Every so often, another article will appear in the feminist-sphere about porn addiction. They tend to follow the pattern of a man describing his increasing dependence on porn, how he was troubled to realise that watching porn was affecting his sex life/relationship with/view of women, and how he overcame it. Such is the storyline of the latest post on Everyday Feminism, "One Man's Journey: How I Stopped Watching Porn For A Year, And Why I'm Not Going Back". Much as I appreciate the honesty and, in a culture where men are harangued for appearing anything other than macho and hypersexual, guts it takes to write an article like this, I'm wary of such articles being held up as evidence of Something Great and Feminist. Dan Mahle writes that porn "manipulated my mind, warping my sexuality, numbing my feelings, and impacting my relationships with women." That's a big charge to lay at the feet of what he earlier describes as "pixels on a screen", but such is our belief in the all-powerful, all-pervasive nature of fucking depicted in pictures or videos that we don't really tend to question it.
Which is why it's interesting to contrast Mahle's account with the recent article on AlterNet, "Is Porn Addictive? There's No Proof". Discussing his recent study on the research around porn addiction, clinical psychologist David Ley notes that "in a recent review of basically all research on pornography, they found that less than 1 percent of the 40,000 articles that they looked at were deemed scientifically or empirically useful". He goes on to say that studies on porn addiction are let down by "poor experimental designs, limited methodological rigor, and lack of model specification." He also states that our media embraces the concept of porn addiction 'uncritically', which may go some way to explaining why "the overwhelming majority of articles published on porn addiction include no empirical research — it’s less than 27 percent. Less than one in four actually have data. In less than one in 10 is that data analyzed or organized in a scientifically valid way."
And unfortunately, I think it's fair to say that feminist media, however well-meaning, can be all too quick to jump on the bandwagon of a) assuming porn addiction is a conclusively proven and serious condition and b) assuming that this is because porn is generally bad and encourages men to view women in a negative light. David Ley noticed this in his research "literature [surrounding porn addiction] is weighted with moral and cultural values. There are tons and tons of theoretical statements that are made but never evaluated". I certainly sense a massive thread of moral prescription in Dan Mahle's article, where he states that porn leads to "the trivialization of rape, and widespread acceptance of rape culture – fueled by fake depictions of women in porn videos often pretending to desire violent and abusive sexual acts." (my underline).
Anti-porn feminists will see that statement as positive evidence that a man has seen the light and realised how the porn industry and the men (and even women) who feed it are inherently misogynist. But this feminist right here sees it as presumptuous and patronising. Firstly, it assumes that women never want or consent to sexual acts that appear 'violent' or 'abusive'. Mahle proceeds on the assumption that no woman ever has enjoyed BDSM and the various (seemingly extreme) acts involved therein, and I'm afraid that's not really much of an improvement on the assumption that no woman ever enjoys or wants sex, full stop. The sexual revolution may have allowed us to occasionally admit that women experience desire, but apparently it's still got to be framed in a monogamous, heterosexual, loving and 'gentle' way. Mahle even says it himself, by claiming that there is some good porn out there, but it's the stuff that portrays "couples engaging in intimate and respectful sexual encounters". Intimate I can get on board with, but respectful? Hmmm. How exactly is one supposed to have, or portray, 'respectful' sex? Must I demand that my partner gets down on one knee, calls me 'm'lady' and kisses my hand before throwing me down on the bed? What if I want sex that seems to any outsider, to be downright disrespectful? What if I get off to porn that depicts that kind of sex? Where do I fit into Mahle's idea that the only 'right' porn is the lovely, egalitarian stuff?
The idea that porn is, or represents, shitty attitudes to women rests on the idea that there is a right way to have sex, and that having sex/sexual fantasies any other way feeds into misogyny (and there I was thinking it was patriarchy that was supposed to be the one heaping unreasonable, ill-defined demands on to women's shoulders!) Lesbian feminist Sarah Smith wrote that trying to have sex in a "feminist" way simply left her with "a laundry list of mustnots that would hold our libidos hostage. . .must not 'objectify' my partner by getting off on her body, must not be on top of my partner, must not role-play or talk dirty. What's left?" By holding women, including those who act in or enjoy porn, to these standards, anti-porn feminists are asking that we jam our sexuality into a box nearly as narrow as the one demanded by a repressive society that wanted to pretend female desire simply didn't exist. Yes, you can like sex, we're told, but only the respectful kind.
I feel like, in trying to be supportive of feminism, which is definitely an admirable aim for any man and one I certainly want to endorse, men like Dan Mahle have internalised this school of feminist thought, one which is pretty offensive and repressive itself. As I said in my first ever book review for Bitch magazine back in 2009, the assertions of two male authors "that women prefer "nice lighting and often, beautiful surroundings" [in porn] or that we like "storylines" to our porn feed into assumptions about female sexuality that are as bothersome as mainstream porn's assumption that women are forever eager to be covered in ejaculate." Or as porn producer Tristan Taormino says herself, "there is a stereotype that women want kinder, gentler, more romantic porn; some women do, but not all women".
However, Mahle doesn't seem to try and reconcile the concept of female agency with porn. He basically dismisses it as mostly negative and anti-feminist and states that the only way to 'deal' with it is, well, not to. He gave up watching porn, continues to live without it, and feels like his life is better because of it. It has allowed him to "dismantle some of the subconscious sexism I had". Hmmm. I'm going to use Sarah Woolley's words here to express why I think Mahle needs to take more responsibility for his views, rather than blaming it on the Big Bad Pornographers: "If a person sees a woman arse-deep in jelly and regards her as subhuman because of it, then that shit is on them. Dignity and degradation is not in the eye of the beholder, providing that everyone involved is consenting to be there."
David Leys' research on porn addiction interestingly supports the notion that anyone who finds themselves actually viewing women as lesser needs to look within, rather than outwards towards the computer screen. "It is a very common statement in all of the porn addiction research that high rates of porn use correlate with high rates of depression, problems at work, et cetera. Overwhelmingly, the research, when there even is research, is cross-sectional in its structure, meaning that they’re looking at people in a snapshot of time, and we can’t generate causality from that. The common assumption in porn addiction research has been that porn is contributing to and causing those negative emotional states and life events. In fact, there have been two or three longitudinal studies that looked at this question, and what they found consistently is that porn is a symptom, not a cause." (emphasis mine)
So when Dan Mahle says, "My year without porn has helped me reconnect to my body and begin to transform my emotional numbness into healthy emotional expression," that may well be the case for him, but to assume that it was porn that numbed him or prevented him from "healthy emotional expression" in the first place is a massive and unjustified leap to make. To be facetious for a moment, when I experience terrible bouts of depression, I often watch silly comedies such as Malcolm in the Middle. Last I checked, there hasn't been a glut of articles oozing with concern about addiction to slapstick '90s comedies...
So why's porn different? Because some feminists say it is, basically. Because some feminists can't believe that any woman would want to fuck like that, or that any woman could get off from watching that. And so the men who might enjoy that feel guilty, shitty and anti-feminist. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that even if a man does feel that he has been "socially conditioned to find aggressive, misogynistic, and even non-consensual sex arousing" by porn, we still should not be panicking. Because he can find whatever he damn well wants arousing. As long as he still treats the women in his life with respect and continues to seek consent (even if it is for sexual scenes that appear to show violence, abuse or involve the words 'bitch' or 'slut', because newsflash folks, there are women out there who enjoy those scenes consensually, however much the Feminist Sex Police want to tell you we don't exist), I have no problem with that man, no desire to see him beat himself up and no desire to try and get inside his head and change his fantasies or what he masturbates to. As long as he never harms another human being, I do not care. It's his fucking business.
As Sarah Woolley points out, "a true woman hater will dehumanise you no matter how you behave or what you wear. That is the nature of prejudice." Or as BDSM and feminist blogger Clarisse Thorn points out, in her excellent post on why the obsession with "What does women liking sexual submission meeeeean?!" is a red herring, the concern of "the good guys" about supposedly degrading images is evidence that these guys need to develop their feminism a little more. Unless you already believe that what women do/get off to sexually is prime material which can or should be used to take away their rights, what do you care if a woman wants to be the person holding the dog chain or the person on the other end of it? As Thorn muses, "these decent guys. . . they have learned to associate discussions of female sexual submission with anti-feminism, and with attempts to disempower women in other spheres."
So if I was Dan Mahle, or any of the 'good guys' worrying about what their alleged porn 'addiction' says about them or their attitude to women, I'd take the porn out of the equation and ask myself what my attitude to women is in the first place. Because you can only feel guilty watching certain types of fucking if you believe that those certain types of fucking degrades women.
And that, my friend, ain't feminism.