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A rambling on anti-porn

2010-01-19 01:34:22.736271+00 by Dan Lyke 14 comments

In the Times Online, Natasha Walter pimps her forthcoming book Living Dolls in an excerpt entitled "How teenage access to pornography is killing intimacy in sex". It's a meandering piece that throws a bunch of assertions and opinions against the wall to see if something sticks. More cogently written is a response: The Pursuit of Harpyness: The Thin Line Between Pearl-Clutching and Concern, which asks why critiques of pornography always engender flame wars.

I am sympathetic to MacKinnon and Dworkin largely because, from reading and thinking about their analysis of porn for several years now, I understand them to be starting from a place where they define pornography as material that exploits women.

I haven't read anything else on The Pursuit of Harpyness, so I don't know how the pro and anti porn flame wars go there. In fact, for the most part I've just been ignoring the anti side, except when I run across Ren pointing out some of the sillier (and more hateful) idiocies of it, but let's re-cast this paragraph a bit: What if the author had said "I'm sympathetic to the ideals of PETA, that pet ownership is slavery and all meat is murder. Why can't we have a civil discussion about the evils of domestic cats and hamburgers?"

Pretty much the same thing.

So when the first article says:

I do not believe that all pornography inevitably degrades women, and I do see that the classic feminist critique of pornography is too simplistic to embrace the great range of explicit sexual materials and people’s reactions to them. Yet let’s be honest. The overuse of pornography does threaten many erotic relationships, and this is a growing problem. ...

Well, she's put a little bit more verbal Vaseline® around it, but it's essentially the same thing. "Really, I don't believe all porn is bad, but pornography is destroying the fabric of the universe! I mean, the bad porn, of course." This is why the reaction to such statements is so strong: Use another word for what you mean, but if you go redefining words on the fly, try to say "really, I want to have an open discussion about this, but I'm going to 'define pornography as material that exploits women'", then you don't really want to have a discussion about it.

And you have no right to whine when you're called on it.

Having said that, I believe that much of modern porn is horrendous. But I think for the most part it's just a small reflection of the evils of the larger culture, and we fight that by having discussions about how we can find more fulfilling interpersonal relationships, not by demonizing and strawman arguments.

[ related topics: Sexual Culture Sociology ]

comments in descending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-22 15:53:26.225325+00 by: Medley

I don't agree that Harpyness was intellectually dishonest. Re-reading the piece, I don't read it as her asserting that definition as the correct one or even the one that she proposes using, but rather saying that she understands Dworkin et. al. better when she reads them as using that definition. *shrug* I actually thought it was a pretty carefully-written piece.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-20 09:53:25.306303+00 by: DaveP

I'd be happy if more openness and critique of porn led to better porn.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-19 23:34:55.311084+00 by: Dan Lyke

Medley, absolutely agreed. What I'm objecting to in both of those articles is a lack of intellectual honesty, not that they are critical of pornography.

And then I'm saying that more openness about sex and pornography is likely to lead to closer intimate relationships, and I've probably done a bad job of separating those two statements.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-19 23:28:20.776598+00 by: Medley

It is possible to be a staunch advocate of free speech and association and still believe that some speech (or association) merits criticism. The one does not preclude the other.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-19 22:48:29.057228+00 by: m

Degrading cultural images? Not being able to read what one wishes to read, not being able to see the images one wishes to see, not being able to participate in the activities one wishes to participate in with one or more consenting adults. There are no more degrading cultures where the above are prohibited. There are no greater obscenities than societies which decide which voluntary behaviors are acceptable and which are not.

For me this is a defense of the other person's predilections. My "porn" celebrates the beauty of the face and form of women. The standard by which all other beauty is celebrated. Classical as opposed to gynecological poses. Art that shows something about the human condition. Well drawn, photographed or described. Preferably with one subject. Domai rather than daisyChainTrannies.

Raunch doesn't bother me. I just find it boring. I once had a lateral in a Medical Examiner's office who could only be talked into going out of his way if someone was willing to fawn over his collection of forensic photos of autoasphyxiation strangulations and hangings. You can't find a whole lot of stuff that is worse on the web, and these were at least technically high quality. Its just meat if you don't have to smell it. Though there is sorrow for the victim. That their satisfaction was of a nature that it killed them.

I have always, since perhaps 12, found the entire range of human sexual behavior fascinating. But that is an attempt at intellectual understanding. I am a plain vanilla serially monogamous het. Intimacy, the sharing of self, only starts when the clothes come off. The finding of the true depth of sexual experience takes just that with a partner. Sex with the same person after 15 years does not have the heat that it did in the beginning, but there is (or rather if one is lucky and willing to make the effort) a complexity that is more profoundly important and satisfying than the lust that filled days and nights with lower integrations.

But for someone to find porn repugnant tells quite a bit about someone. That is in itself a constrained localized inadequate optima which is its own illness. Its just genitals, and things people do with them every day.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-19 21:02:18.439968+00 by: Dan Lyke

Oh, and for critique of degrading cultural images done right, you are all reading Sociological Images, right?

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-19 20:59:21.17535+00 by: Dan Lyke

Medley, agreed on carefully delineating terms. My point is that when we carefully delineate words to mean something that they clearly don't generally mean, we're getting into post-modern deconstructive manipulation rather than productive discourse. In particular, pornography is generally agreed to mean "material intended to appeal to the prurient interest". If we suddenly redefine it as "material that degrades women", and then say "pornography degrades women and is therefore bad", the only thing we've done is associated a word which formerly didn't have that meaning with a tautology.

This is intellectual dishonesty and fuzzy thinking of the highest order.

So, on the evils of beezlewhoozle: I think the first Penthouse magazine I saw had a non-consensual bondage spread in it. I remember this particularly because I found that same issue in two different places, one in the stash of an older brother of a classmate of mine, one hidden in the magazine rack behind one of my grandfather's recliner. It told the story of the abduction of a woman through violence against her husband and, of course, followed the trope that eventually she chose to stay with her abductor because the sex was so good. Or something.

I'm not certain when I saw this, but I know it was before I was "a teenager".

Was it degrading to women? Heck, it was the '70s, "chick" was still an accepted mainstream term, it was Bob Guccione: almost certainly. My mind is fuzzy on the details now, three decades later, but it could probably be interpreted as promoting rape (although I think one has to be careful walking that line, but I'm going to give a whole lot over to the "beezlewhoozle is bad for kids" argument).

Bondage and walking the line of consent indeed occupied much of my fantasy life for many many years.

It turns out that, post Internet and the chance to communicate with other people about this and explore that fantasy through beezlewhoozle more fully a whole lot of the allure fell away. But those few pages of airbrushed imagery held a lot of power with me because they were so strongly shunned, hidden away, the sort of thing that we kids knew we shouldn't get caught looking at.

So I go back to the first article and see

Even though Jim began to have girlfriends from the age of 19, he never managed to shrug off the power of the fantasy world. “The power of pornography has continued throughout my adult life. Nothing has really measured up to the world of porn, for me. I’ve seen thousands of strangers having sex. So when I have sex, I am watching myself having sex.”

And I think two things: First, that evidence by anecdote is really shakey, but, more importantly, that it was widespread access to all sorts of beezlewhoozle in the privacy of my own computer that showed me that what I was really looking for wasn't all of this fetishy stuff, it was a deep intimate trusting connection with my sexual partner. I can see thousands of strangers having sex in all sorts of wild and strange ways and none of it is nearly as interesting as a willing partner who's looking into my eyes and sharing with me.

So my experience of how free and open access to degrading beezlewhoozle changed me is exactly the opposite of what Natasha Walter is trying to prove by anecdote. Watching people having meaningless casual sex where they weren't respecting their partner as a person helped show me the value of a deeper intimate connection.

Which, I think, is also proved by all those studies that find a reduction in sexual violence correlated to an increased access to sexually explicit materials.

(In fact, last night as I was cleaning the kitchen I was listening to an audio tale that, 20 years ago, probably even 10 years ago, would have had me horribly aroused, but I ended up deleting it because although the characters in it were both aroused and the situation was consensual and all of that stuff, they were strangers having sex for the sake of having sex and it did nothing for me.)

Now to the point of critiquing pornography: Oh, @DEITIES yes! I want room for good stories that happen to have sex in them. We aren't going to get this as long as we're redefining "pornography" tautologically and using that fallacy to label it bad.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-19 19:41:14.852232+00 by: other_todd

Medley: I have unintentionally misled you. I was making a broader generalization about the use of the banhammer based on all these years of dealing with people for whom that is the default response, the path of least resistance. I have been clashing swords in minor ways with the Dworkinesque since well before I was briefly a sex writer, and well after. I wasn't actually basing the comments on any contextual clues in those two articles.

Your comment about "unqualified generalities" is quite true and I apologize - not for the generalities, which I maintain are true, but for the lack of qualification.

All that said, you have a definite point about the teenagers. If we were somehow to craft an agreement that said, "We will magically keep this sort of material out of the hands of humans who are too young to realize that in the real world sex is Not Like That, and moreover should not be," I would sign onto that agreement. In a heartbeat.

Unfortunately such an agreement is not likely to ever be possible, what with teenagers being so good at the internets and all, and thus I fear any attempts to do that badly, resulting in restrictions for the people who CAN be given access. Do I make sense here?

Also, I don't think pornography should be exempt from critical comment. In fact, I wish to god there were more; it might improve the quality of the pornography. Unfortunately, I learned years ago that for many readers/viewers, perhaps the majority of them, quality is close to actually being a detriment; it just gets in the way of the smut. This is why I essentially stopped calling my pornographic stories "pornography" and started describing them as stories which happened, almost as a side effect, to have explicit sex in them.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-19 18:45:29.730128+00 by: Medley [edit history]

In some spheres, trying to carefully delineate and define one's terms rather than speaking in unqualified generalities is seen as a good thing. As an erstwhile mathematician, I'm more comfortable with discussions that begin "Assume x = ..." than those that just start talking about "x".

But fine. Let's make up a word, then, if "pornography" is to be granted privileged status as not subject to qualification for the purposes of a discussion. Let's say, "beezlewhoozle" = "material that exploits women" (noting that Harpyness did observe that one needs to come to terms about the meaning of "exploitation" as well..) but setting that aside for the moment, I am still left with my concern:

"The massive colonisation of teenagers’ erotic life by commercial beezlewhoozle materials is something that it is hard to feel sanguine about. By expanding so much in a world that is still so unequal, beezlewhoozle has often reinforced and reflected the inequalities around us.

This means that men are still encouraged, through most beezlewhoozle materials, to see women as objects, and women are still encouraged much of the time to concentrate on their sexual allure rather than their imagination or pleasure."

And I'm still left with the personal challenge of how to (eventually) deal with culturally educating an adolescent who'll inevitably be bombarded by beezlewhoozle that the impression of women and of sexual relations he garners from the omnipresent beezlewhoozle is ... at best .. inaccurate.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-19 18:20:34.162361+00 by: Dan Lyke

I actually read through both of them pretty carefully, especially the first one. I was looking to nail down the thesis of the first one because I wanted to ramble a bit on the notion that what we currently define as an "intimate relationship" is largely a 1970s construction. But as I dug down further and further into both of them I discovered that same sense of "we're going to use a word that's commonly used in one sense, and repurpose it".

Which is why I think such things are so pernicious.

I've no problem whatsoever in bringing pornography to the fore as a target for cultural critique. The reason that the Harpyness author has had so much problem doing so is that that's not what she's doing, she's using one set of words to mean another thing, carefully redefining them in the process of her essay, and then complaining when people call her on it.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-19 17:11:00.523266+00 by: Medley [edit history]

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-19 16:20:58.996628+00 by: ebradway [edit history]

Obviously the people who believe porn destroys intimate relationships don't believe in evolution... This sounds like a self-correcting problem.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-19 14:37:09.973807+00 by: other_todd

The problem is that applying preemptive or corrective measures for the people who tend to get caught in a loop, and having it take, is a MUCH harder problem, requiring thought, care, and work. Far easier to just lower the banhammer.

Why bother sorting out the people who can consume [pornography|computer games|obnoxious music|fill in the blank-of-the-moment] safely and sanely from the people who cannot? Why bother with careful watching and prevention for the ones who can't consume the material without issues? Just prohibit it all. Problem solved, except for the minor matter of the baby going down the drain with all that bathwater.

We go through this argument every time there is a messy sex crime or a shooting spree, and every time the people who say, "Wait, you can't just throw everything out because one person showed an inability to deal with it" end up looking like the bad guys. I've been one of those people for 25 years. I get tired some days.

Dan, the Dworkin crowd are the main reason that I gave up on either public or private endorsement of certain groups. The irony is that I would be ninety percent in agreement with their principles and desires, but the "all porn is violence against women" tenet is a deal-breaker for me, and always will be.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-01-19 13:22:15.579863+00 by: m

Bad porn! Bad porn! Go put your clothes on!

"Bad porn" is horrendous. To be so classified if it does not have an aesthetic, beauty or is incapable of arousing or educating the viewer in some manner or other. It wastes time, paper, ink, silver chloride, GBs, or some other valuable resource.

Yeah, some individuals with OCD will get enter a closed loop on sexually gratifying material, or possibly even on "Bad Porn". But that is true of just about everything in our society. From collecting postage stamps to Oxycontin. From workaholism to pulling ones own hair out. From gambling to compulsive cleaning. We need to find solutions for those individuals, not ban work, force everyone to shave all their hair every day. It is not the thing, but rather the individuals capture in a localized, but negative optima.