Women Have A Complex Relationship With Porn

Pornography is a complex issue for feminists, coming as it does [heh] at the intersection of sexuality, exploitation, morality and personal choice. Some women are pro-, some are anti- and most of us are a combination thereof. Given the current widespread public perception of political feminists as humorless, sexless bitches and/or lesbians, it's probably no surprise that some studies want to also portray us all as anti-porn or just doing it to please men. So, as long as we're clear, feminists are sexless prudes, women who like porn are only pretending to please men, and "normal women" - i.e., neither feminists nor slutty man-pleasers - hate it. Right, got it: damned if I do and damned if I don't. Luckily, there are women like Katha Susie Bright and the Nation's Katha Pollitt who, in a new podcast up on Bright's website, are willing to deconstruct that myth just a little bit.

Susie says it best, perhaps, when she points out the origins of feminism in the sixties and inside of the hippie free-love movement:

What I didn't expect is that feminism would ever get wrenched apart over sex. I never saw that coming. I never thought that people would think that because I was a feminist, I was a prude or a square or that I wasn't on the cutting edge of sex radicalism.

It is a little odd, isn't it, that feminists went from being bra-burning sluts to being buttoned-up humorless lesbians in the public perception - though, I'm sure that has not just a little to do with the fact that the bra-burning sluts grew up to be, you know, older women and older women are obviously not sexual beings anymore.

Susie attributes an anti-porn sentiment among women to two things: one which she identifies as a more political sentiment, grounded in a sense that there's exploitation going on, that it's for male pleasure and rooted in a continuing sense of male-domination; and another one more grounded in women's sense of self:

When I hear a woman express a vernacular anti-porn sentiment... I started to take it as code for a couple of things. One, particularly if they are afraid that they are going to be left for porn... I realize that they don't understand their incredible value as a real woman who can really have sex with their partner. And I often identify it as someone who is not enjoying orgasms, who doesn't recognize her own sexual self-interest, because if she did, she would say, "Well, whatever I think about his porn interests or his masturbatory fantasy interests, I have some myself." And she would compare them to her own. Where as a woman who's not aware of her own fantasizing, who isn't masturbating and so on, it's just "What is this?", it really is another woman [to her].

Katha, on the other hand, cautions against that strict a delineation, noting that women can enjoy porn on a visceral level and still be concerned with the labor issues - safety, exploitation, the potential for coercion, what is happening when the cameras go off, etc. On the other hand, Katha's experiences with porn have been mostly limited to the literary, as she started her career as a copy-editor for pornography, and evinces a certain discomfort with modern porn:

When I looked at visual pornography - which I haven't seen a lot of - I'm often really turned off. In all kinds of ways. The people look so sterile, and implanted and shaved. I'm always worries about the labor issues... I think it's a very complicated thing to watch other people have sex.

Like Katha, my experiences with porn started off with the literary - my high school boyfriend found a dog-eared copy of a book Katha might have copy-edited in his parents' room (and I kept it for years). If you think it's hard to masturbate while typing, well, it ain't easy while you're trying to read, either. A few guy friends in high school had some porn mags (gay and straight) that they showed me that were interesting, but it's hard to ask a dude friend to borrow one. My first experience actually watching porn was - again - with dude friends in college. Most of it was old shit on VHS, none of it was online (it was 1998, everything was pay-porn then, so sue me) and none of it was as plastic and unfeeling as the titty mag my college boyfriend and his roommates subscribed to "for the articles". The only time I ever had a problem with porn in a relationship was when my boyfriend of two years developed a secret habit that reflected sexual differences I'd thought we'd resolved in our relationship (and when it coincided with personal ads he was posting on the Internet). I do watch it myself now (thanks, Fleshbot!) when it's free, and utilize it for its intended purpose, mostly when I'm too mentally distracted by stress or depression to conjure up my own fantasies but need the release. In those moments, do I worry about the labor issues? No. Do I miss my little book of 70s erotica? Kind of. Would I be happy to see more unionization and regulation in the porn industry so that I could be more sure that the stuff that's getting me off is safe for the women (and men) who are virtually assisting me? Yes, but that's the subject for another post.

Women Watch Porn To Please Men? [Salon]

Susie & Katha Pollitt, on "Virginity or Death!" [Susie Bright's Journal]