Tim Pendry's Reviews > King Kong Theory

King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes
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Feb 07, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: sexuality-erotica, public-policy, psychology, modern-european, cultural-studies, crime, feminism

(I am reviewing the English Edition, published by Serpent's Tail, rather than the French Edition)

Let's get the negatives out of the way quickly because this is an important little book that might have got the honour of five stars if its faults had been more sincerely addressed by its Editors.

It has three spectacularly interesting chapters on rape, prostitution and pornography that would have made excellent articles in, say, Prospect or some other intelligent monthly. Yet these sit oddly between an equally interesting introduction, in which Virginie Despentes places her book in some context, and an utterly daft rant at the end in which she lets vent to her furies. There are plenty of blank pages between chapters and the print is large so that this reads like a collection of articles or a pamphlet, scarcely a book at all.

It is also so 'French' as to make it dangerously close to being dismissed in Anglo-Saxon circles. There are cultural differences between Anglo-Saxons and French in gender relations, not in ways that make one better than the other, just different. French culture is 'less advanced' in its rhetoric of feminism, has a Government that is more inclined to legislate on morality and French males still seem to conduct themselves a little closer to DCI Hunt than do British males.

Similarly, Despentes' attack on one part of 'bourgeois' French womanhood, working against the interests of the rest, rings true in both cultures but is far more institutionalised in French culture - perhaps because Catholicism sets a moral framework even amongst middle class secularists and socialists.

But place these two concerns - over-promising and particularity - to one side and you are left with something that every woman and most men should read. Most rather than all men because many men just won't get it ...

Her context, other than being French and a woman, is three-fold:

* she has been raped and been a part-time prostitute and has seen these things for what they are;

* she is of the punk rock generation, refuses to be cowed by the culture of implicit fear in which women grow up and has embraced a movement that often upsets the generation of feminists now in power, the 'sex-positive feminism' of Camille Paglia and Madonna;

* she sees the treatment of women not as a war between the sexes (the position of that older generation) but as a more radical issue of the oppression of both men and women by a system of exploitation that is still, at the end of the day, based on authority and class.

A number of thoughts arise from this: that men need liberating (including sexually) as much as women; that women should make their own choices about how they use their sexuality in economic terms; that 'bourgeois' women control the value of their sexuality by threatening the ability of other women to make use of their own sexuality in the only ways that they can; and that sexual legislation is a constant battle to maintain power by the powerful against the interests of the weak.

The tradable value of good-looking women is accommodated by business and elite politics. Attempts to restrict the sexuality of the 'ordinary'(as attempts to diminish 'ordinary sexuality' through contempt or shame) is matched by an environment in which beauty and sexuality is spread across our media and in our streets as a means of 'selling' goods and services. It is not the oppression by men of women as a class that is the issue but that of all by an elite of collaborating men and women who control what is permissible or not permissible in sexual relations.

This is why she presents Paris Hilton as a revolutionary figure ... hold it, did I just write that. Yes, I did. I have thought it before [I initially explored this two years ago at http://timinlondon.gaia.com/blog/2007... ] and she explains why ...

"She [Paris Hilton:] belongs to the historical class that has always had the right to create scandal, the right not to conform to the rules that govern the masses. Over and above being a woman, subject to the male gaze, she is a socialite queen, and as such able to deflect the judgement of the less privileged. This indicates that the only way of getting rid of the sacrificial ritual of porn would be to bring in high society girls. When the censorship imposed by society's leaders is destroyed, what collapses is the moral order built on the exploitation of the masses ... In the end, we are all enslaved, our sexualities confiscated, policed and normalised."

We might reflect on this being a pop version of Foucault or suggest that this belongs to the minority left-libertarian sport of believing that sexuality is the key to a wider revolution or even reflect on Lenin's observation that one of the three pre-conditions of revolution is a split in the ruling order .... and, yes, sometimes the left critique of Despentes does sometimes seem over the top ... but she does argue in very simple terms, away from the turgid intellectualism of the Left Bank, who the victims are of our current attitudes to gender relations.

They are the vast mass of the population on the one hand, including men themselves, and those women engaged in complex patterns of prostitution at multiple levels including those that turn allegedly respectable women into agents of oppression against their own sex.

She is not arguing against 'prostitution' like the earlier feminists but for the recognition of 'prostitution' as intrinsic to women's condition. I would argue that it is intrinsic to the male condition insofar as the labour value in body and brain of men is equally prostituted on a daily basis. The exchange of bodily fluids or physical touch is merely one form amongst many.

An essential humanity burns through the aggressive rage in these pages. For example, her description of the men she slept with as a part-time and occasional prostitute rings true. These are men who crave connection and who create a narrative of responsibility and sadness around the prostitute, a 'lost girl' myth of a woman who actually prefers earning money this way to stacking shelves or sitting behind a desk for hours.

A prostitute is, more often than not, not the drug-crazed trafficked innocent imported to meet the narrative needs of politicians but, literally, a working girl with an eye to the main chance. The suspicion is that the super-structure of authority wants working girls out of sight because of their threat to cheap labour for supermarkets and offices and the fact that they offer an alternative sexuality that just might make some people happier in their lives in 'unacceptable' ways.

Action to control prostitution (like the Single Market's effects on labour) destroys semi-stable communities and creates the very conditions for the importation of trafficked innocents. Government is out of control at a higher level than sexuality and it is using excuses to reassert its authority at the lowest level possible - by targeting the girls who can't fight back and punters who live in self-imposed 'shame' because of 'convention'.

But her strongest passages are on rape where she speaks from experience. She writes of the damage it did to her but also of her refusal to let it define her subsequent existence (although, in fact, it has, as the very fact of writing 'Baise-Moi' testifies).

Rape, especially in the underclass is probably a hell of a lot more common than any of us likes to admit. It probably cannot be policed without threatening the very basis of our liberal commitment to standards of proof. One solution is that women scuttle back into their holes - Despentes rejects that and so should all of us:

" ... as soon as you name your rape as a rape, the women-controlling mechanisms sudenly swing into action: do you want everyone to know what happened to you? Do you want everyone to see you as a woman who has been subject to that?"

So another solution is that we remove the shame surrounding rape (the vicious 'she-had-it-coming' argument of ancient crusty judges in the past) and start talking about it. Her robust determination is that the subject be faced head-on and be used as a tool for strengthening the rights of woman to demand freedom.

This approach might be equally applied to those abused as children or abused in any way, male or female. Victims need to be allowed not only to speak of their experiences but to do so so that 'good' men start to act against the rapists in their midst. At a certain point, a balance will set in - a man will say, "I am not a rapist, so stop preaching at me but I know it is wrong and I will collaborate in stamping it out through my male networks'.

How many group rapes would have been stopped if just one in a group stood up and said that it was wrong or if a single rapist was faced by the prospect of long term male peer disapproval? Yet how can males fully understand the wrong in the abstract when the two sexes are kept so separated and placed in relations that discourage normal, negotiated sex between equals (or even with benefits exchanged where situations are not equal).

So this book, despite its flaws, is strongly recommended if only for creating a tough feminist framework which intelligent men can relate to. OK, so sometimes her toughness turns into a slightly silly contempt for the male in a rant at the end ... a strong male should just let her lose it for a while and smile.

There is no value in the struggle of both men and women for liberation if men get all soft and turn into guilt-ridden jelly - few women want that in any case. Any healthy relationship likes a fight over boundaries and, in case you had not noticed, men and women are different. Struggle is good.
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