Thursday, November 30, 2006

Naomi Wolf - The Porn Myth

I found this old Naomi Wolf article on one of the social networking sites, from 2003 in New York Magazine.

She is arguing that porn has reduced the desirability of actual flesh-and-blood women. Personally, I can't comprehend her argument, but then unlike the young men she is talking about, I was not raised on internet porn. When I was a kid, Playboy just made us want to know what a REAL woman was like. The mystery of her presence was what we dreamed of, not the variety of sex acts she might perform for us.

Here is some of the article:

Here is what young women tell me on college campuses when the subject comes up: They can’t compete, and they know it. For how can a real woman—with pores and her own breasts and even sexual needs of her own (let alone with speech that goes beyond “More, more, you big stud!”)—possibly compete with a cybervision of perfection, downloadable and extinguishable at will, who comes, so to speak, utterly submissive and tailored to the consumer’s least specification?

For most of human history, erotic images have been reflections of, or celebrations of, or substitutes for, real naked women. For the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women. Today, real naked women are just bad porn.

For two decades, I have watched young women experience the continual “mission creep” of how pornography—and now Internet pornography—has lowered their sense of their own sexual value and their actual sexual value. When I came of age in the seventies, it was still pretty cool to be able to offer a young man the actual presence of a naked, willing young woman. There were more young men who wanted to be with naked women than there were naked women on the market. If there was nothing actively alarming about you, you could get a pretty enthusiastic response by just showing up. Your boyfriend may have seen Playboy, but hey, you could move, you were warm, you were real. Thirty years ago, simple lovemaking was considered erotic in the pornography that entered mainstream consciousness: When Behind the Green Door first opened, clumsy, earnest, missionary-position intercourse was still considered to be a huge turn-on.

Well, I am 40, and mine is the last female generation to experience that sense of sexual confidence and security in what we had to offer. Our younger sisters had to compete with video porn in the eighties and nineties, when intercourse was not hot enough. Now you have to offer—or flirtatiously suggest—the lesbian scene, the ejaculate-in-the-face scene. Being naked is not enough; you have to be buff, be tan with no tan lines, have the surgically hoisted breasts and the Brazilian bikini wax—just like porn stars. (In my gym, the 40-year-old women have adult pubic hair; the twentysomethings have all been trimmed and styled.) Pornography is addictive; the baseline gets ratcheted up. By the new millennium, a vagina—which, by the way, used to have a pretty high “exchange value,” as Marxist economists would say—wasn’t enough; it barely registered on the thrill scale. All mainstream porn—and certainly the Internet—made routine use of all available female orifices.

Since I am the same age as Wolf when she wrote this, and essentially of the same generation for the most part, I don't feel that I am one of the men she is talking about. But I can see her point, how she is viewing the problem.

I am certainly no prude and would never dream of saying men or women should not be allowed to watch or do anything they want as long as it does not harm anyone. So I generally see this as a developmental issue, and/or a result of the puritanical stance this culture has taken on sexuality. The more taboo it is, the more it becomes something to devour in as many ways as possible.

In a developmental sense, when a person moves beyond the egocentric stage, where fulfilling personal need or desire is predominant, the expression of sexual interest will become more about the sharing of erotic experience with an equal, and the emotional context will become as important as the physical. Eventually, assuming a person continues to develop, the spiritual or soul-level experience will also become an important context for sharing.

This might sound stuffy to those who are still at the egocentric stage, but you can still have a down-and-dirty quickie with soul, or a spiritually exciting animal-like encounter with your partner. But that is the key word, partner -- you're not likely to have the trust and safety with a stranger that you have with someone you love and have a connection with. You might have some great sex, but it probably won't be the rich and deep experience that is possible when it is more than physical gratification.

That is the argument Wolf should be making.


2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think Wolf's argument is in fact more subtle and convincing than you're giving her credit for. If you want to look at it using integral terminology, I read her as suggesting that pornography, in a lower right/left sense (that is, culturally and in a systemic sense, since it's impossible to avoid the constant assault of processed, idealized, ridiculous images of women) have significantly and tragically distorted individual conceptions of how sexuality should play out and what, specificially, women have (or should have) to offer men. I find that argument eminently convincing: in myself and in the behaviour I observe in others.

Try an experiment: envision the ideally attractive woman. Now, before your Integral (feminist, goody-two shoes, politically correct, conscious) thinking kicked in, did you see in your mind's eye a woman 17 years old, 5'10", blonde with blue eyes, with the body of a professional triathlete (but incongruously large breasts)? So did everyone else exposed to western media/pornography.

So, as I read it, Wolf is talking about a kind of systematic conditioning (on the cultural level) which is a thing quite apart from individual desires/intentions/development, meaning that it affects you whether you will it or not.

I think it's great practice to engage the arguments of others with rigourous attention and to analyze them using Integral techniques (improving one's own competences) but I also think, particularly as men confronting a woman's feminist analysis, that a certain humble willingness to learn, and to beleive that she's probably right (or, at the very least, has access to perspectives, experiences, a visceral engagment we do not) is of the absolute essence if typical hegemonic tendencies are to be avoided. Wilber (for example), in his analyses of feminists, annoys me to no end with his arrogance, obtuseness and quite often shockingly typical chauvinisms. Not an example for other men to follow at all!

Kai in NYC

WH said...

Hey Kai,

Without revealing too much, your thought experiment is lost on me to an extent because I see young girls trying to look like that all day at the gym -- and some are quite attractive. My preference runs a little older, but still tends toward the perfectly athletic body. So I suppose I am a victim of the programming as well.

Still, I see Wolf as arguing that men have been conditioned to prefer the porn ideal, a submissive woman, void of thoughts, and eager to please (without any needs of her own). And she feels that women are being conditioned to think they have to fulfill that desire, which may or may not be true (shows like Sex and the City would seem to be empowering women to expect more from men, but that may not be reaching younger women). It's all behavioral conditioning, though (upper right quadrant).

Certainly, I think what you say is true -- the cultural and systemic conditioning is almost impossible to escape. Wolf does make a convincing case, but it is all at the egocentric level.

My point, perhaps poorly argued, was that the way out of that problem is a developmental step up. I don't see the situation changing in terms of what we are exposed to -- or the puritanical voices wanting to make any interest in sex feel dirty.

Those of us who try to be more integral, feminist, conscious, politically correct, and goody-two-shoes [grin], seek to live beyond our cultural programming, which may take some doing, but that is the only way I see of changing the situation. We don't need to be SNAGs (sensitive new age guys), but do want to try to transcend the negative conditioning that diminishes women.

As to your last point -- I agree. It's always a risky proposition for a male to take on a feminist about her experience. I don't think it should be off-limits, though. I can grant that she has experience I will never have, and respect her stance, but I can also argue for a broader perspective. I hope.

Peace,
Bill