Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pornography and objectification

....by Thaddeus

Every half-bright college grad whoever took a freshman women’s studies course to kill a breadth requirement can tell you that pornography’s greatest sin is that it “objectifies women”. For years, I’ve considered this argument to be so much half-baked horseshit, but lately, Ana Paula’s research has caused me to revise my thinking, though not, perhaps, in the ways conservative feminists would expect.

I still have my doubts about porn as something which has the power to turn women into objects. In the first place, porn is most certainly not exclusively directed towards het men anymore: women and gay men now have their porn, too, so at the very least, objectification has become more democractic . Secondly, human sex and love relations under conditions of late capitalism are objectifying in general. When both women and men qualify potential mates in terms of whether they are “winners” or “losers” and feel that happiness with a partner can be guaranteed by crossing off a check list of characteristics, then we can truly say that objectification – the treating of human beings as if they were instruments, things, or (better yet) items of consumption – has become the central motif of our dating culture. It’s always been my belief that porn reflects this culture rather than causes it, given that so many people who wouldn’t dream of watching icky porn size up potential partners with a gimlet eye as to their imagined (often wholly imagined) qualities and defects, as critical as any basement dwelling nerd whoever said of Jenna Jameson, “yeah, she’d be cute if she just got bigger implants”.

Objectification is late capitalism’s main erotic impulse, so my view has been that one should either reject it entirely or roll with it: it’s useless to try and calve off Buttman 15 from Titanic when it comes to talking about objectifying sexual fantasy. As my friend Sadakni once cogently observed, “I’m not so much against porn as I’m in favor of the production of better porn. The current porn bores the hell out of me”.

However, Ana’s recent research has shown me that porn may very possibly be objectifying in a way that other sexual/affective fantasies aren’t.

By “objectifying”, however, I don’t mean treating a person as a thing or object without regards to their personal characteristics (the traditional feminist critique of porn). I mean that porn is objectifying in that it ends up transforming a subjective and ultimately abstract concept (sexual pleasure) into something concrete and measureable.

Reading her straight male informants’ descriptions of their sexual experiences with prostitutes, Ana and has been struck with how often what’s classified as a “first-class” sex sounds as if it came right out of the script for a straight-to-video porno film. “Good sex”, for most of these men, starts with a striptease, moves on to oral, then to vaginal and concludes with anal or oral, together with a face shot or with swallowed ejaculate (the woman, it goes without saying, is the “catcher” for all this activity). There are no descriptions of feelings of pleasure in these men’s reports, of tastes, smells, textures – of, in short, the vast majority of sensual experience which make up the warp and weft of sexual pleasure.

It is not that these men can’t feel these aspects of sexual pleasure: I’m very sure they do. But sexual enjoyment is a very private, subjective and even perverse thing. For men who invest a big portion of their male identity on being able to share with other men the details of sexual exploits, discussing sexual pleasure is a risky affair. What if one’s tastes are not understood?

And this is where porn comes in: it gives a simple and easily understood grading system for sex whereby experience can be shared and compared with other men. It gives men a common language and script for describing and judging sex in a way that – perversely (given that it’s porn) – can’t be considered perverse.

One could say that this insight is a fruit of our research with men who have sex with prostitutes, but a brief comparison with the ways men describe “good sex” in general, outside of prostitution contexts, should show that porn-as-model-for-description holds true generally throughout the west. It’s certainly the case among the men I deal with in general in Brazil or the U.S.

For the better part of a generation now, it’s been presumed that male sexuality is visual and performatic. Now I wonder if that’s so true, however. I wonder if it perhaps ends up being that way because it’s so important for men to be seen as sexually normative by other men and the visual spectacle of performance is simply the easiest way such normativeness can be constructed, discussed and shared.


  1. Interesting.
    While I do believe porn reflects culture, it also serves as a model. Not just model for description; it's sometimes a model for behaviour. Especially if consuments are very young and inehperienced.

    My husband, who is an anthropology student, always jokes about writing essays on "anthropology of porn". I am sure he'll be very interested in this article.


    PS-Is there a way to post comments under my name and link?

  2. Hmmm. I'm new at this, Mira, so I'm not sure about your name and link, but when I click on your name, it takes me to your blog profile, which takes me to your blog... So yeah.

    As for porn being a model for behavior... Maybe, but what's so wrong with that?

    Look, I'm sure we can agree that any "ytoung and inexperienced" guy who tries to ejaculate in a woman's face without her permission is going to be paying a visit to the emergency room.

    What in the rest in the common variety of porn is so gawdawful, exactly, that it shouldn't be modeled? About the worst thing I can think of is that if you take it seriously, you'll probably be a very crappy lover.

    Trying to learn sex from porn is a bit like trying to learn martial arts from a Jackie Chan flick: your first encounter with the real thing is going to disabuse you of a lot of illusions.

    Btw, as a funny aside, a friend of ours caught her 11-year-old daughter looking at porn on the internet recently - big male penises, to be exact. Our friend's reaction?

    "Honey, you're going to be extremely disappointed when you finally see the realt thing."

  3. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate porn. In fact, I think it's often helpful and serves its purpose. I won't pretend I never watch(ed) it, especially when I was, well, young and curious.

    About the worst thing that can happen (becoming a crappy lover), well, that's bad enough in my book! ;) If nothing else, young people have to unlearn a lot of things they thought were usual part of sexual intercourse.

    Porn is not some "dangerous thing", but it is interesting to analyze the influence of porn movies and the ways they shape young people's expectations.

    PS-About my link. Since it's impossible to comment here without some kind of internet account, I chose my blogspot profile. It does take you to my blog, but it's an irrelevant one, full of homemade wallpapers.

    My main site is http://jefflion.net . It's just a personal site, nothing serious, but I wanted my name to be associated with it.

    Oh, and happy New Year!

  4. Thad, porn is not good. It fosters a self-centered attitude and disillusions people. It also has a negative effect on the self esteem of young women and even some adult women! (I watched a documentary on porn and how it affects women who have boob jobs, dress like a prostitute when they go out, young men who like fake boobs etc) It has a negative effect on relationships at times, people often feel inadequate when they compare themselves to the fake images they see on the screen. A lot of tricks are used in the Porn industry to make things seem more attractive. It isn't healthy to watch it regularly. I feel sex should be viewed a lot more seriously than it is. Not something that can be shared between two people who don’t know each other sufficiently. Pornography devalues those depicted in it, and debases those viewing it.

  5. Sorry for taking so long to respond, Annaleisha. I've not been keeping track of old commentary as well as I should. I need to find a widget that clues me in on when people respond to old posts.

    First of all, the statement "porn is not good" is so highly subjective, I hardly know where to begin. Let's start with "porn". What is porn, exactly? Sexual content with no redeeming social value? To quote Bill Hicks, "Hmmmm. Sounds like every fucking commercial on T.V. if you ask me."

    I mean, where do you draw the line, exactly?

    Also, I wonder how porn could have a greater negative effect on the self-esteem of young women than, oh, say the beauty industry or Christianity. Most young women I know are not watching Buttman 4 and feeling inferior for not being able to take a 12 inch cock up their ass without flinching. They ARE, however, devouring women's magazines (like Cosmopolitan) which seem devoted to the concept that women, as they are, are not beautiful, intelligent, or savvy enough. They ARE worrying about how and with whom they should lose their virginity and whether or not Jeezis would approve of the affair.

    I know several women who got boob jobs: not one of them cited Jenna Jameson as their inspiration. All of them were assiduous consumers of women's media and were painfully aware of the physcial condition of their bodies. We're talking people, for example, who own 12 different kinds of shampoo because "just one doesn't do the job" and who celebrate the loss of 5 kilos by buying more laxatives.

    So I'm sorry, Annaleisha, but I think you're talking flat-out dogma when you say that porn is somehow significantly affecting women's views of themselves. If it has an effect, it's like a candle in a volcano.

    As for people feeling inadequate when they compare themselves to the fake images on the screen, again, isn't this the founding concept of pretty much every commercial out there - and the ones dedicated to women in particular? Porn doesn't CAUSE this syndrome in our society, Anna: it accurately reflects our cultural preocupation with the gospel of personal salvation through consumption. The kind of person who seriously lets porn affect their notion of self is the sort of person who's going to have huge issues living in our society in general: if they are that sensitive and reactive, how the hell are they going to resist Nigerian banking schemes or Republican snake oil?

  6. ...continued.

    But here's my big problem with your point: "A lot of tricks are used in the Porn industry to make things seem more attractive".


    Because when I watch mainstream porn, I find it to be boooooooooring. Not attractive at all. Then again, I find most advertising to be ludicrous as well. Obviously, other people's mileage varies.

    But the kicker is this: if porn is making things attractive, then it can't be causing that attraction, correct? That would be tautological. So what you're saying is that people are attracted to certain things and porn knows how to manipulate this. Doesn't sound to me, then, like porn is the problem when it comes to creating people's feelings of inferiority. Sounds to me like people have already internalized the desires that result in those feelings and all porn does is rub this in their face.

    Now, you say "I feel sex should be viewed a lot more seriously than it is".

    How much more "seriously" do you want it to be veiewed than through the lens of a multi-billion dollar industry? It is, in fact, the very concept that sex is "serious" that allows it to be cast as a taboo and this taboo, of course, is what makes the porn industry possible.

    As for porn "devaluing those depicted in it", very much to the contrary: as I said in my main post, it places specific grades and valuations upon their performances. In other words, it "values them out" to the nth degree.

    About the only thing I can agree with you upon is your belief that porn debases those viewing it. But then again, I feel that our public culture in general is debasing and nothing is MORE debasing than the activities of those who honestly feel, like yourself, that humans are nothing more than Pavlovian-trained dogs, geared to cum or to feel "self esteem issues" at the ringing of the master's bell.

    Sure, those who watch porn degrade themselves, as do those who watch "Twilight", "Titanic", or commercials for feminine deoderant sprays.

    As we say in Brazil, what's a fart to someone who's covered in shit?