Anyone searching the newsstands for political opinions veering more than slightly from the mainstream may find the task frustrating. Yet most newsstands carry an astonishing variety of pornographic magazines, appealing to the most specialized tastes. My local convenience store carries magazines catering to everyone from breast fetishists to fans of older women, and those willing to venture into the local adult bookstore will find (alongside giant dildos and inflatable sex partners) publications appealing to even more specialized fetishes. When the Meese Commission attempted in 1986 to catalog the extent and variety of the porn industry, it carefully recorded the existence of magazines ranging from Teeny Tits, Big Boobs to Chew & Suck On to Squirt ‘Em (“Five blown-up photographs of an engorged breast expressing a jet of milk into a glass”) to Big Tit Dildo Bondage to Every Dog Has His Day (“Four photographs of a nude man licking the testicles of a dog”).
These magazines not only exist, they have, er, readers. Yet the audience for pornography is strangely silent. Despite the ubiquity of pornographic magazines and videos, we still know little about who consumes them, why they do, or what they make of the images. The traditional taboos surrounding pornography, as anthropologist Bernard Arcand observes in his new book on the cultural meanings of pornography, The Jaguar and the Anteater, have “shifted from the spectacle to the spectator; pornographic sex is entirely out in the open and visible to anyone, and yet there is nothing much we can say about the people who watch it.” He also writes that it’s remarkable that pornography is still tolerated “given that it has been so universally condemned; indeed, it is really only talked about when it is being attacked.”
Few people in this country are willing to talk openly about pornography, though we are willing to talk about sexuality–indeed, we talk about that constantly, even compulsively, especially those of us in what might be called the “talking classes,” who presume to have the most sophisticated understanding of the subject. In Victorian times and earlier, those who spoke publicly of sex, with the exception of a few wild libertines, spoke in moral terms, spoke of sin. Pornography and Victorianism are more than just paired opposites; historically, they grew up together, as inseparable as Goofus and Gallant. This is not to say that depictions of nude bodies in sexual postures are new; there have always been images of sexuality. But according to historian Lynn Hunt, “Pornography did not constitute a wholly separate and distinct category of written or visual representation before the early nineteenth century.”
Even in the midst of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s pornography did not lose its aura of disreputability. Those who promoted open sexuality dressed up their crusade with all the trappings and pretensions of a revolutionary political movement. They denounced the hypocrisy of those who denounced pleasure as sin, presenting their own open talk on the subject as a noble and transgressive act, part of a struggle against a pernicious Victorian repression. Sexual opinions took the form of slogans: Make Love, Not War! Smash Monogamy! Yet pornography captured only a portion of the political prestige of the countercultural revolution. Pornographic films played in art theaters, elegant pornographic images graced the pages of countercultural publications such as the Evergreen Review, and a few erudite swingers proudly displayed pornographic magazines alongside their coffee-table histories of Art. But for most, pornography was still a furtive pleasure.
By the late 1970s the talk of sexuality (at least among the more self-consciously sophisticated crowd) began to reach the saturation point; the transgressive rhetoric of the sexual revolution had run out of steam. Pornography began to lose what little artistic and political cachet it had. Since then the aura of transgression has shifted to the margins–to gay and lesbian sex, to transvestism and transsexualism, to wilder variations, while heterosexual pornography has retreated to the closet. To many, the homoerotic, fetishized images of Robert Mapplethorpe are still shocking, still carry with them the whiff of the transgressive. Heterosexual pornography, by contrast, seems less shocking than simply pathetic, the province not of sexual revolutionaries but of the raincoat crowd.
Many of the people who now decline to talk openly about pornography consider it boring or simply distasteful. For many men, admitting to using (or even having a taste for) pornography is admitting to sexual failure: porn is seen as an immature, adolescent fallback for those who can’t find a more “normal” sexual outlet. These men are less afraid of seeming insensitive than of seeming pathetic and perverse. Part of their shame seems to come from the fact that the main function of porn is as a masturbatory aid. “Most human societies frown on masturbation,” Arcand writes. “They seem unanimous in declaring it to be an elementary and minimal form of sexuality, a more or less desperate measure taken by those who have no other available means of sexual expression.”
Only a few people continue talking openly about pornography: the censors, the censorious, and the regulators. In recent years in the debate over pornography and in discussions of sexuality in general, a new kind of sexual language has emerged–a language that’s a peculiar mix of feminist rhetoric and legalistic discourse, a language that plays on fears and promises control. Pioneered by antipornography feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, this new discourse describes sexuality as an arena not of pleasure but of exploitation. The antiporn feminists also look upon the language of transgression with suspicion, seeing it as little more than a new variation on the old male con.
Few go quite as far as Dworkin and MacKinnon, who see heterosexual intercourse quite literally as a kind of rape, yet the two have had an enormous influence on the debate over sexuality, particularly on American college campuses, where sexuality has become more and more a problem to be solved. This is a sexuality of rules and regulations, of fear and guilt and sensitivity seminars–a sexuality as limited and as one-sided as the compulsive libertarianism of the 1970s.
In this climate the debate over pornography has become precariously one-sided. Dworkin and MacKinnon, who denounce porn with a legalistic rhetoric carefully designed to silence their opponents, now dominate the discussion.
The few porn defenders who haven’t been entirely intimidated form an odd coalition: a few pornographers who cling uneasily to the hackneyed language of sexual transgression, a few sexual rebels and feminists who attempt to disentangle the pleasures of porn from the perils of patriarchy, and a motley collection of civil libertarians. It’s an uneasy coalition, in large part because the three groups don’t quite agree on what it is they’re defending. The more disreputable pornographers celebrate porn in all its varieties (which pushes them mainly to the edge of the debate). The more reputable pornographers, like Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione, try hard to distinguish their “classy” porn from the hard-core genres. The promoters of politically correct feminist erotica try to distinguish their work from the misogynist crudities of Juggs magazine. And the civil libertarians would be much happier if they didn’t have to discuss any of the details.
Indeed, most of the more respectable civil libertarians who’ve addressed the issue haven’t been willing to make the case on anything other than the most general free-speech grounds. They speak in the abstract language of the First Amendment and manage to avoid discussing pornography itself almost entirely, except as a delicate legal problem for experts to solve. While they see the continuing existence of pornography as distasteful, they also see it as a test of our society’s tolerance.
Many of the First Amendment liberals who defend the right to publish pornography go out of their way to assure their audiences that they personally find the subject repellent. In his otherwise thoughtful New York Review of Books essay critiquing MacKinnon’s recent book Only Words, legal scholar Ronald Dworkin (no relation to Andrea) explains that he, like most liberals, “despise[s]” porn, that only “a small minority” in our culture actually enjoy “dirty films” and other such filth. “Like swastikas and burning crosses, pornography is deeply offensive in itself,” he writes. Perhaps he does find pornography repellent, but to equate dirty pictures with burning crosses–even for the purpose of argument–is at the very least absurd.
The antipornography advocates are quick to exploit the equivocation of their opponents, defining porn in the broadest possible terms. Going beyond the extreme rhetoric of the early antipornography movement–“Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice”–Andrea Dworkin and MacKinnon have declared that pornography is itself rape. This is the central assertion (I hesitate to say argument) of Only Words. “Protecting pornography means protecting sexual abuse as speech,” MacKinnon writes, “at the same time that both pornography and its expression have deprived women of speech, especially speech against sexual abuse.”
She simply ignores the question of consent, implying that all pornographic sex (and perhaps most heterosexual intercourse) is somehow forced upon always unwilling, always female victims for the benefit of sadistic, always male victimizers. There are, of course, a few empirical problems with this dramatic assertion: a great deal of porn is designed for gay men and involves no women at all, women (straight and lesbian) consume plenty of porn, and some porn is explicitly egalitarian, produced by and for women. But there’s a philosophical problem as well: MacKinnon looks upon female sexual desire with uncomprehending condescension, claiming that all expressions of consent in sex are so defiled by sexual inequality that they don’t count as consent.
The assumptions underlying such a view–partially obscured by MacKinnon’s deft, sweeping rhetoric–are startling. She rails, for example, at any depiction of “a penis ramming into a vagina.” Unless one equates all heterosexual intercourse with rape, it’s hard to imagine what’s inherently awful about that. Her distrust of any expression of sexuality is almost palpable: “Once you are used for sex, you are sexualized,” she writes. “You lose your human status.” At least the Meese Commission on pornography was more open (and perhaps more honest) about its assumptions and its censorious ideology. According to the commission, any and all explicit depictions of sex are beyond the pale, even representations of sex that is “intervaginal and between two married adults who find mutual pleasure in it and for the sole purpose of procreation.”
MacKinnon also obscures free-speech arguments by avoiding the difficult question of definition that has always been at the heart of the legal wrangles over pornography and censorship. She never clearly sets the boundaries between what is and what isn’t porn, and she refers to everything as almost equally degrading, though she focuses mainly on the most graphic and most violent subsets of the genre. The legal definition of pornography she has promoted–“graphically sexually explicit materials that subordinate women through pictures or words”–is designed to run the gamut of the industry, “from Playboy, in which women are objectified and presented dehumanized as sexual objects or things for use; through the torture of women and the sexualization of racism and the fetishization of women’s body parts; to snuff films, in which actual murder is the ultimate sexual act, the reduction to the thing form of a human being and the silence of women literal and complete.” But what about, say, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition? (It objectifies women.) What about the fashion photos in Vogue? (They objectify as well.) What about the lingerie section of the Sears catalog? One suspects that for MacKinnon everything is as nasty as she wants it to be.
But if she won’t quite say what pornography is, she is willing to say what it is not: speech. She argues that while porn may contain ideas (the idea, for example, that women are designed to serve men sexually), it doesn’t serve as a vehicle for the expression of ideas in any conventional sense. She then explains away this contradiction in a curiously circular fashion: she simply restates her premise in different words, arguing that porn “works . . . not as a thought or through its ideas as such, at least not in the ways thoughts and ideas are recognized as speech.”
In short, porn is merely a stimulant for male erections, and erections are little more than stimulants for the abuse of women. It’s not that men think with their dicks; it’s that the possession of an erect penis makes thought irrelevant. MacKinnon quotes with obvious satisfaction an old Yiddish saying: “A stiff prick turns the mind to shit.” The penis, she explains, “is not an organ of thought. . . . Having sex is antithetical to thinking.” And since porn is nothing more than a primitive stimulus for primitive, vicious behavior, the First Amendment is irrelevant and the question of censorship merely a distraction. “An erection is neither a thought nor a feeling, but a behavior,” she states, though she doesn’t bother to elucidate the distinction she’s drawing. “Pornography consumers are not consuming an idea any more than eating a loaf of bread is consuming the ideas on its wrapper or the ideas in its recipe.”
In this view, the effect of pornography is easy enough to predict. Since all pornographic images–even soft-core Playboy centerfolds–not only reflect but are a kind of two-dimensional rape, the images of porn inevitably and inexorably lead men to commit rape in the real world. “Sooner or later, in one way or another, the consumers want to live out the fantasy in three dimensions,” MacKinnon writes. “Sooner or later, in one way or another, they do.” It’s a remarkable display of rhetorical bravura–the phrases “sooner or later” and “in one way or another” qualify her statement to such a degree that it’s nearly impossible to disprove. Yet the effect of the passage is to imply that all consumers of porn are compelled to rape–and that all who oppose her view are in a sense accessories to the crime.
MacKinnon is as sloppy with her evidence as she is with her assumptions. She claims a small stack of “scientific” surveys backs up her startling conclusions, but doesn’t discuss the evidence she says is embedded in these reports or the methodologies of the research. We must take her word for it that science has concluded decisively that pornography “change[s] attitudes and impel[s] behavior in ways that are unique in their extent and devastating in their consequences.” Curiously, she then goes on to argue that “there is no evidence that pornography does no harm; not even courts equivocate over its carnage anymore.”
The courts may not “equivocate,” but researchers certainly do: studies of the effects of pornography are far less decisive than MacKinnon claims. At worst the studies simply “prove” what the researchers thought all along; at best they’re inconclusive. MacKinnon and her supporters can cite studies “proving” that porn inspires rape and abuse; their opponents can find studies that “prove” the opposite.
Arcand cites some studies that show that, far from being slaves to porn-induced madness, “violent rapists and pedophiles are not very fond of pornography” and find it embarrassing or upsetting rather than arousing. According to Leonore Tiefer, a psychologist who works with the National Coalition Against Censorship, women face more dangers from censorship than they do from pornography. “Pornography is about fantasy,” she argued at a recent anticensorship conference. “Suppressing pornography will harm women struggling to develop their own sexualities, because history teaches us that any crackdown on sexuality always falls the hardest on the experimental and on women.” However, this assertion is as unprovable as MacKinnon’s.
As Gore Vidal has suggested, the only thing pornography is known to cause directly is “the solitary act of masturbation.” And even this, he suggests, is not guaranteed: since people have different tastes, the same images may excite one person and bore another. To Vidal, this is all that can reasonably be said about the subject. “The worst that can be said of pornography is that it leads not to ‘antisocial’ sexual acts but to the reading of more pornography,” he writes. “As for corruption, the only immediate victim is English prose.”
All we can really say at this point is that we don’t know what the effects of pornography are. Words and images do indeed have consequences, but these consequences are almost impossible to predict. Arcand cites the case of a savage murder in which the killer was inspired by the film The Ten Commandments. He writes, “True psychopaths do not need pornography to act.” Given our inability to accurately measure the effect of pornographic images (or, indeed, the effect of any words or images), much of the research on the subject appears to be at best pointless and at worst silly. After leading his readers through one academic investigation of the physiological results of porn that combined some simplistic assumptions with a great deal of high-tech equipment, Arcand notes dryly that “the reader becomes convinced of nothing so much as that a disturbing number of psychology students at certain American universities must spend a great deal of their time with wires attached to their sex organs.”
Arcand concludes, “Few subjects have lent themselves as easily to peremptory, but gratuitous, statements, doubtful interpretations, ill-considered conclusions, distortions and bad faith as pornography. . . . A considerable number of public declarations on the subject are little more than the open expressions of opinions that bear no weight other than that of total sincerity.” Insofar as they prove anything, the various studies have done little more than confirm common sense. “Pornography is amusing, beastly, repugnant, useful, menacing, fascinating, and disturbing,” he writes. Sometimes it’s all these things at once, which is undoubtedly part of its appeal.
One thing one can argue with a certain degree of plausibility is that buying porn of almost any variety does help support an industry that routinely exploits women. Certainly it’s not the only industry that exploits women (not to mention men); those who buy Nike sneakers are contributing in a way to the degradation of workers toiling away in Philippine sweatshops for a dollar a day making the shoes, and those who watch The Simpsons are contributing to the exploitation of Korean animators who do the show’s more tedious work. Under capitalism, as a fellow named Karl Marx reminded us, we’re all forced to do things we don’t like for money we need. “What are [the women in pornography] going to do instead that is more dignified and less degrading?” pornographer I.S. Levine asks in his new book, Coming Attractions: The Making of an X-Rated Video, written with psychiatrist Robert Stoller. “We’re not dealing here with the well-educated products of upper-middle-class homes but mostly with socially marginal people with little to look forward to. If they were in some other business, they could look forward to earning less under conditions not a lot better.”
This is not to say that the industry is somehow a refuge from the degradations of capitalism; a job in porn may be a step up from flipping burgers at McDonald’s, but it’s not much of a step. “No matter how often an outwardly charming, intelligent, likable, well-adjusted [porn star] sits up there on the Donahue show and says, ‘We’re charming, likable, well-adjusted human beings,’ no one is fooled,” Levine says. “The public’s idea about this industry is probably not far removed from the kind of industry it is: exploitative, with marginal personalities who can’t integrate into society, self-destructive people living self-destructive lives.” Clearly the advocates of pornography who speak of the genre only in terms of fantasy are being as intellectually dishonest as Dworkin and MacKinnon: the business is a seedy one.
Still, it’s hard to see how further stigmatizing or criminalizing the industry could make things better. Indeed, many of its worst aspects derive directly from its outlaw status, from its links with the social and criminal underworld. The worst problems faced by those in the business are not “objectification” or the “fetishization of body parts”; they’re poor working conditions and gross disparities in power between those who have money and those who have to work to get it. But if the porn defenders don’t like to admit this world exists, the antiporn feminists seem to care about it only in the abstract. “Let’s face it: [antiporn] feminists . . . don’t give a fuck whether the women in this business are exploited; they don’t care if they’re drawn and quartered,” Levine says. “They think that women who do this are foul, degraded creatures . . . not their taste in victims.”
Regardless of what the affects of porn are, it elicits an intense and protracted anger from many of its detractors. The most influential antipornography writings–especially those of Andrea Dworkin–rely less upon logic than on personal rage. “I have not seen or known the worst,” she writes in Letters From a War Zone, “but I still feel as if I have been flayed alive.” Why is it that the images of pornography evoke in some women (and even a few men) such intense, at times irrational, rage? “Misery and horror are common enough in the world,” Arcand observes, after quoting a particularly lurid outburst from Dworkin. “But rarely do we find such harsh terms used to express such all-consuming rage.”
Dworkin’s writings seem at times little more than free-associational rants unimpeded by the constraints of linear thought: “For fun they rape us or have other men, or sometimes animals, rape us and film the rapes and show the rapes in movie theatres or publish them in magazines, and the normal men who are not pimps (who don’t know, don’t mean it) pay money to watch; and we are told that the pimps and the normal men are free citizens in a free society exercising rights and that we are prudes because this is sex and real women don’t mind a little force and the women get paid anyway so what’s the big deal? . . . If you are going to hurt a woman in the United States, be sure to take a photograph. This will confirm that the injury you did to her expressed a point-of-view, sacrosanct in a free society.”
This is the language of war, designed not to encourage but to suppress debate, designed to eliminate even the faintest possibility of disagreement. Men who don’t concur with the antipornography ideology are viewed as beasts; women who don’t react to porn with anger are denounced as traitors to their sex.
Arcand writes that the real issues in the porn debate run deeper than the imagery. “Pornography itself may be largely insignificant, but what it [brings] to the surface certainly [is] not.” He suggests, not implausibly, that pornography elicits strong reactions among traditionalists and fundamentalist feminists because at root it unsettles the role of women. Pornography disturbs the traditionalists because it challenges the notion of the domesticated woman, “decries the venerable model of woman as discreet, modest and shy . . . for whom sex is a conjugal duty unfortunately necessary for the propagation of the family, the nation, or the species.” In other words, pornography suggests that women too are sexual creatures, with needs and desires of their own. For many women this message has been a liberating one; for them the rhetoric of transgression is still accurate.
Arcand also argues that pornography is threatening to some feminists because it “proposes a solution” to the dilemmas of patriarchal tradition “that threatens to topple into its opposite.” That is, porn replaces the image of the domesticated woman with that of the wanton woman, replaces the virgin with the whore. In pornography, it’s often argued, women live out a role defined for them largely by male fantasy, in which their new sexual assertiveness serves the pleasures of the male voyeur.
But again, this is only part of the story. Women attack pornography in part, feminist writer Ellen Willis argues in her recent No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays, to guard against their own unruly desires. She’s suspicious of those eager to police a “politically correct” sexuality, for she’s convinced that sexual liberation requires coming to terms with the complexities of our unconscious feelings and desires. “Women’s sexual experience is diverse and often contradictory,” she writes. “Our most passionate convictions about sex do not necessarily reflect our real desires; they are as likely to be aimed at repressing the pain of desires we long ago decided were too dangerous to acknowledge, even to ourselves. If feminist theory is to be truly based in the reality of women’s lives, feminists must examine their professed beliefs and feelings with as much skepticism as they apply to male pronouncements.” After all, she notes, “the purpose of women’s liberation is to liberate women, not [to] defend our superior capacity for abstinence.”
To say this is not to advocate a return to the compulsive sexual libertarianism of the 1970s. Sexuality, especially in the age of AIDS, is not without its dangers and complexities, which are as much emotional as physical. But we can’t safeguard ourselves against these dangers by denying the more complex, and sometimes darker, side of our feelings. Sexual liberation doesn’t require that we act out all of our desires, but it does require that we acknowledge them.
In some ways, Willis also suggests, the attack on pornography is a rear-guard action, an attempt to recapture the sense of feminine moral superiority that the partial collapse of patriarchal absolutes has thrown into doubt. In a society in which sexuality is still penned in by shame, women are condemned to “walk the elusive line between being too good and not good enough. The line shifts with history and circumstance, this particular man or his particular mood; the more freedom women achieve the more tenuous this line becomes. The anxiety this uncertainty provokes functions actively as a means of social control; women can never stop trying to be better, to escape an inescapable taint. Given this impossible situation, it is no wonder that so many feminists are more preoccupied with their fears of male violence than with their hopes for sexual freedom.” The only escape from this impossible situation, she argues, is to reject the feminist appropriation of the traditional notion of “good” and “bad” girls, to “end the association between sex and badness.”
The Dworkin-MacKinnon attack on pornography, Willis implies, is nearly as hostile to female experience as it is to male experience. The two push aside as insignificant or “incorrect” the sexual desires of a great many, if not most, women. “Anyone who thinks that women are simply indifferent to pornography has never watched a group of adolescent girls pass around a trashy novel,” Willis writes. “Over the years I’ve enjoyed various pieces of pornography–some of them of the sleazy Forty-second Street paperback sort–and so have most women I know. Fantasy, after all, is more flexible than reality, and women have learned, as a matter of survival, to be adept at shaping male fantasies to their own purposes. If feminists define pornography, per se, as the enemy, the result will be to make a lot of women ashamed of their sexual feelings and afraid to be honest about them. And the last thing women need is more sexual shame, guilt and hypocrisy–this time served up as feminism.”
Is Willis unusual? Not really. More and more women seem to be buying hard-core pornography, for themselves or for use with their partners. “I go into the video stores and watch the Westwood housewives,” Levine states. “They rent Cinderella for the kids, and Rain Man for everyone after dinner, and an X picture for after the kids go to bed.”
The use of pornography by women still carries an aura of transgression, but a few women have been willing to openly defend its pleasures. Sallie Tisdale, in a confessional article in the February 1992 Harper’s, described with a bracing honesty her own conflicted love for pornography, her furtive, exciting forays into the male world of the adult video store to seek out her particular pleasures, to explore the wilder shores of her desires. The first time she saw a pornographic film, in a grimy adult movie theater with her boyfriend, she found her lust “aroused as surely and uncontrollably by the sight of sex as hunger can be roused by the smell of food. . . . I felt a heady mix of disgust and excitement, and confusion at that mix. Layers peeled off one after the other, because sometimes I disliked my own response. I resist it still, when something dark and forbidden emerges, when my body is provoked by what my mind reproves.”
Tisdale’s confession is an attempt to sort through the tensions between shame and desire, an implicit call for women to be honest with themselves about the varied sources and implications of their desires. And she resents the attempts of Dworkin and MacKinnon to rein in her sexuality, to force her experience to fit their ideology. She’s deeply angered by the claim that women who embrace the pleasures of pornography “cannot be making free choices at all–are not free to make a choice. Feminists against pornography have done a sad and awful thing: They have made women into objects.”
Arcand describes pornography as “an experience of power. The enjoyment it gives comes from knowing beforehand that seduction is guaranteed, in having enough power to break through the barriers of modesty and to invade intimacy. That is why it is such great pleasure for male viewers to watch two or more women having sex together, one of the favorite themes of pornography: they enjoy the power of penetrating an intimacy so secret that it is sometimes suspected of being a kind of plot against men.”
But if this is an expression of power, it is power of a particularly degraded kind: those who gaze upon the images of nude women (or, for that matter, men) have no power over the people in the pictures; their seeming omnipotence comes at the cost of isolation from real human contact. If pornography could really give what it promised–intimacy without consequences–no one would ever want to escape its spell. Like the “fast sex” of the 1970s, the instant intimacy of pornography offers no real intimacy at all. For most, then, porn is a temporary and decidedly bittersweet pleasure.
The indulgence of such adolescent fantasies is a tacit admission of at least momentary incapacity when it comes to real people. Perhaps this helps explain the violence of so much porn. “Pornography has been and remains predominantly aimed at heterosexual males who have been taught that it is in the nature of women to fascinate men and that men must also view them with mistrust,” Arcand writes. “There is frustration at the injustice that forces men to submit to an overly courteous love for women who are”–it is supposed–“in perfect control of their sexual needs, who are cold and without desire, and who must be courted endlessly, repeatedly, forever.”
But the indulgence of fantasies, however adolescent or absurd, need not lead to hostility or self-contempt if the fantasies are recognized for what they are. Levine states that porn offers something of “a hideout from the terrible demands of adulthood.” Those who participate in the culture of pornography, as performers or users, can indulge for a moment in a return to the simple fantasies of their youth, lingering “in a state of overheated adolescent sexuality, the very place their personalities were formed, stuck where they discovered sex.”
Most viewers of pornography, he writes, “just take a vacation back to adolescence to look at this stuff,” then return “with a sigh of regret and envy, to real life, a life not like that in X-rated pictures.” Unlike pornography addicts, who can’t escape the allure of the fantasy of omnipotence: “mostly men [stuck in a state of] arrested development . . . who relate to sexuality in a two-dimensional, objectified, obsessed form,” who cannot deal with the frustrations and complications of real-world sexuality, who remain trapped in their adolescent dreams.
From this distinction come both the title and the conclusion of Arcand’s book. He speaks of a ritual myth of various South American tribes in which the solitary, seemingly asexual anteater is pitted against the dangerous, flamboyantly sexual jaguar. In most versions of the myth the anteater (surprisingly powerful despite its appearance) overwhelms (partly by sheer persistence) the flashy jaguar, but in the version of central Brazil’s Sherente tribe it’s the jaguar that emerges victorious. Arcand is heartened by the Sherente’s choice favoring the uncertainty and excitement of an active, social, sexual life–the choice to “live well and die.”
Pornography, he argues, is the embodiment of the opposite choice. It “opts for the model of the anteater: to live comfortably in a protected and cozy isolation that allows one to escape from traditional social constraints.” But this ultimately implies a sad and limited kind of life. He suggests that in the best of all possible worlds pornography could become “a closed universe into which it would sometimes be pleasant to disappear, as long as it remained quite clear that it was a game of lies and limitations.” It makes no sense to deny such fantasies–or to rule them politically off-limits, as Dworkin and MacKinnon insist we must. But to live only in fantasy is to retreat from life itself.
The Jaguar and the Anteater: Pornography and the Modern World by Bernard Arcand, Verso, $29.95.
Coming Attractions: The Making of an X-Rated Video by Robert J. Stoller and I.S. Levine, Yale University Press, $30.
Only Words by Catharine A. MacKinnon, Harvard University Press, $14.95.
No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays by Ellen Willis, Wesleyan/University Press of New England, $22.95.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.