Berkowitz, D (2006) 'Consuming Eroticism. Gender Performances and Presentations in Pornographic Establishments', in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35 (5): 583 -- 606.
This is in a photographic study of an adult novelty store noting how the customers behave in terms of gender performances. The adult store is a unique setting in that it combines the private and personal with public interaction.
There is also a notion that 'erotic reality' is a distinct sphere compared with everyday reality, with individuals alternating between the two. Entrance into an adult store permits entry into an erotic reality while avoiding some of the consequences in terms of acquiring a deviant stigma -- it offers a way of entering and leaving erotic reality without too much personal commitment. Inside, adult novelty stores are highly sexualized, with 'ultramasculine and ultrafeminine imagery' (584), although there is also material catering for lesbians [and male consumers of lesbianism] and male gays. The material leaves no room for ambiguity when it comes to the awareness of gender .
Interactions between customers and other customers or between customers and storekeepers involved definite 'presentations of self to create desired interactions' (585), so that Goffman's work is important to understand them. Other studies have examined the bookstores and peepshows, and discovered unusual behaviour -- publicly heterosexual men 'engaged in sex with other men (Tewksbury 1993)' (585).
This study assumes that gender is accomplished or performed, through activities that express 'masculine and feminine natures (West and Zimmerman 1987)' (586). Gender is therefore embedded in interaction -- 'within interactions, individuals produce, reproduce, sustain, legitimate, and sometimes challenge the social meanings accorded to gender' (586). Culturally sanctioned forms of femininity and masculinity are referred to as 'emphasized', following Connell. For women, it involves demonstrations of '"compliance, merchants and empathy and is "linked with the private realm of the home and the bedroom" (Connell 1987)' (586). For men, the sexual conquest of women is important in gaining the approval of other men. In hegemonic masculinity, gay men are treated as inferior, through 'political and cultural exclusion, legal and illegal violence, and verbal homophobic attacks (Connell 1995)' (587). Rich sees heterosexuality as an institution designed to preserve male privilege -- 'Compulsory heterosexuality is the assumption that heterosexuality is normal and universal (Rich 1980)' (587).
The study draws upon Goffman and the notion of impression management, and especially the concept of 'the front', a performance intended to define the situation for observers. Such fronts are often based on previous experience, and performers have to practise been ordered to be consistent, especially in harmonizing verbal discourses and 'non-verbal embodied cues' (588) It is these self presentations of gender which are to be studied.
Participant-observation was accomplished in an adult centre. The setting of the centre permits fairly anonymous entrance and exit for the customers. Once inside, an array of sex toys, novelty items, pornographic videos, and fetish wear is on display. The researcher simply walked around the centre and observed, having got permission to do so, and wrote up her notes immediately afterwards. Data were coded in accordance with grounded theory -- that is 'open coding' came first, attempting to regroup observations and concepts together, and these were gradually refined into core categories. The researcher describes herself 'as a young female', and discusses throughout the [surely strong] possibility that her presence actually affected behaviour, especially in making some of the male customers nervous. She also admits that her interests in gender and sexuality affected her coding and observations, and advocates studies undertaken by other researchers to correct these influences.
Customers were categorised as 'solo men, solo women, all women group, and mixed gender group' (592). Berkowitz saw no examples of all-male groups. She also witnessed some couples, but is reserving analysis of their interactions for another study.
Detailed descriptions of the findings appear 593 -- 602. Highlights include observing solo men who tended either to enter specifically to purchase or rent a pornographic video, and did so simply as if they were producing any other commodity. Others purchased routine commodities, such as condoms, and smuggled in more deviant purchases Other solo men appeared as 'petrified patrons', nervously browsing and often leaving empty handed [especially when being viewed by a young woman?]. Such nervousness and shame is far from the hegemonic masculine ideal, of course, and they certainly did not boast about sexual conquests. Solo women, by contrast seemed much more at ease with their sexuality, and were able to discuss the pros and cons of vibrators quite openly, for example. Women in groups tended to offer 'emphasized femininity',, displaying much more conventional responses, including blushing and giggling, a result of the 'pressure of the female gaze coupled with culturally imposed ideals of how women should behave' (599).
One group of women were able to display a more open stance towards their own sexuality, but Berkowitz thinks a more explicit sexuality might have come from the 'low income girls of colour' (599) who made up half the group. Nevertheless, her observations lead to the view that first, 'Internalized norms of femininity are not as deeply ingrained as many posit', and, second, 'some women might actively police themselves to act in accordance with emphasized notions of femininity when in the presence of their female friends and the accompanying female gaze' (598). Berkowitz also recorded one episode when women were stigmatizing other women for being 'too sexy' in being prepared to purchase some of the equipment.
Mixed gender groups apparently offered the males a chance to engage in emphasized masculinity, displaying 'ultramasculine and homophobic behaviour' (600). These men did loudly boast of their sexual exploits and conformed in other ways to 'idealized versions of masculinity' (601). In some cases, this took the form of expressing repugnance at the gay pornography on display. The women in mixed groups modified their gendered behaviour towards more conventional [calm, quietly critical, 'caring'] roles with these men.
Overall, methodological flaws are clearly identified, both in the choice of this particular centre, in a college town, and in relying upon one young female ethnographer. However, something has been learned about gender performances, especially with women who have been relatively unresearched. In particular, the question arises about how men and women are able relatively to escape hegemonic masculinity in such settings. It could be that adults stores are seen as anonymous settings, or it could be that they are seen as deviant locations, permitting individuals to 'act in ways that defy norms associated with gendered expectations', and 'perform gender in atypical ways that would by and large not be tolerated in another environment' (604). [This seems to support the libertarian case that all conventional identities fall away in the face of open sexuality]. These results show that gender is a social construction, and that 'individual creativity can redefine the social situation' (604).
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