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How you counter or contextualize our pornified culture
When I wrote last week’s Monday essay on pornography, I braced myself a little for the comments. But you Other Feminisms readers did a wonderful job writing thoughtful responses, with plenty of strong but fruitful disagreement mixed in! One of the highlights for me of this substack is having a good place to share thought-provoking readings for sustained conversation. I’m glad to have you all here.
Next week, I’ll share highlights from our conversation on the pressure to make domestic work invisible and what kinds of work you make visible to guests or family in your own home. Below are selections from your responses to the distorting, often abusive, world of pornography and pornified culture.
Lynette shared her story about how the pressure to perform pornography at home makes for unsatisfying sex.
For me the part of pornography discussions that seems to almost always be missing or minimized is the unrealistic expectations it fosters. Especially if we are discussing pornography with young people I think this needs to be more emphasized. Having grown up in a ubiquitous porn culture, I found that with lovers, especially my virgin ones when we were in our 20s, it often took months to really become able to genuinely enjoy actual sex more just self pleasure while watching pornography. Most of what is visually titillating is not what actually feels best in practice and what feels the most amazing is impossible to film. So even if we leave out all those genuinely important things like emotional connection and intimacy... even from a purely mechanical physical reality, pornography can rob sex of its deeper capacity for pleasure and fulfillment.
This, I think, remains the most straightforward critique of porn as antithetical to sex. Sex for a viewer will always meaningfully differ from sex with a partner. Taking the former as the pattern for the latter will lead you astray… even if your goal is hedonism!
In a recent Atlantic essay “Feminism Still Hasn’t Figured Out Porn and Desire,” Helen Lewis opens with this anecdote of porn performers being unhappy with the expectations they’ve created.
Tracy Clark-Flory’s memoir, Want Me, is subtitled A Sex Writer’s Journey Into the Heart of Desire, and it begins with an arresting anecdote: Two male porn actors on a set in Los Angeles are complaining to her about “girls these days.” One actor is called Tommy Gunn, because where would pornography be without puns? The other uses his birth name, Charles Dera. Both agree that their love lives have suffered because too many women watch their films and demand a live-action replay, expecting to be choked, gagged, and slapped around. But who wants to take their work home with them? “It’s, like, not even my cup of tea,” Dera tells Clark-Flory, who covered the sex beat for Salon and is now a senior writer at Jezebel. “I want to go to dinner and have a fucking nice meal and take it from there. Where the ladies at anymore?”
A few of you weighed in on how you talk to children about pornography. Analisa wrote about how she responded to a friend showing her 9 and 11 year old boys inappropriate videos:
The best advice I got on how to handle the incident came from our pediatrician. She said, "don't call that sex, that's now how you want your children to think about sex. Call it something else." I emphasized what they already knew, that private areas are private and not to be displayed to the world. I asked if they had questions, but they decidedly did not. I got the book, Good Pictures, Bad Pictures for them.
Matthew Loftus recommended the same book, and also offered some resources for adults.
First, for men The Samson Society is a really good low-key way to get into recovery. They have online meetings and a private Slack for encouragement and accountability:
Second, if you or someone you love is really in bondage to porn, more serious steps are needed—especially if you've tried to quit before and keep going back to it. Bethesda is a ministry dedicated to helping sex addicts (and porn addicts *are* sex addicts) recover, and they offer intensive retreats for men and women that help people get at the roots of their addiction and make a plan for remaining free. They also have workshops for spouses who have been betrayed or cheated on (and yes, that includes the use of porn, too).
Martha objected to the good/bad framing, likening it to diet culture and shame. This sparked a conversation long and interesting enough that I’ll simply link it for now, since I plan to return to it in an upcoming Monday post.
Gemma pushed back against my dichotomy of consuming pornography versus participating in sex.
When I read erotica, you could say that I am "consuming" it. But I'm also usually interested in the author's view of sex, and in what a sex scene says about the characters' feelings for one another, and in how the sex scene fits in, as a story beat. Sex, and feelings of arousal, don't have to be objectifying. They can exist alongside a view of the people involved as human beings.
So when you say that pornography always makes people consumers, rather than participants, in sex and intimacy, I'm not convinced that this is completely fair. When people bring their own feelings and interpretations to a work of art, they are participants as well as consumers, as a rule. When they deliberately seek out pornography that has a known ethical source, they are already taking a step towards seeing the people involved as people rather than objects. No doubt there are ways of using porn that feel, to those who use porn this way, like mindless "consumption" that objectifies everyone involved. But art that discusses sex, even when it is made with arousal in mind, doesn't have to be mindless, objectifying consumption.
I think this is true in theory, but in practice, I find that most racy or racy-adjacent work doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.
There’s a quote I can never track down from critic Alyssa Rosenberg (I think in a discussion of The Americans) where she says she doesn’t find sex on screen gratuitous when it advances plot or character. In The Americans, the sex life of two spies in an arranged marriage is key to seeing their relationship grow beyond their assignment. (I have not seen the show, which sounds too violent for me).
“Adult” media has to clear this bar. And even when it does, it may not be a good story for everyone to watch. Back on the violence front, I took a few minutes during the opening fight of Logan to decide if I was going to walk out. It was far beyond what I’d seen on screen before.
I think Logan cleared Rosenberg’s bar, and I don’t regret seeing it. But if it meaningfully eroded the instinct of, “Should I leave?” then it probably wasn’t worth it. My goal is not openness to and acceptance of everything, but discernment.