Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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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 covered 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 shown 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 a 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 be 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.
This letter is in response to Issue 115, which focused on sex and pornography.
One more definition of pornography? How about “a secondhand expression of sexuality, designed specifically to arouse?”
Why do we need pornography? Obviously we do need it or we wouldn’t have it. We need it because the sexual energy in a human being is too strong and too demanding to have no outlet. We must not have enough outlets, right? As much as we have lightened up and allowed sex to happen more freely between people, we still don’t operate freely enough when it comes to sexual expression. Dam up a river incompletely, and it trickles off in myriad directions. Porn represents some of the trickles from the unsuccessful damming up of the great sex stream. All attempts to hold it back ultimately fail, of course, since sexual energy can be sublimated and renamed but not erased. (Nuns become the brides of Jesus.) Porn represents a certain type of expression which we apparently need because the “normal” channels are at least partly denied to us, or more accurately, by us. By “normal” channels I am referring to a state that Bartholomew hinted at when he spoke of a condition of “no rules” regarding sex. It is the rules that create the pornography — then we try to make rules about the pornography!
Another definition of pornography might be “fantasy made tangible,” because we each, in that regard, have our own private pornographies, shaped both by the individual and society. It is a matter of taste and a matter of pressure, the kind of pressure you exert on, say, a lump of clay in order to form it into a certain shape. Fantasy by its very nature steps in to fill a function that reality cannot. In some of the articles an important point seems to be overlooked — that fantasy is not the same as reality. Rape in fantasy is not the same as rape in reality. Very few, if any, sane women are aroused by an actual act of rape. But many women have some version of the rape fantasy — who else, for instance, buys the many thousands of romance novels of which the unfailing theme is the heroine overpowered by the hero? What makes a rape fantasy necessary? It is a romance about submission — a carry-over from the stereotypes of the helpless female conquered by the robust male — and a bow to the fact that no matter how they may crave sex, some women still feel consciously or subliminally that they must be persuaded.
I grew up in the midst of my brother’s friends, the only girl allowed in the clubhouse. I have spent endless hours in male environments, heard years of male talk barely censored, and I have heard quite clearly that most men still find a woman more appealing and desirable if they have to win her. So men and women still do the time-honored dance of catch-me-fuck-me. Rape fantasies are a more dramatic version of the same thing. In the real world, of course, such a dance is fraught with dangers and fears — rejection, humiliation, poor performance, heartbreak, disillusion. Who wouldn’t want to be able to envision the joy of sexual gratification without any of these threats, to abdicate responsibility entirely and just enjoy in spite of yourself? The male version of this is, of course, the “Aggressive Female” fantasy, where she takes one look at him and falls to her knees grappling with his fly. In real life, such an act would terrify most men, just as in real life rape is terrifying and has nothing to do with sexual arousal of the victim. The dance between men and women is performance, not just in the sexual act but in all that leads up to it. We overlay our fantasies on a face, a shape, a turn of the head, a cut of clothing. We speak — are the words right? We glance — is it frank enough? Too frank? Can they see the hunger in our eyes? We perform for one another, so anxious for the ultimate applause. But wait. The first applause is just the early round — “Yes, you attract me enough, let’s do it.” And now you have to do it and hope that it will be good, right, satisfying enough, thrilling, orgasmic, worthy of the really big applause at the end. Oh god, the embarrassment of the limp dick, the dry pussy. The latter of course is far more easily faked up to slick than the former is to hard, and so women tend to turn themselves into whores, meaning only that it is not really as spontaneous as it looks, at least some of the actions are designed for effect, and there is anxiety about his pleasure. (Concern is not the same as anxiety.) It doesn’t really matter who is the anxious one; if there is an anxious one the whole thing is thrown off course, and if both are anxious, so much the worse. This is one of the appeals of pornography: it is fantasy in which everyone gets to do what they would most like to do and it’s all great.
But what about sex with sheep or children, or chains and ropes and weird implements, violence and degradation and so on? Instead of asking what to do about these things, we should ask what is behind these things. Why is there such rage and bitterness between the sexes? Why do some people feel so worthless that they are turned on only when someone else treats them as if they were worthless? Why do some people feel love-hate so strongly that they must ravage the love object? Why do some people feel so helpless that they can only feel sexual towards a being more helpless than they are?
Really, there is very little that is sane about our sexual world. We are split asunder with hypocrisy and frustration. Sex in our time has generated many violent images because violence is power turned in a certain direction and the tremendous power of sexuality is neither acknowledged nor dealt with. We really don’t know what to do with it and it drives us crazy. We have prostitutes for very good and sane reasons, but we make them illegal and villify them as people. We try to ban pornography, but we all fantasize. We reserve our vilest epithets for the part of the body that we have most contempt for — we call someone a prick or a cunt, never a kneecap or a spleen. We pay lip service to sex that is sweet and clean and sunny and fun but become easily bored with it in reality. We relegate sex to special categories; we do not allow it to be an easy part of our world. We’re scared to death of each other because we have this sexual power and our fear makes us enemies. Then we try to unite the enemies in an embrace and wonder why it fails.
Really good sex is a function of one thing and one thing only: trust. I didn’t say love. We think that being in love will make for great sex — that is the cherished myth — and it makes instead for a lot of agony, frustration and disappointment. But if you really trust someone enough to surrender your body and soul to them in a sexual act, and they do the same, do you need to worry about love? Love will be a natural outflow of such a situation; it will follow from and flow through, not cause, such an experience.
So, it becomes clearer why truly wonderful sex is rare. We simply don’t trust each other all the way, because it’s difficult to trust someone who has great power over you. There is something fascinating about that kind of power, but it works better in fantasy where there is always a happy ending. Meanwhile we fear and fail to trust and wonder why so many women can’t come with a partner and so many men talk about wanting to come quickly and have the woman turn into a pizza. Being left or betrayed or lied to is nearly a universal experience that hurts more than practically anything else we know of, so how many times are we going to lay ourselves naked, literally and figuratively, before another human being, and invite them in without a qualm? The wonder of it all is that we haven’t ended up marrying sheep or antelopes.
But we don’t; we keep on trying. In Carol Logie’s article she expressed distaste that in the female-humiliated porn pictures, the women had smiles on their faces, indicating what she felt was the obvious lie that they were enjoying it. Well, the truth is that indeed, we do want our sexual partner(s) to be enjoying it, whatever “it” may be. Even in our fantasies, or perhaps especially in our fantasies, when we are victimized we are secretly enjoying it, and when we are the victimizer we want the victim to be enjoying it too, covertly or overtly. Somewhere in the persistently held belief by men that women somehow “want” to be raped is more than just the rationalization for a selfish act. In interviews I have heard child molesters repeatedly describe how they fantasize that the child likes what they are doing. Some of the most devastating confrontations between molester and victim in incest cases come when the abuser is forced to accept that the child was devastated and damaged rather than receiving any sort of secret pleasure. In the porn literature of bondage, “discipline,” and all manner of forced humiliations, written into the scenario nearly all the time is the victim’s role as accomplice, a sort of co-conspirator, a secret or blatant enjoyment of the situation. The unwilling victim becomes an aficionado of the treatment by the end of the story, resist and complain though they may.
I think we make a mistake in not seeing a distinction between violent pornography and what might be called pornographic violence. In the former, the desired result is sexual and it requires participation by both partners, no matter how it looks. In fact, S/M practices actually require the utmost trust on the part of the participants and there are usually elaborate understandings, sets of signals and so on, to prevent going over an understood boundary, no matter how extreme that boundary may be. Pornographic violence, on the other hand, is an act, or the depiction of an act, in which the real heart of the matter is the violence itself, and the sexuality merely the framework. These are acts in which there truly is a victim, real or fictitious — acts of pathology, anti-humanistic acts which are solitary in their very nature. These are not acts of connection, communication and contact, qualities which are at the heart of all sexuality. We may not always be successful at achieving satisfying connection, communication and contact in our sex acts, but if we are trying, reaching for it in the midst of our lust, no matter how peculiarly expressed, then we are engaged in something sexual.
So, if the rules create such problems, why do we have them? The main reason, of course, is fear and our inability to understand the tiger whose tail we are born holding. But we don’t say that. What we usually say is that we must have the rules for the sake of our children! This declaration causes an instant emotional reaction and is the least open to refutation because who is willing to say or imply that children are not vulnerable and worthy of protection? Certainly it goes without saying that children should not be made the victims of adult lust. But one of the problems is that we are exposing children to adult fantasies at a very crucial point in their lives. There is so little room for them to develop their own, from a child’s point of view. Sexually violent MTV rock videos are a good, if beleaguered, example. At a certain early point in life you equate sex with virtually anything and it will stick if it’s implanted powerfully enough. Hence a lot of fetishes, quirks and strange attitudes (reminds me of the ducklings who imprint on the first thing they see out of the egg and follow a rubber beach ball around with utter devotion). The MTV message is without balance, without framework, it just is, in the same way that so much information that we assimilate early in life just is. We don’t have time at that stage to stop and examine; we absorb and assume. What makes the more perverted messages all the more potent is that there isn’t much available on the other side. Children ideally should have sensual/sexual outlets that are not violent and degrading, but that provide some kind of equal excitement and energy, but what are they? Music and dancing used to fill that void to some extent, but the advent of video accompaniment to most all popular music has changed the situation. Content and attitude are spelled out. How can we find the sane outlets for the basically rational creatures that children start out being, when we have become so crazy on the subject of sex ourselves? Is touching peepees really worse than breeding a generation of chilly, emotionally isolated adults who can only get off on violence? We have to remember that people will get off on something, that much is sure.
It’s time we got smart. If “clandestine” is still a necessary part of sexual excitement, how about letting your child “find” the hidden book — a book of attractive bodies doing sexually healthy things? How about letting him or her discover some non-violent sexual materials and pour over them under the covers in that dark, sweaty atmosphere that we humans seem to find so sweetly seductive? How about we stop trying to explain sex to kids in terms of adult wishful thinking (if indeed we make any attempt to explain at all)?
“Well, it’s a beautiful thing between two people who love each other” may be a sop to our conscience, but first of all it’s something we only barely believe, and secondly it’s very vague to a kid. I can remember, when I was an early grade schooler, how frustrated I was by the word “masturbation.” It kept showing up in these impossibly vague texts of the time, that supposedly explained the facts-of-life to you but really didn’t. One chapter was titled “That Old Bugaboo, Masturbation” and nowhere in the whole chapter did it tell you what in the world it was. Searching through dictionaries only got me the words “self-gratification” which merely added to the mystery. I couldn’t ask my parents because they had given me the books in the first place in hopes that they would never have to say another word on the subject. Later on, I had a psychology teacher in college, a much-acclaimed, published professional, who would dissolve into hysterical giggles whenever she attempted to lecture on sexual topics.
What kids need protection from is us, because with all our good intentions, we still are just passing along and reinforcing our own prejudices, fantasies, rules and perversions, with no provision made for kids to discover or invent their own. Why don’t we try to quit lying to them? Tell them sex is something exciting and mysterious because it is, and that even though we are supposedly grown up, we still aren’t sure what it’s all about. If we nurtured their natural desire to find out about it instead of thwarting it, maybe they could tell us something. We just don’t want them to wonder, because then they’d come to us for answers that we don’t have. Are we going to say that we cried ourselves to sleep again last night because we didn’t come? Or that we get off fucking the wife or husband by thinking of someone else (by survey, the nation’s number one fantasy), but that that’s OK because we’re adults and we’ve learned that it’s OK? How about example? How much intimacy is there in the home? How much touch? If there isn’t any, the kid has got a tough road ahead in finding out what sex is really all about, regardless of how many books and stories are laid on him or her. We really don’t have much to teach them about sex, so our goal ought to be to make it possible for them to learn in as healthy a way as possible. An atmosphere of intimacy and loving touch can pervade any home, single-parented, multi-parented — it doesn’t matter, really. What’s learned first is the intimacy and exchange; the rest will follow if that groundwork is firm.
Child or adult, it all comes down to the same thing. Sex will remain a clouded and difficult issue for all of us until we learn to accept who and what we are, and then to love and trust who and what we are — once we have figured out what that is from the abundant information, clues and hints all around us. I really hope we hurry up before our universal frustration results in one giant cum-bomb that blasts us into the great mother matrix for recycling.