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I t is no secret that we understand the genitals as summing up our entire person, as metonymic symbols for our whole selves. Lovers say, “I want you inside me.” This is not a euphemism for “I want your penis inside of my vagina” — the two phrases do not have the same meaning. The latter takes the penis and the vagina as distinct objects — tools that a person has and extremities that he or she operates. The former use of “you” and “me” takes the genital organs as symbols of the self, representing and summing up the total person signified by the words.

Metonymic vision allows sense to be found in otherwise puzzling terms. The pornographic use of the word “cum” is simply a misspelling of “come,” a word for orgasm that has puzzled linguists and etymologists. Early erotic use can be traced to the 17th century, but there is nothing particularly “pornographic” about it; a genital organ cannot “come,” cannot “arrive.” It can only “come” if it is an icon for an entire act, describing the person who “arrives” in fullness at the completion of the sexual act. “I want you to arrive inside of me” might sound like a vague description of an awfully specific action, but when we are describing the total person — rather than the detached genital action — the phrase takes on an unmistakable specificity.

The French description of the orgasm as le petit mort — the little death — and the antiquated English use of the same metaphor is further linguistic evidence of the self-symbolizing status of the genital organs: “to die” as “to orgasm” only makes sense if we consider the genital feeling and activity as an unlocalized act of the entire person who can “die,” become empty, become full, and so on.

It’d be silly, of course, to imagine that the genital organs “represent the self” in a static sense — as if the genitals served the same function as a graduation photograph; as if a woman could look down in the shower and say, “Ah, yes, there I am.” The genital organs act as an icon of the self in the specifically erotic case of self-gift. If this seems like an overly complex way of explaining it, consider an analogous example: hand-holding.

When we are touched, we do not take the hand as a solitary object, saying, “your hand touched me.” Like the genital organs, the hand becomes an icon for the person. We say, “you touched me.”

The part has been taken up into the self-gift of the human person, where it now serves as a sign, symbol, and sacrament of the whole person.

The hand does not “icon the person” in an autobiographical way, such that we might say, upon contact, “a 25-year-old Irish woman touched me.” The hand symbolizes the person in the meaning of her act of touching — delivering the love, hate, or indifference of the touching person.

We do not “deduce” the intentions of the person “through” the movements of their hands, such that we might say, “I see that you are interlocking your fingers with mine, and I know this gesture to be a cultural sign of affection; therefore, I conclude that your hand gesture means that you love me.” To think in this way would be ridiculously circuitous and detached. Rather, we feel the intentions of the person, given by her hands. When a lover grasps your hand, her hand symbolizes her whole person in her expression of love, and you understand this with an immediate intuition.

It would be useless to correct the lovers, to say, “You’re technically incorrect. You do not want ‘you’ inside ‘me,’ you want a part of you inside a part of me.” While it may be appropriate for an age hell-bent on the crude biologization of sexuality, such practical corrections are ultimately impractical. It would be foolish to call a smile just “a baring of the teeth” — so it is foolish to call the genital organs just “a part.” The part has been taken up into the self-gift of the human person, where it now serves as a sign, symbol, and sacrament of the whole person. This is a welcome change. Without it, the genitals often appear disgusting.

What Is Disgust?

Things that are bad through and through do not to disgust us. Good things “going bad” disgust us — a basket of red tomatoes gone to rot, a beautiful body unwashed and stinking, a priest or judge given to corruption. In each case, the emotion of disgust is a violent aversion to the presence of death in life, the worm in the apple — evil, alive, and grinning maliciously in the heart of the good.

Aurel Kolnai points this out in his phenomenology of disgust, and to it adds the following requirement: disgust is always occasioned by a nearness to the disgusting object. Knowing that an onion is rotting in the pantry is not enough to make us leap back wrinkle-nosed. There must be the threat, physical or spiritual, that the disgusting object will invade us. We must open the pantry door, smell the putrefaction, or feel the seepage give beneath our fingers — then we’ll gag.

Kolnai’s two requirements, proximity and the presence of death-in-life, are connected. The rotten apple was once good to eat; the corrupt priest is still employed in a good and holy office; the corpse still looks like the loved one who has died. We react against the proximity of the object, not because we would unequivocally hate to contact it, but because, on some level, we would still like to. Disgust reacts against the temptation to touch, ingest, or otherwise engage some evil that comes wrapped up in a good.

This explains why disgust can lead to retching, vomiting, leaping back, putting out our hands in self-defense. If we did not see anything good or desirable in the rotten apple, as it is, we retch, vomit, and expel the fluids in our stomach. We declare, with our bodies, the lingering possibility that we will put the rotten apple in our mouths. We declare, with our bodies, the temptation to touch the corpse in our act of leaping back from it.

It is a tendency within sexual love to work against absent-mindedness, concealing the vision of genitals as solitary objects, so that they might only appear as signs of the whole person.

The genital organs have the capacity to disgust us, because they also present the-bad-within-the-good. The genital organs are irretrievably connected with the processes of urination, defecation, and menstruation. The penis that gives pleasure also gives urine. The vagina that promises a sexual encounter could equally promise a flow of blood. Both are inches from the anus. The genitalia contain within themselves the simultaneous possibilities of death and life, illness and health, good and evil.

The End of Disgust

When the genital organs become icons for the entire person, the possibility of disgust is transcended. Considered as an expression of the person, they are limited in their meaning to what the person is doing. As the hand is the person in her act of love, hate, or indifference, so the genital organ is the person in her erotic act of self-gift. It is only by absent-mindedness — in which one “loses sight” of the person and begins considering the genitals as detachable objects — that one could consider them as the urinary, menstrual, anatomical, or aesthetic objects they are.

In his phenomenology of shame, Max Scheler points out that it is a tendency within sexual love to work against absent-mindedness, concealing the vision of genitals as solitary objects, so that they might only appear as signs of the whole person. The dark room, the “missionary position,” the cover, and, more generally, the effort to become “lost” in the sexual act are all choices intended to prevent the genital organs from appearing as solitary objects. The desire for eye-contact and the sound of one’s first name is the desire for confirmation that it is the personal act of self-gift, and not the localized genital activity, that is the object of attention.

As an analogy, consider kissing. The mouth is an organ that, as an object, contains multiple meanings. If, in the act of kissing, one does not perceive the mouth in its erotic meaning, one risks disgust. If the mouth is not absorbed into the erotic intentions of the kissing person, it will remain an ambiguous organ of mastication, saliva production, and breath. The kisser will be “too aware” of the lips as lips, the tongue as a tongue. Instead of kissing “you,” she will end up kissing a mouth that chews, spits, and coughs. The cultural taboo against keeping one’s eyes open during a kiss has been poorly explained as the intentional neglect of a visual task to “improve tactile sensation.” This may be the case, but it also serves the same function that darkness serves sex — by taking attention away from the mouth as a solitary object, the mouth is revealed in its strictly erotic meaning, signifying the person in the act of self-gift.

In a similar way, considering the genital organs as solitary objects, separate from the person, and the sex act risks inciting disgust. When genitals are not taken up into the erotic intentions of the person, they remain ambiguous sites of multiple meanings, attracting some and repulsing others.

If arousal suppresses disgust, and porn looks disgusting after arousal, doesn’t it follow that pornography was always disgusting to begin with? Why, then, did it not appear disgusting in the first place?

The idea that the genital organs can disgust may seem like a wrinkle-nosed puritanism creeping out from the “religious guilt” corner of the modern psyche. Nevertheless, the curious connection of sex and disgust is making a comeback. In various internet forums, where young men go to attain wisdom, the question is being asked: Why does porn look disgusting after I masturbate?

The answer usually given is that arousal suppresses disgust. But if arousal suppresses disgust, and porn looks disgusting after arousal, doesn’t it follow that pornography was always disgusting to begin with? Why, then, did it not appear disgusting in the first place?

The porn star has one basic task: to expose his genitals to an anonymous audience in a manner that audience can enjoy. But he cannot simply “show them.” He must avoid the appearance of his genital organs as objects of disgust. If the genital organs risk disgusting an audience by virtue of their proximity to the functions of urination, defecation, and menstruation, then one must present them as not really having these functions. One must present them as magically limited to the erotic organ, by the force of arousal warding off any other conception. Obviously, he has no recourse to the transcendence of disgust that occurs within the intentional transformation of the sexual organ into an icon of the person in the act of self-gift. There is no person — a video or an image can only reveal a past event. There is no true act of affection — pornography is acting. There is no gift — a voyeur is not the recipient of the body of the viewed. One of the phenomenological differences between the arousal attained through pornography and the arousal of sexual love is this: In sexual love, disgust is transcended by a view which perceives the genitals in their erotic meaning, as icons of the person in his or her specific act of self-gift. In watching pornography, disgust is not transcended, but continuously suppressed by the maintenance of the illusion of a purely erotic organ.

The Porn World

Because arousal takes time, all pornography must have an introductory period in which an audience is allowed to transition from a view that sees the genital organs in their multiple meanings into a view that sees them as purely erotic organs. “Pop-up” pornography can disgust regular porn-watchers, not because it offends their moral sensibilities, but because it leaps upon an unaroused gaze that still sees the genital organs in their multiple meanings. To suppress the various meanings of the genitals, and render them unequivocally erotic, pornography creates a “porn world.”

A porn world is a fantasy world in which everything — every object, word, and minutia of gesture or dress — is arousing. Its objective is to render the unaroused gaze absurd — and thus to suppress any gaze that might see the genital organ as disgusting.

In the Cohen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, Maude shows the anti-hero, “the Dude,” the beginning of a pornography film entitled Logjammin’. In it, we see a woman answering the door. Of course, the view of a woman simply “answering the door” or being otherwise “about the house” must be infused with eroticism. A woman simply “about the house” may, in real life, be a woman who has to urinate, or who may be menstruating, or, most likely, may be having a lived bodily experience in which her genital organ is simply not present to her, just an assumed, vaguely felt component of her unerotic movements. To bracket these possible views, the porn world relegates to the erotic sphere that woman “about the house”; she arrives at the door already aroused. In Logjammin’, she is, inexplicably and unrealistically, already in lingerie. She moves with anticipation. She wears immaculately applied makeup. She answers the door with a seductive “hello,” and behind that door is a cable man, who is likewise already ordained to the sexual realm — already leering, moving in, aroused.

The porn world is safe. It is safe from the difficulties that come with the ambiguous genital organs and their myriad of acts. When a completely nude woman struts into the room and we hear, “Oh, that’s my friend Sherry, she just came over to use the shower,” Maude says to the Dude, “the story is ludicrous.” But, by the logic of the porn world, this entry is a triumph. That there is nothing odd about the sudden, moronically-explained entry of an impossibly gorgeous woman simply shows that all things have been successfully ordained to the aroused gaze. When Maude says to the Dude, “you can imagine what happens next,” he replies, sardonically, “He fixes the cable?” The joke lies in Lebowski’s pretense that a non-erotic outcome is at all possible.

In the typical seduction scene, the pretense of the porn star to “not want” a proposed erotic encounter must remain laughably unconvincing. This assures the audience that there are no real non-erotic possibilities — they have all been annulled, and with them, disgust.

In order to ward off the everyday genitals, with their multitude of meanings, pornography eroticizes the everyday. There is little market for pornography that takes place in an actually erotic context. Wedding Night pornography is not popular. There is no market for Achieving Pregnancy pornography. Far more understandable is the consumer appetite for the eroticization of the non-erotic scenario — the sexual act that happens at the doctor’s office, the workplace, the school, and so on.

Without an understanding of the porn world, one might assume that such scene choices were all wrong, that an erotic act should be coupled with an erotic scene, and vice versa. But the explicitly erotic situation always suggests that there is a limited place, time, and reason for the exposure and use of the genital organs — marriage, child, comfort, ritual, and so on. The goal of the porn world is to create the illusion that everything is erotic. For another naked woman to walk into a porn world and “join in” is fundamentally reasonable — as a part of the porn world, she was always already aroused. For another naked woman to walk into the wedding night or into the attempt at pregnancy — this throws the aroused gaze off balance, for the simple reason that the specialness of the erotic “in-here” means that the woman comes from a non-erotic “out-there.”

“Special erotic worlds” imply that the rest of the “world” is not erotic, the appearance of which welcomes a non-erotic view of the genitals. It is no accident that pornography seeks to eroticize the banal figures of the cableman, cop, maid, nurse, office-worker, and objects like the table, bathroom sink, various foods — it is precisely their non-erotic everydayness that makes them the ideal figures of eroticization. If they are eroticized, everything is eroticized, and if everything is eroticized, one is safe from the possibility of seeing the genital organs in their non-erotic functions.

Even a relationship depicted too well risks ruining the successful maintenance of the non-disgusting, pornographic body. To know too much about a body is to risk developing gazes sympathetic to lives that involve much more than the moment of arousal. For the same reason that pornographers love the banal scene, they also love the strange man or woman, who shows up without history, name, or place, and is thus easily reduced to the first-impression — that of a purely erotic object. This explains the habit of porn stars to have foolish sexual nicknames — for example, “Hungus” in Logjammin’. With names like this, they are identifiable only as purely eroticized beings. A real name, which would link them to a family and a childhood outside of the erotic sphere, is a threat to the porn world.

Pornography must have bad acting. If the goal of the porn world is to achieve universal eroticization, then, unlike theater or film acting, pornographic acting must remain transparent. The “everyday scene” that pornography sets up must remain a poor construct that constantly shows the presence of real porn stars, already aroused, “underneath” the characters they portray. To be convinced of the non-erotic parts they play (“why, she appears just like a bored housewife!”) would involve believing in a character who has a life outside of the erotic sphere (with the joys, sorrows, and banalites of a housewife) — and thus invite us to see the genital organs in their unerotic intention. In pornography, a “no” must always mean “yes.” In the typical seduction scene, the pretense of the porn star to “not want” a proposed erotic encounter must remain laughably unconvincing. This assures the audience that there are no real non-erotic possibilities — they have all been annulled, and with them, disgust.

Living in the Porn World

We look about, rather wildly, for the reason that men seem to need a basic training course in the laws of consent. The number of rapes on college campuses indicates a lack of comprehension that its possible for an unaroused and uninterested woman to exist. Because pornography is fun, safe, and a means of sexual liberation, it has received relatively little blame for this culture of rape. But what if the core phrase of a rapist (“You know you want it”) and the pathetic excuse of a frat boy (“I thought she wanted to”) are more than violent attempts to redefine the will of the other? What if they are the acting-out of the now ubiquitous, ritualized education of hardcore pornography, which suppresses disgust by establishing a porn world in which everyone and everything already “wants it” — a world ordained for sex?

The average age of exposure to hardcore pornography is 11. The average age of virginity loss is 17. It hardly takes a sexologist to recognize that sex is increasingly defined by pornography before it is understood in itself. Studies can only confirm the experience of my millennial generation — internet pornography changed the nature of our playground discussions, our pubescent fantasies, and ultimately our understanding of desire, pleasure, and love. My generation is a generation of men who have been introduced to sex within porn worlds.

It is no surprise then, that rape culture runs rampant on college campuses, or that my generation can be roughly described as a generation horrified by the unerotic genitalia. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is in the decline of communal nudity. Within the last 50 years, traditionally communal bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms have been redesigned to privatize nudity. Only old men, who missed the memo on our new inability to see a genital organ outside of the disgust-suppressing force of arousal, continue to be communally nude.

Current attitudes toward menstruation, fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing reflect a porn-educated gaze that suppresses disgust by indulging the illusion of a purely erotic world.

Men are shocked to learn that for most of history defecation and urination were communal affairs. Now, we not only yearn for walls and individual cubicles, but we even fear that our neighbor will hear the sounds of our urination or defecation; we perform bizarre attempts at “quiet peeing” or employ the use of noisy fans. It is difficult for the naive liberationist to explain why the same generation of men who have been freed to mastrubate — at any moment of the day, thanks to our pocket computers — are so timid about the functions of their own genitalia. But a closer inspection shows that, again, we are only comfortable with the display of the genital organs insofar as we can deny the existence of their non-erotic functions.

Current attitudes toward menstruation, fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing reflect a porn-educated gaze that suppresses disgust by indulging the illusion of a purely erotic world. Female fertility is shocking, precisely because it turns a woman’s body from sexual to maternal, erotic to nurturing. The child is the ultimate rupture of the porn world. Menstruation and female fertility is societally suppressed, and largely silenced, not simply for the sake of convenience, but as a result of the pornographic education that turned these natural parts of sex into unnatural interruptions of sexuality, ruined that vision of genital organs as solely erotic, arousing organs.

A pornographic gaze, which actively suppresses the appearance of the non-erotic, creates a more rigid puritanism than traditional religion, which merely limits the appearance of the erotic. When the appearance of every genital organ must be an erotic appearance, no child can run about naked. No breast can be bared. No spaces can be safe for unsexual male or female nudity. Every non-erotic use of the genital organ, from urination to menstruation, becomes wrapped in layers of privacy and shame. It is as if, in performing these natural acts, we are doing something wrong. Indeed, we are to the pornographic gaze — the acts are taboo. They destroy the porn world. They reveal the genital organs as sites of multiple meanings, which in a world educated to artificially restrict their meaning to a singular, erotic purpose, is disgusting.