The Book Club

Twenty Questions, and Then Some

Dear Wendy and Laura,

Allow me to jump in, if I may, to pose some questions that these two timely and interesting books raised in my own mind as I read them—questions that seem to me to be worth interrogating further, since in some cases it’s easy to take the answers for granted.

What I was struck by in each was how difficult it was for the authors—for all of us—to get past their (or our) own assumptions about porn and sex. There are many truly intricate issues in play: not only the usual debates about the role of biology and culture, but questions about just what it is we think porn is, and what role we want sex to play in our lives. The simplest example is this: Is it true that if you are a man in a relationship, it is a betrayal of your partner to watch porn on your own? And if so, why? Why, furthermore, do men and women have such different ideas about this behavior? Some of the men in Pornified consider it perfectly normal, almost a mechanical aid, while most of the women, including Pamela Paul, personalize it. (Let’s imagine I’m talking here not about the obviously fucked-up guys, but about men who seem to love their partners.) Given this impasse, how do we decide what to do about it? You see what I mean, I hope.

What I’m trying to get at is this: There are murky issues just beneath the surface of each book. Yet those of us reading them quickly split along ideological (or gender) lines. Is men’s use of porn necessarily destructive, or is it simply women’s relationship expectations that make it seem destructive? Reading Pornified, I sometimes thought the women were simply allowing an unrealistic dream of imaginative fidelity to shape their response to their partners. At other times, I wanted to get myself to a nunnery, so crazily unappealing—and relentlessly objectifying—did these guys seem, with their anomic affection for digital bodies and their disgust with live girls.

But what about the milder cases: Are men who look at porn on a slippery slope to permanent alienation, as Paul worries? Does pornography really shape your expectations of what you want from the person you’re sleeping with, and if so, does it distance you fundamentally from that person? It seems to me those questions aren’t necessarily the same. Paul, I think, assumes they are. I’m not suggesting that porn opens our hearts and minds. I’m merely questioning the conviction that pornography is inherently degrading. Likewise, what if women who flash their tits on Girls Gone Wild are enjoying themselves—if not all of them, then a select few? What then?

Laura, you dismiss Paul’s idea that we need to look deeply at the particular forms that porn takes (“muddled porno-determinism” you called it) since you’re arguing that porn itself comes out of the materialism you cite (consumerism, etc.). I agree that if we want to look at the cultural work pornography is doing we also need to look at deeper social and political currents. But surely we also need to examine closely the effects of the new wave of porn. For what’s taking place, Paul persuasively argues, amounts to a massive cultural shift in the kind of media being consumed, the time being dedicated to it, and the content of the porn itself. Porn doesn’t exclusively produce the relationship woes and female insecurities she describes. But in its new form it presumably contributes to the ongoing shaping of how we see the world and affects the behavior of those who use it.

Perhaps what was most striking about reading these two books together is how different their portraits of female sexuality look at first glance. In Paul’s book, women seem squeamish about sex (oral sex sounds like a burden to many of them) and naive about male desire—shocked to discover that men might keep Penthouses around after marriage. In Levy’s book, the women embrace raunchy sex, lifting their shirts for TV cameras, making out with their girlfriends. And yet in the end, both groups of women are left emotionally bereft by contemporary sexuality—victims of a rapacious male appetite they can’t control.

Levy pinpoints something important when she shows that many young women are mistaking sexual display for emancipated “empowerment.” But what’s curiously absent from both books is a view of female sexuality as something rapacious in its own right. I think we know why Levy and Paul emphasize the worrisome aspects: Troublingly, women still have less power than men, even if there’s more parity than ever before. But Wendy, do you think all girls like those in Levy’s book are filled with “anxiety” about “servicing boys”—isn’t it possible that some are just filled with hormones and the desire to, well, discover what they like? Is the female impulse to “own” her sexuality necessarily a prophylactic attempt to ape male sexuality, a kind of strange defense mechanism?

Finally, what we can agree on: Is porn more hardcore, more graphic, more ubiquitous than it was 20 years ago? If so, what does that mean—what effect might it have?

I don’t expect you to respond to all this. But thanks for letting me pose some questions that are still very hard to answer some 40 years after the sexual revolution.