The motives of both the pro- and anti-pornography campaigners are not hard to understand. Much has been written by both moralists and libertarians. What about the consumers? No-one really speaks up for them. They are not the ones manning the barricades, for much the same reason one doesn't see pregnant women at pro-abortion demonstrations. That is to say not many people have the courage to openly state their need for pornographic material.
Since pornography is made almost exclusively for men and most women do not like it, this article presents a purely masculine and decidedly subjective perspective. Angry feminist replies are welcome!
For the purpose of this article I'll arbitrarily confine my subject to explicit images showing non-violent sexual acts between adults. As for the distinction between pornography and erotica, I see it as being a question of the degree of explicitness, eg showing an erect penis is pornographic, whereas a bare breast is merely erotic. What people usually mean by the difference is: "Pornography is erotica that I don't like." What is the purpose of porn? That's easy - to sexually excite the viewer.
Pornography's attraction is due to its being simultaneously sexually stimulating and forbidden. Due to the influence of the Church, sex was considered dirty and sinful until recent times. Had it been possible, St Paul and medieval Christian moralists would have forbidden us sex altogether. Whatever the arguments about permissiveness and so-called declining morals, we still live in a largely puritanical society. If not, then why isn't erotic literature as respectable a field as are cookery, cricket or horror?
Girls are still brought up to believe that: (1) men only want one thing, and (2) it must be denied to them (unless within marriage or at least with love). Boys are brought up to believe that: (1) sex is the real thing (Coke ads notwithstanding), and (2) nice girls don't.
The old conditioning about the two kinds of women - the nice girl whom a man marries, and the not-nice girl who is sexually active and hence exciting - is not dead yet.
The lure of the taboo
In the face of the continuing repression of sex, there is an inevitable reaction. Pornography violates all the sexual taboos regarding decency, normality, and monogamy. It does the same for intimacy, secrecy, and privacy. The sexual act is the most private of all, the one area of life that is off limits to all observers. This is the primary taboo that pornography breaks. Yet it is nowadays acceptable to study sexuality, so long as this is done 'seriously', ie not for erotic gratification. I have seen a film showing masturbation that was perfectly serious, dry and boring. What makes sexual material "pornographic" is the exposure of what is most intimate in order to sexually arouse the viewer.
Another reason why pornography is taboo is that sex is supposed to be one area of life immune to commercial exploitation. This highlights the prevailing schizophrenic attitude to sex - that on the one hand it is something illicit or dirty, and hence not a respectable area of interest, and on the other hand, that sex is so sublime that it must not be sullied by public exposure or commercialisation. Whether seen as too ugly or too beautiful, it must in either case be concealed.
We are conditioned to be insecure about our sexuality and hence seek to hide it. Pornography brings it into the open. By rejecting all social conventions of sex, it creates a feeling of liberation and release. The more energy a society expends on suppressing something, such as pornography, the more that same energy rebounds into a fascination with the subject.
Pornography goes against society's ideas about what is natural, and ultimately, what is civilised in sexuality. It is an expression of prohibited sexual desires, as well as of yearnings that some men may not admit even to themselves.
Sexual NO conditioning
At a deeper level, pornography works directly counter to all the NOs we have been conditioned to accept in regard to sexuality. Eg "That is dirty" and "Only sluts behave like this." Ideas that sex is dirty, unnatural, immoral, and animalistic, except when kept within strict, socially determined bounds. Amazingly, the navel may not be shown on American network TV. The words 'erotic' and 'smutty' are still synonyms in our supposedly enlightened times. Is it not bizarre that comparing a person with the female genitals is the worst insult in English? If a film or sculpture has erotic intent, it will be dismissed as being "exploitative". Exploitative of whom or what? It is society's stigmatisation of sex that fuels the hunger for pornography, which generates excitement as it flaunts taboos. Note that nudism is not erotic in the least - only "inappropriate" nakedness is arousing.
I find it amazing that most people seem much more concerned about children seeing normal sexuality than violence. Until recently, films with an erotic element were required to have "redeeming artistic merit". No such stipulation applied to films depicting violence. In fact, the XXX rating is the only censorship classification that excludes violence.
Woman as mother is the original NO sayer in a child's life. It is she who toilet-trains the child, forbids it to put dirt in its mouth, stops it breaking the stereo. This tends to be repeated in relationships, where, to the extent that traditional sex roles are followed, the man acts as the accelerator, the woman as the brake. This is expressed in the saying that a woman doesn't want a man to fly. Since some men fail to pass the emotional age of twelve, it falls to their women to curtail their infantile urges. Sex is a frequent arena for this conflict. The battle of the sexes is, in part, about sex. In particular, the man may want to explore various sexual variations and turn-ons, which his partner is likely to see as perverted.
Roald Dahl wrote:
The female, on the whole, can do without sex. The male can't. He's an aggressive, sexual beast. He annoys the female very much with his behaviour. Very few females enjoy accommodating the total sexual appetites of their men.
The female sex imposes inhibitions and constraints on the male and makes him feel guilty about wanting what he desires most from women. I think it is this NO conditioning which creates, or at least contributes to the deep-seated anger some men harbour against women. The most extreme expression of this anger is seen in rape. It is generally accepted that rape is a crime of violence, rather than of lust. As for the fantasy
of rape, it excites many men because it makes the male feel powerful and in control. He feels superior to the woman when he subjugates her to his will. Pornography shows the male as victorious in the struggle between the sexes. It boosts the male ego at its most sensitive point. In the fantasy of rape, a man is at last triumphant over all the constraints imposed by the female. Constraints that continue to apply in real life.
Let it not be thought that I am condoning rape. It is an awful crime, one of the worst experiences one human being can inflict on another. That one woman in five in the US has been sexually assaulted is a horrifying statistic, indicating something is appallingly wrong with our sexual attitudes.
What pornography does, for men, is to undo all those NOs and turn them into enthusiastic YESs. It seeks to obliterate all the conditioning in a man's mind that says women deny sex. Instead, women are portrayed as actively and eagerly wanting it. They are often shown enthusiastically initiating, rather than passively submitting, to a spectrum of sexual acts. The women are exaggeratedly passionate and abandoned, often sexually aggressive. A woman in a pornographic movie or magazine effectively says: "Yes! You can do anything you like to me, and I love it." Women are nearly always shown as enjoying it just as much as the men. This is so even in stories featuring rape or humiliation. In other words pornography reverses the stereotype that women are less keen to have sex than men.
Pornography shows a thoroughgoing acceptance of sexuality by the feminine. The woman totally accepts the man and every of his desires. In particular, ejaculation inside a woman's mouth or over her face is a powerful expression of such acceptance. Men have a deep need for this kind of acceptance. Thus a powerful message conveyed by pornography is: your secret desires are OK, it is acceptable to want what you want. In this sense pornography is saying, "No, sex is not dirty after all," and "You are not dirty because you want it."
The woman is usually presented as soft and submissive, wanting to give pleasure in every way she can. She is shown to be both receptive (all yin) and giving of herself. She holds nothing back sexually. This panders to the male fantasy of the woman entirely dedicated to pleasing him. Her body is completely revealed, making her appear vulnerable, at the man's mercy. There is a considerable element of conquest, of male dominance and female submission.
Pornography gives a man the fantasy of controlling a woman, something he cannot have in reality. Unlike real-life women, a pornographic image will obey a man; he can have his way with her. She neither makes demands nor has feelings of her own, as a living woman does. The image is instantly and with no effort available for his pleasure. She is frozen in the action or position that he desires most. The thrill is guarantied. She will never deny him, as a real woman may. In this sense she compensates him for any frustrations or disappointments he may have with real women. Pornography performs for men the same function as a vibrator does for some women. The vibrator is a tool allowing a woman to achieve sexual satisfaction without a partner, making her self-sufficient.
Part of pornography's raw power is that it shows a strong physical connection between the participants. Because the sex in pornography is real, as opposed to simulated, it is correspondingly more powerful. Unlike all the images that titillate and suggest, pornography shows 'it', the actual act of sex.
The woman is invaded, plumbed and interfered with. Her female mystery is broken into; she is penetrated to the core. No part of her is withheld, her whole body is dedicated to giving pleasure to the male.
In addition to the physical connection, there is also an emotional one, however fake or contrived this may be. The woman is shown as being aroused and enthusiastic. As well as being receptive she responds to the man. It is essential that he make an impression on her. If she were aloof or looked bored, the erotic effect would be dispelled altogether.
Then there is the fantasy element. Though there are exceptions, the pornographic image of woman is of a feminine, beautiful and exotic sex-goddess. The more refined and unobtainable she looks, the greater the impact of pornographic images. She is idealised and untainted by reality. (It is impossible to imagine her changing nappies!) Her body tends to conform to male ideas of perfection. The pornographic woman is fascinating because she is sexual to the point of being unreal. She is the unobtainable dream. Except that in pornography she is thoroughly obtainable, because she is sexually available, if only by proxy.
The motive power here, as in all fantasy, is that one is able to obtain the unobtainable. In this sense pornography appeals to the child within, who doesn't want to be told it can't have what it wants.
Referring to her customers, one prostitute said:
Some days, I just don't understand what they've come looking for; it takes four minutes... The main thing is what's going on in their heads, not what's actually going on in their bodies. On the one hand they just want to get it off; and on the other, they make a big song and dance about it in their fantasies; and they think it's one and the same thing. In actual fact, they can buy the chance of getting it off, but they never get all the rest, their fantasies. They must always be left unsatisfied.
It seems to me that this woman is saying something important about male sexuality. I think she means that the physical act of sex is not what her clients really want. That what they want more than the act of coitus is to experience the content of their fantasies. They want her to be the screen onto which they can project their fancies.
Idealisation of women
Most people think pornography degrades and dehumanises women. One could also argue the opposite view: that it is merely an extension into the realm of sexuality of the idealised (and unrealistic) image of woman presented in popular books, magazines, films and advertisements.
Pornographic images can be an embodiment of the inner image of the ideal woman (the anima) a man carries around inside him, and seeks outside himself. According to Jung, the integration of his inner feminine is one of the fundamental tasks of a man's psychological development. However, it is doubtful that pornography advances a man's development in this regard, since it reinforces an external orientation to the feminine.
Pornography is vicarious experience, and this is another key to understanding its power. It allows a man to indulge his fancies in complete safety and privacy. The shy, lonely man becomes an all-conquering Casanova in his imagination. It allows him to live "the unlived life", the road not taken, a life of extravagant sexual adventures. He can vicariously transcend his timidity as well as any social or sexual inadequacies. Pornography also allows him to experience excitement without involvement, which he may fear. Pornography is sex at its safest.
Sex, as most men experience it in their lives, does not live up to the standards set by Playboy magazine, Hollywood films and other providers of male fantasies. Viewing pornography can be a replacement for the idealised sexual experience that is difficult or impossible to realise in real life.
Pornography does for men what romantic novels of the Mills and Boon type do for women. The women's books provide an idealised fantasy of romantic love, pornography gives men the fantasy of idealised sex.
It is a sad truth, but it is easier to abandon oneself to passion in one's imagination than it is to do so in reality. A man can blame the lack of passion in his life on his partner and take recourse to fantasy. Accordingly, the actors in a pornographic movie are required to show maximum passion. The vicarious thrill of pornography is analogous to how people experience excitement and romance by watching an escapist film, rather than in their own lives. The life of the middle-class person in an affluent society is ruled by an aspiration to security and stability. The price for this is a lack of adventure, excitement, passion. Pornography is one of the consolations for paying this price. It represents totally safe sexual adventure.
Since men's ideas of masculinity, and hence of identity, are intimately bound up with their sexuality, pornography deals in powerful material indeed. In particular, the man watching a pornographic movie identifies with the priapic figure on the screen.
Another reason for the appeal of pornography is that it caters to specific sexual preferences, ones that society at large condemns as perversions. These include bondage, anal sex, transvestism, foot fetishism, homosexuality (can you imagine a photograph of men kissing in a 'normal' magazine?), group sex, and many others - a cavernous cellar full of sexual 'deviance'. Perhaps this is the key word - social mores still label departures from normality (whatever that may mean) as deviant, dirty or perverted. Apparently, fellatio is still illegal in Alabama, where a man was gaoled for inducing his wife into doing it. So it is little wonder that a large section of the male population, who desire what others may consider abnormal, becomes a ready market for pornography. It allows these men to vicariously fulfil the sexual desires which they are not able to satisfy in real life.
Most men have specific sexual turn-ons, such as black net stockings, and these are also catered for. Not to mention the obvious - that the sight of a beautiful, unclothed woman in a suggestive pose is sexy to most men. Most so-called normal men are excited by photos showing sexual intercourse. It is a fallacy to think that pornography is of interest only to people who are in some sense deviant. Few people would claim that the sex act is ugly in itself, so why can't photographs of it be beautiful? If there were no stigma attached to pornography, it is likely that it would interest many men who are currently repelled by its raincoat image.
Lure of the extreme
A major reason why pornography is exciting is that it takes male turn-ons to their extremes, showing orgies and exaggerated or unusual sexual acts. Some of the variations are startling. In fact pornography feeds on itself, arousing an appetite for ever more outrageous acts.
Unlike chocolate, pornography never satisfies. If a particular example is exciting then it merely creates the desire for more and better. No pornographic image is ever satisfying in itself, in the way that a beautiful painting is. Pornography is addictive because it always promises more than it can deliver.
It can never really deliver because a representation of a sexual act, however explicit, can never substitute for the real experience.
Before we condemn pornography as socially undesirable, it is advisable to enquire why people want it, what needs it fills, and why. There is a parallel with the battle against narcotics. No amount of customs surveillance or spraying of opium crops in South America will solve the drug problem in the West, so long as a large section of society has a strong need for drug-induced experience. In other words, we need to ask, "What is it about society that gives rise to the need for pornography?" It is better to look for causes than to fight symptoms.
Although our society is still puritanical, a man's sexual expectations are frequently stimulated by TV, books, magazines, and alluringly dressed women in the street. Pornography is born of this tension. It reverses the negative sexual conditioning we are all subject to. This raises the question: which does more harm, commercialised erotic stimulation or anti-life prudery?
Due to the battle of the sexes, a man's own inhibitions and limitations, and other factors, male sexual desires are not fully met in reality. Pornography allows a man to vicariously live out his dreams, and to experience his turn-ons. It can also act as a safety valve. Ultimately, pornography gives a man the message that his inner erotic life is acceptable.