Finally, A Response to the Atlantic Article

1) Hey, all you out there, nominations for the 2011 Feminist Porn Awards are being accepted! Go nominate somebody! Ooooh I’m so excited!

2) I haven’t said much about the whole Natasha Vargas-Cooper in the Atlantic thing yet, because, frankly, I didn’t take the time to read the article until today. The article “Hard Core” came out, what, last week? And people around the interwebz went nutso about it. Vargas-Cooper seemed to be writing from the perspective of someone who’s savvy about the ubiquity of hardcore pornography in today’s culture but who hates every last second of it, and who has possibly had some really horrible experiences with anal sex. According to all the commentary I read, which was on pretty much every website in existence, her article vilified men and male sexuality as “brutish” and “violent,” while ascribing virtually no sexuality or desire whatsoever to women, who merely have to deal with the constant onslaught of male lust. From what I was reading from feminist and sex-positive critics, I really didn’t even want to read the source material. It sounded, frankly, silly, and I figured that something so ill-informed and dismissive of human sexuality and pornography would be forgotten about pretty quickly.

But I think I was wrong. People are still up in arms about Vargas-Cooper’s article, and so I just read it, and some of the commentary, to get a better handle on the issue.

I agree with her that porn’s easy accessibility these days may not be the best thing for the way we see sex, particularly given that some of the most easily accessible smut is some of the most grotesque and violent. And I also agree with her that the young people who are accessing most of this at a tender age are at risk of imagining the often brutal things they see as being normal, which is why I’m a firm supporter of combating this risk with open, frank, honest discussions about sex and sexuality with young people. I also think Cindy Gallop’s MakeLoveNotPorn.com is a fantastic idea. Educating young people about the fact that what they see online in violent and exploitative porn isn’t actually normal for most people is important; telling them that the key to all sex acts, including rough sex and anal sex, is respect and consent, is key.

But I have to disagree with Vargas-Cooper about what her writing seems to indicate is a very basic undercurrent of contempt for sexual desire itself. By placing the blame for irresponsible pornographic materials squarely on men and leaving women out of the discussion like some kind of asexual species of wilting flower, she’s ignoring the idea that desire itself, sexuality itself, is not PC and never will be. Tana Ganeva at AlterNet.org pointed out this fact, and I found myself nodding eagerly in approval while remembering a conversation I had with Cindy Gallop on the topic. It’s not that men inherently want to exploit, hurt, or abuse women in bed any more than women inherently want men to treat them like princesses; it’s that human desire may be the one and only place left in the cosmos where what’s politically and socially acceptable cannot be enforced. Human sexuality is complicated, convoluted, problematized, dramatic, and over-thought, but it is also spontaneous, deeply nuanced, perverse, untamable, and politically incorrect. Lust responds to its surroundings by subverting what’s expected of us in our normal lives. Fantasy gives us a place to do things we could never do in real life, and sex gives us opportunities to act on our fantasies. Sexuality is political in this way–we’d probably not get such a thrill out of power plays in the bedroom (no matter which gender or sex is exerting power over any other) if our culture hadn’t been spawned by thousands of years of male domination and power, and we probably wouldn’t be as interested in anal sex if we hadn’t always been told it was wrong–but its parameters exist so far below the level of day-to-day interaction with our public faces, our PC faces, that it is one of very few parts of our lives in which we are free to do whatever the fuck we want. And thank god. If we spent all our time in the bedroom policing our desires, thoughts, and actions, we’d never have a decent orgasm. Sadly, many of us never do.

Pornography, given this set of truths that I take to be self-evident about the sex that it documents, exists in a difficult place between art that enters into political discourse about what we ought to do and sex that exists in the vacuum of human desire. The two don’t go together well. It’s very easy for those of us with bad life experiences revolving around sex and violence, or those of us who do not have those experiences but who are greatly opposed to these things, to point to aggressive male sexuality in porn and in reality and claim that they are directly related to one another. It’s easy to say that the ubiquity of hardcore, aggressive pornography in our society is responsible for a rise in sexual violence if we’ve experienced that. But porn is only a part of a much larger picture that is painted on the canvas of what people actually do to and with one another on a grand scale. Porn may inform the ways in which we perceive ourselves and what sex is like, but only the experience of ourselves and our sex can teach us what reality is like. It’s not necessarily a failing on the part of porn itself that we take what it shows and run with it; it’s a failing on our parts to remember that the people in our beds are not porn performers on our computer screens but people we are interacting with and who will respond to what we do. It’s our failing to not respond in authentic, honest ways that demand mutual respect at all times. It’s a failing on our part to expect too much from ourselves and our partners in regards to what we want in bed. And it’s a failing on our part if we accept violent, despicable pornography as representative of what we want to see and masturbate to: we could take a few minutes to write e-mails to the people who make the porn we watch, very carefully boycott the porn we don’t like, and try to change the ugly stuff from the ground up, but most of us don’t. Instead we do what Vargas-Cooper did: we bitch about how porn is hurting everybody and hope someone else will make the change for us. But here’s some news: people are making the change. There are so many people out there making porn that is not exploitative or violent or abusive that it’s almost impossible to believe that the writer couldn’t have found any and re-examined the way she thought about the topic. It’s not a failing on the part of the porn industry that many people choose to take what’s easy to get for free from internet pirates–which is heavily violent, exploitative, gross stuff–rather than being picky and willing to pay for what they want to see. And most of all, it’s not porn’s to present to us a cleaned-up, perfectly respectful, politically correct version of what sexuality could be like if everybody were blameless; it’s porn’s job to show us what it thinks we want to see. If we keep clicking on the links that take us to the rough stuff, more of it will be made.

Rather than bitching about the inherent and “eternal” truth of aggressive male sexuality and blaming porn for bringing it back around, Vargas-Cooper and others like her would have done very well to think about the much larger monster they’re trying to tame: human sexuality itself. Good luck with that one.

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