News & Politics

The Great Porn Misunderstanding: Pornography Is Mostly About Fantasy, Not Reality

A response to Robert Jensen's recent AlterNet article, "Porn's Dirty, Dangerous Secret."
The following is a response to Robert Jensen's recent AlterNet article, "Porn's Dirty, Dangerous Secret."

When I was 13, a new friend, Andy, came over my house to watch television. We were watching the show, Time Tunnel. As the show neared its climax, I noticed that Andy was quite nervous. When I asked why, he said that it looked like the hero was about to be killed. I said, "Are you an idiot?! Of course he won't be killed ... this is a TV series and it's on again next week!" It turned out that Andy's family didn't allow him to watch television and, therefore, he didn't know that the hero of a television series never dies. He didn't know the code.

Robert Jensen writes about pornography like someone who doesn't know the code. He seems incapable of differentiating fantasy from reality. He keeps mistaking the reality of the sexual enactments depicted in gonzo porn with their meaning in fantasy to the men masturbating. If the woman on the screen is having 4 penises shoved into her, something that would demean and degrade any real woman reading Jensen's article (and probably the actress performing such scenes), he automatically infers that the degradation must be the source of the male viewer's arousal. It isn't.

Jensen and other feminist critics of porn seem unable or unwilling to admit to the presence of an unconscious mind. This is the mind that animates our imaginations, that confers personal meanings on perceptions and events, and that ultimately is responsible for sexual arousal. I'm not talking about some Freudian mumbo-jumbo, but the fact that we interpret the world; we don't just objectively read it like we would a thermometer. When a woman sits at a café and gets turned-on by a big hairy biker standing at the cash register, she is inferring something about him, perhaps that he's tough, sexual, aggressive, and/or selfish. She's unconsciously interpreting the image. For reasons that have to do with her personal psychology, reasons about which she may well be unaware, these traits trigger her libido. In reality, this man might be gay, easily frightened, passive and solicitous. It doesn't matter. At that moment, her mind transforms a three-dimensional being into an object that stimulates her desire. She objectifies him.

This is what happens to each of us when we get aroused by an image, a body-type, a situation, or a story. Arousal happens in our minds, not out there in so-called reality. I might get aroused by the thought of being the President of the United States getting fellated under my desk while talking to a congressman on the phone, while you get turned on by the thought (or enactment) of a couple inviting discovery by having a hot "quickie" in a doorway. A woman I treated used to masturbate to the fantasy of being held down and sexually ravished against her will by the janitor in her office building, another by group sex with Mick Jagger. If these fantasies became realities, however, the fantasizers would likely feel something on a spectrum from uncomfortable to traumatic. Reality, however, doesn't matter. Our unconscious minds creatively interpret scenarios and perceptions that help us get aroused.

This process of creative interpretation is identical for men and women. As I show both in Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, and in my new book, Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It -- and Men Don't Either, the male libido is neither more powerful than that of women, nor can it be adequately explained through trite generalizations about the cruelty of men under patriarchy. Instead, sexual arousal for both men and women depends on one thing -- the momentary elimination of feelings and beliefs that inhibit it.

Our psyches have to contend with all sorts of threats to sexual excitement. We can't get aroused if we're too guilty about hurting the other, or too worried about him or her. We can't get turned on if we're feeling rejected, inferior, damaged, or helpless. All of us feel these things at some point or another, the mix and intensity of which depend on our particular histories. It turns out, for example, that both male and female desire gets shut down when guilt and worry squelches the capacity for selfishness and aggressiveness. Good and healthy sex requires not only affection and love, but also the capacity to not worry about one's partner, to "let go" with selfish abandon. I've had dozens of men and women who have consulted me about sexual boredom say some version of, "I wish s/he would just throw me on the bed and fuck me!" So-called "lesbian bed-death" often results from just such an inability of the partners to feel selfish, separate, and aggressive enough to "use" each other in a pleasurable way. The sexual ideal of two people lovingly gazing into each other's eyes is belied by powerful needs for something more out-of-control, perhaps forceful, and transgressive. As Woody Allen said: "If sex isn't dirty, you're not doing it right!"

So what about heterosexual porn? Well, we have four points of view to consider in analyzing its meaning: 1) the writer/director's plot and/or intent, 2) the actual experience of the actors while making the film, 3) the woman or anti-porn critic watching it and imagining it being done to her, and 3) the man masturbating to it. Jensen thinks it's obvious that there is just one reality here, when actually there are four. Can we consider, first, that the action on the screen might mean something different to the guy masturbating than to the actors performing it? If so, then might we not allow for the further possibility that the degradation a real woman would feel were she actually enacting these gonzo scenes might not be the source of the male consumer's arousal? In fact, these differences are real and crucial to understanding the appeal of porn to men.

In the overwhelming majority of pornographic sex, including the extreme gonzo scenes Jensen describes, the women come to enjoy it. If they aren't, themselves, actively, insisting on it, they eventually appear to get aroused. In other words, they're invariably depicted as enjoying their so-called degradation. Everyone is turned on. Everyone. Based on my own clinical experience and on a review of the research, if the actresses were to respond on film realistically -- say, by screaming in pain, sobbing, dissociating into grim and vacant fugue states -- the overwhelming majority of men would get turned off, lose their erections, and change the channel. The male viewer does not, in fact, want these women to be demeaned and hurt; unconsciously, he wants them to be happy.

In porn, everybody is turned on and, therefore, everybody is happy. Sexual arousal is what we call a "marker," an unconscious symbol, of the fact that the women are not hurt. It reassures the male viewer he can temporarily escape from the worry and guilt about women that typically haunts him and chills his libido. Such worry and guilt are not -- as Jensen would have it -- a sign of his loving humanity, but his neurotic feelings of obligation. Men grow up in our culture with two special psychic burdens: (1) they feel inordinately responsible for their mothers and later, for women, and (2) they feel especially disconnected and lonely. In regard to the first burden, it's extremely common for men to talk about their guilt and resentful feelings of responsibility for making women happy, feelings that become exacerbated when they feel that they can't ever succeed in these efforts. Men primarily want women to be happy, not degraded, but feel that somehow they're supposed to be omnipotently responsible for making this happen. This isn't healthy interdependence and responsibility, but an irrational burden generated in nuclear families and patriarchal culture. It lies at the heart of much of the hostility and emotional withdrawal from which women suffer in their dealings with men. The woman involved might see cruelty. But for the man, the hidden logic is: "If I hold you at arms length, if I treat you like a 'piece of ass,' if I love you and leave you, then at least I'm not imperiled by the chronic sense of inadequacy, guilty failure, and pressured obligation that I seem to feel is my lot as a man in our culture."

So, imagine you're this guy. What's the appeal of porn? In porn, the women appear to be happy, so happy that they want to have sex all the time. It's a special fantasy world in which women appear to be in situations that would hurt or degrade them, but -- lo' and behold! -- they get turned on instead. It's a world in which, for a few moments, the man, through identifying with the actors, can be utterly selfish, aggressive, and uncaring and not have to worry about the woman's happiness. In fact, she only wants more!

That's the appeal of most porn. It's a fantasy enacted on the screen in which certain irrational and burdensome feelings of guilt, worry, and rejection get momentarily reversed -- just long enough to allow excitement to emerge and climax. There are exceptions to the rule, as well as differences between various sexual modalities currently available, etc. that I discuss in my most recent book but can't elaborate on here. Suffice it to say that there is very little scientific evidence that porn leads to any actual confusion between fantasy and reality. There is little evidence that men leave their online escapades and then insist that their wives engage in double penetration or face-slapping. The only people who are confused about the difference between fantasy and reality are Jensen and his fellow travelers.

So -- why continue this endless debate about porn? I, for one, am getting tired of it. Well, I think that there are two reasons. First, the women in the porn industry are, in fact, being victimized and degraded and the destructive dynamics of this world have yet to be investigated, exposed, and explained. They can't be addressed by whitewashing the pathology of the actresses (or actors in some cases) involved and rendering them helpless damsels in need of our rescue. And they can't be addressed by increasing censorship or obscenity prosecutions. In my view, the leading expert in the country on the real inner workings of the porn industry is Susannah Breslin, a brilliant writer and reporter, who runs a blog called The Reverse Cowgirl. She systematically punctures everybody's bubble in this debate. Nevertheless, developing an accurate view of both the supply and demand side of the porn equation has real value.

Finally, I think that the porn debate is important because of the disappearance of complexity and psychological depth in our current public discourse about sexuality. As I've argued before on AlterNet, we increasingly respond to the sexual scandals of politicians with black-or-white moral judgments that magnify intolerance, inhibit self-compassion for our own flaws, and inject personal psychology too much into public debate. We demonize rather than try to understand horrible tragedies like pedophilia while refusing to think about and face the epidemic of emotional neglect facing children in American families. We assume that looking at dirty pictures leads people to do dirty things, that learning about sex in high school makes teenagers want to have it, and that making abortion more available automatically makes girls open to teenage pregnancy. None of these are true, but terrible public policy has been made in their honor. We descend into this type of thinking in part because we don't want to understand how the mind really works, that it's complicated, that much of it is unconscious, that thoughts don't usually lead to action, and that fantasy -- pornographic or not -- isn't the same as reality.

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