I’ve been rethinking some of my ideas about Arthur Munby since I got a copy of Barry Reay’s Watching Hannah. For one thing, I found out that Munby did in fact write about switching in his scenes with Hannah Cullwick in his journals.
I have an urge to defend Munby against the criticisms of writers like Reay and Anne McClintock. He wasn’t that bad a guy, I think, and compared to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch or “Walter” from My Secret Life, he was a mensch.
On the other hand, reading this disturbing profile on Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis made me think about Munby. As Susie Bright put it:
Many parent-types have asked, “Why are we at a place where the only way a young woman thinks she can be important or meaningful is to take her top off for a creep’s camcorder?”
But many feminist daughter-types have countered, “It’s not the topless part that’s the problem, it’s the exploitation by this prick. If the women took their tops off for their own movie, their own orgasm, and their own point of view, it would be a completely other story.”
I identify with both sentiments. I made a lot of DIY “feminist porn” with my friends when we were young, and never had a single regret, nor would I ever say that “it was all a blur.” On the contrary, we had wildly ambitious goals about what we wanted to say about our bodies and desires. I still do.
Francis’ dirtiest secret is that he traffics in porno-puritanism, in sexual shame. His profit lies in young women snookered into doing something “shameful” that they will want to hide the rest of their lives— once they sober up. They have been ruined— the ultimate GGW turn-on. It’s the frisson of humiliation that makes him, and his audience, hard.
And why, pray tell, is ruination the hottest American Fantasy du Jour?
Francis manhandles the female reporter, then turns on a dime into a sweet talker. Francis’ involvement goes well beyond getting twentysomething girls to flash their boobs on camera. His fantasy narrative seems to be something like: Good girl goes to party, has a little too much to drink, starts acting like a bad girl, gets captured on camera flashing her tits or making out with the girlfriend, and (this is the important part) regrets it later. Without the regret, without the idea that the girl has fallen/jumped/been pushed out of her comfort zome, there’s no appeal for him. Professional models and career party girls who approach Francis leave him cold; there’s no potential for shame or guilt. He’s reminiscent of Sade, writing that there could be no volunteers at the castle in 120 Days of Sodom.
Francis still believes in good girls and bad girls, but he wants to see good girls acting like bad girls, and tearfully lamenting it the next day. That’s his fantasy script, and I don’t think it could be reconciled with consensuality. If she knows what she’s doing, it’s no good.
Munby was fascinated by the idea that no matter how rough and dirty and masculinized a working woman was on the outside, she retained ideal feminine characteristics on the inside. He convinced himself that Cullwick, because of her facial features, had noble ancestry, but was forced by circumstances to do the lowest forms of physical labor. That’s Munby’s fantasy script. Women who were too sexually knowing or aggressive turned him off, as did women who were ladies in appearance and attitude.
I don’t think either of these guys could conceivably settle into the negotiation and consent culture of BDSM. They need the real world power differential, which Munby has by dint of social class and Francis by dint of wealth and fame, and both have because of gender.
I like Munby enough to say that he might be able to step back a little, but I realize that’s wishful thinking. His desires were so specific in their object, and their social/historical context, that it’s unlikely he could be brought into the fold of modern BDSM.