Archive for July, 2009

Utopian Promise of Porn

Nursing a cosleeping baby and lying next to a partner who snores sometime combine to leave a person lying awake with a spinning brain at 5 in the morning.

It occurs to me that part of the problem with porn is that all of that icky emotional negotiation stuff takes place off screen (if it is assumed to take place at all). In porn it is absolutely INCONCEIVABLE that anyone would change their mind halfway through, would decide to withdraw from the encounter, or take a pause in the encounter, or renegotiate their intentions for the encounter – “I’ve changed my mind, let’s not do penetration tonight.” No. Porn is not about fluid expression of sexuality between real thoughtful people with bodies that tire, or get sore, or simply stop feeling like sex.*

And since “sex” isn’t a monolithic concept free from the complications of people, the fact that it is portrayed that way in pornography is quite possibly a contributor to some of the major problems that we have, sexually, in our society. As a society, we actually tend to equate pornography with sex, when perhaps it is something entirely different. This feels like an important idea.

I came of age in the era of the internet. That means that like a lot of folks my age some of my first sexual explorations came online, with folks in chat rooms, or with downloaded sexual stories or pornographic pictures or (extremely short, fuzzy) videos. And when you’re 17, interested in exploring this sex thing, but certainly scared of having to be involved with real people who could potentially hurt you, pornography certainly seems like it could have its pluses. And certainly, many folks were very enthusiastic about it. I was so inexperienced and, up till then, sheltered that as regards sexuality I felt like an alien dropping into an entirely new world. I took it on faith that the idea of pornography I saw online was the truth.

There was this concept that I now think of as the Utopian Promise of Porn. Oh my, yes. I recall being told by many people that porn was a good thing because it could be a teaching tool for people who didn’t know how to please each other in bed, or who wanted to learn new ways to please each other. I remember being told that porn was just “hot” or arousing, or pleasurable to watch, or funny. I recall being told that there was good woman-centered porn that was respectful of women, even orchestrated by women. I seem to recall a lot of claims like these that added up to the Utopian Promise of Porn. But I never actually saw pornography that lived up to this Promise.

After all, as I started off by saying, if you’re using porn as a teaching or learning tool of some kind for real people having real sex together, surely it would be important to include real negotiations, real situations where real people change their mind about sex, and that’s okay, and even still a part of an enjoyable encounter. And although I haven’t seen All Porn Everywhere (thank goodness), I certainly explored enough porn in my late teens and early twenties to know that for all the claims that porn could be a teaching and learning tool, I never saw any that actually taught anything worth learning.

And after a while I started to wonder if I was just somehow always seeing the wrong porn (obviously they were hiding this “good” stuff somewhere I wasn’t seeing). My porn-friendly friends tended to indicate that I was just missing the good stuff, but recommendations always fell just as flat. And so my willingness to be porn-friendly¬† became a bit strained.

After all, pretty much all the porn I ever saw** showed people in uncomfortable-looking sexual positions, performing sex acts which seemed unlikely to be pleasurable, with poses with camera-friendly, but very much person-unfriendly qualities. Men commonly seemed disdainful, uncomfortable, not particularly aroused (except physically), disconnected. Women were commonly called unpleasant names, or spoken to in disrespectful ways, or dominated unpleasantly, or coerced, or tricked. Or women acted obviously bored, uncomfortable or were actively in discomfort at various points but all without renegotiating, pausing, stopping, changing their minds – a major problem, because it perpetuates the idea that sexual discomfort is unimportant, that women need to “suck it up”, grin and bear it, that it will get better or the pain will pass and pleasure will come, such damaging ideas!

So pornography may well be a teaching or learning tool, but I think the lessons are not as advertised. And I think pornography is powerful because of the ways in which it is used. I think a lot of very well-meaning folks use pornography (where use means masturbate to), see some of the problems inherent in it, but discount the effect of those problems, because after all it’s just something they’re doing by themselves and it doesn’t affect anyone else.

But masturbation is such a powerful thing, too often discounted it seems to me. We are producing in ourselves surges of powerful hormones.

Oxytocin is know as the love hormone. Mothers and babies both have extraordinarily high levels of this hormone in the period just after birth, when they are experiencing a period of powerful bonding, falling in love, and mothers produce oxytocin at lower levels when nursing, reinforcing that bonding, and when they hold their babies skin to skin. Oxytocin is one of nature’s answers to getting babies through the difficult period of dependent infancy – it has to be powerful to counteract all the work that babies take (remember that it isn’t just humans that have babies). It’s also the hormone we produce when we hug, when we kiss, that wonderful warm feeling we get at those times, and it’s the biggie that we produce when we orgasm.

And so it seems to me that we are fooling ourselves if we think we can repeatedly orgasm, producing high levels of a powerful bonding, falling-in-love hormone, in response to portrayals of sex including disrespect, coercion, lack of connection, possibly even pain, and not have that affect us, perhaps profoundly.

This is such an uncomfortable idea.

In part that is because of course we’re societally also very used to the idea that masturbation is somehow difficult or impossible without pornography, combined with the idea that masturbation is necessary and/or good for you. And I guess, right now, I don’t have an answer or even much to say about that, except what I’ve already said. I don’t know that difficult problems have easy solutions, since if they did they wouldn’t be difficult, or uncomfortable, or problems (assuming this is a problem – I’m not sure).

There’s a whole lot more I could say about pornography, about the problematic aspects of the production of pornography (there are many), or more about the portrayals (lots of problems there too), or my own use of pornography, but this post is already rather long.

What do you think? Due to spam problems, all comments are moderated, but I’m busy with my 6-month-old baby, so give me a couple hours to respond – sorry about that!

* If your first response is something along the lines of “but it’s a fantasy” or “it’s an ideal”, well, isn’t that just the point? Wouldn’t sex ideally include people being free to change their minds? And wouldn’t sex where people changed their minds and negotiated different ways of being together than they first intended ideally still have the potential to be awesome?

** A lot, primarily heterosexual in focus, but not entirely. Let me state for the record, if it’s not clear, the fact that I am not looking for recommendations for porn that fulfills the Utopian Promise of Porn. Hey, maybe you found the perfect portrayal of consensual sex between two (or more) people. I don’t know. Perhaps its possible. But a) I think, based on what I’ve seen, that it’s very very unlikely, and b) this theatre is no longer screening films or images of this type, thankyouanyway. Besides which, the existence of one or more films or images fulfilling the Utopian Promise of Porn doesn’t eradicate the vast majority of porn which don’t. Exceptions don’t prove rules.

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