I know no faster way to divide a room of feminists than to utter the word “pornography.” We’re all pretty together on the choice and equal pay issues, and other disagreements have considerable common ground. But when it comes to porn, feminists retreat to their dogma. There is the camp that derides pornography as violence against women and believes it causes men to dehumanize women. This is, admittedly, a small (and mostly aging) group, but they are vocal and they like to write books. There is another group, the sex-positive group, some of whom are sex writers or have created their own pornography. They’re a little embarrassed about the “penetrative heterosexual sex is rape” stance of their predecessors and are trying to create more female-friendly sexual environment in the culture.
(I know that feminists aren’t the only ones divided on this issue, but since I cannot for the life of me understand the idea that God does not want humans to feel pleasure, the religious argument against pornography will not be discussed here.)
The issue is bigger than “bad for women” but the conversation often stops there. And it is difficult not to have a kneejerk feminist reaction to some of the images from pornography: women being raped and “liking it;” women being choked, humiliated, hurt; etc. Surely this is a work of evil, you — or I — might think. But stopping at the kneejerk reaction has never helped any discussion.
Which is why we have a need for Debbie Nathan’s Pornography. Written as part of the Groundwork series published by Groundwood Books, it gives a brief overview of the various arguments for and against porn in a remarkably clear-eyed manner. She also puts aside the religious objection rather quickly, pointing out that anyone who has a fundamental religious argument against one thing or another is probably not going to be swayed by a dose of secular logic. But there are still many myths to debunk: that pornography desensitizes men to violence against women; that early exposure to sexual imagery causes irreparable harm to children; that the industry is built on the backs of abused, drug addicted women who would never be involved in pornography if they weren’t so damaged. (Just tell that last one to the lovely pro-porn Shar Rednour, author of The Femme’s Guide to the Universe and director and star of How to Fuck in High Heels. She’ll punch you out.)
There is, to be fair, a hint of truth in all of these myths. Some damaged girls do get lost in the porn industry. Men who have deeply rooted misogyny are probably attracted to the violent edge of porn. And it’s not really a good idea to plop your toddler down in front of a never-ending loop of hardcore DVDs. But in reality, things are a little more complex than that. Consistently, studies have shown that exposure to pornography does not have long-term effects on men’s feelings towards women, nor that sexual imagery will cause a child to suffer a lifetime of drug use and promiscuity.
“For those who have learned enough about the world to separate fact from fiction, porn is no scarier or riskier than anything else on television, film, DVD or the Internet,” Nathan writes. After all, pornography is a fantasy. It might not be your fantasy to see a woman tied up and spanked, but it’s someone’s. And it can be a positive thing to see your fantasy play out, either because it offers comfort that you are not alone and therefore not as big a pervert as you thought, or by allowing your fantasy to stay a fantasy. There is a theory that pornography, even the violent kinds, actually decreases the likelihood that a potential sexual criminal will act out his impulses. The U.S. Commission on Obscenity and Pornography declared in 1970 that, as Nathan writes, “porn was probably keeping would-be sex offenders from misbehaving by helping them vent aggression that might otherwise make them assault people.”
Not that there aren’t downsides to pornography. In this age of abstinence-only education, people’s sexual urges have to find release somewhere, and the easy access to pornography means it’s often the solution. If your only knowledge about sex comes from hardcore pornography, it’s going to be a little difficult to form healthy sexual relationships in the future. (Most single, sexually active women I know have had an evening with someone who obviously watched porn and took notes, thinking that was the ideal performance. Those men’s porn stashes should be taken away, yes.) With women, it can create unrealistic expectations for their sexual performance. A study in Sweden showed that a large percentage of young women felt pressured by porn — either to try anal sex or to get Brazilian bikini waxes — because they were afraid of disappointing their partner and not living up to their standards. These are not arguments for the banning of pornography, however. It’s an argument for moving the focus from a solitary fantasy act into an honest conversation both in the culture and between sexual partners.
But the discussion of pornography really isn’t just about the Internet and DVDs anymore. These days porn does not stay in its little XXX-rated boxes. It influences a huge swath of our culture, from clothing — and for anyone who had swooned in horror at the sight of an 11-year-old girl wearing pants that say JUICY across the ass, I feel your pain — to mainstream entertainment to advertising. And not just advertising directed at men, like the “Drink Remy Martin and You’ll Have a Threesome” ads that currently greet me outside my door every morning. Ads for products directed at women also take on pornographic imagery, like the Clinique ad of a woman’s face with a white splotch of moisturizer coating her eyelid and cheek. I have yet to figure out why this is appealing: “Clinique Moisturizer: Kind of Like Having a Man Ejaculate on Your Face.” But it is, of course, eye catching.
This blurring of the lines between the mainstream and pornography worries Carmine Sarracino and Kevin M. Scott, the authors of The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go From Here. They define this “porning” as a state where “porn [is] so thoroughly absorbed into the culture that we hardly notice it anymore. It does not stand out as taboo, or even in poor taste. Rather, it is part of who we are, in carefully constructed public presentations.” The inspiration for the book was evidently an ad for the Bratz dolls, “which look remarkably like prostitutes” they tell us. Sarracino and Scott were worried for their sons and daughters, and what this highly sexualized atmosphere will affect them. Fortunately, they’re not of the “Back in my day,” fist-shaking variety — they acknowledge that it’s impossible to turn back the clock on our culture.
Unfortunately, however, they admit freely that they don’t really have any answers. “These negative aspects of a porned America must be addressed, but frankly, it is not clear to us in many cases how to proceed. For, without some kind of censorship (which we would oppose), how can the sheer volume of porn on the Internet — which in itself trivializes sex — be reduced?” Which makes The Porning of America a slightly strange book. Sarracino and Scott are good at dissecting certain aspects of this porned-out culture, finding what the influences are, and outlining just how prevalent some of it has become. The “What It Means” and “Where We Go from Here” parts of that subtitle, however, are cloudier.
Sarracino and Scott are, they say, pro-sex, although it’s sometimes hard to tell from the language. “We too appreciate the allure of the female form and of sex,” they write on page one. But the writing is not sexy and their pro-sex message gets lost in all of the analysis. I think their point is that sex is more interesting and varied and spiritual than what pornography portrays — and yes, it can be. But it can also be as Debbie Nathan describes: “If real-world sex were a meal, the chicken would rarely be hot enough and there would not be quite enough dessert to go around.”
Considering the repressed nature of America’s attitude towards sex since the Puritans, the current pornography boom is not surprising. Pornography serves a purpose and is popular for that reason. If Sarracino and Scott are really worried about what our pornified culture is doing to us, and they aren’t very convincing that it’s anything all that bad, they should have focused their book more on the pro-sex message — how to be sexually healthy with dignity and grace and understand fully the difference between fantasy and reality. It’s a lesson I’m sure most of the country could use. • 10 October 2008