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The Anti-Male, Anti-Sex Falsehoods That Rule Discussions about Porn and Sexuality

The latest missive in the war against porn, courtesy of the Atlantic, presents male sexual desire as brutish and violent. Really?

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While sex is great and all, it's also "largely driven by brute male desire and therefore not at all free of violent, even cruel, urges."

"Pornography," she writes, "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."

Really? What about women who are on board with a more aggressive sexuality? Or men who are not aggressively sexual? Or men who are, but who instead of unleashing their "demonic" sexuality on unsuspecting virgins, like to hang out with women in the first group?

Sex blogger Violet Blue told AlterNet that not only does the piece misrepresent the huge variety of porn out there, but the huge variety of sexual experiences across genders. "Frankly I don't know what's worse: the 'all males are aggressively, dangerously sexual' undertone or that it maintains that all women are sexual victims. Both value sets are harmful to perpetuate, in addition to being false."

Cooper Fleishman, an editor at the Good Men Project-- a web magazine founded to counter the trite and offensive depictions of masculinity and male sexuality in mainstream culture -- points out that there is such a thing as safe, consensual exploration of power dynamics, for both men and women. "Men who fantasize about rough sex and act out those fantasies consensually don't deserve the stigma of brutishness or violence or rape behavior," he says.

What's more, Vargas-Cooper's depiction of desire is not only false, but sexist and harmful, particularly in its implication that men are ruled by uncontrollable biological urges. "Women don't contend with insurmountable urges to breed; likewise, men aren't slaves to some compulsion to dominate and subjugate," says Fleishman.

Vargas-Cooper ties it all together with an anecdote about an unpleasant one-night stand she had with a man she describes as "a polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment" (What!? He wasn't a filthy poor person?) who manipulated her into having anal sex after he couldn't get it up:

I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.

It's pretty bizarre for a writer to peg universal "truths" about men and woman on a one-night stand gone wrong. But her argument about the complexity of sex is interesting, and points to a path the article could have taken if it weren't obsessed with demonizing men, bashing porn (and talking about anal sex). The piece actually makes a few interesting points, the way that articles about sex and/or pop culture always do when they appear in magazines like the Atlantic. People like Martin Amis and Susan Sontag (the patron saint of pop culture writing in fancy magazines) are enlisted for quotes like this: “Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness." Had Vargas-Cooper stuck to sexuality in general without vilifying heterosexual male desire, the piece could have been a smart discussion of the difficulty of marrying political ideals to the complex, personal world of sex.

The Sontag quote encapsulates that point: sexuality is too messy to be neatly controlled by preset political ideas. Vargas-Cooper points to the shortcomings of past efforts to mold sexual relationships according to progressive politics. The sexual revolution of the 1970s, she points out, did not create a utopian, egalitarian dynamic between the sexes. In many cases, it meant freedom for men to screw around without social constraints, while women were free to raise the out-of-wedlock kids that resulted. She argues that the PC culture of the '90s may have led feminist women to think prematurely that sexual equality could be achieved with strategies like explicit communication about relationships and their boundaries.

 
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