Below are excerpts from my essay in the book Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (Evolver Editions/North Atlantic Books), “The Virtues of Being an Object”. The essay is about all sorts of things; but all relate to the charge that porn “objectifies” people. We’ve all heard that argument, but I wasn’t so sure it made any sense. When I tried to figure out what porn critics were getting at, I figured out that they were even more confused than I thought.
Because the topics of the essay are so interwoven with each other, it wouldn’t have made sense to present a big long excerpt from it. Instead, I cut out little parts here and there and modified them into mini-essays for this blog. For the whole essay, please buy the book by clicking the cover.
ON SCIENCE, RELIGION, EXPERIENCE, and DEHUMANIZATION
or, “…science may be the most objectifying force in the world.”
While you read this essay, your hair will grow and spit will form in your mouth. Your bones and tendons will be shaping themselves and decaying, and masticated food will be dissolving in your stomach acid. Mites will crawl through your eyelashes, your cells will touch each other. You will be and are a wave of motion and movement, of blood and piss and bile. This is science’s description of your body.
The problem with it is simple: you thought you were sitting still, reading.
When you say hello to or kiss or have sex with someone, are you aware of their liver producing bile? Of the shit forming in their bowels? People say they want x-ray vision, but they don’t really want to see what’s going on – not just under the skin, but even underneath clothing, where they wouldn’t see perfect bodies, naked and sexual – they’d see nipples squished up against bras, dicks and testicles all mangled up in underwear, and flesh pushed into weird mis-directions.
So we notice our experience of science’s description of the body: there’s a feeling of distance from it. The descriptions of fluids and processes may seem repulsive or alien, or simply funny or strange. But they’re not what we normally encounter as our bodies.
This is the deal that science strikes with us. It will tell us, unblinkingly, what is there and what is “real”, but in exchange, we must accept this as the truth, whether we experience it as true or not. We shouldn’t dismiss what science has to tell us, but what if we didn’t have to trade experience for information?
(Nevermind pornography)… science may be the most objectifying force in the world. And of course, it is constantlyconfusing the body for the entire self. Science/scientific progress’s worst crimes are ones that misunderstand a whole organism or system: they’re crimes like genetic manipulation of seeds, dumping poisonous mercury into rivers, testing weapons out on humans for experimental purposes. While defenders of science may claim it to be objective, science does not exist in a vacuum. It demands that the world be material, then blends with its objectifying counterpart, consumerism, and commits materialist crimes. After all, what’s to stop anyone from doing anything heinous if all that matters is that we’re just stuff and nothing else, not even experience?
On the other end of the spectrum, religion and spirituality often deny the reality of the body. The most recognized problems with this are suicide-bombing and the historical and present-day religious wars, in which the body is seen merely as a vessel for spirit. Adherents of fundamentalism don’t have to worry about their bodies, which are a sort of problem for them to cope with before the afterlife. Similarly, many children raised in monotheistic traditions are told that their bodies are filthy and sinful. Not surprisingly, many of these children grow up to be atheists – emphasizing only materiality where they were once instructed to hate it.
But it’s not only the Abrahamic religions that are guilty of abandoning or mistreating the body. In some Buddhist traditions, the body is perceived as a block – a weight of the ego to be overcome. Or in kundalini practice, the body can become merely a slave to spirit. Like high school boys the night before a football game, practitioners are told not to go all the way. You can orgasm, men are told, but do not ejaculate or you’ll discharge the vital energy you need to enliven your spirit. While there may be genuine esoteric value in orgasm without ejaculating, it is often turned into a moral prescription. This condemns the body to a lower caste than the spirit, rather than viewing it as a dynamic and loving body in and of itself.
No real transformation can happen without true engagement. To understand how we (not just culturally or spiritually, but as individuals) relate to our bodies, we must be able to simultaneously immerse in and detach from them. By stymying true engagement with the body, powerful structures of religion, science, and consumerism create deeper attachmentto the body rather than detachment. In cases of religious abandonment of the body, no real transformation is possible because exploration through immersion is denied.
ON SEXUAL LOVE
or, “What if we were as loving and forgiving in our lives as we were while we were sexually aroused?”
The first time I masturbated thinking of a man, I was barely a teenager. I’d masturbated before, but I never really understood why – it was just a feeling contained in myself. I’d push myself into my mattress and consider the strange, warm feeling. Waves up my chest and in my spine, a peaceful feeling afterward. It was unrelated to anything but me.
But then my body began to teach me something.
I went to the beach with my family and saw my older stepbrother’s friend in the shower. Through the clouded glass of the shower door, I saw his form, the color of his skin, his legs, what must have been his arms, his ass. There were no clear lines, there were shapes and color. I looked at him, and saw what was there. I felt inside of me something entirely new, the coalition of light and sound and this…feeling. My body was going crazy, and I had no idea why…I didn’t yet know what “gay” was, not really.
My body, the object part of my body, was wiser than the rest of me, it knew things I didn’t, and it was responding to someone else’s body.
The body, it is often said, has a mind of its own, and its actions intersect with experience. Anyone who has ever had an erection in public will know immediately what I’m talking about. When it happens, the will of the body is glaringly obvious. Then again, it’s not only the penis that reacts to sexual stimulation. We also sweat, out hearts race, we may get a little jump in our stomachs. In fact, the body’s sexual response is often how we knowwe’re attracted to someone. We may be surprised to find ourselves aroused, but there it is: a draw to another.
This draw can be sustained and often is. When we see someone we’re attracted to for a second or third time, when we first start dating or after we have sex, the draw stays there. Scientists have widely agreed that there is a combination of factors – including hormones, dopamine, adrenaline, etc – that work in conjunction with this draw. The attraction becomes very powerful, allowing us to forgive faults we might not normally. Anything that is annoying to us normally becomes endearing while this draw is sustained. The body’s will makes us extremely kind.
But our attitude to this kindness is often flippant. Cognitive scientists and neuroscientists may refer to the above chemical changes as the cause of it all; nothing special about that love stuff, really, just chemicals. Evolutionary psychologists might refer it back to advantageous mating behaviors, leaving out present-day context. In popular culture, we might say, “That’s just infatuation.” We might say that being attracted to someone because of his/her appearance is “shallow.” If someone acts on this initial attraction, we might refer to her or him as a “slut”.
A contradiction, then: We love the feeling that the will of the body brings, but we don’t hold it in high regard. We think of it as somehow fake.
What if we took it seriously? What if, instead of measuring it up to other experiences, we reversed our ethic and held this infatuation stage up as the standard? We would see then that it’s not that these initial feelings are false or fake, it’s that we don’t feel them enough. In other words, we aren’t normally as forgiving and adoring to other people as we are in the initial stages of attraction. What if we were? What if we were as loving and forgiving in our lives as we were while we were sexually aroused?
No cultural phenomenon expresses our confusion about the reality of the body better than pornography. Indeed, pornography exposes hypocrisy and power struggles over what the body is, how it should be used, and who decides both.
There are parts of the object-body that we regard as having a different quality than others. If this weren’t true, what would the difference be between a sex scene in a mainstream movie and pornography? In a mainstream film, the actors really kiss, sometimes explicitly so, showing their tongues touching. They might be naked, baring breasts, asses, and sometimes even genitals. But as the camera pans down past their entwined bodies, one thing is never (or at least very rarely) shown: penetration. In other words, the difference between a movie and a porn is about six inches.
We live in a world that is saturated in sexual suggestion, but not sex itself.
ON WEAK CRITIQUES OF PORNOGRAPHY
or, “Objectification isn’t something that is done to us; we are already and always part object.”
The popular argument goes something like this: pornography isn’t film or art because it is really just exploitation based on “objectification” of people (usually this means women).
The argument has changed to hide behind technology. Now added to the argument is that porn is destroying relationships. But this argument rose to prominence with the rise of the internet, and these arguments against pornography are really just borrowed critiques of technology: that it creates separation and erodes real human relationships. What’s really underneath arguments against porn, once you pull away all the borrowed supplements and find whatever original argument is there, still lies with objectification.
For many, these arguments are meant to be self-evident: objectification is bad. Porn is bad. This is easily seen in the many attacks against porn that simply state what is depicted. For example, in the hysteria around Robert Maplethorpe’s photography, which depicted sexual acts (often featuring naked gay men), attackers would merely describe the act in the photograph. Or in Chris Hedges’s anti-pornography essay “The Illusion of Love,” he names what he sees and hears as if it presents some sort self-evident truth: “…oral sex, vaginal sex, double penetration, and double anal.” He quotes a performer who says during a shoot, “Shove it up my fucking ass…: and “Fuck, motherfucker…” and “Fucking love it…” For some reason, Hedges thinks no explanation as to why this should be problematic is required.
Of course this all misses an important aspect of our lives:
Objectification isn’t something that is done to us; we are already and always part object.
For those few critics of pornography that don’t believe arguments of objectification are self-evident truths, the rest of the argument goes something like, “It’s a problem because the viewer of porn sees someone only as an object.” These arguments leave out so many questions of context as to leave them impotent. Questions forgotten in this line of reasoning include:
Will we react to people in life the way we do to people we watch in porn? Should we? Does all porn have the same affect, even across cultural boundaries (i.e. does straight porn exist in the heterosexual world the same way gay porn does in the gay world?)? Does porn show up in the same way across cultures? Does it change through time?
Because these questions are rarely considered in anti-porn arguments, most anti-porn arguments are not very useful or complex.
…As a porn performer, I can say from experience and with confidence that I’ve never been objectified by other performers. Nor have I been objectified by viewers. At least not in a way that seemed to confuse them into thinking I was an object. What happens instead is that I shift in and out of object-hood. Athletes do this too – they engage with their bodies for a specific task. At the end of the game or the shoot, the context changes. When I meet someone who recognizes me for my work with pornography, it usually begins as a recognition of that draw that they’ve felt and then turns quickly into an everyday conversation. No danger of being objectified there.
On the flipside, when anti-porn critics examine pornography, they often turn their subjects into functions. Again, Chris Hedges’s essay serves well as an example of this often-used tactic. In the essay, the style and fullness of the writing jumps back and forth so that anyone in porn is a mere caricature of a person. Anyone on his side of the argument is fully human.
Furthermore, good and detailed research has been done noting that men who watch porn don’t engage in dehumanization. Some of the best of this work (best because it is so detailed) is in Watching Sex: How Men Really Respond to Pornography by David Loftus (De Capo, 2002.), which presents in-depth interviews with nearly 150 men who watch porn. Almost none express anything like a split in thinking or the sentiment of objectification. The sample may seem small, but the interviews are detail-rich and as such stand as a glaring contradiction to critics’ reasonings. Unless we want to agree with some of the more hardcore porn critics who state that all men are stupid, unaware, or lying about their motivations for watching porn, we have to dismiss this argument based on evidence.
As for complaints about studios and studio people exploiting workers, I certainly have observed that. But is this a problem with porn itself? This is a systemic problem of capitalism and socialism and communism. It’s a problem that arises when a society confuses economic values for values about human rights or values about culture. It unfortunately happens in every workplace, and is not porn-specific. Which again raises the questions: who objectifies? Who destroys and exploits multiplicity? And why?
ON SELLING SEX
or, “…when’s the last time you saw a billboard advertising beer that had a photo of a penis entering a vagina proclaiming BUY BEER next to it?”
People love to say that “sex sells.” But this really isn’t honest except in the case of pornography. When you’re driving and you see a billboard of a man in swim trunks drinking beer and a woman in a bikini sitting down on the sand next to him, it’s an ad for the brand of beer in the man’s hand. He might have perfect abs and she might have large breasts. But is this sex?
Well, when’s the last time you saw a billboard advertising beer that had a photo of a penis entering a vagina proclaiming BUY BEER next to it?
It’s not sex but the suggestion of it that is meant to sell. It’s not even just arousal, but a sort of coitus interruptus arousal. Advertising gets you turned on, and how does it consummate the relationship? Instead of showing you sex – which is two people touching, expressing actual intimacy – it shows you a product. The end of the sexual encounter is beer or a computer or whatever other product. So you’re elated and then re-routed.
This is dehumanization – not because there are photos of scantily-clad people; that’s not a problem. This is dehumanization because it takes real human emotion – the emotion of the person who sees the ad, an emotion which is aimed at human interaction – and reroutes it into something not human: the computer or the beer. Here and there, this probably wouldn’t cause a problem. But in our culture, arousing and then hiding sex is a calculated, repeated, and basically institutionalized pattern. In a Pavlovian rut, we’re aroused a hundred times, but consummation is never delivered, even in image.
The constant bombardment of this sexual rerouting trains us that sex is something separate from life. Indeed this can be seen in the attitude we have toward our genitals and breasts – that they are parts of our bodies that are seen as separate from us. We even name them sometimes, as if they’re in different worlds entirely.
So the easy flow of multiplicity is exploited through a rerouting of sex to product. Add to this the fact that those in charge tell us – not just implicitly through the absence of sexual imagery, but explicitly – that sex is bad. Showing penetration is immoral; it would be indecent, exploitative, and objectification. This has been going on for so long that we take it for granted.
Perhaps one of the best antidotes to this would be the mainstreaming of true sexual imagery. If we took a cue from the Romans who had sexual images displayed prominently and openly, we’d be much less susceptible to manipulation through arousal.