Normally at this hour on a Friday, I'd be at boxing class. My trainer has called in sick, however, so I'll sneak in a post before getting on with the day.
There's a good post up at Feminist Mormon Housewives this week about women married to porn users. I read it in conjunction with an email I received from a man I'll call "Billy". Here's an excerpt from what Billy wrote:
Neverland is a complete fantasy, however it is based on children's natural desire for freedom and autonomy, as well as people in generals desire to avoid the pains of adulthood and/or revert to childhood. Candyland is a silly fantasy, but its based on our understandable love of candy and sweet things. Romance novels and movies may not be the most accurate portrayals of relationships, but they are based on what women find desireable in romantic interactions. Likewise, whatever else can be said about pornography, it is a symbol, a representation, of mens deepest erotic desires, wishes, attractions, and fantasies. Now, some fantasies/wishes/desires of some men, which are represented by some porn, are innately violent and misogynistic. Note the use of the word some, SOME AND ONLY SOME. However, porn does symbolise male erotic natures which I consider to be... well..... natural! And some elements may not be caveman natural, but at least they have nothing directly to do with hurting women, and they can be natural in the sense that they are a powerful part of a guys erotic makeup, for lack of better words. And this leads to why anti-porn sentiment has me so disturbed.
Just what is the erotic nature of the ideal feminist man? Where exactly is the line between healthy positive sexual attraction and pleasure and hurting womankind?
I realize that many of my most effective arguments against porn use have been couched in explicitly Christian terms. That's not surprising, given my faith commitments, but those arguments aren't going to carry any weight with non-Christians like Billy, whose letter makes clear that he does consider himself a feminist man -- but one who regularly uses and enjoys pornography. Billy also makes it clear that he is single, which makes him different from the husbands described in the FMH post to which I linked above. And he asks a thoughtful question -- why shouldn't a single, pro-feminist man use pornography?
I've made the case time and again that the porn industry is destructive to women, that while a few performers achieve wealth and success from the work, most end up embittered and alienated. No, I'm not interested in trading anecdotes or competing studies. In fact, I don't want to focus on this aspect of anti-porn arguments at all.
Rather, I'd like to talk solely about the impact of porn use on the men who use it. (Pace, dear readers, I know there are plenty of women who use porn. Not the topic of this post.) Billy claims, as do many men, that in some sense porn captures something "natural" about men's erotic nature, presumably the desire to look at lots and lots of naked women. And I wouldn't dream of disagreeing with Billy! I'm not a biologist or a psychologist, but it seems perfectly plausible to me that the desire to look at lots and lots of naked women isn't just a function of culture, but may also be a function of physiology.
But so what? Lots of things are natural -- and natural is not, despite the claim of some health food stores, invariably a synonym for "good." It's natural for us to defecate on ourselves; using the toilet is a learned behavior that involves controlling an instinctive urge. I think we're all deeply grateful to have learned to control this natural instinct. I'm not interested in suggesting that feminist men shouldn't want to look at porn; I'm suggesting that he should overcome what may be for him a very basic instinct. In other words, what makes a man a pro-feminist is not the absence of desire, but his commitment to work to redirect that desire.
Ultimately, the great tragedy of porn is that it teaches the men who use it to pursue "everlasting novelty." Ask any man who uses porn -- does he want to see the same pictures over and over again of the same women? No. If looking at one beautiful naked woman was enough, Playboy could put out one issue a decade. Internet porn sites could update annually instead of daily. But as most porn users admit, what was an intense turn-on the first time quickly becomes stale and boring. The seductiveness of internet porn in particular is that some brand new woman, one you've never seen before, is just one or two clicks away on your computer.
The pursuit of everlasting novelty is the enemy of actual relationship. Real relationships are built on a very different premise from porn -- the notion that what is really sexy is not "new skin" but radical connection with one other person. Porn says that happiness is found by having the same experience over and over again with lots of different women; true eros says that happiness is found by having different experiences over and over again with the same person.
We are creatures of habit, Billy. Everything we do trains our bodies, trains our minds. Using porn as a single man may seem a very different thing from using it as a husband. But when you do find a relationship, Billy, do you imagine you will seamlessly transition from a fantasy world to the very human, beautiful yet flawed and familiar reality of your girlfriend or wife? You'll know that countless naked bodies in an infinite number of poses are only a few quick clicks away. Their demands are few (perhaps your credit card), their youth eternal, their willingness to expose themselves to you unconditional. The chances that you will be able to effortlessly leave behind years and years of porn use for the far more challenging (though ultimately far more rewarding) reality of sex with an actual partner are, frankly, minimal. Ask the wives who are quite ready and willing to be intimate with their husbands, but their husbands are more interested in the endlessly novel images on their computer screen.
To be a pro-feminist man, I submit, is to see women as precious and valuable rather than disposable. But if your porn use is like that of most men I've known, it's the endless pursuit of the new and the previously unseen. The old images get archived, the old magazines stacked away to be glanced at in the future. Many men build impressive porn collections, but they do so for the thrill of acquiring so many women -- not because the same old images retain their power to arouse indefinitely. And though you will surely claim that there's a difference between the images in magazines or on the 'net and real life women, I'm not at all sure that's clear to all aspects of your consciousness. My experience, and the experience of countless other men, has been that the use of porn leaves one less able to truly see the humanity of real-life women. It's simply not easy to transition from hours of fantasizing and masturbating at one new image after another to actual relationship, even if it's only friendship with a co-worker or classmate.
Yes, I think porn does real damage to the women who work in the industry. Yes, I think porn use is antithetical to the most basic Christian understanding of sexuality. But I also think a case can be made that porn damages the consciousness and warps the generous humanity of pro-feminist men. Whether it's a natural or culturally conditioned instinct to want to stare at so many pictures and movies of so very many women is irrelevant. What matters is the lesson that porn (be it Playboy or something far harder) always teaches: someone new is always coming, and the new and previously unseen is always, always, always more exciting than the old and the familiar. That's a message about women's disposibility that goes right to the core, and it is a message that is diametrically opposed to the feminist insistence that women are valuable.
Here's an experiment I offer to young men who insist on using porn. Try using just one image, one photo, for a month. See if you don't get bored quickly. See if you don't find yourself craving the new and the unknown. My hunch is that what turned you on last week will have lost its power by Memorial Day! Consider what that longing for novelty will mean for your future relationships.
Though I have problems, as a Christian, with masturbation, I think from a secular feminist standpoint that there's a real distinction between masturbation with and without porn. If you find the former too dull and inspiring, what does that tell you about your sexuality? Surely your dependence on an unending supply of new images should give you pause. Is your imagination so barren, your arousal so contingent on the culture, that you need a broadband connection and a furtive trip to the newsstand to feel something real?
Can you be a feminist man and use porn? Well, why not? I mean heck, I insisted at the beginning of this week that I could be a feminist man and rejoice that my wife had become Mrs. Schwyzer! Having insisted on big-tent feminism on Monday, I'd be a hypocrite to insist on an exclusive definition on Friday. Trying to live out a feminist life is hard work; it's about letting go of old habits, it's about challenging social norms about the "natural" and the "normal", it's about a commitment not only to real equality but to a world where women are truly seen and not merely gazed at. None of us lives this life perfectly every day, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't always strive to be better, more consistent, more effective at reconciling our language, our life, our libidos.