Laura Kipnis’ Bound and Gagged dares to deconstruct the most reviled sub-genre of popular culture by looking into the dark heart of pornography and exposing the hypocrisy that lies within our attitudes about sex and porn. She not only takes porn and sexuality seriously as a cultural form but manages to make some sense out of some of the seemingly senseless fetishes and obsessions that haunt the modern American male (and to a lesser degree the modern American female.)
One of the most striking things about Kipnis’ book in comparison with other academic tomes on pornography is that you get the sense that she has actually sat down and watched and read a fair amount of pornographic material. Kipnis doesn’t flinch as she talks about child molesters, fat fetishists, sadomasochism, and the cultural weight of the latest issue of Hustler magazine. Yet, while her ruminations often border on becoming their own perverse form of erotica, you never get the sense that she derived any particular pleasure from her viewings. (A distinct advantage that a woman dealing with this material has over a man. A man writing serious criticism of pornography would automatically be assumed to be a voyeur at the least, a fan at the worst.)
The book is at its strongest when Kipnis deals with the hypocritical attitudes of our society toward the slightly more perverse forms of pornography and human sexuality. Her chapter on ‘Life in the Fat Lane’ expertly skewers contemporary bigotry toward people who think that “fat” and “sexy” can be uttered in the same sentence. Kipnis points out that magazines which feature photographs of overweight models in not terribly revealing lingerie are actually considered by most of society (and by professional pornographers) to be a more hard-core type of porn than far more explicit images of slim women. An obsession with fat bodies is considered a “fetish” because it falls outside the normally acceptable boundaries of human sexuality. Kipnis recognizes that such a ghettoization of fat and fat admirers makes this a political, as well as a sexual issue.
Kipnis also devotes a long section of the book to the life and loves of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. The chapter gives a detailed account of the pornographer’s seamy life while exhibiting a grudging respect for the utter single-mindedness of Flynt’s obsessive bad taste. Kipnis acknowledges Flynt’s repeated defenses of the first amendment in the name of porn but recognizes that his pure joy in repeatedly shocking the sexual sensibilities of Middle America was the more powerful political message.
In the conclusion of the book, Kipnis dismisses the reactive positions of Andrea Dworkin and her followers (who insist all pornography is a hate-crime against women) and demands that we actually look at what fascinates and repels us about sex and consequently porn. Her conclusions are infinitely more powerful and informative than any of Dworkin’s rants about the evils of porn. By forcing us to face our fears and our foibles Kipnis has created an insightful cultural analysis of a billion-dollar industry that most critics won’t even acknowledge as existing.