the abuse of feeling

On the inherent misogyny and racism in heterosexual internet porn consumption


One of the most interesting conversations I come across in academic circles is the thin line between the erotic and the pornographic. Whether we’re talking about Audre Lorde’s seminal essay “Uses of the Erotic” or we’re analyzing the often over-looked pear-tree/masturbation scene in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or the scandalous and somewhat explicit carriage sex scene in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the relationship between the explicit utilization of human sexuality for artistic expression and the commodification of the human body for sexual exploration lies on the frontier of a greater conversation of the relationship between consumers and the worlds which their texts seek to reproduce. Issues of sex, having become only in the 20th century somewhat normalized to the point of being even considered for discussion in academic circles, still remain somewhat relegated to intellectual niches because of the ways we are socialized to shrink from such conversations. We talk vividly about our sexual encounters with one another in private, but in the professionalized space of the seminar room, conversations on the implications of sexuality and sexual expression are often considered inappropriate.

Yet, there is so much to be discussed in this area, in particular in the area of media and cultural studies. Through the globalizing media of television, film and the Internet, sexuality is becoming more and more a part of our everyday lives, our happenstance conversations in passing, the ways by which we judge our character and self-worth as individuals. We are becoming increasingly cognizant of the impacts of sexual violence and harassment, are having more and more conversations on the implications of sexual advances on those who do not or cannot offer their consent, and are all around growing towards dispelling a general theme at the heart of the heterosexual experience – the male domination of women.

Let’s further this conversation through the lens of pornography, and the inherent misogyny at the heart of porn consumption and production. Although the word pornography has many historical and lexical meanings, I will define it here for the purpose of being clear as video portraying sexual activities for the express purpose of inciting sexual arousal. I find that this definition encompasses the particular examples I have in mind, while also eliminating the quasi-elitist and unquantifiable qualification that pornographic materials have inherently no artistic value, a condition which really means nothing, since artistic value, in general, is entirely subjective.

If you ask the average person when they first saw a pornographic film, they’ll likely say around the age of 10 or 11. It happens usually in similar circumstances – an older sibling is watching and you watch on over their shoulder, confused at the seemingly undefinable images in front of you. Another example: at a sleepover, the other girls crowd around a laptop watching two people wrestle with one another, unclothed. One more: browsing the internet, a popup appears showing a scantily clad woman and the words “Talk to local whores now” imposed over her body. Whatever your introduction to porn is, it usually happens at a time in your development when you really lack the tools to comprehend what it is you are seeing. You may have heard about sex from a friend, but it nonetheless remains in the abstract; an action between adults, involving genitalia in some way, that may result, in fortunate or unfortunate circumstances, in pregnancy. Beyond this, the act is as mysterious as death – an inevitability for everyone, but nonetheless a vague reality which at a young age is simply unfathomable.

At such a young age, a child is still in the process of being socialized to interact with the world around them. Opinions are still being formed about issues, personalities develop and moral codes are solidified while the brain literally continues to swell and grow and change inside a skull slowly in the process of expansion. The titanic and grotesque process of growing is still underway, bodily and psychically, and the introduction of this new media – a media which for some is subjugating, for others liberating – throws off the balance of the sexual development of a child so easily. Visual media of any kind is stimulating – we feel things when we watch television which we do not feel when we read books or listen to music. The titillation of sexual imagery, which many of our minds, naturally, react to with arousal, compacted within the visual media of a video, easily accessible through the Internet, does something irreversible to the onlooker in that moment. In a moment, it says “This is it. This is the “sex” thing people keep talking about.” And once that moment happens, it is almost impossible for you to look back.

I made an effort in the previous paragraphs to be inclusive, for 1/3 pornography users are women, but the consumption and production of pornography is vastly a male domain. Women are perhaps the primary protagonists of the majority of the pornographic videos produced and released, for these industries tend to cater to heterosexual viewers, but even the centrality of the woman as the primary protagonist is only within the guise of a male gaze. The pornstar may be the selling point, bringing in the customers off of her name recognition, but the story truly revolves around the male participant, be him unknown or not. Some male pornstars are quite prolific, even branching out of the seedy underbelly of media production which is the porn world into the public limelight, where they are often revered as sexual icons. The relationship to the male pornstar and the viewer is vastly empathetic; their personalities matter very little, and it is often unnecessary for them to have any lines at all. They serve only as an avatar for the male onlooker, an artifice onto which the onlooker projects himself in order to “insert” himself into the drama of the film itself. The phallus, often grossly oversized, creates an image of inadequacy in the young onlooker’s mind – “this is what I should look like.” On the reverse, the young girl watching the video sees her counterpart, the busty woman with perfect skin and a hairless pubic area, and sees herself as unattractive in comparison. The normalization of these body images in the millions of pornographic videos available online only grounds these concepts further, making them even harder to shake off when it comes time to actually engage in one’s own sexual encounters. One finds that sex, based on what they have seen, is far different, far less violent, and far more vulnerable an act that it appears in the videos. It is far less theatrical, far less scripted, and does not seem to be as natural as it seems. One keeps in mind “What did ________ do at this point?” or “I want to try this position that I saw in a movie once.” The act of sex itself becomes circumstantial, as meaningless in life as it appears to be in the countless of videos which play in quick succession in one’s mind as they lie motionless in the bed, waiting for the sunrise.

Pornography caters to a particular audience, centralizing its production around that gaze. Prioritizing the tastes and fantasies of men over women, some of the most popular of the genres in pornography involve the subservience and fetishizing of the subaltern. From the vicariousness of the POV genre, which takes my avatar metaphor to newer heights by completely removing the male actor’s face and character, relegating him into nothing more than virtual phallus, to the often exotic narratives of the Interracial, allowing white men to live out their colonial fantasies of bedding Indian and Japanese and African-American women, to the voyeurism of watching “pure” Ebony porn, of black male and female actors going at it for the distanced arousal of the white onlooker, pornography consumption raises several questions about the white and/or male gaze and its consequential impact on the way we interact with women in general and women of color in particular. What does it mean to have the POV shot of the Black woman performing oral sex on a white body? This is a reality for many interracial couples, but the racial fantasy which the video seeks to excite in a way reaffirms narratives of slavery and bondage which go back centuries. The oriental lust for the Japanese geisha or the sari-wearing Desi woman creates a dangerous image which we interact with in small but meaningful doses. Slowly, as the child develops with pornography as his primary outlet for sexual curiosity and frustration, he keeps in his mind these orientalist, colonialist and ultimately misogynistic fantasies into his adulthood, a time when his body’s lunge forward slows and his willingness to learn becomes increasingly less elastic.

I am not the first person to say that pornography is dangerous for the way we view women, or sexuality, or women of color, nor am I the first person to discuss the detriments which a premature exposure to pornography places in our minds. Yet, as I attempt to write this message from a feminist perspective, I only seek to argue that we should be more conscious of the ways we interact with pornography, and cognizant of our unwillingness to discuss sex. The idea that children are so easily corruptible is dashed when we consider how much the internet is becoming an important part of child development, and that we as parents and loved ones cannot police our children’s exploration of the world and themselves. As men, we must begin to separate the world of fantasy which pornography seeks to tap into from the reality of persons and bodies which exists in this world, finite and tangible. We must be aware that the porn industry, while catering to all kinds of people, prioritizes a specific, critical mass, the likes of which is so socialized to view sex as the ultimate prize that they become blind to the ways which sex is but another means of subjugation. We must be more aware of the space our bodies take up, and the right to pleasure and freedom which our partners share with us, that the world we live in is not about subservience, but about compromise.

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