Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Three questions about porn.

Porn bothers me because it is everywhere. It is everywhere partly because porn is always a pioneer of new media and new forms of media saturate our society at this moment. We are experiencing a media shift more dramatic than television was. Anything which becomes ubiquitous so rapidly bothers me. How did that happen? Do we want it to be so? Where is this ubiquitousness of porn going?

Porn bothers me because I care deeply about human sexuality. I see sexuality as a positive energy, wonderfully impractical, a glorious waste of time and energy and laundry. I hope we never fully make sense of it. This need to dive into each other, smells and tastes mingling, and fluids secreting can save us from earnest pragmatism.

Porn is how we depict sexuality for our collective viewing. It therefore becomes the language by which we understand it. For many people it is their first educator.

Porn also bothers me because we often talk about it as a matter of choice and freedom. Choice and freedom under capitalism remind me of Fezzicks’ line in the Princess Bride, “I do not think those words mean what you think they mean.”

Your coffee was not grown by choice or served to you by choice under capitalism, not entirely. Nor is our choice to drink coffee entirely free of constraint or dependence. Porn is not magically different from other products in this regard.

Finally Porn bothers me because I don’t think we are capable of having very good conversations about it. In particular I think there are three questions we could ask which would improve that conversation. They are;
  • What do we mean by porn?
  • How objectively can we call something porn?
  • Are we going to discuss porn from the inside or the outside of experiencing porn?
 This post aims to address those questions.

What do we mean by porn?

Any discussion about porn is like a discussion about drugs. The first question has to be which drugs or porn are you talking about? For while a good working definition of porn might be material designed to titillate and arouse, what tries to arouse us may try in very different ways. This is why we attempt to distinguish porn from erotica or even art in general or we call some porn soft and some hard.

The invitation to be aroused can come at the expense of others. It can be their exploitation that is essential to the arousal. This is what creates pornography that plays on fantasies of deceit, and even pornography that employs deceit for real. The up-skirt phenomenon is an example of the latter, but even it is overtaken by the pornography that is produced at “Spring break” or “Schoolies” events. Off camera adults cajole drunken nineteen year olds to “show us your tits” for the home viewers. There’s a relishing of the needling necessary to produce the nudity. Not just the girl’s bodies but the manipulative skill of the producers in gaining access to them is on show.

Money exchanges hands invisibly in these sorts of pornos. What is bought is not just a glimpse of tits. The rhetoric of choice fails to challenge for me that what the porn producer is purchasing on the porn viewer’s behalf is some kind of power over these young women. “Look at what we can get these dumb bitches to do,” is the subtext.

For me this is the crux of a particularly harmful pornography, this exchange of power. Even if it is an illusion and everyone is pretending to be exploited I consider this exchange to be what defines bad porn to me. A woman I knew who worked in a seedy end of the sex industry felt it was her who was exploiting her customers – their loneliness in particular. I don’t disagree with her; however I think she exploited them precisely by offering them the feeling of power over herself instead of the mutuality they wanted. Her own exploitation may have been illusory while theirs was real, but her exploitation was still the basis of the exchange. They still bought it and it defined the porn.

Not everything that arouses however comes at the expense of others. I think of the adjacent image by Robert Mapplethorpe. We could be critical of how it operates inside the narrow range of what is usually depicted as sexually alluring – fit, white and female. (The blame there lies with my choice; Mapplethorpe’s range is much wider.) Despite that I don’t feel any invitation to have power over the subject. There’s no tone of deceit or exploitation, quite the reverse. Yet I still find the picture arousing.

For some people this raises a contradiction. For some people if another persons image arouses us in a sexual way then that is intrinsically exploitative or in some other way wrong. Lust is the name of the vice and it covers all aspects of the sexual gaze. It is always objectifying and always selfish. Only a cooler appreciation of beauty, as non-arousing, is non-exploitative. Under this model, all material that is designed to titillate and arouse can share the label porn without too much difficulty.

I think this reflects an experience of sexuality as intertwined with power over others. If sexuality (particularly male sexuality) is only the desire to, crudely, fuck “things” then the preparation to do exactly that is all that arousal is. That requires people who are arousing us to be rendered as things first in order to arouse. This type of sexuality is very visible in our culture but I don’t think it’s the only one. I feel that while my sexuality has been affected by this model, it isn’t even mostly expressed by it.

I think arousal itself is a politically neutral reaction. I can get sexy with someone without being over or under them and certainly without needing to exploit them. I can be top and bottom alternatively with no-one having their full personhood defined in either role. Before this paragraph sounds too much like a kinky personals ad I merely want to say that therefore lust is not necessarily selfish for me. Therefore the discussion of porn has to at least distinguish between material designed to arouse exploitatively and non-exploitatively because both those arousals are possibilities.

For me the Mapplethorpe image of the naked woman flexing her muscles evokes respect alongside arousal. I feel like I am witnessing someone amazing in body and spirit. I feel like she is claiming that image from the inside. It’s an example of a positively inspiring arousingly sexual image.


How objectively can we call something porn?

The second question to be addressed in a discussion about porn is how much objective reality are we going to concede to porn. It’s possible to mount a criticism of the definition, that porn is what is designed to arouse us, on the basis that our arousal is our responsibility anyway. Certainly arousal is in our minds and we aren’t all aroused by the same thing. This can suggest there is nothing that is or isn’t porn in any fixed sense.

Someone is going to be turned on by a catalog of shoes and a shoe shop can’t take responsibility for the pornographic nature of their wares. But then the shoe catalog was not designed to stimulate us sexually. I think even the most optimistic shoe fetishist would concede that. In fact they would probably insist on the difference between shoes and shoe porn lest they be sold the former when they want the latter. It’s a non-shoe fetishist who might struggle to see the distinction.

Generally we humans seem to have a highly attuned awareness of when someone is trying to turn us on whether with a body part or a shoe or a whole elaborate story. It’s probably been evolutionarily as important as reading any emotional intent to know who’s flirting with us. Some of us might miss sexual cues, while others overstate them, but I suspect we usually have a pretty good sense about it. The subjectivity of porn doesn’t have to deny any common recognition of it.

Problems arise when images are viewed in a different context than were intended however because that changes a cues significance. The meaning of the naked form is a perfect example. It can be medical, naturalist or downright dirty. Some of that is pose, however if you displayed a bunch of nudists photos in a clothed world they will look more shocking than the nudism was in the flesh at the nudist beach. Indeed swimsuits themselves have a different context in different environments. The environment of the viewing changes the meaning. This has particular saddening ramifications for images of children put into a sexualised context.

In the same way context can change the meaning of an image from non-exploitative to exploitative. Even positive images of women such as Mapplethorpe’s photo above can be recontextualised to justify a negative reading as exploitative. That this is hard to do with this particular photo is a credit to the image. Criticism of the use of this image in some contexts as exploitative would however be justified. In particular I think of the work of Guerilla women, an art collective who raise the issue of women as nude subjects in galleries dominated by male artists. Even though individually an artistic nude woman is not by nature exploitative inside the context Guerilla women identify there is something very political happening. As they say “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”

Mapplethorpe also took several photos of male nudes. If a gallery refused to show them and displayed only the female image above alongside other female nudes, this would give the image above a new contextual meaning. It’s not a meaning inherent in the image but it isn’t individually ours either. It’s a meaning given to the image from outside it but before we individually get to view it. 

Since this blog will be doing exactly that without remedy here are a few of Mapplethorpes male nudes.

The best word to explain how porn is both subjective and objective and neither, is inter-subjective. This is the same word used to describe how words gain their meaning in language. This means that we can only talk about what is porn and whether or not that porn is exploitative in a particular context. We are not able to make general statements about a particular media for all time.

Will we discuss porn as insiders or as outsiders?

Lastly any discussion about porn has to decide whether we are going to talk about it from outside the relationship between people and pornography or from inside that relationship. Are we going to talk about porn as porn viewers and readers or just as viewers of people watching porn?

The difference is as profound as it is with any discussion about drugs. Discuss drugs as a drug user (including alcohol and caffeine for the law shy) and you have to start from their appeal – the buzz or the euphoria perhaps or even numbness. Discuss them from the outside and all the diverse appeals can be covered by the word ‘addiction”. You end up with the only reason for using drugs being circular, because you did before, when it is clearly more than that.

I am not saying a user’s understanding of drugs is always superior however. There’s a clarity of the removed perspective that’s very useful too. Sometimes all the diverse appeals of drugs and porn are really best just called addiction. The explicit motives of an addict, whether the pleasant taste of tobacco or the soothing effect of alcohol, can be phantoms that vanish when a pattern of substance use is ceased.

The above applies to porn as well as it does to drugs. There is something deeply addictive about certain porn usage. It also has a distorting effect on our perceptions. There are credible scientific studies that confirm this. Certainly I feel like the people I have met who watch porn of the exploitative type regularly are not improved by it. Sometimes an external view is necessary to point this out.

Basically I think we need to have a balance of internal and external perspectives on porn. I also think due to propriety we don’t tend to heard enough of the inside perspective. Personally I feel like I am being dishonest discussing porn without ever mentioning that material designed to arouse does actually arouse me. I also feel like that is the normal way to discuss porn.  Subsequently I feel a need to say the following;

I genuinely feel joy over images and stories of people having a whale of a time with their bodies. I like that look of winning the lottery for merely possessing something like an elbow with a higher concentration of nerve endings.

I am especially awed by the collapse of our defences in orgasm, the tremor that is unique to each of us and also shared. I like to watch the original path to getting there that says this is me, follow my scars across my body, I am not just anybody, I am not your last lover. I’m grateful to porn for revealing variants of this.

Just as honestly I should admit my fear, even my anger at porn. I can’t help comparing myself to the narrow cast of people most porn, exploitative or not, tells me are arousing. I don’t measure up in the fitness or the age requirements (speculate no further thankyou). Watching porn can thus lead me to feel weary of who I am. That annoys the hell out of me because I like who I am, but even more annoying is this same effect on people I love. Ultimately it is sexually confident people that are the most sexy to me so I am pissed off at porn for a history of stealing my sexual partners confidence.

At the end of the day I would rather have ordinary sex than watch great porn. But bad porn is changing how we see ourselves and thus making it harder to have great sex. As our idea of ourselves as eligible to be sexual beings decreases due to porn, we can substitute even more porn for sex. I am genuinely worried that our depictions of sexuality are becoming further detached from having a living, fumbling sexuality to describe in the first place.

I hope we can have more sensible discussions about material designed to arouse us. I hope the three questions I’ve outlined give us the basis to do that. Porn is after all a very large part of our world and if trends continue will be an increasing part of our children’s world. We ought to have a considered response.


  1. This piece somehow reminded me of David Foster Wallace's essay "Hail the returning dragon, clothed in new fire". It's not about porn, but AIDS - in the 1990's - as the next phenomenon in a long line through history, of impediments to human's passion, or will, to overcome obstacles to have sex. It more reminded me of parts of your essay that bemoans porns ubiquity and its blunt instrument technique of defining sexuality.
    Wallace isn't around (unfortunately) to see what's happened with saturation levels you describe, he seemed quite positive in 1996 that sexuality seemed to be opening up in the collective imagination again.

    I feel this is a clumsy way of describing Wallace's article and my jangled thoughts.Here it is

    Stumbled across the blog this week and have been really enjoying it.
    Hope you're well.