Navigating Pornography at The Atlantic

I’ve written about my Navigating Pornography course before (I Don’t Need to Know if You Masturbate), but today at the The Atlantic, I give a little overview: I Teach a College Class on How to Think and Talk about Pornography.. Excerpt:

Even more than history lessons and an introduction to feminist debates, my students need and deserve the tools to combat sexual shame. I never ask how many of my students use pornography, nor do I inquire about any of their other sexual habits. A safe classroom environment hinges on respect for students’ right to privacy. I don’t need to pry, however, to hear stories—as I invariably do—about confusion, guilt, and fears of “addiction” to porn. Millennials may be more tolerant of sexual diversity than earlier generations, but many grow up in homes where masturbation—which is, after all, almost inextricably linked with pornography viewing—is still seen as shameful or sinful. Many worry that they watch porn too much, or watch the “wrong kind,” while quite a few have had bitter arguments with romantic partners over the ethics of porn use in a committed relationship.

Students need more than history and theory. They need safe spaces to think through—and in some instances, talk through—their fears, desires, and uncertainties. When it comes to a subject like porn, a safe space means a place where they won’t be judged, mocked, or sexualized regardless of what they reveal. Of course my classroom is not a therapist’s office and I am not a therapist. The safe space they choose to talk through those fears, desires, and uncertainties probably won’t be in class, in front of me and their fellow students. What I want them to take from my class is a vocabulary with which to initiate the conversations so many people find impossible to start. For better or worse, we live in a world seemingly permeated by the pornographic. In such a culture, there are few more valuable skills than the capacity to talk with candor and insight about what turns us on, gets us off, shapes and shames us.

Erotic Disruption: on James Deen and my students at Daily Life

At Daily Life Australia, a column on porn star James Deen and his merrily disruptive sexuality:

“It felt really good to be in a classroom where we could openly acknowledge that women get horny too without it being unsafe or weird,” one student wrote in an email.

“What I got out of his talk was encouragement not to be ashamed of ourselves,” said another student. “We fear living out our true desires, and we fear the shame that will most likely shadow us if we do. Our college’s reaction to James Deen shows us exactly how much they’re still invested in perpetuating that shame … at least for women.”

It would be wrong to equate criticism of the industry that has made Deen a superstar with a refusal to accept that women are visual creatures, too. It’s possible to be against both porn and shame. At the same time, there’s no denying that Deen’s meteoric rise reflects a cultural shift towards acknowledging that young (and not so young) women are as hungry for sexual pleasure as men.

As the unprecedentedly nervous administrative reaction to Deen’s appearance on my campus showed, that shift is profoundly threatening. When men realise that women aren’t just sexy, but sexual in their own right, the fear of not being able to live up to female demands can become overwhelming.

The more we deny and shame women’s libidos, the more we insulate men from the pressure to satisfy them. That’s what makes Deen such a destabilising, even dangerous cultural figure.

Read the whole thing.

On the James Deen event at Pasadena City College

For the second consecutive spring semester, I’m teaching my Humanities 3 course “Navigating Pornography” at Pasadena City College. A year ago, I brought in many guest speakers with widely differing views about the adult entertainment industry; among those speakers were porn performers Kelly Shibari, Alana Evans, and Chris Evans.

In Spring 2012,I attempted to book James Deen, the hugely popular award-winning porn star who grew up in Pasadena and attended PCC a decade ago. His schedule didn’t permit a visit. This year, we were able to agree on a date, and James is expected to come and speak to my students tomorrow, February 27.

As has been common practice over my 20 years at Pasadena City College, professors often invite the public-at-large to attend guest lectures by prominent public figures. Since the mid-1990s, I’ve co-sponsored events with the Associated Students whereby speakers address both my class and other interested attendees in a larger space than my classroom normally provides. We’ve often done this with very controversial speakers; in 1999, for example, a Humanities class which I team-taught brought in the late founder of the Jewish Defense League, Irv Rubin. (Rubin would later go to prison for a plot to murder Congressman Darrell Issa. He committed suicide in custody.) The administration at the time had no problem with press and non-students attending Rubin’s lecture, and did not require special permits. In teaching other controversial classes like Lesbian and Gay History, I’ve brought in other speakers (like Sheila James Kuehl,the first openly gay woman elected to the California State Senate) for events co-sponsored with the Associated Students.

As local and national media are reporting today, college administrators informed me at noon today that they were closing the James Deen event to the public, requiring me to hold the event in my classroom for students only. Though I had pulled a valid activity permit with the Associated Students (the exact same permit I acquired for speakers like Rubin and Kuehl, etc), the college legal counsel and vice-president for academic affairs overrode that authorization. Other faculty members who have sponsored similar public events with the same sort of permits were as stunned as I was. Whatever else might be said, the decision was not in keeping with long-standing traditions of the college. (We’ve had a lot of turnover among the administrators in recent years; the two “suits” with whom I met are kind, competent, and both relatively new to the college.)

Gail Cooper, the college’s legal adviser, told me that she had received word that there might be up to “100 protestors ready to march” on the event, and that the college had decided they lacked the resources to prevent disruption. I told her I was surprised; when James Deen’s own PR firm publicised the event, I’d received a few critical phone calls from conservative community members, but no threats of protest. I’m no stranger to controversy; I told Cooper I thought it odd that none of those threats had been directed towards me. I frankly have no idea if the college did receive legitimate threats of protest, or if right-wing members of the board of trustees (or other prominent campus leaders) balked at offering a welcome to James Deen.

I do want to say that both Cooper and Robert Bell, PCC’s VP for Academic Affairs, stressed that I was within my rights to invite Deen to speak to my class only. I appreciate that they recognize and support academic freedom. But I’m mystified by the refusal to extend a welcome to Deen, now widely recognized as one of the college’s most famous alumni. I have seen no verification of the threats of disruption or protest, and remain unconvinced that the event could not — like so many other similar events in the past — have come off safely and without any hitches for students and the public alike.

I told Cooper and Bell that canceling the public portion of the event would only generate more controversy as I worked with Deen’s representatives to change the press releases and change Facebook invites to which many had already responded. I was left with the impression that they felt that the harm that would be done by hosting someone like Deen (if only because of the “threat of protests”) trumped the negative publicity for the college.

Late today, the college issued this press release. The statement says that we reached an agreement to move the event to a closed classroom. I want to make clear that there were no negotiations; I was simply told that the public event was off. This was a decision unilaterally imposed rather than negotiated. I respect that the college gets to make decisions based on student and public safety, but I contest the implication that James Deen’s appearance posed a potential threat to that sense of good order on campus.

I teach “Navigating Pornography” because I want to equip students with tools to think critically about a pornified culture. I want them to step into a safe space that is neither sexualized nor prudish, that is neither blithely celebratory of porn nor puritanically condemnatory. I want them to wrestle with a wide variety of texts, images, and persons so that they can better understand the role of porn in on our culture. I want them to become advocates for intelligent conversation. Speakers like James Deen, himself an immensely articulate and thoughtful speaker whom I’ve enjoyed interviewing in the past, bring a valuable perspective to both students and the general community.

I am deeply disappointed that all those who were eager to hear James will be unable to do so. I am grateful that my students will still be able to hear him. And I look forward to welcoming other porn performers (and public critics of porn) to my class in the future. I remain proud to teach at Pasadena City College.

UPDATE: I want to note that all the invitations to the local and national adult and mainstream press were made at the request of James Deen and his media representatives. The only reporters I had invited to cover his talk came from the Pasadena City College student newspaper.

Why Condom Laws in Porn are a Bad Idea

My latest at Jezebel looks at a local issue with national implications: Los Angeles County Measure B, an initiative on the November 6 ballot that will mandate the use of condoms in porn. Even here in the global capital of mainstream adult film production, the measure is widely misunderstood.

For the piece, I interviewed sexual health experts like Charlie Glickman and Chauntelle Tibbals; I also spoke with porn legends James Deen (a Pasadena City College alumnus) and Nina Hartley. Steven Hirsch, the founder of Vivid Video (one of the largest porn production companies in the world) also shared his thoughts.

Excerpt:

As it turns out, it’s not that simple. For starters, as Deen and sexual health experts familiar with the industry agree, what makes for safer sex in private doesn’t translate well to an adult film set. In an email interview, porn legend Nina Hartley explained that in her business, “condom burn is a real issue. The friction from the latex, even with lubrication, is painful and breaches the integrity of my mucosal membranes, putting me at greater risk for disease transmission.” Pointing out that the average length of sexual intercourse in “civilian life” is only a few minutes, Hartley noted, while the shortest porn scenes require an absolute minimum of “half an hour of hard thrusting by a well-endowed young man. It’s hard enough to deal with w/o condoms. Add latex to the mix and I’m down to being able to work with a man once a week at best, to say nothing of the damage it would do to my private life and intimacy with my husband.” Veteran sex educator Charlie Glickman agrees, pointing out that “what you do in your home kitchen never has the same protocols as you have in a catering business.” Adding to Hartley’s concerns about the damage rubbers can do to women’s mucosal membranes, Glickman notes that condoms themselves degrade rapidly over the course of scenes that can last upwards of two hours to film, making them less effective as barriers to infection.

What does work, according to Hartley, Deen, and other performers, is testing. Porn actors are tested for HIV and other STIs at least once every 28 days (Deen notes he’s tested twice as often) at a variety of private testing sites overseen by Adult Production Health and Safety Services, a service administered by the industry’s trade group, the Free Speech Coalition. The track record of these testing protocols has been extraordinary, with even critics of the industry willing to admit that porn performers test positive for STIs at a rate well below that of the sexually active “civilians” who are their fellow Angelenos. (For a detailed description of how testing works –- and how negative test results are verified by onset inspections -– see this post from the porn performer Stoya.) Vivid Video CEO Steven Hirsch told me that the porn industry has produced “more than 300,000″ hardcore sex scenes since 2004, with only two cases of HIV infection – both in performers who contracted the virus from untested civilian partners. That remarkable safety record is attributable to testing and what Deen describes as a “close-knit family atmosphere… where mutual trust is sacred” in the business.

My interviews with Glickman, Hirsch, and Deen were all on the phone. Nina Hartley, however, answered a number of questions in email form. Below the fold, I’m posting our entire Q&A. Continue reading

Teaching Sexuality, Respecting Student’s Privacy: Where and How to Draw the Line

My latest at Role/Reboot looks at how we set healthy boundaries in college courses that focus on sexual subjects: I Don’t Need to Know if You Masturbate.

Excerpts:

As college courses on sexuality proliferate, professors across the country are increasingly finding themselves in trouble because of what they’ve shown, asked, or assigned. In separate incidents in April, instructors at Fresno State in California and Appalachian State in North Carolina were each placed on leave, accused of showing “objectionable” sexual material to their students. Last year, a professor at Northwestern University got in trouble for hosting a live sex demonstration (which was optional for students to attend).

It’s not just videos or live presentations that have attracted controversy. Earlier this month, a student at Western Nevada College claimed that her human sexuality professor required students to share their sexual histories in journals, papers, and class discussions. According to Inside Higher Education, “students were asked to describe different types of orgasms and describe how they sexually stimulate themselves, specifically referring to certain parts of the female anatomy.” The professor, Tom Kubistant, promised not to read the explicit journal entries, claiming he would only “scan” his students’ scribblings to make sure they’d actually covered the topic. A federal complaint has been filed against Dr. Kubistant.

The safest places to talk about sex are—not entirely paradoxically—those that are desexualized. When students know that they won’t be mocked, won’t have their privacy invaded, and won’t be the subject of a professor’s prurient interest, they are able to do what we so rarely do in our culture: discuss sex candidly and (almost) fearlessly. The need to feign an insouciance or expertise that they don’t actually feel can slip away. The more students know that their boundaries are respected, the more comfortable they’ll be sharing their stories and listening non-judgmentally to those of their classmates.

Read the whole thing.

Men, MILFs, and the Madonna-Whore Complex

Eira and I are home from our trip to Israel (I’ll try to write something about that soon). We’re off to Montana on Sunday, so the summer travels aren’t entirely concluded.

I do have a quick piece up at Good Men Project today: The Real Meaning of MILFs. Excerpt:

Though we had planned to have a home birth, in the end my wife needed a Cesearean in the hospital. (Our daughter was wedged into a breach position, and few obstetricians will support a vaginal breach birth these days.) I was at my wife’s side during the procedure, holding her hand and whispering encouragement, while watching with great interest as the surgeons did their work—blood and viscera galore.

I got to see the amazing moment Heloise was pulled (butt first, of course) from my wife’s body. I was there when our daughter latched on for the first time to Eira’s breast. I was awed and humbled by what I saw. And though I wasn’t turned on by watching the birth and the 15 months of subsequent breastfeeding, witnessing my wife’s transition into motherhood did nothing to reduce my attraction to her. That doesn’t make me unusual or heroic.

Read the whole thing. For an older piece on a similar subject, here’s my 2005 blog post Men, Childbirth, Lust.

The “completely insane castrati sings”

I am a Dan Savage fan, America’s favorite sex columnist, but would rather he hadn’t chosen to call me a “castrati” in his response today to my Jezebel/GMP piece. In To Tell The Truth, Dan writes that my post at Jezebel was “completely insane”.

Joe Perez offers a kinder and more nuanced take here: Why Hugo Schwyzer and Dan Savage don’t see eye to eye about porn.

In eight years of blogging, I’ve never been on the receiving end of quite so much invective as I have been these past ten days since my “spermgate” post hit. It’s quite an experience. Good thing I’m a rather happy-go-lucky ENFP Gemini.

And shouldn’t I be a castrato, anyway?

Are you a controlling shrew if you don’t want your partner using porn?

The now-infamous Newsweek report on men who buy sex has drawn the predictably tremendous response throughout the blogosphere. The best take-down of the report’s methodology and conclusions came from the always excellent Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon. I recommend reading the original Newsweek piece and Clark-Flory’s response together.

But the conversation soon switched to the great evergreen of pornography use. I wrote a short response for Good Men Project (which got picked up at Jezebel). In the comments section below the GMP version, I got into a friendly argument with the magazine’s managing editor, Aaron Gouveia — which begat a post of its own here: A Vehement Disagreement about Porn.

Leaving aside the issue of whether pornography is degrading or empowering, putting on a shelf the question of whether its use is compatible with feminism, pressing the pause button on the debate about whether it casual use will invariably turn compulsive, there’s a basic query that has come up again and again: what right, if any, does someone have to ask for a “porn-free” sexual relationship?

We all come into sexual relationships with our “stuff” — our physical libidos, our private histories, our most enduring fantasies, our painful memories. Our sexuality is shaped by a constellation of factors: biology, faith, experience, will, fantasy, and more. Our sexuality belongs to us; as the authors of The Ethical Slutso famously put it, “the fundamental sexual unit is one person.” That makes good sense.

But when we come into any kind of sexual relationship, as so many of us will do or would like to do , we have to balance our own desires with those of another. We don’t get to do whatever we want. To pick a stereotypical heterosexual dynamic, the fact that a dude wants to come on his girlfriend’s face doesn’t mean she has to let him do so. We’re responsible for naming our wants, and responsible for self-soothing when those wants aren’t reciprocated by a partner. And the basic rule is simple: my right not to have something done to me that I don’t want done trumps your right to do to me what you’d like to do. To say otherwise is to give tacit approval to rape. Continue reading

Porn and the fiction of a more virtuous past

I have a short piece today at GMP taking on Naomi Wolf’s theory that porn is driving men to madness. Excerpt:

JFK had sex with an untold number of women in the White House, including a threesome in the presidential swimming pool, and he was hardly the first American male politician to be sexually voracious outside of marriage. The difference, of course, was that JFK lived in an era when men could outsource their self-control to the media. By every count, powerful men in the past were no more discreet than our leaders today. Journalists, not politicians, were the ones who exercised self-control. And it was that restraint that created the fiction of a more virtuous past.

And don’t forget to listen to my chat with Meghan Murphy of the F Word Collective today at noon PDT on Vancouver’s Co-Op Radio. Streaming live around the globe.

Defending Sex Work, Celebrating Monogamy

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.)

Answering Questions

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