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On Porn II: Definitions

Porn by Definition

One thing I learned to abhor about academic philosophy was the almost compulsive need to redefine commonly used terms in order to buttress otherwise confusing or inconclusive arguments. By the end of a 20-page discussion of something as unobscure as “justice,” most theorists had redefined the term itself and spend the majority of the paper defending that definition.

That is not what I’m going to do here.

A lot of people try to draw a distinction between erotica and porn. I don’t think that this distinction is useful. In the common vernacular, I’ve heard people refer to porn as erotica and erotica as porn. True, some porn is more focused on the relationship and emotions of its actors than others. I don’t think that a focus on the eroticism rather than the physicality takes a piece of porn out of the realms of pornography.

More importantly, I think drawing a distinction between porn and erotica legitimizes really toxic stereotypes about male and female sexuality. You can read exactly how people separate porn from erotica here and here, among other places. What seems to be common in these dichotomies is that they posit that porn entirely focuses on the physical aspects of sex and is often obscene with no higher aspirations; and erotica focuses on feelings and emotions, and often has high-art aspirations.

If you feel that this dichotomy mirrors a similar one, you’re not mistaken. The differences assumed between pornography and erotica are the very differences we falsely assign male and female sexuality. Female sexuality is art, and more acceptable for public consumption (witness the proliferation of images of the female form versus the concealment or non-erotic cultural assumptions made of the male form). The sexuality of women is all about emotions and feelings, not about being attracted to the physicality of sex or the body of her partner. Female sexuality is inward-looking and passive. On the other hand, male sexuality only consists of the obscene and degrading. It wants nothing to do with feelings or emotions, just raw physicality. Men can have sex with people whom they’re only physically attracted to, women cannot. Men don’t have any use for love, unlike women. The nude male body is obscene in order to shock, or something that is unremarkable, common, and ugly. There’s nothing artistic about men.

Do I think that the way the divide between porn and erotica mirrors the divide between the common assumptions made of male and female sexuality is a coincidence? Hell no. I think that the porn/erotica divide is another toxic manifestation of gender values in our culture, and entirely useless. There is a very real association of erotica with femininity, and porn with masculinity. The very words themselves conger images of roses, love, and passion versus bodily fluids, full-frontal nudity, and gratuitous focus on the “obscene”.

Likewise, from an artistic standpoint, it’s entirely false to say that a woman’s body and her desires (or what they are idealised to be) are only “high art” while a man’s body and his desires are obscene and serve no other purpose other than to arouse, shock, and satisfy cheap physical needs. I have no erotic desire for the male form myself (since I’m a lesbian), but straight women obviously do legitimately desire the bodies of their male partners. Likewise, the idea that men want nothing to do with the feelings and emotions of sexuality is degrades the humanity and agency of men. It posits that men have no use for love, which is obviously false, and pretends that male sexuality is inherently obscene, disgusting, uncontrollable, and animalistic. Men do look inwards while expressing their sexuality, just as women look outwards. But our cultural messages claim otherwise, robbing both genders of their agency and pathologizing those who express their sexuality in ways not sanctioned by the zeitgeist.

Thus, for the purpose of this series, when I speak of “porn,” I speak of any form of media that depicts some sort of sexual behavior (in the case of more obscure fetishes, this may be more subtle and altogether exclude physical intercourse) with the intent to cause sexual excitement for the purpose of obtaining sexual satisfaction or selling the pornography itself. I think that caveat about satisfaction and selling the porn is useful, because without it, we might have to consider advertisement that relies on arousal to sell an unrelated product “porn.” In the common sense of the word “porn,” I get the feeling that nobody actually thinks that models in bikinis selling beer is considered porn — unless they are using the term “porn” with a negative connotation in order to critique the ad.

What I also want to establish here is that I feel that this definition of porn (which is adapted from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary), most closely approximates what most people really mean when they call something porn, smut, or erotica. And for the purposes of this series, I will consider all of these terms more or less equivalent, or at least different forms of the larger category of media we think of as “porn.”

Likewise, I don’t want to use the baggage associated with the erotica/porn separation, or the inherent negativity invoked by the word “smut.” I think pornography, by definition, is entirely neutral. Here I speak only of the theory of pornography. Considering only the definition of porn — and internalizing no negative or positive cultural messages about sexuality — ought to isolate the meaning of the word from the baggage associated with it.

Of course, the baggage associated with it is precisely what I discuss in this series. But there is something to be said with being semantically clear without redefining words in order to suit my following arguments. Here, I hope I have captured what the common American actually thinks when they call something “porn” without making any connotations of whether or not it is obscene or artistic, masculine or feminine, and divine or sinful.

To be continued in On Porn Part III: Fiction vs. Non-Fiction…

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On Porn I: Introduction and Disclaimers

Introduction

I’ve vaguely referenced porn before, but I’ve never really done a complex write-up about. I know that I’m opening a flood gate of critique, but I think it’s something worthwhile to discuss and reevaluate. One such write-up that I admire is Nine Deuce’s impressive Porn Series, which takes a highly critical stance to the modern porn industry.

What I don’t want to do is jump right in without making an important distinction. This post — and hopefully the posts that follow — are not about the idea of porn. They are about the reality of porn. First and foremost, I am not speaking about porn from a pulpit of righteousness. I have viewed a considerable amount of it ever since it became easily available on the internet. I have even gotten off to it, or used it as some sort of bizarre entertainment if it was not arousing. When I talk about porn, I’m talking about trends I have — firsthand — observed. I am also critiquing things that I have used or enjoyed, probably more than once, in the past. And since porn is so ubiquitous, they are also things I may view and enjoy in the future.

Does that make me a hypocrite? Yes, in a sense. But I think in a valuable sense. There’s something to be said about critiquing an institution from the inside, instead of the outside. Critically analyzing the implications of your own sexuality is a very worthwhile task. I feel that we take far too much about sex for granted, and just internalize toxic cultural messages as the “way things are.” I don’t feel that sex and sexuality needs to be shut into some sacred box, free from critique. Nor do I think that it should be thought of as inherently immoral, and something that we need to control rather than celebrate. But much like fireworks are beautiful, firing them into a crowd is deadly. And I think that a lot of our baggage around human sexuality, particularly when it comes to the porn industry, is not handled with enough care.

One distinction I learned in my years as a philosophy undergrad was that between ideal and non-ideal theory. Ideal theory is the stuff that constructs an ideal model of human behavior or takes a really idealistic view of the establishment of certain institutions. John Locke’s theories on the consent of the governed are an example of this. Even Rousseau, who saw the advent of human civilization as an abomination, deals in ideal theory. Ideal theory is useful when discussing things in the abstract. But it’s not very realistic. I’d compare it to trying to determine how much fuel a plane requires without accounting for air resistance and assuming you are flying it in a vacuum.

Non-ideal theory deals with the reality of things. Most of philosophy is done with ideals, but certain thinkers have been distinguished by describing how things are rather than how they ought to be. One such thinker is Karl Marx, who described the very real alienation of the proletariat from his or her production. Another thinker, unfortunately less well-known, was Franz Fanon, who’s seminal The Wretched of the Earth, which is probably the titular example of anti-colonial theory.

So when I talk about porn, I’m talking about the reality of it. I’m talking about the beautiful, bizarre, dangerous, exploitive, and abusive practices that have gained notoriety today. I’m also talking about the very real effect porn has had on my life — both on my views of myself and my sexuality, and how it has impacted and will continue to impact my relationships (and not only my intimate relationships).


On Sex-Positivity

I think the biggest mistake made by radical feminists in the late ’70s and early ’80s was to ally themselves with Republicans to shed light on the abuses of the sex industry (more info here). It had the nasty effect of forever aligning Radical Feminism, and its critiques of porn, with the Puritanical woman-hating bullshit that conservatives and their allies are so often fond of. From this unfortunate association sprung the lie that feminists (particularly Radical Feminists) were anti-sex. Liberal feminists, willing to sell their sisters out in order to realign themselves with the Democratic party, dreamed up the misnomer of “pro-sex” feminism.1

Pro-sex feminism is a misnomer precisely because there are no anti-sex feminists. I’ve read dictionaries worth of radical feminist theory (Dworkin’s Intercourse is probably the most famous text), and nothing in them is remotely opposed to the idea of sex. What they are all opposed to is the reality of sex — in particular, the predator/prey model that alienates women and girls from their agency and sexuality while normalizing violent masculinity, coercion, abuse, and rape. This is why I wanted to make a distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory before I jumped right into porn: I am not opposed to the consumption of erotic materials or sex between two (or more) consenting parties.

Aside from completely absurd religious demagogues that have people believe that you’ll go to hell if you masturbate or have sex without the express and immediate intent of conceiving a child, there’s not lot of people I would describe as “anti-sex.” Thus, that’s a conversation I’m not going to have in this series. I will not make excuses for my critiques, nor will I temper them with “there are exceptions” and “what about teh menz!?” rejoinders.

What I care about is less what consensual people do to get their rocks off, and more of what our culture tells us we ought to do, or what is acceptable to do, to get our rocks off. If you want to critique your own sexual practices, be my guest. I’ve done as much for myself, and it’s a very illuminating task. I am not interested in establishing that certain sexual acts are inherently shameful, dirty, or wrong. What I want to discuss is what those acts represent in the zeitgeist, and what their ubiquity means in porn.

Being sex-positive is not something I’m after. I’m not here to enshrine any sexual practice, nor am I here to demonize one. As I said before, putting what we do in the name of orgasm on some shelf and forgetting about it is a mistake — whether we think our sexuality is holy or sinful. Sexuality is just that: sexuality. It’s uniquely human and established in a toxic soup of really horrible cultural messages that often conceal and  distort healthy sexuality. It’s something worth talking about not because it is more important than any other human activity, but because we have established it as more important than any other human activity by the enormous trouble and expense we go to judge, critique, express, conceal, protect, criminalize, and define it.

In closing, I am not trying to be pro-sex, and I refuse to even discuss what entails being ‘anti-sex.’ I am not interested in porn in theory, but in porn in practice and reality. I do not think human sexuality is inherently all that interesting. It’s only really interesting, in a very public way, because we made it so (see: Foucault’s excellent The History of Sexuality for more discussion in this vein). Why, how, and to what ends we did so is what I will discuss.

Continued in On Porn II: Definitions


1Please note that I do not harshly judge them for doing so. They did so in order to reestablish women’s issues as central in the Democratic party, who was leery of anyone aligning themselves with Republicans. I, in fact, think that Radical Feminists made an even graver error in selling Liberal Feminists out first by aligning themselves with Republicans — who are manifestly opposed to the very idea of gender equality in a visceral way. When it comes to gender equality, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend.