There's no reason to think porn is destroying men's ability to love women

Chris Hedges has a piece up at Truthdig about porn, which is really just about him channeling the arguments of Gail Dines, who is the go-to person when you want to dress up sex-phobic, paternalistic arguments as "feminism". His piece is almost laughably easy to punch holes in, starting with the fact that the peg is Fifty Shades of Grey, an R-rated movie that has little in common with "porn" as most people understand it. Then there's the fact that he zeroes in on some of the most violent porn without noting that most porn most people watch isn't really violent. And, of course, there's the big hole in their arguments that anti-porn feminists like Dines just somehow manage to keep forgetting to address: If porn, as Hedges and Dines argue, creates misogyny, then how is that the oppression of women is on the decline as access to porn is on the rise? We have more access to porn than any other period in history. At the same time, women have more access to power than in history. Any anti-porn argument that tries to yada yada that fact away is dumb and needs to be discarded with haste.


This kind of piece is why we can't have a decent feminist conversation about porn, by the way, because it makes it easy to write off criticisms of porn as more Dines-style prudery disguised as a kind of paternalistic feminism. Which is too bad, because it's also objectively true that there's a lot of misogynist porn out there. Anyone who denies that is arguing in just as much bad faith as Dines and Hedges here. But I think that this is easy enough to explain. Misogynist porn is a reactionary genre. There's a lot of men who resent having to live in a more feminist era and who wish that they lived in an era where women had to be more submissive in order to survive. And so, in the privacy of their own bedrooms, they fantasize about being able to put women in their place in a way that they can't get away with in real life. That, plus the fact that female sexuality is still demonized in our culture. A lot of sexist men harbor ugly thoughts about sexual women, believing they are bad and need to be punished---which is why we still have an anti-abortion movement in this country, duh. But they also feel sexual desire for women. So that comes out as fantasies about getting off while punishing women for being sexual at the same time. That people out there are willing to make money catering to this tangle of sex-negative, misogynist emotions a lot of men are feeling either secretly or not-so-secretly is of zero surprise to me.

I can see why Hedges and Dines elide that argument, because they want to create an argument for censoring and shaming porn use, and to create that sense of urgency, they have to argue that porn causes problems. Because if misogynist porn exists because it's responding to demand, then it's harder to argue that much good will come out of censoring porn, because you haven't really addressed the root causes that create the demand in the first place.

But what was really interesting in this is that Hedges, without meaning to, gave away the game with this: "There are few people on the left who grasp the immense danger of allowing pornography to replace intimacy, sex and love." With that, I realized that this was yet another person using the stance of concern about "debasing" women to cover for the true agenda, which is controlling women.

I've covered the Christian right and the anti-choice movement for years and years now. And while I firmly believe the movement is misogynist to its core, it's also critical to understand that they don't present that way. Instead, they present themselves as the protectors of women. The argument is that most sex is some kind of horrible debasement that men inflict upon women, and so, in order to protect women from debasement, sex has to be strictly regulated. Religious conservatives deny that they are anti-sex, saying that what they want is for sex to be about love. You know, for women's own good.

But, of course, what happens is that once you declare that sex must be for love or that it's illegitimate and debasing, you end up starting to regulate what loving sex looks like. And for "mysterious" reasons, somehow the things that get declared out-of-bounds due to their "debasing" nature are frequently the very things women need to enjoy sex. For instance, the Catholic Church argues that contraception makes sex cheap and debasing to women, and for sex to truly be loving, the couple has to be "open" to conception. Religious conservatives often make similar arguments about abortion, arguing that the availability of abortion allows men to debase women. That by forcing women to have babies, they will force men to marry them, which is supposed to somehow un-debase women. (How having someone reluctantly marry you is supposed to be dignified, I have no fucking clue.) This attempt to regulate sex to make it "loving" has also tended to mean, historically, policing actual behaviors in the bedroom, because a lot of the time, there's a sense that if sex is too hot or exciting, it can't be loving.  Again, no surprise that women are often the ones who are expected to give up a lot in order to keep sex from being "debased". Need a vibrator to get off? Too bad, because the sex police are quick to classify sex toys as "debasing". Indeed, I suspect one reason that a lot of women struggle to orgasm is because it's drilled into your head that sex is "about" love and affection and chasing your own orgasm is seen as petty and debasing behavior that distracts from the supposed true purpose of sex.

Yeah, so while it's complicated and there are a lot of sexual practices that are about debasing women and you are full well within your rights to be icked out if a guy presents them to you in bed, on the whole I've found that hand-wringing concerns about "debasing" women are usually little more than a cover story for the real agenda, which is trying to control women's sexuality through shaming and legislation. Sure, a lot of the arguments present themselves as attempts to control male sexuality, by arguing that men are pigs and need women to keep them on the straight and narrow. (Which is basically what Dines and Hedges are doing.) But this construction is just a feint, because inevitably the efforts to keep men from being pigs all focus on restricting and controlling women's sexuality, on the grounds that this is supposedly the only way to get men to act right. So, for instance, because men supposedly won't marry unless they have to, women's access to contraception is restricted to force men to marry. Funny how ostensible efforts to control men always end up being about controlling women, isn't it?

Not that controlling men is something we should want, either. It's just that most of the ostensible efforts to control male sexuality are feints to control female sexuality. For instance, the argument that men are only interested in fuck-and-run and need to be controlled in order to get them to commit is hoary bullshit that has no real evidence in the real world. It was clearly a myth created in order to excuse misogynist efforts to control women by pretending that it's about men.

You see how this plays out in Hedges's piece. While it's ostensibly a lament about how male sexuality is out of control and needs to be reined in, it's actually pegged to Fifty Shades of Grey, which is a movie aimed at a female audience. The claim that he wishes to control men to protect women is belied by the fact that most of the proposed solutions to the supposed problem are all centered around controlling women's choices. That's how these things always work. Men's desires are held out as the problem, but the solution somehow always manages to be centered around what women are supposed to do: Boycott Fifty Shades, lower our hemlines, read more Andrea Dworkin, whatever.

The alliance between Dines/Hedges's version of feminism and a more traditionally sexist view of gender relations, however, was most evident to me in this quote from Dines: "Studies are showing that boys are losing interest in sex with real women. They can’t sustain erections with real women." She cites no actual studies or evidence of this. But what's interesting about her argument is it's completely indistinguishable from Christian right arguments on this subject. The primary reason men in Christian right circles are told to avoid porn and masturbation is that it will turn them off to their wives. In other words, both Dines and her Christian right fellows assume that sex with a real life woman is like kale and porn is like cake, and the only way to make men eat their vegetables is to cut them off from what they really want. As with the arguments against legal abortion, the underlying assumption is that men will only be with women under duress, and that women can never really expect true affection and desire for a man, but only grudging attention given because he doesn't have better options. 

While I do think that there are some men who could benefit from rejiggering their expectations about what women are supposed to look and be like, I also think it's not good for women to back this message that we are so personally undesirable that the only way to get men to be interested in us is to coerce them by eliminating options. There's a reason that sexists love to push the message that women are the ones who want marriage and men are only frog-marched into it under duress. If the marriage is understood as the thing she wants and he doesn't, well, he gets to keep the upper hand while she has to do all the work to maintain the marriage. After all, she's supposedly the only one who has something to lose, right? This is just more of the same. Telling women that our male partners don't really want us but are secretly wishing that they could leave our beds to jerk off to porn is a way to keep women insecure, grasping, and afraid.

It's also complete bullshit. All men look at porn. All of them. But plenty of men look at porn and then turn around and want to have sex with their wives and girlfriends all the same. That is not because they are frog-marching themselves into bed, wishing every step of the way that they had their computers instead. There's plenty of sexist material out there encouraging women to think their male partners always have one foot out the door so we should give up on our careers and hobbies in order to constantly trying to cajole and flatter him to talk him into staying. Women don't need so-called feminists telling them the same thing.