Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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Mediated sexuality

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I’m surprised I haven’t seen more blogosphere chatter about this Natasha Vargas-Cooper article on porn from the January issue of The Atlantic. It’s a fascinating read for the way it panders to no particular group or ideology. Social conservatives will find things to agree with here; “sex-positive” feminists and old-school anti-porn feminists will find things to agree with here; plain old porn fans will find things to agree with here. And all will likely find much to disagree with, too.

Vargas-Cooper starts by noting how the accessibility and sheer amount of Internet porn today has led to ample outlets dedicated to (and audiences for) the “outright bizarre.” But does this signify anything?

When a 13-year-old girl can sit in math class, hide her Hello Kitty smart phone behind her textbook, and pull up such an extreme video in less time than it would take her to text a vote for her favorite American Idol contestant, we’ve certainly reached some kind of new societal landmark. It’s important, however, to distinguish between what has changed and what hasn’t.

Porn’s new pervasiveness and influence on the culture at large haven’t necessarily introduced anything new into our sexual repertoire: humans, after all, have been having sex—weird, debased, and otherwise—for quite a while. But pervasive hard-core porn has allowed many people to flirt openly with practices that may have always been desired, but had been deeply buried under social restraint. Take anal sex: in a 1992 study that surveyed sexual behaviors, published by the University of Chicago, 20 percent of women ages 25 to 29 reported having anal sex. In a study published in October 2010 by the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University, the instances of anal sex reported by women in the same age cohort had more than doubled, to 46 percent. The practice has even made its way into the younger female demographic: the Indiana study shows 20 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds have had anal sex at least once.

One of the Indiana study’s co- authors, Debby Herbenick, believes that Internet porn now “plays a role in how many Americans perceive and become educated about sex.” How this influence actually works is speculative— no one can ever really know what other people do in their bedrooms or why. Some experts postulate a sort of monkey-see, monkey-do explanation, whereby both men and women are conforming to behaviors they witness on their browser media players. But in many ways this explanation doesn’t account for the subtle relationship between now-ubiquitous pornography and sexuality. To take anal sex again, porn doesn’t plant that idea in men’s minds; instead, porn puts the power of a mass medium behind ancient male desires. Anal sex as a run-of-the-mill practice, de rigueur pubic waxing for girls—and their mothers—and first-date doggy-style encounters (this is but a small sampling of rapidly shifting sexual mores) have been popularized and legitimized by porn. Which means that men now have a far easier time broaching subjects once considered off- putting—for instance, suburban dads can offhandedly suggest anal sex to their bethonged, waxed wives.

Now, I guess – depending upon your particular predilections and values – these development can be seen as good or bad. For some, this surely signifies our nation’s slide into depravity (or, as James Poulos would hastag it, #generationperv). Others may think, awesome, less repressive sexual mores! While others will routinely be compelled to question whether the bethonged, waxed wives really want to give anal a go or are, rather, being pressured by their porn-stimulated husbands.

But don’t blame pornography, Vargas-Cooper urges. The real culprit is “the reactionary political correctness of the 1990s” which focused on “sexual equality.” Take back the night rallies, women’s studies classes, all that business about boundaries … Poppycock! (pun intended), Vargas-Cooper says:

This is an intellectual swindle that leads women to misjudge male sexuality, which they do at their own emotional and physical peril. Male desire is not a malleable entity that can be constructed through politics, language, or media. Sexuality is not neutral. A warring dynamic based on power and subjugation has always existed between men and women, and the egalitarian view of sex, with its utopian pretensions, offers little insight into the typical male psyche. Internet porn, on the other hand, shows us an unvarnished (albeit partial) view of male sexuality as an often dark force streaked with aggression. The Internet has created a perfect market of buyers and sellers (with the sellers increasingly proffering their goods gratis) that provides what people—overwhelmingly males (who make up two-thirds of all porn viewers)—want to see or do.

I don’t think you can extrapolate a comprehensive view of Male Sexuality from the habits of Internet porn viewers (believe it or not, there are still men out there who don’t watch porn at all, and how would they skew the sample?). But, more or less, what Vargas-Cooper posits seems plausible.

When I was 18 years old, I remember declaring to people that “all good sex depended on a power struggle” or differential; perhaps my sexual neophyte self was wise beyond my years. But there were mitigating factors at work there, too. One, in your early sexual years, sex is largely performative (at least for many women), which leads to sex that’s more dramatic. Two, in your early sexual years, a lot of people have no idea what they’re doing, which leads to sex that’s either boring … or dramatic. As you get older, you can enjoy all sorts of subtleties. And you realize there’s room for all kinds of different sex. Or, as Vargas-Cooper puts it:

Hard-core porn, which is what Internet porn largely traffics in, is undoubtedly extreme. But how is sex, as a human experience, anything less than extreme? Not the kind of sex (or lack thereof) that occurs in marriages that double as domestic gulags. Or what 30-somethings do to each other in the second year of their “serious relationship.” But the sex that occurs in between relationships—or overlaps with relationships—where the buffers of intimacy or familiarity do not exist: the raw, unpracticed sort. If a woman thinks of the best sex she’s had in her life, she’s often thinking of this kind of sex, and while it may be the best sex in her life, it’s not the sex she wants to have throughout her life—or more accurately, it’s not the sex she’d have with the man with whom she’d like to spend her life.

It’s strange that she uses women as the example here – not because it’s not potentially true, but the cliche of this principle is the man who would never to do his wife or girlfriend the things he does to his mistress or OK Cupid lover. She quickly brings it back to men, though:

At the heart of human sexuality, at least human sexuality involving men, lies what Freud identified in Totem and Taboo as “emotional ambivalence”—the simultaneous love and hate of the object of one’s sexual affection. From that ambivalence springs the aggressive, hostile, and humiliating components of male sexual arousal.

[…] Pornography, with its garish view of male sexual desire, bares an uncomfortable truth that the women’s-liberation movement has successfully suppressed: men and women have conflicting sexual agendas.

Here is where Vargas-Cooper is perhaps contradicting herself, or at least stumbling over herself just a bit to fit her thesis about male sexuality.  Because this fails to take into account that variety of sexual experiences one can allow for once one gets older. Maybe some men and women have conflicting sexual agendas. But maybe some men who want to dominate find some women who want to submit. Maybe some men and some women prefer to engage in neither. Maybe some (I’d posit most?) are okay with aggressive, hostile sex some of the time, and gentle, loving sex at other times.

And that’s the crux of the problem with any  pornography-as-barometer-of-human-sexuality argument. While some couples enjoy porn together, most people watch porn when (oh my, there’s no delicate way to say this) they want to get themselves off. But sex, in the big-picture sense, isn’t all about getting off. Or not only about getting off, at least. In the non-digital realm, all sorts of things like “like” and “love” come into play. Perhaps the aggressive, the hostile, and even the “outright bizarre” are best suited for solo endeavors, but people’s preferences change when it comes to actual sex with someone actual that they care about. Or, as Tony Comstock put much more succintly in the article’s comments:

It’s a mistake to construe what aspects of human sexual experience that can be captured and distributed as a media product as a full-fledged proxy for human sexual experience.

Written by Elizabeth

February 2, 2011 at 8:33 am

One Response

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  1. Hello Elizebeth! Thanks for the nod.

    I have more complete response to Natasha up on James Fallows blog. You might enjoy it!

    Is That a Boiled Frog in Your Pocket? Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

    Tony Comstock

    February 13, 2011 at 3:06 am

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