Pornified and Female Chauvinist Pigs

On the Sexual Revolution and Pornography
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 22 2005 11:54 AM

Pornified and Female Chauvinist Pigs

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Dear Laura and Wendy,

Wendy, your suggestion that our responses to these books break down along generational lines is interesting. But I don't think it's true. I think they have more to do with whether we are willing to regulate sexual behavior. What this debate is really about, in my mind, is two things: First, what role we think sex should play in our lives—which we've already touched on—and second, if we do agree that our culture is more "pornified" than ever, what, if anything, is to be done? I'm also interested in how we got here. Did the sexual revolution just happen at a strange moment? That is, were women poised to achieve familial and professional equality along with porn-free homes—and then, darn it, Internet Explorer came along? Or is all this a direct response to the sexual revolution? As women embraced their sexuality, did men realize that this might be twisted to reinforce, rather than ameliorate, traditional gender roles?

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Paul argues that pornography is popular precisely because it's "a safe haven where men can still dominate, undisturbed." I don't buy this, exactly. But these books did make me wonder, in the theoretical part of my brain, whether the aims of feminism are incompatible with some of the sexual freedoms we now enjoy. (Catharine MacKinnon would say so, right?) Many of the men interviewed by Paul were struggling with the collision between their "dark" sexual desires and their dedication to equality. One self-described feminist was baffled to find he was turned on by sites featuring brutal sex: " 'I know objectively that it's horrid, but I have to admit that some of the images have been real sexual turn-ons,' " he says. Maybe these men really are attracted to violent images of quasi-rape in reaction to the new sexual parity. Or maybe their desires have just as much to do with subterranean appetites for power and cruelty, and with fantasies of control that find their expression in sex—and aren't the exclusive property of either gender. One larger question, then, is whether these appetites are translated from sex into everyday life? And is the proliferation of porn aiding that? It's not clear to me.

What seems clear is that if you are a young woman it is hard to separate sexual freedom from messages that it's important to be sexy. We all agree on this. But we don't agree about what we make of it. Is a girl's masturbating in front of a TV camera a latter-day equivalent of foot-binding? I don't know. It doesn't seem exactly like it to me, even if there's surely some peer pressure involved. Then again, this Mary Gaitskill essay involves a depressing account of sleeping with a woman who pretended an intense interest in sex she clearly didn't feel.

Women face a secondary bind, too: Even when a young woman feels fine about her sexual choices, she still encounters unconscious reinforcement that what she's done is wrong. You don't see the boys on Laguna Beach, MTV's show about the dating lives of teenagers, gathering around a friend and calling him a slut. But this happened to one poor lovelorn girl who'd made the mistake of hooking up with her ex while he was dating someone else. That CDC study you both mentioned reflects more sexual parity among teenagers than ever before. Even so, the Washington Post included a quote implying that girls couldn't possibly be engaging in oral sex of their own free will:

Joe McIllhaney Jr., chairman of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, said the new data confirm trends he has seen as a physician, but he has doubts about some of [the] conclusions [that have been drawn]. "I question how much girls enjoy" oral sex, he said. "I'd like to know a whole lot more about the pressure boys put on girls."

Needless to say, no one was worrying that the boys felt pressured into delivering oral sex.

What else has caused this widespread sexualization? It probably has to do with the wealth of our country and with the rise of consumerism. (There isn't just more porn; there are more toothbrushes and trash cans, too, and more personalized salad options.) Our ideas about happiness are ever more closely tied to our looks and our bodies. A friend recently suggested, too, that the ubiquity of porn may have something to do with the growing influence of gay culture—that is, gay male definitions of "intimacy" as something that can involve longterm partnership and sexual exploration on the side. This model defies the conviction that intimacy is a monolithic thing we know the outlines of, and it's a model I think young heterosexual Americans are intrigued by.

What would a more modest culture look like, Wendy? Most of the eras we think of as being modest—the 1950s, the Victorians—were sexualized in their own complicated and sometimes damaging ways. Just read Sylvia Plath's diaries. And the flip side of sexual rebellion is sexual repression, not really a winning option either. Like you, Laura, I bridle at the idea of embarking on a remedial course of sexual correctiveness. But the casual and steady insistence of sexual images surely has its effects on all of us—effects not so conducive to being satisfied by plain old bodies. So, where do we go from here? I suppose answering this question will have to wait for another dialogue.

Thanks for this interesting debate—and my thanks to the authors of these books for provoking it.

Best,
Meghan 

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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