Emotional Remove and Porn Fantasy, Part I

This is part one of a two- or three-part series of musings about porn, sex, and emotion. The series isn’t finished yet, so I’m publishing it in parts to keep the length down. Comments and feedback would be much appreciated.

I believe above most other things in the necessity of fantasy. Whether because of the cultural subversion of our humanity by the denigration of our basic drives (as one friend of mine or through the absolute lack of worth actually existent in ourselves, this world as it stands holds little for most of us that’s worth our time. People are mean, they are ugly, and they are selfish. They push each other out of the way, go after exclusively their own ends, ignore each other’s desires and needs in their quests for self-aggrandizement. They create unpleasant situations and enforce arbitrary rules and morality on each other. The world and relationships they create can be beautiful but are more often, at least to me, a constant disappointment. It is a sad and disgusting thing to watch, but as a member of humanity I am forced to watch it daily, and not even in its worst embodiments.

Merely walking down a crowded city street and watching the utter lack of is enough to convince me that people are capable of the most inhuman acts, and I have never even seen a war zone or labor camp or even the throes of poverty. I am lucky enough to be able to say that the position, race, and intelligence to which I was born put me among the highest percentile of privilege in the world. I have a bank account. I can read and write. I attended a private university in one of the most expensive and sophisticated cities in the world. I have never witnessed human ugliness beyond its abstractions: the poverty-stricken neighborhoods and people I have lived amongst (my birth and upbringing have not brought me, as an adult, riches or privilege, as I choose the life of a poor-ass writer) are the long shadows of the ugliness of the powerful, and the rudeness with which people down here treat each other is a first-come-first-serve reaction to being trampled. But I have been lucky to live in a part of the world where real human hideousness is largely hidden, and I have lived a life of particular immunity. My parents are still together. They support me insofar as their conservative habits allow them to. My friends are some of the most amazing, least ugly people alive. I am lucky in every way to have led such an enchanted existence, and yet, for all the beauty and charm in which I exist daily, I cannot escape the basic tenet that has underpinned the way I see the world for my entire life: people are shitty. The way we treat each other—the very fact that I can live such a lovely existence comes at the expense of other people around the world who produce cheap labor and goods and that the world itself is being plundered for the resources I use up, almost unknowingly, daily—is shit. The way we ignore our natural world in favor of our own ends is shit. The way we further ignore what we are doing to future generations of our species, our greatest treasure, is shit. The power plants we build, the pavement we pour over the earth, the excrement we trail behind us… All shit. I’ve never had more than a moments’ abstraction in which I found humanity to be anything other than the very most brutal kind of ape.

And as such, I find fantasy necessary. I might not so much if I were one of those who lived in the country, in the mountains or by a lake or by the sea, surrounded every day by the breathtaking beauty of some spot that hasn’t yet been destroyed by our clawing need for everything. But I am a writer, and I am ever hungry for mortification of the soul. I live in New York. New York, where the wonders mankind has created almost as numerous than the men who walk its streets. Where to look up is to gasp in wonder at the feats they have achieved. Where to look down is to be trampled. I am awed by the grandeur to which men are driven to cover up their own inadequacy and inhumanity. Rockefeller Center is a grand feat, but at whose expense? Nearly everybody’s, when you really get down to the story behind it, and the stories behind those. You see what I mean.

In other words, my everyday existence is swarming with the vermin I have abhorred since my childhood. It is overrun with the very craziest of humanity’s lunacy. It is packed to the gills with disgust. And all I can do is put in an animated movie, turn on an album that rings of beauty, crack a book that opens onto a less-ruined—or more deliciously, satirically devastated—landscape. Escapism is my only way out. The handy parables of Orwell, the despair of Dostoyevsky, the fantastic ironies of Dahl, the grotesqueness of Kafka… All these offer a respite from the fatally dull, utterly ridiculous and yet not even redeemably comical flapping about of reality. In them I can see the reflections of my own petty moods, the mirror images of my egotistical posturing, the absurdity of the fact that in the face of the crushing depression that the human race’s insanity inspires in me, I still take myself and my endeavors entirely too seriously. But it is only in these reflections, in which colors are sumptuously richer and more thickly painted, or satisfyingly, depressingly less vivid as the rain of the author’s pain washes them away, that I can find solace. Anything to dull the constant headache of reality. Anything to pretend that there’s a more succinct, more ordered world in somebody’s head, and maybe, therefore, in my own.

As such I appreciate every form of fantasy, whether it fits my own utopian ideals or not. Everything from the imperialist and ultimately depressing, yet still bright and sparkly and edifying landscapes of Disney to the terrifyingly dark vistas of any nameable Russian writer to the overwrought bizarreness of pornography. And of course, as of now, my greatest body of work lies in the examination of pornography, so its thither we fly.

Porn is fantasy. While there are a growing number of image-makers out there who are seeking to modify or transform it into a reflection of reality, the fact remains that by and large the idea of pornography—the point of pornography—for most of us is fantasy. An escape from the bodies we live in. An escape from the less-than-satisfying sex lives we lead. An escape from our inabilities to get or stay aroused by the flesh-and-blood world that surrounds us. A flight from the failings of our selves and into the spectacularly successful pleasures of others who exist largely in a world where sex is always great, orgasms are always mind-blowing, and breasts are always perky can be just the thing to brighten our views of the world we live in. It sometimes works for me, although I’ll admit that my general distaste for reality often leaves the end of a movie, whether adult or not, bittersweet for me. But a good romp through an imagined reality where things are better in whatever way can do wonders for the psyche, especially one as bleak as mine.

And so I love porn, even the most baldly unrealistic, for its total willingness to indulge me in my need to fly away to something I hate less than reality. Especially the most baldly unrealistic, although from a philosophical perspective I can find all manner of things wrong with it, makes me happy. But then again, if I were to enumerate the things I find wrong with porn, it’d be a list of the things I find wrong with human sexuality, and that is an area so un-policeable and so politically incorrect I could drown in it while thrashing about in a muck of judgment I have no right to approach. Human sexuality must be left unjudged insofar as it can. And that’s as it should be, insofar as I have any power to change it; while altering the ideology of our culture in relation to sex, would be a great life’s work, I do believe it’s a bit beyond me, nihilist or no. And it couldn’t help but to hurt some people somewhere, no matter how hard I tried. So as far as my power to change things in this essay goes, I can deal with the political and power dynamics in pornography, at least generally speaking. But what I’m concerned with here isn’t how the world of power relations is focused by the lens of pornography. I’m concerned with our fantastical relationship to it. My own relationship with fantasy is deeply ingrained. Escapism is good. Therapeutic. Necessary. But it’s not always healthy. And here’s why:

Numbers are thrown out daily about how many hours of television an American child has watched by the age of three, or whatever. The number is always astoundingly and worryingly high—usually in the thousands. The images shown to them, even inadvertently by cartoons that may not try to establish any type of sexual imagery but which cannot fail to propagate some despite themselves, become embedded in their brains. As they grow up and are exposed to more overtly sexual materials in their everyday lives, the more blatant images and situations are covered up by harrumphs and guffaws, quickly changed channels and awkward family viewing situations. In movie theaters and in classrooms, the tension level in the room rises when anything sexual comes up. The impulse, which makes sense, is to distance oneself emotionally from the sexy goings-on so as not to end up embarrassed by an erection or a gasp of pleasure. The impulse is to pretend not to be affected by the physical reactions such scenes and ideas naturally give rise to, and in order to keep a level of appropriateness about oneself in a public setting. The imagery of sexuality, we feel we must remind ourselves, is not the same as real sexuality. We have to hold ourselves aloof from it to avoid looking foolishly affected by sexual imagery. And, of course, this makes sense. I wouldn’t want to be in a theater full of people allowing themselves to completely immerse themselves in a sex scene, even if it is Black Swan and Natalie Portman is that beautiful. It would be uncomfortable. And as it’s ideal not to get carried away by sex in movies and books and so on physically, it’s also ideal to hold oneself at an emotional arm’s length to keep the physicality of feeling sexy at bay. All of this makes sense. It’s just fantasy, after all, so we don’t want to get too deep into it or risk making asses of ourselves.

But the thing is that, even when we’re alone with pornography, I think for many of us, the physical and emotional remove stays in place. And everybody seems to understand that, from the producers to the performers to the consumers who look at porn as a commodity. The fantasy is part of the game, but it’s just a fantasy and no more. In order to get adequate physical bang for our buck, there’s no need, we think, for the performers to show any emotional connection the acts they’re performing. Sure, it’s a nice bonus, but if we see a performer getting too deeply involved in an act—say, a woman breaking down into tears as she’s transported by unbearable pleasure during orgasm—it can be a bit disconcerting. We’re here for the physical connection between our hands and our genitals, after all, not for the connection between emotions and sex. And as consumers, we’re aware that we’re not supposed to be transported, either. Porn isn’t something to get deeply into, even when alone, without risking looking like an ass in front of ourselves. We get in, get off, and get out with as little emotional connection as necessary.

Ah, there’s the rub. (I think I say that too much when I write, particularly about masturbation. Ah, Freud, you’d have loved to be here for that realization, eh, you coke-snorting perv?) In many ways I think our culture, the product of public discomfort in the face of ever-present, evocative erotic imagery, familial expectations that sex as a subject be avoided in company, and thousands of years of Judeo-Christian ideology teaching us that sex is basically bad, has produced in many of us an unwillingness to let sex and emotion really collide, except on the rare occasion when it happens between two parties deeply in love and in complete privacy. Of course there are abundant exceptions to these rules both in fantasy and in practice–there are people who get off mainly during sex in public. There are people transported by erotic emotion during sex with strangers. There are people who can only experience the full cataclysm of sex and joy during masturbation, or asphyxiation, or humiliation, or what have you. But I think that for a majority of us–particularly, and obviously, myself–raised in a generally WASP-y environment in which emotional remove and physical control are not only encouraged but outright expected in every situation, combining the physical act of sex, even sex with oneself, with the terrifying experience of emotional loosening and physical abandon can be difficult at the best of times, impossible at most others.

…to be continued…

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