A Question of Porn

by thethreepennyguignol

So, I do a lot of critiquing of pop culture on this blog – of movies, of TV, even of the figures who create this stuff. I think it’s really important to look at the media we consume with a critical eye, because stories are, across many continents, the way that we convey and pass down our values and what’s important to us as a culture. Every time I switch on a TV show or walk into a cinema or pick up a book, I’m doing so while trying to bear in mind the culture that might have impacted the piece of media I’m about to engage with, as do many other people who look at pop culture and the media in general with a similarly critical eye. But something that I rarely see dissected with the same kind of critical eye, despite the fact that pretty much everyone you know has encountered it and probably consumes it on the regular? Pornography.

Just to be clear, this article isn’t going to be arguing for or against the existence of pornography, and I want to acknowledge upfront both that the porn industry has facets that are exploitative as much as it has facets that present positive opportunities for the people who get involved with them. I’m not hear to tar the porn industry or porn stars with one brush, but rather I want to take a look at why it is that porn is often so absent from conversations we have about critiquing popular culture.

Part of this, of course, is because porn is linked to sex and sex is still something many of us have trouble talking about. But part of it too, I believe, is because we see our sexuality as something divorced from our personal taste. I might enjoy, say Fawlty Towers, because I can pinpoint the performances and the jokes and the pacing as something that appeals directly to me, the same way I can explain why I enjoy or don’t enjoy a movie that I have a strong opinion on. But sexuality is, arguably, a lot more nuanced than that. With kinks and fetishes often being developed way back in childhood before we really have an idea what they mean, it’s harder for us to justify why we enjoy certain forms of pornography. I can point to the cinematography in a porn video and say “yes, this is why I enjoy this.” There is absolutely a place for beautifully-made arthouse porn, but I’d argue that most people would judge their enjoyment of a porn on whether or not it turned them on. With what arouses us so hard to quantify, thus criticism of a lot of mainstream porn stalls before it gets started. And that’s where the rub lies (there are going to be so many awkwardly-placed pseudo-puns in this piece, so we might as well just embrace it now and move on).

Because, like the rest of the media, porn doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, the depictions of sex that porn projects create much of the cultural context within which other media exists: with porn more readily available than ever before, it effects many aspects of our lives, from the way men view women to the way we conduct our interpersonal relationships – the way we see sex and sexuality depicted in movies, TV, and books could arguably be linked to the depictions that porn has proliferated. Of all the media we consume, porn seems to have a palpable effect on the way we live our lives: a viewer is unlikely to saw someone’s ear off after watching Reservoir Dogs, but they might take a sex act that turned them on in porn and apply (or wish to apply) it to real life, sometimes with damaging results. The direct influence that porn has been linked to having with real-world sexuality should render it the form of media that we’re most inclined to criticize. And yet.

Because sexuality is such a idiosyncratic thing and so profoundly tied up in who we are as people, it’s harder to criticize porn without reading as implicitly criticizing the people who consume it. Because, as I outlined above, our enjoyment of porn is linked in with what turns us on, it’s much harder to have a critical conversation about the place of pornography and specific sub-genres therein without sending people’s hackles up at the notion that you disapprove of their sexuality. And I get it, I do, because after centuries of repressing sexuality in almost any form – especially the sexualities of women – it’s tempting to overcorrect and argue that whatever your kink or fetish or genre is, people shouldn’t be critical of it lest we drive society back to a time when freedom of sexual expression was looked down upon. But this is directly at odds with our increasing willingness to critique other media for it’s advancement of perceived sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic agendas.

Because media does, as I mentioned above, convey our cultural values. When we allow porn to consistently treat trans people as fetish objects, real-life trans people suffer the consequences: the most transphobic states in American are also the ones that consume trans porn  – which often depicts trans people as nothing more than sexual fantasy objects– at high levels. I find it hard to believe it’s a coincidence that the proliferation and popularity of porn in which a female party is degraded, often violently, has nothing to do with the patriarchal society we currently live in or can be divorced from it. Porn has a direct effect on our sex lives, and we see cultural values reflected back in porn as much as porn reflects it out on to the world. Ask any lesbian or bi woman if she’s ever been asked if a guy can “just watch” if you don’t believe that the way we depict certain sexualities and genders in porn doesn’t influence the way these people are treated in real life.

And I think this is why it’s so important that we critique the porn we consume in a serious way. Yes, what turns us on is personal, but it has a quantifiable effect on the way we view the world and, more importantly, our sex lives and relationships, which recent events have proved should perhaps come under greater scrutiny as, for many people, they have been conducted in a way that’s damaging and hurtful to those around them.  When we refuse to talk about porn, to critique it in the same way we would critique other media, we divorce it from the important place it takes up in the media many of us consume and confine it back to a dirty closet with a grotty sign hanging from it that reads “SEX – DO NOT OPEN”. Like all media, porn reflects the world we live in and the values that world imparts and, at the same time, has tangible effect on the same. We need to stop holding porn at arm’s length, and start accepting that, in this case, the personal is absolutely political.

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