How I Came to Porn

Dec 19th, 2012 | By | Category: Articles

I never wanted to watch porn. When a former boyfriend years ago showed me some of his “glossier” porn, as he put it, I was completely grossed out. The premise of his porn was that all these Barbie-looking women would seek out a stud residing in this huge mansion, where he would provide them with their ultimate satisfaction by spraying his come all over them, which they in turn would greedily lick and smear all over their bodies. The cliché portrayal of yearning women in need of a man was in itself offensive to me. But it was especially the prolonged scene featuring the guy hosing down a group of women with his ejaculate that turned me off.

You’d think from our pornified culture that we all want porn. But we know that’s not the case. Sure, women represent a large and growing audience for porn, representing at least a third of all consumers, adding up to millions of women watching porn each month. But not everyone is crazy about what they see. Whether it’s “high gloss” or amateur porn, in either case featuring deep throating women who are pumped hard, legs spread wide, all the while moaning for more with come-hither eyes. The stacks of mass-produced porn at seedy superstores off the interstate. Trashy hotel room porn. Online smut catering to any imaginable (and unconceivable!) fetish. And even “softcore” and “couples porn” allegedly improved to appeal to women, but not really. Plastic looks, porny music, bad acting, faked satisfaction.

But then I found something radically different.

What first got me turned on to the feminist potential of porn was actually my research on the literature of prosecuted freethinkers. Picture the poet/writer Christian played by Ewan McGregor in Baz Luhrmann’s movie Moulin Rouge! (2001): fin-desiècle bohemians who believed in existential liberty and free love for all, women and men. Toulouse-Lautrec, whom Christian befriends in the film, has immortalized the spirit of the bohemian lifestyle through his artwork: posters and portraits of his friends at their many stomping grounds in Montmartre, the legendary artist neighborhood in Paris.

Cut to the US where free-love supporters were persecuted by the social purity campaigner Anthony Comstock. The editor of the free thought journal Lucifer, for instance, went to jail several times for publishing articles by women defending women’s sexual freedom. A freedom that included the right to resist rape in marriage. These women free lovers were first wave feminists advocating sex education, the right to birth control, and the equal right for women to assert an active desire and make their own independent choices. Yet these women’s writings were judged “obscene.”

At the turn of the century in my native Norway, the women and men of the Kristiania Bohème were faced with similar acts of prosecution. I grew up in a country that has become known for its relaxed attitudes to nudity and most would add towards sex too. In fact, today’s young women are described as a sexually liberated and empowered generation. Yet, a vocal group of young third wave feminists argue that a “horny” woman is still very much taboo. Obscene; too much. These women grabbed the media’s attention recently with Pink Prose: About Girls and Horniness. Writing from personal experiences, they reiterated a demand for women’s equal right to assert an active desire. Modern women’s so-called “sexual freedom” only goes so far, they argued. A woman is expected to be “sexual,” but only so much. And also not too little. Balancing the speed limits of desire, she risks the labels of either whore or prude.

To this day, there are girls—and boys—who grow up in Norway feeling the pent-up weight of the Lutheran guilt about sex. I was one of them. I will never forget how my mom caught me red-handed one day, touching myself beneath the covers in my bedroom. The look of disapproval in her face. The humiliation I felt. I was maybe ten, and I was home sick from school. Later on my older sister gave me a book about sex and puberty. Still feeling the shame, I threw it to the back of my closet. I never looked at it again.

So I have always empathized with the bohemian free love advocates’ desire to break free, existentially, socially, sexually. In the end, tracing their history led me to look into filmic porn again too.

Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer has become legendary for its graphic depictions of sex. First printed in Paris in 1934 with financial backing from his lover Anaïs Nin, the novel was for years smuggled into the US where it was banned. Its publication in the US in 1961 led to a series of obscenity trials.

Around this time, two famed Norwegian authors also underwent lengthy legal proceedings because of the sexually explicit content of their writing: Agnar Mykle (The Song about the Red Ruby) and Jens Bjørneboe (Without a Stitch). In the end, Miller was acquitted by the US Supreme Court, which declared his book a work of literature. Cut to Norway where Mykle was also exonerated by the Supreme Court of Norway, convinced of his novel’s artistic merits. But not so Bjørneboe. Why? Because, decided the courts in the case of his book, its “literary value cannot be placed high” and “its edifying value is rather below zero.”

I have serious objections to this dismissive interpretation of Bjørneboe’s text. As I have argued, it actually represents a clever take on the classic folktale, recognized for its socio-political antiestablishment undertones. But what’s even more troublesome about the courts’ verdicts here are their failure to recognize the feminist quality of Bjørneboe’s book as opposed to the misogynistic aspects of Mykle’s novel. The latter focuses on the sexual exploits of the wannabe-free man Ask who takes then ditches a series of women in a desperate attempt to free himself from conservative norms. Bjørneboe’s novel, on the other hand, portrays the empowered sexual journey of a young woman, Lilian. At first incapable of achieving orgasm due to a disabling sense of guilt, imagining what her mother and grandmother would think, she is helped by an orgasm specialist to overcome her feelings of shame and connect with her sexual self. Owning her sexuality, she then spends a summer backpacking through Europe where she celebrates a plurality of sexual encounters on consensual, mutual, social and gender democratic terms, including by participating in the making of a porn film. At the end of her journey, Lilian bemoans our culture’s hypocrisy, permitting men to acquire the kind of “worldly experience” she has attained before settling down, but not so for women. Women who are judged by the very same men who’ve had their sexual escapades and who now preach from the moral high horse.

Caught up with the question of what constitutes art, the legal establishment failed to recognize any of this. Technically, it is still illegal to sell Without a Stitch in Norway, sentenced for not raising above the level of lowbrow culture to join the ranks of highbrow art. This prejudice against popular culture has meant that sexually explicit art house films featuring extreme sexual violence and rape, such as the French films Baise-moi (2000; by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi) and Romance (1999; by Catherine Breillat), have been allowed distribution and public screenings in Norway, but not so mainstream porn; not even new re-visioned feminist porn.

The concept of re-visioned feminist porn was introduced to me by film scholar Linda Williams. Towards the end of her historical analysis of porn, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (1989), Williams discusses the potential of a “re-vision of hard core by women” as opposed to the “general revision” featured by the new lines of “cleaned up” “couples” porn. Williams borrows the term “re-vision” from recently deceased famous feminist poet Adrienne Rich. “The added hyphen,” notes Williams, “suggests the revolutionary potential of ‘the act of looking back, of seeing again with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction.’”

Porn has traditionally been a “male genre,” by men for men. In fact, as Williams points out, sex has historically been defined and discussed from men’s point of view. Men are the ones who have speculated about women’s sexuality; women have never had the opportunity to define it for themselves. If re-vision is for women within a male dominated economy “a necessary ‘act of survival,’ in order to be able to create at all,” it is within porn, argues Williams, “that the idea of re-vision is most compelling: ‘survival’ here means transforming oneself from sexual object to sexual subject of representation.”

After Pornified- How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters

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Porn brings up a lot of negative images in our sexualized, pornified culture. But today a growing number of women are radically changing porn to authentically capture with respect and realism the sexual lives of women and men, empowering and inspiring the viewer to claim her sexuality against a pornified culture, and creating a real counterweight to pornified media and porn as it’s been known. Porn affects us. Today, women are leading the way to make those effects positive. After Pornified lets you see how.

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Author: Anne G. Sabo is a former academic turned public educator, author, speaker, freelance writer, and mama- and sex blogger. As a college professor, she taught courses in literature, film and women’s studies. She has researched feminist pornography for more than a decade and has become an acknowledged expert in the field. She has written numerous articles and essays on the subject, and is a frequently consulted speaker on the topic. She grew up in Norway, earned her Ph.D. from University of Washington, and lives in Northfield, Minnesota with her husband and their preschooler daughter. You can visit her at annegsabo.com.

 

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