Porn and the sexual imagination

Cultivating your sexual garden with porn

Porn holds a mirror up to society. Most mainstream porn – the free stuff – is misogynistic and demonstrates a casual loathing of women. The personalized market algorithm that advertises you a new kettle the moment you half-mention to a friend you might need a new kettle, is also mining your search history, location, and other data to bring you the porn it thinks you want – and often in our erotic urges we ought to admit we can find something deeply unsettling. The answer to this predicament, is not less porn, but more creative, feminist porn, which can not only hold a mirror up to society, but nudge it, and us, in a better direction, writes Carol Hay.


It is a strange thing, the way our sexual desires present themselves to us.  Very often, the experience is one of unreflective givenness: we are “born this way”, we simply like what we like, we have no conscious memory of choosing this or that, it is our loins—not our heads nor our hearts—that are steering the ship here.  Of course, we know this isn’t the whole story.  We also know that the fantasies in our heads, and even the love in our hearts, are capable of heating things up to a degree that simply can’t be made sense of at the level of brute animal rutting.  This complexity is precisely what makes it so easy for sex to hold us in its thrall.  As we grow older, many of us might also experience our desires shifting—perhaps not changing entirely, but evolving as we mature and come into ourselves and discover new things and outgrow the fear and shame and uncertainty that characterizes so many early sexual encounters.  But, again, this experience more often feels like one of discovering something about ourselves—something that was already there—than of recreating ourselves.  Finally, even if we’ve somehow managed to avoid taking on the belief that our sexual desires are shameful, most of us still think of them as private.  We share a sense that sex should be carved off from the stuff of everyday life, that our sexual desires and fantasies are where we figure out and work through the parts of ourselves that are messy and resistant to neat categorization, that desire is and should be allowed to be unruly and remain uncontained by the neat rational boxes demanded by public social order.

What the hell is wrong with us, that we so willingly lap up images and scripts that revel in the degradation, domination, humiliation, and abuse of women?

In her excellent new book, The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan joins many generations of feminists before her in inviting us to pay new attention to our sexual desires: to ask ourselves what these desires are, where they come from, and, most uncomfortably, whether there might be something problematic about them.  If we’re completely honest with ourselves, I doubt many of us come away from this kind of self-scrutiny assured that all is well and good.  Instead, we intuitively understand, on some level, that there is something deeply unsettling about the content of many of our deepest erotic urges.  This understanding, feminists insist, is not the recognition that our pre-political animal longings can be stubbornly resistant to civilizing forces; it is, rather, a recognition that our longings have been shaped by political forces that are themselves deeply suspect.

No red-blooded human being with the great mixed fortune of existing sexually in the age of the internet can pretend to find no overlap between what they desire and what is available for perusal in this unprecedentedly enormous and well-stocked marketplace of ideas.  Indeed, as the internet’s “Rule 34” famously boasts: if it exists, there is porn of it.  Still, “well-stocked” is probably a misleading endorsement here—for all its quantity, what’s sorely lacking is anything like real variety (to say nothing of quality).  Instead, the vast majority of mainstream pornography—what Srinivasan refers to as “the free stuff,” or “the porn that turns most people on”—is distressingly, depressingly the same.

What, then, are we to make of what turns out to be an illusion of choice, when the same sorts of algorithms that insidiously structure our online spending habits are also being used by sites such as Pornhub to structure our sexual desires, mining our search history, location, and other data to bring our sexual tastes into conformity with those who share our demographics? Pornographers have long insisted that they are just catering to market demand, that porn is at most a mirror of reality.  But this refusal to take responsibility for the effects of what they are selling drastically minimizes the hold porn can have over us, playing down the medium’s ability to not merely capitalize on but also shape our desires.

Second-wave anti-porn feminists like Catherine MacKinnon argued in the 1980s that mainstream pornography trains its viewers to see men as sexually active and dominant and women as sexually passive and submissive, eroticizing these gendered relations of dominance and submission.  Pornography’s codification of this power dynamic is responsible for our culture’s sexual violence toward women, MacKinnon argued, leaning on studies that suggested links between exposure to pornography and attitudinal measures such as hostility towards women, condoning rape, and predicting that one would force sex on a woman if one knew one would not get caught.  MacKinnon’s claim that pornography is causally responsible for rape is now generally viewed as hyperbolic, empirically untestable, and undermined by the subsequent explosion of pornography on the internet.  (Rape, like all violent crime, has actually gone down slightly in the decades since she first introduced these arguments.)  Her legal arguments, briefly successful in censoring some pornography, have fared even worse.  But MacKinnon’s moral and political analysis of the deeply problematic nature of porn’s gendered roles of dominance and submission remain as trenchant as ever.  What the hell is wrong with us, that we so willingly lap up images and scripts that revel in the degradation, domination, humiliation, and abuse of women?

While porn is probably not directly causally responsible for most sexual violence against women, it would be naïve to insist the two are entirely unrelated.  We know that there is something messed up with us on a societal level, where 1 in 6 women will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes.  What is the point in insisting that our culture’s marketing juggernaut for sex has nothing to do with this?  This is where I think feminist criticisms of pornography gain the most traction: if mainstream porn’s predictable scripts and power dynamics were just one kink amongst infinitely many others, rather than the sum total of all we’re being trained to find erotic, then it’d be a little easier to shrug off their disturbing subtext in the spirit of letting a thousand flowers bloom.  But in their homogeneity, and in their uncoincidental mapping on to the worst sexist, racist, able-ist, classist, and homophobic aspects of the culture at large, they start to look considerably more suspect.   

While calling out the perennial pearl-clutching tendency of each generation to bemoan the sexual mores and behaviors of the next, Srinivasan is not above engaging in a little tut-tutting herself about how kids these days have turned to porn to replace the comprehensive sex education many of us wish we’d also had.  She’s probably not wrong to do so.  Those of us who are older had the luxury of growing into our sexualities in a world not yet completely saturated with porn, but today’s young adults are the first generation to have come of age sexually under the internet’s totalizing sway.  Srinivasan worries about her students, the young women especially, who come to her with a “raised state of feminist consciousness … and what appear to be … worsening sexual conditions: increased objectification, intensified boy expectations, decreasing pleasure, and shrinking options for sex on their own terms.”  Too many young men, trained up by too-easily accessible images of dominance over and hatred of women, can’t seem to distinguish fantasy from reality and seem to think this is what women should want from men.

Too many young men, trained up by too-easily accessible images of dominance over and hatred of women, can’t seem to distinguish fantasy from reality and seem to think this is what women should want from men.

Let us admit the absurdity of insisting that mainstream porn’s casual loathing of women is no cause for concern, and admit that the medium is not merely a mirror of reality but also wields some amorphous but real power to shape it.  The question, then, is whether we’re trapped in a nefarious feedback loop, doomed to a downward spiral of a collective sexuality ever more depraved, or whether we have it in our power to wrest ourselves from the forces of mainstream porn’s algorithms’ will to impose a conformity of desire.  Srinivasan suggests that more often than not pornography stifles and limits our sexual imaginations, dulling our creative capacities by making us overly reliant on our screens: “while filmed sex seemingly opens up a world of sexual possibility, all too often it shuts down the sexual imagination, making it weak, dependent, lazy, and codified.”

Even many of porn’s fiercest critics tend to be willing to admit the possibility that erotic imagery doesn’t have to be like this.  Back in Mackinnon’s day, anti-porn feminists tried to insist on a distinction between pornography and erotica—understanding the latter as “sexually explicit materials premised on equality”—but such a contrast strikes contemporary sensibilities as somewhat quaint.  There is little point in pretending that power—its imbalances, its exchanges, its ambiguity, its ability to overwhelm—is not central to many, if not most, erotic encounters.  The problem with mainstream pornography, then, is not that it eroticizes inequalities and power imbalances; the problem is that the inequalities and power imbalances it eroticizes are those already existing in the culture at large

What’s needed then is porn that does something else.  If we’re serious about looking for concrete steps to improve the situation—both collectively, and in our own heads, hearts, and loins—then this is probably one of those situations where more speech is what’s needed in the marketplace of ideas.  I worry that feminists like Srinivasan are too lukewarm about the radically redemptive potential of feminist porn.  We need to actively seek out, and encourage the creation of this pornography.  (This means, in part, voting with our wallets, and not relying on the free stuff.)  Feminist porn will have to meet us where we actually are, sexually—with desires that have been formed in and shaped by a culture saturated with regressive beliefs about the role and value of women, people of color, and those occupying other marginalized social positions—but it should nudge us in new, better directions.  (It’s no coincidence that much of the best feminist porn that’s out there right now is queer.  While obviously still affected by the heteropatriarchy, queer sexuality exists at enough remove to have more room for the creativity required for emancipatory imaginative possibilities.)  We can and should push ourselves in new erotic directions by being openminded, willing to explore, and resisting what is easy or familiar when we know that what is familiar is probably messed up. 

Our sexual desires might be the one area of life where Voltaire’s advice to cultivate our own gardens actually makes sense.  I don’t mean this as a quietist or relativist insistence that who and what and how we desire is no one’s business but our own, that these internal states should be immune from the kinds of critical reflection to which the rest of our public and private lives can be held under legitimate scrutiny.  Instead, I want to suggest that within this most intimate part of ourselves lies an enormous opportunity for personal growth, that it is not only possible but also desirable to bring our sexual desires and our values into greater cohesion, that doing so not only promises to make us better people out in the world, and better partners to those we have sex with, but also make our own experiences of sex significantly more fulfilling. 

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