This week's issue of New York magazine is a triple-X triple-feature. The three cover articles star the familiar characters: "Sexting" teens in junior high, porn-obsessed young men, and the digital frontier of free smut -- with a guest appearance by Sasha Grey and a comedic interlude of personal tales of failed dirty talk. That's the world of porn: sometimes scary, sometimes sexy and occasionally very funny. But what's most compelling about this package (mind out of the gutter, you) is that it illuminates something that is present in almost all conversations about the influence of porn but that is rarely talked about explicitly as much as it should be: the female desire to be an object of lust.
Reporter Alex Morris bravely embeds with a group of teenage girls and finds that they are flaunting sexy photos of themselves on Facebook and relishing the response it gets out of boys. A sampling of comments: "VERY SEXY... . I LIKEY" and "OMG OMG OMG OMG CAN WE PLEASE GET MARRIED!!!" (Ah, the poetry of youth.) As Morris puts it, this is "the secondhand sexual validation Facebook allows," and it's just one way that girls today are feeling out their "sexual potential online." One of the article's subjects takes delight not only in the responses her photos garner from the masses but also her boyfriend's jealous reaction to all the fawning. Naturally, there is also jealousy and competition between girls: Morris writes that one of her teen subjects feels betrayed when a female friend sends around a topless photo of herself "because she knows that the stakes have been raised, that she'll now have to do more to draw the male gaze her way."
Many of us don't grow out of this, either. In an excellent essay, Davy Rothbart writes about his struggle to get off with a real, live woman -- and he blames it on porn: "For a lot of guys, switching gears from porn's fireworks and whiz-bangs to the comparatively mundane calm of ordinary sex is like leaving halfway through an Imax 3-D movie to check out a flipbook." Women end up "willingly play[ing] along by a new set of rules in order to keep their men interested." He writes:
They're intentionally impersonating porn stars. Sadie, the real-estate agent, says, "A lot of guys have come to expect P.S.E. [the "Porn-Star Experience"] as a common thing -- snatches waxed bald, access to every hole -- and plenty of women are more than happy to provide. A few might enjoy it, but for most it's harrowing. I think there's a fear that if they can't make it happen, their boyfriend will retreat online.
Men report that "women are turning up the dial" and "getting a lot more vocal now." One guy hilariously observes: "I was with a girl who seemed to be in an arms race with porn. She had this imaginary Soviet Union she kept trying to out-fuck."
So, middle-school girls are competing with their female classmates who are willing to circulate nudie pics, and young adults are competing with women who are a fantasy by profession. This certainly resonates with me: As I wrote just last week -- and many times before that, because I don't think you can very easily overstate that impact of these things -- my early sex education took place online; I set out to understand what it was that men wanted, because I wanted to be that. I wanted that power. This is what's behind the performative sexuality that Ariel Levy wrote about in "Female Chauvinist Pigs" -- the breast-flashing, the girl-on-girl makeouts, the pole-dancing classes. It doesn't take long for girls to learn that in mainstream culture being sexual means being wanted by men.
The irony is that when women do perform this charade of male fantasy, in hopes of being a successful sex object, the response can be intensely negative. According to Rothbart, dudes kind of freak when their girlfriends start acting like porn stars: "They don't want their real women and their fantasy women to inhabit the same body." The cynical take is that this is a sign that even the porn generation isn't ready to leave behind the whole wife-whore dichotomy. More charitably, though, I think it might just be that fantasies are sexy because they aren't real.