This is a link to an extract in the Australian from the new book on pornography by conservative Christian commentator Melinda Tankard Reist, and feminist academic Abigail Bray. (Thank you, Matthew, for the link). It’s an account of the feelings of an “ordinary” middle class professional woman on finding that her male partner has accessed pornography sites on his laptop.
She discovered her partner’s interests when she borrowed his laptop and for some unexplained reason, decided to trawl his internet history. Presumably she suspected possible nefarious behaviour that led her to check up on him.
At the beginning of their relationship, she’d “discovered” Playboy magazines in the back of his wardrobe when she was left alone in his apartment for the afternoon, so her suspicions were aroused early on. Or maybe she was just looking for silverfish. Something sent her burrowing through the bloke’s wardrobe in search of something about him he hadn’t voluntarily revealed.
The woman experienced her internet discovery as: “viciously invading my sexual identity and choking it with images that were distorted, ugly, degraded. The internet history revealed that this was no occasional thing but a regular search on my partner’s part.”
The anonymous woman experiences her discovery as a fundamental threat to her relationship. Her partner’s predilections, she feels, have infringed her rights. One counsellor reinforces these feelings, another explains that men are different, aren’t they, and as there was no agreement about him not pursuing his interest in pornography at the beginning of their relationship, the woman really has no right to introduce one now.
After being confronted and disgraced, the male agrees to give up his pastime, and even gives the woman permission to check up on him via his internet history. Which she does, finding he has an occasional lapse. She stays in the relationship, and her final word on the matter is: “I wait for the day he’ll say he understands and that he’s sorry.”
The reader is given no idea of the type of images the hapless fellow is accessing, only that the aggrieved narrator loathes and is deeply threatened by them. This means little outside of her subjective experience. One person’s porn is another’s harmlessly sexy fun. There are couples who happily watch it together, though these two clearly aren’t of that cohort.
The story give rise to many questions, one of which is to what degree do we have the right or the ability to control our partner’s sexual imagination? The fact that the author is so distressed by her partner’s interest demonstrates that she believes there is something inherently wrong with him imaging women other than her in sexual situations, and with perusing images of women other than her in sexual situations. But isn’t that hopelessly unrealistic? Doesn’t almost everyone have sexual fantasies, even about a person who is not their partner? We are sexual beings, monogamy is a cultural not inherent state that can require enormous self-restraint and self-vigilance. Looking doesn’t mean doing, except in the Christian tradition where if you covet your neighbour’s wife (or his donkey, that reveals the worth some Christians attach to women doesn’t it?) you’ve morally transgressed.
As there’s no indication of the type of porn the bloke is looking at, the story implies any and all such images are wrong, and it’s wrong for any man in a relationship to be looking at them. The alleged “wrong” in this instance takes the form of sexual betrayal, treachery and breach of trust. It is clearly regarded by the offended party as an indication of her partner’s lack of character and his moral weakness. He requires surveillance, for his own good I presume, so she willingly takes up the morally superior role of policing him, and the responsibility for keeping him sexually pure. This actually conforms to some right-wing religious beliefs about the role of a wife. (I have used this link once before with a warning to turn down your sound because there’s a spectacularly bad piano rendition of Rock of Ages.)
It isn’t difficult to imagine situations in which the use of pornography can be problematic. If a man (it’s usually men, apparently) prefers masturbating with the aid of sexual imagery to having a sexual relationship with his partner, to the degree that it negatively affects their life together, then they probably need to address that. The writer of this account doesn’t mention whether that’s the case or not. Is he still making love with her as well as looking at porn? Or has he given her up in favour of porn? We don’t know the scope of the problem, we just know that she doesn’t like him doing it. Well, this alone isn’t a good reason for anyone to be forced to do or not do anything.
I’d argue that everyone has the right to their private imaginings. Everyone has the right to secret places in their psyche that they can’t or don’t want to share. This isn’t betrayal or treachery or infidelity: it’s being human. If we can’t allow that to a partner maybe we’re the ones who need help.
As a case history or as an example of the harm porn can allegedly cause, this story is rather incomplete. Indeed, there’s way too much left out for anybody to read it as anything more substantial than one of those (probably made up) testimonials one finds on the websites of dodgy companies selling dodgy products that can’t be marketed any other way.
I haven’t read the book, which is an editing collaboration between a right-wing conservative Baptist and a radical feminist academic (radical feminist and right-wing Christian alliances? It’s true, misery really does make for strange bedfellows) with contributors including Gail Dines who once wrote: “Pornography is one more form of media. It’s a specific genre which, by the way, is very powerful because it delivers messages to men’s brains via the penis, which is an extremely powerful delivery system.” Don’t say you haven’t been warned, chaps.
If this extract is a typical example of its contents, I can’t see how its going to add much to the debate about pornography which all too often (think Gail Dines again) is dominated by histrionic first person accounts of alleged horrors pornography has brought to a life, accounts that aren’t verified or verifiable. There’s porn and there’s porn, but for those who have taken a set against it, all porn is dangerous porn, and all men who look at it are morally fouled. Extremist attitudes to pornography,like extremist attitudes to anything, are rarely honest and rarely helpful.