In this response to Robert Jensen’s recent AlterNet article on pornography, Michael Bader tries to argue that the great porn debate is just a big misunderstanding because pornography is about fantasy, stupid, not reality (my words, not quite Bader’s). Gee, as if we hadn’t thought of that. He raises, for the umpteenth time, that a causal link between pornography and violence against women has not been proven and points out that men don’t want women to be hurt as part of a sexual encounter, unconsciously, they want women to be happy:
In porn, everybody is turned on and, therefore, everybody is happy. Sexual arousal is what we call a “marker,” an unconscious symbol, of the fact that the women are not hurt. It reassures the male viewer he can temporarily escape from the worry and guilt about women that typically haunts him and chills his libido. Such worry and guilt are not — as Jensen would have it — a sign of his loving humanity, but his neurotic feelings of obligation. Men grow up in our culture with two special psychic burdens: (1) they feel inordinately responsible for their mothers and later, for women, and (2) they feel especially disconnected and lonely. In regard to the first burden, it’s extremely common for men to talk about their guilt and resentful feelings of responsibility for making women happy, feelings that become exacerbated when they feel that they can’t ever succeed in these efforts. Men primarily want women to be happy, not degraded, but feel that somehow they’re supposed to be omnipotently responsible for making this happen. This isn’t healthy interdependence and responsibility, but an irrational burden generated in nuclear families and patriarchal culture. It lies at the heart of much of the hostility and emotional withdrawal from which women suffer in their dealings with men. The woman involved might see cruelty. But for the man, the hidden logic is: “If I hold you at arms length, if I treat you like a ‘piece of ass,’ if I love you and leave you, then at least I’m not imperiled by the chronic sense of inadequacy, guilty failure, and pressured obligation that I seem to feel is my lot as a man in our culture.”
So, imagine you’re this guy. What’s the appeal of porn? In porn, the women appear to be happy, so happy that they want to have sex all the time. It’s a special fantasy world in which women appear to be in situations that would hurt or degrade them, but — lo’ and behold! — they get turned on instead. It’s a world in which, for a few moments, the man, through identifying with the actors, can be utterly selfish, aggressive, and uncaring and not have to worry about the woman’s happiness. In fact, she only wants more!
That’s the appeal of most porn. It’s a fantasy enacted on the screen in which certain irrational and burdensome feelings of guilt, worry, and rejection get momentarily reversed — just long enough to allow excitement to emerge and climax. There are exceptions to the rule, as well as differences between various sexual modalities currently available, etc. that I discuss in my most recent book but can’t elaborate on here. Suffice it to say that there is very little scientific evidence that porn leads to any actual confusion between fantasy and reality. There is little evidence that men leave their online escapades and then insist that their wives engage in double penetration or face-slapping. The only people who are confused about the difference between fantasy and reality are Jensen and his fellow travelers.
Whew! Men just want women to be happy so that men can experience a temporary relief from the nagging burden of pleasing their mothers and their wives! I can’t quite imagine a more twisted, more sexist explanation. So many questions, so little time.
For one, where is it that women are supposed to find happiness and sexual satisfaction if the entire sexual event is defined according to men’s needs, even assuming that Bader is right about what those needs are (which is assuming a lot)? The whole territory of sexuality has, once again, been claimed for the fulfillment of male needs.
Also, it’s pure disingenuity on the part of Bader to argue that Jensen thinks there is a proven causal relationship between pornography and violence against women. This is very difficult to prove and most studies are problemmatic in terms of the definition of terms, the methods of investigation and the framing of the question. But this doesn’t matter to Jensen and it doesn’t matter (much) to me. Though studies don’t or can’t prove it, most people find it hard to imagine that there is no relationship between pornography and crimes against women, even if it’s not a directly causal relationship, just as most of us are pretty clear that there is a relationship between increasingly ubiquitous images of violence on television and in video games and rising levels of violence among children, teenagers and others, once again, even if it’s not direct.
But this just isn’t the point that Jensen and others are trying to make, or not the only point. In addition to the possibility that violent images promote violence, Jensen et al object to the dehumanizing effect that these images have on subject and object and for the effects it has on shaping our conceptions of “body, gender, sexuality and intimacy.” (See Jensen, here)
We seem to be clear about our feelings toward child pornography. For the life of me, I can’t see the difference.
Bader does admit that the victimization of women in the porn industry makes the debate important in ways that we haven’t even yet understood, and that’s something. But he also says that he’s “tired” of porn debates because they simplify public discourse about psychology and sexuality. I think he’s guilty of simplifying the discourse about pornography and sexuality. And guess what Michael? I’m fuckin’ tired of the porn debates too. And of patriarchy. Very, very tired.
NOTE: I am not a pro-censorship feminist, primarily because my experience of censorship is that no one knows how to implement regulatory schemes and they end up being used against material that is simply offensive to conservative people or whoever happens to be enforcing the rules. It remains the most difficult issue in my feminist life, though, and I have plenty of sympathy for anti-porn feminists – just because I’m anti-censorship doesn’t mean I’m pro-porn. And I think the notion that anti-porn feminists are Victorian era prudes is a diversion.
Edited to correct the spelling of Bader’s name. Oops!