10 Sensible Thoughts About Porn

1. Every couple of years, one media outlet or another will run a ruminative piece on porn. This allows them to combine two big sellers: sex and moral panic. There would be absolutely no benefit in them concluding that porn was a good thing. Therefore, when the mainstream media talk about porn, they often divert directly to the most degrading examples possible. It makes a better story.

2. The term ‘porn’ is pretty useless without context. We use it to cover such a wide range of material, from words on a page to live, interactive internet performance; from topless glamour shots to footage of child abuse. Many discussions of porn fail to differentiate between different types of material. We simply take a pro- or anti-porn stance. This is as stupid as taking a pro- or anti- stance on ingestion, rather than recognising the shades of meaning that fall within the term. It’s hard to make a case for swallowing glass, but easy to love the health benefits of a salad. We are even capable of reasoning that cake is bad for us in quantity, but perfectly fine on occasion. We need to take a similarly nuanced view of porn.

3. I used to think I was anti-porn, but I hadn’t really watched any. I was worried about: plastic tits, women being degraded, abuse/coercion of performers, sex being ‘performed’ rather than experienced, the effect porn had on the viewer, and whether porn does enough to challenge outdated gender roles. I’m still worried out those things, actually, it’s just that I’m now able to make more informed choices about the porn I watch. I didn’t have the information to understand that different producers are making porn in different ways.

4. When talking about porn, we rarely ask the basic question: Do we think it’s wrong to portray people having consensual sex in a manner of their choosing, for an adult audience? My answer to this question is: No, I don’t think that’s wrong on principle. We must always bear that question in mind when we talk about porn. We are often critical of the means of delivering porn, rather than porn itself, yet we too often fail to make the distinction.

5. Women actively enjoy sex. The vast majority of sexual encounters are consensual and hopefully pleasurable. Just because a woman has sex, it does not make her a victim. We all understand that these days. Don’t we? Then why is it so hard to understand that women can happily consent to be part of the porn industry?

6. No performer, be they male or female, should be abused or assaulted in the name of entertainment. Actually, can I shorten that statement, please? No person should be abused or assaulted, full stop. If we choose to watch porn that contains criminal acts, we are supporting and perhaps funding that act. It is the responsibility of the viewer to satisfy themselves that they are watching a consensual act. However, none of the preceding statements mean that porn in inherently abusive. Nor does it mean that all porn actors are victims. It would be helpful to have the equivalent of a Fair Trade badge for porn.

7. Is porn sexist? Well, it’s a tricky one. It’s fair to say that a great deal of porn is made for the heterosexual male gaze. It’s also worth pointing out that mainstream porn, particularly the stuff made in the US, seems fixated on a certain type of female body, which looks remarkably like a Barbie doll to me. If we studied the sweep of porn films currently available, I doubt we would conclude that they offered the most aspirational view of womanhood possible. However, I’m not aware of the same levels of concern being expressed about the men who perform in gay porn, who must conform to equally idealised body images, and who are also sometimes portrayed as being available for the sexual gratification of another. Porn is just a window through which we can watch our own fantasies played back to us. What’s more, we are able to choose the porn we watch. I’m uncomfortable with watching Barbie doll women who appear to have no concern for their own pleasure, so I don’t watch it.

8. It’s an undeniable fact that young people have more access to porn than ever before, and the material they can get hold of is probably more explicit. We must ask ourselves what part of this makes us feel uncomfortable. Clearly, we need to ensure that young children don’t stumble across material that would shock and frighten them. But I’d argue that it’s a good thing that older teenagers are able to access the information about sex that they need. Even people as young as me (*cough*) can remember the bizarre rumours that were shared about sex, in the absence of all other information. However, we must ensure that teenagers have the opportunity to put porn into context. They need to understand that some porn is nothing more than a modern-day freakshow; they also need to know that they have choices around many of the acts that are standard in porn, for example anal sex. This means that they need sensible, sensitive and open sex education more than ever, I’m afraid. It’s unlikely that they’ll lose the ability to access porn now, and even more unlikely that they’ll lose their natural curiosity about sex.

9. Sex is playtime for adults. Just as we accept that children’s games sometimes take them to dark places, we must accept this of adults too. Being a human being is an exercise in light and shade, and this is sometimes expressed in the realm of sex. There is a worrying trend in contemporary anti-porn feminism to argue that certain desires and fantasies are just wrong, perhaps a case of false-consciousness or a result of the malign influence of patriarchy. I don’t think that one group of people should tell another group of people what to think.

10. Porn is widely used by both men and women. It is entirely natural to become aroused at the sight of other people doing sexual things. The vast majority of people who access porn do not become addicted, and do not commit sexual crimes as a result. That is not to downplay the terrible nature of any addiction or crime; it is simply to say that porn is just one of many means through which people might enact social, emotional or psychological problems. We must stop imagining people to be passive, malleable viewers, and instead remember that audiences bring their own aims, world views and critical understandings to anything they watch. The more we acknowledge this, the more we empower people to make thoughtful, ethical choices about the porn they consume, rather than forcing them to behave furtively.

Oh, and one more:

11. Jacqui Smith, there was a public outcry about your ‘interesting’ interpretation of parliamentary expenses rules. Don’t confuse this with your husband’s use of porn. I suspect that most people aren’t particularly shocked that your husband watches the odd blue movie. They are shocked that you’d be willing to claim your sister’s house is your first home, rather than, say, the house your children live in. I’d hate you to be in a muddle about the real moral issue behind this.

Some source material from the recent porn debate:

Jacqui Smith’s R5 Live programme, Porn Again (link expires 11th March 2011) and her accompanying article in The Independent.

Can Sex Films Empower Women, a debate between Anna Arrowsmith and Gail Dines in The Guardian.

Every Day’s a School Day

Someone very kind (in fact, the lovely Friend of the Blog Jess Kelley) has sent me some instructional DVDs. Wednesday night being Date Night, I suggest them to Herbert.

‘What are they?’ he says.

‘There’s one on vulva massage and one on finding the G-spot.’

‘Okay,’ he says, ‘fine. We’ll maybe leave the clingfilm ‘til next week.’

‘Clingfilm?!’

‘Yes,’ he says, ‘you know. We talked about it. But don’t worry, we can save it for another time.’ Now he comes to mention it, I do remember talking about it, but I must have hidden it behind the door in my brain that says, ‘Eeek’.

We start with Tristan Taormino’s Expert Guide to the G-Spot. The format here seems to be a factual discussion complete with passion-killing diagrams, a studio demonstration of the techniques by two very game women, and then some captioned porn to watch afterward. We’ll get to that in a minute; but there’s a more pressing concern. After a few minutes of watching Tristan Taormino talking through the structure of the G-spot, I cannot help but say,

‘She looks just like your sister.’

‘Ugh,’ groans H, ‘why did you have to say that out loud? Did you think I hadn’t noticed?’

‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘I don’t think she’ll be personally giving any demonstrations.’

H frowns at me, and I take that to mean the discussion is closed. Thankfully, the science bit is soon over, and we move on to the films, which are supposed to show how to put the educational bit into practice. I don’t buy this. The first couple don’t seem to do anything particularly G-spot oriented, although a little caption comes up whenever they get close. The second couple play with G-spot toys for a while before moving on to a more standard shag. We are essentially informed that every known sexual position hits the G-spot. If that’s the case, why am I not getting earth-shattering orgasms from the doggy position? And why do all the actresses seem to need to hold the legendary Hitachi Magic Wand to their clitorises in order to come? I am left a little perplexed at what all this G-spot stimulation is supposed to achieve.

Anyhow, H and I should not be allowed to watch porn together. We commentate in the most unhelpful way possible.

Me: ‘Look, she’s giving one of those weird swivel-headed blowjobs that only porn actresses can do.’

H: ‘That woman is really angry about something. She’s probably hiding a pair of scissors behind that cushion.’

Me: ‘Never, ever do that to my clitoris. Ever.’

H: ‘Did you see his ball-bag? Oh my god, that’s the weirdest ball-bag I ever saw. Look: it’s flapping all over the place.’

Me: ‘What I love about porn is that you get to see people naked. Not in a sexy way. Just that you get to see what other people look like.’

This continues apace until the female ejaculation film. The couple talk for a while about the woman’s propensity to ‘squirt’, and then get down to it.

Me: ‘Good Caesarean scar.’ I like scars.

H: ‘That’s not squirting, she’s just getting a bit wet…oh my god…I take it all back.’

Me: ‘That’s seriously impressive. Bloody hell…and again…and again. Where is she storing this stuff?’

We move on the to The Best of Vulva Massage, Vol 1, which is all about erotic touch. There’s a tantric/spiritual aspect to the selection of clips that I fear will bring H out in hives, but it turns out he’s just quite keen on watching footage of lots of vulvas.

From my point of view, I vastly prefer the techniques on display for touching your lady parts. There is an absence of clitoral prodding, and I’m delighted to see Betty Dodson showing one woman how to masturbate just like I do. I mentally award myself a gold star for getting it right. However, I’m disturbed to hear that this woman is a medical student and doesn’t know how to find her clitoris. Please tell me she skipped that class.

We finish by watching an erotic massage therapy session taking place. I’ll confess we snigger a bit at first. I really must stop finding moustaches funny. The subject of the massage comes off as a bit needy, but I think that’s possibly because we’re not used to watching sex in a therapeutic context. After the therapist brings her to a series of seismic-looking orgasms, though, H gazes admiringly at the screen and says, ‘He’s good at his job.’ And then he thinks for a while and adds, ‘I don’t suppose they have therapists like that for men, do they?’

What did we learn?

Well, although the Tristan Taormino DVD didn’t quite convince me of the value of a G-spot, it did teach me an interesting trick: when G-spot stimulation makes you feel like you need to pee, release down your PC muscles (rather then clenching them as you would to stop yourself from peeing), and this seems to relieve the sensation. The Vulva Massage DVD was not a turn-on (I don’t think it was supposed to be, although this wasn’t always clear), but was genuinely informative about different approaches to touch. It certainly gave H some ideas to try out later.

And, it turns out, that G-spots are rather fun when you’re not worried you’re going to wet yourself.

As they say, every day’s a school day.

Best of the Seductions: #9 – 9 1/2 Weeks & Secretary

First posted February 2010.

We decide to watch the first two films on a Sunday afternoon seduction. The set-up alone is an undertaking: we go for the full cinema experience, wiring up my digital projector and screen in the front  room with the curtains drawn and cushions scattered over the floor. With the log burner going, this makes for quite a nice little den. I have enormous fun doing Tales of the Unexpected-style dances with my shadow projecting on the screen. Perhaps I don’t even need the films.

A friend calls just before the start the first movie, asking if she can come round for tea. ‘Erm, sorry,’ I hear Herbert say, ‘we’re going out this afternoon.’ I hope she doesn’t ask him where; he’s an incompetent liar and I know he’ll cave. He comes back into the room with a bottle of wine. ‘I feel so guilty,’ he says.

We’re bad at making time for ourselves like this. It’s interesting just to remark on that alone: no wonder we haven’t made time for sex if we feel obliged to accept every request that comes up. Normally, we’d drop everything. We are also compulsive inviters – if we’re planning something fun, we invite all our friends along. We don’t save enough moments for ourselves.

9 ½ Weeks first. H takes the armchair and I sit on the cushions, leaning against his legs. He reaches down and strokes the back of my neck.  I feel rather giddy about all of this: the curtains drawn against a grey afternoon, putting aside several hours to become aroused. In all honesty, I don’t think we’ve ever done something like this before, both watching something with the shared intention of being turned on.

I’m a bit worried about 9 ½ weeks, to be honest. H is allergic to the 80s, and I watched it once a long time ago, but didn’t finish it. I have a feeling that I found it a bit creepy.

Oh. Right. It is creepy. From the first time I clock Basinger’s downcast gaze and Rourke’s weird frozen-cheeked smile, my stomach starts to fizz. Not in a good way. In a ‘there is absolutely no way I would even start a conversation with that man’ way. He is utterly, utterly sinister, even before he starts to work Basinger like a puppet. I feel as though I am watching the Hannibal Lecter of sex. With my husband. On a Sunday afternoon. For fun.

It just doesn’t work for me. I don’t relate to Basinger at all. I would have walked out on that relationship when he started feeding me wine from my own glass. I just can’t see why she’s compelled by him. I wonder what H is thinking. I wonder, also, if it would be okay to pick up my knitting. This succession of games gets boring after a while. I have lost all sympathy for both characters. The actual sex is surprisingly polite. Most of the time we are treated to a flash of Basinger’s stocking tops, and then the camera averts its eyes.

By the end of the film, I’m feeling considerably less likely to have sex than when it started. ‘What did you think?’ I ask Herbert.

‘Awful,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to watch someone being so horrible to a woman.’

I am relieved. We both agree we’ve lost all carnal feelings. We go to the kitchen and regroup, putting dinner in the oven and making coffee. It’s a necessary break. Not for the first time, I wonder if being a middle class liberal is fundamentally disruptive to sexual desire. We just disapprove of too much; it’s all too politically entangled. Sex must be a lot easier if you maintain the old ‘man on top’ ideology.

Thank heavens for Secretary. It’s not hot so much as reassuring. The tale of a broken young girl who finds power via a boss who spanks her (really), it is an absolute tonic. It is un-PC, funny, wise and wonderful. If we’re honest, it’s only really a little bit sexy, but it’s about sex between two consenting, thinking adults. The funny thing is, the subject matter of both films is the same: the man who likes to control, the woman who toys with the extent of her submission. The difference is, Secretary isn’t interested in identifying victims.

At Herbert’s suggestion, we watched Secretary in our underwear, which was chilly but worthwhile. H loves skin contact, and it was nice to be stroked and kissed. We were having sex before the film even finished; after, as the credits rolled, I got him to stand up in front of the projector’s beam. I thought he’d find it erotic to watch me take him in my mouth in silhouette on the big screen. I think, however, that the blowjob may have been enough.

Afterwards, I bend over the table so that H can watch himself go in and out of me. H has better ideas. He runs his hands over my bottom and thighs for a few moments; then there’s a pause. Two stinging slaps follow, my left buttock cheek and then my right. I collapse in giggles. ‘I didn’t think this was going to be a re-enactment!’

He enters me and slaps again. I can’t say it gives me the raging horn, but it’s not unpleasant. It’s appreciative, playful. The forth slap is really quite hard, and I say, ‘Ow!’

‘Oh god, sorry,’ giggles H. ‘That was a bit hard, wasn’t it? Did it hurt? My hand stings.’

He strokes my bottom for a while, but he’s not deterred. The spanking starts again after a minute or so. I want to know what he’s thinking when he does it.

‘You quite enjoy smacking my bottom, don’t you?’ I ask.

‘No,’ he says, sounding flustered, ‘I thought you liked it.’ Inwardly, I sigh. That liberal fear getting in the way again. If I like smacking a woman’s bottom, what am I? If we are to get anywhere with this, one of us has to concede some ground at some point. It doesn’t stop him though. He carries on smacking right until the end.

Later, apropos of nothing he says, ‘perhaps we’ll have to try smacking my bottom some time.’