Pornography, The Conversation, Part IV: Why Do We Need or Want Pornography?

Jan 21, 2019

TAA 0055 – The hosts continue their discussion of pornography. Exploring their own consumption, the varieties and limitations of desire and its representations (sexual and otherwise), they move closer to some understanding of pornography’s persistence across time.

C.T. WEBB 00:18 Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening and welcome to the American Age podcast. My name is C. Travis Webb, editor of the American Age and I’m speaking to you from Orange, California where it is very rainy, for the first time this year we got some serious rain so it’s kind of nice. I appreciate the change.
S. RODNEY 00:36 Indeed. And I’m here. I’m Seph Rodney. I am a writer, and editor, and teacher, and general bon vivant. And I’m coming to you from the South Bronx.
S. FULLWOOD 00:53 And I’m Steven G. Fullwood and I am the co-founder of the Nomadic Archivist Project. I’m also a writer and it is wonderful here in Harlem. It’s a nice day out.
C.T. WEBB 01:08 That’s something that some of our listeners probably don’t know is that Steven has a gremlin that haunts his electronic devices and literally we were just spent an hour troubleshooting his computer. And I can say with certainty that it was absolutely not his fault so [laughter] something just sort of you have bad luck, my friend, when it comes to this stuff, so.
S. FULLWOOD 01:28 Wow, no, I didn’t think of it that way, but I just feel like I should know about computers but there’s a part of my brain that doesn’t seem to want to receive the information. And so I’m trying to work on that in my last, what is it, quarter–? What is it, 30 years, 40 years? It kind of depends, depends on when I feel like checking out. So, yeah. So come on computer, love me and I’ll love you. We’ll love each other. We’re friends [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 01:55 Said every stalker ever [laughter].
S. FULLWOOD 01:58 Oh, goodness. Oh, yes [laughter]. Every stalker.
C.T. WEBB 02:03 So this is to remind our listeners that we practice a form of intellectual intimacy meaning that we give each other the space and time to figure things out, out loud, and to think out loud with each other. So we’re continuing our conversation on pornography. I think this is part 4 I think, yes? Yeah. And we ended last time with a question. It was Steven’s question and so I thought, Steven, you had the question, why don’t you lead us into it, please?
S. FULLWOOD 02:29 Sure. So the last three episodes we sort of looked at pornography as a social, as biological, or cultural. And so now today– at the end of episode three, I posited the question, “Why do we need pornography?” And so this is what we’re discussing today and I’ve sent both Travis and Seph a couple of articles that we’ll be discussing today. And also I came up with a couple of questions for both Seph and Travis around what does pornography do for you specifically? And in a sort of intellectual way, right? And so I kind of wanted to start there and then kind of weave in some of the arguments from the articles I sent.
C.T. WEBB 03:15 Seph, do you want to [crosstalk]–?
S. RODNEY 03:16 Sure. I feel a bit like the canary in a coal mine, only because again, to reiterate– no, you don’t know. But to reiterate what I’ve said before, I come to this conversation in this topic with a good deal of, I guess the word is trepidation. A sense of, “Oh, I shouldn’t be up here talking about this.” I was thinking deeply about your question, Steven, right after we talked last week. And it occurred to me that the most honest answer was probably the first thing that occurred to me which was that– well, actually it’s not the first thing that occurred to me. I will come back to that though. This is the second thing that occurred to me, which is that there’s something about watching it, for me, especially in the last couple of years, I very consciously said to myself, especially on those mornings, those days when I have a really hectic schedule and I feel pressured, I feel like, “This is going to be a tough day. There’s going to 10 things I need to do. I will maybe get to 9 of them, or maybe 8 if I’m lucky.” Taking that time in the morning to just literally grab some pleasure for myself, feels really conscious to me. I’m saying to myself, “I’m just going to take these 15 minutes– maybe not 15 minutes, maybe 20 minutes, maybe half an hour. But I’m going to take this time for myself just to literally pleasure myself because I want to carve that out of this day for me. Because everything else I’m going to be doing today, not that’s it not– not that I won’t ultimately be doing it for myself, but it will be work. Everything else in this day I do will be work.
S. RODNEY 05:33 And I often times just don’t want to start my day in that place. I want to start my day thinking– literally, I will often wake up and look at my phone and start working. I will look at my email accounts. There are three of them. There’s my personal, there’s my work email, Hyperallergic, and then there’s the email I get from Parsons, from the new school. And I will literally start working. And I’ll look at Twitter and my mind will be working on how awful our current socioeconomic, sociopolitical situation is in the US. And I want to take some time away from that kind of work to just feel pleasure, so that’s partly– I don’t know if I’m actually willing to go so far as to say that’s why I need it. I think we need to talk about need versus want. But that’s why I want it at least.
C.T. WEBB 06:31 Okay. So I am a very intermittent consumer of porn. It’s never been a regular part of my sort of diet as far as titillating myself or kind of provoking myself. Fantasies certainly, right, especially when I was younger. So probably that function, that sort of self-pleasure that would go along with the voyeuristic aspect or pornography which I guess is it’s entire thing, right, other than masturbation. I would self generate for myself, I’d have whatever sort of elaborate fantasies I would have about my own sexual potency or success or whatever, fill in the blank. And I don’t mean to say that that isn’t relevant, in order to get to a larger point. So it doesn’t slide into my life in– it’s not a cornerstone of anything that I do regularly. It doesn’t mean that I don’t ever look at porn. I would say if I was to just sort of directly answer the question, a few times a year maybe I watch pornography. And when I do I’ll watch it for a longer period of time because I’m a very inert person and I mean that across the board. So if I’m working, I just tend to keep working. And if I’m not working, if I’m consuming porn, then I will disappear for hours. And that’s a personality thing and it applies across the board, and has advantages and obvious disadvantages. So I don’t know what intellectual purpose it serves for me? It doesn’t serve a critical one as far as I can tell. Yeah. And so I mean, if I want to kind of keep it– I mean, there’s a broader conversation to have but to directly answer your question, it does not fulfill a regular intellectual purpose for me.
S. FULLWOOD 08:55 And so I’ll keep it short my answer because I really appreciate both of you guys answering it and sort of thinking about it. I think the grabbing of the pleasure part, I identify with Seph with that. And with you, Travis, I think for me it’s intermittent in the sense that– so I want to grab the pleasure for myself, but I’m also in it intermittently. So there are days where porn just doesn’t register as something that I need or want. Right now I could watch porn, but it’s just the availability of it. It’s not the omnipresence of it, it’s the access that’s so easy to get to now, whereas before it wasn’t. And so earlier my basic sort of response is that for me, I think it’s educational. It’s always been educational for me. Not to say that I’ve sat up and gone, “Oh, okay. Well, look at those angles and look at those bodies.”
S. FULLWOOD 09:51 But I no longer look at porn solely as a place of pleasure. I look at it for production values. I look at it for cultural information. I look at for cultural information specific around black [wear?] culture. I look at it for information about health, whether it’s bare-back or a condom you use. I look at it as one of the ways to decode a particular way of acting sexually. And then it’s also an endless reexamination of the very things I just said. When I’m like going, “Okay. So there are different ways to create porn?” So there’s amateur porn. There’s professional porn. And over the years, they’ve been companies that have been set up, and I’ve talked with some of these producers and actors about their roles. And it feels like the biggest taboo open secret. People were just, here, to talk to you about their experiences. And over the years, it’s become even more consciously, not exploitative, but just more accessible. So I feel like the people are more accessible. The porn’s more accessible. And my sensibilities about it are like, there’s something to learn here that’s more just than about pleasure or exploitation. There’s more things. And so that’s what I kind of want to lead into in terms of, why do we need porn?
C.T. WEBB 11:08 Yeah. So one thing I would like to interject in the conversation because I think it is something that I often have a tendency to do when we’re examining larger cultural phenomenon, pornography, racism, whatever. Sometimes I think it’s helpful to not tell too grand a narrative about these things. So it is entirely plausible to me that someone could be an absolute nut for watching pornography, need it two hours a day to blow their wad, or to rub one out, or whatever, right? [crosstalk]–
S. FULLWOOD 11:51 Whatever the kids are saying.
C.T. WEBB 11:53 That’s right, yeah. Thank you. Thank you for that actually [laughter]. And in every other way be a fully functioning, productive, not misogynistic, not hateful, not nymphomaniac– all of these things. I think we have clear urges and centers of pleasure in our bodies, and we have figured out a variety of ways to stimulate those, to sublimate those. And it may not mean anything other than that, that’s just that particular coping strategy for that particular person.
S. RODNEY 12:38 But isn’t that great though to have a grand narrative, or to pull some– because then you can knock them about. You can tear them apart. Yeah, that’s what I think about it.
C.T. WEBB 12:43 Well, yeah, yeah. So where I do think that the bigger story potentially comes in is actually in your question which is around, why does pornography exist potentially across time? Now, that may not have been called pornography in Ancient Egypt or something like that. But when we first started this conversation, I was reading a book by Barbara Mertz on Ancient Egypt. This is not related to the conversation at all, but one of the chapters on one of the earliest and most successful female kings – and it’s appropriate to refer to her as a female king because in Egyptian iconography, she’s represented as a Pharaoh – is Hatshepsut was her name. And Hatshepsut, famously, did not have a husband. She had potentially, her architect– [Senukai?] was the hero, I forget? The architect’s name I forget. I’m sure it’ll come to me. But who was a commoner that rose to be a prominent member in Egyptian society and inside of burial chambers is graffiti that depicts the female king with her– it’s speculated, it depicts the female king getting it on with her commoner consort, right, that was her architect.
C.T. WEBB 14:17 So now, the Egyptians may not have called it– probably some worker, some stone mason that was having to work a 16-hour day and hadn’t had beer yet, may have just been pissed. And they may not have called it pornography but the idea that we would be titillated by other people’s sexual activities, imagine other people’s sexual activities, and represent other people’s sexual activities is something that seems contiguous to me across time. And now we have technology that allows us to draw it rapidly, right? If you go with the sort of photographic idea that photography is just a really, super fast drawing. And so basically we can draw this over and over again. So it does seem to me that, it’s a very long preface to say, I do think that there is probably a strong biological component in the existence of pornography, in it’s continued existence, in its titillation for us as a species, and that morality gets kind of glued onto this act. So that’s my more direct answer to your question, why do I think it–? I think it exists because I think it’s stimulating to us on a deep, biological level in general.
S. RODNEY 15:43 And following on that, I want to bring in a very useful quote from the article that Steven sent around to us last week. An article called Further Dialogue on Pornography by Nancy Herzig and Rafael Bernabe, I think is the way to pronounce Rafael’s name. And it’s basically a response to the Cathy Crosson’s review of Nadine Strossen’s, “Defending Pornography.” So there are many sort of concentric circles that are interlaid on each other in this piece. But basically the argument that they are making is that we shouldn’t be demonizing pornography as something that’s outside of the realm of sort of regularized, emotional, and physical interactions that titillate and interest human beings. And one of the things they write, which I’m going to quote right now is, “If sex is a valuable aspect of our humanity, then porn’s intended effect making– rather, then porn’s intended effect which is making us horny, is at least as legitimate and valuable as the effects laughter, tears, tension, relaxation, indignation, aesthetic enjoyment, etc., generated by other representations, non-sexual film for example, writing, photography, etc.
S. RODNEY 17:16 Which we can consider legitimate, even if some or most of them are sexist and even as we criticize them for it. So they’re basically saying, “Look, on the one side you have this kind of moral–” and the moral can sort of be further sub-divided into people with certain pet projects like feminists or people who have a particularly Christian agenda, whatever. They argue that there is something deeply sexist and exploitative about pornography that kind of puts it beyond the pale. What they’re saying though is that we understand pornography to be as Travis would say, contiguous with these other interests that we have in human beings, right? With these other representations where we basically watch people do things in order to laugh, in order to cry, in order to be indignant, right? Then we can’t intellectually separate porn out from that as being somehow the limit case that somehow crosses the line into some territory that is “wrong.” I mean, the argument is convincing to me. If people get together on a Sunday morning to have brunch outside of the cafe and they want to spend a few hours just people watching, right? How is that really categorically different from watching people fuck, right?
S. FULLWOOD 18:52 How, right?
S. RODNEY 18:54 I mean, the different really is I think as Travis I think said this several weeks ago, is in the pleasure it gives us. There’s something about the degree of pleasure we take from having people– and I want to get on a soapbox here for just a moment [laughter]. One of the things that I’ve always struggled with with Christians and particularly with the experience that I had in my family, which was a pronounced– it was particularly hypocritical in that my father always sort of preached this notion that we’re all fallen human beings, and sinful, and horrible and [crosstalk] by the grace of God, blah, blah, blah. We were rescued from that state of fallen humanity. I mean, then he’d go and fuck around outside of his marriage. My problem was always with the kind of messages I was given as a child was that the body is bad. Pleasure is somehow only ever permitted within these sort of narrow confines of heterosexual marriage. My thing is have you guys ever had sex? That’s what I always want to say? Have you had sex because sex is one of those places where, one of those experiences where I feel like more human beings just need to do it because it is so amazing. It is so freeing. It is so affirming. It is so deeply good to connect with another human being like that. I’m like, “What are you talking about? Why would you demonize this? Why would you make it ugly?” And it’s just of a piece with all this bullshit about putting pornography outside of the realm of normalized human interaction, I think.
S. FULLWOOD 20:51 Well, isn’t it a conflation of different kinds of pornography? Like child pornography versus consenting adults, right? And this is what people kind of conflate a lot when it comes to just homosexuality or queerness. It’s like, “Oh, these people are going to abuse children and blah, blah, blah.” And it’s like, “No, it–“
S. RODNEY 21:10 Right. That’s the whole bathroom argument, right? That’s the whole like, “You can’t have trans people using their– because they’re going to come in and our kids and [inaudible].” Right. Panic.
S. FULLWOOD 21:18 Right. And there’s no evidence of this but there is a strong push back. It’s a way to sort of socially control people, that’s what I think pornography allows people to do, in a very general [confirmation?] of it.
C.T. WEBB 21:30 I’m trying to think how to frame this because I want to be very careful with my language around it. So the child pornography thing, pornography in general. The reason it comes up is because it is not comparing apples and oranges, right? I mean, the barrier between adulthood and childhood is culturally flexible. And that is in fact what makes someone an adult, right? Is the ability to decide who you want to fuck– or it used to be marry, right? I mean, although always dicey for women, whether they got to choose or not.
S. FULLWOOD 22:16 And still today–
C.T. WEBB 22:17 Yeah. Right. Right. And so that is what essentially marks adulthood is sexual maturation, sexual subjectivity, sexual volition. But the line for what makes someone an adult and a child is socially constructed once you are past menstruation, right? And menstruation happens– I mean, for women, right? I’m not talking about for men, for boys. I guess, that would be hair on the pubis, right? So it’s the start of that. And so that line– and it’s an essential cultural line that cultures use to kind of define themselves and figure out how they want to treat other human beings. But it is a socially constructed constraint on human sexual acquisitiveness, right?
S. FULLWOOD 23:23 I see why you’re being careful [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 23:25 Yeah. And so I’m very accepting of the current line, right?
S. RODNEY 23:34 Disclaimer [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 23:37 Yeah. I think that in general raising the age of consent has benefits for women more than men. So I’m very much in favor of that, 14, 15 for a girl is deeply problematic I think. But it is of a piece, right? They’re not apples and oranges. They are ripe and unripe apples, if I could extend the analogy in kind of a disgusting way. And so anyway. So I just want to say that– and this is why that argument gets used. This is why social conservatives will conflate these things because they’re conflatable.
S. FULLWOOD 24:23 Well said.
C.T. WEBB 24:24 And this is why I did not like the scholarly article around consent because I thought this was just poorly thought through on the writers part. She really didn’t acknowledge the fact that these things are adjacent to one another.
S. FULLWOOD 24:43 And the article he’s speaking about ladies and gentlemen is, Beyond Gratification, The Benefits of Pornography and the Demedicalization of Female Sexuality by Jeneanne Orlowski in Modern American Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2, Article 5. Thank you, Travis [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 24:59 Thank you, Steven. Let me ellipsis to one of you. You can guys can sort of jump in at this point. So I do think that we have to deal honestly, right, with why those things are conflatable. And our sexual appetites don’t really know limits other than the limits that we have socially constrained ourselves to have, which thumbs up, I’m in favor of [laughter].
S. RODNEY 25:32 Okay. I also just want to mention that there’s a slight complication too with women’s menstruating vis-à-vis being considered an adult in that women who are– I’ve known this from having these conversations with girlfriends. Women who are athletes actually tend to menstruate much, much later than their peers who are not. So I dated someone who was I think training to be a gymnast and she said that that didn’t happen for her until basically she kind of stopped training, and she was in her late teenage years was when that first happened. So even biologically, the line is fuzzy at best, particularly when it comes to women. So there’s that. That’s a complicating feature, yeah.
S. FULLWOOD 26:30 So just picking up on the fuzzy line for to speak. It’s being able to have a baby or to make a baby, obviously doesn’t make you an adult. And I wanted to know– I’ve never run across anything in any of my readings or just watching documentaries or whatever, what makes an adult is socially constructed because over time, and ever now people in different cultures and actually in American culture – I’ll just American culture – people got married much earlier. And so it’s funny just going through genealogical records and looking at– it’s like, “Oh, my grandmother was married at what time and what age [laughter]?” And going through that and piecing it together. And knowing that intellectually over the years, yeah, I’ve heard about it but also seeing it in your own family, and what does that mean? What does it mean for someone else? Because as you grow, you’re constantly engaging the past and the present, and the future in some ways in terms of the different value systems that are on people, and the laws. It was only in the last mid-20th century that child labor laws had to come into being because children were working.
C.T. WEBB 27:44 That’s right. Absolutely. And–
S. RODNEY 27:45 Well, more to the point they were being exploited.
C.T. WEBB 27:48 Yeah. And as a footnote, it should be added in certain intellectual, conservative circles that is seen as a positive thing for society. I can’t remember the guys name, but there are respectable– respected, let me change my adjective. There are respected, conservative figures that make the argument that one of the ways that America has lost it’s way and become soft is because of child labor laws. There’s nothing wrong with a young person contributing to the family, and all this kind of stuff.
S. RODNEY 28:21 Right. Yeah. Yeah. And also they’re equally– I’m trying to find a better term rather than sort of tried and true fucked up. But okay, we’ll go with [laughter]– there are also fucked up arguments that are made with regards to how America’s “lost its way” made in reference to the availability of birth control. Now, I mean, Jordan Peterson I think has made this argument publicly that basically once you uncouple the necessity to bear a child from the sexual act, heterosexual act. Then what you do is you basically give people permission to just have sex for fun, to have sex for pleasure. And again, I know that I’m saying this to you guys, I want to sort of turn this podcast into a megaphone and have it be blasted at Liberty University. I want to say to these Christians, “Seriously? What is going on with you that you are so wretchedly constipated that you can’t imagine that having sex for pleasure, purely for pleasure, is a bad–? How can you imagine that’s a bad thing?” I just don’t get that.
S. FULLWOOD 29:52 Well, it’s interesting. Instead of Christians, I thought you were going to say Cretans, it was the way you kind of set it up [laughter]. “I just want to say it to these Cretans [laughter].”
S. RODNEY 29:59 Yeah. The Evangelicals to be specific. And I really want to say to the Evangelical community in the US.
S. FULLWOOD 30:05 And so I want to go back briefly about the adult thing and to say, when does one become an adult? And Toni Morrison, she was quoted as saying that she felt that there were only a few ways for people these days to become an adult, have sex, have a baby, go to jail, go to college. And what it struck me as, “Oh, we need some better ways of kind of coming up with what an adult is.” And also obviously the job market has shifted and– or go to war, I think that was another thing. I might be making that up.
S. RODNEY 30:39 Yeah. That makes sense, yes.
S. FULLWOOD 30:40 But even then, these moments don’t say anything about really being an adult. These are just acts.
C.T. WEBB 30:47 Yeah. I’m a little bit okay with that because I think we can’t place too large a burden on our fellows for their sort of psychological introspections about what makes them who they are. I think most of us, and I don’t mean this in a paternalistic way, I mean, it’s just in a sense of trying to be humble about it. I think most of us need a great deal of help in figuring out what we’re about. Probably we’re coming to the end anyway for our time. Seph, go ahead, please jump in.
S. RODNEY 31:28 Well, what I wanted to do was, because we got a bit far afield from the original question, which is fine. But I wanted to kind of throw a monkey wrench in the works and add a kind of rider question to Steven’s main query, which is how do we deal? If we ultimately answer the question whether we need or want pornography because it allows us to sort of begin to suss out some distinctions between who’s an adult and who’s not, and because we want a certain amount of pleasure in our lives, a little bit of candy at some point during the day. Or because we want to explore something that is a fascinating terrain to explore. Okay, so those are legitimate reasons, right? But what about the desire and despair dialectic? And I’m thinking specifically about the Neil Gaiman series, The Sandman, which I’ve been reading partly because Travis was kind enough for my birthday to send me most of that series. And in the series there are these seven deities, sort of. I guess that’s the way I would call them. I think that’s what I would call them, deities, the eternals I think they’re known as. And they all have D-names. So it’s Death, it’s Dream, Destruction. Delight, which actually used to be Delight but now it’s turned into Delirium, and Desire, and Despair.
C.T. WEBB 33:27 And Destiny, Destiny is also–
S. RODNEY 33:29 Destiny, thank you, yes. But Desire and Despair are super interesting because Desire is this sort of mercurial creature who can show up as either male or female, and is sort of the embodiment of human desire, or what a particular human desires. And then Despair is her very close sister. And Despair, it seems to me that they have a close relationship which is a kind of metaphor for what may be some people’s response relationship with porn, ie, they consume it, they go to it because they have this desire for other people, right? And I wonder if in sort of exploring that desire and looking at other bodies that they desire, that when they finally turn it off. They’ve turned themselves on, they’ve rubbed one out or whatever the kids say, and they turn it off. I wonder if a little despair doesn’t come into the room, right? A little sense of, “I’m not really able to have a that person. I can fantasize about having this famous porn star, but I can’t really.” So does Despair, right, come into the room when Desire for the moment is sated?
C.T. WEBB 34:59 I love that you went in that direction. It’s one of the things I was going to suggest because we’re all pretty libertine in our aesthetics and our sensibilities, but these things have consequences. And so if I could sort of restate it in a slightly different way. What are the spiritual consequences of pornography for our health, our mental health, our spiritual health, our ability to connect with other people, our abilities to connect with ourselves in our lives? And what those lives may or may not bring? So I’m same page, Seph. I’d like to [crosstalk] next time. Yeah.
S. RODNEY 35:46 Yeah. Let’s do that, please.
S. FULLWOOD 35:48 Oh, that’s really wonderful. So I want to ask one thing to those– in fact, you know what? I’ll wait. I’ll wait until next week [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 35:55 Okay. So write that. So thank you.
S. RODNEY 35:57 Yes, please do.
C.T. WEBB 35:58 Thank you, everyone, for tuning in. Seph and Steven, as always, thanks very much for your time.
S. FULLWOOD 36:02 Great. It was wonderful.
C.T. WEBB 36:03 Yeah. Take care.
S. RODNEY 36:03 Yeah. Indeed it was. Great. [music]


First referenced at 15:43

Nadine Strossen

Nadine M. Strossen was president of the American Civil Liberties Union from February 1991 to October 2008. She was the first woman and the youngest person to ever lead the ACLU. A professor at New York Law School, Strossen sits on the Council on Foreign Relations.

First referenced at 31:28

Neil Gaiman

Neil Richard MacKinnon Gaiman is an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre, and films. His works include the comic book series The Sandman and novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book.


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