I am a feminist, and part of me loves porn. More specifically, the kind of porn that is created to be viewed by men. I’m not a man, though. I’m the kind of woman who will make others uncomfortable by pointing out a sexist joke in a commercial and driving the point home to people who don’t think anything is wrong with it, or by forwarding something from a sociological blog to my friends, usually something pointing out the ridiculousness of gendered products or blatant sexism. And yet, I cannot escape the fact that I find male-oriented porn extremely arousing. I know that most lesbian porn is extremely inaccurate and insulting, and it still turns me on. I’m not sure why this is, and it really bothers me. I hate how sexualized American culture has become and how all men expect women to have shaved crotches. I worry about the effect it will have on my potential future children. But I am turned on sexually (not intellectually) by the most demeaning smut. I’ve tried watching more “women friendly” porn, and the same effect isn’t there. What is wrong with me?
Oh, feminist lady friend, there’s nothing wrong with you. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about this issue, because my own fantasies have often seemed to contradict my politics. In search of guidance, I found “Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire,” a smart and edgy anthology that I recommend you snatch up posthaste. The book’s introduction points to something the inimitable Susie Bright once said in response to an interviewer’s question about how she reconciles her feminism with “the more traditional feminine roles, behaviors, fantasies, positions” that she engages in behind closed doors: “I don’t sit in bed with my dildo trying to rationalize anything!” I adore this rejoinder, but maybe you want to sit in bed with your dildo and try to rationalize things — and that’s a perfectly legitimate response as well.
It’s no surprise that a feminist like yourself would use “demeaning smut” as an escape — in fact, it’s exactly the sort of sexual cliché that one should expect. That’s right, I just called your deepest, darkest, most embarrassing fantasies cliché – but this means you’re not alone: The majority of us find an erotic charge in the forbidden. Not only is porn generally a lightning rod for controversy in feminism, but you’ve fixated on a genre that graphically represents the very concerns that the movement devotes itself to: exploitation, degradation, objectification — and so many other troubling “–ations.” There’s more friction, more heat there for you than for someone who thinks that sexual inequality is no big thing.
Jack Morin, author of “The Erotic Mind” and a San Francisco sex therapist, tells me in an email, “Compelling turn-ons spring from positive, pleasurable experiences, but also from areas of ‘unfinished emotional business’ (even trauma) in our personal development. The healing purpose of eros is to transform struggles and conflicts into self-affirmation and excitement.” A common fantasy among survivors of sexual abuse is to eroticize past trauma. These fantasies typically “involve an unexpected conviction that the ‘perpetrator’ is actually the helpless pawn of the overpowering desirability of the ‘victim,’” Morin says. “Totally the opposite of real-life abuse.” This may not be the way you choose to fight the patriarchy in real life, but as a private kink, it can be deeply satisfying. Like dreams, masturbatory fantasies simply “refuse to be constrained by the rules governing behavior, or politically correct ideals,” says Morin. “Accepting this fact can be the key to sexual pleasure and satisfaction.”
Jaclyn Friedman, a feminist activist and author of “What You Really, Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety,” agrees. “It’s a fool’s errand to expect ideological perfection from yourself or anyone else in the bedroom,” she says. “Sexual response is wildly complex, and many people use their sex lives to safely explore parts of themselves or their world that they have trouble accessing otherwise — a kind of psychodrama which can be awesome and powerful.” Regardless, Friedman recommends some reflection about the impact this “demeaning smut” has on you. Does it ultimately make you feel bad — about your body, about sex, about men? “If that’s the case, think of it maybe as the equivalent of junk food — it’s fine to eat once in a while, but making it the main staple of your diet is going to do serious harm,” she says.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that she also has concerns about the wider cultural impact of “degrading smut,” which tends to reinforce a very narrow view of desire, sexuality and pleasure. The problem isn’t that “any particular image exists, but that so much of the one kind exists that all other types of porn are marginal at best.” Friedman asks, “Can you spend some money supporting feminist porn, even if that’s not the stuff you click with as much? Can you spend some time or effort advocating for better working conditions for porn performers?” Some may laugh it off, but just as progressives of means have devoted themselves to buying local, organic produce, it’s possible to be a conscientious porn consumer — even while enjoying politically incorrect smut.