Toronto
3 min

Is porn that bad?

The great downside of being jaded is misunderstanding and political miscalculation. How can I defend porn, for instance, when I don’t know what all the fuss is about?

Belatedly catching up on my TV watching, I sat through a CBC doc from last spring called Porndemic. “Sat” is the operative word. The title says it all. Porn is spreading. It’s out of control. It’s beyond the reach of cops and courts. It’s increasingly brutal. And apparently it’s addictive.

“The internet is the crack cocaine of sex addiction,” says a therapist who works with so-called sex addicts. “It affects your dopamine reward system… you’re playing around with dangerous chemicals in your brain.”

And here I thought the only chemical I was in danger of ingesting during porn was an overdose of boredom. Is porn really that bad?

It’s hard to tell. So strong is our reaction to sex acts not our own that we sometimes fail to distinguish between disgust and danger. A lot of porn creeps me out (which is why I mostly avoid Xtube; get a curator, please) but I’m hesitant to slam someone else’s taste lest they slam mine. Commentators don’t help. Hyping their own agenda, most tend to either the apocalyptic or the amused.

In the former category you have social critic Chris Hedges who bewails the state of contemporary America in his latest book, Empire of Illusion. In a chapter called “The Illusion of Love” he rants about porn or rather, the worst, most degrading aspects of porn. Because this is not a balanced view. Hedges wanders the aisles of a porn expo in Las Vegas collecting horror stories. He compares porn imagery to the photos from Abu Ghraib. He describes a woman emerging from a 65-guy gangbang shoot. He interviews a producer of pain-and-bondage porn who says, “large segments around the world like to watch young girls being tortured.”

The point of course is that porn is degrading to women and by the time you’ve finished Hedges’ rant you’ll find it hard to disagree. But even by the standards of the American hell-and-brimstone narrative it’s a little over the top and you have to wonder what he’s leaving out. Like, maybe, the person who finds it all vaguely silly and does it for a while and then leaves.

David Foster Wallace gets the silliness and then some. In an essay called “Big Red Son,” originally published in Premiere magazine and collected in Consider the Lobster, the late US novelist attends porn events in Vegas and collects anecdotes of Hogarthian oddity, eccentricity and vitality. There’s the pornstar with the “requisite Howitzer-grade bust” and another with adjustable breasts (controlled by valves, don’t you know). Not only is the porn industry vulgar, says Wallace, it’s vulgar in a predictable way.

“The typical porn producer really is the ugly little man with a bad toupee and a pinkie ring the size of a Rolaids.”

Amusing as this is, it too leaves you wondering what’s been left out. For if Hedges is definitely turned off, Wallace, for his part, isn’t that much more engaged. Humour, too, is a defence.

A lot of people whack off to porn (the industry is bigger than Hollywood) and neither Hedge’s morose meditations on power and cruelty nor Wallace’s picturesque romp really get to the heart of why.

I don’t want to defend porn too much or even say that it’s neutral. I have no doubt porn influences people and I sometimes think I was lucky to grow up before it became widespread. Anyone emerging now must think sex is a proctological exam.

The faces change but the acts don’t, none of them are very subtle and most of them are imbued with that old macho ethos: harder, faster, bigger.

Even as fantasy, porn’s second rate. Given a choice I’d rather use my own personal fantasies. Only when the imagination creaks and groans and fails of an inspiring scenario do I flip to commercial imagery and even then it often doesn’t work. Stunt boinking doesn’t work for me — who wants to fuck on a kitchen counter? — and the hands-off approach to fucking — keep that crotch clear for the camera — doesn’t resemble any enjoyable event I’ve ever attended. A really good coupling is too private, too self-enclosed, to film.

But in the end porn’s just a bunch of pictures and the effect of pictures — or “the media,” if you prefer — has always, I think, been greatly exaggerated. Doubtless we’d all be better off if we turned away from our TVs and cell phones and Facebook pages and embraced some earthier, more real version of life, but signing off simulacra probably won’t save your soul.

If I survived childhood screenings of Tarzan and sword-and-sandal flicks (lots of bare chests), today’s kids will survive porn. When it comes to seeing through love’s illusions, real life is the best corrective.