My Take on “Pornified”

I’ve been trying to write something about this book for weeks. The library wants it back in a bad way, so please forgive me if this analysis isn’t up to my usual standards.

What I like/what is important about this book:
1. The title is great. It seems to me we’ve needed a concise verb for what’s been done to sexuality in this culture, and “pornified” is definitely it.

2. The cover art is great. It’s way more evocative than the poor choice of the “mudflap” girl used on the cover of Ariel Levy’s book.

3. The fact that Paul commissioned her own study for the book. These numbers are really important and seriously augment her argument. In particular, straight women who have or want to have relationships with men ought to read this book, because Paul demonstrates well that most women don’t really know what’s going on with their male partners’ porn use–because the men keep it from them. It’s also interesting to observe that, in spite of all the anecdotal evidence that younger men are “less misogynist,” they are many times more likely than older men to be using hardcore pornography. I think it’s great that the men of my generation and younger sometimes help out in the kitchen or with the kids, or supposedly aren’t threatened by female bosses, but if they’re whacking off every night to violent porn, I’m not sure I consider them a serious generational triumph over misogyny. While I wonder if Paul’s sample isn’t skewed to the middle- to upper-middle class, it’s profoundly disturbing to realize not only how many men routinely watch hardcore pornography, but that they’ll use any excuse in the book to justify using porn and hiding this use from the women they say they love.

4. Paul’s discussion of and arguments against those pornography proponents who cry “censorship!” at the drop of the hat and oppose any and all restrictions on pornography under the guise of “free speech.” Arguably the best, most radical paragraph in the book:

More than a form of speech, pornography is a commercial product, manufactured and distributed by companies from one entrepreneur to huge corporations, and subject to the rules and ethics that govern commerce, not communication. Is oil censored? Are guns censored? Pharmaceuticals? Name a business in America that is not subject to trade regulations, taxes, zoning restrictions, pricing controls, distribution limitations. Asking an adult to punch in credit card numbers in order to access material is as much censorship as asking a youthful-looking adult trying to purchase cigarettes for proof that he or she is over eighteen. (p 254)

Where this book falls short:
1. The extensive use of the concept of addiction to explain men’s use of porn. I think this functions in this context as an excuse for inexcusable behavior, an attempt to garner sympathy rather than to hold men accountable for their use of pornography. Pornography use may be compulsive, one may become sensitized to the material such that it’s necessary for sexual function (in fact, Paul describes many situations in which this happens), but that doesn’t mean it’s an addiction like, say, alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal can kill you. Refusing to use pornography may be uncomfortable, giving it up may have a negative effect on sexual function for some time, but it’s not a death sentence, and I want to be very clear that it is possible to change one’s sexual behavior (which this book touches on but does not emphasize), and that in fact sexual justice and the end to oppression require that we change what we’ve been taught to turn on to.

2. The failure to point out that sex that’s “enjoyable” isn’t really enjoyable if you don’t like it. Let me explain. Paul gives several examples of men discussing the conflict between their beliefs about the equality of the sexes, and their enjoyment of (especially) violent and degrading pornographic images. They’ll say things like, “It was just an enjoyable fantasy; women shouldn’t be treated that way in real life.” Leaving aside the fact that someone somewhere treated a real live woman that way to make that image, I submit that if your head doesn’t like a fantasy, then it wasn’t, in fact, enjoyable, even if you had an orgasm. There’s this weird disconnect that’s acceptable, even compulsory, in sex-libertarian circles, which is to privilege sexual arousal and orgasm over thoughts and feelings of discomfort about the stimulus which arouses. This is ridiculous, as if your thoughts, feelings and values aren’t as important a part of you as your dick or your vulva. This attitude perpetuates all variety of alienated sexual behavior. The sexual experiences we should be wanting are the ones in which we don’t have to deny any part of who we are–where all people involved are treated in ways that satisfy our brains, our hearts, and our genitals.

3. The usual “I’m not one of those crazy radical feminists so don’t just dismiss me out of hand!” disclaimer, which Paul goes for on page 259, writing “women on the Left [sic] focus their sights on a legal battle against pornography, and in gathering their arguments and their statistics ignore anyone who rejects the idea that all women are victims and all sex is rape.” I’ll just ignore the fact, for the moment, that I don’t know any women on the Left who are anti-pornography, and refer you instead to this wonderful interview with Andrea Dworkin, wherein she refutes that annoying statement about “all sex is rape” which is usually attributed to her:

My point was that as long as the law allows statutory exemption for a husband from rape charges, no married woman has legal protection from rape. I also argued, based on a reading of our laws, that marriage mandated intercourse–it was compulsory, part of the marriage contract. Under the circumstances, I said, it was impossible to view sexual intercourse in marriage as the free act of a free woman. I said that when we look at sexual liberation and the law, we need to look not only at which sexual acts are forbidden, but which are compelled.  I think the social explanation of the “all sex is rape” slander is different and probably simple. Most men and a good number of women experience sexual pleasure in inequality. Since the paradigm for sex has been one of conquest, possession, and violation, I think many men believe they need an unfair advantage, which at its extreme would be called rape. I don’t think they need it. I think both intercourse and sexual pleasure can and will survive equality.

There it is. That’s what Dworkin said. I don’t know any antipornography activist who has ever said that all sex is rape. So just stop slinging that particular handful of mud, okay?

4. Paul’s confused about “harm.” Practically her entire book is about the harm that pornography causes. But because the harm she’s talking about is done to men–the poor boys can’t have good relationships!–and only by extension to the (middle class) women she wants them to have relationships with, well, it must be different from that kind of harm that those crazy feminists keep trying to prove porn causes, because we all know it doesn’t do that!

‘Harm’ legally must be proved, thus opponents spend their time trying to show that pornography inevitably leads to violence, that pornography causes men to rape. The backflips of logic and evidence required to make that point strike most people, and most courtrooms, as unpersuasive. (p 259)

So which is it? Is porn harmful, or isn’t it? Is porn’s only damage what it does to men’s ability to relate to women? What about Charlie, on page 201, whose use of child porn causes him to consider raping his 14-year-old niece? Does Paul really believe he’s the only one? Apparently she’s not familiar with the testimony from the Minneapolis hearings regarding the Dworkin/MacKinnon antipornography ordinance*, because that testimony is chock full of the stories of women who were harmed in exactly the ways the men who hurt them saw in pornography, and often very soon after, or even during, the time the men used the pornography. How many men will hurt a woman in a way he’s seen in porn, before pornography is acknowledged as a cause of sexual violence? Does every man who looks at porn have to become a rapist for this culture to agree that porn is double plus ungood? This “porn is harmful this way, but not that way” or “only this kind of harm counts as harm” argument is a pretty fabulous backflip of logic on Paul’s part, if you ask me–she critiques pornography proponents who argue that “all porn is good all the time” but yet doesn’t want to admit that even if men who use porn rape only some of the time, it still implicates porn in sexual violence. This second attempt to distance herself from what she apparently sees as a “too radical” (i.e., feminist) approach to critiquing pornography only weakens her argument and confuses the reader.

5. But, you know, there is a way to understand exactly what’s going on in this book–and that’s by taking a good hard think at one tiny sentence on page 262: “Pornography has burst out of the container that civilized society once placed it in for the good of both adults and children.” So what Paul is saying, with all her statistics and her in-depth interviews and her critique of the anticensorship argument, is that she wants to go back to the good ol’ days when that kind of woman was contained, separated out from “civilized society.” The crux of Paul’s problem with pornography is not that it exists, that it demeans women, that it feeds sex trafficking and prostitution and rape and child abuse–it’s that it’s no longer confined to seedy adult movie theaters and red light districts. It’s now impacting the lives and relationships of white middle- and upper-class women and children, not just the underclass of women that has been maintained by patriarchy for the sexual use of middle- and upper-class men. And the universalizing of porn, its routine presence in the middle-class Amerikan home–rather than the myriad other harms of pornography–is not to be tolerated. Because Paul is unable or unwilling to see that the containment of porn is and always has been a myth in a misogynist society, where men have rarely been stopped from using women and children of their class and lower in any way they saw fit, she can’t really understand that she’s participating in the same madonna-whore dichotomizing of women that underpins pornography, and patriarchy.

So, to sum up, this is an interesting book. Paul has some good points to make but is afraid of going too far, and that weakens her work. Still, I’m hopeful that the publication of Pornified and Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs is an indication that the tide is turning in our alienated sexual culture, that the pendulum will soon swing back to the critique and rejection of male-defined sexual practices. On the other hand, that would be an indication that such practices have become so accepted and entrenched a part of public culture that critiquing them can now be seen as cool, unusual, and cutting edge. So that’s a bittersweet hope at best.
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*Pornography and Sexual Violence: Evidence of the Links published in the UK by Everywoman Press

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