Before we can really talk about pornography, we have to know what it is. Of course, defining “pornography” is notoriously difficult. There's even a quote from a former United States Supreme Court Justice saying “perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so”.1 I usually don't like going to dictionaries for answers, because dictionaries are often behind-the-times on social issues, but here, I'll go ahead and ask a dictionary. At the time I'm writing this, Wiktionary defines “pornography” as:
The explicit depiction of sexual subject matter, especially with the sole intention of sexually exciting the viewer.
Anyway, sounds great, right? I mean, most people enjoy a certain amount of sexual excitement. And, compared with other ways of getting sexually excited, pornography is incredibly low-risk and easy to use. I suppose if you print lots of pornographic magazines, that consumes the Earth's resources, which is kinda bad, but we now have the Internet. And I don't think anyone has ever been physically abused by their porn, or gotten pregnant from it, or anything like that.
And it gets better: Exchanging honest depictions of anything helps people, because knowledge is good. Exchanging ideas helps people understand things better and learn about other people's perspectives. As I've mentioned before, this is especially important right now for sexual stuff. Our society has nowhere near enough honest conversations about sex and sexuality. Sure, there's lots of sex and sexuality in our society, but it's mostly yucky. Like, even more yucky than most of the other stuff in our society. That's pretty damn yucky. So we could definitely use more good pornography.
Since I already quoted one famous person in this post, I might as well quote another.
...pornography is the orchestrated destruction of women's bodies and souls; rape, battery, incest, and prostitution animate it; dehumanization and sadism characterize it; it is war on women, serial assaults on dignity, identity, and human worth; it is tyranny. Each woman who has survived knows from the experience of her own life that pornography is captivity--the woman trapped in the picture used on the woman trapped wherever he's got her.
That's Andrea Dworkin.3 I'm quoting Dworkin because ze's essentially the icon of anti-porn feminism. I disagree with some of the things ze says,4 and there are definitely some problems with zir writing, but ze did have a lot of insight and a lot of influence on the feminist movement.
So, um. How did we get from “Pornography is pretty cool” to “Pornography is totally evil”?
Let's take a step back and I'll tell you something. I've been watching some porn videos recently. Free, online porn videos, to be specific. I won't give links, because I have a policy of not linking to things that are openly racist, sexist, and so on,5 but they're not hard to find.
“But Eli”, you say, “How can you enjoy porn if you don't feel sexual attraction to people?”. It's a valid question. And, first, it's true – I don't enjoy most porn. But there's some porn that I do enjoy. Although I don't feel sexual attraction, my mirror neurons are fully functional. When I'm watching a porn video, I can feel as if I'm one of the people in the video, and imagine how it feels to be doing what they're doing. You could say that I identify with them.
But, in mainstream porn, with very, very few exceptions, I can only identify with the female characters.6 I'd kind of like to be able to identify with the male ones, because they have bodies that are more like mine. But when male characters do appear in the porn I've been watching, they just don't act like they're enjoying themselves. When they're on top, or standing, they hold themselves in a really stiff way, and don't relax. When they do relax, when they're supposedly receiving pleasure, they just go limp. They don't squirm around like I would or like the female characters do. In short, their bodies are more like mine, but their behavior is so much less like mine that I can't relate to them at all.
And that's part of what Andrea Dworkin is getting at. Mainstream porn has a certain amount of variety, but it only shows a very limited range of what male sexuality is supposed to be like. It says: If you've got a penis, you're not supposed to enjoy yourself; you're supposed to be dominant over other people. And... seriously! There is no good reason for that! It's a bad thing to do and it isn't what people want! Seriously, science people have studied it – if you ask male people in private, they'll usually tell you they really dislike the whole “masculinity equals dominance and hypersexuality” crap! But somehow, people keep writing stories with these rigid gender roles. Maybe it's just so ingrained that they have trouble imagining anything else.
And, besides that, there are about a million other huge problems with mainstream porn, like the way it says you have to do all kinds of weird stuff to be attractive,7 and the way it's often a model for unrealistic and unhealthy beavior. And that's how we got from “porn is pretty cool” to “porn is really bad”. When you look at the abstract concept of porn, it seems good, but when you look at how people usually practice it, it becomes bad.
...and those are the points on which I agree with Andrea Dworkin and anti-porn feminism. There's a big problem with pornography. So what's the solution? Their ideal solution is to eliminate porn entirely. Now, I'm going to ignore the fact that that's impossible. I'm a big fan of trying to do things that seem impossible. What I am going to say is this: If this impossible goal was achieved, it would be horrible! Current porn has problems, but in essence, pornography is a good thing, a healthy thing, a positive thing. If I made a porn video that kicked people in the face, then I would be guilty of kicking people in the face, but that's not because I made a porn video. It's because, for some bizarre reason, I decided to have it kick people in the face. And in the same way, if I make porn that's degrading to certain people, I'm guilty of degrading people, and if I make porn that promotes unhealthy relationships, then I'm guilty of making people's relationships unhealthy. But it's not because the thing I made was pornographic.
The solution to the problems with porn is to make better porn.
Hmm, maybe I should do that sometime.
- See this Wikipedia article about that statement. back
- I guess it's not hard to define it as long as you're not trying to decide which ambiguously-written Puritanical censorship laws are allowed under the rules of the equally ambiguous United States Constitution. back
- This is from Dworkin's book “Pornography: Men Possessing Women”. The relevant section (CONTENT WARNING: details of rape and physical violence) is hosted here. back
- Like saying that “sadism” is a bad thing. It's totally okay if you practice it with consent from all participants. back
- Remind me to write that post about why we can sometimes get positive effects from stories even when the stories have big problems in them. back
- I say “female characters” because this porn involves the performance of rigid gender roles. So, I can say that the characters are female, even if I can't be totally sure of the genders of the actors playing them. back
- Like “shave every part of your body except your scalp, grow your head hair long, and make sure to be cis and white” – and when a non-cis or non-white person DOES appear in mainstream porn, they're fetishized, which just goes to show that no matter what you do, you can always find a way to do it horribly wrong. back