0053   |   January 7, 2019

Pornography, the Conversation, Part II:
Pornography and Public Health

C. Travis Webb, Seph Rodney, and Steven Fullwood continue their discussion about pornography. What happens when pornography becomes the primary method of sex education? The advantages and disadvantages of access to pornography are discussed, such as addiction and sexual liberation.

[music]
C.T. WEBB 00:19 Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening, and welcome to The American Age podcast. Happy New Year to everyone out there that’s listening. This is C. Travis Webb. I’m editor of The American Age, and I’m talking to Seph Rodney and Steven Fullwood.
S. RODNEY 00:30 Hey.
C.T. WEBB 00:31 Gentlemen.
S. RODNEY 00:31 Happy New Year to y’all. I’m Seph–
C.T. WEBB 00:34 Same to you.
S. RODNEY 00:34 –Rodney. I’m speaking to you from the [Boogie Down Bronx?]. I’m an editor at Hyperallergic and an adjunct faculty member at Parsons School of Design. I’m happy to be here. Yay! Woo!
S. FULLWOOD 00:48 Yeah. [laughter] Happy New Year, everyone. This is Steven G. Fullwood. I’m the co-founder of the Nomadic Archivists Project, a company that specializes in your archival needs, and I am coming to you from Harlem, and I am very happy to be here today.
C.T. WEBB 01:05 And this is to remind our listeners that we practice a form of what we like to call intellectual intimacy, which means that we give each other the space to kind of work through ideas together. And we decided at the close of last year that we were going to try a new format with the podcast, meaning– It’s something that we had toyed with early on when we first talking about doing a podcast, and that is we’re going to stay with some ideas, themes, and topics for a longer stretch of time. Not each individual podcast. Each individual podcast will still be about 30 minutes. But going forward, we will do multi-part episodes on the same topic until we feel like we’ve covered the topic or explored it sufficiently, or I guess maybe just get tired of talking about it and then want to move on to something else. That doesn’t mean that we won’t break in with something topical if something topical happens in the news. It’s always possible of course, but we’d like to give– Seph was actually the one who kind of steered us in this direction, said that the medium could bear a little bit more in-depth exploration on our part, which I agree with and I’m very happy to accommodate. So do you guys have anything that you want to say about the new format before we jump into it? You don’t have to. You don’t have to say something about–
S. RODNEY 02:23 Well, I want to say one thing. I think that Steven essentially introduced us to new material for the conversation today. And I think it’s a really good start, because Steven has done some, I think, really considered exploration of pornography, what it means to us, how it impacts us mentally, emotionally, physically. I think that this is a great place to start a good, long conversation, because it is a topic that, frankly, doesn’t get a lot of air time and doesn’t get a lot of serious consideration. So I’m glad that we’re starting off the new year this way. This feels like us to me.
S. FULLWOOD 03:15 Okay, excellent.
C.T. WEBB 03:17 Yeah, I actually– I appreciate that you said that, Seph. I mean, one of the things that is true of the old podcast is, it’s not that– I mean, so we each, between us, have read for decades. But we did not necessarily, beyond cursory preparation, prepare for the podcasts other than to sort of draw on our own sort of years of reading. And that’s something we’re going to change up. So we’re going to read a little bit more deeply before each week’s episode,because we want to do the listeners the courtesy of knowing what we’re talking about.
S. RODNEY 03:50 Yes, yes indeed.
S. FULLWOOD 03:51 Fantastic.
C.T. WEBB 03:52 Having informed opinions. So as Seph said, pornography. So Steven, we came up with this idea because, hopefully, we’ll get some clicks. [inaudible] “Oh, pornography. I want to talk about that or listen to people talk about that.” So I thought I would just use, Steven, some of the questions that you sent. Obviously, we’re not going to get to all of these in this podcast, but this was kind of the framing for what we’re doing. And you said, pretty straightforwardly, what does pornography tell us about us, meaning ourselves as probably social creatures, as biological creatures, as men and women, wherever identities lie? How could porn inform, distort, free, or constrain, and what are the prevailing assumptions about pornography? So I thought those were pretty– I mean, they’re broad, obviously, because– and we’ll narrow in on that. So I don’t know, Steven? Seph? One of you guys want to kind of lead us into some of the stuff we read and maybe some framing questions for today’s conversation about pornography?
S. FULLWOOD 04:53 So yeah, if you don’t mind, Seph–
S. RODNEY 04:56 Please. Please do.
S. FULLWOOD 04:57 –take this. So I actually sent five articles today that I knew that we wouldn’t be able to get through, but I thought they were a nice sort of mix of the different prevailing attitudes about pornography. And the very first article that I think is really interesting is Why Porn Should Be Studied as a Health Issue–
S. RODNEY 05:15 Yes, fascinating.
S. FULLWOOD 05:16 –by Emily Rothman, who is a teacher, researcher. And so one of the things I thought sort of important: in 2016, April 21st – which, oddly, was the day that Prince died – Utah passed two bills on pornography, really. And I thought they were really interesting, because Gary Herbert, the governor of Utah, he said that, “certainly, the intent here is to raise awareness and understanding about the addictive nature of pornography and the harmful effects it has on individuals, families, and societies in general.” Now, I’ve heard this all my life about pornography, that it was a terrible thing for everyone involved. But to Emily Rothman’s point, there is a– she quotes this article or provides it in her essay. It’s a New York Times piece that, in lieu of a lack of public education about sex in the schools, abstinence only is what’s being taught. So pornography becomes, by default, an educational–
S. RODNEY 06:20 Sort of the de facto rule–
S. FULLWOOD 06:22 Right. And so I want to know what you guys thought about that, if it was something that you could either speak on personally or just your thoughts about– the de facto education would be pornography, what does that–?
C.T. WEBB 06:37 So I think the first thing– I just have sort of a quick response and then I’ll let Seph jump in. The first thing I thought of, because this is a question she explicitly asks, is– It’s sort of like watching pornography to figure out how to fuck is sort of like watching superhero movies and learning how to fight crime. It’s total nonsense, that this form would be used to educate people about sort of reasonable expectations about what one can do in the bedroom and what your partner can do in the bedroom. So as far as that– I don’t have much to say– I mean, there’s other things to say, but on that particular topic, using it as an educational resource, I mean, what a fantastically terrible idea.
S. RODNEY 07:32 Well, okay, I want to jump in and very vociferously push back against that. I do want to say that, given the kind of– Well, first, on a personal note, to be anecdotal for just a second, I grew up in a – and you both know this story very well – grew up in a very religious household. I was made to feel guilty about being lascivious or desiring other people’s bodies from as long back as I can remember. And in fact, there was a moment– This is very Freudian. There was a very telling moment when I was in the car when I was in Jamaica where I was born, and I remember riding back with my mom and dad in the front, my sister to the right of me in the backseat. And at some point – and this had very much to do with the issues between my mother and father – at some point, I remember my mother saying something like– They were arguing and she said something like, “Blah blah blah blah, and you pulled down skirt.” And the insinuation – and she was speaking in the Patois – but the insinuation was that it was something dirty, to pull down a woman’s skirt was something dirty, something untoward, something– And I felt she was, in that moment, talking to me. So I immediately internalized that as me having done something bad. So that kind of informed my sort of approach to porn and to sex, I think, for a long time.
S. RODNEY 09:06 And maybe, who knows, maybe I’m still working through that. But what I do think is true at the same time is that– And here, I’m going to get [inaudible], I’m going to say if you’re watching amateurs porn, if you’re watching people who are not in the sort of gilded mansions and not with the expert lighting, going at it, I think there’s a moment as a young person where you actually don’t know what your body can do. You don’t know what other bodies can do. And I think actually watching those things can be somewhat informative, just so you have a sense of, “Oh, this might go here, and this might look like this, and this might fit my kind of shape of my kind of developing desire.” Just in a sort of base, “I didn’t know that when I put my finger in a girl’s thing, that that makes her feel happy.” That kind of thing. I want to say that, certainly, porn is not– it is not a great educational tool. But I think that, in terms of just starting off at a certain age, maybe it helps. Maybe.
S. FULLWOOD 10:29 But see, I think it is an educational tool. Not a great one, but an educational tool. And since Travis threw himself on the ground earlier, I’m going to offer him a hand and lift him up.
C.T. WEBB 10:39 No, I’m willing to defend my position, actually. So you don’t need to help me up.
[crosstalk]
S. FULLWOOD 10:47 No, just the way you did– “No, no, no.” And I’m just like, “Well, there’s redemptive value in everything.” And so I–
C.T. WEBB 10:55 No, no, go ahead. Go ahead.
S. FULLWOOD 10:56 I’ll add to what Seph said in terms of just knowing what your body– maybe discovering what your body can do, what you like, what you don’t like. Being able to see a body or see bodies in that kind of way? You’re not going to see that anywhere else. You might see some soft stuff on Dynasty or what have you, but it’s still not the act itself. And like I said, it’s [inaudible], and it’s a cultural artifact for me, because I think it tells us a lot about who and what we are and what we think we are and what we’d like to be. But I completely agree with you, learning how to fight crime by watching superhero films: bad idea. So your analogy is– But I just feel like it can’t be tossed away, and I think that it’s often a red herring for other things that people need to think about. So.
C.T. WEBB 11:44 Yeah, so I was mostly being glib. It’s not that I don’t think that it gets used in productive ways, that pornography could be used in productive ways for people that aren’t exposed to sex education or don’t have that kind of relationship with their family or have close siblings or whatever to talk through that stuff. It’s not at all– or even a generous and open partner that you can work through that stuff with, because you can figure those things out, right?
S. RODNEY 12:11 Well, clearly, yes.
C.T. WEBB 12:12 You don’t have to see it– I mean, it doesn’t have to be seen or watched or dramatized in order to be able to figure it out with another person. You can explore one another’s bodies just in congress with another person without having to see it demonstrated. But that’s not a reality for a lot of people, and I understand that. And that’s not exactly what I meant by sort of– I just meant it’s unfortunate when the only access that teenagers have to understanding how sex works, what things are involved in the sexual act, what sort of scenarios lead to sex, that the primary tool in a place like Utah, or even maybe for most of the United States, for people in the United States, because we’re a particularly prudish society in many weirdly contradictory ways– Right? I mean, it’s just really weird how we’re so bound– I mean, we’re still puritans at heart. And so we’re titillated by these things, but at the same time, we want to sanction them, and we can’t see Janet Jackson’s breast, and it’s just all this nonsense. And so I appreciated the seriousness with which we need to treat pornography as a public health issue. I’m saying that using pornography that way is deeply problematic. And I will, to spur a little bit more disagreement– I think that Mormon Utah is onto something in that– Do we really want to accept pornography from every other human practice which is potentially addictive? I mean, every other sort of intensified, distilled, symbolic creation that we have, whether it be heaven, hell, McDonald’s food – right? – if every other symbologized thing that our imaginations can produce can lead to addictive behavior and unrealistic expectations and dissatisfaction with the ordinary, doesn’t pornography do the same– doesn’t it potentially do the same thing?
S. RODNEY 14:57 That’s a good question. Okay, so as I mull on that, I want to also suggest – and this is sort of– in my head it’s started turning into a tennis match. On the one side of the net, I do think that– On the one side of the argument, that pornography’s a terrible educational tool, I do want to say this: it occurred to me as you were speaking, Travis, that one of the things that pornography tends to leave out– no, almost always leaves out, is the emotional side. I think that people don’t get a sense – and this is one of the glaring failures for me – people don’t get a sense of how– Someone said– I think it was Cameron Diaz’s character in Vanilla Sky, which is a remake of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes, I think – which is much better, by the by – but she says something in that film to the Tom Cruise character that really stuck with me. She said, “Your body makes a promise when you’re intimate.” And I think there’s a way in which our bodies make promises to each other, and I think that we actually, on some deep, deep level, believe in that promise. And if you don’t kind of figure out what that promise means to you, then one can be really hurt. One can be really deeply disappointed. I think that we don’t talk enough about the kind of emotional bonds that are made, fashioned in the sexual act. Even if they’re not necessarily deep ones, there’s still a kind– I think there’s a kind of promise. Now, as far as Mormon Utah being onto something because the behavior might be addictive, or rather the curiosity around bodies, seeing them demonstrate this very seductive, profoundly erotic act? Maybe. Maybe. I just– I’m not sure. I don’t know.
C.T. WEBB 17:13 Oh, just to be clear: totally against any sort of regulation of pornography, and definitely am pro– I mean, honestly– and what I saw in the article was her essential argument is, if you are going to block every avenue with which you’re going to educate students about the sex act, you’re de facto pushing them towards pornography. The end result is that you’re driving them towards these what I would say are unrealistic scenarios.
S. FULLWOOD 17:47 No, absolutely. And so I think the idea of eradicating anything, it seems to be ridiculous. It seems like all it does is sort of drive it– not drive it underground, but make it even more seductive and more desirable. And there are different kinds of pornography. So like Rothman, I’m neither anti-porn or pro-porn; I’m interested in what it does and what it says about us. And so I think that that– I’m not completely sure there’s not an emotional thing going on with porn in terms of watching it, maybe, the scenarios being demonstrated. Because porn sort of started out [inaudible] forever. So it kind of depends on the regulations of that society and what they consider porn. But some of the earlier 70s films were very arty. They were very art– so it wasn’t–
C.T. WEBB 18:40 Like Caligula, right? That was a–
S. FULLWOOD 18:42 I wouldn’t say Caligula, but that– I’m actually talking about the ones that look like art films, that look like student films. They had less of a sheen and less of a– The Devil and Mrs. Jones or Deep Throat, they were more thoughtful. They had more thought going into them. And then there was that– they told us something about that time. And so that’s a document that we– I like the fact that Rothman teaches it but tells the students beforehand there’s going to be nudity and they don’t have to actually look at pornography to benefit from the class, and that she’s trying to look at it– she didn’t say it this way, but I thinking it holistically. And I think that having a healthy conversation about it, it’s so necessary because we do live in a very weird society where we’re sexualizing kids and they’re having makeup on, but at the same time, “Don’t touch those kids. Those kids are off-limits.” And it makes complete sense because it’s– but it’s a capitalist sort of thing, working at people’s own emotional, mental, physical, sexual development. It’s working in weird ways and hypocritical ways and very profoundly weird ways. So–
C.T. WEBB 19:49 Why is it capitalist?
S. FULLWOOD 19:51 Meaning that people can make money off of both children being models, people making money off of pornography, this kind of thing. So if you can make money off of it– I think what drives pornography is not simply a desire to see it, but it’s that– ever since the internet, it’s been kind of going down. People are pay– want to see these things, and they want to absorb and to consume them. Go ahead, I’m sorry.
C.T. WEBB 20:18 I think– Yeah, yeah. No, I was just going to say that everything that you said, basically, I’m on the same page with, I think as far as I followed it. The only thing I have a knee-jerk reaction that I think is valid, when– So pornography is much deeper than capitalism, right? Pornography’s been around–
S. FULLWOOD 20:41 I [completely agree with you?].
C.T. WEBB 20:42 So I don’t– All that capitalism– That’s too heavy-handed. One of the things that capitalism does with pornography is it sort of intensifies and distills something that is in place. The Steven Snyder article that you sent around where they basically– he was positing that essentially, pornography had some kind of– must have had some kind of evolutionary function. I’m sorry, it wouldn’t have been called pornography, but sex in public, female vocalization, copulative vocalization.
S. FULLWOOD 21:21 Looking at it and being– Yeah, I thought that was amazing. I enjoyed that.
C.T. WEBB 21:23 So social primates, females vocalize, and that this draws other members of the species like, “Oh, what’s that monkey doing?” And so they go and they look or whatever. And he suggests that that must have had some sort of evolutionary function. Steven [crosstalk]–
S. FULLWOOD 21:40 Yeah, did either of you pick up on him not saying that I guess men are silent?
S. RODNEY 21:46 Yeah, I was wondering about that. I was wondering about that too, yeah.
S. FULLWOOD 21:49 What about a guy? So I was thinking that was interesting, to sort of point out and not recognize that men also make noise.
S. RODNEY 21:55 Right, and then there’s a way in which that kind of characterization of a copulative act is also weirdly gendered. Obviously weirdly, because there’s a way in which– and I would actually go a step further and say it’s weirdly kind of patriarchal, because it just assumes that men are sort of stoic, sort of like they get it up and they get it done, and they just kind of– women are the ones who are hysterical. “Oh, my god, it’s great, it’s ah.” [inaudible]
C.T. WEBB 22:25 Okay, hard pause. We should find out what the research is, because it is definitely possible that– I mean, it is definitely possible that women– that females – not women – females vocalize in a more intense way than males do for very solid evolutionary reasons. Now, that may not be the case and this may be a bias in the article, but we– So one of the things that we’re doing this– which I really appreciate about the format is we’re not leaping to ready-at-hand explanations that sort of fit our own intellectual biases, because we all have them.
S. RODNEY 23:04 I agree. And I am absolutely making an assumption there. Thank you for calling it out, and yes, we need to do research on that and come back to that point. So I’m writing it down as we speak: “Research on vocalizations to see–“
S. FULLWOOD 23:17 “Women make noise; men do not.” Got it. [laughter]
S. RODNEY 23:21 And to just round this out– So I’m forgetting his name, Steven, but the person who wrote that piece–
C.T. WEBB 23:32 Steven Snyder.
S. FULLWOOD 23:33 Yeah.
S. RODNEY 23:34 What?
C.T. WEBB 23:35 Well, I think it’s Steven Snyder.
S. RODNEY 23:36 Okay, so Steven, what he was getting at was that we like to watch because, in some ways, that can actually stitch the community together, and that the real world– not analogy, but evidence, is that bonobos act this way, from what I’ve heard, that when there’s friction among members of a close-knit group, that one of the ways they work stuff out is by having sex. So the alternative to picking up a rock or a heavy stick and saying, “Okay, I’m going to work this shit out now this way,” is to say, “All right, let’s figure out how to exchange erotic energy, blah blah blah.” So there’s a kind of– there might be– I mean, I don’t know if this happens in the human community. That’s a good question, I think, to ask too, whether– and maybe I can just actually just make it really anecdotal for the moment and just ask either of you: have there been moments in your life– I’m imagining the answer’s probably yes, but you, Travis, you’ve been married to Molly for a while now. I imagine that there’ve been moments in your relationship where some things have occurred that are frustrating to both of you, and one of the ways in which you may have worked things out – and Steven, feel free too, because I want to hear how this happens for you too – one of the ways you work things out is by engaging in some sort of sexual act.
C.T. WEBB 25:15 So for me, I handle those things in what would be considered a stereotypical female way, which is that, when I am upset, I have no interest in sex at all. None. I have to process emotionally what’s going on, and I need to work things out with myself or with her emotionally. Molly is the exact opposite. So she very much processes things in what would be a stereotypical male way, so what would be– So she would rather – forgive me, Molly – but she would rather fuck and be fine afterwards than talk through.
S. FULLWOOD 25:56 Ah, Travis is going to get in trouble. Did Molly say you could say these things?
C.T. WEBB 26:05 So–
S. FULLWOOD 26:06 But I also want to hear all of it.
C.T. WEBB 26:08 So it’s, in our dynamic, again, stereotypical, sort of predictable, what you would assume using standard narratives about what men– and how men and women react were flipped.
S. RODNEY 26:20 So Steven, how about you?
S. FULLWOOD 26:21 I think it depends on what it is, because sometimes, a really good argument can turn into some really good sex. Or, a really good argument can turn into some very terrible sex. Or, a really good argument can turn into three days of not speaking to each other and just sort of grunting. “Mm-hmm. Yeah, pick up the kids. Yeah.” So when you asked Seph– I mean Travis, that question, I was thinking, “When have I done that?” And I was like, “Oh, it’s been a variety of things.” But I also want to mention, with that Steven Snyder article, that there’s something interesting about participation by voyeurism. Watching something. I was in New Orleans for the first time in 1996, and I was in the fifth quarter, and it was on the eve of Mardi Gras. And people had cameras, and if I just happened to be in a way where there was some boobs, I was getting knocked over. And it was just that kind of, “Ugh,” that rush to see a boob. I said, “They’re just boobs.” But no, they’re “Boobs!” And I was struck by the glazed look in the guys’ faces, and I remember thinking, “Yeah–” And yet another story, very briefly, is that there was a friend of mine I used to work with a couple years ago that told me that, although he wasn’t gay, he would totally watch gay people have sex. And I thought about it, and I was like, “Well, I just–” It made me think about what Steven Snyder’s kind of talking about, this sort of– Before doors, what were people doing? The sounds. “What are they doing? What’s going on? Are they having a good time, or is somebody being hurt or someone crying? Someone laughing?” That kind of communal thing that I think feels like it might have its analogy in some of the things that we see guys and women do today, mostly guys, in terms of peep shows and sex parties and so forth.
C.T. WEBB 28:11 I wanted to say something, then I want to let Seph have the last word, if he would like that. So I actually wanted to correct something from an earlier podcast, because oftentimes, when we talk about stuff, I’ll go and look it up and like, “Oh, was this correct? Did I make this assumption correctly?” And we were talking about– in the first conversation about pornography, and Seph, you had claimed that you thought it might be nearly universal that sex takes place in privacy. I’m summarizing, but essentially, it takes place in private. And I said, “Well, I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion, blah blah blah blah blah.” Well, it turns out, you’re probably right and I’m probably wrong. So Donald Brown, who wrote– it’s starting to come back in vogue, but he wrote a book called Human Universals, in which he explored a variety of what would be considered human universals. The book came out of vogue because of the kind of politics that are around anthropology now, which is that there are no such thing as human universals; it’s all culturally determined. Which I don’t agree with. I don’t buy that as an argument. But one of the things on the list – I wanted to say [inaudible], and this actually backs up or constrains the horizon of what we’re talking about – it appears that in human cultures, privacy during copulation is universal or essentially universal. Now, we can’t know what happened, obviously, 20,000 years ago, but something about social– something about culture – right? – seems to constrain our sexuality or the kind of human culture that we have. So monkeys basically fuck in the open. Humans appear not to. And it’s probably a difficult thing to study [inaudible] too deep in the past. But as far as stages of development amongst cultures that we’ve come into contact with in the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s a private thing.
S. RODNEY 30:10 So no wonder people are moved to imagine that this is a public health issue when it’s made so publicly consumable. So okay, so the thing I think I want to end on is clearly, this conversation has opened a lot of doors and I’m glad we chose this to talk about for the next several weeks, because I think it’s going to take us a while to really unpack a lot of what we just started unpacking today. So I’m looking forward to that. I want to actually pick up– I want to suggest that we pick up the conversation next week kind of where we left off, because there’s some dangling threads there. Like what, if anything, are the educational possibilities of pornography? Or are we taking it off the table? Are we saying, “No, it’s really not an educational tool. It’s doing something else. It doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of being a public health crisis, but for these and these reasons”? So maybe we could start there next week.
C.T. WEBB 31:12 Sure. Sure.
S. FULLWOOD 31:13 Excellent.
C.T. WEBB 31:14 All right, my friends. That was a great conversation.
S. RODNEY 31:16 Indeed it was.
C.T. WEBB 31:18 And I’ll talk to you soon.
S. RODNEY 31:19 Okay.
S. FULLWOOD 31:19 Cool.
C.T. WEBB 31:20 All right. Thank you. Bye-bye.
[music]

References

First referenced at 23:32

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.” SexualityResource.com

First referenced at 28:10

Donald E. Brown

“Donald E. Brown is an American professor of anthropology. Higher degrees from UCLA and Cornell. Doctoral research in Brunei. Professor of anthropology at UCSB from 1969 until retirement in 1994.” Wikipedia

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