SEX! SEX! SEX! SEX!

I’m pretty much all about sex-neutral feminism, but I’m going to take a break from taking online “how emo are you?” (not very) quizzes to talk about sex now anyway. As much as I hate the fact that “sex-positive” “feminists” have nearly succeeded in reducing the feminist movement to arguing over whether waxing one’s pubes is or is not a revolutionary act, I do have to admit that sex plays a large role in my view of feminism, if only because it lies at the center of a large majority of the most visible forms of oppression that women face. That is not to say that I think that rape, pornography, sexual harassment, or objectification are about sex — I know they are just as much, and usually more, about power as they are about sex — but it does mean that I think sex needs to be talked about, a lot.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about his views on infidelity, and he told me that making out with people didn’t count, that it was intercourse that was out of bounds. This struck me as very strange.  I mean, I know that having sex with people outside of a supposedly monogamous relationship carries the risk that the offender will bring various cooties back to his partner, but is that all that matters? I’m pretty sure that most people’s problem with infidelity is the idea of their partner being intimate with someone outside the relationship, which would include even the mildest of make-outery, would it not? I realize that plenty of people have drawn this distinction in order to ease their own consciences, but what can that thin line between third and fourth base tell us about our culture’s view of human sexuality?

I’ve been thinking here and there about how sex is defined and imagined in our society since my first disappointing experiences with dudes, but a comment from reader M (who likes Panic at the Disco, which I will forgive since she brought up a good point) on one of my posts on porn has planted the subject into whatever part of my brain my thoughts on feminism hang out in, where it’s been mingling and making friends. When I heard this dude’s Joe Rogan-esque demarcation of the line between harmless tomfoolery and cheating, I decided the time had come to address this topic.

I know I’m not exactly blowing the lid off of anything huge or shocking the hell out of everyone by saying this, but sex in our society is defined by men. That means a lot of things for women, most of which are pretty uncool. Actually, it means a lot of things for men, too, and a lot of those are also uncool.

“Sex,” in the sense that we commonly use the term, refers to the act of intercourse. That means that our colloquial (read: widespread, common, main, chief, primary) definition of “sex” is “the act through which men reach orgasm,” and that whatever comes before intercourse is not sex, but rather “foreplay.” Since a very, very small percentage of women reach orgasm through intercourse alone, that means that women’s sexuality and pleasure is not a part of sex, but is rather a side dish. (And that completely leaves aside the issue of whether orgasm, male or female, ought to be considered the sole and ultimate goal of all sexual activity.) Sex starts at penetration and no earlier, and it ends at ejaculation and no later, because that’s how it works for men. Everything else is women’s stuff, and we all know that means it’s of little to no significance.

Well, that’s fucking stupid. Men, in a big hurry to get to the point, to close the deal, to score, are missing the fuck out.

Everyone knows how sex works for men because we’re bombarded daily with sexual images and narratives that center on the path to male orgasm, but what do we know about women’s sexuality? We know a bunch of bullshit generalizations, that women purportedly like wine, candles, flowers, incense, and Whitney Houston (no thanks on all counts), but what do we really know about female sexuality? Female sexuality, according to our popular culture, is wrapped up so tightly with male sexuality that the two are inextricable. In fact, the common picture of female sexuality is one that is completely dependent on and subservient to male sexuality. And that picture doesn’t just exist as some kind of fantasy that men have created, but rather has been absorbed by women and has actually come to dominate women’s own sexual identities. Women, as I’ve discussed before, have been trained by popular media to see themselves as if through the eyes of an onlooker, to derive their arousal and pleasure from their ability to excite their partners. In such a scenario, women don’t have the opportunity to find out what their “natural” sexuality might look like, because it’s been sublimated, it’s been erased and replaced by male fantasies turned inward.

So what does that mean in real life? Instead of learning what kinds of things appeal to them, women learn what kinds of things appeal to men. Instead of learning about how their own bodies work, women learn how to use their bodies to titillate. Many women, especially young ones, engage in completely unfulfilling sexual encounters, not knowing that there is more to sex than male orgasm or, knowing that there is, being afraid to ask for more. Even those women who have figured out how to incorporate their own pleasure into their sexual encounters still labor under the dominant narrative of what sex is, and often feel pressure to hurry up and get their silly business over with so that the “sex” can commence.

One might argue that, as long as both parties get to their final destination, it doesn’t matter what terms we use to refer to the different parts of the journey, but it does matter. It matters because we live in a male-centric culture in which the default human identity is male, and in which women are not afforded the same measure of humanity that men are. When sex is defined as intercourse, and when the completion of the act is synonymous with ejaculation, men control sex, and women’s sexuality disappears completely, or is acknowledged only if men choose to do so. Women in our society are considered adjuncts to men, and such a view forces women to conform their sexuality to that of men. It takes an abnormally self-aware and thoughtful dude to take full account of female sexuality, and I’m therefore not very comfortable leaving the definition of sex up to men.

It isn’t just because women’s ability to get off is at stake that I’d rather not leave the delineation of what sex is and isn’t up to men, it’s also because I’m more than a little concerned at what men have come up with since they’ve been in charge of defining and elaborating on what sex means. Sex cannot be divorced from gender relations; the dynamic between men and women in this culture is hostile and sick, and it’s just getting worse.

We’re in a downward spiral (it’s Trent Reznor week here at RATM). Men feel threatened right now. The gains women have made socially, politically, and economically scare men who believe that women’s equality can come only at men’s expense. They don’t want to lose the power over women that our culture has told them is their birthright, and the anxiety that women’s social gains cause in such men expresses itself in their degrading, and often violent, misogynistic fantasies. See advertising, entertainment media, strip clubs, and porn if you need some examples of what I’m talking about. It’s hard to come away from any of these with any impression other than that men, threatened by the loss of their privilege, are attempting to put us back in our place, and that they are doing so in the most sinister of possible ways.

I often attempt to recreate for myself the instinctive, subconscious processes in the minds of men who go in for the objectification and degradation of women, and it goes a little something like this: “I feel like my economic and social position is precarious, and I feel powerless in the face of the men I see as my superiors and the institutions they have created. I’m supposed to be above women in the social hierarchy, but they are getting too close to me, they are threatening to take the things I thought were mine. I’m afraid, and so I am angry at the people who are making me afraid. But I need women in order to fulfill the most essential of my biological desires, and I also need them in order to have a full life, according to the ideal that my culture has set up for me. I want women, I desire women, but I can’t have them unless they will allow me to. I am angry at them for not wanting me, and I hate them for making me afraid that I’m losing my tenuous grip on my rung of the ladder.” Is there anywhere for that train of thought to lead but to Max Hardcore’s house?

As pornography infiltrates mainstream culture to a greater and greater extent, women’s sexuality, which has always been constricted and defined by men, is being forced into ever more painful contortions. As weird as some of the things I’ve seen in my life have been, thank fucking Christ I’m not a teenager right now. Every time I read about the way young people approach sex I get terrified. It seems everywhere I turn I read some heinous anecdote or survey in which I have to hear about the horrific things young women are putting up with, or about the disgusting and degrading things young men “expect” (fuck you) out of their partners. Men who’ve grown up watching internet porn don’t seem to think it unreasonable to ask their partners to allow them to ejaculate on them, don’t think there’s anything wrong with demanding that someone “do anal,” don’t know why their girlfriends might not enjoy being called “bitch” or “whore” during sex. (It really makes me wish that lesbians wrote books and put on camps that could train people to go queer, kind of like the ones the JC lovers put on claiming to “teach” people how not to be.)

Why would we elect to let people who hate us dictate our sexual identities to us? Why would we rely on people with such dim views of our humanity to treat us with dignity, respect, and care? Why don’t we decide for ourselves what sex is and should be, and tell these motherfuckers to get on board or get to wanking?

Fuck, now that I think about it, why would men even buy into such a limiting and dehumanizing picture of sexuality? I know that power is seductive, but it’s a pretty bad trade-off for men when they don’t actually gain any power in any real sense, and when they lose so much of their ability to experience the best things sexuality has to offer in the process.

Leaving aside the degradation of and violence to the human spirit that is pornography, our more mainstream cultural pictures of male and female sexuality are still pretty fucking stupid (though they are, of course, heavily influenced by and have a heavy influence on porn). Human sexuality isn’t a simple matter of “women want love, men just want to fuck.” That, despite the pseudo-scientific bullshit pumped out by our media that would have us believe otherwise, is not the “natural” or “instinctive” state of human sexuality, but rather the creation of the commingling of sexuality and power that characterizes our current sexual milieu.

I’d like any dude who reads this to ask himself if fucking random strangers is really as fulfilling as Entourage makes it look. It’s made out to be pretty fucking exciting, but it can’t live up to its promise and is really a poor substitute for what human sexuality has to offer. It’s dangerous, awkward, embarrassing, dehumanizing, and completely deadening, even to those who have an easy time of getting strangers to get naked. Fucking is the realm of those with huge ego problems and insecurities, and it’s disappointing to me to see women latching onto the practice as an ill-conceived attempt to clamber toward some kind of equality with men.

Now, I am not saying that women ought to face censure for their sexual behavior. I’m not saying women ought not to be as free as men are to have sex with whomever they choose, whenever and however they choose. What I am saying is that men, inasmuch as they’ve come to view sex as a tool of domination, have lost a key part of human sexuality that women still possess for the most part. Without sinking into gender essentialism, I think it’s safe to say that women, in general terms, have retained the most desirable elements of human sexuality because we haven’t gotten sex mixed up with power to the same extent men have. We ought not to be in a big hurry to toss that away. Equality doesn’t necessarily derive from imitation; no matter how much we emulate men’s piggish sexual behaviors, they still hold the power in our society. Fulfilling male fantasies might get us some short-lived attention and might allow us to manipulate individual men for a few hours or days at a time, but it amounts to dick in the long run, and it robs us of the best of what human sexuality has to offer.

I don’t mean to sound like a fruitcake, but humans have some pretty unique and important abilities when it comes to sex. We can empathize, we can love, and we can reach levels of emotional understanding through sex that pigs can’t. We should be exploring those abilities rather than suppressing them so we can be more like men, and men ought to be asking women how sex should be done instead of telling us.


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The First Amendment is only sort of cool.

I generally like the First Amendment. The second one kind of blows, but the first one has some fairly good bits:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I don’t want to talk about the religion part here, except to say that religion is a huge drain on the world’s resources, both financial and mental, but I think I’m about to get into some territory that some of those I’ve just offended with that statement might agree with me on; the First Amendment was designed to protect political speech, philosophical and social discourse, and the rights of people like me to voice their opinions on falafel, The Doors, and The Lord of the Rings without fear of recrimination beyond the censure of those who think falafel tastes good, The Doors weren’t the funniest band in history, and that The Lord of the Rings was a good book or movie series. Thank the (most likely non-existent) lord for that. However, as rapacious and lascivious as some of the patriarchs who founded this here nation were, I’m pretty sure none of them intended that the very first amendment they added to the republic’s founding sheet of parchment would be used as a pretext for defending the “right” of motherfuckers with morals lower than whale shit in the Marianas Trench to create videos simulating the gang rape and sexualized murder of women, and the simulated rape of children. Or have I lost touch with what these dudes were all about? I mean, I know some of ’em owned slaves, but…

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I love nothing more than clean logic, so you can see how the contradiction inherent in the intent and use of this amendment might come close to making my brain explode. Well, if you think that shit is mystifying, check out the obscenity guidelines laid down for deciding when something falls outside of the protection of that whole “freedom of speech” thing:

For something to be “obscene” it must be shown that the average person, applying contemporary community standards and viewing the material as a whole, would find (1) that the work appeals predominantly to “prurient” interest; (2) that it depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and (3) that it lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Well, fuck. That settles it. Not only should simulated rape and child porn be illegal, but so should Family Guy, the entire American Pie franchise, most bands that have been on MTV from 1993 to the present, strip clubs, every work of “art” in any museum in the American Southwest, professional sports, baldness drugs, Stephen King novels, the Bedazzler…

But seriously, would it be possible for anyone to come up with a more nebulous and subjective standard? It all comes down to the role of judges, and I’m a little worried about how many of them seem to think they’re doing free speech a favor by allowing companies like Extreme Associates (who I will NOT link to) to keep pumping out their how-to videos on rape, and by allowing various companies to keep producing virtual child porn. Several of these cases have come before the high courts in the last decades, and the pornographers win virtually every time. I’m an academic (and a half-assed expert on American legal history), so I know how the US government is designed to work: the high courts are here to protect the minority from the “tyranny of the majority,” and that has worked out pretty well in cases like Loving v. Virgina, Brown v. Board of Education and other such cases in which state laws, although based on consensus, were out of keeping with basic human morality and decency. Legislatures are beholden to the stupid ideas of the populous, so we have judges, who are there to make judgments based on their own understanding of the law and their own consciences as to what is to the betterment or detriment of society. But is the fact that the “average person” is offended — nay — terrified at the idea of simulated rape, child molestation, and snuff porn films really a form of tyranny?

What it comes down to is whether one believes that the consumption of pornography that simulates sexual assault will ultimately fuel the growth of actual sexual assaults. The answer is, unefuckingquivocally, YES! It is a well documented fact, as well as common sense, that sexual obsessions tend to escalate rather than dissipate, and when an individual with a desire to rape, to hurt women, or to molest children comes into contact with pornography that depicts just the kinds of acts he (or, in the rarest of cases, she) fantasizes about, his obsession with that act will increase, in many cases to the point that he will act on it.

There are several reasons for this. First, finding that there is an entire community of other people interested in the same sorts of acts has the effect of normalizing those acts in the mind of the viewer. The sense that the act is illegal and socially abhorrent, which could potentially prevent such a person from acting on their impulses, is weakened by the widespread availability of pornography depicting such acts. Second, and this is something I’ve mentioned before in my posts on mainstream porn, there is no more powerful conditioning mechanism in the world than orgasm. What we pair with orgasm we are almost inexorably drawn to. I am not saying that such a pairing will always lead to action on the part of the viewer of these kinds of pornography, but it sure as fuck increases the likelihood. And, as much as I detest the obscene amounts of violence we are exposed to in our mainstream media on a daily basis, this is where the difference lies: sexual obsession abetted by the conditioning power of orgasm is much more likely to lead to illegal acts, and hence create harm in society, than the viewing of violent media, which carries no equivalent reinforcement mechanism.

You all know I think that mainstream porn has a negative influence on our society and our personal relationships, but I’m not now nor have I ever advocated that it be banned. All that would do would push it underground and make the already abominable conditions for the women involved in the industry even worse. But the difference between mainstream porn, as misogynistic and detrimental to the human spirit as it is, and the kinds of porn I’m discussing here, is that nothing ILLEGAL is being depicted in most mainstream porn (despite the fact that most porn could be called hate speech, there is no hate crime legislation protecting women). Again, although there are innumerable illegal violent acts depicted in mainstream media, these are not connected with orgasm and with sexual paraphilia, and are thus vastly less likely to lead to actual violent crimes. But the simulation of illegal acts, of the rape and mutilation and torture and murder of women and children, the viewing of which is likely to lead to actual sexual assaults on women and children, ought to meet all three of the standards of the definition of obscenity in all but the most depraved of individuals.

But don’t dismiss this as a lunatic fringe issue. As much of a niche (though growing) market as rape, torture, and simulated child porn is, the simulated rape and murder of women in video games (Grand Theft Auto, anyone?) seems to be the number one route to whopping sales these days. Does the simulated rape and murder of a prostitute in a video game appeal to prurient interests? It does if prurient “interest is an appeal to a morbid, degrading and unhealthy interest in sex, as distinguished from a mere candid interest in sex,” as the law defines “prurient interest.” Could we say that it “depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way”? I think so. Could we say that it “lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value”? Damn skippy.

So what’s the fucking problem?

*Thanks to the esquire for the conversation and some of the ideas that gave rise to this blog.


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Porn Part 5: The Other Half of the Big Picture

In the vast majority of porn, to quote Robert Jensen, “women are reduced to three holes and two hands. In pornography, women are reduced to the parts of their bodies that can sexually stimulate men. Women are not really sex-objects (which at least implies they are human) but more fuck-objects, simply things to be penetrated.” Anyone who doesn’t believe that such a message, when communicated repeatedly to a huge proportion of the population and coupled with the world’s most powerful conditioning mechanism (orgasm), doesn’t have an effect on our society is a fucking fool. By coloring people’s perceptions of women and their relative humanity, porn has directly contributed to the growing (yes, growing) misogyny in our popular culture, it has directly hindered women’s progress toward financial, social, and legal equality, and it has directly fueled the increase in sexual assaults across the country, especially the lesser discussed kinds of sexual assault that are becoming so common that they are almost no longer deemed noteworthy.

Not to bring up Robert Jensen every three sentences, but he’s made a point that I find extremely salient when it comes to how porn affects women’s lives. If I have to go to court tomorrow, or I have to go discuss my career with my boss, or I have to work on a project at work or school with men, or I have to deal with a cop, or I have to rely in any way on a man in a position of authority to treat me fairly, shouldn’t it worry me to think he might have been watching a film the night before in which a woman has her head shoved into a toilet while someone uses her like a piece of toilet paper? I know some of you may say that the authority figure in question probably wouldn’t be equating me with the woman he jerked off to the night before, but can someone really suspend their sense of empathy long enough to jerk off to an image like that and then see me as an equal human being the next day? Doubtful. And men get together every day to make decisions that affect women’s lives. Men decide whether to promote women, whether to give them raises, whether to hire them, whether to take their claims of sexual harassment seriously, whether to pass a law that hurts or harms their rights to equal pay for equal work, safe and effective health care, etc.

At issue in all of the controversies surrounding porn seems to be whether men can separate porn from reality. Is that really the question to be asking? How about asking why we need to do that? Why do we need two sets of women, one that can be abused for the enjoyment of a wanking audience, and one that should be treated otherwise (but not necessarily like equals)? Isn’t the argument that one can separate porn from reality a tacit admission that something is wrong with what’s going on in porn?

As interesting as that entitled assumption might be to analyze, it just isn’t possible to make such a firm distinction. I know that men are capable of differentiating between what they see in porn and what they can expect in real life, but I don’t believe that their view of women and their character and nature escapes the influence of pornography unscathed. Pornography is anti-woman propaganda, and its delivery mechanism is one of the most effective there is. Every man who uses porn ought to ask himself whether porn has had any influence on the way he understands women and the way he thinks about them, especially when he’s angry with them. Be honest, if only with yourself.

But fuck that. I don’t need any dude to be honest with me about that concept, because the proof is in the assault statistics. I don’t suppose I’ll be shocking anyone when I say that rape and sexual assaults have risen across the board in tandem with the exponential increase in internet porn and in tandem with the ever-increasing violence and degradation in porn. One of the most stentorian messages communicated by pornography is that women are hyper-available, that they are here to be used by men for what purposes men choose to use them for. I know plenty of men are smart enough to realize that isn’t the case, but plenty of others aren’t. Do I have a SINGLE female reader who hasn’t been assaulted (if one includes uninvited groping as well as date rape and stranger rape under the umbrella of assault, as one should) at least once? I doubt it. When men come to see women in the way that porn portrays them, there is nothing that seems out of bounds. Grabbing a stranger’s ass at a party? Yelling obscene shit at a woman on the street? Asking a stranger to “show us your tits”? No problem. In fact, younger girls are so used to it that most of them don’t even take offense anymore. Some even take it as a compliment. How slippery is the slope from these kinds of behaviors to date rape? Porn tells boys and young men that they need not respect women’s physical and emotional boundaries, and the message is clearly getting through. Surveys of young men these days show that a shocking number of them don’t think there’s anything wrong with having sex with a girl who is unconscious, and that a woman cannot be raped by her partner.

Lay estimates (meaning common wisdom) tell us that almost all men use porn. I believe that, and I believe that nearly all of the men who use porn have unwittingly absorbed some of its messages about women and their place in the world. How are we ever supposed to expect any kind of equality to develop when most men don’t see most women as full human beings, but rather as conglomerations of sexualized body parts and undesirable personality characteristics? No one can honestly claim that porn doesn’t affect the way men view women, and thus no one can claim that pornography doesn’t negatively affect the way women are treated in our society and women’s chances of ever achieving social and legal equality.

Porn Part 4: Half of the Big Picture

Apparently I should have written these next few posts first, since there are people out there who can’t handle discussions of the fact that a lot of women are uncomfortable with porn without getting all Diablo Cody on me and whining about how I’ve ignored the fact that there are different kinds of porn and the fact that there are women who like porn. Don’t get your tattoos in a bunch, I’ll get to both of those issues. But first, I’d like to discuss some of the larger cultural, social, and (to a lesser extent) political issues that revolve around the consumption of porn, which I hope will help clarify my position for those who think I’m just some kind of anti-sex prude who wants to piss on their porn parade (and for those who know that, despite the fact that I do love to piss on a porn parade, I’m not an anti-sex prude).

First, I suppose I need to explain what kind of porn I’m talking about here. I am aware that there are as many kinds of porn as there are novelty t-shirts with Will Ferrell movie quotes on them, but the vast majority of porn depicts men doing things to women, women who aren’t actually gay doing things to each other for the benefit of a presumed male onlooker, and women doing things to men in situations in which it is abundantly clear that the woman doing the things to the man is doing so at his behest. I’m not going to talk about real lesbian porn or gay porn in this post because I’ll most likely touch on that in the sixth one. I’m going to talk about the vast majority of porn in this post, because that’s what most people are doing when they use a general term, referring to the general character of the things that fall under that rubric.

The defense of their porn use that most men half-assedly trot out in arguments amounts to a self-imposed short-sightedness and a self-constructed world of very shaky delusions about the purported “harmlessness” of their actions. I am about to produce some facts and analysis that I expect should ruin the porn experience for any dude who is even remotely thoughtful and honest with himself, so I warn you, if you want to be able to continue half-believing yourself when you tell yourself you aren’t causing anyone any harm when you use porn (free or not), don’t read on.

Robert Jensen, who you should all get down with immediately, once described a porn video in which a young woman dressed as a cheerleader was spat upon, ejaculated upon, and called horrible names while performing oral sex on a group of men standing around her in a circle, all while she pretended to be enthusiastic about the experience because that was her “job.” Jensen noticed something at the end of the scene that most other viewers probably didn’t: the girl was visibly traumatized, to the point that she had to hide her face from the camera, but then raised her head and continued to smile and pretend she enjoyed being treated like a… a what? I’ve been sitting here trying to come up with a simile for several minutes, and I’ve just realized that there is no such thing on Earth that is conceived of in the same way that a woman in porn is. Toilet paper doesn’t work because men don’t lust after toilet paper. Same with garbage. There’s no other object that is both desired and hated in the way women in porn are. The woman in porn is an object that allows her body and spirit to be used and abused by men and pretends to like it, she is an object that men both desire and revile, but whatever she is, she is NOT a human being that has feelings or the right to be treated with dignity, and she certainly isn’t a human being who is equal in any way to a man. I know that not all porn is quite so heinous as this, but this is hardly an unrepresentative example, and there is a lot out there that is much, much worse.

Men often tell me that they can make a distinction between porn and real women, but I find that a little hard to believe. I would like any dude who uses porn who reads this to do me a favor and think about something: what exactly is the difference between the woman you date, or work with, or know from school, and the woman you last jerked off to? What is it that separates these two “kinds” of women? Is it that one will allow herself to be treated like garbage and one won’t? Is it that one likes to “get fucked” and the other doesn’t? Is it that one is nothing but something to be used and tossed away and the other one is worth treating better than that? Do you conceive of either of them as people you can relate to? Can you understand what it’s like to be either of them?

I am of the firm belief that most men, when they think about what goes on in women’s minds, assume that it is vastly different from what goes on in their own, that they conceive of women as an alien species that is impossible to understand. You hear about it in hackneyed jokes about how inscrutable the female mind is and how simple the male mind is, in stupid talk-show discussions of how the sexes relate to each other, basically just about everywhere you turn. Women, according to men like these, are irrational, mysterious, and impossible to deal with, but they paradoxically can be reduced to a few simple and undesirable characteristics: materialistic, fickle, unreasonable, etc. Women are complicated in the sense that they are alien, but they are simple when it comes to human characteristics. The point of all this is, a lot of men do not see women as human beings like themselves. They would classify them as homo sapiens, but they do not seem to see women as similar enough to themselves to relate to on an emotional level. Starting from such a position, all they can do is divide women into classes based on their own desires for female behavior.

Men are just as affected by our bizarre cultural expectations and prescriptions for female sexuality as women are. Two millenniums’ worth of Judeo-Christian bullshit about the dual nature of woman has left some strange legacies behind. We’re stuck in a strange tornado of expectations; we’ve all absorbed the message that a “good” woman is chaste, demure, and pure, but men still want to have sex with women. That leads to some serious cognitive dissonance. Natural desires + repressive expectations = hostility and fear about those desires, which gets misplaced onto the object of those desires. So women who do what they are expected to are prized but also denigrated as prudes, and those who don’t are prized as objects of desire but also reviled and devalued for their transgressions. If men were able to identify with women as human beings with complex desires and motivations like themselves, it wouldn’t be possible for this dichotomy to continue. It wouldn’t be possible for women to be divided into the two rigid categories of whore or wife material.

That wasn’t a digression. It’s this cultural Madonna/whore complex that allows men to assume that they aren’t hurting anyone when they use porn and that they can differentiate between porn and real life. They can assume that some women are “just whores” (shrug). Some will argue that the women they see enthusiastically participating in demeaning sex acts are just into that sort of thing and, while they can’t understand it, they aren’t going to argue with her right to engage in it for money. (Let’s call that attitude opportunistic pornographic libertarian syndrome.) It’s this sort of willful refusal to look beyond appearances and this sort of willful refusal to consider the broader context in which women make the choice to participate in porn that allows men to use porn with a somewhat clear conscience. Men who use porn, if they think about it honestly, MUST admit that they do not see the women in porn as human beings possessing the same measure of humanity that they themselves possess, or else they would not be capable of dismissing the apparent strangeness of someone allowing themselves to be treated like a piece of trash with a shrug and a claim of bewilderment.

There are women who participate in porn willingly. I am not a fool, I know that some women do decide that’s what they want to do and do it. Some of them even think they’re empowering themselves by making such a decision (see the sixth post for more on that one). Despite the few over-publicized women in porn who run around telling people they’re in the business they’re in because they “love sex,” I find it hard to believe that men don’t know that the vast majority of women in porn got there by accident, and that that accident usually takes place at the end of a long road of drug addiction and physical and emotional abuse. There is no way to get at the real numbers on something like this, but a HUGE proportion of women in porn admit to having been sexually abused as children and/or having been raped. An even larger proportion of women in porn, some estimates put it at 75% or more, have serious drug problems that led them to porn in search of money and access to drugs. And then what happens when they get there? Porn producers are legendary for physically, sexually, and emotionally abusing the women that work for them. The culture of the industry is such that the women are seen as disposable; once they’ve been in too many films, once they stop looking “barely legal,” once they get sick or too strung out, they’re tossed out like garbage, which is interesting, considering the fact that it’s often the producers that got them addicted to drugs or got them into a situation that would make them sick in the first place. The porn industry is completely unregulated, as can be seen from the frequent outbreaks of HIV among porn actors that could have been prevented had the industry been required to test its “actors” or (gasp!) have them use condoms. Women are routinely abused and have no recourse to legal protections because they’re in an industry in which rape and sexual abuse are impossible to prove. And because they’ve supposedly “chosen” the whore role in our society, how much credence do you think the authorities attach to their complaints when they do make them? Sure, there is some “choice” involved in these women’s participation in pornography, but the options are pretty fucked up, and the potential for force and coercion is ever-present. Any man who uses porn and claims that he isn’t hurting anyone because the women in porn “choose” to be there is at best deluded and at worst lying outright. In any case, he needs to confront the fact that he’s probably masturbated on several occasions to women in such straits that they would allow themselves to be mistreated and pretend to be enthusiastic about it, or to women who were being forced to do things they didn’t want to do.

I’ve had some commenters tell me that they only like porn in which the woman looks like she’s into what’s being done to her. That’s so easy to counter it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Women in porn (foreign porn or niche American porn notwithstanding) are expected to act like they like what’s being done to them or what they’re being asked to do to someone else. It’s their job (see the example above). Who wants to confront the fact that the woman might be doing anything but having a fucking party? If she wasn’t enthusiastic, the men jerking off to her would have to confront all the issues I’ve just been talking about, and what kills a boner quicker than feeling guilty? If the woman looks like she’s into it, a man can suspend his disbelief in the idea that a woman would enjoy being spat on and slapped and called a whore long enough to jack off to images of just that. Or, to be less extreme (!), he can delude himself into believing that a woman enjoys being used like a set of holes rather than treated like a human being with her own sexuality long enough to get off.

There’s one more thing I must say on this topic that should really bum your party out if you’re into porn. The porn industry is fucking lousy with producers who not only don’t work too hard to make sure their “actors” are of age, but who actively seek underage girls as they know it will increase the revenue they can extract from the kinds of assholes who are obsessed with virgins and young girls. Chances are, if you use a lot of porn, you’ve participated in the rape of a minor by proxy, especially if you’ve ever done a search with the word “young” in it. There are also more than a few producers who don’t think it objectionable to employ women who are “working off” the costs of their transport to the US by engaging in forced sex work. That’s right, sex trafficking victims often end up doing porn. Surprise, surprise. Next time you men who are into porn read a story about women being tricked into a scheme in which they’re told they’ll be coming to the US or to Europe to work in a factory, only to arrive and be told they’ll be working in porn or in a massage parlor brothel, remember that you’ve probably jerked off to images of one of them being raped, especially if you’re into Asian porn (but there are plenty of other women in this situation from Eastern Europe and elsewhere). Choice? These women are in a foreign country with no legal protection and are at the mercy of the people who keep them in captivity and force them to do sex work by threatening their lives and their families. And guess what? They’re told that they won’t be making any money toward paying off what they “owe” if they don’t act like they like it.

I don’t want to ban anything because it doesn’t work. I just want to inform consumers about the impact of their choices (and hope they give a shit — har har), which is the only real way to effect change. You can keep using porn if you want to, but you can’t keep pretending to believe that there’s no harm being done when you create demand in an industry with practices like that. Basically, if a man, knowing all of this, continues to use porn, he’s tacitly admitting that he cares more about his own wanking than he does about the human rights of the women he’s wanking to. Let’s all just be honest.

Mind you, throughout this entire post I’m making the incorrect generalization that all men who use porn want to believe that there is no one being hurt in the making. But I won’t discuss rape and torture porn or snuff films, despite the growth in their popularity, lest I lose my mind.

To be continued…


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Porn Part 3: Porn Ruins Sex

I’ll say it again: Pornography hurts people. It destroys relationships, prevents people from developing healthy sex lives, cripples the sense of empathy, and generally hinders people’s ability to form the kinds of connections that make life interesting and worthwhile.

There are a lot of reasons not to use porn, but in this post I’ll stick to how it negatively affects people’s relationships and prevents people from developing the kinds of sexual relationships they hope to.

Women know most men watch porn. There are a few women who have absorbed the message that they are here to be used sexually to the point that they, too, get aroused by watching porn (more on this later), but most women are at least mildly bothered by pornography, whether they want to admit it out loud or not. A lot of women have been told so many times that men have some kind of “right” to use pornography that they will tolerate it in their relationships despite the fact that it hurts their feelings. Still other women will make it clear to their partners that they will not tolerate pornography in their relationships, only to find out after some time that their partner has been lying to them and using it anyway. Then there are the women who find men who will respect their wishes and not use pornography, but these women usually still worry that their partners’ previous use of pornography has created desires and expectations that they can’t or don’t want to fulfill.

I’ve never dated anyone who used porn openly in our relationship, but I have a sense of empathy, so I can tell you what it probably feels like. I know that a large majority of women in my mother’s generation tolerated the existence of Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler in their bathrooms, but I never found such a magazine in my house as a child, and I’d like to think that the reason was that my father cared for my mother’s feelings and didn’t want to do something that would hurt her. Or maybe once I was born he began to look at the women in pornography as other men’s daughters. I never asked, but I do know that porn was not a part of my life while I was growing up and that I am glad it wasn’t. Other women grew up in houses where it was assumed that men had a “right” to look at images of naked women who weren’t their wives, so they expected their partners to do the same when they got older, even though they were just as uncomfortable with porn as their mothers were.

It isn’t jealousy that lies at the center of women’s aversion to porn. Men want to paint it in such a light because it removes the responsibility for the damage porn use creates from them and places it on their partners. That is patently dishonest and unfair, and places a double burden on the woman. Not only does she have to tolerate having her feelings ignored and her presence disrespected in her own home (or in her own relationship), but she has to feel guilty for her own natural discomfort and conceive of her own rightful vexation as a character flaw. That’s what pornography does to women: it brings a huge set of worrisome issues into their lives, then tries to blame them for the fact that they are bothered.

When women see pornography, whether they’ve thought about it or not, they instinctively recognize that the women they are seeing are not being treated like human beings, that they do not want to be treated like the women in porn are treated, that the men they have sex with might be looking at them the way they must look at the women in pornography, and that their partners might not ever be satisfied with them unless they allow themselves to be treated thusly. It is understandable that women would not wish to have their partners use pornography, considering these factors, but when they object, they’re told that they’re being catty and jealous, and that “boys will be boys,” which is something they’ll just have to live with. Think for a second about the mental turmoil that can cause. Men who use pornography in relationships are basically telling their partners that they care more about their bullshit “right” to use images of women being exploited sexually than they do about their partner’s emotional comfort in the relationship. It’s not only insensitive, but it’s also evidence of a disgustingly arrogant sense of entitlement.

It’s easy enough to empathize with women who have to deal with a partner who refuses to stop using porn despite the fact that it hurts her feelings. What about the woman who believes she’s in a relationship with a man who cares enough about her feelings to stop using porn, only to find out he’s been lying to her about it? Finding out someone has been using pornography and lying about it is akin to finding out they’ve been having an affair. It’s a betrayal in a very serious sense because it means that that person has decided that their desire to do something is more important than the negative impact it will have on their relationship and their partner’s feelings. A woman who discovers her partner has been lying to her about using porn comes to several disturbing realizations. First, she discovers that he cares more about his supposed “right” to use women’s bodies as masturbatory tools than he does about her feelings. Second, she realizes that he has been using women outside of the relationship in a sexual way by proxy. Third, she discovers that he does not see women, including her, the way she thought he did; once a woman discovers that her partner uses pornography, she has to admit that they never saw eye-to-eye on women’s status as human beings in relation to men. At best, that means she has to admit that her partner has a Madonna/whore complex, and worse, she has to accept the fact that he doesn’t see her as a full human being but rather a set of essentialized characteristics. Fourth, she may look back over their sexual relationship and remember things that suggest that her partner was treating her or thinking about her like the women are treated and thought about in porn. At a minimum, she will begin to doubt every aspect of her sexual relationship and wonder whether it was ever based on true affection. Fifth, she has to compare herself to the kinds of women one most often sees in porn, and will likely begin to have doubts about how attractive she is or has been to her partner, and will also likely begin to have serious self-esteem problems and self-doubt that she didn’t have before. Finally, she will wonder how she can stay in a relationship in which her trust has been violated and in which she will never be sure that she is seen as a full human being.

What about the “lucky” women who find someone who actually does respect their feelings and does not use porn in the relationship? Good deal for those women, right? It would be, but there is always the lingering worry that their partner has been exposed to pornography, has absorbed its messages, and secretly wishes to recreate what he’s seen in porn. She will always wonder whether she is actually attractive to him, she will always compare herself to the kinds of women he has masturbated to all his life, she will always wonder whether he secretly desires more of the kinds of scenarios he has used to reach orgasm since boyhood. And rightly so. Orgasm is an extremely powerful conditioning device. What we pair with orgasm we tend to prefer. Or maybe she’ll wonder whether she ought to distance herself as much as possible from the kinds of sex he has seen in porn. Maybe he thinks there are “two kinds of women,” and only the good ones, the non-whores, are worthy of dating, while the other type are there for him to use sexually via the internet. Either way, she won’t feel free to express her own sexuality naturally.

Women in all of these types of relationships are stuck in a terrible conundrum: they want their sexual relationships to be loving and special, and therefore they probably want to make their partners happy, but they worry that doing so would require them to allow themselves to be treated like women are treated in porn. In all of these cases, the entirety of the issue revolves around men’s sexuality and their sexual desires, with women having to conform their own sexual behaviors to the desires pornography and the Madonna/whore complex have created in men. Women’s sexuality is entirely absent from the picture (more on that in the next post).

Men who use porn often approach their sexual experiences in vastly different ways from men who don’t. I’ve met plenty of dudes who claim that they can make the distinction between porn and real life, but I don’t believe it’s as easy as all that. There is a clearly one-sided dynamic in porn in which the woman is there to fulfill the desires of the man, not the other way around. The fact that she pretends to be pumped about whatever she’s doing is just another part of that dynamic; actual depictions of female pleasure in porn are about as common as Civil War re-enacters that aren’t racists, but men expect women to look enthusiastic about what’s being done to them in porn, or else it just isn’t fun. I mean, who wants to feel guilty about using someone like a blow-up doll? In porn, the woman’s body is there for the viewing and for the using, and it is moved around and positioned for the pleasure of the man. Female pleasure is at best a niche interest, and is most often either completely disregarded or faked for the man’s enjoyment. There’s no love in porn, either. It’s purely about male lust and female acquiescence, and that’s the mild stuff. I won’t even begin to get into the ever-increasing array of porn that features women being choked, having their heads shoved into toilets, or being slapped and called filthy names. I’m not going to claim that men who watch porn will come to bed with real women and recreate what they’ve seen in porn down to the last detail, but I will argue that having your orgasm tied to such images over long periods of time tends to seep into real sexual experiences. Men often unknowingly treat their partners in ways that make them uncomfortable because they’ve had more experience seeing how the women in porn react to certain behaviors than they have with real women. Any woman can tell whether the man she’s sleeping with is a serious porn user. What more proof do you need?

Pornography creates conflicting expectations that destroy the ability for men and women to meet as equals and use their sexuality to express their affection for each other. It creates dichotomies that force women to sublimate their own sexual desires in order to fulfill one of two restrictive and limiting (and usually unsatisfying) roles in sexual relationships with men. It destroys women’s sexual confidence, their sense of emotional and sexual security in their relationships, and their self-esteem. Doesn’t it make sense that a woman who feels secure and comfortable in her sexuality would be more fun to sleep with? If for selfish reasons only, men ought to give that some thought.

Porn breeds shame and fear for men and for women, which drastically impairs communication, and it cripples men and women’s ability to understand each other’s sexuality. That turns out to be a seriously shitty deal for women, but it’s even a lame trade-off for men. The influence of pornography prevents men from experiencing their sexuality and that of women in any but the most limited of ways. I promise, real female sexuality is WAY more interesting than the ridiculously one-dimensional representations of it in porn. Ask any dude who has taken the time to find out. Allowing porn to hinder one’s ability to experience all that human sexuality has to offer is like trading a video game about driving for a Ferrari (I like getting to bring up Ferraris — it makes me think about 1985, plus I felt it was time to stop being so serious). It’s just dumb. Regardless of the ethical and moral reasons to avoid porn, men ought to avoid it for their own benefit if not that of the women they care about.

To be continued…


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Porn Part 2: The High School Years

Pornography hurts people. It destroys relationships, prevents people from developing healthy sex lives, cripples the sense of empathy, and generally hinders people’s ability to form the kinds of connections that make life interesting and worthwhile.

When boys start looking at porn at an early age, they become desensitized to women’s feelings. Boys of 10 or 12 are too young to understand anything going on in a porn video except that it gives them boners and that women apparently like to be treated like a set of holes. I know that’s a gross way to put that, but that’s the message in most porn, isn’t it? They don’t learn anything about female sexuality, they don’t learn how women want to be treated, they don’t learn that sex can be anything more than sating a biological need, like eating or going to the toilet. Or masturbating.

These boys become teenagers and have their first sexual experiences, and they don’t understand why things are so very different than the fantasies porn created for them. If they’re thoughtful, they may have realized that women don’t really like to be treated like a set of holes, and they end up learning to live with the frustration created by the fact that their partners don’t do the things they’ve learned to associate with orgasm through years of watching porn. If they’re unthoughtful, they may ask their partners to do the things they’ve seen in videos, in which case their partners will either go along despite not wanting to do such things, or they’ll say no, which leads to the same frustration.

Boys also know that love exists, and they usually want to experience it, if Snoop Dogg and Maxim haven’t beaten it out of them yet, but the messages of pornography make navigating personal relationships difficult. How can young boys associate love with sex, when sex as they’ve been exposed to it looks like something you do to someone you don’t think very much of? I met a friend’s 15-year-old brother when I was 24, and he asked us if he could talk to us about his relationship problems and get our advice. He said, “I really liked this girl a lot, but she let me fuck her. Now I don’t think I like her anymore. I mean, she let me fuck her!” Let that marinate for a minute.

Girls generally don’t use porn to masturbate, so they usually don’t develop an association between orgasm and images of women being used/abused. Still, their first sexual experiences can be fraught with problems, too. Boys raised on porn don’t know what to do with a real female partner, so early sexual experiences are usually at least very disappointing, and likely uncomfortable and worrisome, for girls. Boys come to their first sexual experiences hoping that the girls they have sex with will duplicate the behavior of women paid to allow men to use their bodies, and girls come to their first sexual experiences hoping to be romanced and treated gently and carefully. They want sex and love to coexist, as it should, and are shocked when boys they liked enough to have sex with seem to develop hostile feelings toward them after they sleep together.

I know I’m generalizing, but our society (in the form of its media, porn included) tends to train young people to have exactly these expectations, and the fact is that it generally turns out exactly thus. There is a MAJOR disconnect built into this scenario, and it sadly reflects the reality that most young people face these days.

Alright, you’ll say, but early sexual experiences are almost always weird. Yes, but it isn’t as if actual sex replaces the influence of porn once we lose our virginity. Instead, even more complicated and conflicting issues arise once the two meet.

To be continued…


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Porn Part 1: How I Became A Rad Feminist

I’ve put off writing this post for quite some time because I knew it would be a long and fairly mentally tiring one, but the time has come for me to tackle the subject that brought me into feminism. I’m of the opinion that there is absolutely no defense possible for pornography consumption, and that pornography is a force that operates only to the detriment of everyone who comes into contact with it. That includes men. I’ll talk a little bit about the abstract theoretical problems inherent in pornography, but it’s really the everyday human costs of the industry that I’d like to discuss, because that’s where people feel and see the negative effects of pornography on their lives and the world we have to live in.

It seems today that a large portion of the young people in this country think being into heinous porn is some kind of hip, countercultural statement, especially for women (more on that delusion can be found here). That idea is pretty tired; when I was a teenager (mid-1990s) a lot of the dudes I knew already thought watching gnarly porn was some kind of lifestyle choice you made to go along with your skateboard and your Circle Jerks t-shirt. They would watch it in groups and come to school laughing their asses off about how gross it was. Although I’m sure there was some masturbation going on somewhere, a lot of the cachet of watching porn at that time seemed to revolve around the weirdness of the representations of sex in most porn; back then it wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now, and it generally wasn’t as hardcore as it is now, so hardcore porn tapes struck people as bizarre, as wildly different from their own sexual experiences. It was like finding out about the weird shit people in other countries eat: it might be exciting, but the excitement came from the foreignness of it.

I had never really seen any of it. My exposure to pornography had consisted of finding a Penthouse in my uncle’s bathroom cabinet at age 7 and watching a few Emanuelle movies on Showtime when I stayed up all night as an adolescent. I had no idea what these dudes were talking about, I just knew it sounded fucked up and mildly interesting for that reason. Then I saw some. Some asshole friend of some dude I dated thought it was hilarious to put porn tapes on in front of girls to get a reaction out of them, which he did once when I was at his house. It doesn’t surprise me, when I think back on it, that this guy was one of the few dudes I knew who owned hardcore porn tapes. He was a serious asshole, and he hated women. He treated the girls he dated like valueless property, he constantly cheated on them and sexually abused them, and he was always asking my boyfriend why he “let” me do this or that. I hardly remember what was on the tape, but I knew I felt like I’d been slapped in the face after I watched it, and not just because this jagoff had put it on in an attempt to upset me.

I decided at that point that I didn’t think porn was cool, that I didn’t think it furthered whatever kind of iconoclastic vibe these idiots thought they were laying down, and that I wasn’t going to date dudes who were into it. I probably couldn’t have explained very well what my reasoning was at the time except to say that I thought it was gross and that only dudes who treated women like shit were into it. What can I say, I’ve always loved generalizations. They work really well when you don’t feel capable of or interested in explaining yourself.

Most of my male friends at the time were on my team about the whole thing; they thought porn was something 12-year-olds got excited about but that mature motherfuckers like themselves (late-teens pretentiousness is awesome) should have outgrown it. It was something their dads did. Lame! I’m sure they were lying in at least some sense, but I didn’t know it at the time. It didn’t matter. Using porn for anything but irony-laden entertainment was shameful in the early and mid 1990s, at least among my circle of acquaintances, so no one was copping to it.

Then when I was 19 I found a porn tape in a drawer at my boyfriend’s house (Buffy the Vampire Layer — no, I’m not kidding). I felt completely justified in taking it out to the driveway and breaking it with a hammer. It was akin to cheating in my mind, and I was enraged to think that I had spent 4 months dating someone who was clearly an asshole, as I had decided all men who were into porn were. He came out and screamed at me that I had no right to destroy other people’s property and that I couldn’t tell him not to watch porn.

Something had happened in the space of a few years. Young dudes who had prided themselves on how non-mainstream they were and who rejected the kinds of roles society wanted to force them into had found a way to adopt one of their fathers’ worst habits and reclaim the right to use images of women being exploited without shame or irony. The same dudes who had been shocked by these videos to the point of giggling and telling people about them in whispers at age 16, at 19 were so accustomed to hardcore porn that they no longer bothered discussing the more shocking aspects of the images they had seen but instead recommended titles to each other and bemoaned their girlfriends’ “jealousy” that threatened to impede their access to images of women being used. Male privilege had outstripped iconoclasm, as it always does.

Well, it wasn’t jealousy that motivated my inveighing against porn. I will readily admit that I didn’t think it appropriate that someone in a monogamous relationship ought to be looking at images of other naked women and masturbating to them, and I still don’t, but that wasn’t the major issue. The major issue, as inchoate as it was in my mind at the time, was that I was devastated to find myself stuck in a relationship with someone who was at best incredibly unthoughtful and unreflective, and who at worst thought of women — possibly myself included — as less than human. I was already an undeclared feminist at the time, but that event pushed me to start thinking about pornography and its effects on women’s place in the world and on people’s personal relationships, and it pushed me to start thinking about the relationship between gender issues and the general nature of authority and nonconformity. And we all know thinking about that leads to radical feminism.

That’ll be the end of the personal information.

To be continued…


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