As you know if you’ve been reading my stuff regularly, I recently read Grayson Perry’s autobiography. He’s very frank about the sexual element in his image, and completely owns that. He specifically says that he is sexually aroused by the feeling of being humiliated by, as he sees it, dressing as a woman. Of course, to me that has no meaning as such because I go much more by Eddie Izzard’s idea that they’re not women’s clothes, they’re mine. That means that the person who owns them is gendered correctly for them. However, in spite of recent moves on my part to merge my blogs, I won’t be talking about that today, but something far, far less wholesome.
There are certain people who express their sexuality publicly, and depending on what it is and how they do it, it can be positive or negative. It’s also important not to kink-shame. The idea of kink-criticality is intuitively completely unacceptable to me, which isn’t the same as saying it’s okay to act it out publicly for all to witness. That said, I don’t see that Grayson Perry has any reason not to do so. Although he could be seen as co-opting other people’s disgust or other feelings for his own sexual gratification without consent, the fact is there is a whole load of stuff out there which people have no control over on either side. And I do say people, because I don’t think it’s gendered. That said, there is something very stereotypically masculine about John Norman’s writing, more specifically his ‘Gor’ series, which he began in 1966 CE. The date, I think, is significant, but let’s introduce the guy first, eh?
John Norman is the pen name of the philosopher John Frederick Lange Jr, born 1931 and therefore now around ninety and still writing. His doctoral dissertation was a defence of naturalistic ethics, which he summed up in an interview as:
“if one cannot make sense of morality within some sort of satisfying, natural context, then one is likely to end up with no morality, which is less than societally reassuring, or is likely to end up with a competitive plethora of moralities in which ninety-nine percent of the world’s population is convinced that the other ninety-nine percent is unclean, stupid, uninformed, vicious, depraved, in need of coercive correction, and such. That too, seems less than reassuring.”– Interview with Simon Of Tabor, Polygraff Magazine, October 2010.
Norman is far better-known by his pseudonym and fiction writing than his work as a philosopher, but as a philosopher myself I do find it interesting that he is one. My general impression is that he’s influenced by a certain reading of Nietzsche and is also a fan of Ayn Rand, who herself has a fair bit in common with that same reading. I’m not sure if the above quote is enlightening as regards his Gor series or his psychology, but I think it is.
‘Gor’ is Norman’s chief claim to fame. Beginning in 1966 with ‘Tarnsman Of Gor’, he has written a total of around three dozen novels in this series, beginning with ‘Tarnsman Of Gor’. I find it slightly amusing that this is an anagram of ‘Transman Of Gor’, although I very much doubt he would have much sympathy with that idea. As a philosophy of life, the general idea of Gor is that women are naturally slaves and men naturally masters of those slaves, and this might make for a forgivable diverting fantasy for some, but unfortunately, although ideas expressed in fiction shouldn’t be equated with the actual beliefs of the author, in this case they do unfortunately seem to be, which accords fairly well with him being an Objectivist, if that’s what he is.
Norman describes Gor as “a thousand degrees north of monothink, a thousand degrees east of orthodoxy, a thousand degrees west of ideological conformity, a continent far from the placid waters of predictable mediocrity, a different world, one real, one like no other, one beyond the familiar world’s horizon, one emergent from far, tumultuous, untamed seas, a world alert to deep currents, which listens to secret whispers, which wears stars in her hair. The maps of ideologically servile cartographers may choose not to show the Gorean world, but it is there, a wonderful, forbidden continent. Some of you know her, and have been there.”
I feel we are in “sheeple” territory. The Gorean saga reminds me of two more recent happenings: the publication of the ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ series and the emergence of the people referred to as incels. Incels, or the “involuntarily celibate” have unfortunately spiralled down from what began as a female-led support group for lonely people regardless of gender who found it difficult to get into sexual relationships into an extremist terror-oriented ideology concerned with things like enslaving women and the compulsory confiscation of pre-teen girls after death for necrophiles. It all went horribly, horribly wrong. ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ is of course abuse masquerading as BDSM. Although it’s the contemporary version of the same phenomenon, it has its differences. On the whole, so far as I can tell, ‘Fifty Shades’ is about a fairly small group of people misunderstanding the nature of S&M relationships. The Gorean subculture is different. It’s a lot older than ‘Fifty Shades’ and is a little more like incels in that in its most literalist form it translates into an anti-feminist ideology. This is not meant to criticise anyone who truly went into it freely from the start, and this is where it gets difficult to interpret.
I’m interested in studying this phenomenon in the same way as I might be interested in studying neo-Nazis, but this presents me with a quandary: how to find out anything accurate about it without reading some of it. I don’t want to give money to a right-wing extremist, nor do I want to be publicly associated with Goreanism, but I still think it’s an interesting psychological condition. Therefore I ended up buying an ebook of ‘Tarnsman Of Gor’, thereby contributing money to the man, so I’d better make this worthwhile. It’s difficult to comment on something merely by heresay. But then I was confronted with another problem. How could I be said to have given his thought a fair chance if I just read the first novel? Nonetheless I don’t plan to go any further because there are moral limits and diminishing returns to these things. Therefore I’m going to confine myself to the first book and what I hear about and from the subculture.
The basic setting is entertaining and promising. Technologically advanced aliens have been kidnapping humans from Earth throughout history and depositing them on a Counter-Earth on the other side of the Sun. Once there, they control them by ensuring they don’t develop certain advanced forms of technology while furnishing them with others. They’re very much in the background although they do intervene to keep them in their technologically primitive state, about Bronze Age, and appear to be spying on them. Norman is on record as saying he regards Gor as a utopia and how humanity should be for real. I find it interesting that he uses the Counter-Earth scenario rather than putting it on a planet in another solar system, during a vanished age (like Conan The Barbarian) or an alternate history, because there can only be one Counter-Earth, and I think by doing this he’s saying that for us things can only be the way they are here or the way they are there. It also reminds me of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ politically because it’s an extremely reactionary view of essential human behaviour on a large scale. Both settings, though, have to engineer this in a quite contrived manner although I do have a lot more respect for Herbert’s writing. ‘Dune’ has the Butlerian Jihad to ensure artificial intelligence doesn’t interfere with his depiction, and also focusses on the “Great Man” Paul Atreides, who is like the Anti-Seldon to compare it with the Foundation Trilogy (and it is a trilogy lalalalalaiamnotlistening). Gor is much more contrived than even this, because it requires constant intervention to undercut human ingenuity and inventions but allows technology which supports the society in a way real Bronze Age societies couldn’t, such as eternal youth serums and reliable birth control. All of this is to support Norman’s sexual fantasising, and that in itself would be okay were it not for its content and the fact that he seems to have mistaken his personal tastes for something which can be applied to the whole human race. Either that or he needs to believe that for the sake of his sexual arousal, which in fact is similar to my mind to the idea of transvestic fetishism: men seem to need to believe there are separate categories of masculine and feminine clothing in order for it to turn them on, at least in the heat of the moment.
It’s a difficult read to be honest, but it’s also insidious. I feel like the initial setup is interesting but as a stage to explore something very different, and I don’t have anything in mind, than what he actually chose to do with it. It would’ve been fruitful to imagine a world on the other side of the Sun peopled by humans who had been abducted by aliens and left to their own devices, just to look at how things might have been otherwise, and there’s a polemic element to asserting the fictional existence of a single other world, bringing with it the connotations of it being the sole alternative to this one. Norman’s series is doing this, of course, but there’s more to life than this, and the idea that this is a utopia depends on a psychological theory which would probably make incels and fans of ‘Fifty Shades’ very happy, or at least one that they’d fervently nod along to.
The planet has a peasant economy and is broken up into small city states with disputed or unclaimed land between them. There is a caste system, but it isn’t completely closed, and members of the élite can decline into the lower ranks and the peasants can occasionally enter the higher castes. Although the powerful know the truth, such as the planet being round(ish), the peasants are told that it’s flat and generally have false information instilled in order to encourage them to adopt common sense prejudices and not to explore or enquire too much. Rulers are selected from the higher caste since it’s instilled in the peasants that the state would be ruined if it was ruled by one of their own. Dictators are taken from the military in wartime, and it’s part of their code that they surrender this position when war is at an end. I don’t know whether this is in fact shown to happen in any of the stories but it sounds exceedingly ripe for exploitation, with military dictators engineering constant war to stay in power for example. The warrior code, however, is very important. It occurs to me that what I’m describing is perhaps rather unlike a Randian social order because of the strong dictatorships.
This, though, is only the background to Norman’s more personal theory of gender, or probably sex, relationships. This involves slavery and mastership (is that a word?). Although there are free aristocratic, or rather high caste, women and male slaves, the emphasis is on enslaved women and men with power over them. If this stayed between the covers of a book series, it would’ve been okay, except that the chances are some people would’ve taken it too seriously and tried to apply it to their world. But they didn’t. It’s “out there”, so to speak. The source of unhappiness in the world is seen to be that women have false consciousness that they want to have control over their own lives, a station which is appropriate only to men, and that men have adopted an inappropriate slave mentality. Norman specifically advocates for rape as a good thing.
And yes, there is a Gorean subculture, alive and well in 2021 CE. This is where it gets complicated. It reminds me of “Christian Discipline”, which is found in the marriages of certain conservative Christians where the husband is considered the head of the household, practices financial abuse and domestic violence against the wife for what they see as disobedience. Many people suspect there is a sadistic element to this. The Gorean subculture is based on the books but has branched out, for instance into the virtual online community Second Life, but also as a 24/7 lifestyle for certain people. As an outsider to this particular variety of sexual culture, I find it very difficult to know what to say due to the lack of reliably accurate information. However, just as there is a #fiftyshadesisabuse hashtag, at least some of this seems to be along the same lines. It’s older, but has been encouraged by the growth of online access and interaction. This is not unique of course. There seems to be some kind of sex cult based on the 1994 Worlds Online MMO, i.e. what I think of as a Multi-User Dungeon, which seems to persist in the 2020s for this purpose, and I’m sure it’s not the only example. There is of course a difference between what people do online and what they do face to face or in physical reality, although the two are much closer to blending together than they used to be. How much time do I spend online? I don’t know, because for example I watch TV programmes through BBC iPlayer and streaming services rather than sitting in front of a CRT plugged into an aerial, which would nowadays just give me static anyway, and many people walk around with smartphones wherever they go nowadays, so the kind of activity which goes on in Second Life or other MUDs (or whatever they call them now) is also the kind of activity which goes on in everyday life. Online life just is everyday life today. Consequently some diffusion into meatspace is to be expected, probably depending on the character and psychology of people involved. That said, most people do distinguish between sexual fantasy and reality, although there may be side-effects from how good they are at suspending their disbelief. This is “read too much science fiction” territory too, since the Gor series is in a very loose sense SF.
Gor is sometimes said to have been plagiarised from ‘John Carter Of Mars’. Not having read that, I don’t know, but it is clearly the case that it fits into something like the Sword And Sorcery, or Sword And Planet, genre. These are also known as “Planetary Romance”, and in fact I think I’ll go with that. Some people would describe planetary romance as science fiction, but to me science fiction is fiction whose plot depends non-trivially upon the setting and planetary romance doesn’t do that. The nature of the alien world is not relevant to the plot, so there’s a degree of pointlessness and redundancy there. Anne McCaffrey’s dragon series is probably an example of that, and I consequently found them quite disappointing and only read a few chapters of one of them. Sword And Planet is a little different, and pre-dates the genreification, if that’s a word, of science fiction. One significant element of these is that melée weapons are important to the plot. For a start, the very fact that weapons are central and their use is depicted uncritically is problematic. It’s also one of the major things wrong with the idea of a light sabre and everything that follows from that. But my disdain for this particular genre could be partly snobbishness, and also rather silly considering that for many people who appreciate mainstream literature, science fiction is also in the outer darkness. There could also be an element of acting things out in one’s head because they shouldn’t be done in reality, which could be positive. I don’t know what to make of my fairly obsessive insistence on hardness in science fiction.
However, of course one of the issues with Gor in particular is that people do in fact apply it to their actual day-to-day lives, which to my mind kind of puts it in the same arena as religion or more widely shared cultural practices. It’s very difficult to work out the truth about the Gorean subculture for several reasons. One is that mass media, and here I include the likes of online sources such as Buzzfeed (I don’t actually know if they’ve covered it but they come to mind as an example of online media) will tend to sensationalise it. Another is that people within the culture will also tend to sensationalise it for their own titillation, so either self-reporting or media coverage has that filter to deal with too. Also, women who talk about it publicly may well be both atypical and in a small minority within the subculture, as to do so seems a little aberrant for their usual practices. They may also be saying what men want them to say. I’m acutely aware, as I write this, that nobody is “out” to me about being in the subculture and I am merely reporting from unreliable sources. For all I know, I could know people in this community but I don’t know how widespread it is or how much it’s likely to overlap with the circles I move in, or why it would or wouldn’t.
All that said, I can certainly present how it appears to manifest itself in the real world. The Gorean subculture centres on a superficially BDSM-like master-slave relationship with women in the slave position and men as masters. I say “BDSM-like” because I get the impression that even compared to 24/7 mainstream BDSM lifestyle, so to speak, there’s an issue of lack of informed consent on the women’s part, and also the absence of safe words, so there’s no easy escape from the situation. A slave woman is referred to as a “kajira”, plural “kajiræ” as in Latin grammar. They are supposed to wear simple garments consisting of belted sheets with a neck hole to symbolise their permanent availability for genital intercourse, although I think this probably doesn’t happen most of the time because it isn’t practical. They also wear neck collars or chains marked with the name of their owners, and may be tattooed or even branded with this symbol on the outer left thigh:
This marks her as equivalent to livestock or a pet, the property of her owner. Slaves have no names and don’t use the pronoun “I”, instead referring to themselves as “the slave” and their master as “master”. This actually also happens in the Malay/Indonesian language, where “saya” is the polite first person pronoun and is derived from the word for “slave”, so it has precedent in the real world. Slaves kneel before their masters with their legs spread and palms up on the thighs. Although there is gender rôle reversal with kajiri and mistresses, I get the impression, and that’s the best I can do, that it’s rare.
All this is very difficult to think about. Some regard it more as a sex cult like NXIVM, with which it shares the branding of a woman by a man, and others note that some of its customs have been adopted by the mainstream BDSM community. John Norman also wrote an S&M sex manual, which I would suppose has been used profitably by BDSM people, and I imagine Gorean roleplay takes place among some people. However, for others it goes way beyond that and there is an entire political and anthropological philosophy based on it. In the novels, Norman expressed the expectation, perhaps in a fictional setting, that the nature of terrestrial human society was such that it would collapse within a few centuries because of its democracy, sexual egalitarianism and reliance on technology of a particular kind. He seems to believe that history took a wrong turn after the Bronze Age. That is, his books express that opinion and although that shouldn’t be confused with the intent or beliefs of the author, he does seem to lack a mental boundary between his personal fantasies and reality, to the extent that his personal sexual preferences are imposed as a factual general code of conduct and view of human nature. I think sometimes people need to feel that things are real in order to achieve sexual satisfaction. They need to believe in their own fantasies so vividly that they push away any possibility of an alternate view.
One person who seems to have done this, and I’m aware of the distorting influence of his own behaviour, the media and the internet, is a bloke living in the North of England who had a Channel 4 documentary made about him. I’m not going to be more specific, but I’m sure he’d be easy to Google. He claimed to be a member of a Gorean splinter group, took an Australian slave and planned to “initiate” her through an apparently consensual series of sexual encounters with men neither of them knew, which they would have paid him for. That seems to make him a pimp. Moreover, it really wasn’t clear that this was consensual. On the other hand, the couple, if that’s the right word, got a lot of stick from their town for him leading her around on a leash in public, and that’s a complicated issue because it seems like it wouldn’t be to do with the possibility of exploitation or lack of consent on her part so much as simply picking on people because they’re perceived as different. The Pink Man of Fleet might have similar problems. Anyway, the “High Council” he claimed to exist in London seemed to be imaginary, but at the same time he seemed to believe that it was real. This seems to reflect a similar kind of confusion between fantasy and reality as Norman’s own.
Adherents to the subculture would certainly claim in public, when they’re permitted to, that their own lives are enriched by enslaving or being enslaved, and further perhaps that this taps into an aspect of human nature which has tended to be ignored in recent centuries, perhaps at our own peril. Again, this seems to be the projection of personal preference onto the wider human race. It presents everyone else with a bit of a quandary. Some women presumably do get a lot out of this lifestyle, and it’s not okay to kink-shame. Some of them, I’m guessing, are attracted by the idea but put off by the reality, by which time it may be too late. But it would be presuming too much to see this as something only men ever get anything out of.
Paraphilias don’t seem to be simply due to conditioning, which in this case would translate to the internalisation of women’s oppression. Sometimes they seem to be the manifestation of archetypes, and this is where the problem arises, because saying it’s an archetype is perilously close to saying it’s part of the natural order of things. However, there’s a parallel here with monkey hate. It does seem quite likely to me that the reason monkey hate exists is evolutionary, that there was a time when our simian ancestors had to compete with other species of monkey and that resurfaces today in the form of cruelty to macaques and the like in occasional people. However, that’s still undesirable and anti-vegan. It’s also possible that some kajiræ are not just internalising patriarchy but manifesting something primal, but that as such is not desirable for wider society. Then again, it doesn’t seem acceptable to deny a woman the pleasure she might get from being a kajira, and the projection they need to make to make it more alluring would also seem justifiable. However, that doesn’t mean that this is in fact the way the world is for humanity, and there needs to be a way out for the unwilling. I haven’t got any answers here I’m afraid.