Please note: This piece discusses my personal sex life and sexual fantasies in a fair amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff, please skip this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
Why does porn matter?
In my career as a sex writer, I’ve written many times in defense of porn. I’ve written about why it’s morally defensible. I’ve written about why it’s legally defensible. I’ve written about why it’s a valid thing for people in monogamous relationships to enjoy. I’ve written about why it’s feminist… or at least, why it can be feminist, why it’s not automatically and by its very nature sexist (even though a fair amount of it is).
Today, I want to talk about something else.
I want to talk about why porn matters. I want to talk about what porn contributes: to individuals, and to a culture. I want to talk about why porn has redeeming social importance… even the “no redeeming social importance” stuff, the sleaziest, skankiest, artistically shabbiest, porniest porn you can imagine. I want to talk about why porn, simply by its nature as porn, has value.
(Quick clarification: When I say “porn” here, I don’t just mean “porn videos.” Past experience has taught me that, for some reason, when you say “porn,” many people automatically think “video porn.” That’s not what I mean. I mean any porn, in any medium: fiction, photography, drawings, comics, videos, video games, campfire stories, cave paintings, whatever.)
Years ago — okay, fine, decades ago — I did this consciousness- raising seminar thing (long story, don’t ask), and one of the topics we were working on was sex. At one point we broke up into smaller groups, and were asked, among other things, to share our wildest sexual fantasy, something we’d never told anyone.
So we went around the circleâŠ and the first person confessed, with great trepidation, that he fantasized about having sex with two women. The second confessed, with obvious reluctance and embarrassment, that she fantasized about having sex with her husband’s best friend. Etc. There were a couple more which I now don’t remember: I just remember that they were all more or less along these same lines — extremely common fantasies that filled these people with shame, distress, and fear.
And then it was my turn.
If there had been a hole in the floor under my chair, I would have crawled into it.
My wildest sexual fantasy — that week, anyway — involved being initiated into a group sex cult. In this fantasy, I was first tied up and forced to watch the members of the group perform a series of kinky acts — being sexually displayed, tied to a table, whipped, fucked in the ass, forcibly penetrated at once in multiple holes, etc. Then, the next day, I was forced to participate in each of these acts myself, in the same sequence, for the entertainment of the group. The sexual performance I was being made to watch was behind a curtain of gauze, so I could only see the silhouettes… which somehow enhanced the intensity of the performances in my imagination. And I knew when I was watching the performances that I’d have to repeat them the next day: so the “watching” part of the fantasy was fraught with shock at the knowledge that I’d soon have to do all of these things myself… and the “performing” part was fraught with anticipation/ dread, remembering with each new humiliation that something even kinkier was just around the corner.
So it was my turn to share. And I thought, “Oh, fuck. What on earth are these people going to think of me? If they’re this freaked out by their own very standard fantasies — hubby’s best friend, doing it with two girls — how on Earth are they going to react when they hear what my twisted sexual imagination has come up with? They’re going to think I’m mentally unstable. At best. A moral degenerate at worst.” I was very attached to this group at the time, and the thought of being alienated from it was quite upsetting.
But it was my turn, and I’d promised to be honest during this process. So I told.
Here’s what happened.
First: The people who’d confessed, with deep shame and fear, about sex fantasies that approximately 90% of the population shares… they weren’t horrified by mine. They were actually sort of impressed. One person expressed admiration for my imagination; all of them said they were impressed by my honesty. Some of them even seemed to be getting ideas from hearing my fantasies: either they’d never thought about going to these places but now had gotten their horizons expanded, or they’d already been having fantasies like mine and now felt like they had permission to explore them. And the people with the more conventional fantasies were clearly relieved at how normal their own fantasies suddenly seemed in comparison to mine.
Admittedly, these were special circumstances. The consciousness- raising group fostered a strong bond of trust and acceptance, and I have no idea how any of these people would have reacted if they’d heard about this fantasy at a cocktail party or seen something about it in a movie. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that revealing a somewhat unusual and fairly kinky sex fantasy, rather than alienating people, could not only generate trust and respect for my own sexuality, but could make people feel more comfortable with their own.
So that’s the first thing that happened. Here’s the second.
When I revealed my “initiation into the sex cult” fantasy, the next person in the circle looked at me with tremendous relief. His own wildest fantasy — that week — was something roughly as freaky as mine: something involving a memory from an orgy he’d had in college, where they’d put a tarp on the floor and greased it up with oil and went at it in a big slippery bisexual puppy pile. He was clearly a fellow-traveler, a giant horny sex freak with a wild imagination and a strong taste for erotic adventure.
And he had been having the exact same freak-out I’d been having. He’d been listening to the distressed, shame-faced confessions of almost absurdly normal fantasies… and had been feeling intense apprehension about telling his own fantasies and being seen as weird and depraved. And he was immensely relieved at the fact that I’d gone first, and had broken the sex-freak ice. My story made it that much easier for him to tell his story.
I think you see where I’m going with this.
I am well aware of the deep flaws in porn. I’m aware that way too much of it, far from exploring the wide possibilities of sexuality, simply mines the same predictable, easily- marketable veins, over and over and over again. I’m aware that way too much of it, far from alleviating people’s insecurities about their sexuality, actually exacerbates them. I’m aware that way too much of it is sexist, perpetuating screwed-up stereotypes about both women and men. (Unlike, say, every other aspect of our popular culture, like TV and movies and pop music and video games and books and magazines and news reporting and so on, all of which are bastions of feminist thought. ) And I’m very, very well aware that way too much porn is just bad: mediocre at best, embarrassingly shabby at worst. Sturgeon’s Law — “90% of everything is crap” — applies to porn as much as any other human endeavor, and possibly even more so, since the stigma surrounding it makes many good writers/ artists/ actors/ etc. avoid it like the plague. As porn consumers, I think we deserve better, and I think we should demand better.
But even given all of that, I passionately believe that porn has value.
I think that porn can, and often does, accomplish everything that telling my fantasy accomplished in that consciousness- raising group so many years ago. (Which was, in its own way, a form of porn.)
I think that porn can normalize sex. It can make sex seem more familiar, and less scary. It can remind people that sex is a natural desire, one that all or most of us share. It can remind us that, no matter what our sexual thoughts and desires are, chances are someone else is having them, too. It can make us feel more comfortable with our sexuality. It can make us feel like we have permission to explore our sexuality, in fantasy or in the flesh or both. It can expand our sexual horizons: exposing us to possibilities we might never have considered, and making our own sex lives richer. It can make people with fairly standard sexual desires feel more connection and understanding for those of us whose desires are on the fringe. It can make people with fringe desires feel like we’re not alone.
If the only thing porn accomplished was to create sexual excitement and pleasure… that would be plenty. Sexual excitement and pleasure are positive goods, valuable simply in and of themselves. If that’s all that porn contributed to the world, I’d still be defending its value, simply on that basis alone.
But I think that porn does contribute more.
Porn is a way that, as a culture, we tell each other our fantasies.
I think that matters.
And I’d like to see it get some respect.