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Pornography and the Middle-Aged Straight Man

18/01/2016 12:49 GMT | Updated 15/01/2017 10:12 GMT

I found myself spending the New Year period in a community deep in the UK countryside. Apart from sharing domestic chores time could be spent deliciously relaxing on sofas arranged around a huge wood burning stove and reading a novel or chatting. On one such occasion I found myself sitting next to a total stranger. I will call this person Jim, a man in his late 50s or early 60s. Jim's opening question, after finding out my name, was to enquire what I do for a living. One question led to another and I told him that I am an academic currently writing a book whose deadline is looming.

At the mention of my book's topic, internet pornography, his body showed an almost imperceptible intense interest and then the concealing of it (an involuntary response to which I have become accustomed). More unusually he became animated when I told him that to analyse pornography I am applying the thought of Michel Foucault and of radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Sheila Jeffreys . He asked me whether we could have a fuller conversation the following day, after the impending New Year's Eve Party, because, he declared, he is fascinated by philosophy.

The conversation with Jim on New Year's Day was clunky at first and without energy (although my hangover may have had something to do with that!). I explained I see internet pornography as a fundamental impediment to women's genuine equality in the 21st century. Although there are many sometimes conflicting views, on the whole our society has arrived at a consensus that the production and consumption of pornography by adults signifies one of our human 'rights'. Indeed, in contrast to more repressive, non-Western societies, our liberal democracy tolerates pornography as emblematic of sexual freedom, free speech and even women's sexual emancipation. My book, in contrast, argues that pornography is a reactionary exploitative practice through which women are sexually disciplined and governed .

The perplexity in Jim's eyes made me change tack! I realized that he was more eager to 'confess' his pornography use than to discuss theory. He volunteered the following without apparent defensiveness. Women are portrayed as sexual objects for male pleasure and as willing participants in their own degradation; much pornography eroticizes men's actual violence to women; young women's 'consent' to work in the pornography industry is problematic. He belongs to a demographic of pornography user rarely societally acknowledged, namely the grandfather, father, husband/partner who masturbates to women most of whom are young enough to be his daughter or granddaughter. He keeps this practice secret from his partner, who, he insisted, would be horrified and also from his social circle and workplace. In so doing he keeps his status as a 'respectable' mature man intact.

When I asked Jim how he reconciled his self-identity as a 'nice' man with pornography use, he told me he didn't identify as nice, indeed he felt some shame. The rewards of pornography, he admitted, overrode his other sentiments. He experiences the gendered power dynamic as erotic; more than this, he thrills at transgressing social rules and rebelling against the familial norms of his childhood which made him guilty about masturbation. Finally, pornography affords him quick and efficient ways to orgasm, which, he advised me, gets harder the older men get.

I had a number of feelings and thoughts. Firstly, Jim, a not insensitive man, prioritised his orgasm above all other personal and political concerns about harm. Secondly, in one important aspect I now know more about Jim than his partner, and although in this context I felt the imperative to keep his secret, I also felt slightly besmirched by my complicity. 'Viv', Jim's partner, was also at the community. She is a middle-aged woman and she thus belongs to the demographic least familiar with the tropes of internet pornography. Jim's secrecy denies Viv knowledge about her own life: downloading of pornographic images takes place in her home; her partner finds degrading images of women erotic; he goes behind her back to achieve his pleasure, something she would regard as 'cheating'; his difficulty in sharing an orgasm with her might not be the inevitable consequence of aging since he clearly has the physical capacity.

Thirdly, I reflected on my political analysis of pornography and its place in liberal democracy. A particular slur is lodged about feminists like me who raise a critical voice. The conventional, generic response of advocates, including academic feminists and consequently the students they teach, is comprised of the following: I am 'anti-sex'; I deny women's sexual agency; I homogenise pornography as 'one thing' when in fact it is heterogeneous; I'm the thought police and want to censor harmless fantasy; I stir up moral panics and thus my political position is indistinguishable from the Right.

This ad hominem argument is reductionist, misleading and has functioned for a number of years to silence and belittle the radical feminist voice. It is also coincident with the expansion of the pornography industry. The accusation inverts the feminist argument which is in fact 'anti-establishment'. Pornography is a hetero-normative discursive practice that intersects with patriarchal attitudes and capitalism to shape both men and women as subjects of sexual desire and gender power. Despite the supermarket of body parts, ethnicities, fetishes and practices pornography mobilises a foundational narrative: sexual women are available, compliant 'sluts'; the Penis Rules OK!

In the future perhaps we will marvel at how, in the early 21st century, we allowed an industry to shape our imaginations for profit, and invested pornography as 'key' not only to the desiring self but to freedom. As with previous attitudes (e.g. opposition to women's right to vote) which seemed rational at the time but which we now repudiate as culturally normative and antithetical to women's equality and full personhood, let's hope we consign today's pornography to a culturally specific, shameful and ugly patriarchal past. Bring it on!

For a fuller version of this blog see: http://www.feministcurrent.com/2016/01/11/pornography-in-the-countryside/

Heather's book is: Brunskell-Evans, H. (forthcoming) Internet Pornography: Disciplining Women Through Sexual 'Freedom', Palgrave Macmillan