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.
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’