Pornography: “I Know it When I See it”

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A164 Thesis2

The XXX-rated story, Any Given Morning illustrates a submissive sexual encounter between an ultra-orthodox husband and wife bent over their dining room table; a consensual, powerful, and very dirty story true story that defies cultural expectations. Images of the “tefillin [phylacteries] marks from the morning still imprinted on his arm” contrasts with images of her “breathless on the dining room table.” The author mixes ritual object and Jewish signifiers with sexual acts for tremendous visual contrast, heightening the awareness that the strange has been made familiar and the familiar strange.

In the comments a number of people questioned whether or not it was appropriate to depict a story with such clear dominant/submissive roles, thinking it might be condoning rape. Oppenheimer invited discussion, asking if story is appropriate since the sex was consensual. Even though it’s taboo, does that mean we exclude the kink community in order to avoid sending “wrong messages?” Should there be an introduction to similar stories explaining BDSM and the importance of communication and consent? To each of these questions that she posed, she genuinely wanted discussion and honesty so that the voices and comforts of every member of the community would be considered. We often talk about sex acts as good or bad, and depictions of sex acts as bad or worse. Instead, if we learned to see both as holding the potential for both good and bad but inherently neutral, we might move forward to a space of greater inclusion and satisfaction.

There is a concept in Judaism of an innate driving force, a yetzer, translated as “inclination” but literally meaning, “something that is being formed.” The yetzer is responsible for the sexual urges, for the drive to pursue a career and build a family and live a full life. The Talmud also often refers to the yetzer tov, the good inclination and the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.

In truth, there is only one inclination but it contains both the capacity for good and for bad- for self-actualization and for excessive indulgence. (30) Sometimes the so-called “evil inclination” is considered in its actualization to be excellent, for without it no one would “build a house, take a wife, give birth, or engage in commerce.” (31) The yetzer is “the cauldron of creative churning and chaos that moves us toward positive or negative behavior and actualization.” (32) It can distract and divert or enable us to engage in the world. All aspects of our humanity are encompassed in this yetzer, and the sex drive is no exception. It can lead to incredible ecstasy or overwhelming evil. Sex and lust are sacred in Judaism, and one must have sexual desire in order to evolve spiritually. (33) Yet this desire and subsequent action is set up within constructed parameters so that appetite does not overwhelm reason. (34)

Another way to view this yetzer is as imagination that contains the creative capacity to lead us toward a place of empathy and action. Our yetzer holds the potential for moral expansion, and when that happens our ability to act and engage productively in the world is made manifest. It can be argued that art is what causes this moral and creative imagine to expand (35), the yetzer to take shape, and Jewrotica is nothing if it is not art. Jewrotica –the art of pornography/erotica that is pushed forward by the imaginative capacity for change that religion offers, is one of the ways in which our inclination might find that productive good/bad balance.

This appetite, this drive, is very similar to the erotic as Audre Lorde presents it in her essay, The Uses of the Erotic. Lorde’s essay discusses the reclamation of the erotic, specifically for women, as an empowering force. The erotic is the driving, innate power that makes women brilliant redeemers of their own lives; it is “the assertion of the life force.” When fulfilling the erotic in oneself or in others, it is essential to recognize the experience as an erotic one, otherwise the other involved is merely an object, and not a subject. The erotic is what allows women to throw off oppression. She argues that, “we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic… Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.” (36)

Though Lorde is speaking of the erotic as purely a tool of women, I would argue that all human beings are reservoirs of the erotic, which comes from the Greek work Eros, and personifies “creative power and harmony.” (37) If it is indeed an assertion of the life-force, then it is an assertion that men and women can partake of equally. Jewrotica, absent of photographs or films and filled instead with personal experiences, true and fictional erotic stories, and discussions of lived experiences of sex is arguably a website of erotica and not pornography, and yet the term “pornographic literature” exists for a reason. According to McElroy’s definition, Jewrotica is indeed pornography. However, Lorde chooses to make a distinction and explains that pornography and erotica are regularly equated, and as such, “it has become fashionable to separate the spiritual away from the political, to see them as contradictory or antithetical.” (38)

Michel Foucault’s seminal work, The History of Sexuality, examines the widely held “repressive hypothesis” of sexuality, arguing that contrary to public opinion, the Victorian era did not usher in previously unheard of sexual repression, but that rather sexual knowledge and sexual discourse actually proliferated. Through the use of the Christian confessional framework and the scientific and medicalized approach to sex, a juridico-discursive biopower came to be exercised over the newly conceptualized “sexuality” and all things related to sexual “deviancy,” instilling regulation and control over concepts of inherent good and bad sex. (39)

Lorde’s explanation of the separation of the spiritual and the political is analogous to the separation that Foucault establishes between ars erotica and scientia sexualis. Both are pursuits of knowledge regarding sex, but whereas ars erotica is about knowledge of the body and sensual pleasure, the human experience of sex, scientia sexualis takes the perspective of a distanced power, seeking a scientific, not a sensual knowledge of sex. It is an intellectual examination of others, an experience of confessed secrets and a study of the world humans inhabit. Ars erotica is a tradition passed down that instead responds to the world. (40) Alternatively, it is through the art of sex that productive power can be actualized, for power, like the yetzer, like the erotic, is a neutral force that can be used for good or bad, for actualization or destruction.

However, where Foucault sees the science and the art of sex as intrinsically separate – the pornographic versus the erotic – I would call them the spiritual and political aspects of Lorde’s construction of the erotic, not two opposing forces but two sides of the same coin. When they are orchestrated in harmony, the biopower, the power over life that results, is one of creativity and passion within a framework to keep it from over-spilling its bounds. This framework, I would argue, is what Torah aims to achieve within the context of Judaism and the Jewish erotic. Torah is an entire system of knowledge, and in order to foster it as productive power, the yetzer, the erotic in us all must be present for the “erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest understanding.” (41)

Stay tuned…Part III of IV will be published on Jewrotica soon!

24 – Liboiron, Max ,“History of Media” (New York University, New York, NY. 22 Nov 2010) Lecture.

25 – Sarracino, Carmine, The Porning of America the Rise of Porn Culture, what it Means, and Where we Go from here, Ed. Kevin M. Scott (Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 2008), XIV.

26 – McElroy, Wendy XXX : A Woman’s Right to Pornography (New York: New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 51.

27 – Lambert, Joshua, “Modern American Jewish Literature and Culture: Jews and Sex,” Hebrew and Judaic Studies (New York University, 2011).

28 – Abrams, Nathan, “Triple-exthnics,” The Jewish Quarterly (The Jewish Quarterly, Vol. 196, Winter 2004, Web Mar 2013). .

29 – Dane, Karalyn, “Masochism’s Jewish Roots,” Jewrotica (N.p., 27 Feb 2013, Web. Mar 2013) .

30 – Winkler, Gershon, Sacred Secrets: The Sanctity of Sex in Jewish Law and Lore (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1998), 16-17.

31 – Neusner, Jacobl Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary to the Book of Genesis : A New American Translation (Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1985), 9:7.

32 – Winkler (Sacred Secrets) 16.

33 – Winkler (Sacred Secrets) 22.

34 – Winkler (Sacred Secrets) 19.

35 – Shaw, Jane,“How the Humanities and Arts Make Us Human,” The Humanities Institute at NYU (New York, NY: 17 Apr 2013), Lecture.

36 – Lorde, Audre, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (Tucson, AZ: Kore, 2000) 6.

37 – Lorde (Uses of the Erotic) 5.

38 – Lorde (Uses of the Erotic) 6.

39 – Foucault, Michel, and Robert Hurley, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990).

40 – Foucault (History of Sexuality) 67-71.

41 – Lorde (Uses of the Erotic) 6.

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Chelsea is a graduate of NYU in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication. Chelsea wrote “Online Erotica & The Space to Move Forward: A Modern Jewish Sexual Ethic” for her senior honors thesis in May 2013.