A critique of "Hard Core," an article by Natasha Vargas-Cooper

It's been a bit oversaid the last few years that internet has overexposed us to porn, and that it's not such a good thing. Anyone who did not have the luxury of internet porn in their adolescence could tell you about the length one had to go to to find any scrap of porn - how often it was sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time (a thrown out mag in the woods or the trash?), the power of hard searching (family you were babysitting for had a stash in their nightstand, maybe?), or you just knew the right people (your parents, older siblings, maybe your friend got a hold and was willing to share?). At any rate, it was less available before the internet, even if you were over 18 and could find it legally. I think it's fair to say that this is an uncomplicatedly true statement.

What is a bit more complicated is what that means exactly. This brings me to an article that Barnaby found and sent to me. It's called "Hardcore," found in The Atlantic Monthly Magazine and written by Natasha Vargas-Cooper. Check it out here. Charlie and Barnaby both read it, and we all had a good long talk about it (yes, it was a full on AnC pow-wow). I've read plenty of pieces discussing this porn overexposure and the desensitizing/dominance over women/unrealistic expectation effects it has on men and boys and the pressure to be sexy/sexually accommodating/sexually available in a particular way that porn forces upon girls and women.This article has a different take on the subject. Normally I would disregard an article like this because it is crawling with sweeping generalizations about the innate nature of humans - which is a huge pet peeve of mine. However, I felt like this article came from an honest place, and I feel like its harsh resigning tone is worth looking at.

The author asserts 3 things to begin with. 1. The content of pornography has become increasingly varied due to the ease of creation and distribution available on the internet. 2.What was once seen as deviant is now run of the mill (double anal, incest simulations, gang-bangs), and this variety has also become more common in the bedroom. She backed this by citing a study showing  increase in anal sex over the last 18 years. 3. Men's fantasies have always included this deviant behavior. It is just now since porn is so easily made and distributed that porn can reflect the depths of the male mind. This is counter to the more mainstream assumption that porn, being that it is a consumer product fueled by profits, has been pushed by producers to include ever more deviant actions. These depictions then affect what people see and understand to be sexual fantasies.

This 3rd assertion might seem a bit like splitting hairs, but the two viewpoints have a main difference. The mainstream viewpoint assumes that men create the specifics of their sexual desire and tastes largely through the experiences they have throughout their lives - consumption of porn would be one of these factors. So, in this case, our culture could create more men who are sexually respectful to women by changing how sex is depicted, taught, and experienced. The author's view assumes that male sexuality is inborn - there from birth, and that it has a domineering and somewhat dark aspect that our culture and particularly feminists are not willing to accept. She believes that a long world history of male sexual domination and aggression backs this up.

It's important to point out that Vargas-Cooper and most people who discuss this topic are coming from the notion that, although not true of all porn, there is a distinct element of depicted degradation of the female actresses in much of the hardcore internet porn. She sees this degradation as simply part of the innate male sexuality that cannot be eliminated. At best it can be partially suppressed through social moral standards, and internet porn has cracked wide open the standards that used to hold the floodgates of male sexuality.

"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. They may be unattractive and even, if taken to extremes, dangerous, but they’re not, perhaps alas, deviant. Leaving aside for the moment the argument that some things that might be sordid and even ugly can also be arousing and satisfying, the main problem with the new anti-porn critics is their naive assumption that if only we could blot out Internet porn, then the utopia of sexual equality would be achieved. But equality in sex can’t be achieved. Internet porn exposes that reality; it may even intensify that reality; it doesn’t create it."

The rest of the content in the article is largely related to exploring this, in her opinion, more realistic
view of male sexuality and the rather grimmer than usual take on the sexual relationship between the sexes.
Thus far I am with Vargas-Cooper on a couple things. As a lover and partaker of internet porn, I can tell you that it does have a streak of maliciousness and degradation towards women. I watch despite that, and I can make no apologies for it. It exists. I can also agree that what becomes run of the mill in internet porn also becomes less strange to more people, and that probably trickles into some people's bedrooms. What I cannot get behind is her assertion that males have an unchangeable inborn sexuality that by its very nature tends toward sexual dominance over and degradation of women.  Don't even get me started on the ridiculousness of attributing an innate quality to a large diverse subset of humans based on the averaged observed behaviors of that group in modern times. Outside of actually looking at good scientific analysis of that sort of thing, you could also just look into history, and see how that kind of genralization about the "nature" of people is usually a bunch of bullshit. Sorry - again - a pet peeve of mine. 

Here's the deal though, I get where she's coming from. I think she has a frustration, a feeling of being duped, and a genuine confusion that is completely honest, and true for so many women of her generation, and I appreciate that she has given those feelings an outlet. I just don't think her conclusions related to these feelings are correct. Check out this big ol' rant about how feminist have absolutely not been been helpful (she just discussed how free-love commune feminists thought they were sexually freeing women but it wasn't such a good plan after all).

But the reactionary political correctness of the 1990s put forth a proposition even more disastrous to women than free love: sexual equality. With the rise of PC culture, the notion of men and women as sexual equals has found a home in the mainstream. Two generations of women, my own included, soared into the game with the justifiable expectations of not only earning the same wage as a guy, but also inhabiting the sexual arena the way a man does.  

Armed with a “Take Back the Night” pamphlet, we were led to believe that, as long as we avoided the hordes of date rapists, sex was an egalitarian endeavor. The key to sexual harmony, so the thinking went, was social conditioning. Men who sexually took advantage of women were considered the storm troopers of patriarchy, but women could teach men to adopt a different ideology, through explicit communication of boundaries —“you can touch there” or “please don’t do that.” Thus was the dark drama of sex replaced with a verbal contract. Once the drunken frat boys and brutes were weeded out, if we gravitated toward a kind of enlightened guy, an emotionally rewarding sex life was ours for the taking. Sex wasn’t a bestial pursuit, but something elevating. 
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.

I felt like the author laid bare a wound that affects many women - particularly of the generations that were born post 2nd wave feminism. She's not lying when she says that she was swindled. I would argue that all women are. We all grow up with the promise that if we do the right thing (whether it be marrying a lovely man in the 50's, dating a progressive sensitive man in the 90's, or any number of other things that get into our heads) sex will be a joy in our lives. The truth is that it is disappointing, heartbreaking, degrading, even physically painful too often, and even for those who don't feel that way at first, it too often simply becomes a chore. I think in a way it is worse for those of us, like the author, who grew up post 2nd wave feminism, and were raised from birth with the strong assumption that women can be powerful and deserve all that a man has access to, including a full sexual life. Her anger at the people who told her these lies is pretty evident in the following excerpt about watching internet porn.

What a marvelous means of delving into the heads of men. And for women peeping in on the Web, an important lesson—one that can’t be gleaned in a sex-ed class where condoms are placed over bananas, nor from poring over the umpteenth edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves—is that sex can be a bitter, crushing experience, no matter how much power you think you have. 

She believes that women cannot enjoy the kind of sex they have been promised because we have unrealistic expectations of male desire. She has a strange but not surprising attitude about it in that she has a sort of reverence for the brutal, animal nature of sexuality that she believes is inevitably included in sex with a male.

Hard-core porn, which is what Internet porn largely traffics in, is undoubtedly extreme. But how is sex, as a human experience, anything less than extreme? Not the kind of sex (or lack thereof) that occurs in marriages that double as domestic gulags. Or what 30-somethings do to each other in the second year of their “serious relationship.” But the sex that occurs in between relationships—or overlaps with relationships—where the buffers of intimacy or familiarity do not exist: the raw, unpracticed sort. If a woman thinks of the best sex she’s had in her life, she’s often thinking of this kind of sex, and while it may be the best sex in her life, it’s not the sex she wants to have throughout her life—or more accurately, it’s not the sex she’d have with the man with whom she’d like to spend her life. The manner in which one physically, and emotionally, contorts oneself for sex simply takes sex outside the realm of ordinary human experiences and places it in the extreme, often beyond our control. “Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness,” Susan Sontag wrote in Styles of Radical Will. Yes, it’s a natural, human function, and one from which both partners can derive enormous pleasure, but it is also one largely driven by brute male desire and therefore not at all free of violent, even cruel, urges.  

Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.
Pornography, with its garish view of male sexual desire, bares an uncomfortable truth that the women’s-liberation movement has successfully suppressed: men and women have conflicting sexual agendas.

Okay, there is a lot of crazy sweeping statements going on here, and I'm not even sure what the hell she's getting at sometimes (2nd year of 30-something sex in their "serious relationships?" Where did that come from and why is it in quotes?). First off, let's just get this out of the way, because any loyal readers know this is coming. That's right the female orgasm, or lack there of. She may feel she was duped by the suppression of men's real and brutal sexual nature, and you already know I think attributing a innate nature on men is horse shit. I think she and all of us were duped because our orgasms were left out of this Utopian sexual life we were promised. Our orgasm is misunderstood, depicted and discussed in an utterly confusing manner, and completely faked in porn. Even women who regularly orgasm on their own often have a hard time figuring out how to do so with another person. Generally, any luck a woman has had with actual physical orgasm in partnered sex has been hard earned through experience, assertiveness, determination - with little help from sex advice book or the media. With few exceptions, the sex, even the most gentle and vanilla kind that we see in porn, is not sex that results in female orgasm. It always ends in male orgasm, but the female orgasm, if it happens at all is faked. The faked might be worse, because everyone watching gets the wrong idea of what makes a woman orgasm.

So, she's right. Women and men do often have different sexual agendas. Men are looking for an orgasm. They know what it is and exactly how to get it, and women are, well, confused (which may explain why she never discusses what exactly the female agenda is and why it is so different). Even if a woman would like to have an orgasm, her path towards that is unclear and involves negotiations that don't look like the ones we see in porn - and tv and books for that matter - unless she just fakes it. In a situation where a man has an orgasm and the woman does not, there is no doubt that the sexual encounter takes on two different meanings for those two people, and imagine how hard it is to understand another person's intentions and desires when it comes to sex, if the two of you are doing the same thing but only one of you expects and gets the orgasm reward at the end. I could go on about this forever, but I have a whole movie coming out soon that defends my assertion that actual, physical orgasms are largely left out of or misrepresented in depictions, discussions, and experiences of female sexuality. My point is that it leaves women frustrated, with feelings of being duped, and a genuine confusion about not only their own but also men's sexuality. It seems to me that the issue of pornography and its affects cannot be fully discussed without a parrellel discussion of the female orgasm.

This brings me to the comments about the greatest sex a woman has had - found in the excerpt above.  I don't think I'm crazy when I say that those comments seemed to pop out of left field. She's basically saying that there is this type of sex that is crazy awesome, but it's not the kind of sex a woman wants to have with her committed partner - you know the person she is having sex with most of her life. Cause, why would a woman want to have really good sex with the partner she chooses? Maybe I'm being thick, but WTF is she talking about? Honestly, though, I think I know exactly what she's talking about. It doesn't seem strange at all if you take the orgasm out of the situation. If you are having sex minus the orgasm with a stranger - you might just want the dirtiest, filthiest, most exciting, risky and possibly degrading sex you can get - like the kind you see in porn. Something that stirs up the animal emotions you want during sex. If you are having sex with someone you love minus orgasm, maybe you'd rather the emotions that are conjured up be love and comfort. More boring, but it feels a lot better in the long term. Maybe I'm over-stepping with that assessment but this fits well within the framework that I work with in the movie. 

As for the anal sex encounter. I'll let you just chew on that, but take into consideration that she did not discuss where her pleasure came in. Also think about the fact that she played every porn inspired role she could think of to make his dick hard. Would it seem natural to stop up the whole one night stand sexual interaction just because a woman wasn't wet, which would indicate the same level of non-arousal as a flaccid man...or would ya just use some spit or lube and move on to doin it? I think her story has a lot more levels of nuance than she's understands. 

This article is actually really hard to write about, because I feel like I would need to make the whole argument I make in my movie in order to back up my thoughts. I say this because all of her positions, thoughts, and frustrations are indicative of a culture that fucked up when it came to dealing with the female orgasm. We just haven't gotten it right, yet we have very little understanding that it is wrong. In effect, we are living in a world of pretend when it comes to our orgasm, but we actually experience our orgasm or lack of orgasm in reality and the two just don't make sense together, so there is a lot of confusing rhetoric around sex. I truly don't like the premise of this article on a scientific level - it's just silly really. However, I know that the emotions behind this article are important, and she's right to feel anger at the expectations of sex she was led to have. The answer, though, is not to resign to the fact that male sexuality is inevitably streaked with aggression and darkness, leaving men always with the upper hand in sexual situations. The answer, I would assert, is to reassess the place of female pleasure and specifically female orgasm within sex. This, I think will open doors for women and men to understand each other sexually, that we didn't even know were closed. 

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