It looks as if Penthouse, long-time second runner-up in the “male entertainment” magazine field, will be shutting its doors. The magazine itself, and all its subsidiaries, disappeared from newsstands a couple months ago, and now employees are finding themselves with drastically reduced paychecks and the Penthouse Mansion is due for foreclosure. Cash flow problems, apparently.
I don’t have any special interest in this story, not being much of a fan of “male entertainment” mags–I’ve never read or bought Penthouse regularly, or its classier fellow traveller, Playboy–but I thought I’d use this as an opening to discuss pornography in general. A subject on which I am fairly ambivalent.
The stock complaint against pornography is that it is demeaning to women, portraying them as sexual objects existing solely for the pleasure of male viewers. While there’s certainly some substance to that argument, it’s strangely out of line with what the people ostensibly harmed by pornography tend to report as their actual experiences. Whenever anthropologists or other social scientists, even strongly feminist ones, go out and actually talk to models, actors, strippers, and sex workers, they tend to find women who resent the implications that they are merely puppets of some vast male patriarchal system, women who consider themselves active agents in the construction of their own image. The old fall-back, that these women suffer from “false consciousness”, falls way short of explaining this gap between what women report as their experiences of working in these fields and what activists assume must be the case.
This is not to say that women in pornography, or sex workers in general, are not exploited, manipulated, and even threatened in the course of their work. But then again, so are we all. We are all exploited by our employers (that’s where profit comes from, after all, and the record-breaking profits of recent years mean we’ve all experienced record-breaking amounts of exploitation), we all sell our bodies (in the form of time, attendance, workplace discipline, dress codes, etc.), and we have all found ourselves in degrading positions at one time or another in our working lives. That’s capitalism, and the story’s the same whether we earn our living having sex or selling pharmaceuticals with sexual side-effects.
If pornography is more degrading than other forms of work, it is because of our particular (peculiar?) attitudes towards sex and sexuality more than anything else. Can it be that we consider having sex to be more degrading than, say, handling feces? If not, why is prostitution, not to mention posing for soft porn, considered more degrading work than cleaning toilets or processing sewage?
I’m willing to concede that pornography instills and reinforces in men attitudes about gender and sexuality that are often distasteful, but in perhaps a different way than we usually assume. Pornography–like the subject lines of penis-enlargement spam (am I the only one who finds the “insult your customer” strategy a little odd?)–preys on and reinforces male feelings of inadequacy. The women in Playboy and Penthouse are inattainable for the vast majority of men, as are the lifestyles in which their images are situated. The titles tell it all–most of us will never enjoy the life of luxury of a jet-setting playboy, and most of us will never even get past the doorman in a building with a penthouse, let alone actually live in a penthouse.
The message such magazines convey is that this collection of pages you hold in your hands, this bundle of ink on paper, is as close as you will ever be allowed to get, not only to these women, but to this lifestyle, this world of leisure. Even more “earthy” pornography, the Hustlers and the low-budget hardcore, forces an implicit comparison with our own lives, a comparison in which our lives, the sex we have, must always come up lacking. Are you doing everything you could be doing with your partner? No, because there will always be something, some act or position or combination of people and body parts that you will not only not know about, not only not be physically capable of doing, but that you will be too embarassed, too shocked, too confined by the dictates of acceptible social behaviour to even bring up with your partner. Far from being objects for male consumption, the women portrayed in pornography become emblems of a self withheld, of an existence that the viewer will not and cannot have, will not and cannot allow himself to have.
The danger in this comes not so much from the degrading portrayal of women but from the degrading portrayal of men, of pornography’s audience, a portrayal that can produce (but I hesitate to say necessarily produces) frustration, conceivably violent frustration, with oneself and one’s partner.
Then again, maybe it’s just dirty.