Reading: Big, Hard Questions | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Big, Hard Questions 

You can talk about pornography from the gut, or you can try and get scientific about it.

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I used to think that in a more enlightened age, maybe even soon, pornography would be like goat cheese or 19th-century German opera. Some people would get off on it and some people wouldn't, but nobody would feel the need to ban it. Pornophiles might find the reaction of pornophobes mysterious, possibly indicative of an unsophisticated palate. Pornophobes could simply avoid adult bookstores. No big deal. Consenting adults, chacun a son gout, et cetera.

But that was before I read Pornography and Sexual Deviance, Freedom and Taboo, Hard Core, and Men Confront Pornography, four recent books on the subject (all but the last from the University of California Press). If they do nothing else, these books make it clear that the issue is infinitely murky--and that it's not going to go away.

The tone of these books ranges from scholarly to clinical to confessional; their arguments encompass every dichotomy flesh is heir to: ego/id, male/female, libertarian/authoritarian. The issues that they address, more or less directly, are the legal, moral, and sexual behemoths: Does pornography incite violence against women? If one thinks it does, is there a way to prove that? How should it be regulated? If one believes it doesn't cause violence, is there a way to prove that? Should it be censored on the off chance that it might?

What if pornography doesn't cause violence but just inures people to it and lowers the level of civilization to something awful besides? If Thomas Jefferson had seen Lustful Nuns, would the republic look any different today?

And how can you reconcile the rise in local legislation against porn with the fact that 100 million X-rated videos were rented last year? Are Americans just getting weird about sin again, trying to protect their neighbors and children against something they're into themselves? Is this national schizophrenia or what?

On the gender front: What does it mean that regular men--boyfriends, husbands, pastry chefs, brain surgeons--get a buzz from seeing women reduced to anonymous sex objects whose only desire is more more more? Is this a cultural screwup of monumental proportions, ghastly but theoretically remediable, or could it be that the preference is innate, encoded somewhere on the Y chromosome?

You can answer those questions from the gut, or you can try to get some information; for the past 30 years the national approach to pornography has veered crazily from one strategy to the other.

Pornography and Sexual Deviance, first published in 1973 and just reissued, is a relic of the information-gathering days. It can't really be appreciated without reference to its historical context, which, briefly, is this: In 1967 Lyndon Johnson created the President's Commission on Obscenity and Pornography to decide what was to be done about porn. Those were the heady days of the Great Society, when the thing to do with a big problem was to throw big money at it. The 18-member commission was voted $20 million to conduct surveys, fund research, and get to the bottom of the problem. On the basis of its work, the largest inquiry into the subject ever undertaken, the commission concluded that all antipornography legislation ought to be repealed.

The Senate, horrified by the open-minded results, voted 60 to 5 against accepting the report. Richard Nixon, by then at the helm, wrote a furious denunciation of the commission, saying (in words that now have a certain ironic resonance), "American morality is not to be trifled with."

(In 1986 the Meese Commission finally got it right. Although it had only $500,000 to work with, it scrimped and saved and based its conclusions mostly on public hearings and letters from concerned citizens. The Meese Commission reported that there was indeed a causal link between pornography and sexual violence. Two scientists on the commission protested that the data were being massaged into showing cause and effect, but their voices were lost in the general public and legislative enthusiasm.)

Pornography and Sexual Deviance is an expanded version of one of the studies undertaken for Johnson's pornography commission. What the authors, Michael J. Goldstein and Harold S. Kant, concluded (based on lengthy face-to-face interviews with 60 men imprisoned for sex offenses, 13 male transsexuals, 37 gay men, 78 recreational pornography users, and 92 men in a control group) was that men imprisoned for sex crimes had, if anything, less exposure to pornography as adolescents than males in the control group. In other words, the specter of pornography corrupting the youth of the country is imaginary. Furthermore, while adult exposure to pornography did tend to reinforce whatever somebody's habitual pattern of sexual expression already was, it didn't cause a previously law-abiding person to rape and plunder. End of discussion.

Well, not really. I want to believe them; no, I do believe them. It's just that believing them takes every ounce of belief I have. Their findings are totally counterintuitive, which of course doesn't mean they're wrong. (Relativity is counterintuitive, God knows, and the idea of evolution by natural selection boggles the mind.) It's just that every time some horrific mass murderer is found to have a stash of pornography in his den, my conviction starts to fail me.

Other things worry me too. What about those recent studies concluding that excessive television watching makes kids fat and aggressive? Maybe they're not valid--maybe excessive TV watching is an effect of isolation and parental neglect, and overeating and aggressiveness are merely two other effects. By the same token, maybe an obsession with pornography is typical, even invariable behavior for alienated and violent men. But if the TV-aggression connection is real, then surely the porn-aggression connection is real too.

And what about the many studies suggesting that people who watch a lot of television overestimate their risk of experiencing personal violence? Humans seem to believe that movies and television reflect reality, even when we know intellectually that they don't. Even Johnson's pornography commission conceded that viewing porn distorts perceptions of reality: it found that experiment subjects exposed to high doses of filmed porn wildly overestimated the incidence of group sex, sadomasochism, and bestiality in the population at large. It's as if somewhere, deep in the part of our brains left over from when we were mammallike reptiles, we believe that if we see it happen--no matter how we see it--it must be true.

What remains interesting about Pornography and Sexual Deviance is how stubbornly optimistic a view it takes of human nature. What Goldstein and Kant have concluded is that the U.S. needs more sex education, more free and open discussion of sex, more sixth-grade hygiene classes. Then, they argue, the need for pornography will disappear. We don't need legislation--we need the truth, and the truth will make us free.

Except for the four-letter words it contains, this book could have been written in 1773, not 1973: it has that Enlightenment-style conviction that humans are infinitely perfectable. Goldstein and Kant--and the whole commission, for that matter--entirely miss the point that pornography originates not in ignorance, but in the id. All the diagrams and discussions in all the textbooks in the world won't make a dent in it. Pornography is by nature transgressive and secret. If it were socially acceptable, it wouldn't be pornography.

The id, and the trouble it gets us into, is the subject of Freedom and Taboo: Pornography and the Politics of a Self Divided by Richard S. Randall, a professor of political science at New York University. From his credentials you'd be entitled to deduce that he'd be a staunch defender of Johnson's pornography commission and a snide detractor of antipornography legislation, but you'd be wrong. Randall manages to outrage the right, offend the left, and infuriate many women--all in the same book. He maintains that the psychodynamics of pornography require both that it find some sort of expression and that the expression be restricted in some way. "The darkest truths," he says, "may favor, at times, a compassionate censorship."

In a libertarian society such as our own, these are provocative words, and Randall knows it. But he argues his case so painstakingly that I found myself not only agreeing with him, but wishing he'd run for public office. This is a man who could make political conservatism respectable, if for no other reason than that he seems to arrive at his conclusions gravely rather than enthusiastically and seems to understand that no solution is perfect. "A human nature that seeks to indulge in forbidden wishes, at the same time seeking to control them, defies any complete resolution of the conflict." So we're in primal-impulse city here, and the gods are probably howling with laughter at our presumption in trying to legislate the unconscious. Still, as Randall dryly observes, "A society must be run."

He starts at square one with the obvious but mostly unasked question, "Why is pornography arousing?" He answers it by drawing on psychoanalytic literature. This is an approach I often wonder about, but in this case it makes a lot of sense. "Instinctual sexual energies are not . . . eradicated, but the 'moral' resolution of the Oedipal conflict and the formation of the superego provide a lifelong psychodynamic base for conscious as well as unconscious sexual reticence and self-restraint."

The desire for forbidden sexual contact is always present, in other words, a memento of the infant's sexuality. And pornography speaks to those buried desires. That's one reason, suggests Randall, that "pornography has pressed on, in word and image, further into forbidden territory." If pornography of the Hustler variety is freely available at every convenience store, no longer secret and forbidden, then a more shocking class of pornography will have to develop in order to satisfy the unconscious requirements of secrecy and forbiddenness.

OK, I thought, but why does it have to be legally restricted? Couldn't we just let some shop owners refuse to carry what offends them, and let some mothers search under their sons' mattresses for Playboy, and leave it at that? After all, Randall himself says that censorship is inevitably "ambivalent and porous"--i.e., it doesn't work--and he repeatedly insists that our free-speech society is "perhaps the bravest political arrangement ever conceived." So why risk it over something as dumb as Debbie Does Dallas?

Because, according to Randall, it's already being risked much more seriously by "calling reflexively for ever greater liberty." To distill his argument about the politics of pornography into an inevitably inadequate few sentences, Randall believes there have always been two standards of tolerance in American society--the elite standard and the folk standard.

The folk standard prevails in local media such as newspapers and, more recently, television. There are plenty of words and ideas that can't appear in a family newspaper, and although TV is getting raunchier it is still subject to prior restraint by advertisers.

The elite standard is applied to communications that assume a bit more education for their consumption, and is far more tolerant of sexual expression. Books, magazines, and the theater have always been less closely regulated than TV or newspapers.

The rub is that the legal and judiciary systems tend to apply the elite standard--overturning antipornography ordinances, for example--while the legislative and executive branches, always more connected to popular opinion, embody the folk standard. Randall believes that the distance between elite and popular standards has widened so much in the past 30 years that the whole delicate balance is threatened, and he urges some retreat. "A free speech policymaking that can move only in one direction, that is unable to weigh countervailing values and interests or admit and correct its own mistakes . . . ultimately risks both its political capital and its credibility."

However, he has no sympathy for antipornography feminists in their campaign to have pornography banned on the grounds that it violates women's civil rights. In his deliberate way he observes, "It does not follow that pornography's negative images are models merely because they exist. . . . The call for the eradication of the imagery is futile."

Linda Williams may not offend the left the way Randall does, but she'll take even more heat from antipornography feminists. She has set herself the thankless task of taking Bob Guccione and Al Goldstein and Marilyn Chambers a lot more seriously than they take themselves, and she'll undoubtedly be called a traitor to her sex for her troubles.

In her sometimes dauntingly erudite study Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and "The Frenzy of the Visible" Williams tries to put pornography, specifically X-rated film, in a historical and cultural context and to look past its aphrodisiacal function to its meaning: "Since it is a genre with basic similarities to other genres, we need to come to terms with it."

I know. I thought it was a bit much at first myself. I'm always a bit skeptical of the kind of scholarly study that takes nontraditional texts--comic books, romances, baseball cards--and tries to "deconstruct" them. I have this sneaking and probably unfair suspicion that maybe the subjects aren't intrinsically important, that they are being studied only because Shakespeare and Wordsworth have been wrung dry.

But Linda Williams's book does contribute to the debate on pornography, particularly the part that involves the "guys and gals" issue of gender (as opposed to the male/female issue of sex). "Pornography as a genre wants to be about sex," Williams points out. "On closer inspection, however, it always proves to be more about gender."

Hard Core speaks particularly to the feminist attack on pornography, which Williams, like Randall, thinks is misguided at best, destructive at worst. She takes issue with it less than five hundred words into the book: "I know that the slightest admission that not every image of every film was absolutely disgusting to me may render my insights worthless to many women." Nevertheless, she writes, "I feel it is important not to perpetuate the pervasive attitude among feminists that pornography is both the cause and symptom of all women's problems." Not that she's a particular fan of either porn movies or the male-dominated culture they reflect; she just feels that understanding the movies "could be crucial to any efforts to alter the dominance of male power and pleasure in the culture at large."

Williams tackles the problem chronologically, tracing film pornography from the still photos of Eadweard Muybridge (whose "women in motion" studies were deliberately provocative in a way the male photos weren't), to primitive stag films, to the new, relatively high-budget feature-length film designed to appeal to both men and women. She argues that all porn films, like all redwood trees, are not the same, and that there has been an evolution in filmed pornography, though she admits it's a subtle one: "The difference between the original (1972) version of Behind the Green Door and its 1986 sequel may appear insignificant to someone unused to seeing sex on a screen."

Williams believes that film pornography has something to say about the changing relations between men and women. She also thinks it's legitimate that hardened film buffs use these films to help them understand concepts that interest them (and baffle me)--things like the "imaginary signifier" and whether film enables the viewer to regress to a preoedipal stage where the distinction between the self and the other disappears.

Having said that, I must say that it is unlikely that many people outside academic film-critic circles will be determined enough to read Hard Core. It's not so much that Williams assumes her audience will be conversant with Foucault and Sontag (plus the Marquis de Sade, Al Goldstein, and Linda Lovelace)--we're all grown-ups, after all. It's more that her language is so relentlessly dense--which, for all I know, is Williams's way of keeping the intellectual tourists and thrill seekers away; her prose is the linguistic equivalent of a navy gabardine suit and a blouse with a bow at the neck. Even though a lot of the book is taken up with remarkably graphic descriptions of the movies (ten pages on the plot and structure of The Opening of Misty Beethoven, in which the film is compared to Top Hat and My Fair Lady, among others), few will risk her verbal land mines to get there.

A random example: "Sadomasochistic fantasy offers one important way in which groups and individuals whose desires patriarchy has not recognized as legitimate can explore the mysterious conjunction of power and pleasure in intersubjective sexual relations." Here, I think, she's actually said a remarkable, even inflammatory, thing: in S-M movies the oppressed sometimes get to be the oppressors, so they're not as politically incorrect as they might seem at first blush. But you've got to translate this observation before you can be either offended, outraged, or intrigued by it.

Yet when Williams, who is a professor of film studies at the University of California at Irvine, is talking directly to readers--in the foreword and the conclusion, for example--she's as lucid as if she were lecturing to undergraduates. Here's her take on what people say they think about pornography: "Listening to men on this topic, one sometimes wonders how the pornography industry survives, since its products are claimed to be so boring and repetitious. Listening to women, one wonders how anything else survives in the face of a pornography that is equated with genocide."

She's equally direct in her conclusion, which is, "Hard core is not the enemy." Williams flatly rejects feminist Robin Morgan's catchy and widely quoted slogan, "Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice." Williams believes that a feminist revision of pornography, in which "sexual desire and pleasure are no more unseemly in women than in men," would lead to "pornography [that] will serve women's fantasies as much as it has served men's."

That's all very enlightened and reassuring, and it sort of approaches my utopian vision of a world in which people could either take porn or leave it. But having also read Randall's Freedom and Taboo, I wonder if Williams isn't being naive. If transgression is, so to speak, the name of the game, and if women will tend to be the transgressed against, then how can there ever be a pornography that's both acceptable and arousing to both sexes?

This, the most ticklish of all porn issues, arises in Williams's last chapter. She has just been discussing a new subgenre of hard-core movies, for viewing by women and men, made by a consortium of ex-porn stars (who call their company Femme). She describes (with uncharacteristic reticence, I should add) the content of a short film called The Pick Up, in which a couple who meet on a street corner and go to a motel to perform the usual explicit sexual acts turn out, in a sort of O. Henry twist, to be a husband and wife out on a date (the wife's mother is baby-sitting the kids). Don't get the wrong idea--dinner and a movie it's not. But it definitely is domesticated sex, which is part of Femme's agenda: using pornography as a "serious attempt to visualize women's desire in a genre that has consistently continued to see sex . . . from the viewpoint of the phallus." (Those are Williams's words, in case you couldn't guess. The gals at Femme don't say "phallus" a lot.)

In this discussion Williams must confront the views of another film critic, Andrew Ross, who asserts that all this domesticity and suggestion of real-life relationships and safe sex "compromises the erotic status of the fantasy." They are, concludes Ross, a total turnoff.

As you might guess, those are fighting words. "Who is getting turned off here, men or women?" snaps Williams. Isn't this just one more case of "someone at the top telling someone at the bottom how to cultivate desire?" Listen, buster, she concludes, "It is no longer for men alone to decide what is, or is not, exciting in pornography."

So having slogged through a long and irreproachably learned discussion of pornographic film, larded with references to Eadweard Muybridge and Charlie Chaplin, I end up listening to a variant on the age-old playground debate: "Boys have cooties!" "No--girls have cooties!"

Men Confront Pornography is a collection of 34 essays by writers of the male persuasion who don't think girls have cooties. Androgens are just about all these guys have in common: contributors include Jennings Bryant, professor of communications at the University of Alabama; a couple of editors from the Village Voice; Jeffrey Masson, the Freud Archives infidel; Philadelphia writer Jeff Weinstein (Mr. Leather of 1986); and Bernie Zilbergeld, an Oakland, California, psychoanalyst.

Editor Michael Kimmel is a sociologist who has, according to the jacket blurb, "received international recognition for his work on men and masculinity." He's extremely well-meaning, and it's impossible to take exception with his earnest effort to rout out sexism. However, I must confess to an irrational aversion, shared by many women I know, to men who, like Kimmel, call themselves "feminists." It's not that their sexual politics are at fault; it's just that people who go around labeling themselves (survivors, perfectionists, dreamers) are usually self-involved and dreary. So, perverse though it may be, I liked best the essays by men who, if asked, would probably have said, "Well, yeah. I mean, I never thought about it much, but I guess you could call me a feminist. Sure," and then would have continued doing the dishes.

The whole male-feminist mind-set is exemplified by a passage in Kimmel's introductory essay, in which he quotes that old Woody Allen routine about thinking of baseball players to delay ejaculation. "So I figure it's one out, and the Giants are up. Mays lines a single to right. He takes second on a wild pitch. Now she's digging her nails into my neck. I decide to pinch hit for McCovey . . . " and so on. Comments Kimmel, "Readers may be struck by several themes: the imputation of violence . . . the requirement of victory in the ball game, and the sexual innuendo contained within the baseball language." Gee, Mike, d'you mean that's why they call it a "ball" game?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a joke is just a joke. If Allen's monologue is about anything, it's about the natural superiority of women. If anybody has cause to be offended, it's men.

To be fair, not all the contributors are so desperately anxious to say the right things. Much more thought provoking, because it seems more open and less politically correct, is the essay by Philip Weiss entitled "Forbidden Pleasures," about life for a regular, basically self-aware guy trying to do the right thing during the Minneapolis antiporn-ordinance era. This is what it was like: "To say, I am a man who feels aroused by looking at and reading some of this stuff was . . . like saying, I am a lizard." An honest lizard, anyway, who remains sort of uneasily convinced that while it may not be admirable to check out Daryl Hannah's nipples in Blade Runner, neither does it make him subhuman.

Equally interesting are the reports on the latest social-science research. Several suggest that while earlier studies were correct in discounting a causal relationship between pornography and aggression, they were looking at the wrong variable. The real connection, says the current generation of researchers, is between violence (both pornographic and straight-ahead violence) and aggression. Not always, and not for everybody--but often enough that we ought to be worried.

Anyway, Men Confront Pornography gets high marks for representing a fairly wide range of opinion, from the "I like porn and my wife does too, so there" essay by Robert Christgau of the Village Voice to the aforementioned "How will men and women ever learn to value one another if these images permeate the culture?" contribution by Michael Kimmel. None of the essays convinced me that hard-core pornography is an immediate threat to civilization as we know it, but taken as a group they did convince me that for many thoughtful, serious people this is not and never will be an I-can-take-it-or-leave-it, goat-cheese kind of issue.

Alas, there are so many problems that really do constitute threats to civilization as we know it that I can't get too worked up about this one. Nevertheless, it's always reassuring to know there are people of goodwill out there, wrestling with the dangers as they see them.

Pornography and Sexual Deviance by Michael J. Goldstein and Harold S. Kant (with John J. Hartman), University of California Press, $9.95.

Freedom and Taboo: Pornography and the Politics of a Self Divided by Richard S. Randall, University of California Press, $29.95.

Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and "The Frenzy of the Visible" by Linda Williams, University of California Press, $18.95.

Men Confront Pornography, edited by Michael S. Kimmel, Crown Publishers, $24.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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