I keep saying I’m not going to post on pornography any longer, and then I promptly break that vow. A friend sent me a link to this Naomi Wolf essay from last October’s New York magazine (written before the news broke of her “encounter” with Harold Bloom).
Wolf makes a compelling case that far from inflaming men, exposure to porn deadens them to real, flesh and blood women (I’m quoting her at length here, but it’s worth it):
Young men and women are indeed being taught what sex is, how it looks, what its etiquette and expectations are, by pornographic trainingÃ¢â‚¬â€and this is having a huge effect on how they interact.
But the effect is not making men into raving beasts. On the contrary: The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as Ã¢â‚¬Å“porn-worthy.Ã¢â‚¬Â Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.
The porn loop is de rigueur, no longer outside the pale; starlets in tabloids boast of learning to strip from professionals; the Ã¢â‚¬Å“cool girlsÃ¢â‚¬Â go with guys to the strip clubs, and even ask for lap dances; college girls are expected to tease guys at keg parties with lesbian kisses ÃƒÂ la Britney and Madonna.
But does all this sexual imagery in the air mean that sex has been liberatedÃ¢â‚¬â€or is it the case that the relationship between the multi-billion-dollar porn industry, compulsiveness, and sexual appetite has become like the relationship between agribusiness, processed foods, supersize portions, and obesity? If your appetite is stimulated and fed by poor-quality material, it takes more junk to fill you up. People are not closer because of porn but further apart; people are not more turned on in their daily lives but less so.
To her great credit, Wolf not only recognizes this, but catches a glimpse of the spiritual nature of the solution:
I am not advocating a return to the days of hiding female sexuality, but I am noting that the power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time. In many more traditional cultures, it is not prudery that leads them to discourage men from looking at pornography. It is, rather, because these cultures understand male sexuality and what it takes to keep men and women turned on to one another over timeÃ¢â‚¬â€to help men, in particular, to, as the Old Testament puts it, Ã¢â‚¬Å“rejoice with the wife of thy youth; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times.Ã¢â‚¬Â These cultures urge men not to look at porn because they know that a powerful erotic bond between parents is a key element of a strong family.
And feminists have misunderstood many of these prohibitions.
I will never forget a visit I made to Ilana, an old friend who had become an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. When I saw her again, she had abandoned her jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a head scarf. I could not get over it. Ilana has waist-length, wild and curly golden-blonde hair. Ã¢â‚¬Å“CanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t I even see your hair?Ã¢â‚¬Â I asked, trying to find my old friend in there. Ã¢â‚¬Å“No,Ã¢â‚¬Â she demurred quietly. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Only my husband,Ã¢â‚¬Â she said with a calm sexual confidence, Ã¢â‚¬Å“ever gets to see my hair.Ã¢â‚¬Â
When she showed me her little house in a settlement on a hill, and I saw the bedroom, draped in Middle Eastern embroideries, that she shares only with her husbandÃ¢â‚¬â€the kids are not allowedÃ¢â‚¬â€the sexual intensity in the air was archaic, overwhelming. It was private. It was a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated West. And I thought: Our husbands see naked women all dayÃ¢â‚¬â€in Times Square if not on the Net. Her husband never even sees another womanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hair.
She must feel, I thought, so hot.
Good stuff, Naomi! I rejoice when a secular feminist sees the practical wisdom in religious tradition! I rejoice particularly when a figure like Wolf — who in her younger years came close to advocating promiscuity as a means of liberation for women — grasps just how empowering, not to mention erotically fulfilling, traditional sex roles can be for women!
I’ve often recommended Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty. Shalit makes an eloquent case for the reclaiming of modesty not merely for the protection of women but for their liberation. Sarah Hinlicky’s review in First Things (back in 1999) makes a case — from a Christian perspective — that is identical to Wolf’s:
(Shalit’s) powerful insight is that modesty is ultimately more erotic than licentiousness. Men are more excited, she suggests, by the twinkling eyes behind the veil and the slender ankle peeking out from the long skirt than they are by casually exposed body parts and effortless conquests in the sack. The most telling example of this is her comparison (complete with photographs) of turnÃ¢â‚¬â€œofÃ¢â‚¬â€œtheÃ¢â‚¬â€œcentury women lounging on the beach in their terribly demure bathing suits and positively wicked grins, with the dull, distracted expressions of dutifully unrepressed nudists on their beach. Mischievous and modest; bored and bare. Something more than meets the eye is at work here. Shalit wants the rules back because, without the rules, the unruly, the scandalous, the exciting, and the erotic all disappear into thin air. (All bold emphases are mine).
Wolf and Shalit both “get it”. If faith is the belief in things unseen, the erotic is the longing for things unseen. We’ve got secular Jewish feminists and evangelical Protestant feminists on the same page, folks.
Things may be looking up.
UPDATE: Anne strenously objects to the line of reasoning in this post, beginning her lengthy and heated reply to me: I am just so appalled by such limited thinking. One thing I’ve learned in teaching gender studies: the gap between my intent and other folks’ perception is often vast. I replied to Anne in her comments section, but I’m going to do some more reflecting.
I’ve also caught myself, and changed “Allan Bloom” to “Harold Bloom” in my opening paragraph. I’ve made that mistake before, and no one ever points it out. Given how different they are, however, it’s quite a boo-boo.