When a psychologist promoting her new book is interviewed by a Playmate for Playboy radio, she’s challenged to answer the question at the root of porn’s very existence.
I was recently interviewed at Playboy radio for my new book The Men on My Couch, True Stories of Sex, Love and Psychotherapy. I was at the end of a media blitz, and enjoying the lull of familiar questions like, “Why did you write this book?” and, “What do men secretly want?”
I had all of my talking points memorized. At this point, I could do an interview in my jammy pants, before my first cup of coffee, as happened one morning when I had forgotten about an interview. The phone rang and I rolled out of bed and answered with a groggy “H–ello” to a booming voice on the other end that replied, “Good morning! You’re live on the X Show.” Yet, I pulled that one off with the clarity and ease that only comes with rehearsal.
I arrived at the Playboy studio and took a seat on the red velvet couch beneath a giant razzmatazz silver bunny emblem. Across from me sat a ginger haired Playmate. “So, do you think Playboy is pornography?” she asked, snapping me right out of my soporific daze.
Whoa, I thought, this is a sassy question to ask a female writer. Does she want to have some kind of “Playmate vs. the feminist” rumble?
Truth be told, I’m delighted by impertinence but as much as I love a good debate, I didn’t want to insult this inveterate magazine, as I was obviously there to sell a product to their audience.
So, I mustered a vague answer, something along the lines of, “Well, it’s certainly not in the category of what most people now consume on the Internet that is referred to as pornography.” And then I mentioned my co-writer, David Rensin, a long-time contributing editor to Playboy, as if to say, look, I’m friendly to your kind. I thought I’d slipped past and perhaps now she’d give me a break and ask about one of the characters in my book.
“Do you think Playboy objectifies women?”
There’s no way around it, I thought. She’s gotta know I’m gonna say yes. I am in some kind of gauntlet—with a salty sex kitten.
I answered with a categorical “yes.”
Then, I qualified my yes. I told her that when I talk with my male clients about their porn viewing habits, I’m curious about their personal relationship with the images. Pornography, whether you are for or against it, serves a purpose. Yes, we know that men are visual and that their bodies respond with sexual excitation to images of nudity and sex. We all know about the response of the penis. In fact, studies show that both genders exhibit sexual arousal to all kinds of sexual imagery. Getting turned on is clearly a natural, non-pathological response. But as a psychologist, I’m also interested in the response of his psyche. What does the self experience and express during sexual titillation?
Pornography taps into the realm of human fantasy. What is the psychological function of any kind of fantasy? It’s the expression of subverted parts of self: a blank canvas onto which we paint the content of our unconscious—most notably fears and wishes.
I told the interviewer that I noticed two popular themes in the sexual fantasies of the men I’ve worked with: women devalued and women idealized. It is because these women are not the real, up-close women men actually know that something very interesting happens. The mental distance of fantasy provides both contact with—and space from—one’s emotions. Porn, art, Playboy: it all allows for projection to take place. The contents of that projection are often what needs the most attention. Projection is revelatory of our core disappointments and greatest hopes.
I told her that the vast majority of pornography on the Internet contains themes of devaluation. Images of cum shots, gagging, gang banging etc. are popular. If the human body responds to a large range of sexual stimuli, then why is this one particular dynamic so profitable? I think it’s sort of a release valve for the natural anxieties men have about women. What man hasn’t been rejected by a woman? Who hasn’t experienced performance anxiety or felt inferior compared to her past lovers or nervous about approaching a woman? Who wouldn’t like to just bypass all of that for a moment and get off unfettered by such trepidations? Porn that devalues, restores a man’s “right” to receive pleasure: the male is cast in the glorified position, and all sense of inferiority is projected onto the female. This is the psyche attempting to master anxiety through a mechanism called eroticization.
I didn’t go into this level of detail on the radio, but as I made a general statement about devaluation, the interviewer looked pleased. She nodded her head with exaggeration as I spoke, encouraging me to continue my explanation.
“The images of nude women in Playboy are idealized,” I continued. Why would a man need to spend time gazing at a faultless physical form, one that is probably different than the woman lying next to him at night? Perhaps there is a part of a man’s psyche searching to revere a symbol of womanhood: a modern Aphrodite, a goddess to worship. The gracefully posed pictures of nude women in Playboy can be the sacred vessel of a man’s wishes. This Goddess of Eros only smiles, or looks back at him with desirous eyes. For a moment, he won’t be let down. His chest swells with the possibility that a soft, luxurious woman chooses him, says “yes” to all of his frustrated impulses. Indeed, this is objectification. A “positive object,” I called it.
The Playmate looked pleased.
“But do you think Playboy is harmful to men’s perception of women?” she said, looking for more.
I explained why we have this polarity in our perception. Why do so many men have these tendencies to devalue and idealize? In psychology, we call this mental rending “splitting.” When we can’t handle the emotional complexities of another person, we begin to split them into easy categories. Bad. Good. Psychoanalysis has referred to this for a long time, often known as the good mother or the bad mother, the good breast or the bad breast.
We all feel the temptation to do this when we’ve been hurt. People tend to make generalizations when they’re scared. You know: men are assholes, women are bitches. This kind of thinking is dangerous. When my clients exhibit these beliefs, I look for that impulse to idealize as a lifeline. I want to access their hope, the hidden longing to adore.
Psychologists address this phenomenon of splitting by working toward what we call “integration.” This is the ability to hold onto the wish to view women as sacred in the face of an up-close reality: a woman with normal curves and breasts, and wrinkles and an edgy temper that at times, scolds and rejects. The real woman can be at once disappointing and hallowed. Merging these two concepts is difficult but is part of the foundation for a healthy relationship between the sexes.
The Playboy interview was one of my favorite publicity experiences. When it was over, the Playmate got up from behind her desk and untethered herself from a morass of wires to give me a big heartfelt hug. It was a real raucous conversation, and this real woman, Tiffany Granath, should be named, as she herself is certainly no object.