to want to trace changes in these relations directly, and dissociated from their connections with ideology as a whole, to the economic foundations of society. Of course, thirst must be satisfied. But will the normal person in normal circumstances lie down in the gutter and drink out of a puddle, or out of a glass with a rim greasy from many lips? But the social aspect is most important of all. Drinking water is, of course, an individual affair. But in love two lives are concerned, and a third, a new life, arises, it is that which gives it its social interest, which gives rise to a duty towards the community.

As a communist I have not the least sympathy for the glass of water theory, although it bears the fine title ‘satisfaction of love.’ In any case, this liberation of love is neither new, nor communist. You will remember that about the middle of the last century it was preached as the ‘emancipation of the heart’ in romantic literature. In bourgeois practice it became the emancipation of the flesh. At that time the preaching was more talented than it is today, and as for the practice, I cannot judge. I don’t mean to preach asceticism by my criticism. Not in the least. Communism will not bring asceticism, but joy of life, power of life, and a satisfied love life will help to do that. But in my opinion the present widespread hypertrophy in sexual matters does not give joy and force to life, but takes it away. In the age of revolution that is bad, very bad.[9]

I realize that the mere mention of Lenin can elicit the ire of anarchists, and I certainly share their antipathy for the direction the Bolsheviks steered the Russian revolution,[10] but one must be careful to avoid committing the genetic fallacy when evaluating the arguments of people one dislikes.

Before closing this post, allow me to forestall some of criticisms I may receive by clarifying a few things. Firstly, I do not favor completely banning pornography, nor do I suggest that we empower the bourgeois state to further regulate the content of what we watch. I can, however, envisage people in a future socialist commonwealth democratically deciding to prohibit the use of society’s means of production for the purposes of creating pornography, and perhaps insisting that information about the harmful consequences that can obtain from the consumption of pornographic materials be included in sex education and gender studies courses, but that is the extent of it. There will always be a few eccentric individuals who find it titillating to record their sexual escapades and upload the content to the internet, and attempting to regulate such behavior would be far too intrusive for a democratic society to consider. Secondly, despite my defense of monogamy, I am not opposed to the practice of free love—though the two are by no means mutually exclusive. What I object to is the utter disregard for the societal damage that can obtain from seemingly private interactions which some proponents of free love demonstrate, and I have nothing but contempt for those who use the term as a synonym for libertinism.[11] One of the anarchists featured in Jerome R. Mintz’s ethnographic study of Andalusian anarchism summarized free love in the following way:

Free love does not mean having different women, having different lovers. Free love means that a woman has the same rights as a man. But to have free love one must be educated, one must have intellectuality. If a woman offers herself to a man out of her passion for him, well, today a man simply takes advantage of her and then leaves her bereft of her virginity. If one does not have equal passion, one must not take advantage of a woman. One has to have this determination.[12]

And if that eminently sensible principle constitutes free love, I am a practitioner of it.

To conclude, I must confess that I find it somewhat ironic that anarchists, obstinate anti-authoritarians that they are, would so adamantly defend a website wherein the crudest sort of authoritarianism is incorporated into sexual performances. From a purely aesthetic perspective, you would think that anarchists would overwhelmingly find sadomasochism repellent. One could reasonably speculate that those who do not may actually exhibit a latent fascination with authority and domination, and that should, at the very least, cause them pause.

NOTES:
[1] A link has been established between individuals who have suffered some form of abuse and their willingness to engage in sadomasochistic sex acts. See Niklas Nordling, N. Kenneth Sandnabba, and Pekka Santtila, “The Prevalence and Effects of Self-Reported Childhood Sexual Abuse Among Sadomasochistically Oriented Males and Females,” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 53-63 (2000) and Stephen Southern, “The Tie that Binds: Sadomasochism in Female Addicted Trauma Survivors,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 209-229 (2002).
[2] I seriously doubt the Book Fair Committee would have hosted the event in a venue owned by, say, Walmart, were such an option available, so what rendered Kink.com, an equally exploitative capitalist enterprise, acceptable? I suspect the answer may reduce to something as trivial as the fact that some of Kink.com’s owners are countercultural.
[3] Collectively owned, labor-managed firms which produced pornographic materials, while not technically exploitative institutions, would be just as socially harmful as their capitalist counterparts. The criticisms I level against the sex industry would also obtain within a communist society that permitted its resources to be used in the production of pornography.
[4] Susan M. Shaw, “Men’s Leisure and Women’s Lives: The Impact of Pornography on Women,” Leisure Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 197-212 (1999); Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, “Pornography’s Impact on Sexual Satisfaction,” Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 5, pp. 438-453 (1988); Jill C. Manning, “The Impact of Internet Pornography on Marriage and the Family: A Review of the Research,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, Vol. 13, No. 2-3, pp. 131-165 (2006); Pamela Paul, Pornified: How Pornography is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005), Chs. 4 and 5.
[5] Jane D. Brown and Kelly L. L’Engle, “X-Rated: Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors Associated with U.S. Early Adolescents’ Exposure to Sexually Explicit Media,” Communication Research, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 129-151 (2009); Sheila Garos, James K. Beggan, Annette Kluck, and Amanda Easton, “Sexism and Pornography Use: Toward Explaining Past (Null) Results,” Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, Vol. 16, No.1, pp. 69-96 (2004).
[6] Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, “Pornography and Sexual Callousness, and the Trivialization of Rape,” Journal of Communication, Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 10-21 (1982); Gert Martin Hald, Neil M. Malamuth, and Carlin Yuen, “Pornography and Attitudes Supporting Violence Against Women: Revisiting the Relationship in Nonexperimental Studies,” Aggressive Behavior, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 14-20 (2010); Catherine Itzin, Ann Taket, and Liz Kelly, “The Evidence of Harm to Adults Relating to Exposure to Extreme Pornographic Material: A Rapid Evidence Assessment,” Ministry of Justice Research Series (2007); Mike Allen, Tara Emmers, Lisa Gebhardt, and Mary A. Giery, “Exposure to Pornography and Acceptance of Rape Myths,” Journal of Communication, Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 5-26 (1995).
[7] The general consensus among sociobiologists is that men are naturally more promiscuous than women due to the former’s nearly infinite supply of sperm; the finite number of eggs females possess causes them to be more selective about who they choose to mate with, according to this view. Contrariwise, some evolutionary psychologists have argued that females evolved to be just as promiscuous as males, thereby lending weight to theory that monogamy is an epiphenomenon of capitalism. Robin Baker’s Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict, and Other Bedroom Battles (New York: Basic Books, 2006) and, more recently, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011) are examples of the latter view. I believe that both approaches are mistaken, and that humans, like numerous other mammalian species, have evolved the capacity to form monogamous unions via sexual selection. David J. Buller explains the Smuts-Gubernick hypothesis, which advances that position, as follows: “According to Smuts and Gubernick, long-term male parental care evolved because of sexual selection by females for males who provided child care. As in the traditional view, females stood to benefit by choosing care-giving males because of the enhanced survivability and subsequent reproductive success of their offspring. So it paid females to select for care-giving males. But why did males go along with this deal and become care-giving? Because females rewarded care-giving males with ongoing mating opportunities, hence ongoing opportunities for paternity of offspring. Thus, males evolved to provide long-term parental care not because of the direct fitness benefits that accrued to their offspring because of that care, but because of the increased opportunities for paternity that they earned from the mothers of the offspring to whom they provided care. In short, according to Smuts and Gibernick, long-term male parental care actually evolved as a form of mating effort, not as a pure form of parenting effort” [Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), p. 267 (emphases in original)]. This does not imply that monogamy is the only method human beings can or have utilized to organize sexual relations; it simply means that monogamous pair bonding is a relatively recent evolutionary adaptation which, given the appropriate environmental setting (e.g., a balanced sex-ratio and egalitarian culture), can be expected to develop between the sexes.
[8] Édouard Berth, Les Nouveaux Aspects du Socialisme (Paris: Marcel Rivière, 1908), pp. 49-50.
[9] Lenin quoted in Harry Pollitt (ed.), Women and Communism: Selections from the Writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1950), pp. 94-97.
[10] The Bolshevik’s suppression of the independent soviets and the Ukrainian Free Territory was inexcusable, in my opinion. For excellent analyses of this history, see
Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, 1917-1921: The State and Counter-Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975), Paul Avrich, Kronstadt, 1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), and Alexandre Skirda, Nestor Makhno, Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine, 1917-1921 (Oakland: AK Press, 2004).
[11] A
contributor to Tierra y Libertad (April 28, 1915) put it well when he wrote, “How harmful it is to abuse free love, that is, to commit libertine actions in the name of free love.”
[12] Pepe Pareja quoted in Jerome R. Mintz, The Anarchists of Casas Viejas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), pp. 91-92.

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4 thoughts on “Anarchists in the Dungeon

  1. Pingback: URL

  2. Interesting and thoughtful article! It raises a lot of issues. I agree that BDSM, or any kind of domination, seems antithetical to anarchism, and that commercialization of anything, include sex, seems equally incompatible. Sex and love in general are more complicated however. Sometimes people will pair up, even for life, and be content, while for others relationships are happy for some period of time, then they become unhappy, and one or both partners decide to move on. Sometimes, as with the “glass of water” analogy Lenin mentions, it’s just about physical desire. Messy and complicated, so I don’t know if there can be a “correct” approach to this. I do know that relationships should be voluntary, and that you can’t possess or own another person. But all of the drama connected with relationships seems to indicate that there are powerful, irrational forces at work. Children make these issues even more complicated. Are children the property of their parents? Clearly, there are limits on what parents can do to their children, but on the other hand, who will give kids the level of love and support their families (and extended families) do in healthy families? Some kibbutzniks tried to break up the family bond by raising children communally, with mixed results. Divorce is having the same effect in modern society, but without the community support to fill in for the missing parental love and economic support. Ideally, all of a community’s children would be loved by all of its members, but the parental-child bond is something special and powerful, as irrational and real as emotional love.

  3. Just remembered, there was a pamphlet Chaz Bufe did years ago (he mentions Luigi Fabbri’s “Influencias burguesas sobre el anarquismo”). Excerpt: “To put this another way, the identification of anarchism with chaos, mindless rebellion, absurdities (such as primitivism), and antisocial attitudes and behaviors (such as amoral egotism) has three primary undesirable effects: 1) it allows people to easily dismiss anarchism and anarchists; 2) it makes it much more difficult to explain anarchism to them, because they already think that they know what it is and have rejected it; and 3) it attracts a fair number of what Fabbri calls “empty headed and frivolous types,” and occasionally outright sociopaths, whose words and actions tend to further discredit anarchism.”

  4. Pingback: 2/16-17 | Umquam Somniatis

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