0056   |   January 30, 2019

Pornography, Part V:
Desire and Despair

The hosts continue their conversation about pornography. This week they explore the emotional cost of pornography. Who shapes our desires? And what happens when we are regularly reminded of what we don’t have?

C.T. WEBB 00:19 [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 are you guys doing today?
S. FULLWOOD 00:31 Pretty good, pretty good. How are you?
S. RODNEY 00:32 I can’t complain. So I suppose we should introduce ourselves, as we typically do [laughter].
S. FULLWOOD 00:39 Yeah, I’m good.
S. RODNEY 00:40 Yeah, yeah. So Travis, you want to go first?
C.T. WEBB 00:43 I did introduce myself, right? I said I’m C– I did, yeah.
S. RODNEY 00:44 Oh, you did. Oh, well I just fell asleep there for a second. Okay [laughter]. I am the one they call Seph. I am an editor at Hyperallergic blog, magazine, and I write poetry on the weekends. Mostly I don’t share that. It’s deeply personal. And I’m glad to be here.
S. FULLWOOD 01:06 Wow. Okay, so I’m Steven G. Fullwood. I’m one half of the– co-founder of The Nomadic Archivists Project, which is an archivist consulting company that works with individuals and organizations to assess their archives and maybe place them in a university or public library. I am a Capricorn and I do write poetry that I do share with other people. And I’m working–
S. RODNEY 01:34 Look at you go.
S. FULLWOOD 01:35 Yeah. Why not [laughter]? It’s not as good as Seph’s, but yeah, well [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 01:42 Okay. So this is to remind our listeners that we practice a form of what we call intellectual intimacy, which is giving one another the space to figure things out out loud with one another. And for the last few weeks we’ve been talking about pornography in a variety of different ways. The conversation actually started on December 3rd. That was our first, or at least when we released the first podcast, and that was our initial kind of exploration of pornography. And we all talked about how we used pornography when we were younger, how we came to pornography. We talked a little bit about desire and how desire figures into pornography and how it relates to art. And, interestingly, at that time, Seph, I don’t know if you remember because it came sort of full circle, you brought up Neil Gaiman’s pairing of desire and delight. I’m sorry, please go ahead.
S. RODNEY 02:40 Desire and despair.
C.T. WEBB 02:41 Thank you. Desire and despair. And so anyway, that kind of set the groundwork. We took a couple of weeks, we talked about a few other things, and then we decided to come back to pornography for the new format, which is where we revisit the same topic and explore from a variety of angles. And from there we moved on. Steven sent around some articles on the uses of pornography. We talked about pornography and education and how it can be used as an educational tool. We talked a little bit about female copulative vocalization, which sort of set the stage for our next discussion, which was pornography and ideology, and we looked at the various ways that pornography is shaped or not shaped by our ideological lenses. Which brought us to our last conversation and the current segue where Seph pointed out that we’ve been looking at things from, my word, not Seph’s word, but to try and encapsulate what he was arguing, a kind of libertine sensibility about how pornography can be used in positive ways, in ways that can rejuvenate or nourish or educate, titillate. And suggested that we maybe explore the topic’s darker side. We kind of all generally agreed that that would be a worthwhile direction to go in. So that’s a recap of the conversation so far, which Seph suggested we do, which made a lot of sense, I think. And then we were each going to sort of talk about what we’ve taken out of the conversation thus far. So I’d like to just kind of step away from that and, either Steven or Seph, whatever piece of that you want to correct or expand on or elaborate on, please do.
S. RODNEY 04:33 Yeah. Feel free to go, Steven, because I think that you have– because I mean, you started us off actually talking about this topic, and it felt like in the initial stages there when we were talking about how we would talk about it that you had pretty clear positions that you had sussed out [laughter] over some time. You’re laughing now because I put you on the spot. I apologize. But I really do think that you belong there.
S. FULLWOOD 04:59 It’s like: suss out.
S. RODNEY 05:01 I think that you have some insights on this.
S. FULLWOOD 05:06 So I’ll start with something that I ended with but decided not to talk about during the last podcast, and it was that the thing I guess I took away from it was there’s this idea that pornography allows us the deception of access to another body and the belief that we can actually have that body, if nothing else, in digital form, paper form, or whatever. And that that deception is a bit troubling to me in the sense that maybe fantasies help us grow and develop, but they could also kind of drop a latch on the person or the people that are in front of you that don’t look like the thing that you’re imagining all the time. So I was thinking about how pornography could possibly dim our imagination as opposed to expand it. So that was something I was thinking about before. So yeah, there’s that. And the only position I think I take on pornography is that we have it because we need it, and we need it because we have it [laughter]. Because there it is. Culturally, biologically, it’s one of the issues that we’ve raised before in past episodes, and it was exciting to sort of talk about it from these points of views that offered me more access to it. It was like, “Okay, well, educationally, I think it could be really useful.” I do. And will [inaudible] repeatedly. But I’m also interested in finding out things about the body that you can’t get anywhere else other than, say, a doctor’s office or maybe some sort of manual. And I think that that can be very, very educational, but also, like I said, in a way, if you’re thinking that people always should look a certain kind of way, and your desire is sort of captured by that, then I think it can reduce and stunt your desire. Do you kind of get what I’m getting it at?
S. RODNEY 06:59 Yes, absolutely.
C.T. WEBB 07:00 Sure, absolutely.
S. FULLWOOD 07:01 And so that–
S. RODNEY 07:01 And so if I can–
S. FULLWOOD 07:03 Sure.
S. RODNEY 07:05 One of the first responses I had to the question that was posed a week before– I forget which one of you posed it, but the question was, “Why do we need pornography?” And I remember answering and saying that it was the second thing that had occurred to me that I wanted to talk about, but the first thing that occurred to me– and I didn’t know I’d necessarily get back here, but now I have the opportunity. The first thing that occurred to me was actually James Baldwin’s answer– or posing of a question, which is a similar sort of question, but very different. He said, “Why do you need a nigger?” The question is, and he said the profound question that he got to ask America that America was clearly struggling to answer, was “Why do you need a nigger?” And he said, “Because I’m a man. Clearly I’m not that. Why do you need that?” So then, given what you’ve just talked about, Steven, it made me think that they are very different kinds of questions in that what someone needs in needing a nigger is they need someone who’s subordinate to them. They need someone who they can look at and say– they essentially are entering into a dialectic relationship, right? So it’s master and slave or something similar to that in that you get to be the master because you have this other person playing this role for you, right? And I think we’re all on the same page in recognizing that a nigger is a kind of role. Hard R on that.
S. RODNEY 08:43 On the other hand, when we say that we need pornography, I think there is a kind of necessary role that pornography can play in our lives, but it’s a kind of – what’s the word? – it’s a kind of, what-you-call-it, something signifier. Floating signifier, right? So it can be the kind of fantasy which envelops us, right? It can create the kind of all-encompassing illusion which people lose themselves in. But they can also at the same time create the kind of fantasy realm where we can go and explore and come back. And I’m thinking about when I was a kid and I used to read science fiction novels. I would spend hours reading science fiction novels. I loved them, and I remember feeling like I was in another world when I read, and that I could sort of forget about the material self for a little while. But those weren’t so all-encompassing that I didn’t want to come back, right? They actually gave me things to think about that I could actually use in my real life. So what I’m saying, essentially, is that the way to answer that question of why we need it is with A, B, C, D, E, F, G, in that depending on a certain set of circumstances and personality, life chances, upbringing, la la la, social and cultural capital, pornography might be an escape valve. It might be the kind of thing that one loses oneself in. It might– go ahead.
C.T. WEBB 10:35 Do you– so I had a question for you and Steven. Have you noticed your own personal consumption of pornography wax or wane based on how often you are fucking?
S. RODNEY 10:53 Actually, I think the thing that changes for me is sort of what else is happening in my life. Like, if I’m in a relationship with someone, definitely it happens far less. Definitely. But it also has stuff to do with my schedule or how I’m just generally feeling. Sometimes I’m just not interested because, I don’t know, my mind’s really active, I have things to think about, or I don’t feel as turned on. I just don’t feel as possessed with the desire to see other bodies.
S. FULLWOOD 11:25 So relationship for you would be a committed relationship, or just one-night stands, two-night stands, or a person that you have a sort of fuck-buddy situation with?
S. RODNEY 11:34 Any of the above that you’ve just mentioned, as long as there’s [laughter]– I want to say as long as there’s an exchange of fluids, but I don’t– that’s crass [laughter]. That’s super crass. But as long as we’re having sex.
C.T. WEBB 11:47 So to be clear, I meant fucking and not in a relationship, right? Because they’re not the same.
S. RODNEY 11:55 No.
C.T. WEBB 11:55 I mean, I guess if you want to construe relationship broadly. I meant it colloquially. So I mean actually just getting it on. Does that alter your conception of pornography?
S. RODNEY 12:06 Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Whether that’s in the context of a relationship or it’s just sex, it does. It makes a difference.
C.T. WEBB 12:16 Okay. What about you, Steven?
S. RODNEY 12:17 For me.
S. FULLWOOD 12:18 Did you have another thing to say?
S. RODNEY 12:20 No, no, no. No, no, no.
S. FULLWOOD 12:21 Oh, okay. I thought you were about to say something. So for me, it’s very simple. It’s the consumption of red meat, sugar, and liquor. That has a lot to do with my levels of horniness. And as I got older, I reduced the amount of sugar, basically wiped out the red meat, and I rarely ever drink. So I consume less pornography. And I also think it’s about getting older, too. I just turned 53, and I remember when I was younger, the desire to see and consume porn was so overwhelming, and I don’t have that overwhelming feeling anymore. I mean, yeah. That’s how it is.
C.T. WEBB 12:59 So what about when you were younger and you were in and out of sexual relationships or access to sexual relationships? Did you notice that it altered your consumption of pornography?
S. FULLWOOD 13:10 Wow. You know what, I think it does. It’s sort of like looking at the sun and then seeing Mercury pass in front of it. Like that’s the pornography [laughter], I mean that’s the relationship, and the pornography’s the sun.
S. RODNEY 13:20 Oh wow. Oh wow.
S. FULLWOOD 13:21 There’s a dip there. It’s a bit dim. But not really, no. It was pretty high up until maybe, I’d say, if I had to really think about it, maybe 35, and then it just changed. With my diet–
C.T. WEBB 13:35 So I ask because I don’t have access to experimental information so I just will go with the anecdotes. We’re talking about the dark side of pornography. Or nominally talking about that, at least. And it seems to me that– or what I was perhaps suggesting is that it has something to do with power and access to our ability to enact our will in the world, and I was asking if you have access to this outlet of desire, sexual desire, right, then–
S. RODNEY 14:16 You mean access to people, essentially.
C.T. WEBB 14:17 Yeah. That’s right. Yeah, exactly. To actually engage with another body, sexually. If that sense of power and ability– and I mean power neutrally, here, right, not in a moral sense. But the ability to just kind of act in the world in a way to get outcomes that we want. If that doesn’t curtail our consumption of pornography, and that it seems pretty reasonable to me to think that people that are not able to satisfy their sexual desires in an unfettered way would consume more pornography, if they have access to it. And so that becomes exactly what you were saying at the beginning of the conversation, Steven, that it modifies or blunts what we become satisfied– or potentially modifies or blunts what we become satisfied with because we begin to disappear further and further or – disappear’s the wrong word – we become preoccupied further and further with an imaginary that does not comport to the world that we live in.
S. FULLWOOD 15:34 Exactly. And that imaginary is what we think will bring us joy. And it’s still based on that. It’s still not a– it’s like, I’m watching it, but doesn’t mean that in person, eye to eye, arm to arm, smell to smell, that it will be that thing. So yeah, thank you for framing that. I appreciate it.
C.T. WEBB 15:52 And then if that is the case and pornography, rather than masturbation and imagination– if pornography is your primary outlet, you are subject, in a pretty unsheltered way, from that society’s and culture’s narratives about sexuality. Because the amount of work that it takes to produce pornography, and the type of stories, and the moneyed interests that are involved, you are subject full bore to that culture’s idea of sexuality and performance. And the thing that our sound engineer Chris had suggested watching, After Porn Ends, which is a series of documentaries– I only was able to watch the second one. The first one wasn’t available on Netflix. And there are a variety of points of view that are in the documentary, but one of them was talking about this woman who she came up in the ’90s, and everyone told her not to do interracial porn. That if she did interracial porn, this was going to seriously harm her career, and she just basically called out, she was like, “Well, yeah, because all these people that are making this stuff are all racists. They’re all mostly white people that are making–” And so if your primary imaginative outlet is being shaped by pornography, you are being shaped by all of the nonsense that these people are putting on celluloid, right? I mean, it’s not celluloid anymore, it’s digitized [laughter], or whatever. And that’s kind of that dark side of that. You are subject to that industry. Now, maybe it’s proliferated so much now. It’s so easy to make pornography now, right?
S. FULLWOOD 17:38 Very.
C.T. WEBB 17:39 I mean, GoPros and things like that. I mean, it’s really– so maybe there’s a kind of democratization around pornography, which I would probably welcome. I would say is a good thing. So anyway, I’ve gone on for a while. So I was just trying to sort of tie something Steven had said in earlier with what I do think is a potentially very sort of dark and harmful side to pornographic consumption.
S. RODNEY 18:05 So if I– sorry, Steven, do you want to say something? I apologize.
S. FULLWOOD 18:10 You go right ahead.
S. RODNEY 18:11 So if I read this conversation so far correctly, what you both are saying is that it’s not as simple– so I’ve sort of laid it out as, it’s just a menu, right? So there’s a menu of options. So there’s a role– in terms of the role that pornography can play in your imagination and one’s life. And Travis, I think what you’re suggesting is that no, you’re saying no, that there might be– if you are spending a good deal amount of time or that’s your primary imaginary outlet, or outlet for your imagination, I should say, then you are being shaped by the sort of underlying premises and ideologies that shapes that creative expression that we call pornography. So you’re saying it’s not as simple as, “Oh, depending on how smart you are, whatever, whatever, you can negotiate your way with this,” you’re saying that this thing is actually really powerful and it shapes the individual more than he or she realizes. Right?
C.T. WEBB 19:18 Yes. Yeah. And I’m also suggesting that it’s possible that it’s begun to shift because of the ubiquity of the tools to make it. I don’t know that that’s true or not true, but it does seem to me that someone else is providing the menu to you and there’s three options on it. I mean, there’s more than three. You know what I’m saying? Well, I mean, you restated it pretty accurately. Yeah, that is what I was suggesting.
S. FULLWOOD 19:42 It’s a potential for– so when I think of direct correlation, I’m always a little curious about whether or not that’s true, but I just want to say that I do agree with you buying something and paying for it in the sense that you are purchasing something or consuming something that has more than just a naked body. What is the color of the body, what is the sex of the body, all of that, but also positioning, and you’re also looking at– because earlier when you were talking about the market–
C.T. WEBB 20:16 You’ve mentioned this before. You mentioned the positioning before, about the camera angles and stuff like that, I remember.
S. FULLWOOD 20:20 Oh, absolutely. Thank you for reminding me of that because what I think is interesting is what you just said about the market itself in that the choices are maybe more broad. But the choices may not– more choices may not reflect more points of view. It just may be cheaper. It just may be made by people of color who may still have white–
C.T. WEBB 20:45 Dominant ideologies. Yeah.
S. FULLWOOD 20:46 Absolutely. Because of what sells, or what’s valuable, or what seems to be valuable. It seems like right now, when I turn on television – this has nothing to do with pornography, but it does have something to do with seeing certain kinds of archetypes over and over again – I’m seeing a lot more what appear to be mixed-race people in place of black people or Latinos. So I think about that, and I take it to porn, and I go, “Yeah, it’s been there forever.” It’s a kind of a way to think about diversity but not really diversity. And it sort of looks like it might be something that it’s not in terms of, “Oh, we’re really looking at interracial porn,” where interracial porn looked differently in the ’70s than it does now. It has a lot to do with taste and positioning.
S. RODNEY 21:33 Well, I want to do a couple of things that are more sort of housekeeping things. I want to make a suggestion that we talk about this in a separate episode, perhaps next week, we talk about the racial aspect of pornography because I think that that’s a deep conversation to have. I do want to get back to this despair thing. I think actually about this New Yorker piece I read a few months back about this guy who basically– and I don’t remember what they call themselves or how he’s referred to in the piece, but he basically spends most of his life allowing people to piggyback on him electronically while he lives his life. So he’s in a chair, he’s got several cameras on him, whatever, and then he goes outside and he does whatever. But basically people watch him live his life. Oh, he’s a gamer. That’s right, he’s a gamer. So he goes to these tournaments, and he plays these games, and he’s very, very good. And he has thousands, literally thousands of people, spending thousands of hours of their own lives piggybacking him, right? So they can ride along for his life, which they think is more exciting than their own. So if I were to extrapolate from that– yes, he’s a kind of Pied Piper. If I were to extrapolate from that, I would guess that there are people who find the porn industry, the actors and the actresses and the producers, also equally fascinating, and they piggyback on their lives in that sort of way. Spending a lot of time watching what they do, watching what they create, going to those public events where they get to meet them and autographing–
S. FULLWOOD 23:20 Social media.
S. RODNEY 23:21 Yeah, social media. Following them on those platforms. So there’s a way in which I would assume – and I’m making an assumption here, I don’t know that this is fact – that there’s an entire pocket, a kind of subculture, created by the porn industry, essentially, or at least supported by, that allows people to live someone else’s life, right? Live at least vicariously, right, and sort of retreat from their own. And I think that’s sort of the side that’s despair. For me, that’s really sad. Now, all of these are going to be bad analogies because I’m still figuring this out in my head, but the analogy that comes to mind is drinking. Like, for some of us, we can have the drink at the end of the day. We can have the one or two. Perhaps some of us cannot turn it off. If they drink, they want to drink all day, and they want to just stay in that place of feeling that way.
S. RODNEY 24:31 So yes, I imagine that because pornography is as inviting, as titillating, as exciting as it is, in that way that you described, Steven – and I felt that way in my 20s, too – like it was such a bright sun, that yeah, there’s a way in which you can make a case for it being a kind of public health issue. Not through that moralizing lens of, “Oh, this is essentially bad,” but rather through the lens of rather asking the question, “In what way can this be modulated, can our access to it–” ah, not our access, but the ways that we use it, “be modulated so that it becomes a way for us to think about the ways and means of human connection and not just about self-gratification?” I think that’s a key question.
C.T. WEBB 25:30 The thing that despair– so to try and stick with your framing, the thing that despair and desire have in common is hope, right? So desire has to maintain the hope of satisfaction. Despair is the absence of that hope.
S. RODNEY 25:49 That’s right.
C.T. WEBB 25:49 So you despair when there is no circumstance under which you believe your desire can be satisfied. And so talking about these kind of subcultures and public speaking engagements with porn stars and people that piggy bank on the video game player, the Pied Piper, as Steven mimed, is a way to map hope onto some object or some person, right? I mean, by proximity to it, we get some of their glamour, right? And I mean glamour in kind of the larger sociological sense.
S. RODNEY 26:28 Nice one. Yes, yes, yes.
C.T. WEBB 26:31 And in that way, that seems relatively harmless to me, right? I mean, because what mechanism does that not work with each of us in some way, right? I mean, whether we’ve glamoured a writer or an artist or whatever.
S. FULLWOOD 26:48 No, that’s right. That’s right.
C.T. WEBB 26:50 And so in that way it seems just fine, right? I mean, that’s just fine. And then Seph, what you said about the, I mean, sort of– but there are clearly people that are in that long tail, right, at the asymptote of the bell curve that are just– they can’t modulate, right? They fall off the deep end. They fall into despair. They fall into abuse. And I don’t know that I believe, based on our conversations or what I’ve been reading around our conversations, I don’t know that I believe that pornography is any more prone to abuse than any other type of consumption that we engage in.
S. FULLWOOD 27:30 Absolutely. Absolutely.
C.T. WEBB 27:31 I just, I don’t know that I buy it. I have no doubt that there are people that live on the underside of the porn industry that are regularly abused, just like the people that made this phone, right here, are abused, that I’m holding. My iPhone, right here. I mean, clearly that requires a certain degree of abuse and inhumanity to produce that. And other than just reflecting on it just now, 99% of the day I don’t ever think about it. And so yeah, anyway. So I just trying to bring those two things together.
S. FULLWOOD 28:06 Well, I definitely agree with you that it’s not subject to– I think that using pornography, like anything else, like alcohol or–
S. RODNEY 28:15 Food or drink. Food, yeah.
S. FULLWOOD 28:17 Anything has the potential to be abused and to be overused and to– earlier, when we were talking about this notion of chasing a feeling. And that feeling, it no longer even becomes the feeling that you’re chasing. Now you’re just– it’s the habit. And it’s the hope of the feeling that you’ll never really have again the way you felt it when you drank the first time or when you first, say, maybe orgasmed or had that feeling. It can be a– I don’t know if it’s a rabbit hole in the sense it feels just like something you have to really kind of pull yourself out of because it can be distracting. When I was in therapy, I told my therapist and said, “I think I’m a sex addict.” And he goes, “Well, did you go to work today?” And I was like, “Yep.” “Were you on time?” I go, “Yep.” He goes, “Do you skip breakfast?” I said [laughter], “Not really.” And he kept going on and on about, “Okay, if you had an addiction, it would impact these things in your life in really terrible ways.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, I just like sex?” And he was like, “Probably [laughter].” He just continued talking about it. But it made me laugh because it also put–
C.T. WEBB 29:27 And then some porn music came on in the background and you had sex with him, right [laughter]?
S. FULLWOOD 29:35 My therapist, who shall never be named on this show [laughter]. Oh my god. That’s hilarious.
S. RODNEY 29:38 That was Travis. That wasn’t Steven [laughter].
S. FULLWOOD 29:41 But that is a good point– I’m sure I’ve seen that porn before. I’m sure [laughter] [inaudible]–
C.T. WEBB 29:46 I know, that’s why I– right, right, that’s why I said– right, exactly.
S. FULLWOOD 29:47 I’m sure of it. I’m sure of it. But yeah, there’s this thing about abuse and just being able to parse what might be a positive attitude toward sex vs. feeling like that’s all you’re doing and being driven by. So you can’t let the thing drive you, I guess. You can have the desire but not let the desire have you. I think that’s some phrase I remember my acupuncturist telling me once. So yes [laughter].
S. RODNEY 30:15 I like that. I like that. I think both of you have really helped me come to some insight about this because I think that my view was kind of Manichaean. It was really sort of on or off, black and white. And that makes sense to me that even in being caught up in the ways that people can be caught up in pornography, they may very well still be using that as a means to have a kind of life for themselves. A way to be in the world in somewhat–
C.T. WEBB 30:52 Get out of the house.
S. RODNEY 30:53 Yeah, get out of the house. Yeah. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 30:55 So I think we’re coming up on time. I think I’m up for Seph’s suggestion that we take the conversation in the direction of race and pornography. I would like to add an asterisk to that and maybe if we could also think about the Other and pornography because race is definitely our kind of contemporary Western notion of the Other, but there have been others, historically.
S. FULLWOOD 31:22 I agree. I agree.
C.T. WEBB 31:22 And so it might just to broaden the conversation out a little bit more on that.
S. FULLWOOD 31:26 Okay, yeah.
S. RODNEY 31:26 I’m really am looking forward to actually talking about these new things that I think have come up in porn. I mean, I don’t remember it from when I was a kid in the ’80s, but things like pegging guys, and things like– yes, I want to talk about that. I want to talk–
C.T. WEBB 31:40 Okay. You’ll have to tell me what that is. I’ll actually look it up before next time, so [laughter] I’ll know.
S. RODNEY 31:45 I’d like to see the look on your face when you find out [laughter].
S. FULLWOOD 31:49 It’s not that hard, by the words [laughter].
S. RODNEY 31:50 Right [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 31:52 [Not that much?].
S. RODNEY 31:52 All right. Thank you, gentlemen.
C.T. WEBB 31:54 Yeah, thanks for the conversation. [music]

References

First referenced at 15:52

After Porn Ends 3

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