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If these things come in threes, I got another one coming, Disco Ball help us

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 15:03 EDT
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Brian Beutler found a gem from Ross Douthat that is a perfect example of how anti-choice scolds easily outclass pornographers in the art of reducing women to mindless sex objects. Douthat is trying to collapse the difference between cheating on your wife and watching pornography while you masturbate.

Start with the near-universal assumption that what Spitzer did in his hotel room constituted adultery, and then ponder whether Silda Spitzer would have had cause to feel betrayed if the FBI probe had revealed that her husband had paid merely to watch a prostitute perform sexual acts while he folded himself into a hotel armchair to masturbate. My suspicion is that an awful lot of people would say yes—not because there isn’t some distinction between the two acts, but because the distinction isn’t morally significant enough to prevent both from belonging to the zone, broadly defined, of cheating on your wife.

You can see where I’m going with this. If it’s cheating on your wife to watch while another woman performs sexually in front of you, then why isn’t it cheating to watch while the same sort of spectacle unfolds on your laptop or TV? Isn’t the man who uses hard-core pornography already betraying his wife, whether or not the habit leads to anything worse?

Brain teases out one difference.

I think he’s pretty clearly making a false comparison here–paying a prostitute to perform sexual acts in front of you is still prostitution (a real human-to-human transaction even in the absence of exchanged bodily fluids) while watching porn is a fully virtual experience–an aid, of sorts, to indulging a fantasy.

Yes, the difference is that having sex with someone—and touching yourself in front of someone is having sex with them—is about human interaction between two people. And women count as people, whose thoughts and feelings are relevant during a sexual interaction. Watching a performer perform, especially on camera, is a one-way street. Yes, the actresses in porn are having sex—with the actors and, if you want to get philosophical about it, with the other people in the room while they’re doing it. But they aren’t having sex with you, the viewer. And men who forget the difference between staring at an image onscreen and interacting with someone sexually—i.e. men who have completely reduced women to sex objects—are the ones who end up checking out of relationships with real women and masturbating to porn all the time and going to porn conventions, because attainable sex objects (they’ve ceased to be women) at home fail to be as plastic or perform as dramatically as the sex objects on screen and are deemed inferior. These are the guys that are irritated that the sex objects around them can’t stick to the script, but keep insisting on breaking character to express their own feelings. Douthat’s example of the dangers of porn—Peter Cook, Christie Brinkley’s ex-husband—strikes me as an example of the dangers not of masturbation, but of being unable to realize that women are human beings, not just visual and tactile aids for masturbation, which causes the real women in your life, especially your wife with her snoring and her opinions, to seem like a broken appliance instead of a person.

Masturbation, even with the visual aid of porn involving real people, is having sex with yourself. Reasonable people don’t consider this cheating, because you’re not sharing something with someone else that you and your partner have deemed exclusive. That’s not true if you go to a prostitute, who is being paid not to simulate or project a fantasy for you, but to share in it with you. If you think of women as human beings whose level of participation in an event matters, this is pretty obvious. If you don’t, what’s cheating and what’s not becomes more confusing, I’m sure. (As does the difference between having sex with someone and sexually assaulting them.) You have to make a list of acceptable objects that you can be looking at or touching when you orgasm (wife, yes, any other flesh-bound female object, no, because god says so), because the difference between sharing sex and just getting off has collapsed, and sexual intercourse, even with a loved one, is a form of masturbation.

By the way, these lines between shared and performed emotions and events are, while fun for artists to blur, understood in non-sexual areas. Watching someone make a movie about her pain is observing a performance, but listening to the same woman confess her pain to you, even if you’re just a stranger in a bar, is a shared experience. It’s an interesting question to ask why a camera or a stage and a large audience move something from shared experience to performance, but we don’t need to know why or how it works to understand that it does. And this distinction is fairly well understood. And beware a guy who can’t tell the difference between a fantasy recorded onscreen as a performance and an interaction with a flesh and blood woman, because he’s got problems understanding that women aren’t objects.

I will say the statistics the Douthat whips out are interesting:

A survey of American college students last year found that 70 percent of the women in the sample never looked at pornography, compared with just 14 percent of their male peers; almost half of the men surveyed looked at porn at least once a week, versus just 3 percent of the women.

Like I’ve said before—and contrary to the hopes of men who show up in comments and wax poetic about how we ladies can never understand how lust feels when these porn discussions turn up—the difference isn’t because women don’t enjoy fantasy when they masturbate or that women don’t masturbate. It’s that misogyny is such a standard feature in a lot of porn that women are turned off by it. I wish more men were, too, of course, but alas, if it’s not you that’s being hated on in a video then it’s a lot easier to overlook the hate. (And then there’s the men who need the hate.) The explosion of written porn from erotica to romance novels that cater to women throws a wrench in the whole “men just have this lust thing, you see” argument.

What I also found interesting is that Douthat argues with Dan Savage on whether or not women should just accept that men look at porn and get over it. It’s clear that Douthat thinks he’s being more generous to women is saying that you shouldn’t get over it, and that in fact, you’re a better person if you constantly fight with a man over this and try to tame his uglier man instincts.

Yes, adultery is inevitable, but it’s never been universal in the way that pornography has the potential to become—at least if we approach the use of hard-core porn as a normal outlet from the rigors of monogamy, and invest ourselves in a cultural paradigm that understands this as something all men do and all women need to live with…..

Rather, it’s about what sort of people we aspire to be: how we define our ideals, how we draw the lines in our relationships, and how we feel about ourselves if we cross them.

It sounds high minded on paper, but practically speaking, Douthat is establishing the same old gender roles where men get to push the lines and women have to spend all our time as fun-free nags. Savage is being pushy and obnoxious in telling women just to get over it, mostly for the sake of humor, but his is actually a more generous view of women than Douthat’s. Savage’s point comes from a belief that women have better things to do than police our partners’ imaginations. It also comes from a belief that women do and should masturbate, and that fantasy is also a part of women’s masturbatory habits, and any man who would try to deprive his girlfriend of a vibrator because he was jealous would get the same smackdown from Savage. To allow someone else to have a private sexual life all by themselves isn’t to coddle people who reject their chosen partners as insufficient to fantasy objects.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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