This weekend I’ve been mulling over Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s Atlantic article: Hard Core. After multiple readings and a lengthly discussion about it with the hubby, I’m still left pondering–the sign of a great article. While I agree with many of Vargas-Cooper’s well articulated propositions, something about her tone tweaked a soft spot of mine. Initially, I didn’t know why. But it kinda had my back up, very much in the way that conversations about porn used to make me feel defensive.
The basic assertion of this article is that porn reflects an authentic image of male sexuality, in all its basic and sometimes unsavory inequalities. The author believes that the quest for equality in the sexual arena, which arose out of the PC nineties’ sensibility that women and men are equals, even in the bedroom, is false. In her words:
“This is an intellectual swindle that leads women to misjudge male sexuality, which they do at their own emotional and physical peril. Male desire is not a malleable entity that can be constructed through politics, language, or media. Sexuality is not neutral. A warring dynamic based on power and subjugation has always existed between men and women, and the egalitarian view of sex, with its utopian pretensions, offers little insight into the typical male psyche. Internet porn, on the other hand, shows us an unvarnished (albeit partial) view of male sexuality as an often dark force streaked with aggression”
Framed in this context, I am very much a product of what she sees as the equality farce. Sex-educated in the nineties, and a dater of the anti-frat boy: the sensitive-new-age artist, maybe I did assume that sex was supposed to be too nicey-nice? And therefore, when confronted with Internet porn, was scared by what I saw. My unease was natural. If I watched a gang bang scene and tried to identify with the female lead, I might feel at once discomfort and pleasure, both humiliated and empowered. The other part of what bothered me about much of porn was that it didn’t reflect my sensibilities. To which, I guess Vargas-Cooper would say, “no duh.”
In Hard Core Vargas-Cooper refrains from making sweeping generalizations about female sexuality. Except to say that the best sex of a woman’s life is probably “the raw, unpracticed sort” that proliferates pornography. I think what she is getting at here is that we gals don’t always want sex to be nice. If aggression is a huge part of male sexuality, then a desire to be dominated is a part of most gal’s fantasy repertoire. Certainly it is part of mine. Just saying that though, the equality-seeker in me immediately wants to level the playing field and bring up how dominance can be a matter of perspective. Some would say down on one’s knees giving a blow job is subservient. Others, that there’s few positions more powerful than holding a dude’s junk in your mouth. But perhaps the greater point here is that power dynamics are always at play when it comes to sexuality—no matter who wears the boots (or is perceived to).
I asked hubby whether he felt this article gave female sexuality agency (again, I know, how very nineties of me). He brought up the difference between comfort and consent. In his estimation, sex acts that are not comfortable, either physically or in terms of power dynamics, can be consensually enacted. I totally agree with this. Violence and humiliation in porn can certainly be a consensual performance (one hopes it always is). Just as my PC version of sex is more about consent than kindness per se.
As a last aside, I couldn’t help but mark Vargas-Cooper’s tone when she talked about they hyper-realism of amateur porn. She makes a very good point about how the beauty standards of XXX are no longer exactly air brushed, glossy magazine covers, but average folks with all their glaring flaws. She describes amateur porn as, “a grim parade of what women will do to satisfy men: young wives fingering themselves on the family couch, older wives offering themselves to their hubby’s Army buddies, aging moms in shabby corsets shoving their sagging rear ends into the camera.”
“A grim parade of what women will do to satisfy men,” hey? Is that why wives finger themselves on camera and say yes to a romp with their hubby’s army buddy? Or are they doing it because it feels good to satisfy themselves while hubby (and whoever else) watches? These are small distinctions and in the end I could go round and round here. There are a million shades of grey that are not discussed in this article, as certain points are always made at the exclusion of others. Undoubtedly, Hard Core has a point.