Sexy Sex, Newsy News: Porn, Guns & Teens Edition

WHAT DO PORN & GUNS HAVE IN COMMON?

TEENAGERS, APPARENTLY, FOR ONE THING.

EITHER ONE COULD BE BANNED, FOR ANOTHER.

Perhaps you saw the very interesting New York Times Magazine article about teens using porn as sex education, and the Boston-area school program that seeks to instill them with the ability to thoughtfully analyze what they see: porn literacy, in other words. I try to get together with that program’s founder, Dr. Emily Rothman, every time I make it to Boston, and I always value our conversations. Over the past few years I’ve become more and more sure that porn is being used this way (my generation used sexy books and porno magazines, and grandpa used 8-pagers, so I don’t find this remotely surprising).

But I am, frankly, a little shocked at how credulous lots of people seem to be when it comes to trusting porn’s info quotient. As I tell college audiences, it’s not like these movies are documentaries. The performers don’t go home and have sex exactly like that. They’re sex ed in the same way car chase movies are driver ed—you can try to imitate those, too, but you’re likely to fuck up your car.

But by the time a young person gets to college and hears me say sensible stuff about their favorite sex medium, it’s pretty much too late to altogether prevent misinformation. At that point I can add to the mash-up, help curate, add insight, recommend better resources. Students don’t get pleasure-centric info from sex ed at school (maybe at church, if they’re Unitarians), and they’re curious about that. (They ought to be curious about it. Pleasure, as we like to say at Good Vibrations, is our birthright, and our culture just happens to prefer that its youth learn all about that in the gutter, not the classroom.)

So the NYT article delved into the messages young people in the porn literacy program had derived from watching explicit movies. These had to do with technique, sure, but also sex roles, and projection about what one’s sexual partner wanted and would be down for. These are questions best tackled by asking, but that wasn’t the message received by the youth who watched the movies.

I should perhaps say here that there are people IN porn who are concerned and interested about these questions too, as well as people who have no earthly expectation that people will use their cultural products as sex education. Anti-porn folks tend to represent pornographers as trying to influence sexual mores, but aside from a general feeling that sexual openness is better than sexual repression, that’s not really how most of them roll. But of course, mainstream porn doesn’t come with an intro reel from the director and performers, explaining things to the uninitiated. (Unless you pick feminist porn, because some of that does.) You can get porn, or explicit material, mindfully designed to educate, but it’s pretty likely the youth trying to parse sex from porn don’t even know this. To them, it’s often all just information. To everybody else, that’s problematic. Kids aren’t even supposed to be able to access porn!

Enter Ross Douthat. He might have gleaned from this fascinating article that maybe a whole lot more schools ought to institute porn literacy curricula. (Not to mention parents ought to be having these discussions with their kids, and by the way, Good Vibrations has tried a number of times to set up workshops to help parents do this, and for the most part the parents do not come.) But no! He gleaned that explicit movies’ role moonlighting as sex education would be an excellent reason to ban porn.

 

BAN THAT FILTH!

Now, even though Douthat is no big fan of Trump and his depredations into the moral fiber of the entire USA, his columns have always been somewhere to the right of center. No enormous surprise that he would fall back on a John Ashcroft-like strategy to make America great again, even though it was not great back when people were being sent to prison for publishing dirty novels or sending naked pics through the mail. The Supreme Court looked at and ruled on this “ban a certain kind of speech” thing for a reason, you know, and that was pretty close to 50 years ago. ALL these MAGA people appear to want a time machine, and except for Peter Thiel, they want to set the controls to zip them back in time.

I can tell from his perspective that Ross Douthat is probably not a gay man, because history shows us that back in the day, explicit material helped plenty of such guys realize they were not the only ones with same-sex desire. (History shows us that pulp fiction played a comparable role for lesbians, since queer and feminist porn had not yet been invented in the 1950s.) Those men who went out of their way to access this identity-supportive material (which was illegal to send through the US mail) often paid dearly for their actions.

Douthat shows no signs of understanding what porn can do that’s positive—get couples talking about sex and desire and limits, for example. He does not give us the impression that he thinks it’s wise to teach media literacy skills to kids. And he doesn’t do one very important thing—he doesn’t make a full-throated argument for high-quality sex education. Honestly, when anti-porn folks don’t pivot to “and that’s why we need to take responsibility for giving our kids the right information,” I just think they’re big hypocrites.

But due to his regular rightward bias, I did not find Douthat’s call for “decency” very surprising. It’s been part of the playbook for decades. What gobsmacked me last week was The Atlantic’s response to Douthat’s op-ed; their James Hamblin mixed its arguments with the gun control discussion that flared immediately upon news of the Parkland school shooting, and it was not a peanut butter-and-chocolate kind of result. It was, frankly, naïve. Not about the guns—it was pretty thoughtful and nuanced in discussing gun control. But the whole point of the article is summed up in this quote: “People willing to discuss regulations on sex-related media should conceivably be open to discussing further regulation of firearms.”

Maybe the whole point was to call out hypocrisy of another kind—if so, right on, Dr. Hamblin. But my read was that he’s willing to take this call at face value, and simply say, “Okay, if porn is bad for youth, how can you argue, after the umpteenth school shooting, that guns aren’t exponentially bad?” Which, sure. And this school shooting has happened during a fraught political moment, to the kids of the Resistance: Parkland is sparking a kind of Children’s Crusade, and kudos to those fierce students. (Let’s all calendar March 24 right now and support them in Washington or our own town at their March for Our Lives.)

 

NOT FOR SEX, THAT FIRST AMENDMENT

Hamblin appears to take seriously a call to jettison an entire category of speech—and not draw the distinction that other right-wing folks are trying to delegitimize his own (the much-demonized “media”). This is the problem when an essentially conservative country looks at porn: like going after sex workers right before a mayoral race, it’s easy for people to attack it whether or not they consume it themselves. (Not saying Hamblin or Douthat does, but many of their colleagues and fellow countryfolk do. Some years back we wrote about a Harvard Business School study that showed how much online porn consumption spikes in red states–right after church! Ah, the human need for balance is amazing.)

And porn isn’t just a form of speech; it’s a business, one that allows many people to make a living. It’s an entertainment medium, and a creative one; sexologists consider it a subset of erotology, a society’s cultural and artistic materials about sex. Remember when the Nazis began railing about “degenerate art”? People in the porn and erotic writing worlds sure do.

More than anything, though, I am shocked to see The Atlantic—a publication I truly admire—throw down with an idea like this without seeming to understand that the people who want to do away with porn would mostly also be glad to do away with sex education itself. They don’t even support the half-assed sex ed that kids are turning to porn to supplement. Young people watch porn because school-based sex ed gives them no life skills that actually help them learn about sex as it’s had in the wild, not even in those much-vaunted marriages that are the one place the true cultural conservatives of the world want sex to be corralled. I’m fine with that, too, for those people who want to have and keep their sex within that context. But I talk to married people all the time who haven’t figured out this pleasure thing. (It likely has something to do with the clitoris never being discussed in sex education–except the Unitarians’).

 

LEARN FROM THE PAST SO WE NEED NOT REPEAT IT

Speaking of the Resistance, I am still moved—and cautioned—by Wilhelm Reich’s premise in The Mass Psychology of Fascism that a state (or other entity—the Catholic Church comes to mind) that can control its citizens’ or adherents’ sexuality can control them utterly. When I hear people on the right who are looking to ban porn, that’s the bell that rings for me… especially now.

Hamblin is a doctor by training, but they don’t cover the cultural history of sexuality in med school. I want these commentators to understand that whatever sexual freedom we have in the 21st century rests on the graves of pornographers and LGBTQ folks, especially gay men. Both are inextricably linked with the sex researchers and educators who gave us the information we largely, today, keep from kids in school: info about sexual functioning, diversity, pleasure.

All those sorts of people fought or suffered repression and ignorance. These lead to predictable sequela: bad and painful sex, shame and self-doubt, gendered expectations and hidebound roles that prevent people from communicating well about sex, and, in some cases, frank persecution. We must remember that at least some of the people who have breezily (or furiously) tried to ban porn have not cared one bit that we have access to knowledge or to freedom from shame. Shame, in fact, is absolutely fine with them.

It is breathtakingly naive to think the slice of culture represented by porn can simply be excised and thereby change sexuality for the better. Porn is not what stops politicians from supporting comprehensive, pleasure-based sex ed! That culprit: a fundamental conservatism in the US that has never gone away. If it is allowed to reassert itself under a reckless administration like this one, figuring out who sent the tweets we read will be just the start of our problems. (In fact, readers who give a damn about trans dignity and reproductive rights know that erosion is well under way.)

Seriously, I hope Dr. Hamblin was just being carefully snarky. But you can’t count on anything of the sort these days. I have spent my entire career watching otherwise very well-educated people feel OK about shoving sexuality to the side to focus on something more important or acceptable. Sure, we’d need to triage good sex ed behind the priority of stopping school shootings—if that were not a false equivalence, just as banning porn and guns would be. But when sex is given less respect than other elements of the human condition and our cultural lives, no one should act so surprised when some depictions of it lack a little dignity. That’s not a cause of our problems. It’s the result.

 

Here are the links relevant to digging in to the details:

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/02/on-banning-porn-vs-guns/553433/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16680-porn-in-the-usa-conservatives-are-biggest-consumers/

 

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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1 Response

  1. Walter says:

    Hi CQ I just wanted to note that if these anti-porn crusaders DON’T use porn to quell their hormonal drives, that if they aren’t aroused by sexual images — then there’s something WRONG with them! They’re broken, or deficient, or malformed, especially since sex is necessary for life. It’s a great pro-sex argument.