There is a group that has started in my city called Sexual Politics Now. I love that they exist. I back the work they do and I really believe that we need to be able to talk openly about porn, to critique and discuss the impact it has on our lives.
A few weeks ago, this group showed the Australian documentary Sex and Love in an Age of Pornography, directed by Maree Crabbe and David Corlett. I went along to it, and felt myself shrinking. By the time it came to the discussion I felt intimidated and marginalised. I kept quiet, and slunk out as soon as it was over, even foregoing the free wine and snacks. I’ve tried to forget this experience, because to be honest, I have been pretty up and down over the last few months and I’m learning how to rebuild my trust in my feelings. (Although, based on the fact that I didn’t stay for snacks, this is a pretty clear indicator that I felt sad and weird.)
But, I can’t let this go! And I so wish I had the guts to send this to the film directors, or to the organisers of Sexual Politics Now. But I don’t, at the moment, so I’m doing the next best thing and posting this on my (anonymous) blog. If you read this, it would be great to know if you think I’m completely out of line, or if you agree with my point of view. I kind of need that outside perspective right now, you know?
Okay, here goes.
I do agree with Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography. We need this documentary. It is important. We need to be discussing porn with teenagers and young adults, and this documentary represents a way to do that.
However. While watching it I started to feel like my sexuality was not the RIGHT sexuality. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making shit up, so I tracked down an article the directors have written about the issues the film addresses:
there has been a marked shift in pornography content towards rougher, more aggressive sex—including, for example,
- fellatio inducing gagging
- heterosexual anal sex
- ejaculating on women’s faces and breasts, and
- double penetrations in which one woman is penetrated anally and vaginally at the same time.
Significantly, porn is normalising sex acts that most women in the real world don’t enjoy, and may find degrading, painful or violating. […] We are seeing young women internalising the messages of porn (Zwartz 2007). The porn erotic is so ‘normal’ that women may not see that this construction of sexuality is about appealing to men. It is not about a woman’s own dignity, respect or multidimensional nature—not to mention her pleasure.
Okay, okay, so can we pause a second please? Sure, the activities listed in the four bullet points are pretty much at the top of my fetish list, but I accept that I may be in the minority with this, and I accept that they’ve written ‘most women’ don’t enjoy this. That ‘most’ is important. But. I feel offended that after that innocuous ‘most’, they proceed to say I’m unaware how my fetish has been constructed by porn, my turn-ons are only about appealing to men, and my sexual activity does not allow me dignity, respect or pleasure.
I call bullshit. I feel that Crabbe and Corlett have a view of what empowered sexuality looks like, and this is decidedly vanilla. I can understand if you think I’m reading too much into the documentary and the article. I have thought that too. But it was impossible for me to ignore vanilla-biased discussion afterwards. There were about 50 people in the lecture theatre, including Crabbe and Corlett. Two thirds of the audience were women, and the majority in their twenties and thirties. At one point, someone in the audience said, “No woman likes having cum on their face!” There were murmurs and laughter in agreement, the directors up the front nodded sagely, and I shrank. I so badly wanted to stick my hand up and say, “Yes! I’m a woman and I think having cum on my face is the best thing ever! I would happily start every day with a rough blow job and a face full of cum!”
I didn’t, though. I’ve had one negative experience with a feminist group in June 2012, and since then I’ve been wary of being told my experience isn’t valid, that I’ve been “brainwashed by the patriarchy” (yes, that’s a direct quote). I’m afraid of being accused of sidelining the real argument, of distracting or being irrelevant. And, I knew my opinion would be unpopular.
At the end of the article, Crabbe and Corlett write:
While the porn erotic is normalised, it is possible to imagine an alternative vision. As porn demonstrates, it is possible to eroticise inequality, mere physicality, and even degradation and violence. But it is also possible for the erotic cultural sensibility to allow diversity and individual taste, and at the same time to promote equality, tenderness, communication, consent and mutuality.
The last sentence: Yes, oh my god, yes. I am so on board with this. I am so passionate about this! I want to become a sex educator to promote exactly this! But, are Crabbe and Corlett able to promote it in a way that actually IS about diversity? I feel they’ve completely ignored kinksters who are living proof of diversity and individual taste, who are highly skilled at respectfully communicating and negotiating consent, but do it in a way that EXPLORES inequality, physicality, degradation and violence.
Here is my ‘alternative’ alternative vision to the “porn erotic”. My vision would include: ‘your kink is not my kink and that’s okay’. My vision would replace the word ‘tenderness’ with respect. (Tender just alludes too much to a particular type of sex, which again, might be your kink but it’s not mine). My vision would not privilege one type of sexuality over the other.
At this point in writing, I pause and ask myself: “okay, it’s one thing having this alternative alternative vision, but how would I communicate this to young people?” Because I really do agree with the emphasis Crabbe and Corlett have placed on teenagers’ (particularly young womens’) sexual empowerment. So, since the only experience I can really speak of with any authority is my own, I think back to being a teenager.
I started watching violent porn when I was in my early teens, I actually would search for it, and feel very turned on, and then very guilty. I told myself I was a sick and bad for getting off on this sort of stuff, and I hated myself for it. In my alternative vision, I would have a sex talk with my teenage self. (And actually, it wouldn’t just be ‘a talk’. It would be an ongoing discussion throughout her teens and early twenties). I would tell her that what turns her on is what turns her on. I’d ask her WHY did this particular porn, erotic fiction, cartoon turn her on? How did she feel about this? What did she find appealing about the misogyny and unequal power relationship? What did she find problematic, what was it exactly that made her feel sick and bad?
We’d discuss whether porn actors can give enthusiastic, informed consent when faced with outside pressures (agents, fans, money), and can we ever really be sure whether porn is entirely consensual? I’d ask her how she felt about that. We’d explore how she could find a medium ground, recognising that she still wanted to watch porn, but discussing ethical alternatives (like feminist porn, porn with before and after interviews, erotic fiction for example).
I’d invite her to discuss her sexual desire, her inner erotic life, her fantasies. We’d talk about ways for her to explore her desire in a way that was safe, sane and consensual.
I would not try to ‘fix’ her. I would not tell her that her preferences were a phase. I would not tell her that she only thought she enjoyed these things because the porn she was viewing had manipulated her, or because she was a product of a patriarchal society.
Because actually, if our goal is support young women and men to a fulfilling, nurturing and empowered sexual identity, whether these things are true or not is irrelevant. I am far more interested in seeing young people as whole and highly functioning. What can we do to support them (and ourselves) to explore and make conscious choices about all the wonderful, complicated and contradictory sexual desires they may have?
Thank you to Maree Crabbe and David Corlett for making this documentary and to Sexual Politics Now for showing it and encouraging discussion. The very fact that I’ve spent hours writing this is testament to how thought-provoking this stuff is! Let’s continue this discussion, but please, let’s do it in a way that embraces all the beautiful complexity of personal sexual identity.