I found myself spending the few days over the New Year period in a community deep in the UK countryside. Apart from sharing domestic chores, much of the time could be spent deliciously relaxing on sofas arranged around a huge wood burning stove.
On one such occasion I found myself sitting next to a total stranger. I will call this person Jim, a man in his early 60s. Jim’s opening question, after finding out my name, was to inquire what I do for a living. One question led to another and I told him that I am an academic currently writing a book whose deadline is looming.
At the mention of my book’s topic, internet pornography, his body showed an almost imperceptible, but intense, interest and then the concealing of it — an involuntary response to which I have now become accustomed. More unusually he became openly animated when I told him I am applying the thought of the philosopher/social theorist Michel Foucault and of numerous radical feminist writers to help provide my theoretical framework. He asked me whether we could have a fuller conversation the following day, after the impending New Year’s Eve party, because, he declared, he is fascinated by philosophy.
The conversation with Jim on New Year’s Day was clunky at first and without energy (although my hangover may have had something to do with that!). I explained I see internet pornography as playing a particular role in the impediment to women’s equality. Although there are many current and sometimes conflicting views about internet pornography, on the whole our society has arrived at a consensus that the production and consumption of pornography by adults signifies one of our human rights in a liberal democratic society; indeed, in contrast to more repressive societies, we understand pornography as emblematic of sexual freedom, free speech, and even women’s sexual emancipation. My book (forthcoming, called Internet Pornography: Disciplining Women Through Sexual ‘Freedom’), in contrast, argues that pornography is a reactionary, exploitative practice through which women in particular, but also men for that matter, are sexually disciplined and governed.
The perplexity in Jim’s eyes made me change tack! He was openly eager to “confess” his own pornography use so we settled down to discuss that. We both agreed that as a thoroughly “respectable” middle-aged man he belongs to a demographic of pornography user rarely societally acknowledged — namely the grandfather, father, husband/partner who masturbates to women (most of whom are young enough to be his daughter or granddaughter) and who keeps this secret from his partner. At my prompting he acknowledged that women are portrayed at best as sexual objects for male pleasure and as willing participants in their own degradation, and that much pornography eroticizes men’s actual violence to women. He took pains to let me know that I wasn’t introducing him to a set of ideas he hadn’t already arrived at on his own account, although he pointed out some women watch pornography too.
When I asked him how he reconciled his self-identity as a “nice” man with pornography use, he told me he didn’t identify as being nice. Indeed, he felt some shame. Despite his views about the equality of women, he admitted he feels compelled to use pornography. He experiences the gendered power dynamic erotic, but more than this, he has a strong sense of transgressing social rules, of rebelling against the familial norms of his childhood which made him guilty about masturbating, and finally of freedom to express his fantasies. When it comes down to it, he advised me, pornography affords quick and efficient ways to orgasm which gets harder for men with real partners as they get older.