This morning I was going to sit here and empty my brain before taking another crack at the writing that looms above me. I was going to write about craft and language and the power of words and names. But I'm not. Today, I think I have to write about porn.
I recently finished a book called The Book of Vice, by Peter Sagal, host of NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me. It's an incredibly funny, informative and thought-provoking book, and the last chapter, which was about porn, really made me get quiet, and a bit morose. It put me in an argument that I've had with myself and with others many times before. After which, I turned to my friend Rachel's blog and saw this post, which featured a woman named Cindy Gallop and a website called makelovenotporn.com. There is perhaps a less poetic way to say how I am feeling, a way that sounds less like a lyric from a contemporary Christian worship song, but I feel like the waters of my soul have been stirred. Usually that describes something great and mysterious, eh, some unnameable connection with the Divine. But today I feel my Holy Middle aching.
I don't tend to think of myself as conservative. But I don't watch porn. I don't want to watch porn. I don't like porn, and I wish porn wasn't as mainstreamed and normalized as it is today. I am generally fiercely vocal about this issue, but right now, today, I can't feel self-righteous about it. I don't feel like shouting and getting irate and worked up. I don't feel like I have right or might on my side to make a compelling argument for why porn isn't just boys being boys, or good clean (and dirty) fun, a victimless crime, or everyone does it so what's the big deal. Right now, today, I feel grieved and a bit wounded. I feel like the arguments made po-porn are of no consequence to me, and it just makes me feel bad and I wish, not that I was desensitized, but that it was less prevalent.
I remember when I was a girl, I found a porn rag on the playground at the KinderKare right next to the apartment complex I lived in. I remember looking through it and seeing things that I didn't understand. I knew they were for sexual pleasure, but I didn't know why they were particularly pleasurable. They seemed utterly, wholly and entirely unrealistic. Who would be able to bend herself into a position like that, to get her legs to stay that way and make her breasts do that? Why would she let someone stick that in her? Why would any woman wear something like that, it looks so uncomfortable? And why would she do it in a barn of all places? I felt horrified at my discovery, indicted by my possession of said discovery, and ashamed. I don't know why I felt ashamed; maybe because I knew enough about sex to know that what I was looking at was vaguely sex-ish (because it could hardly be called sexy) and that kind of thing was for adults and not kids. I don't know. I remember, before the gaggle of girls I was friends with came over to where I was, on a jungle gym platform at the mouth of a covered slide, I folded the magazine into quarters and shoved it into my shirt. One of them could see the magazine protruding from my chest, and made some joke about how my boob was laying on the side. I remember the cackle of her laughter and her red tongue in her open mouth. I shrugged her off and found a teacher and gave her this magazine and told her where I'd found it. Later, my mom picked me up and took me home, and the teacher told her I'd found the magazine. I remember little about talking with her about it, but I know she told my dad. He came into my room, and I asked him, "why do people look at that kind of thing?" My young-girl brain thought it was the kind of thing I was supposed to say; on some level I knew the reason why people looked at those kinds of things. It was the same reason that I'd folded up the magazine and given it to an adult. But what I didn't know was the why underneath that; nobody ever really lives that life. Real people don't look like that. So why would somebody look at that kind of thing?
I remember being woken up by my father once while I was in high school. This wasn't an unusual thing: my dad was an early riser, he often drove me to school, it was his job to wake me and get my started on my zombie walk so I could actually get going. But one night, at I don't even know what time, I woke up, and there he was sitting on the edge of my bed. The hall light was one and back lit him, so all I could see was the silhouette of his shoulders and head, the light catching the pens and id in his pocket, the face of his watch. On the edge of my bed, in the dawn of morning, my father apologized to me about having looked at porn on the Internet. He used few words, and whether because he couldn't look me in the eye, or because it was so dark and I was still half asleep, I never saw his face, just heard the breathy struggle of his words trying to say sorry for having done this thing. I'm not sure what made him apologize to me, and I still don't know. Maybe he did it under his own steam, was struck thinking that the girl moaning lasciviously while sucking the anonymous cock on screen looked about the same age as his only daughter, and even had her high cheekbones to boot. Maybe his wife, my mother, walked in on him and out of feeling insecure and rejected, berated him, striking a crippling blow at his (presumably fragile, knowing my father) sexuality, and demanded that he apologize to every woman in his household for enjoying the degradation of women so thoroughly. I don't know what drove him to my room while I was sleeping. I know that the literal and metaphoric shadow of my father seemed frightened and vulnerable, two ways I'd never seen my dad, and I put my arms around his neck and told him it was okay, and the next morning, I woke up, not sure if what had happened was really real.
Now, this dialogue bears the potential to veer into a number of different directions: what a poor job my parents must have done talking with me about sex if I can't possess my own sexuality enough and get so thoroughly creeped out by a skin mag; the problem of Christian men and pornography rooted in the puritanical nature of the modern American church; the nature of fantasy in relationship, and when healthy sexual fantasy becomes mental and emotional infidelity. But I don't think I'm trying to go down any of those roads. I don't really know if I'm asking a question with any of this; instead I might just be trying to find my way into what trips me up about it so.
I've never been keen on looking at porn as an adult, with my partner or by myself. Maybe that's okay with the porn industry. The porn industry is likely thinking only, "where's your wallet, and how can we get into it?" and not, "how can we use this medium we've created, albeit with flimsy story and mediocre production value, to help facilitate a healthy sense of sexuality for you and a fulfilling sexual experience for you and your partner?" One of the porn stars in Peter Sagal's book counters that porn is all about fantasy, and only about fantasy, that nothing in porn is real and if you can't see that then you're dumber than a box of hair. However, Cindy Gallop counters this argument rather effectively, asserting that failed policies like teenage abstinence ed, together with parental reluctance to teach kids about sex, and the oversaturation of hardcore in America means that people are learning about sex from the porn industry. In which case, why are we teaching people that this fantasy they've learned is the reality they should pursue? Sex isn't like what you see in the movies, she says, and not only shouldn't you sleep with someone who tries to demand you recreate that experience, you should learn that porn fantasy isn't reality. I ask, and perhaps this is demonstrative of my struggle with porn, who among us can stand up to the fantasy? And who wants to? I am decidedly not going to shave or wax my vagina to look more like some pre-pubescent panting doll baby. Pole dancing may be a great way to get exercise, but the last thing I'm interested in doing when I go to the gym is learning how to strip, and I have better things to do with my time.
But I'm not against sexual fantasy. Something that I realize as I write this is that I can count on both hand the number of times I've fantasized about someone who wasn't my partner; I'm monogamous even in my fantasy life. And I like it like that. In previous relationships, I liked imagining where and how and when I'd do it with my partner. In my current relationship I fantasize all the time, but about my partner. For all the lusting I do after Jude Law, Downey, Jr. Terrence Howard or Morris Chestnut, not a one of them has shown up in my fantasy life to fix my plumbing or bring me a gluten free pizza or to finish taking a shower at my place because his water got turned off. My fantasy guy is the guy I'm marrying, and I like it that way.
Like Cindy Gallop, I think I am against the perpetuation of the fantasy as reality, and I get bummed out by thinking reality isn't enough. I don't want to hear evolutionary hoo-haa about how humans aren't supposed to be monogamous and men are visually stimulated creatures; seems to me this is just a scientifically veiled excuse to let them get away with bullshit. I don't want to hear the sociological hoo-haa about how the porn industry is now run by women and it's all about women taking charge of their own sexuality; women can exploit and degrade other women just as effectively as men can, and having a pussy doesn't mean you don't or won't objectify pussy. I want to hear about men and women and men and men and women and women who have sex that is healthy and safe, whether anonymous or monogamous, and if it's augmented and theatrical and prop-heavy, party on, but what it's not is sexist, misogynist, and violent, physically emotionally or relationally.
This isn't the "do what you want just don't try to foist it on me or do it in my face" argument that gets parroted about so many things. This is an earnest and sincere cry for help from a woman who loves sex and having sex, who loves her womanhood and the personhood of other people, and who wants the world to evolve to a place where we don't need the oversaturation of unrealistic fantasy to get off. Sex is good and natural and fun, and what it doesn't have to be is overexposed, commoditized and hyper-fantasized. Let us all rise to meet the best of ourselves. Literally.