Pornography, the Conversation, Part III: Ideology versus Evolution

Jan 14, 2019

TAA 0054 – C. Travis Webb, Seph Rodney, and Steven Fullwood continue their discussion about pornography. Picking up on last week’s conversation, the hosts explore how ideology shapes our views of pornography, and what role evolutionary politics might play in our voyeurism.

C.T. WEBB 00:18 [music] Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening, and welcome to The American Age podcast. This is C. Travis Webb, editor of The American Age, and I am speaking to you from Orange, California, and I’m talking to Steven and Seph. Gentlemen, how do you guys do?
S. RODNEY 00:31 Hey, hey. I’m Seph Rodney. I’m an editor at Hyperallergic and a faculty member at the Parsons School of Design, and I’m speaking to you from the South Bronx.
S. FULLWOOD 00:45 Hi, everybody. I’m Steven G. Fullwood. I’m one of the co-founders of the Nomadic Archivist Project, and I’m also a freelance writer and free floating spirit.
C.T. WEBB 00:58 Adrift in the material world.
S. FULLWOOD 01:02 Woo, woo, woo, woo, woo, woo [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 01:06 So this is to remind our listeners that we practice a form of intellectual intimacy on the podcast which is giving each other the space to figure things out together out loud. And we are continuing with our format that we announced last week for the new year, which is we are sticking with subjects for a bit longer and delving into them and seeing where the conversation takes us until we’re ready to move on to something else. And the conversation last week continued, actually, from a conversation we had last year on pornography. And as a quick sort of recap, we got a little bit into the weeds about female copulative vocalization. And towards the end of the podcast– we were talking about– there was some push back around pornography serving as a type of education and the value of that and the pitfalls of that.
C.T. WEBB 02:05 But one of the things where we had some exchange towards the end was this idea of– and this is a question that I actually wanted to open up with, and I know Seph and Steven both have some things to say around this since Seph had done some additional poking, which is essentially– both of you reacted to the writer’s comment on female copulative vocalization, wondering if it was a kind of misogyny or an overemphasis. And I was very cautious about that because one of the things that– and this is what I wanted to ask specifically around pornography, is how do you feel like our ideologies inform our discussions of pornography, and how can we sort of learn to bracket our ideologies to actually see the issue at hand? And Seph, I think you actually have already offered a way into that by– you were digging around in some of these issues and you had look at the– Sex at Dawn, I think, was the book that you said you poked at. Because I think one of the issues around education in particular is when to know, or at least when to be suspicious of how society and culture and misogyny have shaped our views of sex and when to know when biology is playing a role and how to hold the scale in balance. Not to say it’s 50-50, but to hold the scale in balance to let the evidence sort of speak for itself and not occlude the situation with our kind of perspective ideological lenses.
S. FULLWOOD 04:00 I’ll take a stab at that briefly because the question itself, I think, is interesting. It presupposes that ideologies obscure or minimize or shroud what true meaning is. And for me, evidence is an ideology. Do you agree?
C.T. WEBB 04:20 I don’t because the earth is round and because we have XX and XY chromosomes. Some of us.
S. FULLWOOD 04:29 Science. Gotcha.
C.T. WEBB 04:30 Some of us. Right? And I’m not saying that as human beings, we do not have tremendous abilities to shape and reshape. And I’m not saying those things are like concrete, but I am saying they’re like terra firma. And they can shaped and you can do earthenware projects, but you’re still dealing with the earth. There’s a lot of mixed metaphors in there. I apologize for that.
S. FULLWOOD 04:58 It was good, though. [crosstalk].
S. RODNEY 05:00 That was like a potpourri of metaphors [laughter]. Okay. Let’s try to get back to that very– the word isn’t poignant, but, I mean– well, maybe it is a kind of poignant question in that it’s super meaningful. How does ideology shape the way I think about pornography? Or maybe more specifically, how I think about pornography as a potentially educational tool. I have to say that I don’t know that I have such a clear ideological position that makes it easy for me to answer that question because I do think that part of the way I approach the entire issue of pornography– and let’s just get down to brass tacks and try to define some terms. By pornography, I mean– and please feel free to articulate your own definition. But for pornography, what I mean is watching– or rather recorded, I should say– recorded sex acts between consenting adults. That’s what I mean. So–
C.T. WEBB 06:22 Are there any media limitations for it?
S. FULLWOOD 06:24 Yeah.
S. RODNEY 06:25 No. I think that pornography can be in writing. I think you can have it on audio alone. You can have video representations of it. I think it’s the recorded act. Right? So in a way, what pornography does– and I can see you both nodding along. I think what it presupposes is that there is an audience. So there’s that. Ideologically, I think if anything, I’m influenced by– I think more than anything else perhaps, is this notion of shame that I grew up with. The idea that I should be ashamed in some ways of my body or what it can do with another person’s body. And this completely comes out of this whole severely Christian upbringing.
S. RODNEY 07:22 Basically, my parents never were able to sort of resolve for themselves how they related to sex. I think my mom just never really enjoyed it in the way that my father clearly did. Because my father would make these sort of offhand– and I know this because my father, every once in a while, would make these sort of off-colored jokes or these sly references. And he would sort of smile or laugh to himself, and my mother would look, in that kind of almost stereotypical way, prudish. Her response would be, “Oh, I’m not sure that that’s okay,” kind of thing. So what I’ve struggled with, I think, most of my life is a sense of really giving myself permission to enjoy– not enjoy sex – I mean, I kind of always had that – but to enjoy or give myself permission to enjoy that–
C.T. WEBB 08:35 The voyeurism aspect.
S. RODNEY 08:36 The voyeurism aspect. Yes, exactly. Like give myself permission to say, “Oh yeah. I can. This is not bad. This is not horrible.” And I think that’s the sort of place I come to this conversation from. So when I said last time that I thought that pornography could be kind of an educational tool, in a very sort of bare minimal way, what it did was– looking at pornography said, “Okay. So there are these other bodies in the world, and they do really enjoy having this kind of play with each other. And in some ways, the voyeuristic aspect that is built into pornography, it’s okay for me to partake of.”
S. FULLWOOD 09:34 Okay.
C.T. WEBB 09:35 Well, no. Steven, please. I was just going to jump in and everything.
S. FULLWOOD 09:39 No, I do. But can you follow up with it real quick? I’m just sort of formulating a thought about something that Seph said.
C.T. WEBB 09:45 Yeah. I was going to say, it’s funny when we have conversations, or I guess when anyone has a conversation, you sometimes get hemmed into positions that you don’t even necessarily fully agree with. Right? Sort of like when you write a sentence and be like, “Ah, it’s not exactly what I want.” And last week, I was very skeptical of this idea of education around pornography. I mean, the way I was talking about it, it’s clearly far too limited. Right? Because of course it can be– we can learn all kinds of things from pornography. Right? A tremendously educational tool in a meta-discursive way as well. We can learn a lot about society by its pornography, by studying pornography, by engaging in pornography. You learn about things being inside of a thing. Right? This is one of the hallmarks of anthropological research now. When it comes to ethnographies, right, you learn things about a culture by being inside of a culture. So by being a participant– I’m sorry. Go ahead, Seph.
S. RODNEY 10:41 It’s taboos and it’s totems.
C.T. WEBB 10:43 Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you. And so as you’re articulating it, right– so clearly, this was an educational experience for you, right? I mean, clearly, engaging in, sampling, consuming porn, whatever verb you want to use, it clearly provided you an educational outlet, right, and a host of things for you. Anyway. So Steven, you look like you’re about ready to jump in, yes?
S. FULLWOOD 11:11 I always look like I’m ready to jump in. So I want to ask you a question and then ask Seph a question about shame and excitement, about taboo, and about arousal. And the first one is– so when I think about pornography, it has no media limits. It’s a portrayal of sexual subject matter for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal. And it’s presented throughout history– I’m just doing the stuff on Wikipedia, by the way, so [laughter] [inaudible] is jumping out of my head. For disclosure. So as far as my ideology goes– so I think I can answer what the question or some commentary I was making earlier or [inaudible] some notes I was thinking to myself, and that is like– just what you said, Travis, in terms of– you can learn enormously a lot about pornography. There’s so much to learn about just its function in society, as far as a tool in terms of how we regulate sex, how you learn sex, production values. I’m sure you guys have seen porn where you’re like, “Wow. This production is pretty terrible.” Or just how people connect with the people who are having the sex. Do they seem comfortable? Does it seem awkward? “That person looks so skinny.” So I’m never inside in pornography solely as a voyeur. I’m always looking at it in different ways. And I realize much later on, when I started to think about it, how I was thinking about porn.
S. FULLWOOD 12:45 So the ideologies I bring to it– I was thinking that when it comes to, “Can it be used as an educational tool?” it’s like, where would it be taught? In schools or just in families? You know, “This is sex and this is what people do,” and also, “This is the industry in which pornography is produced.” I feel like you need some really sexually liberated people, and not in the sort of swingers, keys in the bowl kind of way, but folks who are really thinking larger about our bodies and what we feel we have the right to do with them. So that shame piece for me is really interesting because the shame part of it for me was always almost a trigger for the excitement to go and to learn more about it and then think about it. And so it wouldn’t rest easily on my shelf with the other things that I had, the books. They were vibrating with energy because they were taboo. They were prohibitive. But they told us so much about things that other places, I couldn’t find that information.
C.T. WEBB 13:52 Well, one the things to sort of try and pull the education in the female copulative vocalization together around what we’re talking about is– one of the functions, I wonder, then of pornography in a society– at some point, I want to talk about sort of the invention of pornography, right, because it clearly– so calling something pornographic has historical antecedent, as well as the way that we would reach back into the past and find representations and then call that pornography. The validity or invalidity of doing that– and it might be valid to do. I’m not making a judgment. I’m saying that there’s something to talk about there. So one of the things that I had read around the vocalization for females is– there’s various theories about why this might have been done as far as it calls– it would seem to make the two, the copulating monkeys, more vulnerable, but it would also then call other monkeys to the scene because it would excite their interest. That might provide a level of protection from predators. So kind of like a base level for our earliest common ancestors, why it might have been done.
C.T. WEBB 15:08 On a human level, what’s kind of interesting is about– so they’re really not sure– so women do tend to vocalize more than men as far as it’s been studied. But what’s interesting is that it’s male excitation that is a response to female vocalization, and that the female vocalization may actually be about male arousal. So in this kind of social dynamic between the two, meaning that the woman vocalizes because it gets the man off, and that this is another sort of level that bodies are connecting. So not necessarily the woman’s– not an act, not in a faking an orgasm kind of way, but that this is another mode of communication that’s taking place between the bodies at that level, and that it’s not about the woman being so excited. It’s about the woman being excited in relation to exciting the man’s arousal. So this tells us something about why pornography might be very titillating to men that are not participating in the act. Right? So that–
S. RODNEY 16:28 Or [crosstalk].
C.T. WEBB 16:29 Yeah. Right, right. Thank you. Thank you for the correction. Because they are participating, right? They are literally making a pornography possible, but they’re not participating in the actual fucking. Right? Anyway. I just thought [crosstalk] as a way to start to tease out, like why they’re such potent– one of the reasons– there’s a variety of reasons, and also some darker ones around the way women get used up in the porn industry. It’s really terrible stuff. So–
S. RODNEY 17:02 Amen. Yeah. Amen.
C.T. WEBB 17:04 Yeah. It’s true. It’s true. But anyway. So any thoughts [crosstalk]?
S. RODNEY 17:09 Well, I want to bring in that book that I mentioned, or one of you had mentioned earlier, that I had been chatting to you about before the podcast started, which is the Sex at Dawn book. And I want to just tie it together with how I got– well, I want to make it clear how I got that. So [inaudible] around this series of articles. One of them is by Stephen Snyder MD. The title of the article is Why Does Pornography Exist? and he refers to an argument. He’s the one who actually hipped us to the term female copulatory vocalization. He talks about this book written by Chris Ryan and Calcida– I think her name is Jetha, and the book is titled Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, and they make this argument. And from what I’ve gleaned from looking at the Wikipedia page, they have had some seemingly valid criticism leveled at them by supporting data, theoretical and evidentiary shortcomings, and problematic assumptions. Most problematic assumption, being that– they set up a straw man argument about there being a standard narrative of the development of human sexuality.
S. RODNEY 18:36 The standard narrative for them, according to them, is this sort of evolutionary biological argument which is that men look for women who are young enough to actually, essentially breed. What did he say? Yes. “Signs of youth, fertility, health, absence of previous sexual experience, and likelihood of future sexual fidelity, where she looks for signs of wealth, or these prospects of future wealth that is kind of commensurate with social status, and then physical health and likelihood that he will stick around to provide for the children, blah, blah, blah.” So we kind of know that sort of normative heterosexual account of how human sexuality developed vis-a-vis monogamy, in regards to monogamy. Their argument though, Ryan and Jetha’s argument, is that we actually did things differently when we were hunter-gatherers, and it’s only in the development of agriculture when we essentially put down roots. Right? So around the time that we developed agriculture, we became relatively sedentary. We mapped out a place, said, “This is fertile ground. We can grow crops here. We don’t have to sort of go from territory to territory looking for food.” Right?
C.T. WEBB 20:04 Just a tiny little footnote. That ordering of historical events is contested, meaning that we may have settled prior to the development of agriculture. Just a footnote.
S. RODNEY 20:17 Okay. Good to know.
C.T. WEBB 20:18 Just a footnote.
S. RODNEY 20:19 Yes. No, thank you. Thank you. That’s helpful, Travis. Thank you. So their argument is that, what happened was, we were far more egalitarian and selfless about sex, and that sex was used as a way– kind of the way we talked about bonobos using sex as a way to develop community cohesion, as a way to de-stress stressful situations, as a way to move past and through conflicts. And they said that it’s also a more efficient way of distributing risk among a group of people. So at that point, we just didn’t have this sort of construction of sex being a private matter, kind of sealed off from the rest of the community, and that’s around the time that these habits around female vocalization might have developed. And what’s been happening is– go ahead, Travis.
C.T. WEBB 21:31 I was going to say, I think– so I’m sure that last point is contested because I know that female copulative vocalization has been observed in other monkeys as well. It’s not purely a human–
S. RODNEY 21:43 No, no, no, no.
C.T. WEBB 21:44 –phenomenon.
S. RODNEY 21:44 Right, no. And if I made it sound like that was the case, I apologize. No. I didn’t mean that at all. In fact, I mean, part of the issue is that I’m kind of stumbling through this thing that I don’t know very well because I haven’t read this book.
C.T. WEBB 21:57 You didn’t [inaudible] the whole book before the podcast?
S. RODNEY 22:01 No. No [laughter]. Unfortunately, no. But, I mean, here’s what I like about the argument. I like that it moves us off of the, I think, shaky terrain of evolutionary biological argument of, “Me Tarzan. You Jane,” kind of thing. Right? Like, “I’m hunter-gatherer, provider, strong man, wealthy status,” the woman who’s, “Oh, just come rescue me and give me children and I will stay with you forever.” Clearly, the range of sexuality and gender positions, frankly, and power positions that we have as human beings just doesn’t fit well into that kind of framework.
C.T. WEBB 22:58 So two things come to mind. So one is, in that argument, as characterized in that book, you would be essentially saying we should look at this biological evolutionary evidence to not rely on biological evolutionary evidence. So by saying that bonobos do this, then therefore, we should move off of what this other evolutionary biological argument is making.
S. RODNEY 23:32 I don’t know if there’s a should there in their argument. I don’t think that they’re making a should there. I think they’re just saying, “Here’s what happened in the past.”
C.T. WEBB 23:40 Oh no. You said that, though, to get off the, “Me Tarzan, Jane.” So the–
S. RODNEY 23:45 You’re right. You’re right. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 23:48 And the thing is, I think– I mean, I agree with where you get to with that. I mean, you just look at the panoply of human behavior and see that we are clearly not biologically determined. Right? So I’m 100% with that. I just– our earliest common ancestor, chimps do not behave like bonobos, though. Right? I mean, they have harems and shit like that. It’s open what branch did we take from our earliest common ancestors. We have both tendencies as is evidenced in human history. Right? So we have these wonderful egalitarian examples in the anthropological record, and we also have these terrible, awful, horrible examples in the anthropological record. So to me, I find the biological evidence a useful variable to plug into figuring out what humans are about. I mean, we subvert our biology all the time. I mean, circumcision is one of the oldest sort of tribal affiliations that you– I mean, ways to signal a tribal affiliation. We literally maim our dicks in order to say like, “I belong to this group.” And it’s old. It’s really, really old. So, I mean, we do all kinds of things to ourselves. And so I think it’s only useful as far as it goes. I wouldn’t want to take it further than that.
S. RODNEY 25:29 Yeah. So I want to follow up on that and say– this is to gather things around the question that let us off with, Travis, which is, “How does ideology influence the ways that we think about pornography in terms of educational possibilities?” And I think what we’ve come to is basically laying out our own positions. Right? So my position is, “Oh my God. I can from this place of shame and I’m still working through that.” And if I can paraphrase, Travis, I think you come from this place of– well, part of what makes up your view of pornography is a kind of evolutionary evidence or biological evidence, and also a cultural argument which is clearly sort of supersedes all of that biological anthropological evidence. Steven, I don’t know where you sit in all of this because we haven’t heard from you yet about that.
S. FULLWOOD 26:45 I feel like I walked in here and was like, “Oh, I just want to hear what they have to say [laughter].” I was like, “This is interesting.” Because I was thinking about why porn exists. Right? And then I started to imagine, what if porn didn’t exist, there was no need for porn?
C.T. WEBB 27:04 What would that look like?
S. FULLWOOD 27:04 So I was thinking about– right. So the biological, the cultural and all these started to kind of–
C.T. WEBB 27:07 That’s a good question.
S. FULLWOOD 27:08 –[crosstalk] together. And I said, “You know, this is a question I need to sit with.” And so I was just waiting for you guys to kind of capture some things, or maybe even spark something in my brain. But I was curious about this. Why do we need pornography? And what can it say about our culture– either biologically or culturally or what have you? So I said, “I just need to sit with that.” That was one of the questions I had for both of you.
C.T. WEBB 27:34 Do either one of you know of any culture, contemporary or historical, that don’t have a type of pornography? This kind of maybe leads into the question I was talking about before about sort of the invention of pornography or whatever. But Steven or Seph? Or even sub-cultures within the United States that don’t seem to– I mean, clearly, there are ones that don’t sanction pornography, but we all know that they’re all doing it in the closet.
S. FULLWOOD 28:01 That was the next thing I was going to say.
C.T. WEBB 28:02 Literally doing it in the closet.
S. FULLWOOD 28:07 I’m inclined to believe that– if I know people and men and women, more men, I guess, in terms of sexual desire and the– not subvert, but I think it was sort of suppressing those desires creates a kind of need for release. And so how do you do that? Do you have affairs? What’s the cheapest way to do this without cheating on your wife or your husband? Pornography, which is– in a way, for some people, feel like it’s an emotional betrayal. I don’t know. That’s a good question.
S. RODNEY 28:45 And what is that about? Emotional betrayal? Like you own the person’s emotional bandwidth? What the hell is that? Why would you even be in that–
C.T. WEBB 28:55 It’s pretty messed up.
S. RODNEY 28:56 It is. It’s fucked up. Let me just say it that way. Let’s just bring out the–
C.T. WEBB 29:03 Let me toss out a wonky parenthetical aside to Steven’s observation that the Hegelian term sublate seems to fit perfectly. Sublate is this kind of portmanteau of talking about pushing something down or lifting something up. The etymology of [crosstalk] that kind of bugs into Hegelian dialectic. So the pornography, in this type of suppression that happens, there’s this exaltation and this sort of taboo and totem that comes out of that. Anyway, whatever. That’s all I have. I was just like, “Oh, that’s like Hegel.” I’m sure Hegel will be very upset with me right now for bringing him into this conversation about pornography.
S. RODNEY 29:47 Yeah. Well, I mean, one of the things that was problematic in the piece by Snyder that Steven sent around was that, at some point, he concludes– and this is sort of one of the undercurrents of our conversation. At some point, Snyder concludes that it’s in our DNA. Right? He makes an argument, essentially, that we are more related to bonobos than chimpanzees, that there’s a point at which we got it on together, and jealousy and ownership didn’t take such a huge chunk out of our sort of collective sense of sexuality. And Travis is shaking his head like, “No. That’s some bullshit [laughter].”
C.T. WEBB 30:32 I think bullshit on either camp. I would call bullshit– now, this is someone that– this probably comes out of a practice suspicion. When I was younger, I was very interested in evolution and psychological explanations for phenomenon, but it’s bullshit. It’s bullshit in that, yes, it’s in there. Right? It’s clearly in there. And maybe you can make some interesting observations about large scale populations. How many people to many people. But on an individual level, why individuals do the shit that they do, it is so dizzyingly complicated that you can’t boil it down to these evolutionary arguments. I just don’t buy it.
S. RODNEY 31:17 Agree. And I always find that these arguments are way too smug and way too deterministic, essentially. Right? Like you put 30% of this in, 40% of that in, and bingo, Bob’s your uncle. You got a human being [laughter].
S. FULLWOOD 31:34 Right. But the arguments don’t breathe. That’s my problem. They have hard brackets around them. It’s like, “Well, you know, you’re just a one of those persons that kind of arrive at this particular point, and it’s a perspective.” So I definitely agree with the Byzantine sensibilities about how anyone gets to anything. It can’t boil down to dot, dot, dot. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 31:59 Steven, why don’t you take us out– oh, Seph [crosstalk]–
S. RODNEY 32:01 Yes. I was just about to suggest that. Yes, yes, yes. Steven, please take us out and tell us what we should consider next week.
S. FULLWOOD 32:08 Wow. Okay. All of that.
C.T. WEBB 32:11 You had great question at the end, so.
S. FULLWOOD 32:13 Yeah. Yeah. Oh God. So I think–
S. RODNEY 32:16 Yeah. Go with your question.
S. FULLWOOD 32:17 –the question really is, why do we need pornography? I really think that would be a great thing for us to kind of pull apart and chew on for next week because it’s so provocative. We can take it personal, public. We can take it in a variety of ways.
C.T. WEBB 32:32 Why do I need pornography, right?
S. RODNEY 32:34 Right. Absolutely.
C.T. WEBB 32:35 “I’m really unhappy at home.” [crosstalk], by the way. [inaudible].
S. FULLWOOD 32:39 [crosstalk] might be listening [crosstalk] [laughter].
S. RODNEY 32:44 I mean, one reason, maybe I just wake up with a hard on every morning. I don’t know.
C.T. WEBB 32:51 “My pants are really difficult to put on otherwise [laughter].”
S. FULLWOOD 32:54 Wow, wow, wow. So that’s our question for next week, and just thank you for tuning in. And thank you Travis. Thank you, Seph. It’s been a lovely conversation. Thank you.
S. RODNEY 33:06 Thank you.
C.T. WEBB 33:07 Thank you, Steven. Bye. [music]


First referenced at 17:09

Christopher Ryan

Christopher and his work have been featured just about everywhere, including: MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, Playboy, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Outside, Salon, Seed, Big Think, and Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish.

First referenced at 17:09

Stephen Snyder MD

Stephen Snyder MD is a sex and relationship therapist in Manhattan, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine, a regular contributor to HuffingtonPost and PsychologyToday, a frequent guest on major media, and one of America’s most original voices re sex and relationships.


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