Thursday, May 29, 2008

On Being a Bookworm: Part Four - what do women think of porn?

Paul is an excellent writer. Although, I am slightly disappointed that Pornified is not as theory-heavy as I think the topic of porn demands. That is probably just the Philosophy major in me talking though.

With much enthusiasm, I started the chapter titled "Porn Stars, Lovers, and Wives: How Women See Pornography". I was disappointed, however, that Paul chose to focus more on how women thought of the men in their lives that used pornography rather than the effects of pornography on women that use it. I thought the chapter was too heteronormative and played up the "jealous girlfriend" routine to the point where the cliche began to wear thin. Some highlights of the chapter were:

A human sexuality professor at Stony Brook observes shifting norms:

"Twenty years ago, my female students would say, 'Ugh, that's disgusting,' when I brought up porn in class. The men would guiltily say, 'Yeah, I've used it.' Today, men are much more open about saying they use porn all the time and don't feel any guilt. The women now resemble the old male attitude: they'll sheepishly admit to using it themselves." ... He has mixed feelings about this change. On the positive side, he says, women's embrace of porn seems to reflect increased sexual agency on their part... yet the new attitude strikes him as disturbing. Female fantasies have changed over the years as a result of porn and what Kimmel calls the "masculinization of sex". Compared with ten years ago, women's fantasies are more likely today to include violence, rough sex, strangers, and descriptions of male physical attributes. "Personally, I think that for a woman to construct her sex life like that of a man is a rather impoverished view of liberation".

I wish the chapter also expanded upon the liberalization of porn. Paul claims that the adoption of porn as "hip" has blocked any serious critiques of it. The new version of "sex positivism" seems to view pornography as instrumentally positive and a vehicle of equal opportunity sexuality, even though real porn may be violent and produced by decreasing the agency of its performers. Also, framing the argument in such a way that pornography is equated with erotica makes it easier to pigeon-hole opponents as "anti-sex", although many pornography critics are careful to define erotica as something positive, and fundamentally different.

For instance, the classic feminist Gloria Steinem points out that erotica, based on the word eros (passionate love or yearning for someone else) is about "a mutually pleasurable, sexual expression between people who have enough power to be there by positive choice." The root word of pornography, however, refers to prostitution and is "violence, dominance, and conquest. It is sex being used to reinforce some inequality, or to create one, or to tell us that pain and humiliation are really the same as pleasure."

An oft discussed point in feminism is the ability to be the agent of your own objectification. Paul spends considerable time on the story of Valerie, a woman in her thirties that has used porn since she was twelve. She claims that she can easily tell if her sexual partners watch porn because they are obsessed with "fucking... bright lights on, staring at my body parts, going through the motions". One of her partners wanted sex at least once a day, but never showed an a speck of sensuality and romance. She hypothesizes that he was keeping her at an emotional distance, and using porn as an instrument to facilitate this behavior. What she first found sexy about him, his similarity to the porn stars in her movies, destroyed their relationship.

Paul is careful to never say that women who liken pornography to liberation are wrong. However, she does point out that although sex-positives may view their attitudes as empowering, "the kind of pornography their men are into is all about the men--about their needs and about what they want, not about their women, their relationships, or their families."

Women do internalize porn, according to the poll done for her book; 6 out of 10 women believe porn affects how men expect them to look and behave. Only 15% of women will assuredly say that pornography does not raise men's expectations of women.

Pornography is a "guy's thing". Men still hold the same double standard that sex-positivism was supposed to erase. 6 in 10 men, according to an MSNBC poll, would not like their partners to view pornography unless it was with them. This attitude was shown in one of the "Cosmo Confessions" featured monthly in Cosmopolitan magazine:

Once a month, my boyfriend has a guy's night out with his buddies. Normally, they shoot poll or go to a ball game. But last month, I overheard him making plans to go to a strip club. It really upset me that he didn't bother asking how I felt about his sticking dollar bills in other women's G-strings. Instead of confronting him, I did some investigating and found out that the night he was planning to go to the club happened to be amateur night, which meant that any girl could get on stage and dance. So I called a few girlfriends, and we headed to the club. After a few drinks, I surprised my guy as one of the novice strippers. He was so shocked that he just froze--until I started undressing. Then he jumped on the stage and begged me to come down, promising me he'd never go to a nudie bar again."

Although she never comes right out and states it plainly, pornography is the instrument of a woman's own objectification. The nature of porn is to arouse men with the objectification of women--to reduce the act of sex to an animalistic game of dominance void of emotion. If a piece pornography is not objectifying, chances are that it is erotica. I personally think that it is demonstrably important that we separate erotica from porn so as to tote the positive role of erotica, facilitating the agency of women and emotion in the sex act, and contrast it with the negativity of pornography.

Previous parts of this series: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

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