I’ve recently been reviewing what I know about the historical evidence for how homosexuality has been viewed in other times and places, and doing a bit of additional research into the area. This, which is partly a response to comments by my regulars on some recent essays here, has led me to an interesting perspective on modern debates about homosexuality and sexual liberty.
Monica Lewinsky. Rielle Hunter. I’d haul out the tired old Marx quote about history repeating itself as farce, but l’affaire Lewinsky was pretty farcical to begin with. As I looked at images of Hunter and Lewinsky, though, I was struck by a question:
If power is, as is so often claimed, the ultimate aphrodisiac, why aren’t these women sexier?
Some time back I blogged on Hotness in Hollywood. In it I gave Angeline Jolie props for making a game effort at acting in a a movie with a script so execrable that her best effort was doomed, the original Tomb Raider movie. I also praised Liv Tyler playing Arwen, who became my personal all-time favorite example of screen sexiness in the Lord Of The Rings movies. And yes, I know this means I’m a geek; that’s not news to anybody.
My wife Cathy and I saw Wanted last night. Avoid it if you can’t stand the sight of people being shot through the head; otherwise it’s a fun popcorn movie with lots of implausible but extremely well-choreographed ultraviolence. (Well, OK, I started to giggle during the last knife fight a few minutes before the ending, because with the Marine knife-fighting technique my swordmaster taught my wife and I last year either of us could have filleted those two pirouetting idiots in short order.)
I had planned my string of meditations on the movies to stop with
three. But, having succumbed to the mischievous blandishments of my
beloved wife Cathy, here’s a fourth. Today I shall consider hotness in
Hollywood — some movies that at least partly sold me with
sex, and how they did it.
Long-time readers of this blog will be aware than I’m fascinated by the semiotics of pornography. Not by pornography itself; as I wrote in Why does porn got to hurt so bad? I find most pornography ugly and unappealing. No; I’m interested in the meaning of pornography, the code it’s written in and what it says about its producers and consumers.
Since I wrote my original meditation on this topic, an interesting shift in the received meaning of the word “porn” has been visible. Consider Domai. This is a site which traffics in pictures of naked women. Yet the front page claims “No porn on this site”.
I’ve been learning about the romance genre recently. I have no intrinsic interest in it at all, but I have an intelligent friend who plows through romances the way I read SF, and we’ve been discussing the conventions and structural features of the genre. Along the way I’ve learned that romance fans use an acronym TSTL which expands to “Too Stupid To Live”, describing a class of bad romance in which the plot turns on one or both leads exhibiting less claim to sophont status than the average bowl of clam dip.
My wife and I have parts in an upcoming live-action roleplaying game set in early 16th-century Venice. As preparation, she suggested we watch a movie called Dangerous Beauty set in the period. I couldn’t stand more than about 20 minutes of it. “It’s just,” I commented later “pretty people behaving stupidly.”
On reflection, I’ve discovered that PPBS describes a great deal of both the fiction and nonfiction I can’t stand. It’s a more general category that includes not just TSTL, but celebrity gossip magazines, almost every “romantic comedy” ever made, and a large percentage of the top-rated TV shows (especially, of course, the soap operas).
Obviously there’s a huge market for this stuff. I must be from Mars or something, because I don’t get it. How is wallowing in PPBS any different from going to the zoo to watch monkeys masturbate?
B-but… half my readers are probably spluttering, “…those are monkeys. PPBS is about people. Their hopes, their loves, their foolishness and dreams.” Yeah. And your point is? The entire emotional range of PPBS is duplicated in the social dynamics of any chimpanzee band; that’s exactly what makes it so boring.
There is nothing there about what actually makes us human, neither the good stuff like science and art and discovery nor the bad stuff like warfare and governments. In a universe of satoris and supernovas, the people who produce and consume PPBS only care about who slept with or dissed or made up with who.
I find that truly sad.
UPDATE: I’m a shadow Tourette’s Syndrome case, not a shadow autist like many other geeks. Nevertheless, this description of neurotypicality seems relevant.
Fascinating. This NYT article bears out a suspicion I’ve held for a long time about the plasticity of sexual orientation. The crude one-sentence summary is that, if you go by physiological arousal reactions, male bisexuality doesn’t exist, while female bisexuality is ubiquitous.
I’ve spent most of my social time for the last thirty years around science fiction fans, neopagans, and polyamorists — three overlapping groups of people not exactly noted for either sexual inhibitions or reluctance to explore sexual roles that don’t fit the neat typologies of the mainstream culture. And there are a couple of things it’s hard not to notice about them:
First, a huge majority of the women in these cultures are bisexual. To the point where I just assume any female I meet in these contexts is bi. This reality is only slightly obscured by the fact that many of these women describe themselves and are socially viewed by others as ‘straight’, even as they engage in sexual play with each other during group scenes with every evidence of enjoyment. In fact, in these cultures the operational definition of ‘straight female’ seems to be one who has recreational but not relational/romantic sex with other women.
Second, this pattern is absolutely not mirrored in their male peers. Even in these uninhibited subcultures, homoerotic behavior involving self-described ‘straight’ men is rare and surprising. Such homeoeroticism as does go on is almost all self-describedly gay men fucking other self-describedly gay men; bisexuality in men, while an accepted and un-tabooed orientation, is actually less common than gayness and not considered quite normal by anybody. The contrast with everybody’s matter-of-fact acceptance of female bisexual behavior is extreme.
It is also an observable fact that many women in these cultures change either their sexual orientation or their sexual presentation over time, but that this is seldom true of men. That is, a woman may move from being sexually involved mostly with other women to being mostly involved with men, and back, several times during her adolescent and adult lifetime; nobody considers this surprising and it doesn’t involve much of a change in either self-image or social identity. Not so for men in these cultures; they tend to start out as straight or gay and stay that way, and on the unusual occasions that this changes it tends to involve a significant break in both self-image and social identity.
Until I read the abovementioned NYT article, I thought these were peculiar, contingent traits of this group of subcultures (which are influenced by each other). That is, I thought that (in the jargon of postmodernism) SF fans, neopagans and polyamorists had arrived at a common social construction of sexuality with no privileged relationship to the biological substructure.
Now I wonder. If the studies the article references are correct, the distribution of behaviors I’ve been describing is exactly what you see when you bypass self-consciousness and social construction entirely, and just measure how aroused people get when they look at pictures of other naked people. This actually is how our biology ‘wants’ us to be! Who knew?
It’s all about asymmetrical investment, boys and girls….
One of the hot topics in the blogosphere recently has been the difference between male and female standards of attractiveness, and what this has to do with feminism and “the beauty myth”. Ann Althouse has been having fun at the expense of Laura Kipnis’s column bemoaning the grip that beauty has on women. Sissy Willis and has connected this issue to a gripe by Andrew Sullivan that women ought to demand that men turn themselves out better.
The bloggers rightly see the differing incentives attached to sexual selection as the key to understanding these differences. Those differences are the reason that the many forms of un-PC behaviors that Ms. Kipnis decries aren’t going to go away short of a genetic reengineering of human beings.
What’s missing, so far, is a unified explanation of why those incentives are different. This turns out not to be complicated, and understanding it helps us grasp some interesting and entertaining subtleties in the situation.
The central fact that controls the the preferences of both sexes is that bearing children is difficult and dangerous for women, but fertilizing a woman is almost trivially easy for a man. Furthermore, the female investment in childbearing is front-loaded (proportionally more of the risk is before and at birth) while the male investment is back-loaded (proportionately more of the risks and costs are incurred after birth).
Moderns living in a largely disease-free environment seldom realize how cruel and pressing these differences were over most of our species history. But before modern sanitation, death in childbirth was so common that men wealthy enough to afford it expected to have several wives during their lifetimes, losing many of them to childbed fever and other complications.
Also relevant is the extremely high rate of childhood death from infectious diseases and parasites that was characteristic of premodern societies. Disease resistance in humans is highly variable and generally increases with genetic mixing (the same reason a mongrel puppy or kitten is less likely to catch a disease than a purebreed). Thus, both men and women have instincts intended to maximize genetic variety in their offspring in order to maximize the chances that some will survive to reproductive age.
Our instincts evolved to cope with these patterns of life and death. The next piece we need to understand those instincts is what physical beauty means. Recent anthropology revealing strong cross-cultural patterns in the perception of pulchritude is helpful here.
In both sexes, the most important beauty indicators include symmetrical features and a good complexion (clear skin without blemishes, warts, etc.). It turns out these are indicators of resistance to infection and parasites,
especially resistance in childhood and during adolescent growth. Good hair
is also a health indicator.
In men, physical signs of strength, dexterity, and agility are also favored; this reflects the value female instinctive wiring puts on male specializations in burst exertion, hunting, and warfare. In women, signs of fertility and fitness to bear are favored (healthy and generous breasts, a certain range of hip-to-waist ratios).
Men fixate on physical beauty and youth because under primitive conditions it is a leading indicator of the ability to bear and suckle children. Through most of history, plain or ugly women were bad risks for the next round of infectious diseases — and their children, carrying their genes, were too.
The last piece of the puzzle is that men and women have asymmetrical information about the parentage of their children. A woman is seldom in doubt about which children are the issue of her womb; a man, by contrast, can never be as sure which are the fruit of his seed. Thus, genetic selfishness motivates the woman in a mated pair to sacrifice more for her children than it does the man. This is why women abandon their children far less often than men do.
While women do respond to male good looks, it’s not the agenda-topper for them that it is for men. To understand why this is, it helps to know that the optimal mating strategy for a woman begins with hooking a good provider, a man who will stick around to support the kids in spite of not being as sure that he’s their father as the woman is of being their mother. Where men look for fitness to bear children, women seek the capability and willingness to raise them.
Thus, robust health and infection resistance, while desirable in a potential husband, are not the be-all and end-all. Behavior traits indicating attachment, loyalty, nurturance, and kindness are more important than a tight six-pack. Men instinctively worry about these things less because they know women are more certain of parentage and thus more tightly bonded to their children. Fitness-to-raise also means that indicators of success and social status count for more in men. Men marry health and beauty, women marry security and good prospects.
There is, however, one important exception — one circumstance under which women are just as physical, beauty-oriented, and “shallow” in their mating preferences as men. That’s when they’re cheating.
Both sexes have a genetic-diversity incentive to screw around, but it manifests in different ways. Again, the reason is parentage uncertainty. For a man, diversity tactics are simple — boff as many hot babes as possible, accepting that you don’t know which of their kids are yours and counting on stronger maternal bonding to ensure they will have at least one devoted parent around. Because a woman can be more sure of who her offspring are, her most effective diversity tactic is different — get married to a good provider and then cheat on him.
Under those circumstances, she doesn’t have to value good character in a mating partner as much; hubby, who can’t tell the kids aren’t his, will supply that. Thus the relative value of handsomeness goes up when a woman is taking a lover on the sly. Marrying the lord and screwing the gardener is an old game, and from a genetic-selfishness point of view a very effective one.
All this should explain why men can often get away with being slobs while women primp and preen. But it is wise to distrust evolutionary accounts that are simply just-so stories without making testable predictions. This one makes a few.
Most notably, it predicts that women who are less concerned about security and the the status of their offspring (e.g. wealthier, older, or for other reasons less dependent on a male provider) are more likely to be interested in bagging studmuffins. It also predicts that by contrast, men’s tendency to value physical beauty over most other qualities in a mate will change little, if at all, with their wealth level — because their instincts tell them health, not wealth, is the woman’s most important input.
It also explains why gays and lesbians have such opposed attitudes about beauty. In (male) gay mating both parties are instinctive beauty-seekers, while in lesbian matings both parties are instinctive security-seekers. Thus, gay culture is full of posturing pretty-boys and lesbian culture full of sincere plane janes.
As others have noted, women who habitually demand peacock males are making themselves less effective at competing for the good-husband traits that instinct tells them are more valuable; they will lose out in the reproductive race to women who can tolerate a faithful slob. On the flip side, the instinctive male fixation on fitness-to-bear means that all attempts to devalue female beauty in the mating market are doomed. Hetero- and bisexual women know this in their bones; it takes a lesbian to believe this is even a reasonable project — which is why agitation against “lookism” has been the least successful facet of feminist ideology.
The Ananova site brings us this little gem:
Baseball star’s wife makes ultimate threat
The wife of a top US baseball player has vowed to have sex with all of
his team mates if he ever cheats on her.
Anna Benson, a former model and stripper who was named Baseball’s
Hottest Wife by FHM, is married to Mets pitcher Kris Benson.
She told Howard Stern’s radio show: “I told him, cheat on me all
you want. If you get caught, I’m going to s***w everybody on your
entire team. Coaches, trainers, players. I would do everybody on his
Stern, egging her on, asked: “Even the coaches? What about, like, the
“Everybody would get a turn,” Anna pledged. “If my husband cheated on
me and embarrassed me like that, I will embarrass him more than he
could ever imagine.”
Uh huh. I see that, somehow, this woman managed to have a
career as a “model and stripper” without developing the faintest shred
of a clue how men think or respond to a challenge like this.
Bet on it. Somehere, a coalition of the most unattractive
no-hopers in the Mets organization — probably organized by some
dude with a beer gut, bad breath, and a bread-dough complexion who
harbors a long-simmering lust for the wench — is now organizing
a pool with which to engage the foxiest hookers in the Big Apple to
waylay her husband. What a pitch! Throw $50 in the kitty and
“Baseball’s Hottest Wife” will bang you too!
Think of it…everywhere Kris Benson goes, hired hotties in thongs,
lingerie, and leather will be lying in wait for him. They’ll hit on
him in bars and materialize unaccountably in his hotel room after away
games. They’ll try to give him blow jobs in taxis. Confederates
with cameras will lurk nearby.
I’m not sure which would be funnier…the version in which hubby
succumbs to some soiled lily’s charms and wifey screws her way through
the team before making an “Eeeew!” of disgust at the instigator and
splitting for Cancun with the hunky batboy? Or perhaps the version in
which hubby is cornered, hands over his crotch, by a gaggle of
rapacious prostitutes who decide they’re not being paid enough for
this shit and turn on organizer-dude to rend him limb from limb like
some posse of latter-day Bacchantes.
O the humanity. O the satirical-novel possibilities!
UPDATE: My wife Cathy, who is an actual woman, comments “You have to
wonder about her motives for making a threat like this in public. Me,
I suspect that doing the whole team is her fantasy…”
Naomi Wolf’s essay The Porn Myth strongly suggests that she lives on some other planet. It has been pretty well fisked over at Haight Speech and elsewhere. But so far, all of the people I’ve seen shredding it are women.
Perhaps this is because it’s politically incorrect for us panting, grunting persons-of-testicle to trash-talk a feminist icon like Ms. Wolf or say anything nice about porn. But here at Armed and Dangerous, we are fearless — and, more to the point, we have cleverly prepared our ground by having previously written an essay entitled Why does porn got to hurt so bad? in which we analyzed in detail why most porn is so intensely ugly.
So I’m going to say a few words about Ms. Wolf’s viewing-with-alarm, speaking as a man. A man who is quite in touch with his own desires, thank you, and has studied (yes, I mean studied) the effects of porn on his libido with some care.
In brief, my response to Ms. Wolf is: Haw haw haw har har hee hee hyuck *snort* giggle. Ma’am, you clearly have no freaking idea what you are talking about.
You show a young woman who makes herself sexually available but has trouble attracting the interest of a young man away from porn, and I’ll show you a young man who is either homosexual or stone dead.
Well, OK, I can imagine one exception. If the young woman in question is hideously deformed, the can’t-compete-with-porn insecurity you describe might be justified. But in general, it’s safe to predict that an offer of pussy from any woman who is not aggressively ugly will easily outbid the young man’s hand for the attention of his penis.
This is so not because young men are in any way enlightened, but because they are fizzing with hormones and instincts that are designed for the express purpose of inducing them to fuck…you know…women. Lots of them. Young men are not noted for being excessively discriminating in this regard. A biologist would explain this as r-type strategy — since his energy investment in reproduction is low, promiscuity is optimal.
Show me a young woman who thinks she can’t compete with porn for a man’s attention and I’ll show you one of two things. Either (a), she’s having galloping insecurity for some other reason and doesn’t notice that the man enjoys having sex with real women a hell of a lot more than he enjoys porn, or (b) she’s not having sex with that man.
There is one truth buried, oblique and nearly invisible, in Ms. Wolf’s informants’ reports. Sex with a real woman trumps porn, but porn trumps women who dangle sex in front of men and don’t deliver. Again, this has nothing to do with enlightenment, and whether the dangling is a deliberate tease, a product of inhibition, or simple ineptness at the courtship dance doesn’t matter much either. The most relevant causal fact is that young men get erections a lot, and when they get erections, having an orgasm tends to move to the top of the to-do-list and stay there.
Ms. Wolf, here is some simple advice you can give any woman who thinks she can’t compete with porn. First item on the checklist: is she fucking him? If the answer is “no”, then I regret to inform you that her grounds for complaint against the fact that he likes to jack off while looking at or thinking about pictures of porn babes are nil. Zip. Zero. You might as well try resenting water for flowing downhill.
On the other hand, if she is fucking him, he is not going to swap that for feelthy pixels. Trust me on this. I have a penis. I’ve been fucking women for nearly thirty years, and not once was I even remotely tempted to trade an actual roll in the hay for a fantasy image and my hand. Not even as a confused adolescent, and not even with the ones who were, relatively speaking, lousy in bed.
Any woman who thinks this is happening is evading a problem with the relationship, not with his sexual response. By pointing at porn, she is giving herself leave to ignore real issues. Like: am I joyful in bed? This has nothing to do with facials or Brazilian wax jobs — and, actually, as much to do with the capacity to receive pleasure from that man’s touch as the capacity to give him pleasure.
Here’s another secret about most men, most of the time: given a choice between a buff “porn-worthy” chick with a drawerful of sex toys who’s grudging or unresponsive in bed, or a plain jane with rudimentary technique who orgasms easily and generously, plain jane is the one we’re going to go back to. Again, this has a sound basis in evolutionary bio; orgasm is a sperm-retention behavior that increases the probability of conception, so an orgasming woman is saying pre-verbally “I want your child!”.
Having delivered a smackdown on Ms. Wolf’s silly thesis, I will now thump a number of her critics. Pretty much all of them report this exchange:
“Why have sex right away?” a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. “Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.”
“Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?”
“Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”
Several of the fiskings I’ve read avoid Ms. Wolf’s dim-bulbed ascription of that response to the insidious effects of porn only by writing off the kid as a callow, ignorant doofus. By doing so, they miss his point as completely as she did.
In fact, the kid is right. There is no mystery to sex. The mystery is in the stuff that is modulated onto sex like a signal onto a carrier wave, Relationships. Love. Intimacy. Mysticism. What this wise child is saying is that he wants to get the purely sexual tension out of the way so that he can get to the mystery.
Shame on Ms. Wolf for being in such a swivet about porn that she failed to notice this. But a greater shame on her fiskers, who had no single axe to grind and time for reflection — and thus, not even a bad excuse for their lack of perception.
Many people wrote me with comments on my essay
Why Does Porn Got To Hurt So Bad?. For all of those who
sent praise, thank you. It’s actually nice to know there are so many
people who would like to reject the bad-porn aesthetic. For all
of those who refrained from calling down fire and brimstone on me for messing with smut, also thank you. I’d have ignored you,
but thank you anyway.
I got two responses I thought were particularly interesting.
One was from a gentleman who works as a pornographer. He
opined that I overestimated the porn industry by supposing that
bad porn reflected market demand. The real problem (he claims)
is that it’s hard to find women who simultaneously don’t look
hard and jaded yet are willing to bare all for the camera. Most
outfits, he said, don’t even try. They settle for the fake-pearl-and-synthoboob look out of laziness, knowing it’s crap
but will sell well enough.
This doesn’t explain to me why, if Veronika Zemanova can look like a girl one might willingly take to bed in one picture and an unnatural womanoid-thing in another, they don’t try to photograph
women like her in the more natural mode more often. But perhaps
this one was just a trick of the light.
Another respondent proposes the interesting theory that the
girls are dressed (or rather undressed) to look inaccessible
because if they weren’t, there might be an epidemic of stalking
as various creeps and wackos tried to get next to them.
It would be touching to believe the porn industry cares that
much about its performers, but I’m skeptical.
Finally, I got mail from
“German Lucy”, who said she was honored to appear in my
essay and quite enjoyed it. Rather to my astonishment, her email style
suggests that she really is “as sweet-natured and unjaded as she
looks”. She answered my questions plausibly and thoughtfully and didn’t even pitch me to sign up for her site.
Holy Diogenes, Batman! I think I might have found the
one honest porn star…
A couple days ago I chased a link over to unablogger and found myself unexpectedly confronted by pictures of naked women. This picture, in particular. And I noticed something unusual — which was that I liked it.
Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m a functioning heterosexual male; I enjoy looking at naked women. It’s most pictures of naked women I can’t stand. I’ve found by experience that most of the vast amounts of pornography available on the Internet leave me feeling more repelled than aroused. And not out of puritanism either; I have no intrinsic moral objection to porn, and I judge that the consequentialist arguments against it don’t stand the reality test.
No, the truth is that I find most porn subtly and deeply ugly. Unablogger’s picture (which happens to be of a Czech model named Veronika Zemanova) was a sufficiently glaring exception that it stimulated me to think seriously about why.
It was immediately clear to me that Ms. Zemanova’s physique was not the primary reason this photograph struck me as an exception. Ms. Zemanova unquestionably has a very shapely and appealing body and a pretty face. However, I have seen many photographs of women with equally lovely bodies and equally pretty faces that I nevertheless found ugly and unstimulating as entire compositions, without being completely clear about why.
My initial reaction was reinforced when I searched for other images of Ms. Zemanova and discovered ugly generic porn. The difference, clearly, was not in Ms. Zemanova’s body but in way the attitude and setting — one might say the implied narrative — of her pictures differed. Time for some analysis…
Like any good scientist, I proceeded to do some research. I surfed to a well-known porn index site and random-sampled the content, sticking to pictures of single unclad women in order to control some obvious variables. Using my own hypothalamus as a calibration instrument, I graded the samples into “excellent” (I want to keep a copy) “good” (pleasant to look at) “mediocre” (mechanically arousing but unpleasant) and “bad” (just plain unpleasant). There were very, very few “excellents”, and almost none of the caliber of Unablogger’s image of Ms. Zemanova.
After the first grading pass, I re-sorted the images in an attempt to compensate for the presence of particular physical features that I know are powerful sexual releasers for me (red hair is an example). I did this because, to the extent possible, I wanted to try to separate my autonomic arousal reaction to the images from my esthetic and psychological reaction. So I downgraded images in which the women had obvious, powerful releaser traits for me.
Now, this was hardly a controlled experiment. And it’s just me. But once I corrected for my autonomic biases, a clear pattern emerged, especially in the “bad” category. Many images contained elements that were, at least to me, anti-arousing. Over-styled hair — especially over-styled blonde hair. Fake pearls. Strappy high heels being worn by otherwise naked women. Feather boas and tacky hooker lingerie. Bloated silicone breasts. Excessive makeup; excessive makeup was, in fact a rule even in most otherwise uncompromised images.
The pattern was not surprising; I had had some insight about this before without thinking it through completely. Bad porn is full of the fetish signifiers of sexual allure, to the point where they crowd out the reality of sexual allure. Porn models often look more like women trying desperately hard to be sexy than they look like sexy women. There is a wrongness there.
Contrast this picture of a model named India Allen with Ms. Zemanova’s picture. I have no doubt that Ms. Allen is quite a fetching young woman; indeed, I chose her image because on the physical-traits level she can compete with Ms. Zemanova quite handily. But this image is not good porn; it is crowded with elements that distract one from Ms. India’s native sexiness. The silly carousel horse. The glare spot behind her left hip. The teddy artfully half-removed despite the fact that she is obviously not planning to strip for sex in the immediate future.
I can’t speak for other men, but my gut reaction is “What is all this bullshit?” Where the Unablogger photo of Ms. Zemanova offers us a narrative about sex (“I’m taking my clothes off because I want to have sex with the person I’m looking at — yes, that would be you.”) Ms. Allen’s offers us a narrative about being sexy — looking alluring in a fantasy context that makes actual sex quite unlikely. How many of us, after all, have ever gotten laid anywhere near a carousel horse?
And typical porn is actually far worse than this. Mostly the models have a vacant-eyed, stunned look to them. They frequently contort themselves into bizarre positions that would make sex impossible and aren’t really plausible as a stage of foreplay either. Or they sprawl, surrounded by fetish objects, passively waiting to be fucked. They don’t smile; their faces are either mindlessly slack or locked in a rictus of simulated passion as obviously fake as a three-dollar bill.
As I looked at more bad-porn images, I found myself waking up to a deep bewilderment. How could these pictures arouse anyone who was actually paying attention to them? Why is there a market for this crap?
When I remember the good sex I’ve had, or imagine the good sex I might have, my head is not populated by vacant-eyed women surrounded by fetish objects and passively waiting to be fucked. No; my fantasies, and my experience, is of women who are intelligent horny animals like me; live-eyed, smiling, fully awake and quite ready to seize the initiative if I drop it, thank you. For real women, the meaning of the sex is the sex, not the ooh-look-I’m-hot posing that goes before it. The Unablogger image of Ms. Zemanova looks like she has a real woman’s attitude; most of her competitors’ pictures (and indeed most of her own) don’t.
Bad porn is superficially sexual in a way as stylized as Kabuki theater, but deeply anti-erotic. To be aroused by it, you have to be reading the code that tells you are supposed to be aroused — the artificial boobs, the decorticated stares, the garter belts. If you delete or mask out that code, no actual sexual charge remains — there is nothing left that connects your desire to the subject of the picture.
Mediocre porn, though mechanically arousing enough to facilitate masturbation by someone with a case of serious hormonal back-pressure, has only the subject’s body parts and the viewer’s autonomic response going for it. For very few men is it plausible to have sex with a lipstick-and-eyeshadow-wearing starlet/bimbo type with 40DD breasts who’s somehow had her skin lacquered to a gloss that resembles model-airplane dope and just happens to be bent over a motorcycle while stark naked. Sorry, no sale; a real woman would at least have her hair a bit mussed.
The fetishistic perfection of such scenes actually puts distance between the subject and the viewer’s desire. It removes the subject from any real world in which one might meet her and actually take her to bed. Autonomic response to the picture itself is the limit of the possible.
Good porn, by contrast, conveys a sense of plausibility. You believe the women in it exist. You can imagine meeting them. You can imagine liking one of them, having her like you, and the two of you sliding off somewhere for a mutually happy fuck. Being aroused by such a picture makes emotional sense; you don’t have to either fight or ignore any sense that the subject is an inaccessible fantasy.
The contrast is perfectly evident in two pictures of Ms. Zemonova. In this one, she looks like an unusually sexy but normal young woman in the act of removing her panties while she looks at the viewer. The narrative is clear; she is stripping for action, and you are the fortunate object of her desire. Women do this sort of thing. If you are not a virgin, you’ve probably seen it happen, though perhaps never with a partner quite as exuberantly mammalian as Ms. Zemanova. This is a plausible scenario.
In this picture, by contrast, Ms. Zemanova is a heavily cosmeticized, unsettlingly glossy womanoid-thing in an unlikely position, masturbating herself and gazing off into space over your right shoulder. You are not involved. Nothing like this would be even remotely plausible in your bathroom — if only because sensible women masturbate in their bedrooms, where they can collapse onto something more comfortable than a tile floor when they orgasm. This picture is not presenting a plausible scenario, unless you are the sort of wealthy British rock star who builds huge custom bathrooms in which to boff acquiescent supermodels.
This image makes an ironic example of good porn because it demonstrates that the apparent lack of artifice in good porn can be just as misleading as the fetish objects of bad porn. This innocent-looking girl-next-door posing as though she’s giving her boyfriend a private thrill is actually the star character of a large and very raunchy German porn site. While one can hope she has nevertheless remained as sweet-natured and unjaded as she looks, betting money on this possibility would be imprudent at best.
Nor, despite the partial clothedness of my two examples, am I arguing that good porn has to be soft-core, either. This woman is leaving little to the imagination. But she has a nice smile — something which, in a medium supposedly devoted to pleasure, is astonishingly rare. I searched through many hundreds of images and found almost none that combined full nudity with a simple human smile. Symbolically, the first one I found had disappeared by the following day, and I won’t lay odds that the link above will stay good.
Very well, the facts are in hand; as many of them as I’m likely to get, anyway — I’ve had as much exposure to bad porn as I can tolerate. Let’s return to the central question. Why does pornography have to hurt so bad? Why is there so much bad porn out there and so little good stuff?
At one level the answer is fairly obvious. Like the purveyors of any other commodity, the people who produce porn have to respond to demand. Indeed, because production is cheap and the sales cycle is short, market selection can be expected to drive production to match demand very rapidly. There is no evidence of massive market-rigging, and good porn is no more expensive to produce than bad porn — in fact, it may be less expensive (the same models can be used for good and bad, and the good stuff needs less in the way of elaborate props). Therefore, if most porn is bad, it’s because most porn consumers want it to be bad.
Let’s unpack that. The trash percentage of porn is so high that, unless the producers are collectively insane, most consumers must actually want images of women who are doing the bad-porn thing. That most porn consumers actually like the trash is further suggested by the tacky, gaudy, crude design of almost all porn websites. They scream, they leer, they spew misspellings and degrading language at high volume. The sheer aggressive ugliness is far too consistent to be the result of incompetence.
So the real question is this: why do most porn consumers seek trash? Why do they buy the fetish objects, the implausable poses, the unobtainable women? Why welcome such an anti-erotic distance between their sexual fantasies and their sexual reality?
We can certainly imagine how it might be different. Why don’t porn consumers choose images they might plausibly act out, with partners rather sexier than the ones they have but still attainable? In fact some do; most porn sites have an `amateurs’ category — but it’s marketed like a minority taste along with pictures of older women and fat women.
I am forced to the unhappy conclusion that plausibility is exactly what most porn consumers don’t want. That somehow they feel better when their fantasies are safely distant from reality. All the possible reasons I can imagine for this are very sad.
One reason could be simple old-fashioned sexual guilt. If you believe sex is sinful and desire is dirty, if you have that old madonna/whore complex, than you may be more comfortable thinking of porn models as whores. You may indeed, be so conditioned to associate sex with sin that you can’t get it off without feeling wicked first.
A more plausible construction for most potential porn consumers today is that they have issues about female power. Men who get lots of attention from attractive three-dimensional women are not likely to be buying porn-site subscriptions. Therefore, we can safely assume that the consumers who define demand patterns for porn producers generally feel that their sex life is hemmed in by female choices and the female power to refuse. Defining the objects of their desire as “cum-sucking sluts”, to be used but not related to any emotional way, is a kind of equalizing move in the sexual-power game.
This theory differs sharply from conventional feminist critiques of porn, in which porn seen as a ratification of existing power relationships that privilege males. The difference is testable. If the conventional theory is correct, porn should be becoming more and more irrelevant as women become more independent — or, at least, assume the nostalgic character of references to a golden age of male privilege that has already passed.
On the other hand, if bad porn is a compensation for male feelings of powerlessness, we should expect it to become steadily tackier, uglier, more strident, and more popular in direct proportion to the degree that female power in the real world increases.
I think it’s pretty clear which of those worlds we are living in. The gloomy conclusion is that porn is likely to get worse before it gets better. If it ever does.
UPDATE: Have since corresponded with “German Lucy”, the woman whose picture I described as an ironic example of good porn. It’s nice when cynicism turns out to be a mistake; she really is like that.
A wise and cynical friend of mine once described the motivation behind puritanism as “the fear that someone might be fucking and getting away with it”. I think the subtext of the periodic public panics about teen sex has always been resentment that sexy young things just might be getting away with it — enjoying each others’ bodies thoughtlessly, without consequences, without pregnancy, without marriage, without “meaningful relationships”, without guilt, without sin.
The traditional rationalizations for adult panic about teen sex are teen pregnancy and STDs. But if teen pregnancy really had much to do with adult panic, anti-sex rhetoric would have changed significantly after reliable contraception became available. It hasn’t. Similarly, we don’t hear a lot of adult demand for STD testing in high schools. No; something else is going on here, something more emotional and deeper than pragmatic fears.
Conservatives and liberals alike are attached to the idea that sex ought to be controlled, be heavy, have consequences. The Judeo-Christian tradition of repression, which yokes sex to marriage and reproduction, is still powerful among conservatives. Liberals have replaced it with an ethic in which sex is OK when it is harnessed to building relationships or personal growth or therapy, but must always be undertaken with adult mindfulness.
Both camps are terrified of mindless sex, of hedonism, of the pure friction fuck. Lurking beneath both Judeo-Christian and secularized taboos is a fear that too much pleasure will damn us — or reduce us to the status of animals, so fixated on the drug of orgasm that we will become unfit for marriage and society and adult responsibility. What has not changed beneath contingent worries about pregnancy and STDs is the more fundamental fear that pleasure corrupts.
And beneath that fear lurks something uglier — the envy that dares not speak its name. The unpalatable truth is that a teenager’s “immature” hormone-pumped capacity to have lots of mindless sex makes adults jealous. The conscious line is that the kids have got to be stopped before they have more sex than is good for them — the unconscious line is that they’ve got to be stopped before they have more fun than we can stand.
Thus the curious sense of relief that lurks behind a lot of the propaganda about the dangers of AIDS, even the version of it retailed by lifestyle liberals. Being able to tell the kids that they shouldn’t casually fuck around because it will kill them feels good; it neatly rationalizes our resentment of their capacity for pleasure.
But resentment makes for lousy morality just as surely as it makes for lousy politics. It prevents us from forming rational strategies to avoid the bad side-effects of teen sex, mires us in denial and cant. The real issue here is not the teens’ experience but our envy of their youth, innocence, and sexual capacity. And don’t think the kids don’t sense this!
Teenagers, whatever their other failings, are keenly attuned to the smell of adult hypocrisy; they can tell when our stated reasons for telling them to keep their pants zipped are just cover, even when they lack the experience to understand what’s really bothering us. By bullshitting them, we forfeit our own moral authority. We damage our ability to intervene when the kids really do have to be protected from their impulses.
There may be good reasons to stop teens from screwing each other with the avidity that nature intended. But we adults won’t be able to focus on those, or make a case for them that is honest and persuasive, until we stop kidding ourselves about why teen sex makes us panic. Until we face our sexual fears and resentments squarely, the kids won’t listen. And, arguably, shouldn’t listen.
Most of the participants in the recent blogospheric
mini-flap about a Yale Press Daily article on the fine points of
either make crude jokes, dismiss the article as either a sophomoric
exercise in tweak-the-fogies or shocking evidence of the depravity of
I think both are missing the real point. Well, OK, the
tweak-the-fogies camp is not completely off base, but there is
something the Natalie Krinsky who wrote this item of tweakery
understands that they don’t seem to. And that is this: today,
sexual competence is a mainstream virtue — part of the
normal toolkit of adults, like table manners or choosing appropriate
And by “sexual competence” I specifically do not mean just the
ability to get laid, but being good in bed once you get there. Sexual
competence includes the ability to give and receive sexual pleasure.
It includes the ability to express one’s playfulness, affection, lust,
passion, and love towards a sexual partner with physical acts; to give
pleasure with behavior that is considered, purposed, and conscious,
and which expresses pride in and enjoyment of one’s own sexual
In the dark and backward abysm of time (that is, before about
1973), nice people weren’t really supposed to work at being
good in bed. Only prostitutes, gigolos and sex symbols were allowed
the privilege of treating sex as a conscious art of pleasure.
Everybody else was, essentially, only allowed to be good in bed only
by accident of endowment.
There was a limited exception for married couples and other people
passionately in love. They were permitted to improve their sexual
competence as long as the goal was to affirm the relationship. The
idea that competence at giving sexual pleasure could be a good in
itself, even in a one-night stand, was simply not part of our culture.
The outraged critics of Ms. Krinsky’s article seem still to be living in
But the reality around them has changed. Alex Comfort’s The
Joy of Sex was probably the breakthrough, nearly thirty years
ago now. Today’s college kids have grown up in an environment in
which questions of sexual competence (and expectations about it) go
way beyond “will-she/won’t-she?” and “can he avoid coming too soon if
Today, even teenage boys and girls expect each other to cultivate
sexual competence; those who don’t are simply not competitive in the
dating-and-mating game. Ms. Krinsky’s article may have been intended
to tweak the fogies — but it also describes learning behavior that is
perfectly adaptive for today’s environment, because oral sex is a
gateway behavior for the aspiring hedonist.
That is, learning how to give good head is usually the first
pleasure-giving behavior in sex that is not a straight-line
elaboration of instinct. Kissing, caressing, and intercourse are
wired in; one can refine technique, but the behavioral basis is
already present. Oral sex is the usually the first behavior sexual
hedonists acquire that has to be completely learned.
A significant and related fact is that taking pleasure
from giving head has to be learned, by a kind of transference from the
pleasure taken by one’s partner. Experienced fellatrices and
cunnilinguists may learn to take direct sensual pleasure in the act,
but that usually follows from and is conditioned in by the
transference effect rather than leading it. Thus, for beginners,
giving oral sex is a particularly unselfish and adult skill.
Finally, for most pairs of partners oral sex is the most important
method of orgasmic gratification other than vaginal intercourse. So
learning to give good head is not just a gateway behavior, it’s one
that tends to remain central in the adult repertoire.
Therefore, a teenage girl teaching herself how to give a good
blowjob is not merely learning how to give a blowjob. She is
declaring her intention to acquire the (now mainstream) virtue of
sexual competence. She is matter-of-factly reaching not just for a
particular skill that she knows will be expected of her as an adult,
but to learn the attitude and sensitivity that will take her
further on the path of sexual ability. She is growing herself
Looked at this way, it’s hard to see why anyone living in 2002
should find Ms. Krinsky’s report of her self-training exceptionable. One
might just as well object to her teaching herself how to cook, or drive,
I’m on the road in Thailand, speaking at a U.N. conference on sustainable A
development in the Third World. Earlier today I listened to a presentation
on the effects of sex education for women. The presentation mentioned some
cultural value conflicts about sex education, but it occurred to me that it
didn’t touch the biggest one. To wit: worldwide, the teachers want the
kids to learn abstinence, but what the kids to learn is technique.