The pornography panic: a dodgy testimonial for a dodgy product

4 Sep

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.

15 Responses to “The pornography panic: a dodgy testimonial for a dodgy product”

  1. Jennifer Wilson September 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

    This is a comment from Matthew on another post that I’ve transferred here, and thanks, Matthew for the link and getting me thinking about the story:

    I wonder if this is indicative of the (poor) quality of MTR and Bray’s book; Man look at that language, are they blowing that Christian conservative dog whistle so hard or what? While I understand that some women might get upset if they find out their partner has been looking at porn, is it really necessary to go to a marriage counselor? And she’d prefer that he’d had an affair than looked at porn? Wha…?

    “[…] viciously invading my sexual identity […]” and “But where does another’s supposed right infringe upon mine?”. Uh right, because you invaded your husband’s privacy by deliberately searching though his browsing history (and the back of his wardrobe for old copies of Playboy) and going to the webpages he visited, it’s invading your sexuality and infringing on your rights? So her rights extends into controlling what her husband wants to do in his spare time, which was perfectly legal and seemingly not interfering with the relationship (until she stated invading his privacy)? I think it’d be rather frightening if your partner wanted to have complete control over your sexuality, sexual desires and seemingly any erotic thoughts. Men will still masturbate regardless of what kind of relationship they’re in. It’s a fact. Then in the second last paragraph there is the blaming of the “industry” for those poor men who’s private wanking kills the relationships (evidence not required). Damn you Jenna Jameson! Somehow I think this book is even more unhinged than Dines’.


  2. Julia September 4, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    Doesn’t the wife know?…men only buy Playboy for the articles.



  3. gerard oosterman September 4, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    ‘Pull’n the pudd’n is what all men do, conjugally joined or not. Having sex thoughts every 68 seconds or so as well. Don’t be fooled either by those elderly gents dozing in the heated library behind the book of ‘African violets’ or ‘Queen Victoria and India’. Many will go home and have a quiet pull while the wife is filling the dryer.
    It has nothing to do with ‘happy’ or ‘faithful’ or not. That’s just how it is.
    Come to think of it: I’ll just have a bit of light hand relief right now. Scusi.


  4. Sam Jandwich September 5, 2011 at 8:51 am #

    “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.”

    D’you reckon we could point out that those conservatives have simply misinterpreted the bible? You can admire or desire something, or someone, without having any designs on actually owning – aka coveting them. God damn, you should see my neighbour’s barbecue!! But buggered if I’m going to lug it up the stairs to my place – I’d rather just drop in with a bottle of wine.


    • Julia September 5, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

      Can happily say:
      I’ve never once ever covetted my neighbour’s wife…
      …her hubby though…hmmm…glad there’s no commandment against this


  5. Steve at the Pub September 5, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    Sam: Dropping in with a bottle of wine may work also with the neighbor’s wife.


    • Sam Jandwich September 6, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

      Or his son’s girlfriend… though alcopops might be more effective.

      Ah, what’s a bloke to do when his own partner heads overseas on a job for months on end? Is coveting the neighbor’s kith and kin better or worse than a spot of “viciously invading MTR’s sexual identity”??


  6. Julia September 5, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    Was thinking, during a very idle moment, about the wife’s outrage. If what her husband has been doing…looking at unspecified porn…and if it is such an awful disgraceful offensive immoral thing to do…what kind of faithful loyal caring loving wife is she, writing a book and blabbing all over the place about her husband’s very private “weakness”?
    It’s all about how SHE feels and nothing about HIS feelings..neither in private nor in public

    (with such a moral high ground I wonder if she douches before “doing her duty” or is her negligence to blame for his waywardness?)


    • Jennifer Wilson September 6, 2011 at 6:55 am #

      Ha ha that last sentence is a reference to those terrible 1950’s feminine hygiene ads where they tell women they’ll lose their husband’s sexual interest if they don’t douche with Lysol. Horrible!


      • Sam Jandwich September 6, 2011 at 3:57 pm #

        What was the name of that law about how after a certain number of posts in a web-based conversation someone is 100% guaranteed to mention the Nazis?

        Well I’m wondering whether here we are seeing evidence of a parallel law – that sooner or later someone is bound to attribute all the world’s problems to the very platonic idea of vaginal uncleanliness??

        Perhaps we could call it the “Jam Sandwich” law 🙂


  7. Beste September 6, 2011 at 8:16 pm #


    Did you read Christine Jackmans strange reply Janet Albrechtsens article on male sexuality

    it’s titled “Telling women willy-nilly to indulge male desires is dangerous”


    • Jennifer Wilson September 6, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

      I found Jackman’s reply almost as mind bending as Albrechtsen’s article. I do wish these writers wouldn’t throw everything in together and then come up with an overall conclusion about vastly disparate events. It’s just dishonest.


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