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. Continue reading