Art or Pornography?

King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes
Mentions of E. L. James and The Marquis de Sade

I’ve recently finished reading King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes, and it’s been a huge slap to the face. She’s angry, vindicative, fierce, a challenging and powerful read for anyone interested in how gender roles shape our approach to femininity, sex, porn, and desire. I was sitting at home, mulling over what I’d read, and I found myself applying Virginie Despentes to Fifty Shades of Grey.

In King Kong Theory, Despentes broaches, amongst other things, the subject of rape fantasy. She addresses it not only from a straight man’s POV, but from a straight woman’s POV. As a rape survivor, she very bravely describes her own experience, the violent attack she was subject to, how she coped and moved forward. She then questions why some straight women have this sexual fantasy for a violent, domineering, controlling man. Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James is a good example: without entering in detail into the text, which people have discussed at length before me, let us say we agree on two things. Firstly, it is about an abusive relationship. Secondly, it was a huge best-seller. According to the target demographic, the people who bought it  so, we assume, who found it sexually titillating  were mostly women.

Despentes argues, convincingly, that this fantasy of being dominated by some powerful alpha male is a cultural construct. It’s part of the interiorised misogyny a patriarchal culture tries to teach women: it is best for them to desire a master, because then what are the chances of them rebelling? So our culture teaches us – straight women specifically – to desire men who control us, to find that form of masculinity, that edge of danger to ourselves, sexy.

But, Despentes adds, once we are taught to desire something, we are also blamed for that desire, mocked if we give into it. This was what caught my attention.

Women’s lust is often vilified. In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, the book was attacked on many fronts, from its prose to its content, and one of the cornerstones of criticism was that the relationship was unhealthy, that Grey was abusive.

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But I wonder if the scale of the pushback – to the point that it was impossible not to be aware of Fifty Shades – wasn’t due in part to the fact that the book catered to straight women’s fantasies. And women shouldn’t be allowed to desire so openly, and to desire something ‘bad’.

Despentes says, in her usual snappy tone, that taking power out of sex, toning down our wants to make them safe, is impossible. She argues that one reason why people oppose pornography is because of the fear it instils: we lose control when we watch something that turns us on, whether we want to or not. The things that turn us on are problematic. The fact that we cannot control our bodies’ reaction makes us afraid. From there, she believes, stems the censorship of society against porn.

To be clear: I don’t think books and cultural constructs should encourage people, any people, to enter abusive relationships, and cast a veneer of sexy over what is a power imbalance. But I also wonder why Fifty Shades of Grey is considered the pits, the seventh circle of hell of writing, whereas the Marquis de Sade gets categorised as a philosopher and literary writer.

Having grown up in France, I’ve always been aware of the Marquis de Sade, and I read excerpts of his works of my own volition while I was at Uni. A friend of mine didn’t have a choice, and studied him at school. She hated it – but, crucially, no-one will ever ask her to study E. L. James. The Marquis de Sade gave his name to sadism, by describing in great detail non-consensual sex. From what I’ve read – mostly La Nouvelle Justine ou les Malheurs de la vertu – it is a glorified porno.

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Although the repeated rapes throughout the book are not my idea of a healthy addition to our cultural mindscape, I use the word ‘porno’ in the nicest possible way. It is designed to titillate. It is something to masturbate to. No more, no less. It makes an attempt to be philosophical, but I find, personally, that it fails. However, judging by its popularity, it clearly succeeds at something. And that, I suspect, is turning people on.

In that regard, the Marquis de Sade and E. L. James have lots in common: they turn people on. They’re popular. They’re both about power and how it gets abused.

One is a literary piece of art, which depicts the fantasy from the man’s POV. The other was negatively criticised at length, and no-one would try to call it art. Still, it depicts the exact same fantasy from the woman’s POV, the female facet of the same desire.

The same fantasy changes nature depending on whether a man or a woman is describing it. From men’s POV, it’s art. From women’s, it’s ridiculous, laughable, poorly executed. But, crucially, it is the same thing.

To me, both authors are writing a porno. Rather than attacking the text itself, and blaming people for what turns them on, I’d be interested, through the lenses of Despentes’s writing, on studying why we desire what we desire, who it serves, and how we can rethink gender-roles, consent, sex, and pleasure, whilst being conscious of what motivates us.

23 Aug. 22