Not Oprah’s Book Club: Getting Off

getting off.jpgFor most of my young life, I’ve avoided thinking about or watching pornography. Sure there was that time that my gal pals and I got a porn flick in a hotel room on spring break “just to see� or the afternoon Gareth and I spent researching feminist porn and finding scary titles like Dungeon Mistress. I’ve browsed and I like to check out Bust’s one-handed read, but generally I’ve steered clear of porn or, even, truth be told, erotica. (Somehow I even missed studying pornography in college or grad school.)
I never made a conscious decision; it was just one of those subconscious, self-protective moves. I think I sensed that there was a “point of no return� quality to being aware of what was really out there and I was scared to go down that road just as I was developing my sexual identity and getting involved in relationships (in my case, heterosexual).
But I’ve really loved Robert Jensen’s work on Alternet and I’m obsessed with masculinity studies, so when I saw that his new book was Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, I had to read it.
I was right about the “point of no return� thing…

Jensen’s book rocked my world. I don’t mean that in the sense that I LOVED it. I mean that in the sense that it totally shook the foundations of my understanding of men, women, contemporary culture, sex, porn etc. It made me question my previous assumptions about where we—the royal We—are with regards to sex and power. It made me question every single one of my guy friends (poor unsuspecting dudes) about their use of porn and what they thought it all meant. It made me, well, fucking sad.
In addition to some riveting personal essay writing about why he became interested in the topic etc., Jensen does a really rigorous analysis of the top selling films in heterosexual pornography today. His argument is that out of both “features� (soft core) and “gonzo� (hard core), a $10 billion annual industry, a few basic themes are common:

All women at all times want sex from all men;
Women like all the sexual acts that men perform or demand; and
Any woman who does not at first realize this can be easily turned with a little force. Such force is rarely necessary, however, for most of the women in pornography are the “nymphomaniacs� that men fantasize about

I won’t expose you to his analysis at length here, but suffice it to say that he reports such dialogue as this being heard: “Can these fuck toys be any dumber?� It’s not hard to guess that he takes this analysis and then projects it the contemporary landscape of sex, violence, and power more generally, rape culture, and continued repression of both men and women’s authentic selves (sexually and otherwise). Eventually he goes so far as to attest that “we live in a world that hates women.�
This is where I keep getting snagged in Jensen’s analysis. He is utterly convinced that we live in a culture that—by and large—wants to see women humiliated, submissive, and in pain. He argues for totally eradicating, not reforming, masculinity: “I cannot escape a simple conclusion: If men are going to be full human beings, we first have to stop being men.� His prose reeks of self-hate and desperation.
But this doesn’t ring true with my experience of the world today. Yes, there is still massive repression in various places and contexts. Yes, rape is still horrifyingly common and America, in particular, is totally screwed up about sex. But there have also been big changes in the way that women and men interact over the last few decades. There are some truly liberating porn films and erotica outlets (see Rachel Kramer Bussel’s work) putting women in charge of their own sexuality and giving them a setting within which to explore what feels good.
There are times when Jensen feels too eager to only see the evidence that supports his worldview, as opposed to being open to the contrary. I totally agree with him that the top selling films which he analyzes are horrifying and symptomatic of a culture that associates sex with humiliation, domination, and degradation. I totally agree with him that there are people—men in particular—who are not taking enough responsibility for aligning their sex lives with their values. And I totally agree with him that the associations men (and women) develop about sex while watching porn carry over into real life. I’ve never bought the idea that porn consumption has nothing to do with real sex.
He asks critical questions, like:

When a man who thinks of himself as one of the good guys engages in the habirtual use of misognynistic pornography, does it affect his attitude toward women and/or his sexual behavior?
Can the habitual use of pornography, given its addictive like qualities, lessen men’s ability to make meaningful intimate connections with a partner?
Why do some men find the infliction of pain on women during sexual activity either (1) not an obstacle to their ability to achieve sexual pleasure or (2) a factor that can enhance their sexual pleasure?
Of all the ways in which people might possibly understand and use sexuality in their lives, which are most consistent with human flourishing?

All great questions, BUT I don’t believe that masculinity is inherently evil or that there is no room for the representation of sex, or the so-called “objectification� of bodies. I know I get turned on by abstract images of beautiful bodies—both male and female; does that mean my mind has been infected by porn culture? It actually feels quite authentic and loving to me, not degrading as Jensen claims all images of body parts are.
And what about women (or men) who actually enjoy playful pain with their sex? Feminist erotica has plenty of painful play in it. Would Jensen argue that these women are self-hating? He doesn’t allow for much natural variation in what turns people on.
Still, Jensen has my number:

Men have a stake in believing that we are not really like that. Women have a stake in believing that men really don’t see them that way. For each party, facing the truth often feels as if it is too much to bear. So we turn away and pretend.

I’m not going to pretend anymore, thanks to Jensen, but I’m still trying to figure out where I can authentically stand on the issue—not out of a place of fear, not out of a place of ignorance, not out of a place of naivety, but also not out of a place of pessimism or intolerance. I want to keep having these dialogues, keep reading, and find my own truth about it. Anyone else have theirs’ figured out?
Next week: Woodward and Bernstein by Alicia Shepard and the week after that Women Who Light the Dark by Paola Gianturco.

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