We Must Dismantle The False Dichotomy Between Porn And Erotica

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When we apply matters of morality to matters of taste, the most marginalized people get thrown under the bus.

I t’s never been easy talking to my mom about my career in porn, so I’m always on the hunt for ways to help her relate to my ideas about, and experience in, sex work.

Several years ago, my friend and colleague Violet Blue was a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about porn. Like many retired boomers, my mom gets a lot of her ideological guidance from daytime talk shows, so I called her in advance to make sure she watched.

The next day, I got a call back from her — and discovered my plan had totally backfired.

“Well your friend was very smart,” she said. “And I learned something about your work from Oprah!”

“Oh yeah?” I asked nervously.

“Well,” she said with newfound authority. “Oprah explained that there’s a difference between porn, which is the bad stuff, and erotica, which is good for women!”

Oprah and my mom are hardly the first to make this distinction between “bad porn” and “good erotica”; in fact, one of the most vocal proponents of this damaging dichotomy is feminist icon Gloria Steinem. And every time I hear her or someone else trot out this tired trope, I recoil — because it is indicative of our culture’s persistent stigmatization of sex work, classist attitudes about sexual morality, and suppression of healthy sexual expression.

It’s a dichotomy that demands to be not only challenged, but dismantled.

On the November 30, 2015 episode of the WTF podcast, Marc Maron’s guest was Steinem, who, by the end of their conversation, managed to trumpet a number of played-out, harmful stereotypes about porn and the state of its performers.

At the end of the interview, Maron asks Steinem about “the pornographication of the world through the Internet. Do you think that’s destructive to women, to intimacy, to . . .”

Steinem interjects:

“Yeah, it is destructive. I mean, I think that we have successfully said that rape is not sex, it’s violence. But what we have not successfully said is that pornography is not erotica. Porne means female slaves. Eros has an idea of love and mutual pleasure and free choice. I fear that pornography is taking over sex. When in fact it’s way more about domination.”

Steinem has been repeating some version of this baseless definition game since 1978, when she published the Ms. magazine article, “Erotica and pornography: Do You Know the Difference?” The answer to this question is: No, we don’t, Gloria, because neither you nor anyone else has ever managed to provide a useful or convincing distinction.

Yet Maron responds, perhaps airing his own guilty laundry: “[Porn] is completely devoid of story or poetry or anything else. And it does feed a certain compulsion. But there was sort of a subset of feminism that felt empowered if they were able to appropriate pornography or the sex industry.”

Steinem: “Well, but it usually turned into erotica. It was quite different.”

Maron: “Right, it became niche and not general porn.”

Steinem:

“If somebody has been profoundly sexually abused as a child, it may have so entwined sexuality and pain that you can’t get it un-entwined. . . Nature tells us what’s good for us by making it pleasurable and what’s bad for us by making it painful. So it’s important to disentangle those two things, and also to say that there is such a thing as erotica, not to let pornography pretend to be the only form of sexuality, much less an acceptable form. It’s really about domination and passivity.”

First, as someone who has been on a number of porn sets as a performer, director, and producer (and who consumes a healthy diet of straight, gay, lesbian, queer, trans, kinky, fetish, alt, vintage, gonzo, and scripted porn for both research and pleasure), I can say with confidence that no pornographer is pretending to depict “the only form of sexuality.” If a female porn performer is depicting “passivity,” she is playing a role because it’s her job to do so. If and when she experiences acute discomfort or exploitation on the job, that is a labor issue that needs to be seriously addressed by the industry.

And it’s important to note that exploitation is just as likely to happen on the set of Empowering Lovemaking for Couples 56 as it is to happen on Bubble Butt Anal Whores Go to Jail 56. However, if we continue to assume that everyone getting literally fucked in the ass on camera is also getting figuratively fucked in the ass off camera, then we’re not creating justice for either the bubble butt anal whores or the abuse victims.

I can say with confidence that no pornographer is pretending to depict ‘the only form of sexuality.’

We also need to stop tolerating the misleading stereotype that female porn performers must have been traumatized by childhood abuse. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Sex Research, “a significant percentage of women in porn do report to have been molested as children — but nearly as many women outside the porn industry report the same thing.” As a woman who has been lucky enough to have survived childhood without being molested, I’m offended that no one seems to be able to wrap their minds around the idea that I can do what I want with my grown-ass body. But I’m much more offended on behalf of my fellow sex workers who are survivors, because our feminist spokeswomen continue to casually dismiss their agency to make their own choices about their bodies and their labor.

On February 24, 2016, Steinem blasted her porn/erotica propaganda yet again, this time in a public conversation with well-meaning baby-feminist Emma Watson.

“I was hoping that having a word for erotica, for shared mutual pleasurable empathetic sex, real pleasurable sex would help us do something about pornography,” she explained to Watson, as if Twitter was not at that moment exploding with female porn stars talking about how much they love the totally real sex they have at work.

“We should be creating lots of awesome, great alternatives to pornography,” Watson suggested.

But what if a different attitude about pornography were the “alternative to pornography”?

Instead, what conversations like this one between Steinem and Watson propagate is just a more nuanced — but still faulty and dangerous — aphorism. The longstanding stereotype — “all porn exploits women” — is merely replaced with a new stereotype that allows for nuance — “some porn exploits women, but erotica doesn’t.”

Ultimately, however, not only is this dichotomy false and rooted in classism, but it directly contributes to the stigma and whorephobia that marginalizes people in the sex industry.

The contrived erotica/porn debate is about designating porn as sexual media that’s bad, and erotica as sexual media that’s good. When we apply matters of morality to matters of taste, the most marginalized people get thrown under the bus — the BAD PEOPLE get quarantined with the BAD PORN. When false dichotomies are used in media as feminist soundbites, they lead to alienation, marginalization, and violence.

Porn=bad/erotica=good doesn’t train the sexual taste of the rich white Emma Watsons of the world; it dehumanizes the trans people, the people of color, the “not classy” bodies who have chosen to make porn because it’s an option that works for them.

And yet, celebrities in seemingly endless supply continue to try to draw these distinctions under the guise of protecting women.

Steinem wants you to say erotica with a monocle and an r-rolling mid-Atlantic accent: eh-rrr-otica! She wants you to say porn with a very hard R, slobbering out of the side of your mouth like Al Bundy. But it’s a seriously classist assertion that we should just be able to tell the difference between bad porn and good erotica.

The implication is that good (educated) people are aroused by erotica and bad (trashy) people are aroused by porn. Or, as the great feminist critic Ellen Willis put it way back in 1978: “In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably come down to ‘What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.’”

Where Willis and I differ is on her musing that in a utopia, porn would disappear (“along with the state, heroin, and Coca-Cola”). I do agree that porn is often the expression of sublimated tensions, and I do agree that sometimes we enjoy it because of, not in spite of, the fact that it is often a pageant of sexism, transmisogyny, and racism. But I also think watching people fuck is really fun and great for nice, hard orgasms.

The implication is that good (educated) people are aroused by erotica and bad (trashy) people are aroused by porn.

In a 1993 essay, theorist Gayle S. Rubin makes a very compelling case for the way this porn/erotica dichotomy has the effect of suppressing sexual expression. She points out that “unlike any other category of media or representation, pornography was treated as beyond feminist salvage,” adding, “pornography has become an easy, pliant, and overdetermined scapegoat for problems for which it is not responsible.” She calls the “targeting of pornography as a focus of feminist rage . . . a tragic mistake.”

And yet influential public figures continue to use their time on the international stage to propagate hatred against pornography and shame in people who enjoy it.

As for the people who create the pornography, the actual conditions of their labor, their agency in choosing that work, are brushed aside in favor of vacuous tautologies — “porn means slavery therefore porn enslaves.”

Whenever I want to have some serious masturbation time, I have this one go-to scene on this one go-to DVD. There’s nothing really special about it. Just a high production value San Fernando Valley cis woman, cis man oral/vaginal/anal scene. As a woman who loves sex with men and with women I find myself flipping my identification back and forth. In one moment my arousal makes me feel like I’m inside of the man’s skin, holding the woman in my arms and feeling her wrapped around my cock, her tight wet holes bouncing on me and shuddering on me. I imagine myself concentrating on her, pleasing her, knowing that she is losing her mind because of how good I am at fucking her. In a moment, I could turn on a dime and become the woman: ecstatic, losing myself in objectification, swept up in excitement, so used to the camera as to be unaware of it, knowing I look great and really just loving dick so much.

It’s just dumb, well-lit straight sex between two people I probably would never sleep with. It makes me happy, and that doesn’t make me brainwashed or abused. It makes me a conscious consumer of erotic entertainment. Gloria Steinem and Oprah don’t get to tell me that my arousal is patriarchal Stockholm Syndrome. The time has come for grown-ups to assert their right to their pornographic tastes. If we’re aroused by domination, tension, agony, drama: well, that’s what makes good fiction.

Maron is wrong about something else, too. Porn actually tells mesmerizing stories. Even when they’re blunt, they’re still stories that illuminate fascinating truths about what it means to be human. Porn can be romantic, funny, educational, escapist, and a total mind-fuck. And yes, there’s poetry to the kinesthetic wonder of what a body can do.

So what if this idealized, so-called erotica fulfills an agreed-upon set of moral and aesthetic criteria if at the same time it’s totally boring and not hot? What if it fails to create a fantasy world of demonstrated pleasure? What if, as a society, we actually need that outlet and will always find a way to demand and supply it? What if, among all the stories sexual media can tell, voyeurs want to identify with strong, passionate people reduced to fucktoys?

What if porn fulfills this need — and we like it just fine?

The real tragedy in Steinem’s adhering to the false porn/erotica dichotomy is her failure to understand that it’s her shaming of porn-makers and porn-lovers that links curiosity about sex to the pain of shame. As we move into a post-Steinem feminist future, it’s imperative that we abandon the idea that porn is always painful and that pain is always bad for us.

Instead of dismissing porn, it’s more productive to think about it in practical terms. We can decriminalize all forms of sex work in the name of ethical labor standards. We can pay for the porn we like, just as we vote with our dollars when we shop for food and clothes. We can listen to pornographers and other sex workers when they say what they want in terms of media representations. We can voyeur to the entertainment we enjoy, especially if it’s nasty and raunchy, and we can be inquisitive with ourselves about our own desires.

Maybe if we didn’t have to feel so ashamed, we could talk to our moms about it.

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