Porn is a lot like fast food, when you think about it. As some wag observed, “fast food” is neither “fast” nor “food.” It’s sort of like food, except taken down to the lowest common denominator, commoditized into unrecognizability, ridiculously cheap and available on demand, so available that it’s starting to replace a significant amount of “real” food for a number of people. Fast food’s race to the bottom, driven by capitalism, all too often feeds on exploiting its employees. And fast food, in its own little niche, thrives on creating experiences that tap directly in to our tastes and preferences, then exaggerate those preferences to the point of ridiculousness, creating experiences that are so hyper-palatable that they can never be satisfying, and are always begging to be repeated, to the point where nothing other than fast food can repeat that experience and satisfy the artificially-created craving. But fast food tells us nothing about what food is, ought to be, or can be. Porn tells us nothing about what sex is, ought to be, or can be. Porn is like fast food.
In an article for The Atlantic called “Hard Core: The new world of porn is revealing eternal truths about men and women,” writer Natasha Vargas-Cooper surveys porn today and concludes that “While sexual aggression and the desire to debase women may not be what arouse all men, they are certainly an animating force of male sexuality.” Vargas-Cooper derides feminist approaches to sex:
“This is an intellectual swindle that leads women to misjudge male sexuality, which they do at their own emotional and physical peril. Male desire is not a malleable entity that can be constructed through politics, language, or media. Sexuality is not neutral. A warring dynamic based on power and subjugation has always existed between men and women, and the egalitarian view of sex, with its utopian pretensions, offers little insight into the typical male psyche. Internet porn, on the other hand, shows us an unvarnished (albeit partial) view of male sexuality as an often dark force streaked with aggression. The Internet has created a perfect market of buyers and sellers (with the sellers increasingly proffering their goods gratis) that provides what people—overwhelmingly males (who make up two-thirds of all porn viewers)—want to see or do.”
Throughout the article, Vargas-Cooper returns to the theme of anal sex, including an encounter of hers where the man admitted that he wanted anal sex “because it’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This is Vargas-Cooper’s example of the essence of male sexuality: men want to take women, and they want to debase them in the process. She caricatures feminists for thinking that Internet porn is what’s preventing us from achieving a “utopia of sexual equality,” when, in her words, “But equality in sex can’t be achieved. Internet porn exposes that reality; it may even intensify that reality; it doesn’t create it.”
Vargas-Cooper misunderstands feminist complaints about Internet porn. I say that what’s keeping us away from a utopia of sexual equality isn’t Internet porn, it’s people like Vargas-Cooper. It’s attitudes like Vargas-Cooper’s genteel, haute couture rape apologism, boys will be boys, girls, don’t get in cars with them, you know what men are like, that’s keeping us from making progress towards greater sexual equality. It’s everyone who subscribes to these ridiculous gender-essentialist scripts and won’t do the hard work of challenging the scripts, changing the scripts, throwing the damn scripts away and discovering who they are without a fracking script.
To return to my comparison: Having anal sex is like deep-frying food. It’s a messy process that, if done wrong, can be extremely painful. Done right, the results are delicious. So delicious, in fact, that it can be kind of addictive, and definitely worth all the effort you put into preparing, doing everything just right, and cleaning up afterward. At home, the effort of preparation, having the right equipment, being prepared to cope with the pain as you learn to do it right (ask any cook about splashing hot oil), and the sheer amount of time and effort that go into doing it well, all of those things serve to limit how much you deep-fry food. But with fast food, deep-frying has become de rigeur. Fast food takes all the effort and difficulty away, so that all we have to do is pay our $3 and savor the crunchiness of the fries or the crispness of the wontons. It’s hard to imagine a fast food joint without its deep fryer. But none of that means that deep-fried food is normal, is part of what food is, or has to be, or ought to be.
Saying that men want anal sex and want it to be aggressive and make women uncomfortable, and that porn doesn’t create that reality, just reflects it, is like saying that people want deep-fried food and want it to have salt and lots and lots of fat, and that fast food doesn’t create that reality, just reflects it.
The more we learn about food the more we recognize just how much a parody fast food is; it’s not unhealthy in and of itself, in small doses. But what’s dangerous about it is that it is so hyper-palatable, and so effort-free, that it trains us to think that’s the way food is or ought to be. And we don’t know what we’re getting; the amounts of salt and fat are ridiculously high, but all we know is that it tastes good, because it has taken what might or might not be a “natural” inclination, driven it to the furthest extremes our bodies can handle, and then some. Michael Pollan argues that some things, especially deep frying, are labor-intensive enough that they’re self-limiting. Nobody would eat french fries every day, twice or three times a day sometimes, if they had to do all the work of preparing them at home. They’d eat them occasionally, and enjoy them as a treat, but not the staple of the diet.
Let me clarify a few things: I don’t believe that anal sex is bad or dangerous; in this society we’ve gotten so moralistic about our food (especially fat) that people might misread me as saying that anal sex is just as bad, as intrinsically wrong, as artery-clogging cholesterol. No, no, and again, no. I don’t think in those moralistic terms about my food, and even less so about my sex. Fat isn’t bad, in and of itself, in moderate amounts as part of a balanced diet. On the other hand, if it works for you and your partner(s) to have anal sex three times a day, go for it. (The exercise will probably keep you in great shape, too.) There’s no reason that anal sex has to cause physiological or psychological problems if you have “too much” of it. The context for sex is as part of a relationship, even just your relationship with yourself. If you take sufficient time for self-care, for being honest about your attitudes about sex, and your enjoyment of it, and pay sufficient attention to creating the right situations for you to engage in anal sex, then you’re getting the sexual equivalent of a balanced diet, and whatever you’re doing is in moderate amounts for you. We have a lot more flexibility in our sex lives than in our nutrition.
The other reason I hesitate to make the comparison between, say, aggression and salt, is that as far as we can tell, humans are pretty hardwired to think that salt tastes good. This might lead someone to think that I’m actually agreeing with Vargas-Cooper that aggression, like salt, is a hard-wired trait that we can’t eradicate but must adapt to. Far from it. Again, the context of sex is psychological, not physiological. For every “pink brain, blue brain” study that purports to show men and women are physiologically determined to act differently, there’s a wealth of uncertainty that says we simply don’t know enough to say so. We don’t know nearly enough about how our physiology affects our psychology to determine a one-way causal relationship like that. And we definitely don’t know enough to eliminate the roles of cultural and social conditioning in shaping not just our psychology but even our physiology in related ways. On the evidence so far, it looks like human psychology is incredibly malleable. So the idea that aggression turns men on in ways similar to how salt tastes good to us doesn’t reveal any “eternal truths” about men; it means, at most, that in this culture, men’s psychology often gets shaped so that aggression is related to sexuality.
And that’s the problem. In this culture. Because the more Vargas-Cooper claims to have discovered “eternal truths,” the more she’s reinforcing and continuing to perpetuate the environment in which men are aggressive bastards who want to demean women during sex. I’ve got news for you: like it or not, you’re participating in creating your own reality. Anybody trying to tell you or sell you “eternal truths” is relying on your willingness to believe that things can’t be changed. Some religions believe that, but not mine. And I’m not buying in to Vargas-Cooper’s 1950s-flavored cult of the aggressive male, either.
As my husband said, “If I want my meat to go from frozen to done in three minutes, deep-frying is the way to go.” But my husband is also a very good cook, who delights in the effort and process of creating delicious meals at home. The results can’t be equalled by any commercially-produced substitute. That’s not because the home kitchen is some kind of utopia, but because it’s reality. The commercialized substitute is a cheap knock-off, a distorted reflection of reality. Honey, give me that real fresh, hot home cookin’ any day.