Pornography is the quail inside the duck inside the turkey at Christmas dinner. The hidden secret lurking inside all our hard drives, waiting for its moment of private delight to shine out. We see it everywhere, but continue to strive to deny its influence. We don’t like to talk about it; not what we as individuals really see in it or why as a culture it’s still there under our mattress after centuries of effort to eradicate it. Enough denial, already. I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it…let’s drag it out on the carpet and really explore why we keep it around.
Pornography has existed ever since people started drawing. We drew pictures on the cave walls of voluptuous women with no heads to give us a sense of connection to the mysteries of life (or perhaps as R. Dale Guthrie suggests, as simple pornographic doodles) . We worshipped snake goddesses with their bare breasts and their transformative power twined around their wrists. We had sacred prostitutes in the temples who would lay you for a donation, and explicit scenarios painted out on Greek urns. This is nothing new. Shouldn’t we be grown up enough to talk about it by now?
Let’s start with why you like it. Now, I know some of you don’t…you hate it and everything it stands for. Bear with me, minority, you’ll have your chance later on. But for the moment, I want to address the 90% of you with porn on your hard drive right now. Yeah, I know about it. We all do. Everyone knows you have porn stashed away. Why are you disinclined to admit it? Why do you look at porn?
If you are single, porn allows you an easy outlet for your sexual energy, without all the effort and complications of a one night stand. Your two dimensional partner never needs you to buy her a drink (or ten) or to call her the next day. You can have your orgasm and not feel guilty. Finally, a girl who wants it for the same reasons you do.
If you have an exceptionally understanding partner, porn may allow you to bring up sexual acts in a sideways kind of context. “Hey, honey…what do you think of this?” If they say “Ohmigod, that’s sooo disgusting!” you are safe to say “I know! That’s just what I thought!” If, however, his eyes glaze over…you know you have a shot. Pornography can open doorways to sexual communication that we are unwilling to step through on our own.
Sometimes, porn is just an easy stress-release valve. You aren’t necessarily looking for sexual satisfaction, so much as the relaxation and release you feel after orgasm. In this context, it’s not even really fair to approach a partner. You don’t want intimacy; you just want the end result.
If you’re a man, you may subconsciously look to porn for your last bastion of classic manhood. This is where you get your own back. How much time have you spent being nice in bed? Making sure she comes first, making sure you are not hurting her or being too aggressive? How many times have you thought of something you might like, but were too afraid of rejection to ask? Porn is your friend, your mistress on the sly who never doubts, never complains, is always willing and nubile and ready to try what you are. Porn never interrupts mid-coitus to ask if you called back the kid’s teacher about Little Bill’s test scores. Porn lets you be the parts of yourself you keep carefully tucked away at the back of your mind all the rest of the time.
Women are more varied in their opinions of porn. Some women are just as fascinated by it as are men (though most of them won’t admit it in polite company); some women think it is the root of all evil, undermining the equality and viability of women in modern society. Those who are adamantly opposed to it claim it is an objectification of women. Why this is or exactly what it means is the topic of much heated discussion, but the gist is that pornography views a woman in an entirely sexual context, without personality or relationship. Basically, you are getting what you want out of her, without giving anything (except, possibly, your credit card number) in exchange. One has to ask, however, where the harm exists in this. Commonly, it is advanced that repeatedly viewing women in this light eventually alters the viewers perspective on women altogether — all women become merely sexual objects. It seems likely, however, that if men have difficulties with genuinely intimate relationships with women the causes run deeper than his hard drive. Pornography, in this instance, is a symptom rather than a cause.
The other argument commonly given against porn is that it takes advantage of women in bad situations, encouraging them to do something which is ultimately damaging to them for the sake of getting some quick cash (prostitution and erotic dancing also fall into this category). There are several crucial flaws in this argument. Firstly, the supposition that the women involved are damaged by their involvement indicates an unspoken assumption that because some women would find the experience of being involved in pornography degrading, all women do. This is a baseless generalization. Some women find being involved in one night stands to be degrading…others seek them out purposefully, and for the same reasons some men do.
Secondly, in order for this argument to have merit, we must define what is intended by “damage”. Generally, the term is not a reference to physical damage, though it would be fair to consider working in pornography a “high risk” field of employment in this regard. What is usually implied, however, is the theory that working in porn is psychologically damaging to women. Presumably, this deals with the assumption that the women involved do not enjoy their work, and that it weakens their self-esteem.
Pornography, for the actors, is a job, just like any other. Some of us give up nights and weekends for the promotion just over the horizon. Some of us swallow justified words of self-defense when cornered by an unreasonable employer in order to ensure our continued employment. Some of us give up significant parts of what we consider our “selves” in order to blend into the work environment. Are not many of us, therefore, whores on some level or another? What is more damaging in the long run: giving up our bodies or our souls? While some pornography actors and models undoubtedly do despise their work, and therefore suffer psychological damage as a result, it is illogical to assume that the majority of them fall into this category. Just as the corporate drone who finds himself compromising his ethics for his boss will eventually find other employment, pornography workers who dislike their job will also leave the field. There certainly seems to be no shortage of eager “amateurs” waiting to fill their empty spaces.
Interestingly, it is never discussed whether the men in the porn industry are damaged or degraded by their involvement. The stereotype that all men are soulless sex fiends must shield them from our concern.
Some women, however, actually like porn. I know we’re not supposed to admit to it, and very few will. But those who are really willing to talk about it will often admit that it’s not the same thing as porn for men. If we like porn, we often like different porn. For one thing, women like a plot. To many men, plot in porn is like okra in the cherry pie…not desirable, and even a bit slimy and disgusting. But women typically need a psychological factor, in order for it to do anything for them. Further, the same themes which appeal to men often do not appeal to women. Scenes of airbrushed women crawling around on all fours in spiffy lingerie are often enough for the male contingent…but (aside from vicariously appreciating whatever excitement this may invoke in our partners) women often prefer something with more depth. Which is not to say that we won’t appreciate a picture of a naked, attractive man (or woman, bisexuality being more socially acceptable in women)…but we rarely get off on it. Many women, in fact, prefer written erotica to visual pornography. Hence the popularity of romance novels, which are often little more than barely disguised erotica.
Why the difference? Surely it is not as simple as asserting that men are more imaginative and can make up their own stories, whereas women must have them made up for them. Neurological studies indicate that women have a larger bundle of nerves between the right and left hemispheres of their brains than men do. This biological difference has been credited with “women’s intuition”, among other things, the theory being that there is more communication between the hemispheres in women, resulting in an understanding than relies on a synthesis of logic and emotion, rather than having one or the other rule the day. Perhaps this same factor also influences our choices in pornography, with men being more able to cater to one aspect of their mind (the logical/analytical aspect) and women needing a blend which engages both the logical and the emotional.
Or perhaps we should look more to the cultures in which we exist. Most “civilized” societies today are existing in a state of “cold war” between the sexes. We agree not to decimate each other, we speak kindly in public, we know better than to take this thing to the level of blatant aggression. But underneath it all, we know that we exist in a state of uneasy truce. Men, disenfranchised from their traditional, powerful role in society, are struggling to find their acceptable place. It’s an awkward position, trying to balance the strong, capable facade still demanded of them with a sensitive, even intuitive inner aspect which responds to and compliments the strengths of women. Women, on the other hand, are struggling to balance a sensible, businesslike aspect with the concerns of home and family, all the while combating the latent assumptions just beneath the surface that there are things they simply cannot understand…being female. Where does this leave us, as far as porn goes?
Sexual desires are the place where sublimated personality aspects find expression. Pornography is their display case. For men, who spend much of their psychological energy on carefully respecting women’s equality and holding more aggressive aspects of themselves back in order to be accepted in society, porn is the place where finally women can be guiltlessly subjugated, because they want it that way. Or, conversely, the place where they can be punished for their chauvinistic behaviour by a woman who is not mitigating her own strength. Even in fairly “straight” porn (meaning that with no whips or ropes involved), the scenario most commonly presented is that of a large (in all senses of the word) man clearly in control of a mating exercise with a much smaller, frailer woman. The message is that of domination, albeit in a consensual environment.
For women, the submissive woman scenario may also work, but for the opposite reason. Women, in our “evolved” societies, all too often find themselves fighting night and day to maintain respect and control. Many women feel exhausted from this unrelenting effort, and subconsciously desire an arena where they can give up that struggle for a while. Conversely, the notion of being finally, completely in control has its own appeal, again because the struggle is over. Women, however, tend to gravitate more readily toward pornography wherein there is an appearance of equality…a place where both partners are in control and clearly enjoying themselves. Perhaps because we, being on the uphill slope of the fight for equality, see the end goal of equality of the sexes as the place where we can finally stop fighting, and that is more important than winning the current battle.
If we are to heal the currents of psychological imbalance in our cultures, perhaps we should look to pornography as the measure of our success. Not that pornography itself is evil and it’s abolition evidence of an upswing in morality. Not at all. But look to it’s broad trends for the evidence of where our culture needs healing. There will always be porn for entertainment, but if the sweeping trends are those of domination and abuse then we should look to the viewers and ask them why they feel so impotent. If the fantasy is submission to a powerful figure, perhaps we should ask ourselves as a culture what it is we are fighting so hard to control. If the image which attracts us is being the focus of an orgy, perhaps we should ask why we feel we lack attention in our day to day lives. Take these trends and look deeply into the unhappiness of our societies. Glance across the breadth of the Internet and see what plagues your fellow humans, and then ask why?
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