In May this year, I flew down to the Sydney Writers’ Festival to be part of a panel discussing the Queensland floods. It was a one-off appearance, and after it concluded I found that I had several hours to fill before my flight home. Glancing at a SWF programme, jostled on all sides by diligent festival-goers, I saw that a session on pornography was about to start. This, I thought, might be interesting.
I arrived late to that session and took my seat at the back of the packed theatre. The crowd was mixed, both young and old, women and men – it seemed everybody, like myself, had an interest in pornography. I was happy to recognise novelist and social commentator Emily Maguire as the chair; I was familiar with her books about young women and sexuality. She introduced the speaker, Gail Dines, author of a new book, Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality, and an anti-porn activist.
This was my first encounter with Dines and her radical-feminist hard-line approach. Radical feminism is a type of feminism that attributes societal inequalities to gender relations; it’s a philosophy that espouses an activist approach, seeking to tear down the perceived patriarchy. Tellingly, Gail Dines began her talk by mentioning her respect for Andrea Dworkin. I knew a little bit about Dworkin’s work – that she was a feminist and had written books suggesting that pornography promoted the rape of women and child abuse – but I had never felt the need to read her books.
I suppose I am a lazy feminist, living with an unwavering belief that there should be equality between the genders, though never interested in reading more than the obligatory tomes of Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir. I am sure there are many women like me, aware and frustrated by the obvious inequities in society – we still have not achieved equal pay for equal work; women are still underrepresented in positions of power – but we’re still more interested in reading Proust than Dworkin.
The session, which promised to explore the role of pornography in our society, was in fact a half-hour tirade in which Gail Dines regaled us with horror stories of the porn industry: women contracting diseases from ‘arse-to-mouth’ performances; their bodies tearing from double and triple penetrations; blindness and pestilence contracted from semen falling into their eyes during face-spraying come-shots. Pornography was what she called ‘making hate’ to women. When an audience member tentatively asked her about man-on-man pornography, Dines suggested that this was about racial inequalities; that black men and Asian men were the victims of this heinous practice.
It became apparent to me that Dines had ‘Gonzo Porn’ firmly in her sites. It is not, of course, a pornographic genre feminists are quick to defend. Gonzo Porn was originally a style that placed the camera (and therefore the viewer) right up close and personal in the action, but lately it’s a term that’s been used more frequently to describe pornography that includes violence and degradation to the performers, particularly the female performers.
Perhaps if Dines had stuck to her original script that Gonzo porn is bad, I would have been able to sit placidly in the audience without resorting to tweeting my frustrations (‘Gail says there is no alternative porn out there’; ‘Gail finds women buying porn unacceptable’; ‘Gail Dines says anal sex is bad for your body WTF?’). Instead Dines brought her monist hammer down on all pornography. ‘Isn’t there such a thing as feminist pornography?’ one woman in the audience asked. Dines answered with a resounding ‘No! ’
What followed was an edict that all pornography was degrading to women, that all pornography was an abuse of power. All pornography should be denounced. The way she said it reminded me, frighteningly, of a television evangelist damning viewers to hell.
Leslie Cannold, in her Sydney Morning Herald article, ‘Sexual Violence Against Women Pre-Dates Porn’, responded succinctly to the session. ‘The big difficulty with the Dines approach,’ she wrote, ‘is its cultivation of fear over hope. From the moment Dines set foot in Australia, she was beating the panic drum. Panic about the internet, about the developing sexuality of adolescent boys and the inevitable victimisation of poor, vulnerable girls.’
I have a particular interest in pornography. I devour it, in fact, as I explain in my memoir Affection. During my childhood, any mention of sex was erased. I was not to watch sex on television; kissing was seen as suspect. My grandmother, who had a big hand in raising me, made sure that every book I read matched up to the Walt Disney standard of ‘good, clean, healthy fun’. 1984 was banned, not for the political message but for the sex that sullied its pages. When my sister gave me a fantasy novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley that I had been begging for on my fourteenth birthday, I opened the pages to discover a whole chapter had already been cut out.
My early encounters with pornographic sexual descriptions probably cemented my later love of porn. 1984 was finally delivered to me by my sister and I read under a blanket using a torch. I memorized the sex scene as it was the first I had ever encountered. After this it was a reproduction of a daguerreotype photograph of a nude woman with a carrot inserted into her vagina that was passed around in the schoolyard. My next instructor was Anaïs Nin – the master of sexual expression – and her pornography, originally written for the price of $1 a page and sold to private collectors. The pornography of my childhood was exciting, illicit and, above all, created by artists. I was spoiled. Not all pornography is so well compiled.
Pornography, as we all know, comes in many different forms. I now own collections of photographs, old black-and-white images of women with their legs spread, moustachioed fellows crouching between their heavy thighs, their erect penises protruding from pantaloons. I have other more contemporary photographs of women in bondage gear, teetering on ridiculous heels but with their breasts raised and pointed towards the camera; paintings of sex; woodcuts; and, of course, etchings of copulation, women and men and any combination of genders. My enjoyment of sex has never been limited to a single sexual orientation.
I read pornography, particularly literary pornography, such as Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye and Nin’s Little Birds. I mark the pages at my favourite bits. The last thing you want to do when masturbating is to have to flick through page after page of exposition.
Sometimes the internet is a better bet. Redtube has a veritable smorgasbord of offerings, from slick professional videos (and yes, some of it is the Gonzo variety that I abhor) to a lucky dip of homemade sex play that is often loving, fumbling and fun. Then there is Indienudes, where you can stumble upon anything from the sublime to the ridiculous. Pornography comes in so many shapes and sizes that there is a fit for almost anybody’s sexual tastes.
I am also a creator of pornography. Some people (my publisher, for instance) prefer to label what I write as ‘erotica’. It is a more polite word and one that takes me out of the direct firing line of anti-porn activists. I prefer to be up front about what I do: I sometimes write pornographic literature. Porn is just one of the things I write, but I have trawled through the different definitions of pornography and I can confidently say that my new book Triptych, published this month, is a book of pornographic novellas.
It’s intended to be read one-handed, as all good pornographic texts are. While writing the book I kept reminding myself that this was pornography: literature for the purpose of masturbation. Sure, there is a story in there and hopefully the writing is of a high quality – I like my pornography to be as beautiful in its expression as it is sexually arousing. I did not, however, want the story or the characterisations to take over from the sex. If I began to stray too far from the fucking, I checked myself and returned to the job at hand.
In her article in the SMH in May, written to coincide with her Australian book tour, Gail Dines suggested that ‘pornography, at its core, is a market transaction in which women’s bodies and sexuality are offered to male consumers in the interests of maximising profit. In the end, it’s about attracting the most “wankers” possible.’ Alan McKee, a sex researcher and lecturer in the Creative Industries Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology immediately wrote a very measured and sensible response to Dines, reflecting on her unwavering message throughout her tour, and suggesting that the gist of her argument is: ‘All pornography is bad. All pornography is equally bad.’ Emotive reactions to pornography have often overtaken sensible conversations that could be had about the role of it in our society. The first readers of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover could not see the literature for the sex, and perhaps in my novellas, there will be those, perhaps Dines included, who will not be able to see the moral and ethical heart of the work.
Unlike Dines, I enjoy watching explicit and pornographic depictions of sex. In heterosexual pornography, which is just a part of the spectrum of pornography that I enjoy, I can watch a man and a woman fucking and I do not automatically see an inherent power imbalance.
Some kinds of pornography are indeed degrading to women. Quite a lot of pornographic expression incites violence towards women and represents women as pitiable victims of male sexual violence. Our pornography, as well as our television, our books, our magazines, our songs (in fact all forms of cultural expression) reflect our general cultural attitudes towards each other – and I believe these attitudes inform this particular, violent type of pornography. There is still a lot of work to be done to address these imbalances in our society, but universally damning all pornography is not a way to fix the troubling societal attitudes informing some of it.
I feel that my own work as a writer and a creator of pornography goes some way to addressing this. I am careful in my work to show respect for every other creature represented in the work. I intentionally show sex as I experience it – an often loving, sometimes complicated, but almost always fun and generous expression of physical care. I am careful not to be judgemental of any minority group in my work; I challenge myself and my readers to see the world through the eyes of people who have diverse sexual tastes. I do this, I hope, without the heavy-handed pontificating of a zealot. I try to do this in a way that is sexy as well as fun.
In The Porn Report, Catharine Lumby, Alan McKee and Katherine Albury demonstrate that our cultural relationship to pornography is changing. Amateur pornography on the internet is a fast-growing area of pornographic expression. People are beginning to shy away from the enjoyment of surgically enhanced bodies in polished commercial porn. More and more people are choosing to watch amateur actors with real bodies enjoying and sharing sex play in their own homes. Serious writers of literary fiction are publishing works of pornographic literature: American writer Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes has just hit bookshops, while next year we’ll be treated to Miles Franklin award-winning author Frank Moorhouse’s pornographic novella Sonny.
There is already a wide variety of visual and literary work out there catering to every sexual taste. Sure, some of it is ‘body punishing’, some of it is ‘making hate to women’, some of it is produced unethically with badly-paid actors, unsanitary working conditions and presentations of women and men that is mean-spirited and abusive and as such should be condemned and shut down on the grounds of illegal working conditions. But as McKee suggested, not all pornography is equally bad. In fact, in my opinion, there is a lot of beautiful pornography out there. Just pick up a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita and remember that this clever, funny, thought-provoking work of literature (that, admirably, raises more questions than it answers) was once condemned as being the worst kind of smut.
I walked away from the Sydney Writers’ Festival angry and exhausted. Whatever commentators like Dines may say – and however boring it seems when I wade through impenetrable books by French sexual theorists – pornography, if you find the right stuff (the stuff that matches your own ethics and sexual tastes), is exciting, sexually exciting. It’s made to be enjoyed.
I read my advance reading copy of House of Holes (one-handed) and my faith in pornographic expression was restored. Sex is fun, if it is done right. Pornographic expression is something that can be a celebration of physical joy. Too often, explicit depictions of sex are treated as inherently problematic.
I will continue to consume pornography and I will continue to create it. Occasionally I will stumble upon pornography that I find abhorrent because of the violence towards women or due to issues of consent. I will always be quick to damn any work that is made with questionable production practices. Performers in pornography should be treated with the same respect given to any actor in any film. As a reader and a lover of art I will always be appalled by clumsy storytelling or an ugly aesthetic. But I can put that particular book down; or if I am on the internet, click away. As a consumer I have a choice about what I consume.
As a writer, I believe it is my job not to shy away from ideas that seem difficult. The expression of sexuality is always fraught. Some people are going to be offended by the f lash of a nipple. I feel I must keep testing the boundaries – societal boundaries and my own moral limits.
During that infamous Sydney Writers’ Festival Q&A panel, Dines questioned why any author would even think about writing a book about someone like, for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger. ‘He’s an adulterer,’ Dines said, ‘who goes around screwing women. He uses his power. I don’t think we should be sympathetic towards him at all.’
Howard Jacobsen, a fellow panellist, responded passionately:
‘But how on earth do you read literature in that case? Every play of Shakespeare, he’s an adulterer. Othello’s a wife murderer. What’s wonderful about Shakespeare is Shakespeare said here’s a man who murders his wife. This is what it’s like to be him. Isn’t it terrible to be him and your imagination is expanded. That doesn’t mean you forgive him… Your imagination is expanded in the acts of understanding what it’s like to be somebody else.’
Part of the reason that I am attracted to writing about sexual perversions is to do just that: to see things from a new and fresh perspective and to allow an audience to experience this point of view and make their own decisions about the work. Literature, and indeed pornographic expression within literature, provides a platform where we can explore the ideas that may at first frighten us, and even a voice as strident as Gail Dines’s is not going to knock me off course.