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.