In her most recent post in our series of exchanges, Meghan Murphy asked me to answer a number of questions. Some of those questions were inspired by a commenter at her place named “Pisaquari”, who wanted to challenge me on my views about pornography and sex work as they related to my own life. I had written:
I reject porn use personally because it is incompatible with how I want to live my sexual life. I want my sexuality to be radically relational, where my arousal is inextricably linked to intimacy and partnership. I also want my sexuality to be congruent with my feminism, and for me personally, that means rejecting porn.
Meghan asked me to clarify, sensing (as did Pisaquari, apparently) a disconnect between my private behavior and my public views. While there are plenty of men who condemn pornography and sex work in public and then indulge in one or both in private, it’s a bit rarer to take the opposite tack I’m taking: affirming sex work and the possibilities of feminist pornography while remaining “personally opposed.” (It sounds a lot like the famous position of Mario Cuomo on abortion, who said he couldn’t countenance abortion personally but was strongly supportive of abortion rights.)
Meghan asked a number of questions; I’ll tackle the first four here.
1) Why is pornography use incompatible with your sex life? What are the specific lines of impasse between your sex life and using pornography?
I’m a big fan of monogamy. Mind you, I don’t think monogamy is morally superior to all other ways of arranging sexual relationship. As long as we’re talking about mutuality, enthusiastic consent, and radical honesty, I think that there are many equally valid ways of living out one’s sexuality with other people. I want my sexual energy to flow towards my wife and no one else, even in fantasy. Since looking at porn (and presumably masturbating to it) would involve fantasizing about other people, that’s not something I see as compatible with my vision of monogamy.
I’m not a naturally monogamous person. I don’t know if many people are. But I like the discipline of total monogamy, which I find very rewarding and fulfilling. That really is more personal predilection than anything else. I no more expect others to share that same value system than I expect other people to share my fondness for soccer and my dislike of baseball.
2) Is pornography use incongruous with your feminism? What tenets of your feminism are not in line with pornography use?
It’s not incongruous with my feminism. It’s incongruous with my personal value system about sexuality at this point in my life. I used a lot of porn when I was younger, almost all of it before the internet era. (I wrote a tribute of a sort to Bob Guccione last year.)
But I do think that there are many different types of porn, much of which is blatantly anti-feminist. From my perspective, what I find to be the most loathsome genre of porn is the one that follows a deception narrative. A porn actress pretends to be a naive ingenue looking for a modeling gig and then is tricked into having sex with the photographer or his friend. I assume (or hope) that the deceit is only feigned. But I find the idea of being aroused by another person’s manipulation or humiliation to be fundamentally incompatible with feminism. Enthusiastic consent is sacred, or ought to be. And porn that ties the viewer’s arousal to the violation of informed consent — that strikes me as deeply problematic.
So, if the question is “can a heterosexual feminist man look at porn” without being a hypocrite, I think the answer is yes. But we need to ask what kind of porn he’s looking at. Being aroused by the naked body of someone you’ve never met, gazing with desire on another human being — that’s not inherently anti-feminist. The conditions under which those images were created matter. The story line connected to those images matters. And the way in which the use of those images affects the viewers’ relationships (specifically their views of women) matters enormously.
3) Why is pornography not inextricably linked to your version of intimacy? What version of intimacy do you ascribe to that is undermined by viewing what, could ultimately, turn out to be an empowered, feminist woman?
I like sex that is radically relational. I know there are empowered feminist women in porn. Some of them are friends of mine. But I want my arousal — and my entire sexuality — connected to my marriage to Eira. I know from my experience with porn years ago in more than one past relationship that it’s easier sometimes to get off to an image than to connect with another complex human being. So I’d use porn and have no energy for the woman I was with. I learned that sexual intimacy in a long-term monogamous relationship involves a kind of conservation of resources. If I’m getting off to an image on a page or on a screen and as a consequence have less interest in marital intimacy, we’ve got a huge problem. I’ve seen that problem and lived that problem and damn well don’t want to go back there.
I have an empowered, feminist woman with whom I’m privileged to share a home, a life, and a bed. I want all my sexual energy going into the relationship I have with her.
4) Would you also reject porn made by one of your students who claimed she was empowered by the experience and wanted your opinion? Taking into account that you wouldn’t want to diminish the importance of her personal experience by denying her the right to be viewed…
Let me be clear that I think there’s a difference between looking at and “using” porn. Like most people, I don’t find all porn arousing. I’ve had students in the porn industry, including a few well-known ones like “Julia Ann”. On a couple of occasions, I’ve looked at their work out of curiosity or directly because I was asked to.
I’m not sure I buy the idea that porn is addictive the way, say, cocaine is addictive. I can’t imagine snorting coke and not getting hooked on it (I was a cokehead for a long time). Porn doesn’t work that way in my life, and I’m not sure it works that way for others. In other words, I can usually see it without being invariably sexually aroused by it. That doesn’t mean I spend a lot of time looking at porn for “research purposes.” A lot of it is boring or unpleasant, frankly.
I am developing a course called “Navigating Pornography” for spring 2012. There’ll be more about that to come.
Changing Views About Sex Work
I’ve gotten to know a lot of sex workers in the last couple of years. I started to move away from a reflexive anti-sex work position after a powerful conversation with Audacia Ray at the 2008 Women, Action, and Media (WAM) conference in Boston. I’ve shifted my views substantially towards a “harm reduction” rather than an “abolitionist” stance. I’m excited to be forming a partnership with Sex Workers Outreach Project-Los Angeles, our partners at SlutWalk. I’ve got a project in the works with Jessie Nicole, the director of SWOPLA. More on that soon.
So while I’ve had a major ideological and political shift around sex work and pornography, I remain devoted to the particular way in which my wife and I practice monogamy in our marriage. My sexuality is “lockboxed” with Eira. In a sense, that liberates me to interact in an utterly non-sexual way with everyone else, while also challenging me to work on maintaining radical intimacy in my marriage. Do I think that every feminist, or even every straight male feminist, needs to do the same? Absolutely not.