The pornographers and their apologists have done a masterful job of focusing the debate on the choices of women who participate in the industry. If women choose to perform in pornography, who are we to condemn them? I agree; I have never condemned the women in pornography, nor has anyone in the feminist anti-pornography movement. Many complex questions arise from women’s participation in pornography, none of which are my subject today. Instead, I want to refocus on men and our choices. The questions I want to ask are not about why women choose to perform in pornography, but why men choose to masturbate to pornography. What does that choice that a man makes to masturbate to pornography mean for women, and what does it mean for the man?
My argument is simple: When men choose to spend their money on pornography, they are (1) contributing to the subordination of women in the sexual exploitation industries; and (2) robbing themselves of the possibility of being fully human.
On (1): For the sake of argument, let’s assume that some women who perform in pornography make completely free choices to participate, as women in the industry often assert that they do, with absolutely no constraints or limitations on them. That could be the case, though it doesn’t alter the unavoidable conclusion that some number of women in the industry — likely a majority, and quite possibly a significant majority — choose under conditions that make choice much more complex (histories of sexual abuse, economic hardship, perceived and/or actual lack of opportunities, within a culture that glamorizes the sex industry).
In most cases, the consumer has no reliable way to judge which women are participating in the industry as a result of a meaningfully free choice. When a consumer plays a DVD at home, he has no information that could help him make such a judgment. Therefore, he likely is using a woman whose choice to perform was not meaningfully free.
But what if he had that information about the nature of the conditions, objective and subjective, under which the women made that choice? Even that is not so simple. So long as the industry is profitable and a large number of women are needed to make such films, it is certain that some number of those women will be choosing under conditions that render the concept of “free choice” virtually meaningless. When a man buys or rents a DVD, he is creating the demand for pornography that will lead to some number of women being used — that is, being hurt in some fashion, psychologically and/or physically — no matter what he knows or thinks he knows about a specific woman. [For a cogent discussion of this argument in the context of prostitution, see M. Madden Dempsey, “Rethinking Wolfenden: Prostitute-Use, Criminal Law, and Remote Harm,” Criminal Law Review (2005): 444-455. ]
So, men’s choices to buy or rent pornography are complicated by two realities. First, he likely can’t know the conditions under which women made their choices, and hence can’t know how meaningful the choices were. And second, even if he could make such a determination about specific women in a specific film he watches, the demand for pornography that his purchase helps create ensures that some other women will be hurt.
On (2): During a discussion of negative sexual experiences, I once heard a man say, “There’s no such thing as a bad orgasm.” I assume that he meant getting off was getting off — no matter what the circumstances or methods, it was always good. But there are, of course, bad orgasms. There are orgasms that hurt people, mostly women and children. And there are orgasms that keep men cut off from ourselves.
In using pornography, we men not only objectify women but also objectify ourselves. In my experience, which is also the experience of many men I’ve talked to over the years, we feel ourselves go emotionally numb when viewing pornography and masturbating, a state of being “checked out” emotionally. To enter into the pornographic world and experience that intense sexual rush, many men have to turn off some of the emotional reactions that typically are connected to sexual experience with a real person — a sense of the other’s humanity, an awareness of being present with another person, the recognition of something outside our own bodies. For me, while watching pornography over the past decade as a researcher, I could feel it happen, that emotional numbness, that objectifying of self.
Meg Baldwin, a feminist law professor at Florida State University who left academic life to run a women’s center, once gave me more insight into this process. Baldwin, who has worked for years with women who are prostituted, said one of the common experiences of those women is coping with the unprovoked rage and violence that johns will direct at them. Baldwin told me that after hearing countless stories about this reaction by men, she concluded the rage was rooted in this self-objectification. She sketched this process:
Men typically go to prostitutes to have a sexual experience without having to engage emotionally. Yet when they are in the sexual situation, they sometimes find themselves having those very same emotional reactions they wanted to avoid, simply because our emotional lives cannot be completely controlled. When they feel those things they wanted to suppress, the johns lash out at the most convenient target — the women who they believe caused them to feel what they didn’t want to feel.
If Baldwin is right — and, based on my own experience, I believe she is — we could say that men turn women into objects in order to turn ourselves into objects, so that we can split off emotion from body during sex, in search of a sexual experience in which we don’t have to feel. But because sex is always more than a physical act, men seeking this split-off state often find themselves having strong emotional reactions, which can get channeled into violence and cruelty.
Again, the women in those situations endure the violence connected to men’s inability to be fully human. But this system also doesn’t produce truly healthy lives for men. Is an orgasm really worth all that? I think there are lots of bad orgasms in a world in which men are socialized to suppress the complex emotional realities involved in sex. Women suffer the consequences in dramatic ways. Men often suffer quietly, until they lash out. When men can’t face our own pain, what are the changes we can empathize with women’s pain?