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but is it porn?

Last night, thanks to my friend Minerva, who is currently at the Boston University School of Public Health, I was able to attend a screening at BUSPH of The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality, and Relationships (2008) and the subsequent Q&A-cum-debate with anti-porn activist and author Gail Dines and sexuality educator Carol Queen. Lots to process. I’ll be writing a review of the film and a more coherent summary and reaction to the debate portion of the evening once I’ve had some time to organize my thoughts. But meanwhile, are a few first responses.

  • The Price of Pleasure had an agenda which wasn’t very subtle — and that was to make porn appear monochromatic, exploitative, and seedy. This wasn’t a surprise, but I found myself fascinated by the way the construction of the film itself conveyed that narrative. More about this in the review. It was a fairly masterful piece of propaganda … if you didn’t sit there with your media literacy lenses on and go “what just a minute!” (And if anyone wonders what the scary voice man does between election cycles, he was totally hired to do the voice over in this documentary).
  • I was struck by the level of powerlessness expressed by people interviewed in the film, by Gail Dines in the Q&A, and by some of the audience members who asked questions. Commercially-produced video porn is depicted as an all-powerful, pervasive, thought-controlling medium that somehow renders consumers (and even non-consumers) incapable of imagining or practicing alternative sexualities. Since my experience has been that a) avoiding porn one doesn’t like is relatively simple, and b) finding or creating porn one does like is also pretty easy, I can’t say I understand this line of reasoning. Having just finished Amy Schalet’s new book Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex (review forthcoming) I can’t help wondering if this feeling of helplessness doesn’t go back to what Schalet terms the “dramatization” (vs. normalization) of sex in American culture.
  • I understand there’s a larger argument being made about how the narratives in porn reflect and shape some of the crappy narratives of our society (for example, society is racist and sexist — surprise! porn is also racist and sexist), but I don’t understand why the solution presented is not the two-fold critique and creation solution we’d use in virtually any other field. That is, 1) encourage people to watch porn with a critical eye, much like Jenn Pozner encourages people to watch reality television with a critical eye (see Reality Bites Back), and 2) support the creation of better porn. See for example the feminist porn awards and the recent piece by Erika Christakis, Is it Time for Fair Trade Porn? For some reason, when it comes to porn, all of our usual skills for working to change culture are jettisoned out the window? That doesn’t seem right to me.
  • I continue to be frustrated by the way “porn” and even “sexually explicit material” has become short-hand for “video pornography.” I took an online survey recently designed to capture information about women’s consumption of online porn — and it became apparent almost instantly that they were assuming the porn in question was filmed live-action sequences. Why aren’t we talking about sexually explicit fiction and nonfiction, photographs, erotic audio, and other materials that depict sexual activities and are designed to elicit arousal? This isn’t to say video porn is bad either, but I feel our analysis of the genre might be more nuanced if we looked across mediums, rather than focusing just on film.
  • If Carol Queen hadn’t been there, no one in the room would have spoken to the fact that pornography is, in fact, not solely a product of the heterosexual male imagination, created for consumption by heterosexual men. The discourse about porn in the film and throughout most of the Q&A rested on the erasure of women and queer folks who create and consume erotic material without being coerced or exploited into doing so by the patriarchal overlords. Dines seems to believe that in her perfect (socialist feminist) universe, no one would make porn she didn’t like, because of course no one would voluntarily make pornography that squicks her out. I didn’t hear any evidence last night that Dines would have been able to make sense of me as a queer woman who creates and consumes erotic materials, in both solitary and relational contexts. Who has both an incredibly egalitarian, loving sexual relationship with another woman and enjoys some kinky and rough sex fantasies, which work together symbiotically to enrich my relational life. In Dines’ narrative of porn, my experience is rendered completely invisible — and while one person’s experience does not a data-set make, that dissonance makes me doubt her theory’s explanatory power.
  • Also, while we’re at it, men who enjoy sex with women are not, in fact, controlled by their dicks — and men’s penes aren’t somehow inherently threatening and oppressive to women who enjoy having sex with men. Male sexuality is not some mysterious, all-powerful, aggressive, violent, controlling force that must be contained and managed externally (i.e. “domesticated”). I believe people of all sexes, sexualities, and genders, are equally capable of exploring their sexual desires in ways that aren’t — for lack of a better word — “antisocial.”

I come to this conversation with my own experience of pornography, obviously. I’ve seen a vanishingly small amount of video porn — most of it filtered through secondary sources like documentaries or embedded within feature films (where we just call them “sex scenes”). I’ve never experienced sexually explicit materials in the context of emotional coercion or physical abuse, and have never felt the presence of sexually explicit materials compromised my intimate relationships. Aside from some early childhood peer-to-peer situations that made me passingly uncomfortable (and probably deserve a post at some point), I’ve basically felt like I had bodily autonomy and sexual self-determination. My teenage years and young adulthood were characterized by self-directed exploration of human sexuality and my own sexual desires, mostly through fiction and non-fiction, and solitary sex. When I didn’t find sexually explicit narratives that satisfied me, I decided to create my own.

Did I have sexual struggles? Certainly. I was reflexively anti-porn early on because I’d imbibed the cultural narrative of “porn” as relationship destroying, the last resort of the lonely, as anti-feminist objectification. At the same time, I was discovering that mild bondage scenarios and actual mild bondage were a huge turn-on for me. Together, these two conflicting messages me feel like a bad feminist, and made me feel overwhelmed by my own sexual desires. But if pornography hadn’t been demonized by those around me, maybe I would have realized before my mid-twenties that fantasizing about ceding control in a sexual situation isn’t the same as wanting to be literally helpless. I don’t wish my younger self hadn’t been exposed to bondage imagery or narratives — I wish I’d been given better tools with which to analyze both it and my responses to what I saw.

I just don’t experience the existence of sexually explicit materials — even if its porn I’m turned off by — as threatening to my own sexual self-determination or my ability to find, and form meaningful connection with, other sexually-compatible human beings. I don’t see “porn” as an enemy.

Overall, I wish we — as a culture — could move beyond the moral panic that sexually-explicit material seems to engender in a fairly high percentage of the population  and talk instead about all of the tools we already have at our disposal to critique unhelpful cultural narratives in porn, to advocate for workers’ rights, and to develop our own sense of sexual self-determination. I heard Carol Queen making a bid for that shift to take place last night, and I heard Gail Dines resisting it with all her rhetorical might.
Since writing this post, I’ve published a review of the film, The Price of Pleasure, and a more thorough summary and analysis of the debate itself. Finally, some thoughts on the positive potential of porn.

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