L from Editorializing the Editors posted a comment on one of the blogs in this series referring to the internalization of porn culture by women as a widespread case of Stockholm Syndrome, an apt characterization if there ever was one. I’m of the opinion that women who participate in and defend the production or consumption of pornography have been conditioned by our porn-crazed culture to believe that the choice to capitulate to the porn industry’s demands on women’s sexuality is something that they themselves desire. Don’t get all upset with me and tell me that I’m robbing women of agency. I’m not. I’m arguing that women, consciously or not, choose to participate in their own objectification because the rewards for doing so are better than the difficulty that comes with resisting porn culture’s demands. The parameters are laid down by the forces that be (patriarchy, capitalism, etc.), not by women. Women who choose to participate in porn culture are just exercising what instrumentality they have within a restrictive system.
I’ve suffered through reading, deleting, and even responding to a lot of comments that center on the idea that some women choose to be involved in the making of porn, that some women like to watch porn, that some women like to be treated like the women in porn, that women are “taking control” of some aspects of the porn industry, that there are forms of porn that are not misogynistic, blah fucking blah. There are as many arguments for the continuation of women’s exploitation and subjugation as there are varieties of pornography, and none of them are right. Almost all arguments in defense of porn production and consumption spring from the kinds of libertarian economic and social positions that most people who aren’t comfortable with the religious right but also aren’t comfortable with the idea that their actions have consequences beyond their own lives exhibit. Libertarianism is naive and myopic in almost every sense, and porn is no exception.
Men who use porn know that, deep down, they think it’s odd that the women they’re jerking off to have “chosen” to participate in pornography (more on that concept here). It is odd that a woman would choose to work in porn, would choose to use porn, or would choose to defend men’s and their own porn use to other women. It’s odd because women should instinctively sense, when confronted with the vast majority of pornographic images, that what they are seeing is degrading to the human spirit. Evolutionary psychologists can make whatever bullshit claims they want to about men being “naturally” prone to becoming aroused by visual stimulation (which is utter horseshit), but no such claim has been made when it comes to women’s porn use, most likely because it would be absurd to argue that women’s porn use stems from anything other than a quest for acceptance in a world dominated by entitled and oblivious porn-using men.
I think I’ve got an explanation for why some women get into porn, and maybe even some alternatives to offer to women who are involved in their own objectification simply because they don’t see any other options. Women get the message from a very young age that their value lies in whether they are attractive to men. It’s hammered home by television, movies, ads, fairy tales, toys, music, etc. These outside influences are so strong that they can completely transform female (not to mention male, but I’m tired of talking about men) sexuality into something vastly different from female sexuality in its natural state. Women come to see themselves as if through a lens, as if through the eyes of someone else, after a lifetime of exposure to media that teach them to conceive of themselves in such a way. It is no surprise, then, that many women find that their own sexual arousal is highly dependent on the ways in which others seem to perceive them. Almost everyone is aroused by the feeling of being desired, but in our culture, that tends to become the chief element in women’s arousal. Many women see themselves as if watching from somewhere beyond themselves, and derive their sexual arousal from viewing their own sexuality as if through the eyes of an onlooker. Put simply, women in our culture are conditioned to be aroused by the idea that they can cause arousal in an observer.
It’s not a very big leap from that idea, which I contend exists to some degree in all women, to the idea that a woman would be excited by being viewed as a sexualized object, or by viewing images of other women as sexualized objects. In fact, I’d say that seeing beyond such systematic and forceful conditioning is the big leap, which is why there are so many “sex-positive” “feminists” and women who use and defend the use of porn, and so few outspoken anti-porn feminists. BUT… that doesn’t mean that the pro-porn crowd is right. Remember, everyone used to think slavery was OK, that women shouldn’t get to vote, that cocaine was a good beverage additive, that menthol cigarettes cured colds, and so on. I mean, look at how many people still think Family Guy is a good show and that Panic at the Disco is a good band.
How many times have you heard some woman who prostitutes herself in the pornography industry say that she’s “just an exhibitionist”? It’s exactly this process of women being conditioned to identify with their own objectification that allows such a woman to make that claim, and I wouldn’t argue that she’s being dishonest. What I would argue is that she’s either consciously or unconsciously avoiding thinking past that idea, because doing so would cause some serious emotional discomfort and require some difficult decisions. Participating in your own objectification comes with some major rewards; you get attention (although not respect), you get (limited and questionable) affection, you get a bunch of dudes lusting after you. In short, if you don’t think too hard about it, allowing yourself to be objectified can make you feel valuable and powerful in a system in which women don’t have a lot of access to power (and in which they are fairly consistently undervalued as human beings). Defending men’s right to use porn, and using porn yourself, gets you the approval of men who want nothing more than a woman who is just as into her own objectification as they are. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a dude tell his friends how pumped he is to have found a girl who is as dirty as a porn “star,” or how excited he is that his girlfriend likes porn as much as he does. It’s funny, though, I’ve never heard one of these same guys tell his friends how stoked he is that his pornified girlfriend is a cool person, or smart, or interesting, or funny…
What does going along with porn culture require of women? I’ve already argued that women, as a result of social conditioning, generally come to be aroused at the thought of arousing a third party, but is that the whole of women’s sexuality? Of course not. Human sexuality is very complicated (I would even argue that female sexuality is more complicated than male sexuality), and there are so many factors involved that I won’t even try to tell anyone what female sexuality “is,” but I will say that I’m pretty sure it involves more than just being aroused by being seen as a sexual object. Porn culture, in tandem with our mainstream media, has taught women and men that the object of sexual interaction is male orgasm, and that everything else that takes place is corollary to that. Even the most indoctrinated of women cannot derive all of their sexual pleasure from arousing men, so this poses a serious problem; women’s sexuality is almost completely ignored in porn, and is treated as a side dish to male sexuality in most other media. That’s ridiculous. Women’s sexuality, the more complicated of the two, is treated as if it were so simple as to be almost non-existent, and women who want to go along with porn culture in pursuit of male acceptance are being forced to make do with having only a very small portion of their own sexuality acknowledged and having the vast majority of their sexual needs ignored.
It’s a dilemma: is it worth the trouble to demand that our sexuality be taken as independent of male sexuality, that our sexual needs be met, and that we be seen as fully human individuals who approach sex with motives that extend beyond the desire to titillate men? It might not be for some people. There don’t seem to be a huge number of men who are interested in understanding female sexuality or in relinquishing their perceived right to define what sex is and should be. For some women, learning to make do with a less-than-perfect sex life might be the easier option when the alternative is risking being shunned, ignored, or called a feminazi, lesbian, or prude for demanding that their sexuality be accorded the consideration men’s sexuality is.
But the only way that will change is if more of us do exactly that. I’m of the opinion that a lot of men, if they actually knew what real female sexuality was about, might find it more interesting than what goes on in porn. I also think that a lot of women would be surprised to find out just how complex and full of possibilities female sexuality is. Instead of thinking about new ways to sexually manipulate men, why not think about new ways to experience your own sexuality? Women need to start thinking about themselves more and about men less in almost every arena in life. It’s difficult and it goes against everything we’ve been taught, but it’s ultimately the most rewarding path in life, even if it is uncomfortable at times.