Watching Sex: How Men
Really Respond to Pornography

 

. . . masculine sexuality has been under siege by feminism for its very real abuses, and has often been forced into a cringing and unproductive mea culpa for its aggressive fantasies. Yet if, as I have tried to argue here and elsewhere, pornography is not the monolithic expression of phallic misogyny that it has been stigmatised as being, then there is good reason even for heterosexual men to explore the pleasures of the genre without having to admit too many mea culpas.

-- Linda Williams "Second Thoughts on Hard Core"

 

Whatever goes on in the mind of pornography's consumer matters tremendously.

-- Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism Unbound

 

Miss Manners believes that the true value in people is not what is in their murky psyches, which many keep in as shocking a state as their bureau drawers, but in how they treat one another.

-- Judith Martin, Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

 

 

Introduction

In a much-quoted 1974 essay, Robin Morgan launched one of the most famous salvos against pornography when she declared: "Pornography is the theory, rape the practice." Within seven years, Laura Lederer's Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography, Andrea Dworkin's Pornography: Men Possessing Women, and Susan Griffin's Pornography and Silence: Culture's Revenge Against Nature had all been published. Much of what the authors said -- that pornography reflected male contempt for and power over women, incited men to treat women badly, and fostered violence -- was persuasive.

In the years that followed, Diana E.H. Russell, Catherine MacKinnon, Susan G. Cole, Sheila Jeffreys, Dorchen Leidholdt, and Catherine Itzin joined the cause with their books and essays. Dworkin and MacKinnon crafted civil rights legislation that empowered individual women to sue the makers, retailers, and users of pornography. The proposal passed in the cities of Minneapolis and Indianapolis but a mayor vetoed the one and a judge struck down the other. Dworkin and MacKinnon's theory became law in Canada, however, when the Supreme Court of that nation adopted their language in Butler v. Her Majesty the Queen. In 1986, when the U.S. Presidential Commission on Pornography headed by Attorney General Edwin Meese held its hearings, Dworkin testified as a "friendly" witness, which led to the peculiar circumstance of a radical feminist lesbian being published with approval by Phyllis Schlafly in her book of excerpts from commission testimony called Pornography's Victims.

There was something un-feminist about all this. The women's movement had correctly championed the notion that the individual has the right to define reality for herself. It sought to correct millennia of men defining women's reality. But some women turned around and committed the same offense against men. Their books were filled with peremptory assertions about what happened to men who look at porn, and none of it was good. "Pornography is often more sexually compelling than the realities it presents, more sexually real than reality," wrote MacKinnon. Sooner or later, all men want to live out the fantasies depicted in pornography, she asserted. But how could she know this? Where was her evidence?

It is one thing to say, "I feel this way when pornography is around; this hurts me." It is quite another to say, "This is what it does to men's values and feelings, this is what it makes them do." The personal is political, feminism kept repeating. Fair enough. But where was men's personal reality in these theorists' equations? When would men get their chance to say, "This is what we feel and think"?

Within the last decade, the public debate has shifted. Feminist scholars such as Lynne Segal, Linda Williams, Lynn Hunt, Alison Assiter, Avedon Carol, and Laura Kipnis have supported pornography and explored its history. National ACLU president Nadine Strossen published Defending Pornography, and Canadian activist Wendy McElroy authored XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography. Feminist performance artists and writers such as Susie Bright, Pat Califia, Candida Royalle, and Annie Sprinkle produced their own porn as well as declared their support for it and championed the practice of sadomasochistic sex. Lisa Palac, once an anti-porn feminist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis when Dworkin and MacKinnon taught there, went on to edit Future Sex magazine and declare, "The censorship of pornography is unfeminist." Camille Paglia, an "anti-feminist feminist," has written: "Pornography cannot be separated from art . . . ."

What's wrong with this picture?

There are still no men in it.

A few men have spoken on the subject of pornography, but almost never from a personal perspective. Researchers such as Edward Donnerstein, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, and his colleagues have studied possible links between pornography and violence. The late Robert Stoller, a psychoanalyst, interviewed and profiled men and women who work in pornography and other sex trades. A 1990 collection entitled Men Confront Pornography attempted to address the issue from all sides, but most of the essays were theoretical and analytical, not direct and personal. Even the title suggested the writers were examining something outside themselves, a threat or enticement that was somehow separate from the male consumer and his feelings and self-image. Women writers found the book lacking. Anne McClintock said it had a tone of "male insecurity and sexual distress," and she grew impatient with "a cloying self-pity indulged in by some of the contributors." Linda Williams agreed that Men Confront Pornography was "interesting but guilt-ridden, even self-pitying."

Virtually none of the millions of men who were exposed to pornography as youths and annually shell out most of the billions that sustain the industry, have contributed anything to the public discussion. How do men feel about pornography? What do they think it does to their value systems and attitudes toward women?

I decided to find out by doing something no one had ever done: ask the men themselves. I talked to nearly 150 men, some in person, some on the Internet. Their answers might surprise you. Among other things, they said:


1. They would like to see more plot and romance in pornography.

2. They do not particularly enjoy closeups of genitals.

3. They not only do not find violence against women or domination of women sexy, they are specifically turned off by such behavior on the rare occasions they see it in pornography, and most haven't even seen any.

4.
Though they enjoy looking at women having sex with women, they don't believe the women pictured are actually lesbians.

5. They have not sought ever more vivid, kinky, and violent pornography, but have either stuck with what they liked from the first, investigated wilder content and returned to what they preferred, or lost interest altogether.

6. They don't like the way men are portrayed in pornography.

7. They are against making it available to children, even though many of them were exposed to pornographic stories and images before the age of 12 and don't feel the worse for it.

I talked to men for whom some of the above is not true. I talked to others for whom none or all of it is true. But whatever the anti-porn activists and experts have said about men and pornography -- whatever you think you know about the subject -- is not the whole truth. Maybe not even most of it. Even men in the survey voiced assumptions about what other men think and do . . . and were wrong.

In this book you will hear the voices of men sharing aspects of themselves -- their experiences, their thoughts and feelings -- which they have not shared with any other person, not even the most important people in their lives. You will hear about their fears, their fantasies, and how they view the choices they have made and expect to make. You will learn about their most secret desires and wishes, and whether they expect to see them ever fulfilled.

You will meet male virgins in their 20s and 30s, and men whose only sex partners have been prostitutes . . . but you will also meet men who have been happily married for decades to the only sex partner they've ever known, men with small daughters and grown children, men who are widowed and divorced, men who are gay or bisexual, men who are gay or bisexual and married to women. You will meet gay and heterosexual men with little sex experience and men with long histories of romance and casual sex, young men just out of high school and men in their 60s, a few men who fit the anti-porn caricature of the porn user in many ways and others who do not.

I tried to speak to men from as many different backgrounds and perspectives as I could find who would talk to me: men who grew up fundamentalist Christians and men with no religious background, men who stopped looking at porn after a few years and others who produce it, men who loathe pornography as well as those who love it. They came from all over the United States as well as Canada and Britain. A few grew up in Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Spain, and the Netherlands.

This is not a scientific survey. It will not introduce you to "the average American male" or tell you what he thinks and does. The men in this book chose in advance to participate in the project -- they "self-selected" as the social scientists put it -- so they do not constitute a random sample.

Because I met most of them on the Internet, they clearly did not represent a cross section of American males. They're more educated than the average, for one thing. Those who did earn an income -- who were not full-time students in undergraduate or graduate programs -- had a higher income than the typical American male. Many had advanced degrees; in fact, some taught at universities around the nation or overseas. Others were researchers or librarians. Many worked in the private computer industry, or as computer specialists for public institutions. There were more single men and more gays than one would find in a random sample of the general population.

But do self-selected participants in an unrepresentative sample make a survey "so flawed and unreliable as to be useless," as the authors of the 1994 study Sex in America described such predecessors as the Hite Report, the Redbook survey, and the Janus Report? Not necessarily, I would argue.

The answer depends on what you seek to prove. It is probably fair to say that those surveys were "methodologically flawed, making their data unreliable," as the authors of Sex in America claimed, but only if they purported to offer a statistically representative picture of American sexual behavior. The authors of those surveys may have massaged their numbers and overstepped the bounds of scientific accuracy when they claimed to know "what Americans do in bed." But the mere act of speaking publicly about such matters undoubtedly made a positive difference.

The first Hite Report on Female Sexuality unquestionably did a world of good for many of the women (and men) who read it. They learned it was not unusual for women to feel dissatisfied by sex, to fail to reach orgasm, and not a sin for a woman to seek satisfaction during sex through masturbation. Such information had been readily available in medical literature, but this was the first time American women saw hundreds of other females like themselves say so, and explain what they felt and experienced and desired.

The "mere" fact that such surveys helped people to alter their perceptions of what is possible and what is acceptable, and to talk with their sex partners about what they experience and desire, was a great step forward from the days when people repeated such public myths as masturbation leads to blindness and insanity, and sex is something women must endure and cannot enjoy. Whether or not the surveys afforded an accurate picture of American sex practices, they did offer readers an opportunity to accept themselves a little more, or to change their lives in ways that empowered them.

The Internet has become a notorious region for false identities, lies, and tall tales. Naturally, you might wonder how honest my survey participants may have been. Since I had no way of checking the veracity of what they told me, I had to judge the content on its own merits: Did it sound sincere? Did the details have a plausible ring to them? Did the men's stories as a whole seem consistent? In almost every case, such questions never even surfaced -- partly because of the anonymity in which my survey participants could safely cloak themselves. If they were nervous about my knowing their true identity -- and most of them were not, partly because I made no secret of my name, whereabouts, or professional writing experience, and partly because they obviously understood the importance of what I was trying to do -- they didn't have to tell me and I never asked.

But the openness of my interviewees also was partly a function of the Internet itself. Many people feel more comfortable communicating intimately with someone they can neither see nor hear -- someone they will not encounter on the street, in the office, or at home where the shared knowledge between them could prove an embarrassment.

Trust issues cut both ways. Some men -- not many -- worried about who I was and how I could guarantee their anonymity and care for their secrets. I told them about my life, sent them copies of my previously published writings. One chose to mail his answers anonymously while on trips away from his home state.

Indeed, every book involves issues of trust. How could Shere Hite have any way of verifying what all those men and women told her? How can we be sure that Sokol and Carter faithfully quoted their respondents in What Really Happens In Bed, especially since few of the participants were apt to expose themselves in public to complain? How can you know that someone you care about always tells you the truth? The answer to all these questions is: ultimately, we have no certainty. But we accept many things on faith, judge people's remarks with our head and gut, try to measure the inconsistencies and false notes, and usually are justified in our judgments.

In the end, the reader will have to weigh the veracity of my subjects' remarks for themselves as I did: by how they sound.

This book will not dwell on numbers, though it employs a few to draw a rough picture of what the men had to say. It does not seek to prove or establish anything so much as to raise questions that have been too seldom asked, or not at all. Though it may not offer a statistically representative sample of American males, let alone all men, I believe it is broad enough -- if not to represent every experience and sensibility one may find among carriers of the XY chromosome, at least to give a much greater sense than ever before of what men do and feel in this particular arena of sexual practice, desire, fantasy, and ethics.

If reading this book inspires you as a man to understand and accept yourself more fully, and to question yourself a little further; if it inspires you as a woman to understand the men in your life a little more, and to ask more of them in a truly inquisitive and non-threatening manner; if it helps to make gay and bisexual men more understandable to the rest of the population as well as to one another; if it makes pornography itself seem a little less frightening or foolish, and a little more multifaceted and susceptible to positive change . . . then this project will have been worth the effort.

 

 

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