Blow bangs and cluster bombs: The cruelty of men and Americans
By Robert Jensen
Published in feminista · July, 2002
[An edited version of this essay appeared in Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography, edited by Christine Stark, Rebecca Whisnant, published by Spinifex Press, 2005. https://www.spinifexpress.com.au/shop/p/9781876756499]
During the Gulf War, the U.S. military kept tight control of journalists, to make sure that an already timid news media had no room to move. Copy had to be cleared by military censors, allegedly for security reasons, though the main fears of politicians and military officers concerning journalists always are political, not military.
One of the facts initially censored from a journalist’s report during that war was that on the USS John F. Kennedy, pilots watched pornographic movies before flying missions, apparently to help get them pumped up to drop bombs. The censor told the journalist that the facts were too embarrassing to allow to be published.
Embarrassing, but instructive: Pornography and war are not the same endeavor, but the mass-mediated misogyny of modern pornography and the high-tech brutality of modern war share a common cruelty. Men pop a tape in a VCR. Men pop into jet planes. Men ejaculate onto women’s faces. Bombs fall to the ground. Aggression is normalized.
My political life for the past dozen years has been anchored in resistance to the pornography of men and the wars of the United States, the struggle against patriarchy and empire. That means my life has been saturated with images of cruelty, from the intimate to the global.
“Blow Bang #4” is a videotape made and sold in America. It is a videotape that American men watch and masturbate to. It consists of eight different scenes in which a woman kneels in the middle of a group of three to eight men and performs oral sex on them. At the end of each scene, each of the men ejaculates onto the woman’s face or into her mouth. The copy on the video box describes it this way: “Dirty little bitches surrounded by hard throbbing cocks … and they like it.”
In one of these scenes, a young woman dressed as a cheerleader is surrounded by six men. For about seven minutes, “Dynamite” (the name she gives on tape) methodically moves from man to man while they offer insults such as, “you little cheerleading slut.”
“… and they like it.”
For another minute and a half, she sits upside down on a couch, her head hanging over the edge, while men thrust into her mouth, causing her to gag.
“… and they like it.”
She strikes the pose of the bad girl to the end. “You like coming on my pretty little face, don’t you,” she says, as they ejaculate on her face and in her mouth for the final two minutes of the scene. Five men have finished. The sixth steps up. As she waits for him to ejaculate onto her face, now covered with semen, she closes her eyes tightly and grimaces. For a moment, her face changes; it is impossible to know exactly what she is feeling, but it looks as if she is going to cry.
“… and they like it.”
After the last man ejaculates, she regains her composure and smiles. The off-camera narrator hands her the pom-pom she had been holding at the beginning of the tape and says, “Here’s your little cum mop, sweetheart — mop up.” She buries her face in the pom-pom. The screen fades, and she is gone.
I watched “Blow Bang #4” as part of a project to analyze the content of contemporary pornographic videos. After several months, most of the images from those videos had faded from my mind. The one image I could not get rid of was Dynamite’s face right before Man #6 ejaculates onto her face.
“Blow Bang #4” is one of about 11,000 new hardcore pornographic videos released in 2001, one of 720 million tapes rented in a country where total pornographic video sales and rentals total about $4 billion annually. When I watched #4, there were six tapes in the “Blow Bang” series. Ten months later, as I write this, there are 15.
Why so successful? “If you love seeing one girl sucking on a bunch of cocks at one time, then this is the series for you,” a reviewer says. “The camera work is great.”
The CBU-87, or cluster bomb, is made in America. It is a bomb that U.S. pilots have dropped from U.S. planes over Southeast Asia, Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan.
Each cluster bomb contains 202 individual bomblets (BLU-97/B). The CBU-87s are a combined effects munition; each bomblet has an anti-tank and anti-personnel effect, as well as an incendiary capability. The bomblets from each CBU-87 are typically distributed over an area roughly 100 x 50 meters, though the exact landing area of the bomblets is difficult to control.
As the soda can-sized bomblets fall, a spring pushes out a nylon “parachute” (called the decelerator), which inflates to stabilize and arm the bomblet. The BLU-97 is packed in a steel case with an incendiary zirconium ring. The case is made of scored steel designed to break into approximately 300 preformed thirty-grain fragments upon detonation of the internal explosive. The fragments travel at extremely high speeds in all directions, the primary anti-personnel effect of the weapon. Anti-personnel means that the steel shards will shred anyone in the vicinity.
The primary anti-armor effect comes from a molten copper slug. If the bomblet has been properly oriented, the downward-firing charge travels at 2,570 feet per second and can penetrate most armored vehicles. The zirconium ring spreads small incendiary fragments. The charge has the ability to penetrate 5 inches of armor. The tiny steel case fragments are also powerful enough to damage light armor and trucks at 50 feet, and to cause human injury at 500 feet. The incendiary ring can start fires in any combustible environment.
Human Rights Watch, the source for this description, has called for a global moratorium on use of cluster bombs because of the unacceptable civilian casualties the weapons cause. Those casualties come partly in combat, because the munitions have a wide dispersal pattern and cannot be targeted precisely, making them especially dangerous when used near civilian areas.
But even more deadly is the way in which cluster bombs don’t work. The official initial failure-to-explode rate for the bomblets is 5 to 7 percent, though some demining workers estimate up to 20 percent do not explode. That means in each cluster bomb from 10 to 40 of the bomblets fail to explode on contact, becoming landmines that can be set off by a simple touch. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 1,600 Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians have been killed, and another 2,500 injured, by the estimated 1.2 million cluster bomb duds left after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
What does that mean in real terms? It means that Abdul Naim’s father is dead. The family’s fields in the village of Rabat, a half hour from Herat in western Afghanistan, were sown with cluster bombs, some of the 1,150 reportedly used in Afghanistan. Some of the farmers tried to clear their fields; some of them died trying. Naim told a reporter that out of desperation his father finally decided to take the chance. Using a shovel, the farmer cast three bomblets aside successfully. The fourth exploded. The shrapnel caught him in the throat. [Suzanne Goldenberg, “Long after the air raids, bomblets bring more death,” Guardian (UK), January 28, 2002, p. 12.]
Or consider this testimony from a 13-year-old boy in Kosovo: “I went with my cousins to see the place where NATO bombed. As we walked I saw something yellow — someone told us it was a cluster bomb. One of us took it and put it into a well. Nothing happened… We began talking about taking the bomb to play with and then I just put it somewhere and it exploded. The boy near me died and I was thrown a meter into the air. The boy who died was 14 — he had his head cut off.” The 13-year-old lived, but with both his legs amputated. [Richard Norton-Taylor, “Cluster Bombs: The Hidden Toll,” Manchester Guardian (UK), August 2, 2000.]
Why does the U.S. military continue to use cluster bombs? According to Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “We only use cluster munitions when they are the most effective weapon for the intended target.”
Patriarchy and empire
What do blow bangs and cluster bombs have in common? On the surface, very little; pornography and war are different endeavors with different consequences. In pairing them, I am not making some overarching claim about the connection between patriarchy and empire.
But I can say this: To be effective, contemporary mass-marketed pornography and modern war both require cruelty and contempt. The pornography I watched in the summer of 2001 was about the cruelty of men and men’s contempt for women. The war I watched in the fall of 2001 was about the cruelty of Americans and Americans’ contempt for people in other parts of the world.
Although I have been involved in intellectual and political work around both issues for more than a decade, I was surprised at how strong my emotional reactions were to both the pornography and the war, and how similar they were — just how deep the sadness went.
Pornography and war
Pornography and the wars of the U.S. empire both depend for their success on the process of rendering human beings less-than-fully-human so they can be hurt — in the case of pornography to provide pleasure for men, and in war to protect the comfort of Americans. Women can be denigrated to provide sexual pleasure for men. A few thousand Afghan civilians can be sacrificed to protect the affluence of Americans.
I am against pornography and against the wars of empire. This confuses some of my left-wing allies, who also oppose the war but think pornography is about sexual freedom, and therefore wonder if I am a closet conservative. It also confuses some of my right-wing opponents, who cheer on the war but think all lefties are pro-pornography, and therefore wonder if I am a closet conservative.
I am not a conservative, closeted or otherwise. I simply do not accept the liberal/libertarian assertion that pornography is about sexual freedom nor the conventional wisdom that the United States goes to war for freedom.
A more compelling explanation of contemporary mass-marketed pornography is the radical feminist critique, which emerged from the wider movement against sexual violence in the late 1970s. The previous moral debate about obscenity between liberals and conservatives had pitted the critics of “dirty pictures” against the defenders of “sexual liberation.” The feminist critics shifted the discussion to the ways in which pornography eroticizes domination and subordination, how it reflects and helps maintain the second-class social status of women.
A more compelling explanation of the war in Afghanistan is the critique of the U.S. empire. Terrorism is a serious problem, one that deserves serious attention from U.S. policymakers, but the conflict in Afghanistan is not primarily a war on terrorism. A serious attempt to solve the problem of terrorism would be multilateral and sophisticated, attending to the need to bring terrorists to justice through legal means and also the need for a more just U.S. foreign policy to make future terrorism less likely. Instead, the policy of the Bush administration, with the support of most of Congress, is unilateral and crude. It will not eliminate terrorist networks nor change the conditions in which terrorism breeds. It is, instead, an attempt by the most powerful nation on earth to extend and deepen its dominance in the world, toward the goal of guaranteeing that a small segment of the population can continue to enrich themselves and a larger segment can continue to live in relative affluence.
A common rebuttal to these positions is that sex in natural and conflict is inevitable. That is true enough, and beside the point. Sexuality and conflict are unavoidably part of being human. But blow bangs and cluster bombs are not. Those are choices about how to deal with sexuality and conflict. Blow bangs and cluster bombs are neither natural nor inevitable.
It is true that both blow bangs and cluster bombs — pornography and the wars of empire — work. That is, they achieve certain results. Pornography produces sexual pleasure. Wars of empire protect the affluence of the empire. It is unclear how long they can work, whether sexual pleasure through pornography or affluence through the wars of empire can be sustained indefinitely. But that they work in the short term is undeniable. Men watch pornography and masturbate to orgasm. The United States fights wars and maintains its economic dominance.
But at what cost?
The radical feminist critique of pornography has identified the cost of pornography to women and children, including the harm to the women and children who are used in the production of pornography, who have pornography forced on them, and who are sexually assaulted by men who use pornography. More generally, there is the harm that comes from living in a culture in which pornography reinforces and sexualizes women’s subordinate status.
Right now, law ignores most of those harms and attempts to address others. But the realities of power and male dominance mean that even the laws that exist do very little in practice to stop the systematic abuse of women and children.
The costs of war are even more obvious, as we see images from the battlefield on television and in the newspapers. We also should understand that war not only brings immediate death but a more widespread suffering long after the battles are over. The combination of high-tech weapons, television, and Pentagon PR have allowed Americans to ignore the obvious, to believe the suffering in war is limited. So, the United States can violate the Geneva Conventions with impunity — officials illegally target civilian infrastructure (such as they did in Iraq, destroying water and sewage treatment facilities and electrical stations, the direct cause of tens of thousands of deaths during and in the few months after the war) and use indiscriminate tactics and weapons (such as depleted-uranium weapons in Iraq and Yugoslavia, the long-term health effects of which remain unknown). For this, the officials are applauded in the mainstream for their humanitarianism.
Men who use pornography want to believe that pornography is natural and inevitable so that they don’t face the obvious question: By what right do I gain pleasure at the expense of others? Americans protecting their affluence want to believe that the wars of empire are natural and inevitable so that they don’t face the obvious question: By what right do I live so comfortably at the expense of others?
Sexuality is natural and conflict is inevitable. How we deal with sexuality and conflict involves choices. We could choose to create a sexuality rooted in an egalitarian ethic of mutuality and respect. We could choose to create a world order rooted in an egalitarian ethic of mutuality and respect. In such a world, blow bangs and cluster bombs would not exist.
The costs of pornography and the wars of empire are borne mainly by those in the subordinated position. But there is a cost to those of us in the dominant position, not on the same scale, but a cost all the same:
When men make the choice to acquire sexual pleasure through blow bangs, we forgo part of our humanity. When Americans make the choice to protect their affluence through cluster bombs, we forgo part of our humanity.
Both of those claims are based on specific ideas about what it means to be a human being, ideas that are very much at odds with patriarchy and the empire.
Not blow bangs
In the sexual sphere, I am suggesting that being human is about something more than physical pleasure.
This is not an argument for self-denial or for some traditional notion of sexuality within conventional heterosexual relationships. I am neither a sexual ascetic nor a sexual fundamentalist. I do not believe there is anything wrong with physical pleasure, nor do I believe that physical pleasure can properly be experienced only between two people of the opposite sex who are married.
But I do believe that sexuality can be about more than pleasure. It can be about finding pleasure and intimacy through connection. I use the metaphor of heat and light. There is a cliche that when an argument is of little value, it produces more heat than light. One of the ways this culture talks about sex is in terms of heat: She’s hot, he’s hot, we had hot sex. Sex is bump-and-grind; heat makes the sex good.
But what if our embodied connections could be less about heat and more about light? What if instead of desperately seeking hot sex, we searched for a way to produce light when we touch? What if such touch were about finding a way to create light between people so that we could see ourselves and each other better? If the goal is knowing ourselves and each other like that, then what we need is not heat but light to illuminate the path. How do we touch and talk to each other to shine that light? There are lots of ways to produce light in the world, and some are better than others. Light that draws its power from rechargeable solar cells, for example, is better than light that draws on throw-away batteries. Likewise, there will be lots of ways to imagine sex that produces that light. Some will be better than others, depending on the values on which they are based.
So, here’s my pitch to men: Even if we have no concern for anyone else, the short-term physical pleasure we gain through pornography is going to cost us something; we lose opportunities for something more. Heat is gained, but light is lost.
I believe men — even the most boisterous macho men posturing about sexual conquests — understand that at some level. We understand that the acquisition of that kind of physical pleasure at the expense of women also comes at the expense of our own humanity. I am not just generalizing from my own experience; this is a consistent theme in my exchanges with men, both in formal research interviews and informal conversation. When most of us strip away our sexual bravado, there is a yearning for something beyond the quick pleasures of the pornographic.
During a discussion of sexual experiences, I once heard a man say, “There is no such thing as a bad orgasm.” I assume that he meant getting off was getting off — no matter what the circumstances or methods, it was always good. But I want to believe that underneath that flippant remark, he knew better.
That is to say: I believe we men can be human beings, too.
Not cluster bombs
In the social sphere, I am suggesting there is something more to being human than protecting affluence.
Most people in the United States take for granted a standard of living that the vast majority of the world can barely imagine and can never expect to enjoy. Most of us can recite the figure that the United States is about 5 percent of the world’s population yet we consume about 25 percent of the world’s oil and 30 percent of the gross world product. But relatively few want to understand the relationship between that affluence and foreign policy and military intervention.
A clear statement of the connection came in February 1948 in a top-secret U.S. State Department document, Policy Planning Staff memorandum 23, which defined U.S. post-war policy in Asia, focusing in particular on Japan and the Philippines. George Kennan, the first director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, wrote:
“We [Americans] have 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of the population. This disparity is particularly great between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.”
For Americans to live our level of affluence, people around the world (and an increasingly large number of people in the United States) must suffer some level of deprivation. There is no other way to maintain the position of disparity.
Yet all the while that we are living that affluence and accepting the imperial system that guarantees it, we also are talking about how materialism is negatively affecting our lives. People can see themselves trapped in the endless cycle of making money to finance a lifestyle that gives them the luxuries to make bearable the work they do to earn the money to maintain the lifestyle. Parents give their children every possible electronic amusement device, and then lament their children’s lack of interest in something beyond the screen. We accept a consumer culture that produces households that eliminate the possibility of meaningful interaction among members of the household, and then we wonder why our houses full of so many products feel so empty.
So, here’s my pitch to Americans: Affluence has made us comfortable. It also has cut us off from certain kinds of experiences; it has enriched us in one sense while impoverishing us in a much more important way. What we have gained in the short run will be balanced by a catastrophic loss in the long run.
I believe that Americans — even people who claim to love their wealth and status without question — understand that at some level. We understand that the truism “money can’t buy happiness” is indeed true, and when we deny that not only do vulnerable people around the world suffer, but we lose something as well. If we are willing to accept that suffering simply to indulge and insulate ourselves, we lose our humanity.
After a talk I gave about U.S. policy in the Middle East, a man came up to argue. He said bluntly that he thought the United States should dominate the region to make sure that we would always control the world’s oil supplies. I asked what he was willing to do to ensure that — would he be willing to use massive force? “Nuke ‘em,” he said. I assume that he meant in the end, force was the only way to protect affluence, and affluence had to be protected. But I want to believe that underneath that flippant remark, he knew better.
That is to say: I believe that we Americans can be human beings, too.
Justice and self-interest
I think there are clear arguments from justice for rejecting mass-marketed pornography and the wars of empire. But I know that such arguments are not persuasive for everyone, which is why I also am suggesting there are compelling arguments from self-interest — if we can go beyond very narrow understandings of self-interest and embrace a fuller and richer conception of our own humanity. When I say that we men and Americans can be human beings, that is what I mean — for people with power and privilege to become fully human, we must imagine a different kind of self-interest.
The traditional traits associated with masculinity in this culture are domination, toughness, hyper-competitiveness, emotional repression, aggressiveness, and violence. That also describes the posture of the United States in the world. In both cases, there is sometimes a veneer of kindness. In gender relations it is called chivalry. In world affairs it is called humanitarianism. In both cases, it is a cover for maintaining control. In both cases, we must abandon the veneer and honestly face a simple question: What kind of people are we when we allow pleasures and comforts not only to trump the cries of others but also to drown our own humanity?
The paradox is that those of us in positions of privilege and power — those who may seem most likely to want to keep the systems as it is — have the material resources to create the conditions under which truly progressive change can happen. We can refuse to continue to exercise that power in unjust ways and resist those who exercise that power in our name.
Here, again, is the pitch: Letting go of power and privilege — forgoing some of the material rewards that come with them — offers other rewards. Letting go of blow bangs creates the space in which a new intimacy and sexuality can flourish. Letting go of cluster bombs creates the space in which we can rethink our own affluence and allow new relationships between people to emerge. In both cases, the rejection of domination also has an intrinsic reward at the moral level. That reward is routinely ignored or laughed off as being ridiculously idealistic. When such rewards are talked about at all in the dominant culture, they are usually framed in terms of an afterlife, in a spiritual realm. But they are very much the rewards of this earth, rewards of mind and body, and if they are to be enjoyed they must be made real here and now.
Pornography and the wars of empire are based on the idea that domination is natural and inevitable. I am anti-pornography and anti-war because I believe that domination is a choice, the rewards of which are seductive but in the end illusory. I believe that love, compassion, and solidarity can anchor our lives at every level, from the intimate to the global.
I also believe that to build a world based on love, compassion, and solidarity, we who have privilege and power must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves and each other, in ways that will undoubtedly seem harsh and cause us great pain. We may wish there was another way out, but the lesson of my life is that there is no other path. The most important choice we have to make is to step onto that path, understandably afraid of where it may lead but safe in the knowledge that along the way we can find our own humanity.