Using this textbook example of social hysteria as a springboard, Kipnis argues that criminalizing fantasy—even perverse and unacceptable fantasy—has dire social consequences. Exploring the entire spectrum of pornography, she declares that porn isn’t just about gender and that fantasy doesn’t necessarily constitute intent. She reveals Larry Flynt’s Hustler to be one of the most politically outspoken and class-antagonistic magazine in the country and shows how fetishes such as fat admiration challenge our aesthetic prejudices and socially sanctioned disgust. Kipnis demonstrates that the porn industry—whose multibillion-dollar annual revenues rival those of the three major television networks combined—know precisely how to tap into our culture’s deepest anxieties and desires, and that this knowledge, more than all the naked bodies, is what guarantees its vast popularity.
Bound and Gagged challenges our most basic assumptions about America’s relationship with pornography and questions what the calls to eliminate it are really attempting to protect.
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About the Author
Laura Kipnis is Professor of Radio-TV-Film at Northwestern University. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts for filmmaking and media criticism. She is the author of Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender, and Aesthetics.
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Bound and Gagged
Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America
By Laura Kipnis
Duke University PressCopyright © 1996 Laura Kipnis
All rights reserved.
Fantasy in America: The United States v. Daniel Thomas DePew
What kind of society sends its citizens to prison for their fantasies?
When an undercover San Jose police officer calling himself "Bobby" phoned Daniel DePew in Alexandria, Virginia, to suggest that they had "mutual interests" and invited him to his hotel for dinner, DePew, ever the optimist—and thinking that he'd been beckoned to a blind date with an out-of-town prospect—showered, put on a pair of tight jeans, and drove himself to the Dulles Airport Marriott. Twenty-eight at the time, DePew was a systems control engineer at a high-tech electronics company; he was also, in his off-hours, a well-known habitué of the gay sadomasochistic subculture of the Washington, D.C., area. Subcultures have their own private languages, along with shared sets of rules and codes of behavior that members employ: to DePew, when Bobby said "mutual interests" it meant S&M sex. It wasn't unusual for him to meet people over the phone and get together to explore fantasies, maybe have some kind of scene—which often included verbalizing elaborate and violent fictional scenarios. Fantasy was a major component of DePew's sexual universe. What DePew didn't know was that what Bobby had in mind was that Dan play the role of executioner in a snuff film that Bobby was scripting, that Bobby was inviting Dan to his hotel room to discuss kidnapping and murdering a child, and that Bobby was working for the government. Our government.
What follows is a case study about odd, disturbing, and violent sexual fantasies, but just whose fantasies were they? Daniel DePew was sentenced to thirty-three years in prison for sitting around a hotel room and trading detailed kinky fantasies with two undercover cops who'd invited him there in the first place, and who spurred him on by sharing their own equally kinky fantasies, while a team of FBI agents listened eagerly in the next room. The cops and FBI agents are still roaming the streets; DePew is serving out his sentence in a federal prison. The fantasies never progressed beyond the realm of fantasy. This is a story about a crime that never happened. There was no victim. It's also a story that wouldn't have taken place without a couple of zealous law enforcement agents prodding a couple of tragically over-susceptible men to scratch open their psychic scars and plumb their darkest fantasies while the tape recorders rolled—like Kafkaesque state-sponsored psychotherapy—with every free association captured as evidence for a future trial.
United States v. DePew was the first prosecution nationwide involving sex-related computer bulletin boards, which is where a Richmond, Virginia, real estate agent named Dean Lambey inadvertently picked up a San Jose undercover cop and proceeded to lead Daniel DePew, whom he'd met only once, into the setup. These bulletin boards, and their successors on the Internet, were, briefly, an unregulated space for all manner of nonconstrained expression, whether political, sexual, creative, or just weird. These days any small-town cop with a modem and a nose for sin can log on to the Internet and set about electronically policing the sexual proclivities of the nation. And following the case of a California couple sentenced to prison after an undercover Memphis postal inspector received their pornographic images over the Internet, Net hounds around the country are faced with the task of ensuring that their fantasy lives conform to the community standards of the Bible Belt, or risk prosecution. At the same time, these prosecutions are conducted haphazardly and rulings are contradictory: despite massive publicity about the 1995 arrest of a University of Michigan student after he published a violent fantasy about another student on a computer bulletin board and discussed similar fantasies through E-mail, the case was dismissed by a federal judge (after the student had spent a month in jail) who decided that the story and the E-mails were merely tasteless fiction. Federal legislation is now pending to criminalize sexually explicit speech and images on the Internet—ironically, as an amendment to a bill otherwise deregulating the telecommunications industry.
It's inevitable that the Internet will increasingly be used for entrapment purposes, as was the case with DePew and Lambey. The rationale for this expansion of law enforcement into the fantasies of the citizenry comes cloaked as the all-too-necessary responsibility of protecting children from perverts. The subject of child sexual abuse is so emotionally charged these days that little rational discussion of the topic is possible. Pedophilia is the new evil empire of the domestic imagination: now that communism has been defanged, it seems to occupy a similar metaphysical status as the evil of all evils, with similar anxiety about security from infiltration, the similar under-the-bed fear that "they" walk among us undetected—fears that are not entirely groundless, but not entirely rational either. (And predictably, the FBI once again plays a key role in ferreting out wrongdoing.)
Although the fact is that children are at far greater risk of abuse, violence, and murder by their own parents than anyone else, cultural panic about child safety attaches far disproportionately to the monster figure of the pedophile stranger-abductor. The missing children campaign of the early 1980s spawned a national mythology that a million children a year were being abducted by murderous perverts. These figures have been widely debunked: the vast majority of missing children are runaways or abducted in custody battles, which was never mentioned on the back of all those milk cartons featuring their haunting portraits. A small fraction of these cases are stranger abductions. The Justice Department estimates 200 to 300 stranger abductions a year (a child taken overnight or longer) and, of these, a fluctuating rate of 50 to 150 murders yearly.
Of course, it's the monstrosity of these crimes rather than their frequency that makes this such an archetypal scene of horror, but despite the terror and dread these cases generate, they're rare compared to family violence (and especially rare compared to other far more routine household dangers to children). As Kenneth Lanning, special supervisory agent at the FBI Academy's Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, puts it, "In the two months that you put all this energy and these resources into one child who's been abducted, two hundred kids are murdered by their mother or father." The cultural preference to fixate on bizarre tales of murderous rings of pedophile-pornographers rather than the mundane and even more horrifying truth of parental violence is, however, unswayable; given these very vocal public sentiments, the pressure is on law enforcement agencies to perform the impossible task of ensuring that these crimes don't happen. That is, to hunt down stranger-pedophiles before they commit crimes. And if, increasingly, their lair is believed to be that unregulated den of perversity, the Internet, it's probably because it's a less impossible territory to police than the nondigital universe. Even if there's the occasional trumped-up charge or manufactured crime, with every widely publicized arrest comes the reassurance that law enforcement agencies have the threat under control, and no one is inclined to look too closely at the particulars. There may now be more attention devoted to family violence than in the past, but as long as the stranger-pedophile can provide a public alibi for violence to children, deflecting attention from where it apparently needs to be deflected, there seems to be a public compact to keep reviving and reinventing the stranger-pedophile threat.
Fantasy is ever present, particularly when it comes to the type of issues evoked in the DePew case. Mainstream culture constructs elaborate fantasies about what it purports it's not—subcultural, foreign, pornographic, violent—which propel, and are enacted in, these highly publicized rituals of control and punishment, policing and mastery. (You can see the control fantasies at work in the cultural fascination with policing as well, which, not unlike other purity rituals—compulsive handwashing comes to mind—desires to excise contamination once and for all. If only you could scrub hard enough.) The overarching fantasy is that the powerfully monstrous bad thing is somewhere else, that it can be caged, and most crucially, that it's "other." Violence isn't here, it's there. No, over there. Not in the family, but in that Satanic cult disguised as a daycare center; not the criminal justice system, but in the psychopathic stranger. Violence never has a history; it's born from itself, residing in the random and the anomalous, not the mundane and the everyday. Not in us, but in Daniel DePew.
Fantasy permeated all levels of the DePew case, because as a culture, we're never more beset by fantasy than in our assertions about the purity of our own motives, and in our fantastical belief in our own capacity for rationality.
If there's little serious cultural attention devoted to interrogating questions of fantasy—aside from psychoanalysis, that dying lore (killed off by more cost-effective ways of understanding the human psyche, like psychopharmacology)—there's even less serious cultural attention devoted to violent fantasy, despite the fact that, as media pundits never tire of bemoaning, they percolate throughout our popular culture. But violent fantasies aren't only the province of the mass media—governments have them as well, projecting them onto the citizenry. (And the rest of the time, onto other nations.) When the violence question does arise, convenient clichés and convenient scapegoats occupy our attention: mass media is the culprit, especially the pornography industry. And the state keeps mounting expensive commissions and hearings to prove it. Despite the fact that pornography is far less violent than run-of-the-mill popular culture, through the tireless efforts of antiporn feminists and cultural conservatives, violence and pornography are now firmly linked in what passes for debate on the subject, and against all evidence to the contrary—even Women Against Pornography estimates that only 6 percent of pornography is violent.
But what a violent fantasy means in any particular instance is far from predictable; where any particular fantasizer's identifications lie is up for grabs. We view culture, and popular culture, from the vantage point of complicated idiosyncratic private histories, including the formative experience of having often felt powerless and victimized—how can you have been a child and not have felt this? Questions of power, vulnerability, control, and victimhood are raw and tender regions. The entire terrain is laden with projection and denial, including all our facile assumptions that other people invariably take pleasure in identifying with the aggression in any imaginary violent scenario. This vastly undercomplicates anyone's imaginative investment in these scenes, because these kinds of experiences are blurred and conflicting: it's possible—it's even routine—to experience contrary emotions simultaneously. Psyches are complicated things.
If the meanings of particular fantasy scenarios to particular viewers aren't simply black and white, if it's impossible to say with any reliability what person X or Y experiences when viewing or constructing a violent fantasy, imagine the conceptual and evidentiary mess when the criminal justice system is called on to take up such labyrinthine matters—if a group of twelve jurors is asked to determine the relation of fantasy to reality, or determine when fantasizing about doing something illegal becomes illegal, or when fantasy becomes intent. How can twelve strangers, caught up in their own fantasies, their own histories, possibly determine anything about someone else's fantasy life, particularly when the fantasies strike them as repugnant? Yet a Virginia jury in the DePew case deliberated a fast four hours before declaring that fantasy is intent. Beyond a reasonable doubt. The relation of fantasy to reality is fairly tangled to say the least: the entire discipline of psychoanalysis is devoted to unraveling it (and has spent about the last hundred years trying to do so), making a four-hour verdict on the question seem, perhaps, precipitous.
Pornography—like members of sexual subcultures—provides a highly useful set of cultural alibis. Focusing on either, or both, deflects attention from matters upon which the culture prefers not to dwell. Panic-button issues like rape and child molestation don't invite critical thought but rather fear, and fear is available to be mobilized, as populist politicians know so well. If rape and child molestation fail to produce sufficient panic, antipornography activists (having populist ambitions) have further upped the ante by insistently linking pornography to snuff films —films in which someone is, supposedly, killed on camera. Catharine MacKinnon, the country's leading antiporn feminist, is fond of remarking that pornography is a continuum on which the end point is the snuff film. Or as she puts it in her stump speech: "Snuff films cast a light on the rest of pornography that shows it for what it is: that it's about the annihilation of women, the destruction of women, the murder and killing of women—in which murder and killing are just the end point that all the rest of pornography is a movement toward."
There's some question, though, whether snuff films actually exist, or are just another cultural myth. Rumors of vast underground snuff film rings began circulating in the mid-1970s following the release of a film called Snuff, which ended with a supposed on-camera murder in what purports to be a documentary sequence. A month-long investigation of the film by the Manhattan DA's office ground to a halt when the quite live "victim" was interviewed by police. In fact, no law enforcement agency has ever come across a snuff film. MacKinnon claims to have seen snuff films herself, but refuses to reveal her sources "for reasons of security." Justice Department and FBI officials say they've never seen one. Even U.S. Attorney Henry Hudson, chair of the 1986 Attorney General's Commission on Pornography—and who will later figure in this story—has said, "As far as I can tell, no snuff films have been recovered in the United States. I don't know that anyone has actually seen one."
A snuff film is one of the most evil things imaginable, but they appear to be just that: imaginary. This doesn't stop them from being a subject of massive cultural fascination; in fact, quite the reverse—it's hard to pick up a gritty urban detective novel in which the hero isn't foiling a well-organized band of depraved snuff film makers. It also didn't stop them from being brandished as the linchpin of the DePew case. Rumors about snuff films usually claim they originated in South America (the advertising slogan for the film Snuff was "Made in South America where life is cheap," which may have been the ancestry of the rumor). The foreign origin is important, because insofar as the metaphysics of evil is a recurring feature of the social imagination, and gets mobilized by different symbols at different points in history, it's often the case that the bad, scary thing is symbolized by the outsider. Heretics, witches, Jews, homosexuals, communists, international terrorists, and now pedophiles have all had their day as icons of evil and perversity. The threat comes from elsewhere: not from inside our borders, but from foreign southern places; not from family violence, but from the murderous psychopath with a movie camera. "Witch-hunt" is the term invented to describe the zealous quest to eradicate this kind of threat, which is usually, according to the dictionary, "based on slight, doubtful, or irrelevant evidence." This was certainly the case in United States v. DePew.
Daniel DePew was not a pedophile. All his sexual partners were adults. Unfortunately, they were all adult men, which is still a crime in the state of Virginia, and was surely not a point in his favor with the Virginia jury or prosecutors. DePew was a tailor-made scapegoat: not only the quintessential outsider, but someone who made no bones about his offbeat sexual preferences. For DePew, sex was a form of private theater, and his sex life was often theatrically violent. The violence was never anything but consensual though, and took place between adults. But the content of his fantasies centered primarily around relations of domination and submission, and included extensive role-playing. Often these roles were of fathers or daddies, and sons or "boys"; however, in DePew's lexicon the term "boy" was a role to be played, not a chronological age. But according to federal prosecutors, this role-playing made DePew a potential pedophile. They regarded the violence of his fantasies, and the consensual violence of his sex play, as "evidence" and proof beyond a reasonable doubt—as if this could exist in anything but a psychological cartoon world—that he would, without question, have committed violence against a fictional, nonexistent child. In the stripped-down good-guy, bad-guy psychological universe invented by U.S. prosecutors, where fantasy equals intent, and role-playing makes it real, how many thousands of new prisons—each the size of Texas—would it take to hold our new criminal class?
Excerpted from Bound and Gagged by Laura Kipnis. Copyright © 1996 Laura Kipnis. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface
One: Fantasy in America: The United States v. Daniel Thomas DePew
Two: Clothes Make the Man
Three: Life in the Fat Lane
Four: Disgust and Desire: Hustler Magazine
Five: How to Look at Pornography