Porn in theory, porn in practice

I should be able to think about porn dispassionately, but it bothers me a lot!

Published April 11, 2007 10:36AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I like to consider myself a progressive thinker in general, and specifically when it comes to sex. I'm very interested in representations of sexuality in culture, am an attentive reader of gender theories, and have worked in both editorial and writerly capacities with sex as a theme.

I also consider myself open, curious and nonjudgmental in trying new things in practice. So what I'm wondering this morning is why, as a thoughtful and "progressive" person, did I so instinctively feel uncomfortable (and, I don't know, jealous?) when my boyfriend casually mentioned he'd been looking at porn yesterday? (Mentioned it casually, and then got defensive and dismissive when I told him of my discomfort.)

I know it's common to look at porn. And I like it, too (though I wouldn't say it's part of my regular routine). But for some reason, I have this primitive and unenlightened hope somewhere in my subconscious that my boyfriend is only turned on by me. Am I deceiving myself by considering myself open-minded? Am I really a Victorian?

Partially, I think, it could be leftover feelings from my last relationship, with a man who very much liked a specific type of porn (think Leg Show), and would use it to spite me when I was too tired (or angry, disheartened, etc.) to have sex. So maybe that's become embedded in my idea of porn. But this is a different relationship. I want to be OK with what this new boyfriend wants sexually. I want us to be able to discuss what we like, etc. But I also don't want to have the image of him fantasizing about other women.

Why do I separate porn in theory from porn in practice? How do I resolve this without making it a taboo topic in our relationship from here on out? Is a "don't ask, don't tell" policy healthy for a relationship?

Vicky Victorian

Dear Vicky Victorian,

I have gotten many, many letters from women over the last year or two with questions similar to yours, and I have been thinking about porn and looking at porn and observing my own reactions and have hesitated to talk about it because I felt that I had no ability to look at it dispassionately. But lately, I have made some progress in this regard, and am able to step back and look at it. And what I see is something that is enormously powerful but cloaked in taboo.

It is important to be specific and factual. Porn is not a drug -- it is not a substance. But it is a mind-altering phenomenon. It affects the nervous system quickly and powerfully.

It is sex crack. It is dangerous. While it is dangerous and many dangerous things are against the law, it is not a good idea to outlaw it. Giving the state more power over our lives is like giving the sex addict more porn. It makes the state sicker and sicker. But for those of us who can't handle it, we have to face what it is, why it is so powerful.

In the lizard mind where all things are writ backward on the mirror in God's pink lipstick, I am you and you are me. We become what we behold, as Blake said. What we see is what we are. If you are naked I am naked. We are porous in the sensorium of sex. We are not impervious; we cannot look at it without tingling. It hijacks our sex. So if we do not like porn it may be because porn is too powerful. We don't care to lose our freedom to this thing, to have our sex run off one way while we who were children once gape in astonishment and wonder and frightful surprise at the size, the perfection, the wetness, the hairlessness, the lips, the machines.

It reaches right into your pants is what it does. That's kind of weird, isn't it, to have something come out of the computer and reach into your pants? Maybe you want it reaching into your pants and you're fine with that, you asked it to reach in your pants. But maybe it's just entering your eyeballs and then reaching into your pants and then it feels good but not entirely because something about it isn't right, because it's a little like being molested, isn't it? You're not quite sure being aroused is the right thing, because it's not in a relationship, you're not with a person, you're not expressing yourself, you're just having your sex made to tingle by an unseen hand -- you see the bodies represented, but you don't see the hand, any more than you see how the drug works. It's a song in your brain, it's a hand in your pants. Nobody is touching you. Nobody is forcing you to watch it. But it's an uninvited seduction; it's an unwanted fall; it's your body betraying you.

So your body betrays you. If your body betrays you with a man it takes some time and there's some negotiation.

With porn you don't negotiate. It goes right into the pants.

Let's try to think of it in a novel way. We are accustomed to thinking of the problem with porn being that women are objectified. That is the theory. That is why your theory and your practice differ. Taking into account the logic of equivalence and reversal that makes the unconscious such a baffling domain, consider that the operational problem is really, however counterintuitive and stupid this sounds, that it is the man who is being objectified. It's true that women are being represented, that their bodies are hacked up and freebased into a collage of primary sex characteristics swollen impossibly by science. But consider the idea that by going straight into his brain those images, distilled like moonshine, clarified and made impossibly strong, take him, as it were, against his will. He is not the actor. He is the one being worked on. He is passive, powerless before the images.

It's not so much that he is cheating on you with these images. It's more that the images are cheating him of who he is. He is being robbed. He's being molested by porn.

So perhaps you should feel sorry for him in a way. But then, he won't admit he's being molested, will he? People don't admit it when they're being molested. They're too ashamed. They like it a little also, and it's confusing: They want it to go away but they want it to stay too. They're in the contradiction zone. They're in the flip-flop mirror world: Pleasure equals pain, seduction equals betrayal, sex equals death.

And sex does equal death in a way. Sex is about death. Sex is about death because sex is about life and life is about death. Sex is also about infancy not only because it is about bodily urges -- and having no control, naked as babies, dependent, needy, vulnerable to attack, being done to, being done, being taken in hand, being entered -- but because it leads finally to a kind of infantile sleep -- and infants!

And naturally whether you approve of porn in theory or not, its effect will be to displace you. Like crack, it tends to take over, to push out other hungers that tend to nurture the human community by making us dependent on one another. Since we are dependent on each other we must be civil and loving. If we are not dependent on each other then we needn't be civil and loving. We needn't have community and family. That is the way in which any drug breaks down family and community by isolating its user. Porn isolates its users also, meeting their needs outside the social compact. The social compact becomes a commercial compact between anonymous people, while those in the actual human community are relegated to bystander status. It introduces a third party into the erotic economy of a relationship.

Some of course will say this is crazy and nonsensical and that is fine. I am just proposing a way of thinking about it, because the ways that we currently think about it do not seem to be very useful. We think of it in the old ways and we remain as baffled as we were before.

And for those of us who have some intuitive feeling for the problem of childhood sexual abuse and how it lives with us later, how it crouches in the corner coaxing us toward madness, this may be no stretch of the imagination at all.

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