Feminism, Porn, and SlutWalk: part one of a conversation with Meghan Murphy

One of the many benefits of being involved with the SlutWalk phenomenon has come in the form of new allies. But it’s not just allies I’ve met in real life and online. I’ve also had some vigorous discussions with folks who disagree with the very premise of the SlutWalk movement. Some of these conversations have revealed more heat than light. But some have been good, and I’m particularly pleased to have had the chance to meet Meghan Murphy, a graduate student in gender studies at Simon Fraser University who blogs with British Columbia’s F-Word Media Collective. Meghan also hosts the F Word Show on Vancouver’s Co-Op Radio, airing Mondays at noon Pacific time.

Meghan’s written a series of posts taking on SlutWalk, particularly around the willingness of some SlutWalks to form alliances with sex workers without a concomitant criticism of the sex industry itself. My views on SlutWalk are clear, and I’m currently developing a project in conjunction with sex worker advocates.

So in the interest of cutting through some of the rhetoric, Meghan and I decided to have a frank but civil exchange of views. She’d ask me five questions, and I’d respond; I’d ask her five questions, and she’d respond. What appears below the cut are her five questions to me and my responses. Jointly posted here and at the F-Word Blog, this will be followed on Wednesday with my questions and Meghan’s answers. Continue reading

Some laughter with the lovemaking, please: on porn, performance, and deadly seriousness

In the past two weeks, I’ve heard from three friends of mine all struggling with the same issue. Each is a woman in a monogamous relationship with a guy who uses internet pornography. None of these women are reflexively anti-porn. But each has noticed how her partner’s porn use impacts their sex life. Cassie wrote:

There are SO many more things I’ve noticed that he does during sex that are straight out of a porn. He’s asked me about threesomes before, saying he “thought it was just a normal thing that everyone does.” Hello?! Only in the porn world does everyone have a threesome everyday! In trying to explain why I was opposed to it, I asked him how he’d feel if I asked him if we could bring another man into our sex. He said I was being mean and that it was gross. =) He’s also asked me if he can pull my hair. I let him, because I knew he liked it, but it’s so . . . porn-like. Also, he thinks body hair is gross. Even on him. I personally think that body hair is normal and it should be kept nice and trimmed, but I am a woman and he is a man. We are not little kids that are supposed to have hairless genitals. I know this is a HUGE trend right now, but I just hate it and I think it’s directly linked to porn.

Part of the problem in discussing porn is that most people reflexively fall into one of two camps. Either all porn is unhealthy, invariably addictive, and exploitative of women or its harmless, healthy, and almost invariably liberating. There’s an almost deliberate refusal to make distinctions. My anti-porn friends often cannot envision a “healthy place” for visual masturbation aids; my pro-porn friends are often too dismissive of the damage that compulsive porn use can (but will not inevitably) bring.

The reality is that different kinds of porn exist, and that the conditions under which porn is produced differ. These distinctions matter. And of course, another key distinction is that not everyone will “use” porn in the same way. As with beer or chocolate, what one person can delight in without harm can become an obsession for another. Whether or not “sex addiction” exists in the same biochemical fashion that alcoholism does is beside the point — the evidence is clear that some people do use porn compulsively in a way that damages their relationships.

Both sides need to recognize two truths about how porn impacts people’s lives. One, some people genuinely find healthy pleasure in porn. Their experiences are real and valid. Two, some people develop an unhealthy relationship with porn that can wreak havoc in their sexual and romantic lives. If all of us concede these realities, we’d be a lot better off.

Cassie’s concern was echoed in Amanda Marcotte’s excellent piece at Good Men Project yesterday: What Women Don’t Tell You. Amanda is hardly in the “sex-negative” camp. But she offers this timely admonition:

Most sex in porn is about what’s good for the camera, not what’s good for the participants in it, especially the women. In fact, many things that look good in porn can keep us from having fun in real-life sex. For instance, in porn the only parts of their bodies the actors often touch are their genitals, so that the camera can get a full view of the action. But in real life, sex is more of a whole-body experience, and the genital-only thing can feel cold and masturbatory.

Of course, we know that men know this, and most would deny that they’re doing stuff because it looked good in a porn and not because it felt good in the moment. So we’d rather not bring it up when you do stuff that looks better in porn than it feels in life. We don’t want to argue over whether or not that’s what you’re doing. But when you do something you picked up in a porn that doesn’t add to the real-life pleasure, we take notice and we’re often hoping you get it out of your system so we can move on to activities that are actually fun.

Bold emphasis mine. . Continue reading

Change and disclaimers

I’ve been blogging at this site for more than seven years; my archives go back to January 2004. And though my views on many issues have remained unwavering, there are a few topics about which I’ve had a fairly profound shift in recent years. Particularly around pornography and sex work, I’ve moved from a fairly traditional, hostile view to one that is far more nuanced. As anyone who reads through my archives will notice, there’s a fairly big shift that takes place in my writing around 2008.

Of course, people still cite some of my older work, and recently this post about the Suicide Girls reappeared, quoted both approvingly and critically. And I re-read it for the first time in a while, and I winced. I don’t repudiate the spirit of what I wrote, but I squirm at the reflexive paternalism I sense now. This post from last fall better reflects where I am now.

My views on my own sexual relationship haven’t shifted at all. I still call myself “Eira-sexual”, still working with a calm certainty on directing all of my sexual energy towards my wife. Even in prolonged “dry periods” (as when we had first become parents), I sent all of my sexuality towards that relationship. Not out of guilt, of course — but out of a sense that this kind of unidirectional sexuality was and still is the best path for my own growth. But I’m more leery than ever of extrapolating universal truths from my own experience. No one needs a smug puritan.

It’s no accident that my views on sexuality (including porn and sex work) became substantially more liberal when I became a Dad, something I’ve touched on before and need to touch on again.

But for now, the question is this: do I need to revisit everything I wrote about porn and sex work before 2008 and stick a disclaimer on it? Do I take the older posts down altogether? Thoughts welcome.

Deeper than the “hard core”: the triumph of love over rage

Sometimes you read something so breathtaking in its wrongness that you’re reduced to incoherent spluttering. The Atlantic Magazine has been on quite a roll in producing that reaction in reasonable folks, with Lori Gottlieb’s dreadful “case for settling for Mr. Good Enough” (I responded here); Sandra Tsing Loh’s myopic assertion that since her marriage failed, no one else should bother (my response here); Hanna Rosin’s perverse misreading of the evidence to suggest that feminism is destroying men (my response here). But they’ve topped themselves with Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s dismal offering Hard Core: The new world of porn is revealing eternal truths about men and women.

It’s work-safe to read, but if you’re drinking a beverage, you may spray it over your keyboard in exasperation. Vargas-Cooper, like the proverbial blind squirrel finding the occasional nut, gets a few things right — and almost everything else wrong. And she’s “wrongest” in her hopelessly antiquated interpretation of male sexuality. She begins with this entirely undocumented assertion: porn doesn’t plant (ideas) in men’s minds; instead, porn puts the power of a mass medium behind ancient male desires… Male desire is not a malleable entity that can be constructed through politics, language, or media. Says who? Men have always wanted to ejaculate on the faces of their female partners? Really? Show me one shred of evidence, Natasha. She’s got it completely back-to-front. Porn creates at least as it much as it reflects. The great lie is always that we’re too smart — or too hard-wired — to be influenced by culture. Were that true, none of us would be susceptible to advertising. (Most of us think everyone else is susceptible to its charms, but we are immune. That’s the kind of unjustified self-overestimation that advertisers love, because it gives us all a false sense of agency.)

It gets worse:

Yes, (sex) is a natural, human function, and one from which both partners can derive enormous pleasure, but it is also one largely driven by brute male desire and therefore not at all free of violent, even cruel, urges.

At the heart of human sexuality, at least human sexuality involving men, lies what Freud identified in Totem and Taboo as “emotional ambivalence”—the simultaneous love and hate of the object of one’s sexual affection. From that ambivalence springs the aggressive, hostile, and humiliating components of male sexual arousal.

Never mind that even Freud recognized how much of our sexuality was malleable, and conditioned by culture. Vargas-Cooper makes the same mistake that Robert Jensen, a writer I respect but with whom I disagree, made with his memorable aphorism that “porn tells lies about women, but tells the truth about men.” Much of pornography marketed to men (but by no means all) is aggressive and hostile towards women; humiliation of a woman and male arousal are linked (as in the tremendous popularity of the sex-by-deception genre). But that doesn’t mean porn tells an essential truth about men. It tells us what they’ve been conditioned to want. Men in the Seventies expected their porn stars to be richly endowed with pubic hair; by the 2000s, they expected to see perfectly waxed genitalia. So which is the “truth” about men? That they want hair on women or not? Did some great shift happen in men’s essential nature between 1980 and 2010 that radically transformed their tastes? Or were those tastes shifted by cultural forces? Common sense and the evidence at hand suggests that porn creates and shapes desires rather than merely depicting what men have always wanted.

As a man, I was taught to connect sex and aggression. I was taught that my pleasure needed to be connected to my capacity to remain in control, and that to remain in control, I needed to dominate. I was taught that by boys on the playground, I was taught that in literature, I was taught that in the first porn I saw more than three decades ago. I’ve often quoted Timothy Beneke’s remark that there is no phrase in English that allows one to connect male lust and humanity. From the time we’re small boys, we’re taught to dissociate ourselves from our sensitive side, from our emotional side, from anything that seems feminine. When we cry, we’re mocked as “girls” or called “faggots”. When we’re older, and we talk about being in love with our girlfriends, we’re told we’re “pussy-whipped.” The message is clear: a real man demonstrates his masculinity by doing what he can to drive a wedge between sexuality and empathy. Vargas-Cooper might agree. But where she falls down is in her claim that this violence is encoded in our maleness, written so deep that culture and civilization can only momentarily obscure the lurking misogyny. We may dress as sheep, but we are all destined to be wolves, or so she claims; women had better be prepared to be eaten, and not in the good way. Continue reading

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Hef gets engaged again: on Everlasting Novelty and Sexual Invisibility

My friend Bill asked me to post about 84 year-old Hugh Hefner’s announcement this week that he’s engaged to be married again, this time to a former Playmate exactly sixty years his junior. Knowing my many problems with age-disparate relationships, he wondered if I had a comment about the perpetually be-robed octogenarian’s latest assay into wedlock.

Still on vacation in Placer County, I’ll keep this short. It’s easy to see Hef as a caricature, and a rather sad one to boot. But more than one young man has looked at this aging cultural icon and said to himself, “Damn, I’d like to be like him when I’m old.” Some find instruction in what others of us find ridiculous. It’s important to remember that.

The tragedy of Playboy is, as I’ve said before, that it focuses on “everlasting novelty.” (The phrase is my father’s, but the point was originally made by Barbara Ehrenreich in a book I highly recommend, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment .) Men wanting to look at beautiful women isn’t the problem — it’s the need to always see new beautiful women that is so troubling. Playboy wouldn’t have made money with one issue a year, after all. A new issue every four weeks guaranteed variety — or more accurately, encouraged a mindset that was only aroused by variety. It is Hefner who is widely credited (though it may be apocryphal) with the devastating line “Show me a beautiful woman, and I’ll show you the man who’s tired of fucking her.” It is trendy to accept that fascination with everlasting novelty as rooted in our biology, but the weight of the evidence suggests that pornographers like Hef are more creators than reinforcers.

And of course, Playboy Playmates — like the most successful and celebrated of porn actresses — are overwhelmingly young, 18-24 at the time they break into the industry. With a tiny handful of exceptions, few work successfully in the business after 30. This focus on youth suggests that women over 25 have passed their “sell-by” date; Hef has done more than his share to contribute to the sexual invisibility of older women. (The occasional issue focusing on an over-40 hottie is the classic example of the exception proving the rule.) It’s little wonder, then, that Hef has spent six decades chasing women in their early twenties. He’s sold himself on his own narrow vision of what is and isn’t desirable, and as a consequence has become incapable of experiencing sexual interest in any woman past the age of his Playmates. It’s one thing for nineteen year-olds to be drawn sexually to their peers, another thing for their grandfathers to lust after the same barely post-pubescent women.

This isn’t about the porn wars; I recognize the potential for liberation in visual depictions of the erotic. This is about the Playboy ethos. (As Ehrenreich suggested and as I always tell my students, it’s better to write it as “Play, boy!”, driving home the point that the opposite of a “playboy” is a “working man” who accepts responsibility and is capable of constancy.) The Playboy ethos is almost puritanical in its distaste for bodies that deviate from a narrow standard, and contemptuous(as well as fearful) of the sexual potential of women over 25. Above all, the Playboy ethos insists on the necessity of endless variety. Familiarity breeds contempt and aging breeds disgust, or so Hef’s world view holds.

It would be pathetic if it didn’t resonate so loudly with so many. We can do better.

Every sperm is sacred: of Onan, menstrual blood, and facials

In my “beauty and the body” class, I’m using one new book I’ve never assigned before: Lisa Jean Moore’s Sperm Counts: Overcome By Man’s Most Precious Fluid. I gave my first lecture on sperm yesterday. After a brief physiology lesson where we distinguished sperm from semen and talked about things like the Cowper’s gland and the prostate, we went into the main material of the lecture, which was the spiritual significance of ejaculate in both Western and Eastern culture.

Both the Eastern and the Judeo-Christian traditions imbue semen with sacred properties. The differences, of course, are enormous. To oversimplify enormously, the Hindu and Buddhist perspective regards ejaculate as a source of divine energy. Refraining from masturbation for all, and the practice of celibacy for monks, allows men to retain rather than lose this source of inspiration and insight. Yogis and others who go without ejaculating for years and years are believed to be sustained and nourished by the retention of this precious fluid. The celibate’s batteries are charged, in other words, while the ejaculator’s battery is regularly depleted. Thus Taoist and Tantric traditions suggest that even for the married, sex should be infrequent so as not to exhaust the body of its most valuable resource.

On the other hand, the Judeo-Christian tradition is more explicit in connecting semen to “seed” — and thus to male domination. The Hebrew word “zera” means “seed” in the common agricultural sense, but it also means semen. I didn’t want to overwhelm my students with bible quotes, but the key passages are from Genesis.

Genesis 17:9, King James Version: And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. God’s covenant is with a substance — semen is the physical glue that binds a people together. It is, in a sense, the ink through which the covenant is written.

In Genesis 38:9, the wicked Onan “spills his seed” upon the ground (practicing the withdrawal method) rather than inseminate his brother’s widow. God kills Onan for the crime of having squandered the divine substance.

But what is so significant about “seed”? From a feminist standpoint, it’s quite simply at the very root of the Judeo-Christian hostility towards women. As is widely known, from the time of the Hebrews until the discovery of ova and the process of conception during the Scientific Revolution, Western authorities were largely convinced that women had very little role to play in the reproductive process. Women were like fields, soil which needed to be ploughed and planted and fertilized; the identity of the future child was entirely contained within the man’s ejaculate (the notion of the Homunculus).

Each act of heterosexual intercourse, therefore, mimicks the story of the human creation. In Genesis 2 (which is, of course, the second creation story, written well after the earlier story of simultaneous creation of men and women), God makes Adam out of the “dust of the ground.” The soil has no life until it is given life by God, just as women cannot give life unless animated by semen. Thus semen is not only the fluid of the covenant, it is the substance that makes each man in some sense like God, granting him the chance to share with the creator the joy of creating. To “waste” semen, whether through masturbation or the withdrawal method or barrier contraception, is not just missing out on a chance at making another life –it is the willful refusal to act like the Creator. (Hence the Roman Catholic and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish hostility to condoms and jerking off!)

The explicit connection to misogyny comes easily. In the Western tradition, women are dangerous because they tempt men away from their responsibility to “act like God.” The righteous woman is a careful guardian of men’s semen, and she guards it through modest dress (so as not to tempt men to lust, because then they might masturbate and waste the sacred fluid). A strictly observant Jewish woman makes sure that her husband’s semen only comes into her body after she has ritually purified herself through the practice of Niddah; she’s got to earn the right to take something so magical, so male, so pure, into her comparatively unclean body. Throughout much of the broader Abrahamic religious tradition, women are responsible for protecting semen in two distinct ways: one, by doing all that they can to keep men from irresponsibly “spilling”; two, by being radically open to conception. Contraception and abortion, the great bugaboos of religious conservatives, are hated not merely because they empower women but because they are seen as women’s rejection of the sacred spermatic gift. Continue reading

For pleasure, for justice, and against shame: on acceptance as a prerequisite for growth

The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it.

— Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

While listening to Clarisse Thorn lecture in my women’s studies class last Thursday, this quote popped into my head. Though I didn’t mention it in my most recent post, it was already on my mind when I wrote about rethinking my dismissiveness towards the plight of men eager for “feminist dating tips.” One could substitute the word “feminist” for “spiritual” in the AA quote, I think, and get to the heart of what I’m wrestling with this week.

Theory has consequences. Ideas have an impact. That’s not a new insight for me or anyone else. But when it comes to writing about men, women, and feminist sexual ethics, I’m ever more keenly aware that those of us who seek to encourage the transformation of both the individual and society at large often end up inadvertently shaming the very people whom we are trying to inspire.

I wrote a three-part series a couple of years ago, praising Robert Jensen’s wonderful Getting Off. But when I actually assigned the book in my “Men and Masculinity” course, I found that Jensen’s radical anti-porn stance not only aroused disagreement (which is healthy) but shame (which isn’t). This past July, I wrote about rethinking my own anti-porn stance, and about my decision not to reassign Jensen’s book (which I still think is very useful) as mandatory reading for my masculinity course:

I loved Jensen’s thesis… Many of my students did too. But some of my students of both sexes who told me they viewed porn felt overwhelmed, shamed, guilt-ridden as a result. One young woman told me she had stopped looking at porn but felt guilty about the arousing images that still popped into her head. Another young guy, one of my best students, told me that he felt as if he’d been set up for failure, as if Jensen and I were positing abstinence from pornography as the sine qua non of being a decent male. “If I masturbate to porn can I still be a good man was the question I got from more than one anguished participant in the class. And if several of the students were willing to divulge such private pain to me, I can only assume that still others felt the same way but kept silent.

Clarisse is a well-known advocate for what is usually called “sex-positive” feminism, as well as an activist for BDSM acceptance. She takes the position that some folks may have an innate orientation towards BDSM, a stance of which I am deeply suspicious but not immediately dismissive. But watching my students’ reactions to her — and reading the emails and Facebook messages I got from several of them afterwards — I realized how important it is to have feminist voices that celebrate pleasure and desire. Theory matters to Clarisse as it does to me; justice matters to her as well. (In her real life, where she goes by her birth name, she is a committed activist for a variety of causes.) But though she recognizes that our culture is deeply corrupted by what is increasingly often called “kyriarchal” influences, she understands that all of us have to live and love and fuck and create and nurture within that culture. Just as ringing Sunday sermons in church aren’t of much use if they aren’t applied in the weekday lives of the congregation, so too a feminism that is heavy on inspiring classroom rhetoric needs to offer folks reassurance and encouragement in every other aspect of their lives.

One of the critiques that feminists of color had of mainstream white feminism a generation ago was that middle-class white feminists tended to prioritize “sisterhood” over all other values. Women of color who lived in what white feminists considered “patriarchal” and “oppressive” ethnic groups were encouraged to extricate themselves from their families and their cultures for the sake of individual happiness. Black, Latina, and Asian feminists insisted — quite rightly — on a different kind of feminism, one that could be synthesized with traditions and values that they held dear. What seemed hopelessly oppressive to well-to-do WASPy feminists was experienced very differently by many non-white women.

The same problem happens around sex. Continue reading

His vision once was mine: a tribute to Bob Guccione (1930-2010)

Just after dawn one foggy weekend morning in early 1979, I found a copy of Penthouse magazine lying on Carmel Beach. (We lived but two hundred meters from the sand, and from the time I was eight or nine, I, always an early riser from my birth, was allowed to walk on the beach.) The magazine had been folded up, and I found it next to some empty cans of Olympia and a pile of cigarette butts. When I opened it to the centerfold, I was electrified. I had never seen pornography before, and other than the artistic nudes in a family book of Edward Weston photos, had never seen a naked adult woman. I was a few weeks short of twelve, and I felt as if my life had been transformed.

Here’s a link to a photo of the cover of that February 1979 Penthouse magazine that changed my sexuality forever. (Worksafe for almost all, but I admit it sent a brief chill through me to see that cover again.) I’d never masturbated before I found that magazine; my first orgasm came as I stared at the images within it and read and re-read the infamous “letters” section. I kept it for well over a year, until it had fallen apart completely.

I thought of that old magazine again this morning, when I heard of the death of Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. It was his “artistic” style that dominated Penthouse’s layouts for years, and so more than any other pornographer, his vision helped shape my own pre-teen sexual imagination. I would use porn on and off, sometimes casually and sometimes addictively, for the next twenty years. Though I accept that many folks can integrate pornography into their sexual lives in a healthy way, I’ve never been able to do it. Too compulsive a personality, I’m grateful that I haven’t “used” porn in years. By the time I was in my late teens, I’d lost interest in Penthouse — the pictorials began to seem caricatures, absurd, grotesque. (My tastes soon ran to the more grittily authentic, and I’ll leave it at that.) But Bob Guccione’s photographs (he shot most of Penthouse’s early models himself) continued to haunt my sexual daydreams for years and years. When I hear the word “porn” even now, I think of what it was he first showed me well over thirty years ago.

Others may do as they please, but I don’t speak ill of the dead. (I offered faint praise for Jerry Falwell on this blog when he left us in 2007, and that was an act of forbearance if ever there was one.) So as I pray for Bob and for his family, let me thank him as well.

I cannot imagine a past other than the one I’ve had. I cannot know what I would have been like had I not found that magazine that misty morning near the Eleventh Avenue steps on the white sands of home. I do know that what I first felt that day, staring at those pages of the February 1979 issue, was a high unlike any I’d ever felt. I chased that high in pornography for years. I chased it through my first couple of marriages and nearly a decade and a half of reckless, desperate, obsessive promiscuity. The journey of sexual healing I’ve been on for the last dozen years has been a great gift in my life. Whatever gifts I have to share around these issues are a result of the work I’ve done, the wisdom I’ve received from my mentors, and the grace I’ve been given by lovers, friends, and by God.

I won’t blame Bob Guccione for the pain I caused myself and so very many others. I take full and sole responsibility for the harm I did. But gazing in lust and wonder at his images were what first took me to a dark place; extricating myself from that place has brought me greater joy and greater opportunity to serve than I would ever otherwise have known. Bob Guccione was a panderer and a visionary whose place in the history of American sexuality will surely rank below those peers who survive him, like Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt. But I was not a boy shaped by Playboy or Hustler. For a few pivotal, confusing years, I was a Penthouse lad, loyal to the particular style I’d first discovered when I was not yet twelve.

Thank you, Bob Guccione, for opening a door for me. Through that door I walked to some very dark places. And because I went to those dark places, I found some extraordinary gifts. For me, at least, that healing is also part of your legacy.

Flights of angels, Bob, flights of angels.

Good Men in Penthouse: Tom Matlack misses the mark

One of the things I missed while I was away was news that the Good Men Project (producers of the excellent Good Men book and ancillary products) had signed a deal to have extended excerpts from the book appear in Penthouse Magazine.

Tom Matlack, the founder and director of the Good Man Project (GMP), explained his decision to work with Penthouse in this post yesterday. Tom begins by noting that GMP has heard from many irate and disappointed supporters as a result of the decision to work with the iconic porn magazine. He goes on to offer a few paragraphs in which he reiterates that the GMP isn’t about judging, or setting standards, including this stunner.

Here’s the thing: I am not good enough to tell you how to be good. I firmly believe that “goodness” is like faith—I shouldn’t tell you what yours should look like, and you shouldn’t tell me what mine should look like.

I read that yesterday in Dulles Airport, and again this morning. The more often I read those two sentences, the more viscerally I disagree with Matlack here, a man whose work I respect. Faith and Goodness, he suggests, are ultimately subjective. We are no better at discerning goodness than we are at proving the doctrine of transubstantiation. Virtue and decency (which are, after all, close synonyms for goodness) are matters of taste and belief, or so he argues.

But Matlack knows better. What would Matlack do with a fellow who says, “I am a good man because I used to rape other women but now I only rape my wife”? Is the founder of the Good Men Project really signing on to adolescent relativism, the sort familiar to every parent of a fourteen year-old who thinks the worst crime in the world is “to judge”?

As philosophers and theologians and ethicists will all tell ya, there’s a difference between condemning and judging. To judge is to say “I don’t like what you’re doing, and here’s why.” To condemn is to say “I hate what you did and I don’t want to have anything to do with you again.” The former maintains a relationship; the latter severs it. On the developmental journey from blind obedience to reflexive relativism to sensible discernment, most folks learn the difference between judging and condemning. But Matlack, perhaps deliberately, fudges that distinction. And that’s a huge mistake, particularly for an organization whose very identity focuses on building up “goodness” among American men.

I understand why Matlack would want the GMP in Penthouse. He wants, as he makes clear, to reach men “where they are.” He wants to make it clear that GMP isn’t censorious or prudish. “Hey guys,” he seems to be saying, “we’re so committed to starting a conversation with you about goodness that we’ll come wherever you, uh, come.” It’s savvy from a marketing perspective, and the appeal is obvious: a great many men will encounter the Good Men Project through the pages of Penthouse who might otherwise have never heard of it. Some may read the excerpts from the book and be moved to reflect on their own lives, perhaps making positive changes as a consequence. That’s a powerful argument for striking this Faustian bargain with the pornographers. Continue reading

The Price of Shame: on rethinking a harsh anti-porn stance

I’ve written a number of posts on pornography. I’ve taken a fairly strong anti-porn line, linked to my own admission that for years, I struggled with pornography addiction. I’ve had many years of recovery from that compulsion as well as from so many others. What I’ve had a hard time doing is letting go of the “disease model” for approaching the subject. While I acknowledge that plenty of folks (but not me) can drink beer without becoming alcoholics, I’ve had a harder time acknowledging that the same might well be true for pornography. (See the post linked in my second sentence.)

This tendency to extrapolate from my own experience combines with a traditional (call it Second Wave) suspicion that pornography is always and invariably anti-feminist, even when what is filmed or written seems empowering and redemptive. But in the last two years, the number of emails and comments I’ve gotten from feminist women who regularly view pornography has risen dramatically. Though I don’t ask my students to share this sort of information, the number of journal entries in which students of both sexes talk openly about their porn use has almost, um, exploded exponentially in that same time period.

The anecdotal evidence I’m getting of an increase in women’s use of pornography seems backed up by the evidence. It’s not hard to figure out why. The anonymity of the internet is helpful. In a world where we shame women for displaying sexual interest, there is a much higher social cost to admitting to porn use than for men. The web allows the consumer to avoid going to a physical place to buy or watch erotic media. And equally importantly, the depth and breadth of erotic material online means that women are much more likely to find porn on the ‘net that was created by and for women.

I got a message from a Facebook friend last week that summed up a lot of what I’ve been getting from those who are critical of my anti-porn stance. Artemisia, who is a married mother of teens, wrote:

… I think you have painted both porn and porn consumers with too broad a brush. And the brush you use feels hurtful and shaming. Yes, there are a lot of really vile things out there, but there are some things that are tasteful and even sweet. What really smarts is that your discussion assumes that porn consumers are men, thereby making women who consume porn rare and likely deviant. But, that isn’t true; some research has shown that as much as a third of all online porn is consumed by women. Further, about 17% of couples who watch porn together as a part of their lovemaking. The entrance of women into the porn market as consumers has irrevocably changed that market. The role of porn user has been cast as a guy who is either single or sneaking it outside of his relationship. That is not only untrue; it is a bit gender-biased.

I am, on occasion, a consumer of pornography both online and in print. And I have to say that it makes me really uncomfortable that people assume that I am watching something vile and that only men watch porn. Judiciously chosen erotica (what you call porn because it has live actors) has been helpful in my sex-life with my husband. I/we don’t use it regularly, but it is helpful at times. And it doesn’t drive us apart; it makes us closer and makes our sex better. You said to ask any woman if her husband is a better lover for having been online with porn. I have to say a resounding yes. And, to bring a little gender equality here, I am also a better lover.

It seems important here to really qualify that not all porn is created equally. For example, one of my favorite sites, and one of the most popular porn sites on the web, features average, every-day women of all sizes and ethnicities masturbating to orgasm in an environment that can only be described as respectful. It doesn’t lie; it doesn’t make anything selfish. It educates, and does so well. And I think that the site’s popularity makes an important point: the worst of internet porn is not representative even though it is abundant and flashy. There are fewer respectful, sane sites, but those are the ones that stay around for years and that become profitable staples.

Artemisia suggests what I’m hearing from others out there: female consumers are changing the face of porn, at least to the extent that a significant section of the erotic marketplace is aimed at their needs and desires. What that means is that those of us who launch into traditional critiques of porn as graphic misogyny are making a lot of women feel invisible and shamed. As a feminist ally, that troubles me, as do the letters and journal entries and chats I’ve had with young people of both sexes who insist it is genuinely possible to find porn that is arousing and progressive. Like Artemisia, these men and women suggest it is possible to “get off” in a morally and politically responsible and enlightened way. (I don’t know which web site Artemisia refers to, but I’m told that there are a number of similar sites.)

Here’s the thing. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time sampling what’s “out there”, any more than as a sober alcoholic, I’m planning to go wine tasting. Part of recovery is learning one’s limits, and while I don’t get uncomfortable with sexually explicit material these days, I also want to acknowledge my own boundaries. That said, I also want to reiterate my concern that much of mainstream porn — particularly the sort of thing that young people first discover online — is degrading and misogynistic. I’m not yet convinced that for many if not all, habitual porn use doesn’t play a part in encouraging dissatisfaction with a single partner. (The longing for everlasting novelty notion.) I hear from many of my female (and a few of my male) students that porn has badly distorted their understanding of sexuality and the ideal body, impacting the kind of sex they think they “ought” to be having. As for “feminist porn”, I worry that at least some of that empowerment is slickly oversold, as with the ultra-hip “Suicide Girls” site, which was bought by Playboy. And lastly, while I acknowledge that not everyone who encounters porn will use it addictively, I think a great many people clearly can become unhealthily addicted. All this concerns me.

But having made all that clear, let me also say this. I’m not going to ignore the Artemisias of this world. There are few things I’d less like to do with my writing and my lecturing than instill shame. I know that I’ve done that around this issue, particularly with my decision in 2008 to assign my Men and Masculinity students Robert Jensen’s famous Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, a book about which I wrote a laudatory three-part review here. I loved Jensen’s thesis (read the previous link for more). Many of my students did too. But some of my students of both sexes who told me they viewed porn felt overwhelmed, shamed, guilt-ridden as a result. One young woman told me she had stopped looking at porn but felt guilty about the arousing images that still popped into her head. Another young guy, one of my best students, told me that he felt as if he’d been set up for failure, as if Jensen and I were positing abstinence from pornography as the sine qua non of being a decent male. “If I masturbate to porn can I still be a good man” was the question I got from more than one anguished participant in the class. And if several of the students were willing to divulge such private pain to me, I can only assume that still others felt the same way but kept silent.

I’m going to reconsider assigning “Getting Off.” I love Jensen’s book – it resonates with me. But unlike any other text I’ve ever assigned, its stridency wounded some very sensitive and reflective kids. And my stridency on this issue wounded Artemisia, a friend whose kids are almost the age of most of my students. I grieve that, and need to take action around that, finding a way both to point out what is so terribly problematic about so much pornography — and to acknowledge that at least for some, the use of visual and written erotica can be joyous, liberating, and fully compatible with a vision of justice in which human beings are not objectified. The latter was not my experience, but I cannot in good conscience continue to extrapolate universal truths from my own memories of compulsiveness.

It is almost universally acknowledged that with the possible exception of race, there are few issues more divisive within feminist communities than porn. Allies who agree on everything else find themselves bewildered at a friend’s views on internet erotica. Somehow, we’ve got to do a better job of listening to each other’s stories, of honestly sharing our own, of doing everything possible to avoid shaming and belittling each other. The knowledge that what I’ve said or written about this topic has proved deeply hurtful troubles me, as well it ought. I can’t avoid the issue altogether, nor can I responsibly avoid raising the concerns I’ve always raised about porn. But I can do a better job of creating a space where we who want a world that is both just and joyous, safe and shame-free, can find common ground.