PORN ULTIMATUM

Image: Egon Schiele, Self-portrait 1916

Last year, I gave up porn for Lent. The withdrawal was pretty brutal, but at the time, what struck me the most was how little sex had to do with it. That craving couldn’t be satisfied by sex, or even plain old masturbation – it was porn that I missed, and there’s nothing else like it.

Despite being someone who already thinks and talks quite a lot about the effect of porn on people, that revelation and this new, totally dominating thirst for something so mysteriously desirable gave me the willies. What had porn been doing to me all this time? But also, what had I been doing to people because of it?

The kind of porn I’ve always watched almost never features male actors – I find something uncomfortable, but also strangely unsatisfying, about the pure voyeurism of watching another man go at it. But luckily for me the Internet provides the opportunity to shop by category. It allows you, at the click of a mouse, to choose the actresses, the camera angles and the scenarios they’re put in: redhead, interracial, POV, public, ‘mother and daughter’, amateur… the list goes on. You can literally customise the subjects of your gaze.

In my case, this narrows my porn intake down to something quite dramatically removed from any sex I’m ever going to be able to have (unless I’m reincarnated as a busty collegiate who rekindles their teen crush, with steamy consequences). But it also shows how detached the act of watching porn is from the actualities of sex. I have a friend who only watches porn in high definition – he says the rest just doesn’t do it for him anymore. Anyone who’s seen the kind of porn they film in HD will know how little ‘reality’ is on offer there. Another friend with a big, high-res desktop Mac, likes to run several movies all at once, in a kind of porn collage where you can adjust the relative volumes, sizes, and elapsed times of each video – a sort of impressionistic erotic experience. Tellingly, he calls this a ‘hyper-wank’. It’s the sort of thing that would make postmodernists giddy.

What seems like a pretty straightforward transaction, a routine sating of the libido, is really nothing of the sort: however much we’d like to deny it, porn comes to dictate sex for us – and that’s saying nothing of what it does to our ideas of gender roles, the body and power relations in general.

There’s a moment in Slavoj Žižek’s 2006 documentary, A Perverts Guide to Cinema, where the Slovenian pop-philosopher gets to the heart of psychoanalysis: sex. “It’s never only me and my partner…there has to be some third imagined element…which enables me to engage in sexuality. If I may be a little bit impertinent and relate to an unfortunate experience probably known to most of us: how it happens that while one is engaged in sexual activity all of a sudden one feels stupid, one loses contact with it, as if ‘my God, what am I doing here? Doing these stupid repetitive movements’…”

On the one hand, it seems fair to say that the strongest candidate for where a lot of this ’third imagined element’ comes from is, you guessed it, porn. When a partner comes out with a line like (cringe alert – mum, stop reading) “I want to feel you come inside me”, this is exactly what happens to me. I am forced to step back to come face to face with the awkward truth of the fantasy, and where it comes from.

More disturbingly, the reverse is also true. While we’re watching, we know it is just porn. But every now and then there is an equally uncanny moment that jars us out of our devouring voyeurism. The girls on screen suddenly shimmer with the gritty sharpness of their own reality: their off-screen reality as sex workers. A flood of background truths block out the desiring gaze; a shadow of the crew’s boom hovering over the zoomed-in cunnilingus, the burly directors’ interjections between cuts (“do that again babe, only harder”), the flicker of hesitation on a less experienced actress’s face, thoughts of what lives have led them there from an early age. Poverty? Abuse? Trafficking?

Perhaps the most worrying part for me is that these sudden, sometimes violent intrusions of reality are rarely sufficient to counteract our enjoyment of porn. It would be naïve to assume that many people who watch it are unaware of the dark underbelly of the industry. So is it purely a case of ignoring the uncomfortable truth, or does it actually add to the fantasy? Is not part of the most perverse aspects of porn-voyeurism that exact, tacit complicity: a kind of sick pleasure in the degradation of the real, physical actress herself? You don’t really believe she’s enjoying it. That’s part of the appeal.

Of course I’m being contentious here. There are always counter-arguments and exceptions: the empowered sex worker who enjoys her job, the passivity of the sex addict, the fact that one in three porn viewers are female. But these are conversations that need to be had.

My point is not just that porn is addictive and that the Internet facilitates a glut of it – that should be obvious – but that we need to think about what it is about porn that addicts us. Neither am I saying that porn is necessarily bad – although without a doubt some porn seems especially dubious and harmful. But whether or not we think better porn needs making, with more female directors, or in a less seedy, underground context, the first step is taking a good look at our own consumption of it.

One article I read while writing this piece followed a relatively balanced, intelligent surveying of the facts and figures with this editorial postscript: “Disclaimer: The author did not watch porn while researching for this article.” Who knows whether the freelancer in question managed to make it through a dry day in the study without succumbing. But the fact is that this kind of ‘brush it under the carpet’ attitude towards porn is comically antiquated. We’re still watching porn (and by that I mean I am still watching porn) – it’s about time we got talking about it.