Comes Naturally #100 (August 25, 2000):
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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August 25, 2000
Copyright © 2000 David Steinberg


There's a lot of pornography I don't like. There's a lot of pornography I find disturbing. There's a lot of pornography I find offensive. There's a lot of pornography I think the world would be better off without.

There, I've said it. Call me whatever names you will.

In these times when so many hypocritical, antisexual moralists and self-serving politicians are trying to wipe all graphic depiction of sex off the face of the earth -- in the name of morality, decency, and saving the children from abuse and degradation -- it's easy for those of us who go around defending sex and sexual freedom to feel that it is our social and political duty to defend the content of all pornography at all costs. It isn't.

We don't, for example, have to defend pornography in which people are blatantly cruel, nasty, dismissive, or even inconsiderate, to each other. We don't have to defend pornography that is blatantly, even proudly, misogynistic -- pornography that celebrates and makes sexy hating and disrespecting women. We don't have to defend pornography that is blatantly racist, that reinforces the notion that people of color don't deserve to be treated with the same respect and validity that white people take for granted. We don't have to defend pornography that celebrates forcing one's sexual desire on an unwilling partner. We don't have to defend pornography that reinforces the still remarkably popular notion that women are put on this planet to be the sexual playthings of men, to be used for the gratification of male desire while women's sexual feelings and desires are conveniently ignored or trampled.

What we do have to defend, loudly and forcefully, is the right of anyone to make, distribute, watch, and enjoy whatever kind of pornography they want, even the pornography that may leave sex-loving but socially-conscious souls bored, disgusted, angry, or disturbed. There's no question about bad pornography's right to exist, as far as I'm concerned. Freedom of speech, after all, is not a conceit invented by pornographers to keep themselves in business. It's the cornerstone of what we like to call the American Way of Life, and it means that even the most offensive, potentially dangerous, ideas and values get to be advocated freely in public.

But it's one thing to defend the right of something to exist, and something entirely different to apologize for what we neither like nor respect, to act as if we don't sometimes have strong, negative opinions about particular pornographic films or photographs and what they say about being a sexual woman or a sexual man, about sex itself, or about race, love, intimacy, and the whole variety of ways we treat each other in human relationships.

I can say, truly, that I believe the world would be better off without a good deal of the porn that's being gobbled up so hungrily in every nook and cranny of the nation and also say, without contradiction, that everyone should have free access to the worst of it. I happen to think the world would be better off without most of what's shown on tv and in the movies, but I would never therefore try to restrict what people see and hear.

Every Nazi, every racist, every bigot, every sex-fearing evangelist gets to have their say in public, to market their ideas and creative expressions as best they can, to try to convince others of their beliefs. But these people and their ideas make the world -- your world, my world -- a lesser, uglier, more troubled place in which to live. So does the worst of pornography and I think it's time that we who stand up so loudly for free sexual expression also make loudly known that bad pornography is bad, and why we think that's so.

There was a time when pornography of any kind -- no matter how badly made, no matter how questionable its social values -- was an important statement of sexual rebellion, rebellion against the monolithic antisexual bias of the culture at large. In the repressed 50's, the presence of a photo of a woman with bare breasts in a new mass-circulation magazine called Playboy was truly a revolutionary blow for sexual freedom. Nude photos of that sort were simply not available then, except in the most shadowy and disreputable venues. The idea that a magazine sold openly at bookstores and newsstands would talk openly about sex and show images clearly designed to arouse sexual desire was cutting edge and worth defending for that fact alone.

But now it's some 50 years later and the profound sexual silence of the American mid-century is history, ancient history, even if people are still not totally comfortable talking about sex around the family dinner table. In the year 2000, there is nothing cutting edge about images that graphically depict nude women, nude men, seductive women, seductive men -- even nude and seductive people who are transgendered and people of all genders and orientations -- having graphic sex with each other in a thousand different ways.

There actually has been sexual progress in this culture. The word is out: People have sex in all kinds of ways, with all kinds of partners, in and out of marriages, here, there, everywhere. People (lots and lots of people) take off their clothes and have sex in the presence of other people -- people with still cameras and video cameras and movie cameras -- with the result that all the rest of us get to watch people take off their clothes and have sex with each other. We get to enjoy them, masturbate to them, have partner sex of our own while we watch them, pretty much any time we feel so inclined. For better and worse, we also get to learn from them, and to compare ourselves to them.

The once-new notion that there are sexually exciting images available for viewing is something essentially mainstream in this age when X-Rated videos are for sale and rent in every small town grocery store, and graphic sexual images of limitless variety are available throughout the world on tens of thousands of Internet websites. The ten thousand and first person who makes yet another totally unimaginative sex video or sets up yet another interchange able sex site on the web can hardly claim to be striking a blow for sexual freedom. Most likely, s/he's just out to make a naughty buck -- a buck to which s/he, to repeat, is fully entitled. Making money by titillating is as proper and American as Barnum and Bailey, but it's not cutting edge. What's more, it's rarely imaginative or artistic, and -- most disturbing to me -- it's often downright meanspirited.

Now, just to be clear, I'm not talking about porn that uses issues of race, gender, or power to make a point about human nature, about men and women, or about sex. "The Story of O" is an elaborate tale in which a stylized form of degradation turns out to be a path to enlightenment and liberation. S/m porn videos, however badly made, often address complex issues of how consciously using power dynamics in sex can be an incredible turn on. Other porn videos make deliberate use of how forbidden sexual acts can be the root of powerful sexual fantasy and sexual experience.

But the porn that bothers me the most doesn't use the issues of power, race, and gender to make a deliberate statement, even a deliberate statement I might disagree with. I'm thinking of the porn in which the way some people are dismissed and discounted by others is so taken for granted that it's just part of the general ambiance of the situation. Where the only statement being made when the woman is forced to swallow cum from a spoon even though it obviously revolts her is that what this person wants and enjoys is totally irrelevant. Where the message conveyed by the fact that the woman being fucked in the ass is obviously in pain (and not the fun kind) and that none of the men around her cares in the slightest is that this woman's pain need not distract the rest of us from our sexual enjoyment of watching her and what is happening to her.

As the issue of whether people will be allowed to see pictures of sex fades into history, more subtle and complicated issues about sexual imagery become relevant. The new questions have to do with what kind of sex we see, what values and perspectives these sexual images convey, and what effect mass availability of this particular sexual material has on people, on relationships, and on society over the long haul. Which is why it's important now for sex-loving, freedom-defending people to move beyond knee-jerk defense of all porn to a more complex critique of the medium.

Obviously, to do that we will have to drop our embattled, circle-the-wagons mentality long enough to be willing to go public with our criticisms and risk alienating some of the people who see themselves as brothers and sisters in the battle for sexual freedom. We will have to drop what has become a kind of Code of Silence as deeply valued and communally enforced as that among cops, doctors, and lawyers.

Of course, when you're fighting the good fight, it's always tempting (and much too often politically effective) to reduce complex issues to sound bites, to simplify people on opposite sides of an issue to the Good Guys (us) and the Bad Guys (them), to pretend to being purer than we are, to pretend that the other guys have nothing whatsoever worthwhile to say. In the old tv Westerns, the Good Guys -- in addition to being clean-shaven and handsome -- literally wore white cowboy hats, while the Bad Guys -- in addition to sporting sneers and a general aura of grubbiness -- wore hats that were black. It made it easy to tell who was who -- fine for escapist entertainment, but not fine when it comes to real people addressing real social issues.

Unfortunately for those who like their coffee black, their children free of malicious thought, their women pure, their men strong and brave, their ethics simple, and their choices clear, reality is a good deal muddier than Hollywood movies or literal-minded religious morality plays suggest. We of the self-declared progressive, open-minded, liberal, sex-positive Left love to point out how dogmatic, self-righteous, and simple-minded our nemeses of the conservative, sex-fearing, pornography-trashing Right can be. I, for one, have certainly enjoyed, in more than a few satirical columns, running the excesses of hypocritical, right-wing, holier-than-thou reductionism up the flagpole for all to see and ridicule.

But what about when the shoe is on the other foot? When we're the ones who are doing the simplifying, acting as if we're more saintly than we really are, pretending that the issues most important to us are cut-and-dried battles between sense and nonsense, open-mindedness and bigotry, life-affirming joy and life-denying fear? How good are we at acknowledging the embarrassing truths that go beyond "Four Legs Good/Two Legs Bad?"

There is, to be sure, real danger that any criticism we make of porn based on its content can play into the hands of those who attack all pornography as perverted, those who blame porn for a wealth of societal problems that have nothing to do with the availability of sexual material, those who want to eliminate any kind of sexual imagery -- no matter how artful, loving, or humane -- from the social landscape entirely.

But the danger of having our criticism misinterpreted and manipulated by the antisexual crusade should not keep us from telling the truth when it comes to how we feel about porn that we find troubling. My friend Richard Pacheco calls it a question of putting art above politics. But, beyond that, it is also a matter of ethical politics. Maybe in some cases the ends justify the means, but far more often it is only by sticking to ethical means that we can hope to arrive at any kind of meaningful social change in the end.

We certainly demand nothing less from people engaged in other difficult social struggles. We expect responsible people concerned about the important issue of childhood sexual abuse to speak out against the excesses of the Recovered Memory Syndrome industry, even though they are afraid that by doing so they may help a reluctant nation continue to deny the prevalence of child abuse. We expect responsible people fighting for racial equality to speak out against the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan, even though such criticism pits black against black in generally hostile white-controlled media that continue to minimize the significance of racism in America.

The embarrassing truth for me about commercial pornography is that there's a significant amount of it (just how much is a separate, debatable question) that is poorly made, unaesthetic, repetitive, unimaginative kitsch. And there is, more importantly, a great deal of porn that celebrates and claims as sexy ways of relating to other people that none of us would leave uncriticized were it to appear outside the realm of sexual material. I'm talking about porn where the basic assumption is one of nastiness, disrespect, selfishness, coldness, delight in taking advantage of someone else, delight in making another person feel small and worthless.

Sexual pioneer Marco Vassi -- a gifted pornographer in his own right -- was correct when he noted, some twenty years ago, that part of the reactionary outcry about pornography is an expression of righteous indignation at the shabby way that much pornography addresses sex in general, and women in particular. There will, of course, always be bad porn, just as there will always be bad novels, bad movies, bad architecture, and bad restaurants. Promoting what's good, denigrating what's bad, helping people sort their way through more material than they know what to do with, is what responsible criticism is about in any field. As pornography emerges from the underground as a mainstream medium in its own right, it's time to subject it to the same demands and criticisms that we make of other social products. In the end, it's the truth -- the whole truth -- that will most make us free.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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