Hard Core

The new world of porn is revealing eternal truths about men and women.

Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, frets that the overwhelming exposure to emotionless, rapacious sex on the Internet will socialize men to find degradation of women sexually arousing. She writes,

Porn is actually being encoded into a boy’s sexual identity so that an authentic sexuality—one that develops organically out of life experiences, one’s peer group, personality traits, family and community affiliations—is replaced by a generic porn sexuality limited in creativity and lacking any sense of love, respect or connection to another human being.

First, I have yet to see a single credible study that links proliferation of pornography to an increase in abuse of women. More important, the sort of sex that Dines envisions—where respect, love, and civic connections are merged into erotically rewarding experience—is utopian (and not perhaps all that enticing). Dines ignores the fact that men behave differently than women. It wasn’t just Ward Cleaver–type stuffiness that prompted generations of dads to warn their daughters not to get into cars with boys. Dads are grown men, and they know that when it comes to sex, most men will take every inch a woman yields.

If the shadowy cabal of Internet pornog­raphers posited by Dines were not able to use 30-second clips of porn as bread crumbs to entice men away from their true sexual personas, what sort of “authentic sexuality” would males possess? Dines seems to have in mind a Rousseauistic pygmy race of sexually neutered males; perhaps many feminists (and perhaps many fathers of daughters, and perhaps many sensible and civilized people, for that matter) would applaud this emasculated masculinity as progress—but we’re never going to achieve it. 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.

This isn’t to argue that pornography is harmless or even that it shouldn’t be censored: its pervasiveness clearly exacerbates the growing moral nihilism of our culture. But removing pornography won’t alter the unlovely aspects of male sexuality that porn depicts and legitimizes. The history of civilization would seem to show that there’s no hope of eradicating those qualities; they can only be contained—and checked—by strenuously enforced norms. And given our à la carte morality and our aversion to cultural authority—a societal direction made plain by porn’s very omnipresence—I wouldn’t put much faith in enforcement.

Even the crudest of online porn captures only a slice of the less-than-uplifting aspects of the sexual experience, because porn not only eschews but actively conceals this singular truth: the most brutalizing aspects of sex are not physical. This is made plain by the great, filthy, but far from pornographic Last Tango in Paris, which Pauline Kael described as the “most powerfully erotic movie ever made.” In Bernardo Bertolucci’s story, Paul, played by an age-ravaged but still sexually menacing Marlon Brando, decides to rent a flat in an attempt to escape his grief over his wife’s recent suicide. When Paul goes to look at an empty apartment, he meets Jeanne, a petite 20-year-old bride-to-be who is also searching for an apartment. The two have sex without even knowing each other’s names, and this begins their four-day encounter.

Paul insists that the two meet only at the apartment, only have sex, and say nothing about their lives. Jeanne halfheartedly accepts (she constantly comes up against Paul’s rules, begging for more details about him and offering unsolicited morsels about her life). Paul works out his grief by debasing himself and her. “He demands total subservience to his sexual wishes,” Kael writes. “This enslavement is for him the sexual truth, the real thing, sex without phoniness.” In one scene, Paul asks Jeanne if she would be willing to eat vomit as proof of her love for him. Adoringly, she says yes. Jeanne experiences the full brunt of Paul’s sexual aggression and violence when, while she attempts to resist, Paul pulls down her jeans, pins her to the floor, and has rough anal sex with her, using butter as a lubricant.

Jeanne accepts all of Paul’s manic pronouncements, sexual roughhousing, and torment, either because of her own naïveté or, perhaps, as a response to Paul’s authentic desperation. When Paul’s wife’s body is finally ready for burial, he gives up the apartment and tells Jeanne that he wants to know her name and he is ready to love her. As the picture of Paul comes more sharply into focus, Jeanne ultimately rejects him not because of his brutishness, but because of his banality. Paul is a morose wash-up, a widower in his 40s who runs a flophouse. His excessive masculinity quickly withers when exposed to the air outside the barren flat.

What makes Last Tango so devastating and resonant is not the sex acts, for which the movie is often remembered, but rather the common but annihilating emotions that fuel them: desperation and loneliness. It’s the clash between vulnerability and indifference that transpires after sex that is so savage. This is what Kael called “realism with the terror of actual experience.” The most frightening truths about sex rarely exist in the physical, but instead live in the intangible yet indelible wounds created in the psyche. Go try to find that on the Internet.

Presented by

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America. She lives in Woodland Hills, California.

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