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The Porn Myth
By Naomi Wolf

At a benefit the other night, I saw Andrea Dworkin, the anti-porn activist most famous in the eighties for her conviction that opening the floodgates of pornography would lead men to see real women in sexually debased ways. If we did not limit pornography, she argued—before Internet technology made that prospect a technical impossibility—most men would come to objectify women as they objectified porn stars, and treat them accordingly. In a kind of domino theory, she predicted, rape and other kinds of sexual mayhem would surely follow.

The feminist warrior looked gentle and almost frail. The world she had, Cassandra-like, warned us about so passionately was truly here: Porn is, as David Amsden says, the “wallpaper” of our lives now. So was she right or wrong?

She was right about the warning, wrong about the outcome. As she foretold, pornography did breach the dike that separated a marginal, adult, private pursuit from the mainstream public arena. The whole world, post-Internet, did become pornographized. Young men and women are indeed being taught what sex is, how it looks, what its etiquette and expectations are, by pornographic training—and this is having a huge effect on how they interact.

But the effect is not making men into raving beasts. On the contrary: The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as “porn-worthy.” Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.

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.

The porn loop is de rigueur, no longer outside the pale; starlets in tabloids boast of learning to strip from professionals; the “cool girls” go with guys to the strip clubs, and even ask for lap dances; college girls are expected to tease guys at keg parties with lesbian kisses à la Britney and Madonna. But does all this sexual imagery in the air mean that sex has been liberated—or is it the case that the relationship between the multi-billion-dollar porn industry, compulsiveness, and sexual appetite has become like the relationship between agribusiness, processed foods, supersize portions, and obesity? If your appetite is stimulated and fed by poor-quality material, it takes more junk to fill you up.

People are not closer because of porn but further apart; people are not more turned on in their daily lives but less so. The young women who talk to me on campuses about the effect of pornography on their intimate lives speak of feeling that they can never measure up, that they can never ask for what they want; and that if they do not offer what porn offers, they cannot expect to hold a guy. The young men talk about what it is like to grow up learning about sex from porn, and how it is not helpful to them in trying to figure out how to be with a real woman. Mostly, when I ask about loneliness, a deep, sad silence descends on audiences of young men and young women alike.

They know they are lonely together, even when conjoined, and that this imagery is a big part of that loneliness. What they don’t know is how to get out, how to find each other again erotically, face-to-face.

So Dworkin was right that pornography is compulsive, but she was wrong in thinking it would make men more rapacious. A whole generation of men are less able to connect erotically to women—and ultimately less libidinous.

The reason to turn off the porn might become, to thoughtful people, not a moral one but, in a way, a physical- and emotional-health one; you might want to rethink your constant access to porn in the same way that, if you want to be an athlete, you rethink your smoking.

The evidence is in: Greater supply of the stimulant equals diminished capacity. After all, pornography works in the most basic of ways on the brain: It is Pavlovian. An orgasm is one of the biggest reinforcers imaginable. If you associate orgasm with your wife, a kiss, a scent, a body, that is what, over time, will turn you on; if you open your focus to an endless stream of ever-more-transgressive images of cybersex slaves, that is what it will take to turn you on.

The ubiquity of sexual images does not free eros but dilutes it. Other cultures know this. I am not advocating a return to the days of hiding female sexuality, but I am noting that the power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time. In many more traditional cultures, it is not prudery that leads them to discourage men from looking at pornography. It is, rather, because these cultures understand male sexuality and what it takes to keep men and women turned on to one another over time—to help men, in particular, to, as the Old Testament puts it, “rejoice with the wife of thy youth; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times.”

These cultures urge men not to look at porn because they know that a powerful erotic bond between parents is a key element of a strong family. And feminists have misunderstood many of these prohibitions.

I will never forget a visit I made to Ilana, an old friend who had become an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. When I saw her again, she had abandoned her jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a head scarf. I could not get over it. Ilana has waist-length, wild and curly golden-blonde hair. “Can’t I even see your hair?” I asked, trying to find my old friend in there.

“No,” she demurred quietly. “Only my husband,” she said with a calm sexual confidence, “ever gets to see my hair.”

When she showed me her little house in a settlement on a hill, and I saw the bedroom, draped in Middle Eastern embroideries, that she shares only with her husband—the kids are not allowed—the sexual intensity in the air was archaic, overwhelming. It was private. It was a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated West.

And I thought: Our husbands see naked women all day—in Times Square if not on the Net. Her husband never even sees another woman’s hair. She must feel, I thought, so hot.

Compare that steaminess with a conversation I had at Northwestern, after I had talked about the effect of porn on relationships. “Why have sex right away?” a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. “Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.”

Isn't the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?” Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”

I've believed this theory to be true for quite some time.  It's strange that things have worked this way in American society when I've seen the opposite in Europe.  

Over the summers I spent in Spain, I noticed that there's no distinction as there is here, between beaches and nude beaches.  In the small town where my father grew up, there's just beaches and women (including my aunts, to my horror) would sunbathe topless.  There was nudity on television.  

Sex didn't have the same puritanical taboo on it that we have/had here. 

So why hasn't "porn creep" affected us in the same way?  I think that capitalism may have something to do with it. 

When the porn industry started to boom in the seventies with Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones, a need for constant one-upmanship started.  Americans love to push envelopes.  Each successive year in pornography had to push new buttons, go further, be raunchier, be dirtier, do more, and it sold.  First in theaters, then on video tape and now directly into their bedrooms on the Internet.  People want to make money, other people want to see the latest and worst and will pay for it.

America's obsession with sex stands in stark contrast to the religious right, who seem to think sex is okay only missionary and only when it's breeding more little fundamentalists.  Still there are too many stories of molesting priests and pastors caught at the strip club or short stay motel with strippers.

I was reading another article in New York Magazine and it discussed how even strip clubs are passe in favor of Internet porn.  Men really are choosing the made-up fake women on their screens over real, flesh and blood women, even the ones who offer the fantast up wholesale, live and sweaty, in their faces. 

It's both fascinating and sad.



( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 2nd, 2008 05:33 pm (UTC)
What she said. Erotica has a well-earned place in cultural product, but most of what's out there is shit, little more than a deadener, as commercial product and prone to the exact same processes.

That said, the only reason it's popular is because we're prudish. Traditional cultures eat up pornography, too. I think we've become very crass, sure. But I'd say we're hardly liberated, either. We vibrate between equally untenable extremes. It's indicative of a divide between what we say and what we do.

In short, I don't think we're screwing enough. This is a pot and meth situation; lack of even basic sexual honesty has produced a much more pernicious problem. And this is manifold; not only do we sexualize children from a young age, but we also deny the sex drive that is present in children from birth. We're deeply, deeply fucked up as a society.

Edited at 2008-12-02 05:35 pm (UTC)
Dec. 2nd, 2008 09:43 pm (UTC)
I grew up in a very conservative fundamentalist Christian environment where just about everything was taboo; drinking, sex, drugs and rock and roll... you know the cliche.

Because everything in the world was "forbidden", I think it made those things even more interesting to those of us who were kept from such things while under our parents thumbs.

As a result, I watched an alarmingly large number of my friends go off the deep end with drugs, sleeping around and drinking themselves into oblivion. They were never exposed to anything growing up so they had no idea how in the world to control themselves when faced with temptations. They lost control and became addicted to things that are fine in moderation but can be dangerous if overindulged.

I agree wholeheartedly that because we are a repressed, prudish society these things hold far greater sway with us than they do other cultures where sex etc isn't taboo (as Juli pointed out about Spain).

I don't remember where I read the statistic, but did you know that the "Bible Belt" is the largest consumer of pornography in the country? I don't find that surprising at all given they are the epitome of repression.

Dec. 2nd, 2008 05:47 pm (UTC)
Sex addiction is at an all time high. We are cranking out a generations of sex addicts who will not be able to have healthy intimate relationships. It's horrifying and sad.

All parents need to be diligent about monitoring their children's internet useage and about teaching their children what porn is and how harmful it is to them in the long run. (not just boys, girls too)

There is a fine line between normal curiousity and crossing over into compulsive behavior. The internet has made it so easy to cross that line.

Our generation started out looking at the bra and underwear ads in catalogs or if they were really lucky they might get a look at a National Geographic with pictures of bare chested tribal women...or perhaps even the holy grail...a look at Dad's Playboy. Now adays the first thing some young people see is very hard core XXX pornography on the internet. It's tremendously damaging.

Look at the way our young women are behaving. "Girls Gone Wild" is a prime example. I would never have even considered behaving like that. Ever. And I grew up in the 80s where my idea of what women should look like came from half dressed skanks in the videos on MTV. Teens and twenty-somethings seem to have zero self respect and certainly no modesty. Girls as young as 10 and 11 (perhaps younger) are performing oral sex on classmates at parties.

Men are numb to real women and real relationships, they objectify women, even the ones they think they love. Women are desperate to meet these unattainable standards and feel desperation to look perfect, and to perform sexually at all costs.

I fear for my daughter. I genuinely do.
Dec. 2nd, 2008 06:33 pm (UTC)
From the boy perspective: thank god! Good bye to a society built around cock teasing boys into behaving for the promise of low grade nookie. If we are gay or bi we can probably screw to our hearts content. If we are hetero then we still have to work just as hard as the girls into looking impressive if we want to get laid.
Dec. 2nd, 2008 06:40 pm (UTC)
So if everyone becomes a preening bulimic, this is a good thing? I don't think men should be gauged on how they measure up against porn any more than women should be. The goal is the normalize human beings, rather than aestheticize some ideal that can't be realized.

But hey, eating disorders are up among young men, too. If that's the paradise we've been waiting for, then we'll need to wait not much longer.
Dec. 2nd, 2008 08:57 pm (UTC)
Straight men aren't competing with the porn stars in hetero porn. They are competing with the ideal of romantic women's lit. They need to be well groomed, affluent, well spoken, and so on. This does not lead to male bulimia.

Gay men are competing with gay porn stars, but there are so many types of gay porn there's a scene for everyone.
Dec. 2nd, 2008 09:11 pm (UTC)
Ah, yeah. That's an entirely fair read. The desire to have men be well-groomed and articulate is entirely unfair and stems from the, ahem, wide-spread romantic literature market. What an unrealistic stereotype. And gold diggers get their idea from romantic literature, too?

I don't know exactly on what you base your findings, but here's the thing. Body image issues do result from media coverage, male expectations are being affected as a result of the mainstreaming of and easy access to pornography, and these aren't staying localized within the female population. I hate to re-center this, after your artful dismissal of my point, but male eating disorders are on the rise. Why do you think that is? Could it be that the social complex of body image is affecting them too? Why should that be something to cheer?

Here's the difficulty of competing with fiction; fiction always wins. In fiction, men or women or whoever can be whatever the viewer wants. Now, wish fulfillment is all well and good, and escapism's fine by me. But don't you think that the relationship between media images and sexuality needs to be considered, or did you read the original essay even all the way through before you started bitching about how hard it was to be a man, what with the cock-teasing and all. Poor baby.
Dec. 3rd, 2008 12:28 am (UTC)
I'm using anecdotal evidence gleaned from the people in my monkeysphere. About one in a hundred is intentionally starving himself. The vast majority are overweight. A handful are dedicated to working out. Interestingly none of them claim to do it to look good for others, they just like to work out. The rest of the gang might talk about getting regular exercise but ultimately it isn't a high enough priority in their life so they don't bother. They don't seem particular tormented by it. I don't think that this is all a false front either since these people do blog and tweet and use those avenues to bitch and moan about everything else in their life. Body issues just aren't high on the list. Maybe this is a generational thing. Most of my friends are late 20s to mid 40s and are pretty settled. Most are coupled, too, and so aren't in the dating market any more.
Dec. 2nd, 2008 09:40 pm (UTC)
If straight men are concerned about ideals of romantic women's lit they should try dating women who don't read it. They do exist!

Dec. 2nd, 2008 09:45 pm (UTC)
My researchers have told me that romance novel sales are indeed up in the last two decades. 64 million have read at least one, and 22% of the readership is male...

I don't know anyone who reads them. At least, anyone in the dating population. But who knows. They must be out there. Does Twilight count?
Dec. 2nd, 2008 09:49 pm (UTC)
OK, if you will read back to what I just said, I said there are women who don't read romantic novels.

That is all.

Not that none do.

Not that most don't.

That some don't.
Dec. 2nd, 2008 09:51 pm (UTC)
Meg, I actually meant to post that in support. 63 million, but at what ages? And out of a total of how many? Plus, that's only one. Routine use is a lot different, and I sincerely doubt that it's as low as 63 million men who've viewed pornography.

Sorry if I wasn't clear. I wasn't refuting.
Dec. 2nd, 2008 09:54 pm (UTC)
Dec. 2nd, 2008 10:44 pm (UTC)
If Twilight counts, I'm in trouble.
Dec. 2nd, 2008 11:58 pm (UTC)
they must be out there

i think most of them probably sleep in granny gowns and fantasize about lois lamour. hubba hubba j/k
Dec. 3rd, 2008 12:21 am (UTC)
Whoa, I wasn't trying to be that literal about the literature. Some of the supermale heroes are pretty ridiculous. I don't guys are trying on body glitter or growing their hair down to their waist just because a bestselling paranormal romantic likes her fictional males that way. I just meant that men and women tend to go for different things. The male caricature of a hot girl can be found in video and pictures and the female caricature of the perfect guy tends to be someone who can only be written about. Beefcake magazines don't have a lot of female buyers.
Dec. 3rd, 2008 01:51 pm (UTC)
I guess that's probably true, though I've never pretended to be a typical female so I have trouble relating. :)

Personally, I enjoy both reading about and watching Captain Picard, and I think he's pretty close to perfect! :D
Dec. 3rd, 2008 01:55 pm (UTC)
That sort of proves my point. You find the Picard character appealing, not just the image of Patrick Stewart.
Dec. 3rd, 2008 01:57 pm (UTC)
Ah, but you said "can ONLY be written about." :P
Dec. 4th, 2008 02:36 am (UTC)
Ouch! Thy lawyering has undone me!
Dec. 4th, 2008 12:53 pm (UTC)
Ha, +1 Internets law degrees to me!

Maybe I can turn it in for more tokens!
Dec. 2nd, 2008 07:41 pm (UTC)
I think there's some truth to this. I was blessed as one of those long blond haired skinny hourglass figure types. (I'm a bit more on the chubby side now, so I should work on that! LOL!) But yeah, as much as I attracted men a lot, they always wanted more of something. More trimming down there. More BJs. Had an offer for a threesome...with another man (which I turned down). Hints of men into S&M kink crap (which I immediately indicated ZERO interest in), men wanting to do elaborate positions that unless you're a professional yoga instructor are hard to pull off, and yes, I am flexible. Being into nasty skanky looking outfits and lingerie. Wanting butt sex (which I'd NEVER do...ick), wishing there were another woman (hell no), and so on and so on and so on.

Lesson: Men just are never pleased. And ironically, THEY think they're some sort of God, like they actually know how to perform oral sex or any kind of sex and make it good. Often they just suck in the bed. It's the overly confident gigolo types who suck in bed. Yet the formerly nerdy NOT Brad Pitt types who are willing to do their homework too to figure out how to get a woman, a particular woman, to orgasm. Have sex with nerds.
Dec. 2nd, 2008 11:50 pm (UTC)
my husband and i both enjoy porn...not on an obsessive basis but we do like it. i have never felt like i was competing with pornography. imo, no porn is as good as the real thing unless someone has a horrible sex life.
Dec. 3rd, 2008 04:18 pm (UTC)
Could not disagree more.
I have to say, as someone who both views porn occasionally with my wife and uses it as an equalizing factor in our sex drives (though that particular aspect is almost always literary and very rarely visual) I find the conclusion of the first article laughable.

Porn is a stimulant. No more, no less, and to imply it is more than that is what actually devalues people. Wolf seems to be trying to force people into little boxes in the way she claims porn does. There are alternate modes of sexuality, and merely being alternate in no way makes them less valid.

As for the second article, it comes across as written by someone whose never been in a strip club. It is in no way a "rejection" of women to prefer spending $5 to sit on a comfortable couch, in a smoke free atmosphere, with free food and drink and watch performers that at least can adequately pretend to be enthusiastic about their work over spending hundreds of dollars on cigarette tainted air, uncomfortable seating, and overpriced food and drinks just to watch someone and be able to see the calculator in their head moving as they dance cause they can't even pretend to be enjoying themselves or into you.

Strip clubs are passe because people are rejecting the clubs, not the strippers. Just look at the popularity of "striptease cardio" and all that- people want to strip, and be stripped for. They just don't want to do it in clubs.
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )