The backlash against a pornified view of copulation is now almost as popular as porn itself, raising the question: are we overthinking sex?
The latest to take porn to task for ruining modern fucking is Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams. She writes,
Convenience, ubiquity, and the goal-oriented, money-shot, male-centric perspective of most porn (hint: women don't need to see that much fellatio) have changed us. Much has been written on how porn's transformation into the modern sexual lingua franca affects women – the pressure to be bush-shaved and adept at pole dancing didn't come from Oprah or Martha Stewart. But porn has changed men too – what we expect of them, what they demand of themselves. And the problem is that thinking you can learn to make to love to a woman from watching porn is like thinking you can learn to drive from watching "The Fast and the Furious."
Her point is that dudes who watch too much Ron Jeremy think that women want to be jackhammered — or, more upsettingly, that they enjoy a man "withdrawing his member at key moments to thump it on" them. Williams's piece is pretty funny; about the latter technique, she writes, "You know what description you never want a woman you've slept with to apply to your sexual technique? 'Baffling.'" But do men really need to "learn to make to love to a woman?"
Williams writes that "unlike other recreational pleasures — bowling, baking pies — sex, unless you're a swinger, isn't something people get much firsthand observational experience with," and speculates that some turn to porn for its "instructional uses." She also says, "sex isn't just a matter of doing what comes naturally." To which I thought, it's not? Yes, it's true that your first encounter with your high school boyfriend (or girlfriend) is not going to be the most mind-blowing intercourse of your life. And Williams is right about the necessity of communication: she writes, "I have nothing but admiration for anyone who's ever had the guts to simply come out and ask a lover what works and what doesn't." Me too. But the idea that sex is a skill, like bowling, for which we need instructions, actually seems like part of porn culture to me.
To be clear, I don't think Williams is suggesting that guys bone up (sorry) on a million different techniques before bedding women. She seems to be arguing for talking to your partner, not believing everything you see on the Internet, and not taking yourself too seriously — all of which sounds like good advice. What I'm dissatisfied with isn't so much Williams's argument per se as the whole idea that people have to be "good in bed." It's a concept promulgated not just in porn but in magazines, which imply that you don't really have a good sex life unless you know 32 ways to massage the taint. And in terms of commodifying something that's supposed to be fun and (usually) free, convincing us that we need professional advice on sex is almost as bad as telling us we're not allowed to have pubic hair.
Both sex advice and new sexual techniques can be fun and hot. What's less hot is the idea that sex is just one more area where we have to achieve — and where we're supposed to pay other people money to help us do so. If, as Barbara Ehrenreich alleges, late-stage American capitalism has produced the life coach, it's also spawned a crop of sex coaches — magazine editors and self-help book writers devoted to helping us win the game of satisfying a lover. But unlike capitalism, sex should be a game where everybody wins.
Though Williams, with her emphasis on fun and communication, is part of the solution, her claim that guys can't just do what comes naturally is part of the problem. So, of course, is porn, privileging huge dicks and ridiculous moves over actual enjoyment. But maybe the pornification of sex wouldn't be such a problem if we weren't worried about "doing it right." Maybe we could keep porn in its proper place — entertainment, not instruction or comparison — if we weren't constantly told we needed to compare or instruct ourselves. Maybe what we need is not so much to critique porn, but to get past it — to stop thinking so much and just fuck.