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.
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.
* 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!