Acceptable Sexuality

For all that traditional feminist thought gets right, there are things that upcoming thinkers are determined to change. One of those things is, some people believe, a wrongheaded view of pornography.

A long time ago, I found myself interested enough in feminism to take several women’s studies courses at the U of C and was simultaneously considering a change of academic program to WMST. I generally enjoyed the material, and believe that feminism offers us a great chance to step back from the world and look at it through a unique rational lens. But there were complications. Over the course of just one school term, my enthusiasm for the study of feminism was completely drained by just one issue: pornography. Or, if you like: porn, smut, filth, trash, obscenity, vulgarity, ribaldry, etc. By and large, feminism (used here to represent only the most mainstream line of feminist thought–the writer is aware of and is a testament to the multiplicity of feminist thought) has a problem with porn, coming from a long tradition of thinkers working under the assumption that pornography objectifies and degrades women. To this day classes in feminism, both in materials and discussion, are filled with an epic disgust for pornography. In going deeper and deeper into the discourse of porn, I came to the conclusion that the arguments against it are false, based on nothing more than personal preference and an imposition of values onto cultural consumers.

My breaking point came after an especially frustrating class when I was flipping through the prominent feminist magazine Bust and discovered a section called the One Handed Read. As the name implies, the One Handed Read is an erotic, explicit story with all the characteristics of pornography: ridiculously improbable plot, contrived settings, exaggerated physicality, and a happy ending. Hmm. What, I wondered, made erotica permissible (and later, I found out, revered in the feminist canon) while pornography, which seemed to me to be identical, was given the opposite treatment? More specifically, if we can accept erotica as being natural then how can pornography be a perversion?

And just how identical are pornography and erotica? Extremely. Obviously, the most basic tenants of each are identical: both forms of expression seek to arouse and sexually entertain. As well, there is often no difference between their level of explicitness: well-respected erotic artworks from ancient Greece, Pompeii, and especially Japan (some of which can be found at the right of this page) depict in full detail the type of salacious acts that one would find in a hard-core porn movie. Finally, much erotica portrays idealized bodies–notably in Agostino Carracci’s work, where both men and women appear to have perfectly toned and sexualized musculature–paralleling the silicone and Botox of modern pornography. Therefore, I see little difference between erotic works of antiquity and the pornography being produced today.

But in questioning the difference between erotica and porn, the issue is seldom the basic cognitive mechanics of the artform; instead, the reactionary response to pornography has to do with the way it is said to disproportionately objectify women over men, while erotica equalizes them. I have trouble with this response, especially after doing some research into the topic. Adam McKee’s quantitative study of the 50 best-selling porn tapes in Australia, “The Objectification of Women in Mainstream Pornographic Videos in Australia,” published in the Journal of Sex Research, found that in mainstream pornography, out of seven criteria, three (naming, central characters, and time spent talking to other characters) showed no large difference in objectification between men and women; three (initiating sex, length of gaze returned to the camera, and time spent talking to the camera) showed a clear objectification of men; and one (number of orgasms, with women having fewer) showed a clear objectification of women. As well, scenes of violence in the tapes being studied were confined almost exclusively to porn targeted toward women. McKee’s conclusions are surprising, but they are also intuitive: often in porn, it is the man’s ambiguated body parts we see; the woman is given the luxury of having her entire body shown including her face. The man often isn’t allowed to speak during sex acts in porn, while the woman is. In fact, women in porn are afforded many more liberties than their male counterparts. McKee’s work makes the open-minded feminist question the validity of traditional arguments against porn. It also does a large measure of the work toward bringing erotica and porn as close together as they really are.

The most troubling thing is that nobody seems to want to discuss the relationship between erotica and porn, rather content to take it for granted that, in feminist critic Gina Allen’s words, “there is a lot of good pornography, which we call erotica.” But the most enlightening discussion I’ve come across, I found in the letters section of The Humanist (the letters were responding to the proceeding issue of the magazine, July/August 1985). After a panel discussion within the magazine’s pages on pornography, readers took to the letters section to decry the incomplete handling of the issue at hand. The main issue of contention was that, even in a frank and expansive discussion about pornography, none of the writers on the panel had been able to provide a satisfying definition of the word. Although no consensus definition of pornography exists anywhere, readers argued, what does it say when a group of prominent writers tasked with exploring the idea of pornography can’t even agree on what it is? One reader puts the issue so concisely that I did a double take: “if you like it, it’s erotica; if you don’t, it’s pornography.”

And there’s the maddening issue of complete subjectivity all over again. Even though we’ve established that there is no quantifiable difference between erotica and porn, we’re haunted by their division through labels. Keeping in mind that erotica and porn are identical, ask yourself: what’s so bad about pornography? Unless we count the self-fulfilling prophesy of mainstream feminism as a reason, there is no explanation. The solution is to view both artforms as the same, whether we personally find them as acceptable or not. There is no reason to build a cultural wall when the only goal is to subjugate the tastes of a portion of the population–exactly a part of what feminism emerged to oppose.

In the end, cultural attitudes toward pornography probably won’t change for a very long time. We can, however, enact more open attitudes for ourselves in the meantime and begin to change some understandings about our universal (and not at all shameful) urges toward sexuality.

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