The high road to porn

The Safe Word
photo / fotonuevo Edouard Manet – Olympia (1863) 

A few weeks ago, University of Texas at Austin associate professor Dr. Robert Jensen posted a column to AlterNet that called for an open discussion of mass market porn, thereby setting the lefty crowd’s vibrators on “agitate.” Jensen says that progressive people, fearful of being called censors or prudes or anti-sex, tend to give porn a pass politically even though a lot of said smut is guilty of the worst illiberal sins: racism, sexism, exploitation.

Fair point. But Jensen takes a couple of unfortunate shortcuts. The first is right in his title: “Mass market” pornography. The world of media hasn’t been a mass market for a long time, and porn, as usual, led the way in cracking its market into a kaleidoscope of niches. A typical strategy for media critics is to lump a class of products into one – television, romance novels, blogs – but on closer inspection this generalization never holds. More about this below.

Second, I don’t think Jensen really sees audiences as stupid and helpless, but he implies that they are. At its most crude, this rant goes like so: Looking at images of naked women breeds rapists. This bit of fear-mongering has been pretty well debunked, and Jensen tries to steer away from it – not very successfully.

Any media critic will tell you that audience behavior is very tough to predict, or even classify. Which isn’t to say that there are no consequences to consuming media, just that understanding it isn’t like a doing a connect-the-dots puzzle.

Jensen makes this analogy:

When we criticize McDonald’s for its unhealthy food, environmentally destructive business practices, and targeting of children through manipulative advertising, does anyone ask whether we are “anti-food”? Of course not, because no one conflates McDonald’s with food; we recognize that there are many ways to prepare food, and it’s appropriate to critique the more toxic varieties. The same holds for pornography; pursuing a healthy sexuality does not mean we have to support toxic pornography.

There’s the sand in the Vaseline: toxic pornography. How do we define, find, and discourage this mythical creature? It’s impossible, because in fact it isn’t the pornography that carries the “toxin” but society itself. There is cruelty, misogyny, and racism in some porn, and it pervades culture writ large. But I think it’s futile to try and assess porn on this level, except in the most extreme cases (for example, animal cruelty or nonconsensual assault). After all, one person’s fetish is the next person’s phobia. How do you judge?

I’m not trying to diminish the social problems that porn can illuminate. I’m ambivalent about porn (and strip clubs and commercial sex culture in general). I know most people are consumers of porn in some degree. I have friends who work in that industry. These are not unenlightened people. It’s a thorny subject.

I find a lot of pornography unattractive and not remotely erotic, but for a lot of people porn is a valued supplement to their sex life or an aid to masturbation. Much like Dr. Daley, I would worry about porn if it replaced real relationships, but the isolated “porn addict” of conservative (and liberal) nightmares is a straw man – even the OCD “porn fiend” is the exception, not the rule. For the vast majority porn doesn’t replace a person-to-person, or people-to-people, relationship, or shut out that possibility.

On the industry side I find many of the trade practices in entertainment objectionable, but I think it’s irresponsible – not to mention a waste of time – to condemn all pornography. Sure, there are niches in Porn World – and Hollywood – without which the world would be a better place. Maybe the ratio of crappy porn to good porn is higher than that of crappy television to good television. I’ll buy that. Focusing on porn isn’t the solution. We shouldn’t be made ashamed of what we watch; we should be thoughtful about it.

My personal solution to this conundrum? You’re looking at it. I roll my own. I read blogs. I look for DIY porn. I look for porn that I find edifying. Comstock Films, a fantastically named commercial outfit, spins out documentary-style couples porn I find, um, inspiring.

Don’t take the easy road to porn. I try not to swallow the first and cheapest thing I find, whether that’s food, erotica, or a fine ass in pair of Levi’s. I consider myself feminist, anti-racist, progressive and a consumer of porn. I should be doing my part to choose – and not just choosing, but making – porn that matches my political commitments.

About the author The Safe Word columnist RC McCloud welcomes your feedback, tips, love letters, and comments. Send mail to rc.mccloud at thatotherpaper dot com.

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Mrs. Bird's picture
reader | good comments

I would say that very few people like McD’s for its health, politics or labor practices (actually I’d say no one really notices), but people eat it because its fast and in that moment of consumption… tastes good. Even if you feel like crap afterwards.
So too I think people seek out the cheap nasty porn. Its there and for that minute or two (more or less) it feels great. Then you wash your hands and go about your business.
That’s the real problem in my opinion.
No one takes time anymore, Not to cook, Not to fuck well. Not to build houses that last. Not to examine oil policy.