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So I realized, after writing three mammoth posts about how wrong I think Gail Dines is regarding the inherently alienating nature of pornography, that I hadn’t actually spent a lot of time talking about why I find her analysis troubling. I talked in general terms about the sexual subcultures and sexually-explicit materials she was choosing to ignore. But I didn’t talk about why I think sexually-explicit fiction and images can be enriching rather than soul- and society-destroying (as Dines understands them to be).

So this is the post where I talk about why I read and write porn.

Back in the fall, I wrote about the pleasure of porn over at The Pursuit of Harpyness in a book review of the anthology Take Me There: Trans and Genderqueer Erotica. And to open this post, I want to quote from a couple of passages in that review. Because they pretty much get at the heart of why I think it’s important — vital even! — to represent sexuality and sexual activities in our material culture.

There’s no simple answer to the question: “What am I looking for in porn?” At least, no simple answer for me. Sometimes, I’m looking for erotica that tells me stories about pleasure wholly unlike anything I would ever want in real life: dom/sub relationships, bondage, sensory deprivation, pain. In real life nothing turns me off faster than feeling trapped and out of control of my bodily experience; in erotica few things turn me on more quickly or reliably. Yet catch me on the wrong day and a story about BDSM is going to make me feel claustrophobic — and what I want more than anything is an established relationship, early morning kissing fic in which (as Hanna and I like to put it) “everything is gay and nothing hurts.”

The joy of knowing and being known. This is my current answer to the question of “why erotica?” I’ve realized that my favorite stories — trappings aside — hinge on that moment of radical acceptance when two (or more) people become, metaphorically and actually, naked before one another — and all of the terror of rejection or fetishization, of being judged and found wanting, washes away in tenderness. Whether it’s an anonymous fuck or a thirty-year relationship, whether being known means being suspended in mid-air and spanked or demands languorous love-making at dawn (or both!), relational sex involves stripping ourselves bare, making ourselves vulnerable, being brave enough to expose our humanity in the presence of someone(s)-not-us.

You can read the whole thing over at Harpyness.

Our culture has an impoverished vocabulary for pleasure and joy. It’s true that we also struggle to put unspeakable pain and grief into words — and people have argued, in fact, that certain types of trauma are literally beyond the act of speech, that is beyond the ability to communicate, to connect, to understand. Due to some personal experiences in my teen years, I did a lot of thinking about the language of trauma and grief and how creative acts, how the creation of art, can help translate the unspeakable into (forever imperfect) speech.

And all of that was incredibly important, and needful. But eventually I noticed something equally troubling — and that was our similar struggle to put unspeakable pleasure and joy into words. What I find almost more troubling, in fact, is the way in which our inability to articulate love, connection, and ecstasy, doesn’t get the same attention as our struggle to articulate the pain, rage, loss, and cruelty. We privilege suffering in artistic expression, while trivializing joy. Yeah, I know this is an over-generalization, and I’m not out to play oppression olympics: both pleasure and pain are fundamental experiences of being human, and both deserve our attention. But since I first started noticing our discomfort with speaking of pleasure and love, I’ve been wondering about the discomfort and its cause. Why are positive experiences somehow less captivating to our cultural imagination than trauma? Is it simply a collective desire to process the fact we’re all walking wounded? Is it that joy and pleasure seem self-evident while grief and pain demand explanation? Do we resent the evidence of other peoples’ pleasure, while seeking solace in other peoples’ pain? Or is there something more self-punishing going on — guilt and shame over experiencing functional relationships, embodiment, contentment, grace?

I realize at this point you probably think I’ve strayed from the topic of porn. But bear with me. Because, see, I’ve been thinking these past two weeks about this moment in the porn debate where Gail Dines, attempting to locate the blame for sexual violence in sexually-explicit material culture, said, “When men become murderers and rapists and bachelors you are compelled to look to the culture for understanding unless you want to go down the hopeless route of believing that men are born wrong” (emphasis mine).

“And bachelors.” In the same breath as “murderers and rapists.”

Keep in mind that I’m coming at the notion of porn as a genre expressing the full range of human potential when it comes to sex. So obviously, yes. There’s going to be pornographic material out there I find troubling. There’s a lot of crap in the culture at large I find troubling. But I think that one passage tells me what a yawning chasm exists between how I think about the possibilities pornography represents and what Dines imagines when she hears the word “porn.” Basically, she thinks that the people who engage with erotica are people who have failed. She understands them as alienated beings, perhaps reaching for human connection but in ways that are fundamentally destructive to creating and maintaining that connection.

She thinks the language we have for sex is the language of violence and alienation. She thinks the only language for sex we have is the language of trauma.

And on that slim spit of land where Gail Dines and I actually agree? If that actually is the vocabulary of sex that Dines has at her disposal? I also think that’s a pretty shit state of affairs.

So I read (and write) porn because I don’t want our vocabulary of intimacy to be limited to loneliness and destruction. 

I read (and write) porn because in my experience, erotica is where people are willing to get naked.  They get naked about what makes them feel connected. They get naked about what it feels like to be a body, grounded in the sensations of touch, taste, hearing, and smell. They get naked about pain and pleasure, and the delicate line that wavers between the two. They get naked about desire, love, want, about what makes us brave enough to open ourselves others, emotionally, physically, what allows us to trust. They get naked about the small details of another person’s being-in-the-world that break your heart.

Sure, there’s shit porn out there. Just like there’s shit detective fiction, and shit made-for-television SyFy original movies. But the best porn? The stuff I’ve discovered and go back to again and again? Yeah, it totally makes me wet in the knickers. Yeah, it makes me hot and cold and so turned on I can’t breathe. Sometimes it also makes me weep for what it struggles to say about connection and disconnection, about feeling lost and coming home. It’s a whole universe of visual and verbal solutions to the struggle we have, in our collective culture, talking about intimacy, vulnerability, nakedness, humanity, and love.

We laugh, as writers of fan fiction, about the tropes and the memes and the win-every-time formulas for getting each pairing together. But at the end of the day, I’m always bowled over by the specificity of another person’s vocabulary for lust and love. Even if it’s not my own, even if it’s the last thing I’m ever going to think is hot, it’s a pleasure to know what other people find pleasurable. Read fan fiction long enough and — far from the commercialized, plasticized, one-size-fits-all Gail Dines imagines to be our only shared vocabulary for sex these days — you discover even in the bad stuff there’s details that will expand your world.

The erotica I read actually works in direct opposition to the messages of sameness Dines believes porn, as a genre, propagates.* The porn I read and view tells me over and over again: Someone out there finds that sexy. Far from making me judge everyone I see by some corporate definition of “sexy,” pornographic materials have opened me up to a world in which virtually everything is sexy to someone. A world in which, as I walk down the street, I can feel myself being less judgmental of peoples’ bodies, less worried for them that they’ll experience rejection — because I know, somewhere out there, there’s someone who sees them as beautiful.

My engagement with erotica is deeply, deeply informed by my feminism and my spiritual practice. I realize that I bring myself to pornographic materials and their potential just as much as Gail Dines does. What I hope, though, is that this sort of feminist, lovingkindness-informed approach to pornography and sexual discourse can begin to offer the anti-pornography folks a new vision for an ideal world. One that isn’t predicated on the eradication of porn but on the creation of awesome porn. One that’s predicated on generating a rich vocabulary of love and lust, of sex and intimacy, of fucking and bondage, of a little pain with your pleasure (if that’s the way you like it), and sexual, sensual variety. As a writer and reader of smutty stories, I’m proud to be involved in co-creating that future.

As a writer and reader of smutty stories, I think that future is a helluva lot closer to now than Gail Dines seems to think.


*Mainstream porn does, often, reify these notions of sexy sameness. As researcher Anne Sabo recently pointed out at her New Porn By Women blog, pornography conveys cultural messages both positive and negative, as does all media. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is much about the mainstream conception of human sexuality, on the political left as well as on the political right, that I find shamefully lacking. But porn as a medium can assist us in insisting on the truth of human sexual variety. We can use it, are using it, to set the record straight (er … queer?).

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