Monthly Archives: September 2011

Always with the gagging: a response to Cordelia Fine (Part 2)

Hello! It’s time for the second two-thirds of my rather extensive thoughts on Cordelia Fine’s essay The Porn Ultimatum. We’ll begin gently with a recap. In Part 1 I used 1,500 words and a mostly gratuitous oral sex story to make the point that ‘ew, gross’ is not a proper argument. I concluded that should she want me on her 95% anti-porn team, Dr Fine would need to show that porn causes some identifiable harm, and that this harm outweighs a lot of jizzy tissues and a smaller but not insignificant stack of wet panties. It is to this issue of harm – to performers, male users and women at large – that we shall now turn.

Performers, production and how humans are a  bit sucky

Fine’s essay doesn’t go into a lot of detail on the topic of porn’s effects on (female) performers, but it does include one curious little paragraph. According to Fine,  ‘astonishingly little is known’ about these women and apart from a vague reference to ‘the work of Dines and Tyler,’ she doesn’t mention or discuss any research into their experiences. The seeming lack of research, though, doesn’t prevent her from forming an opinion. She never comes right out and says it, but by describing the ‘permeability of the conceptual boundaries between pornography and prositution’ with its associated ‘high levels of dissociative disorders, post traumatic stress disorder and vulnerability to violence’, capped off with a question about what ‘personal and economic circumstances’ bring women to the job, well, it’s pretty obvious what she’s driving at.

And actually, I have to say that I think that’s quite a devious way of covering the issue of whether performers are harmed, and somewhat beneath a writer who’s arguments usually combine logic and evidence so carefully. To my mind, if research on the experiences of porn performers is lacking, then next thing you do is ask some porn performers, or do the desktop version and seek out some of their accounts. That’s not going to give you representative data about experiences and outcomes, but it will at least give you a sense of the possible range of views and experiences. Instead of doing that, Fine leaves the reflexive disgust I talked about in Part 1 do the heavy lifting: if you already think you know that porn is uncomfortable, painful and humiliating, why would you need to ask the performers what they think?

*I* don’t know whether porn performers are, on average, harmed more by their work than workers in other industries are by theirs. Certainly, I can see the potential for harm, and I believe the accounts of former porn performers who found the experience painful and damaging. I also believe the accounts of former and current porn performers who are positive about their time in the industry. It appears to me to that perhaps here we have another one of those things that is neither intrinsically good/beneficial nor instrinsically bad/harmful. Darn, there are just so many of those! They sure make life complicated!

My somewhat tentative conclusion, then, is that the critical issue here is ethical production. Porn producers, like factory owners, should not be exploitative fucks. Governments, in my practically Stalinist* opinion, should whack in a bunch of labour rights laws and regulations. And consumers of porn – of anything, actually – should care about how workers are treated, and ask for an ethical product. (They probably won’t though, because most of us can’t really be bothered. That’s pretty sucky of us, whether we’re talking about porn, or about coffee or sneakers.)

Porn sex, life sex

After touching briefly on performers, Fine goes on to discuss in more detail the effects of porn on wider society, starting with porn users, who are more or less assumed to be male. Much of the discussion here centres on whether porn spoils users’ sex lives, with Fine discussing two pieces of research. The first, a study of Croatian college students by Aleksander Stulhofer, Fine describes as finding that:

  • “variety in sexual experiences contributes to men’s sexual satisfaction”, but
  • “intimacy is at least as, and probably more, important for sexual satisfaction” for both men and women, and
  • “for men, the more their views on what makes for great porn and what makes for great sex merged, the less intimacy they enjoyed.”

Well and good, but note that the only porn-related claim Fine is making here is that men who think that good porn sex and good actual sex are more similar tend to enjoy less intimacy. Ok. But is the decreased intimacy this group experience associated with lower sexual satisfaction for that same group (as well as for the sample as a whole?). And, more to the point, do most porn consumers think that life sex and porn sex are – or should be – the same?

To jump back to personal experience for a moment, I’m not so sure that they do. I don’t actually watch very much porn – it’s too difficult to find porn with men I find hot and who are actually visible in frame. But when I do watch the stuff, I tend to go for MMF threesome, gangbang, double penetration and female submission porn.

Bi MMF threesome, ancient Pompeii-style

Some of these things I enjoy from time to time in real life, others I would like to try, others I like to watch but don’t want to do. And even though my tastes in porn run moderately hardcore, I have, enjoy, and want to continue to have other kinds of sex in my life as well, including loving, affectionate sex. I know from discussion with others that I’m not particularly unusual in seeing some demarcation between the porn sex  I’ll rub one out to and the totality of my sexual desires and practices.

And in fact, if we go back to the Stulhofer study’s abstract, we find it concluding that:

In light of contemporary concerns over the normalisation of pornography use, particularly among young people, our findings do not support the view that adolescent exposure to sexually explicit materials is a determinant of relationship intimacy among young Croatian adults.

What I take from this study (although I can only access the abstract), is that porn consumption does not generally but can, in some circumstances, impact negatively on sexual satisfaction.  Similarly, work by McKee, Albury & Lumby mentioned earlier in Fine’s piece found that a (non-random, self-selecting) sample of users reported mainly positive effects from porn consumption, but that 7 per cent reported negative effects. There’s a vast literature on this general topic that I won’t pretend to be familiar with and that may contradict these two studies. Still, it all sounds fairly plausible to me, and, while not completely unproblematic, hardly the kind of nightmare scenario that convinces me porn is bad, kids. 

No blank slate: porn and female sexuality

Whew. Writing this whole thing is really tuckering me out! But I can’t stop now, because we’re up to my favourite bit: the ladies! I feel a rant coming on…

For much of the essay, Fine’s language is tentative and her conclusions cautious. Not so, however, when it comes to porn’s influence on female sexuality. According to Fine, porn is ‘especially bad’ for women because it ‘encourages them to disengage from their own desires in favour of their partner’s’. Two pieces of evidence are presented in support of this argument:

  • Popular sex advice books – some even written by pornstars – ‘endlessly’ encourage women to try out ‘acts from pornography that they’d rather not.’  For example,  Gabrielle Morrissey’s book Urge: Hot Secrets for Great Sex gives advice on how to calm the gag reflex while deep-throating.** (By the by, also in the book but left unmentioned by Fine: kissing, managing mismatched libidos, condom use, masturbation, extended orgasms, tantric sex, celibacy, cunnilingus – and ways to encourage reluctant men to get into it, emotional intimacy, premature ejaculation, etc, etc.)
  • One study of more than 4,000 young adults found women were around 4 times more likely than men ‘to repeatedly engage in sexual acts they didn’t like (usually fellatio and anal sex)’. Unfortunately, the study isn’t referenced and though I tried, I haven’t been able to track it down.

Finishes Fine: ‘Hands up anyone who sees liberation in this ‘looks disturbingly like prostitution without pay’ model of female sexuality?’

Boy oh boy did that paragraph rub me up the wrong way! Oh man!

I thought a lot about just exactly why Fine’s take on female sexuality bothered me so much before I could put my finger on it. It’s not just the unfair characterisation of Morrissey’s book, the presentation of deep-throating as intrinsically bad, or her insulting insinuation that porn stars couldn’t possibly have any useful information to share with other women (who, by the way, would mostly need to seek it out by buying the book). And it’s not just the way her argument again erases women with edgier, kinkier tastes, like we don’t exist or are perhaps suffering some form of false consciousness.

It’s also the way the argument presents porn as though it is the only cultural influence on an otherwise natural, unencumbered female sexuality. But female sexuality in 21st century Western societies isn’t a blank slate, it’s a battleground. Any pressure on women to engage in porn-style sex acts comes on top of a whole range of other conflicting pressures, influences and messages. And I’m not just talking about the harshest end, like aggressive slut-shaming. I’m also talking about apparently more benign things, like the pervasive messages in sex education.

For example, we hear over and over again, especially when we’re teenagers, that we can say no to sex and that we don’t have to do sexual acts that we are not comfortable with. Fine. That’s wonderful! Who could disagree? But when that’s practically all we hear from authorities, parents and allies it paints a very narrow picture of normal female sexuality. To get a bit postmodern for a moment, this advice doesn’t function only a a guide to what to do. It also contributes, I think, to how we young women understand our own sexuality. What I mean by this is that if you tell a young woman one hundred times that she can say no to unwanted sex; twice that she can say yes to wanted sex; and never that she can propose it, or be exploratory and adventurous with it, then you help to create in that woman’s mind the idea that her sexuality is about gatekeeping and avoiding unwanted experiences, and not about seeking pleasure.

Take a powerful cultural narrative that presents female sexuality as weak, receptive, timid, and often inorgasmic, add to it porn-induced pressure to engage in varsity-level sex and yeah, I think we probably have a problem.  But don’t pretend that porn is the only issue, because porn isn’t one evil influence alighting upon what would otherwise be a healthy, liberated female sexuality. Instead, ours is a culture in which women are simultaneously encouraged to be scared of sex and to fuck like a pornstar. It really is rather confusing!

Surprise – COMPLEXITY!

There’s a lot more I could write, but I think I’ll wrap this up. I must say, I’m not at all convinced that porn is so nearly completely bad as Fine thinks it is. I don’t think it’s simply good, either. If you ask me, it’s all pretty complicated! Acknowledging that porn is complex phenomenon superimposed on an already complex world is less satisfying than declaring that it has no place in a just society, and it’s less fun than deciding it’s completely unproblematic as you rub out another one, but it’s about the best I can come up with.

Porn is like a fractal

* JOKES! Obviously I’m not really a Stalinist!

** Oh! If you’re up for a little disengaging from your own desires in favour of your partner’s, you might like to read Harlot Overdrive’s fab Deepthroating Primer!


Filed under Research

Always with the gagging: a response to Cordelia Fine (Part 1)

Another day, another post substantially devoted to the sexual act of gagging on cock. I swear I’m not doing it deliberately.

Cordelia Fine is really smart and she thinks you shouldn’t be watching that

Early last year, reading The Age, I was surprised to happen upon a beautifully written, compassionate and even-handed opinion piece that presented an impeccably logical argument and supported it with research evidence. I was so impressed by this extraordinary occurence that I looked up the piece’s author, Dr. Cordelia Fine, and sent her a gushing email. When her book, Delusions of Gender, came out soon afterwards, I bought, read and enjoyed that too. I really admire and respect Dr. Fine’s work.

Certainly, she’s no Gail Dines, but she did just write, for The Monthly, an essay titled The Porn Ultimatum: The Dehumanising Effects of Smut. It’s anti-porn, it’s humorous* and pretty great, and you should probably read it. As a research dork, I particularly love the parts of the essay in which Fine’s coverage of porn studies’ findings incorporates discussion of how the studies were done. That’s a lot more work for a writer than cherry-picking appealing findings, but by doing it she cuts through a lot of the noise in the porn debate.

Fine’s argument isn’t unfamiliar, although it is put much more carefully and convincingly than you usually see.  To briefly summarise (although again, you really ought to read the whole thing) her argument is that the majority of contemporary porn depicts sex that is degrading, aggressive and violent towards women. Although the women in this porn are mostly portrayed as enjoying that kind of thing, they really don’t, and their show of enthusiastic consent to what is not actually pleasurable doesn’t magically make the degradation or aggression okay. The effects of porn on viewers are, she acknowledges, contentious and uncertain, but she suggests that on balance they are negative, especially for women, who are encouraged by porn culture to “disengage from their own desires in favour of their partner’s”. She also argues that porn has had a powerful de-civilising influence on social norms. The essay ends with what I think is an only half-serious (?) suggestion: that until there’s proper gender equality, only women be allowed to make and watch porn.

Ridiculous conclusion aside, perhaps surprisingly, I’m in substantial agreement with quite a few aspects of Fine’s argument. Yet, while she mostly avoids sloppy, Dines-esque hyperbole, Fine still falls back on many of the same flawed ideas and unwarranted assumptions.

Reflexive disgust is not enough

To start with the most basic of observations, the essence of the porn debate is disagreement about whether porn is good or bad. There are those who think porn is bad most always and everywhere, and those that think the opposite, and then another hundred or so positions in between.

One way in which many in the anti-porn camp try to establish its badness is to simply describe common porn acts, relying on audiences to automatically recoil in disgust. In this vein, Fine’s essay is strewn with passages that reference porn-style sex or particular acts as though they were intrinsically bad and/or could not be pleasurable for women. For example:

I like to think that many men watching this material would simply find it very off-putting if the woman showed how she really felt about being doubly penetrated […] or having ejaculate shot in her face.

The men in porn are little more than scaffolding for their erections but it is the women who are the product, and who endure the discomfort, pain and humiliation.

What economic and personal circumstances bring women to end up being filmed with a penis in every orifice…?

In a New York Times article in 1914 William T Sedgwick […] warned “the militant suffragettes” that, were they to succeed in their goal of female liberation, they would “find that the knightliness and chivalry of gentlemen have vanished, and in their stead will arise a rough male power that will  place women where it chooses” […] The depictions of popular pornography in these books [about porn] – women penetrated by three or more men simultaneously (you do the maths), women gagging on penises, women fellating penises just removed from their own or others’ anuses without washing, women drenched in or drinking the ejaculate of any number of men – would leave Professor Sedgwick, in search of his prophesised rough male power, crying out, “Ah, there it is!” without hesitation.

Quite possibly it would. Evidently, for Fine and for many others it’s a very short mental journey indeed from triple penetration or gagging to revulsion and then to the conclusion that the woman involved is suffering or being oppressed.

But when you’re a woman who enjoys gangbangs, or gagging, or bukkake or whatever, the mere fact that they are featured in pornography is not self-evidently bad. It could instead be arousing. And you might even be, I don’t know, annoyed by the presumption that you don’t exist, or don’t count, or don’t get to have your own meanings and preferences taken at face value like they would be if you only liked cunnilingus and long walks on the beach.

The simple fact is that there exist women (and men, for that matter) who enjoy, consensually and ethically, sex acts that involve power play, discomfort, pain, humiliation or risk, and that might shock or disgust other people. And even if we are a minority (and without researching this, I’m not ready to concede we are), we present a conceptual problem for those who would rely  on reflexive disgust to show that porn is bad.

Storytime: why I’m so sure that gagging is not the devil

I know I have this innocent look about me, but it’s true that I rather enjoy gagging on a nice dick. It’s weird and mysterious and I don’t quite understand it, but I’ll try to explain. I hadn’t really ever gagged properly on a cock until recently (to be quite precise, just a few weeks before Gail Dines visited Australia). That first time, I wasn’t really expecting it and it certainly wasn’t my idea. The guy I was blowing, well, he just kind of slowly kept going until I gagged. He would have stopped, I’m very sure, if I’d indicated I wanted him to, but I didn’t.

I felt a bit like I couldn’t breathe, and a bit like something very awkward was happening in the back of my throat, and a bit embarrassed and helpless with that funny noise being produced. Tears welled up in my eyes, because that’s just what happens. It *was* uncomfortable. But it was also, at the same time, oddly pleasurable. Not, obviously, a clit-stimulation type of pleasure, but a mental and emotional one. It was a turn-on. And I don’t know if there’s something physiological about crying that does this, but it felt very intense. I liked it. I liked it even though it wasn’t my idea, and even though he almost certainly got it from porn.

The next day I got up and went to work, ate, had relationships, showered, thought about stuff, commuted, talked to people and just, you know, continued to be the same fairly content and confident person I had been the day before. Given all this, I struggle to think of anything wrong about me gagging on his cock, or about me or him enjoying it. Actually, I’m really quite completely certain that gagging on cock is an act without any intrinsic goodness or badness. The  same goes for other acts that horrify Cordelia but excite me. And I guess, logically, it must also go for those that make me want to vomit (unpleasurably!) but excite some other women, like drinking cum in any substantial volume or even – dare I say it – ass-to-mouth.

the issue of harm

If reflexive disgust and assumed intrinsic badness isn’t a solid basis for evaluating the morality of a sex act or its depiction in porn, what criteria can we use? To get all ethics 101 on you for a moment, my approach to this is more or less utilitarian. I think that whether porn is good/right or bad/wrong comes down to its consequences and to the issue of harm. Quite obviously, porn is responsible for a lot of viewer pleasure. To convince me that porn is bad, the anti-porn camp will need to demonstrate that a billion or so orgasms are outweighed by some harm porn causes to performers, viewers, those with whom viewers interact, society as a whole, or all of the above.

Jeremy Bentham’s head, FYI

That’s gonna be a whole lot more complicated than counting how many orifices are being penetrated at any one time, and I’m already up to 1,500 words. Let’s reconvene in a week or something!


* Choice funny quote: ‘Towards the end of The Porn Report the authors refer to writer Angela Carter’s hope for pornography “as a critique of current relations between the sexes” that “might begin to penetrate to the heart of the contempt for women that distorts our culture”. That’s a really lovely idea but I don’t spot ‘Feminist Critique’ on the list of options between ‘Facials’ and ‘Gangbangs’


Filed under Introspection, Research