Lili Bee continues her interview with Dr. Robert Jensen about pornography and what it says about our society.
Read part one of the interview here.
Lili: Let’s switch gears a bit here, and talk about something that seems to come up a lot in discussion and on comment threads. It concerns the use of erotica vs. porn. Putting aside for a moment, that many porn users curiously morph into erotica-only users when pressed about the violence depicted in the great majority of online porn.
To me, this feels like cognitive dissonance—you know, the porn user claims to be a great guy or girl who just looooves, even worships women, but he has this super ability to compartmentalize his fantasies of porn that degrades women. Ahem. Ok, let’s put that on the shelf for now.
Can you talk about the difference between someone using erotica vs. someone using more hardcore porn? Would you consider it less damaging, equally damaging…what are your thoughts here?
Bob: The distinction between different forms of sexually explicit material—that world has been carved up in different ways: the old and sort of enduring one is the difference between erotica and pornography—the assertion that there is a category of sexually explicit material that is rooted in domination and subordination, and problematic that we’ll call pornography.
And then a category that’s rooted in mutuality and egalitarian dynamics which we’ll call erotica.
And the question is, Can we create a definition for a category that we call erotica that is not problematic?
Well, one overall point I would make is that the need to create that category, I think, has to be questioned.
Because in my experience, what that does is, then people create this category of “the bad stuff” which they call porn, which then they don’t use.
And then all questions about their use of so-called erotica become irrelevant, because that’s “the good stuff” and that’s the stuff that’s okay.
And I think we need to challenge that.
And we have to ask the simple question: “In this culture, in this moment, why do so many people seem to need pictures?” That is, what is it about living in a mass-mediated culture in which more and more of our experience not only of sexuality but of our world, is mediated… that apparently drives people to need mediated images of sexuality? I mean, what’s going on? And that’s a fundamental question I think we should be asking of this culture. Now, my own view is that there’s not a single answer to the question of the appropriateness of what we’ll call erotica.
I find that in my own life, I don’t feel compelled to use it, I don’t see a need for it, and the reason is I think for me, at least, there is something about the nature of intimacy and sexuality that doesn’t translate to media when it’s represented in graphic, sexually explicit fashion. There’s something lost. There’s something about the nature of the experience that’s lost, and I choose not to do that. That’s my choice based on self-reflection, and a lot of thought about this. I don’t expect that everybody’s going to come to the same choice, but I think it’s a relevant question everybody should ask.
So if you ask me: Would I rather have people watching hardcore, graphic pornography in which women are routinely the subjects of cruelty and degradation, or graphic, sexually explicit material where there’s some level of mutuality, and an underlying egalitarian dynamic, yes, I would rather the latter.
But I think the question to ask before that, is, “Why do people feel a need for this kind of material?”
Now, that’s not to say that any depiction of sexuality is somehow inherently problematic. I would say that as long as people have a creative capacity, that is, as long as human beings have been able to represent the world in what we basically call art, there’s probably been art about human sexuality for the simple reason that much of our sexuality is mystery to us.
I mean, we understand the biology and the mechanics of it, but sexual drive and all those sorts of things are kind of mysterious, we don’t really understand it very well. That’s why there’s a lot of art about sex. Because we use art, we use our creative capacities, to explore those things we can no longer understand, that are bumped into the limits of traditional, rational, logical thought.
So when you explore something and you’ve reached the limits of how you can understand it through a more traditional, rational process, we often explore it through art, through our creative capacities. I would say that’s why there’s so much art about sex and so much art about God, because God is another concept that’s fundamentally a mystery to us. So we use art to explore those things and I think that’s healthy, I think that’s a part of the human condition.
But there’s a difference between that exploration and what I call contemporary pornography. I don’t think the goal of contemporary pornography is to explore. In fact, I think it has exactly the opposite effect. I’ve made this point often when people say pornography opens up their sexual imaginations.
My argument is it does exactly the opposite: it closes it down, because it channels one’s sexual imagination into a very formatted and I think, quite rigid conception of sex. Especially that kind of pornography rooted in male dominance. So, in the book I wrote, I write about this—that pornography doesn’t open doors, it closes doors; it’s like literally being in kind of a prison of the imagination.
And those are the things I think we have to talk about, rather than trying to create simple categories of: porn : bad, erotica : good, the using of erotica as being beyond questioning. The whole point of this is to open up conversation, not shut it down, and I think that the porn/erotica distinction too often actually shuts down difficult conversations.
Lili: Well, what about people who say, “If you’ve looked online recently, you’d see there’s ninety million videos depicting every single sexual variation possible and left on my own, my imagination wouldn’t likely conjure this up. So in and of itself, porn is expanding my sexual imagination, not contracting it.”
Bob: The problem with that is that it treats sex like a mechanical act. The hardest sexuality is not tricks, from my point of view. It’s intimacy. I’ve even described sexuality as kind of a form of communication. It’s a way we communicate with another person, it’s a way we communicate with ourselves. If one thinks about the sexual experience as among the most meaningful in one’s life, it’s usually because you go beyond some connection to a person, it deepens your connection to a person.
And I don’t think that has anything to do with the mechanics of sex. I think that has to do with vulnerability and how open one is.
So the fact that you can look online and see sexual positions you might not have thought of, is to me, irrelevant and of no particular great benefit.
People have the creative capacity to engage in sexuality that meets their needs. We have that; we don’t need recipe books for that, self-help books or videos for that. Human beings have always had that capacity.
That ability to connect and deepen our experience with another person can be undermined by all sorts of things…like patriarchy, like individual psychopathology, or any number of things.
But the answer, to me, isn’t to create more movies or write more books about the mechanics of this.
The key, to me, is about returning to an understanding that sexuality is fundamentally about human communication and opening up people’s ability to communicate. And, in my experience, listening to literally, at this point, hundreds and hundreds of people talk about the effects of pornography in their lives, the overwhelming majority of those people, when they self-reflect, recognize that pornography has not enhanced their relationships with other people, but in fact, created impediments to those relationships.
And that’s what I think, in the end, is the thing we should keep talking about: What is the real effect in people’s lives of this kind of thing and how it’s used?
And the effects are variable. I always remind people there’s a lot of individual variations. You cannot say anything about all human beings but what you can do is look for trends and patterns. And the patterns, I think, about the use of pornography are quite clear at this point. I think they do create more impediments than they seem to remove impediments to that kind of intimacy, vulnerability and communication that to me, is at the core of sex.
Lili: I’m also troubled by what I see as a real voyeurism in our culture, this entitlement to appropriate for ourselves imagery of sex for our “enjoyment.”
And I always ask the question, “Well, just because we can, should we?”
Often, the answers I’m met with are more accusation than anything else: “You’re being conservative.”
That unwillingness to probe into the nature of our behaviors, and attack instead, is deeply troubling to me.
Bob: I’ve said, partly in jest, is that the problem in this culture is that we’re over-mediated, over-marketed, and over-medicated. That is, in a consumer society, there’s a real sense when I say we’re over-medicated, that if there is some discomfort in your life, there must be a product to deal with it, that you can buy a solution to whatever it is that’s making you uncomfortable.
We’re over-marketed in the sense that the whole system is set up to sell us these things.
And we’re over-mediated in the sense that so much of our experience comes through screens, that we take that mediation to be the way we learn about the world.
You put all that together, and you get the phenomenon you’re talking about. The assumption that mediated sexuality, even mediated sexuality of our own lives, like a video camera trained on us, is somehow always positive.
And I think that one of the reasons that idea, which seems so foreign to me, is so widely accepted in the culture is precisely because of the culture: that culture of mediation, that culture of consumerism, that culture of medication, that culture that says, “If you can do it, you should do it.”
And of course, no society can survive that. That’s an ethic of destruction, an ethic of no-limits.
And no human community, no biological community can survive with a sense of no limits. And I think that’s at the core of this.
What are the limits on human communities, on human individuals…? Because there are limits.
Lili: Right. And we clearly see the effects of that no-limits approach in the destruction we’ve wreaked on our environment, plundering the earth’s resources, polluting our lands, what, in effect, I’d call the dominator model run amok.
I work in the field of compulsive sexual behavior, specifically porn and sex addiction as it affects partners. And in this field, you’re trained to look for cues that signal addictive behavior. And denial is the predominant signifier there.
What I’m about to say may be construed as alarmist by some people, but when I see the vast wreckage created by sexuality that’s turned compulsive (and the evidence for this is undeniable now) I am alarmed that when we point it out, when we mention the consequences of that behavior piling up like so many cars in a bad car accident, and we’re met by just more denial, it’s hard not to believe we’ve become a nation of addicts stuck in deep denial.
Certainly we know about compulsive eating, gaming and shopping but more and more, sex is joining those ranks. And yet no one likes to talk about it, because it’s supposed to be “private” and as such, it stays vastly underreported. Our country’s dirty little secret.
So when you try to have a conversation about this, it most often deconstructs into black and white categories with little to no room for nuance.
Yet, the divorce statistics show that compulsive online sexual activity by one partner is the reason stated in the majority of divorce cases every year…that’s alarming! And this is coming from matrimonial lawyers.
When you have an over-$750 million dollar a year industry that sells and services internet monitoring and filtering software, 750 million dollars every year, and mind you, roughly HALF of that is installed by the person with the compulsion—not the spouse, and not the concerned parent…that speaks volumes about the way we’re using sex compulsively now, and that’s alarming.
Bob: Well let me talk a bit about the concept of addiction. For a long time, many of us who identify as feminists/anti-pornography activists, critics of the porn industry from a feminist point of view, many of us resisted the notion of addiction, and porn addiction.
Because we feared that it may have some meaning as metaphor, but in a culture like this, when you label something an addiction, it tends to get medicalized and dealt with through medical solutions.
And we didn’t want the underlying feminist critique about gender and power to be lost. And so for a long time I resisted the notion of pornography use as being addicting, in the sense that we would use that term for tobacco/nicotine or alcohol and drugs.
But two things have changed my view on that. One is, as you point out, the experiences of people who, whether it’s an addiction or not, are certainly engaged in addictive-like behavior patterns. That evidence is mounting, especially since the advent of the internet where access to pornography was easier, cheaper and more private than ever.
So, as you point out, if you talk to divorce lawyers and therapists, the rise of people acknowledging this, not just women talking to male partners with this problem, but men themselves acknowledging these addictive-like patterns, I think it’s clear that we’re seeing, what at least in common parlance, we can talk about as addiction. That is, it certainly produces behaviors that are similar to what we talk about as addiction in these other areas.
The other thing is the neuroscience research available now is changing and there are, with the advent of FMRI machines and very sophisticated neuroscience, there’s more evidence in fact, that in the brain itself, the responses to not only pornography but also gambling and other kinds of extreme behaviors that produce behaviors like that, does look a lot like addiction when we look at the brain scans on it.
Now, I’m not a neuroscientist so I don’t pretend to evaluate the science and I tend to be rather cautious; I don’t like to overdrive the evidence but at this point I’d say there’s no question that the lived experience of people, the trends we see people reporting about their experience, and the neuroscience makes it clear that we should consider pornography use as, if not addicting in the traditional sense that we would use that term, certainly something like that.
The habitual use of pornography, the difficulty of men who acknowledge they would like to stop using it, the patterns of denial you’re talking about and the effects on intimate relationships—I think all that’s pretty clear at this point. The evidence is piled up now for the past couple of decades certainly.
And the cultural denial, not just the individual denial—but the culture’s unwillingness to think about this, I used to say, “It’s just another sign of a culture in collapse”. There are a lot of signs of this culture in collapse right now—that fundamental human virtues that are necessary to sustain decent human relationships in community are being corroded.
And I think they’re being corroded by lots of things: by consumer capitalism, by patriarchy, all sorts of things, but that’s where we sit. There’s nothing alarmist about pointing to the evidence, there’s nothing alarmist about researching science and asking questions and coming to these conclusions.
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