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Jan 03 2008

Which Side Are You On? Pro-Porn and Anti-Porn Arguments

Note to family members and others who don’t want to read about my personal sex life: This post talks about my personal sex life, including a few details you may not want to know about. If you don’t want to read that stuff, please don’t read this post.

This post was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Three_kinds_of_asking_for_itYou’d think this would be a no-brainer. I’ve performed in porn. I’ve produced porn. I’ve sold porn. I’ve written porn. I’ve reviewed porn. And I’ve read and looked at porn, many many times, purely for my own libidinous pleasure. And whenever I read someone reflexively attacking porn, railing about how horrible it is and how it’s degrading and ruinous to all that is good and wonderful about sex, I get very cranky and argumentative.

But here’s the kicker. When I read people reflexively defending porn, raving about how wonderful and uplifting it is and how all criticisms of it are absurd and unfair, I get cranky and argumentative as well.

You might conclude from this behavior that I am a cranky, argumentative person.

You might be right.

But there’s more to it than that. (She said, crankily and argumentatively.)

The core problem, I think, is this. Critics of porn often focus exclusively on the specifics of how porn commonly plays out in contemporary culture. They see the body fascism, the rigidly narrow and male-oriented vision of sexuality, the sexism (and yes, there is sexism in porn, just like there’s sexism in every other part of popular culture). And they conclude that the particular is the same as the general. They conclude that because that’s how porn commonly plays out in contemporary culture, therefore that’s what porn is always like, de facto and by its very definition.

(They also focus on video porn to the exclusion of all other forms. Not entirely unfairly, as that is the lion’s share of the porn market… but somewhat narrow-mindedly as well. And there’s an unfortunate confirmation bias when feminist critiques of porn focus on video, since written fiction is a far more woman-driven form of erotica than video has ever been. Especially when you look at the vanishing line between the erotica and romance genres.)

RevelationsBy the same token, though, defenders of porn often focus exclusively on the ideal of what porn could be, while ignoring the ugly realities of what it very often is. And I’ll include myself in that critique. I’ve definitely been guilty of saying, “But what about Candida Royalle? What about Libido Productions? What about the dozens of other wonderful indie porn productions I could name?”… while ignoring the over 10,000 pieces of formula-driven, factory-made, tedious pieces of sex in a box that come out every single year, and that porn customers snap up like candy.

I’m not going to say that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think the idea that the truth of two opposing extremes usually lies somewhere in the middle is total bullshit. I am, on the whole, very much pro-porn, if for no other reasons than (a) I think there’s no way to stop the fucked-up kinds of porn without stopping healthy sex information and expression, and (b) I like to get off on it.

And I think anti-porn writers have a very bad habit of ignoring Sturgeon’s Law. They fail to recognize that, yes, 90% of porn is crap… but 90% of everything is crap. And in a sexist society, 90% of everything is sexist crap. I’ve seen some very good arguments on how most porn is sexist and patriarchal with rigid and misleading images of women… but I’ve never seen a good argument for why, in a world of sexist TV and movies and pop music and video games, porn should be singled out for special condemnation — to the point of trying to eliminate the genre altogether.

But I also think that pro-porn advocates — myself included — need to stop pretending that there isn’t a problem. We need to recognize that the overwhelming majority of porn — or rather, the overwhelming majority of video porn, which is the overwhelming majority of porn — is sexist, is patriarchal, does perpetuate body fascism, does create unrealistic sexual expectations for both women and men, does depict sex in ways that are not only overwhelmingly focused on male pleasure, but are rigid and formulaic and mind-numbingly tedious to boot. And we need to be trying to do something about it.

What I think is often missing, from both sides of this debate, is nuance. I think anti-porn writers need to acknowledge that the crappy realities of average porn don’t automatically prove that all porn is evil by definition. And I think pro-porn advocates need to acknowledge… well, the crappy realities of average porn.

And goddamn it, this cranky and argumentative sex writer wants nuance. If I have to scream myself blue in the face to get it.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    flygrrl

    Wow. I have now read two of your blog posts and found myself agreeing, 100% with both of them. Thanks for so eloquently explaining the contents of my own brain. Found you via Skepchick yesterday. Will be stopping back often!

  2. 2
    Spanish Inquisitor

    One thing critics can do is stop calling it porn. The word has become just another four-letter negative connotative. If it’s erotica call it that. If it’s extremely descriptive, male sexual fantasy, (EDMSF?) call it that. If it’s a snuff film, call it that. If it’s a rape scene, call it that. Stop calling it porn, because you’re (not you, Greta, the general you, the critics) simply telescoping your prejudices, and attempting to tenderize your audience with the use of the word.

  3. 3
    The Promiscuous Reader

    I’ve been skeptical of “the truth lies between the two extremes” ever since my first year of college, when it occurred to me that Richard Nixon could have gone to one extreme and killed no Vietnamese, or gone to the other extreme and killed all of them … so he took the middle path and only killed some of them.
    In a great satirical piece that I wish were on the web but as far as I know can only be found in her “Beginning to See the Light” collection, Ellen Willis gave this example of “bias”: The male chauvinist bias is that women are inferior to men; the feminist bias is that women are equal to men; the unbiased view is that the truth lies somewhere in between.
    I sympathize with your tendency to disagree with partisans of both sides, since (as you may have noticed), I do the same thing. Give me an advocate for theism and I get all cranky; give me an atheist and I get all cranky. Give me a mindless critic of science and I get all cranky; give me a mindless advocate of science and I get all cranky.

  4. 4
    AA

    hahah.
    very nice. Though I can’t say I’ve ever been that deep into porn, what you’re saying makes a lot of sense.

  5. 5
    aDM

    The pro porn advocates need to deal with the harsher realities first. Youve had it your way for so long we have porn as mainstream mag reading. Bravo. Mainstream porn is harder than ever. Its the pro bunch who need to get a grip on boring us all with their sexual get offs and deal with the facts – which you have spelled out. Maybe then the rest of us will start to accept not all porn is bad. Potentially. Meanwhile im happy with my imagination.

  6. 6
    Catherine Martell

    Interesting piece. I agree with you that nuance is vital. I also agree that both sides can be guilty of ignoring inconvenient counter-examples.
    A couple of things, though (and I’m coming from a generally, though nuanced I hope, anti-porn perspective). First, I think the reference to Sturgeon’s Law is irrelevant here. The feminist argument against porn isn’t that 90% of it is “crap”, but that 90% of it (or whatever percentage you like) is actually harmful. The quality is not pertinent to the question of whether porn a means of sexual liberation, or a perpetrator of sexual oppression.
    I also take issue with this statement:
    “I’ve seen some very good arguments on how most porn is sexist and patriarchal with rigid and misleading images of women… but I’ve never seen a good argument for why, in a world of sexist TV and movies and pop music and video games, porn should be singled out for special condemnation — to the point of trying to eliminate the genre altogether.”
    This sounds to me like the argument: “Why are American feminists whingeing about Girls Gone Wild and ignoring the terrible mistreatment of women in the Middle East?” Actually, American feminists spend plenty of time focusing on global inequalities; and, similarly, radical feminists spend plenty of time critiquing culture in general.
    I help moderate a radical feminist messageboard where most of the posters are anti-porn, and I can assure you that far more time is spent analysing the sexism in TV, movies, music (pop and classical) and video games than porn. Of course, many of us consider that pornographic tropes are rapidly becoming the norm in these media too. But there is no sense in which anyone considers porn to be the only medium worth critiquing, or even necessarily the main medium worth critiquing.
    As for the question of whether we might want to eliminate the genre altogether: well, there is a range of views on that. Few people are into outright censorship. I suppose the real test would be how much porn would survive if the sexism and misogyny was removed. Some anti-porn feminists think it might be possible to reclaim some forms of pornography; others don’t; others still don’t want to; and some argue that porn as they define it is a dominance/oppression narrative, and thus would cease to exist automatically if patriarchy ceased to exist.
    It’s not true to say that anti-porn feminists only focus on video porn. Actually, most of the debate I have seen is about still photography.
    I do agree very much that it would be interesting to discuss written fiction more often. However, debate on this isn’t nonexistent: you just have to look for it. Again, even within the anti-porn camp, there is a very lively debate about written fiction (and drawn comics). Some feminists consider it equally problematic, on the grounds that much of it uses the same sexist/misogynist imagery as photographic porn. Others consider that it is unproblematic, because their objection to photographic porn comes from the fact that a potentially vulnerable real person or people are involved in acts that they perceive as degrading.
    Personally, I’ve moved from a generally pro-porn to a generally anti-porn perspective, the more I’ve read and seen. At every point on that journey, I’ve found the discussion of porn in feminist circles extremely sophisticated and nuanced. I’m much more aware of the anti-porn side than the pro-porn side, but that’s just personal choice: I think great stuff is being written and said all over the place.
    May I respectfully suggest that anyone who doesn’t think the debate is nuanced is looking in the wrong places? After all, 90% of everything is crap.

  7. 7
    debbyo

    Whenever I look at photo/video porn, I get worried about the women. Do they want to be there, are they junkies, where are the condoms, why are they so pretty and the blokes so ordinary, am I contributing to their abuse in any way…? I just don’t know anything about them or the circumstances under which it was made and it bothers me.

  8. 8
    jake3988

    No offense to women and/or feminists, but everytime an ad uses a cute woman they point to sexism and/or ‘unrealistic expectations’.
    But what about all those abercrombe ads that use 6 foot tall ‘chiseled from a granite stone’ men that are ‘sexy’ (Good god, I didn’t just say that?) and create unrealistic expectations for men too?
    Also, I’m in college and I can tell you from first-hand experience that nearly a third of all the girls here are cuter than any girl you’ll find on the internet or in ads. So, I definitely don’t think it creates an unrealistic expectation.
    Plus, I don’t really think women are held by gun-point and forced into the porn business. It’s a choice.
    But really, it all boils down to women and the woman body being insanely cute. People equate artistic nudism with porn too, which is NOT the case.
    Ok, my rambling is done :)

  9. 9
    cc

    The problem with even the nuanced anti-porn arguments is that they seem to want to white-wash the actual experience of sexual desire, and sometimes sex and attraction itself.
    1. Art (in the most unpretentious definition) is a version of reality. A lot of times, it’s a version that’s in some way improved to our tastes, whether it’s a painting whose colors are much more vibrant than the actual scene it depicts, or a movie with a hell of a lot more beautiful people and expensive cars than an average person will ever meet. So porn presents idealized and unrealistic versions of women? Sure, they do. That’s what it’s there for; in porn, as in your imagination, you can have something that’s out of your reach in the real world, maybe because it doesn’t actually exist in the real world. If a guy is really turned on by Jenna Jameson, why not let a guy get off to Jenna Jameson now and then?
    2. Relationships are messy, and so is attraction. Couples don’t take turns being on top just to make sure they’re not being sexist (or maybe they do, who knows; in any case, it would be silly). Domination and control is part of the game, whether one person or the other is doing the dominating. The narrative of dominance and oppression is not just a reiteration of society’s sexist inclination; in fact, it’s deep in many people’s sexual imagination. I’m in college, and most of my friends have used handcuffs during sex, most of these female, one in a lesbian relationship. At least one of them is a regular sub. It’s part of the sexual games that are played to get people off, and if it gets people off, you’d better bet it’s going to appear in porn.
    3. Of course, then comes the argument that fantasies shape one’s perception of reality, and this is a tough argument. The truth is, they might. It requires some maturity to separate fantasy from reality. But believe me, it’s possible. My sub friend usually has the actual power in her relationships, for example. I’ve played that sort of sex game with my girlfriend, and also watch porn with some frequency — that being the misogynistic kind with the narrative of domination — and I happen to have a healthy relationship with a woman who’s self-assured enough to indulge in that sort of sex play — to her satisfaction as much as to mine — and know that doesn’t make her inferior in our relationship. If you want more examples of that, you should read Dan Savage’s column — or better yet, listen to his podcast. To listen to real people’s experience with submission/domination, s&m, and porn might change the way you feel about it.

  10. 10
    Mark Oppenheimer

    A lot of discussion about Pornography is marred by the fact that there is so much disagreement about what the term refers to. For a philophical take on how to define porn. Have a look at http://libertyaddiction.blogspot.com/2008/07/what-is-pornography.html

  11. 11
    Steve Santos

    PORN HAS MADE AMERICA A PERVERTED PLACE TO LIVE WITH WHORESISH MEN AND WOMAN .I THINK A SMALLER AMOUNT OF PORN WOULD NOT BE BAD .NOW ,IN OUR NATION WE LOOK LIKE A BUNCH OF PEOPLE PLAYING WITH OUR BODYIES ALL THE TIME AROUND THE WORLD .IN THE WORLD WE ARE LOOK DOWN AT .WE ARE IN THE WORLD COMMUNITY AND LIKE MY MARINE UNCLE WOULD SAY “WE HAVE TO LOOK GOOD “. I ASKING THE PORNO PEOPLE TOO SLOW DOWN YOUR MAKING AMERICANS LOOK BAD .

  12. 12
    atheist

    anti or pro…
    I would say Im pro porn but anti of most of the porn that does exist today.
    I would love to find porn that I could get off to but most of the things I’ve seen is accompanied by naming the girls in the movies sluts and whores etc. And when I hear those things I feel ashamed, as if I am a slut to for watching and enjoying watching…and I get totally turned off.
    Ive just simply stopped looking for porn that doesn’t make me feel sad because I keep on being disgusted with what is out there.
    And no I dont want boring soft porn, I want the real deal too, I just dont want to feel like a slut for enjoying watching it.
    Just wish it would be easier to find porn that did not make me feel so insecure.

  13. 13
    fcukdogers

    I really don’t understand what the big deal is about porn anyway. Would much rather porn than violence in our global community.

  14. 14
    Mirko

    Yes the truth always lies in the middle..and yes there is a problem with porn movies…and that is that people are pro and against it without even ever thinking through why are they pro or against…I mean porn movies have there good and bad sides…but don’t all movies… I mean c-mon people sex is natural..

  15. 15
    Taylor Markey

    I’m really glad you wrote an article looking at both sides of this issue. My opinion is that there is a really huge generational difference that people often ignore. I’m a sixteen year old girl growing up in a world where porn is becoming more and more mainstream. Whenever I have seen anything pornographic (Girls Gone Wild, Playboy, etc) it has made me feel terrible about being female and I know a lot of teens who feel this way. Most teenagers are sexually vanilla because they are new to sex and the ubiquity of pornography makes sex seem scary and male-dominated. I feel like the rise of pornography was probably very liberating for the generation before us, but for me and a lot of my friends it just feels like something that is shoved down our throats that we are not ready for. Here’s hoping that you are right and that porn will improve.

  16. 16
    William Belle

    I decided to do a personal investigation into the “truth” about pornography. What I basically found is a near hysteria which seems to come from the ring wing religious fundamentalist conservatives about anything relating to sex. Period.
    Porn causes evil? Legitimate studies have found that as the availability of porn in society goes up, the rate of sex related crimes comes down.
    Who buys the most porn? Conservatives.
    People tell personal stories “I know a guy…”, “I heard of a family…” and pass it off as scientific evidence. The plural of anecdote is not data.
    What’s the real problem? We are all so hung up about sex, we can’t talk about it. Because we can’t talk about, we don’t deal with it and hide it. A sad state of affairs. The real problem isn’t pornography, it is our own sexuality.
    http://wqebelle.blogspot.com/2010/11/pornography-investigation.html

  17. 17
    Claire

    Thank you so much for writing this. Porn has been a big issue in my life; a problem for me as a woman, a feminist, and in relationships I’ve had. I feel as though parts of me that have been at war are now satisfied!

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