I watched a slide show prepared by a women-against-pornography group from New York. The bulk of the images were presumably the most startling pages from hard-core pornography magazines though they didn’t include the issue of Hustler which our narrator described as having drawn her into this fight. On a trip with her husband and five children, she found it in a motel room, under the phone book, apparently missed by the cleaning people. She took it into the bathroom, locked the door, and looked at pictures of pregnant women with a variety of objects stuck into their vaginas. Women tied with rope, bound with vinyl straps. bound rigidly — lying down and barely standing — gagged, dressed in spiked heels and sharp pointed spurs, knives between their teeth, knives held over their heads, at their backs, splayed on the floor and cover with blood-like color, waist-deep in a meat grinder.
One of the few men in the audience was seated next to me and when the lights went up he gave out a half-choked groan, a broken off cry. I had no left-over attention to give to what anyone else might be experiencing, feeling alone in the room, physically sickened by the cruelty and hatred, wondering if I needed to throw up, and then, a long, hopeless feeling of sadness. All the women in all the pictures were smiling. They are violently mistreated and show to enjoy it. It was one of the messages of the show’s narration. Not only do these images link violence and a sexual relationship, over and over, but they provide a rationale for doing so: women like it.
Once the point had been made with the most blatantly violent pictures, the show went on to include “softer” images from the pages of Playboy, a woman in the centerfold lying on her side with two ribbons draped over her legs, suggestive of tighter ropes. I was skeptical; ribbons have too many innocent associations to suddenly find them suspect. Still, it raised the idea of a continuum: I’d given no thought to what little I knew of hard-core pornography and dismissed it as too different to be understood. And now here was the suggestion that I might find its message elsewhere.
There was a rape case in the news. I heard of it on the car radio — twenty seconds about a woman in Massachusetts who, despite the enticing way in which she was dressed, had said no to her assailant and claimed she meant it. Apparently it was still arguable. Later the same station played a mild rock song and I listed to the words: la, la, la, when she says no, you know she means yes, la, la, la. I barely caught them. It was such an innocent-sounding song, the words gently slipped in as if they needed no particular attention drawn to them, as if they stated an old comfortable fact we all like to hear now and again. How can this be? This can’t be! Women like to be taken by force, seemingly against their will. I felt stammering disbelief. Wait . . . it’s so twisted . . . how did it get so wrong . . . it’s not true . . . it’s so far from true. I sat there fumbling for words, never imagining there would a need to form them, and still disbelieving not only the pervasiveness of the lie but the completion of it. It was not like a rumor, an idea being newly passed around, with people whispering about it, testing it, pinching it for truth. It was an old, well-accepted belief which people chatted about in love songs — which hard-core pornographers simply advertised with more volume and cruel assurance.
Oh come now, Carol none of your friends believe it. Surely they do consider it wrong, as an ideal, as I do. At the level of thinking at which opinions are put into words, there was no doubt. I argued indignantly against the false advertisement which seemed such an incredulous and unfair distortion. How could anyone say such a thing about me? But there appeared another layer of belief: ideas which seep in simply because they are repeated so often, which I bury when they don’t agree with the picture I try to draw of myself, and then am shocked to find I own. Like an adolescent who feels oh so different from a parent, I stood myself well apart from this lie, this wrong, this damn nonsense, only to find that I believed it. Denouncing it was no longer a denial, but the beginning of a desire to climb out of it.
I have my own repertoire of sexual fantasies — scenes and skits devised over the years to bring on a feeling of sexual arousal. Now and then an old story would be replaced with a new one, not because it was no longer good, but like a record listened to over and over it had become too familiar to hear. There were no reruns, but neither was there much variety in the themes. Persistently a feeling of excitement seemed to require either being taken or being taken care of — rape and rescue. A woman at home alone in alluring dress who lets a breast show and seduces the fumbling grocery delivery boy. A man in a suit who drops back home on his lunch hour to seduce the maid on the kitchen table. Men and women with broken limbs or mysterious physical symptoms, most in need of caring and holding by another. While characters of either sex were likely to be the seducers, the camera was always on the woman; the man remained faceless. And while a woman might play the seductress, she always bowed to her leading man once things were underway. Here I was, a feminist, buying up all the images I could carry home from movies, fairytales, pin-up calendars, and “dirty” magazines. No knives or ropes, but certainly ribbons. I was bound. And they were my stories. Which is not to say I liked them.
And then there was a new scene strikingly different from all the others: no seduction, no manipulative sneaking around, no consideration of who’s getting whom, no fear of being refused, no force. It was the story of a man and woman loving each other, equally. And both had faces. For the first time I looked out and saw someone other than myself, apparently having found a place to see from. It was as if I’d hired a new script writer , fresh out of school, who didn’t know the rules and didn’t care to, doggedly reworking her idea until it achieved notice. It didn’t slip easily into place as other new scenes had. I needed to be reminded that it was there: “Hey, how about this one?” And I’d try it. Over and over, it wasn’t exciting enough. And then it was.
I was dumbfounded. It worked. Will you look at that! Jeez, I did it. It worked! There are few people I can run up to saying, “Guess what? Guess what? My sexual fantasies are changing!” but that was the urge. I was stammering again, but differently, out of a wish to proclaim rather than disclaim.
Hard-core pornography is appalling. I support all rage against it short of that which draws a line around it as something unique. Isolating and banning it simply removes the most visible horror, encouraging me to remain settled with all the not quite so sharp but just as twisted beliefs beneath it. There is a point at which things grow out of hand. Something accumulates unnoticed for weeks or years and then is suddenly seen. One too many dust particles lands on the table top and a house walked through comfortably a moment before abruptly seems an intolerable mess. It doesn’t work to turn my back while someone removes the one guilty piece of dust which tipped the scales of my attention. Now I begin to see every cobweb.