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.

16 Comments »

  1. Sazz said,

    July 14, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    I have just found your blog, and I am so glad that I have.

    This post was really insightful, chillingly so! I had never thought about the link between masturbation fantasy>orgasm>oxytocin before, very thought provoking.

    Your analysis of what porn teaches seem apt to me. My understanding has always been pornography is the theory, rape the practice. Very dangerous messages are sent to men and women through pornography.

    If you’re interested another blog I follow is devoted entirely to feminist critique of pornography: Anti-Porn Feminists

  2. SnowdropExplodes said,

    July 20, 2009 @ 5:19 am

    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?

    Well, yes and no. Porn isn’t there to be a teaching aid about how sex would be in an ideal world, and how we can make the real world closer to that ideal. I get very angry with people like the ones who were telling you about porn, who say that it’s a “teaching aid”. Porn doesn’t teach anything, except that we as a society don’t provide proper education about sexuality and sexual interaction with one another. It’s purely about “how would I like my sexual encounter to go?” – fantasy in the daydream “fairytale castle” variety, no more.

    Would you make the same claims about masturbation based purely on imagined scenarios (instead of masturbation to pornographic presentations)? I am sure that there are some people whose masturbation fantasies involve a negotiation phase, but I’m willing to bet that few of them have a phase where their fantasy partner says, “Sorry honey, I’m not in the mood – let’s just snuggle instead.” (Incidentally, I think it can and is sometimes done in written erotic fiction, although maybe not often enough. The written word makes it a lot easier to convey that type of interaction without losing the reader/viewer interest in the way things play out.)

    My point being that it seems to me to be unfair to blame porn for not doing what schools and sex ed classes should be doing (i.e. teaching about negotiation, how to deal with changing one’s mind – or one’s partner changing hir mind, etc). T me it makes as much sense as it does to criticise “Alice in Wonderland” for not having any particular moral to the story.

  3. Atrina said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    I find it interesting that you bring up what porn is teaching us. Being a retired porn actress turned psychology student I can tell you that the “group think” in the porn industry is very powerful. When your “worth” is measured by how many scenes you do and how strong your fanbase is, you do pretty much anything to get another scene. When directers find out that you “like” it rough, they’re more likely to hire you for scenes that involve that. So when you see the slapping and spitting and hair pulling, etc, the girls involved may actually think they’re enjoying it…until they retire from the industry and learn what they really like.

    Sex ed classes and parents alike can say, “Porn is fantasy,” but the reality of it is; when a boy’s (or girl’s) first exposure to sex is with this violent type of porn, no matter how much assurance that it’s fantasy will actually make them believe it. Its the mere exposure effect: the more your exposed to something, the more you have a tendency to like it. So these boys watching this violent porn will in turn have an attraction to this violent kind of sex. This is not to say that everyone who watches porn will become violent in bed, but the tendency is there. And especially when it appears that the girls in the movies like being violated the way they do, these teen boys may feel like, “If girls like it rough, that’s the way to keep my girlfriend happy.”

    There is nicer porn available: I suggest Digital Playground, Adam and Eve, Danny’s Harddrive, or Girlfriends Films. But still, the companies may not ask for the rough stuff, but the talent leads them in that direction.

  4. antiplondon said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    Hello,

    I found this post through the first commenter’s link to our blog. I think you’ve made some very interesting and important points, and I’d like to quote and link to this post at the Anti-Porn Feminists blog, would this be ok with you?

    Thanks,

  5. Quercki said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    Excellent post!
    Do you know about Figleaf’s Real Adult Sex blog?
    Figleaf’s Real Adult Sex
    (His sub-title is “Trying to learn from my mistakes so you won’t have to.”)

    I don’t think he’s covered this topic, and I’d like to see the two of you in dialog about it.

    P.S. He’s upgrading his blog software, so there is NO RUSH to get over there until the dust settles.

  6. O.o said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    * 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?

    This is a terrible argument. It’s much like feminists arguing that the woman in “Knocked Up” should have gotten an abortion, and saying the movie would be more feminist-friendly if she had, etcetera.

    Then there’d be no movie. Shock, gasp. If she got an abortion, the movie would be 22 minutes long. There would be no film.

    If people in porn changed their minds and decided not to have sex (which, I don’t see how deciding not to have sex is, in your words, an “enjoyable encounter”), then, there would be no porn.

    It would be two people getting dressed again, and what? Talking? Watching TV? Going home?

    That’s not exactly sexually arousing, interesting, or serving any purpose whatsoever.

    Porn’s purpose is to sexually arouse. If the people within said porn decided not to have sex, the main purpose would go unfulfilled. You MUST realize how silly you sound when you suggest that porn include people deciding not to have sex.

  7. Kenzie said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    O.o:

    You MUST realize how silly you sound when you suggest that porn include people deciding not to have sex.

    You MUST realize how limited your sexuality sounds when you interpret “And wouldn’t sex where people changed their minds and negotiated different ways of being together than they first intended” only as “decide not to have sex, get dressed, go home”.

    If pornography only ever depicted folks who are clearly having an mutually enthusiastic great time with each other, then it would make a certain amount of sense that they don’t change their minds mid-awesome sex.

    More to the point, however, many people in pornography are not depicted as having an awesome time. In particular, woman who look disinterested at best, demoralized or even a bit in pain are COMMON portrayals in mainstream porn. Yet these women are commonly not shown to renegotiate, suggest activities they would prefer more, call for an end, or anything else, other than continue to “take it”. Men who look disinterested or bored or disengaged from their sexual behaviour are also common.

    If porn’s purpose is, as you say, to sexually arouse, then apparently it is calling for people to be sexually aroused by sex with uncomfortable partners who appear that they would rather be elsewhere. Problematic at best.

  8. Jessica said,

    September 29, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

    Pornography, at its core, is meant to be a way of addressing a fantasy that one perhaps cannot, or should not, address in real life. As other comments have noted, I highly doubt that any of these fantasies involve anything less than “perfection,” as imagined by the subjective mind of the potential viewer. Now, what constitutes a “perfect” woman (or man, for that matter) is of course influenced by the media–and it’s a standard that is basically arbitrary and needs changing. But as it stands, porn exists so that people will have something ideal in front of them while they get off. That’s it. That’s why there’s porn involving all sorts of scenarios and participants–BBW porn, scat porn, furry porn, and even porn wherein the central focus is balloons.

    A key to this fantasy is that it matches the attention span of the average person in the middle of a masturbation session. If you were to fantasize about owning a brand new car and taking it out for a drive on a beautiful, clear day, you’d probably skip the part where you have to work to save money for the car. And the part where you didn’t get to go the weekend you’d planned because you caught a stomach bug. And then when it rained the next weekend. Likewise, we all know that sex can include complications that aren’t addressed in porn–because that’s not what porn’s for.

    I think the real issue you need to tackle here is where adolescents are getting their sex education. Financial planning ought not be rendered from car commercials.

  9. Kenzie said,

    September 29, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

    Jessica, as an almost complete aside I find it interesting that you (vaguely) equate car commercials and porn, which suggests either that car commercials are entertainment (ah, well, that’s what auto makers and advertisers *want* you to think!) or that pornography is an advertisement for different kinds of sex that you don’t yet have in your life. Not saying you meant exactly that, but interesting nonetheless.

    You said:

    But as it stands, porn exists so that people will have something ideal in front of them while they get off.

    In reply, I’m just going to repeat something I said in an earlier comment:

    More to the point, however, many people in pornography are not depicted as having an awesome time. In particular, woman who look disinterested at best, demoralized or even a bit in pain are COMMON portrayals in mainstream porn. Yet these women are commonly not shown to renegotiate, suggest activities they would prefer more, call for an end, or anything else, other than continue to “take it?. Men who look disinterested or bored or disengaged from their sexual behaviour are also common.

    If porn’s purpose is, as you say, to sexually arouse, then apparently it is calling for people to be sexually aroused by sex with uncomfortable partners who appear that they would rather be elsewhere. Problematic at best.

    My point, perhaps poorly enunciated, was that people do not have something ideal in front of them when they watch pornography. Ideal might well be what they’d have in their head if they just fantasized. I suspect it’s likely that people would, for the most part, fantasize enthusiastic and excited partners. Which is one of the ways that fantasy and pornography are different.

  10. tea said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 9:30 am

    If we are critiquing porn this way, can we please do the same to the whole romantic comedy genre? i watch and enjoy porn (i’m queer, i watch queer porn, pink and white productions if anyone is interested) but find the whole romance genre WAY more damaging to what we think about how love and relationships work.

  11. Kenzie said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    Hi tea,

    I know very little about romance novels, having never really read any (at least not of the harlequin type), but I’d be interested in your take.

  12. antiplondon said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 10:22 am

    Hello,

    I’d still really like to quote and link to this post at the Anti-Porn Feminists blog, but I need a clearly stated ‘yes’ from you so I know you’re ok with that!

    Thanks!

  13. Erin said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    Tea,

    I think you are right in that contemporary images of romance are damaging but I don’t think we need to form a hierarchy competing with porn for which is the most damaging.
    Porn is damaging to people’s lives. Whether romance genre is or not does not detract from how problematic porn is.

  14. bri said,

    January 25, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

    thankyou. i am going to use some of your for an english essay, i hope you dont mind. i promise to cite! thanks =]

  15. MLF said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    I know this is old but I can’t believe that someone suggested Adam and Eve porn as “utopian” porn – not even close. For one – it has A LOT of anal sex in it (nothing to do with female pleasure except for women who only gain their pleasure through a mans). None of the positions looked stimulating for the women. There were even scenes devoted to “blowjobs” (complete with throat F**cking) but NONE devoted to going down on women. There were a bunch of threesomes – where the two women were pleasuring the man but when it was two men – it was about the one woman pleasuring them both. And all of the women are white, with implants and fake tans.
    Ugh – why can’t people SEE that?
    The only reason I watched one was because my ex had hidden it from me and I found it when he was at work. I was curious about what he was getting off on. I’m SURE that he didn’t see the degrading things I saw in it.
    I think one of the problems is that the people who come on-line and defend porn have NEVER stopped and actually broken down the porn they watch (they’ve never critiqued it like “does that position stimulate the clit? or Does she really look like she’s enjoying anal sex?). You won’t see the sexism or the cruelty unless you are looking for it.
    Anyway – good points you mentioned. I found this through the anti-porn blog

  16. Delianth said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

    It’s purely about “how would I like my sexual encounter to go?? – fantasy in the daydream “fairytale castle? variety, no more.

    I find this really… scary. Maybe you don’t see this, but having an ideal sexual fantasy where someone’s comfort is ignored, where they’re put in straining positions, and where there’s no focus on people as people is really unhealthy.

    Because porn is sociopathic: you use people like that’s disposable. Maybe you can’t see where I’m coming from like that; I certainly don’t see where it’s personally acceptable to fantasize about it.

    Then there’s that it’s not your fantasy. It’s not. It’s not about “how would I like my sexual fantasy to go?” because it has nothing to do with your fantasy: it’s someone else’s entirely. And I’m pretty sure I’ve punched that person before.

    And the other thing is that, as I know in my experience with and coming back from porn, the more you watch porn, the less you know about what you really like. (Unless you’re a sociopath, but I hope not.) Your sexual fantasies and what you find attractive molds around what’s being presented to you as sexy and hot, especially if you masturbate to it.

    Porn is hard as hell to get out of your head. And even aside from the idea of a teaching tool (and I too have heard the same thing from people), you’re just presenting another Utopian Promise of Porn: it’s just a harmless fantasy that has no effect on you or anyone else. It’s just masturbation material. It’s just something (supposed to be) sexy and attractive to get off to.

    I find it really disturbing that you don’t question that.

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