Because I wrangled David Guy into letting me print this essay, after he let me read it as a friend, he wanted me to explain that early in the writing of his second novel, The Man Who Loved Dirty Books, he “felt the need to write out my thoughts on pornography, in order to clarify them for myself so I wouldn’t be working them out in the writing of the novel.”
After finishing the book, he revised the original essay into its present form, finishing it in 1982. He says, “It does not represent my most recent thoughts on the subject, and is certainly not up on the latest arguments — but it does represent my first long look at it.” He apologizes, too, for its rough edges, “associated with writing one does for oneself.” Notwithstanding all that, I knew there was something in this for all of us. I’m thankful David has let me use it.
The Man Who Loved Dirty Books was published in 1983. A paperback edition came out in February of this year.
A fair number of pornographic movies nowadays begin with the action: a man and woman appear on the screen and are already fooling around. No doubt the filmmakers think they are skipping over the superfluities and getting right to the good stuff — anyone who had to sit through the agonizing skinflicks of the Sixties, which were all superfluity and no good stuff (just like our dates), would have an understandable tendency in that direction — but it seems to me they are missing the point. The dramatic fantasy of pornography — the situation portrayed, words spoken, gestures made — is an essential part of the excitement.
Any real sexual situation, as opposed to the mock set-ups we find in pornography, involves risk, vulnerability, and — on the part of someone — a little daring. In our culture these burdens have fallen on the man. The woman’s problem has been to exist in a perpetual state of waiting; at least until recently she could initiate nothing, no matter how much she wanted to. To be sure, there has arisen an elaborate mythology which would claim that it is really the woman who is in charge of the situation, that she uses her wiles to get exactly what she wants, but for the average woman that is probably just a myth. She still has to sit around and wait for the stupid man to make the phone call.
It is the man, then, who must spot the prey, make the advance, and knowingly lead the way. This is an enormous burden: it corresponds to the position that men occupy in many other aspects of their lives (in how many relationships, for instance, is it the man who always decides what night to go out and what show to see? who chooses a restaurant and sees to the reservation and gets the money and puts gas in the car and tips the headwaiter and sees that the whole evening goes smoothly?) and it is not surprising that, at least early on in their maturity, some men are not up to it. Only to mention the most perilous area, the burden of supposed sexual knowledge is a terrible one for the young man who has no idea what the fuck (so to speak) he is doing. Not long ago I heard repeated in a feminist movie the old saying that there are no frigid women, only clumsy men. There may be truth in those words, but I fail to see how an inexperienced man is supposed to be anything but clumsy. How would you like to tune up a complicated engine when you had never done anything but read a few owner’s manuals? Obviously the ideal situation would be for both partners to admit that they’re starting from scratch, that they don’t know what to do or even what they want done, but few men, I would guess, have the courage for an admission like that. The penis shrinks at such a thought.
It isn’t just in the matter of sexual knowledge that the man has a burden. At some point in any sexual relationship a man must make himself terribly vulnerable, offer himself, warts and all, and see if he is acceptable as a sexual partner. Whole books have been written about the best way to do that, but I’m not sure the best way has yet been found. Success in such matters seems to depend more on your self image than on anything you do. Men who are good at it don’t seem to be able to explain themselves: they just have a knack. For the rest of us, however, it is no wonder that our palms sweat when we go to pick up the phone, our voice falters, heart pounds. It is the terrible tension of such a moment that sometimes results in the boorishly awkward physical assaults that men make. One of the prime uses of alcohol in social situations is that it diminishes these tensions. If singles bars served only soft drinks, most of their patrons would go home alone.
The classic pornographic situation cleverly eliminates all of these problems.
Recent feminist objections to pornography complain not only that women are used in it as sexual objects, but that they are the objects of violence, that pornography not only portrays rape but leads to actual cases of rape, especially the rape of little girls. Admittedly, there are all kinds of movies, just as human beings have all kinds of bizarre sexual fantasies. But the vast majority of pornographic films that I have seen have not portrayed rape or any other kind of violence; there is, it seems to me, far more rape in commercial fiction and Hollywood movies and prime time television. The classic pornographic situation is something altogether different.
A man in a dirty movie does not have to approach the woman: he doesn’t have to call her on the phone and he doesn’t have to make an advance. All kinds of fantastic situations exist instead. A gorgeous woman is out hitchhiking, or her car has broken down on a deserted road, or she needs a repairman for some item around the house. She is wearing very provocative clothing, or very little clothing (though often enough women in such movies do wear an elaborate network of undergarments), and not long after a man shows up she makes some incredible pass: she lifts her skirt to reveal that she isn’t wearing underpants, or she steps up casually and thrusts her tongue into the man’s mouth, or she falls to her knees and unzips his fly with her teeth. Nearly always the woman is the one to get the idea, and nearly always she is the one to lead the way. Thus the two major areas of sexual anxiety for men — making the first move and having to know what to do — are neatly eliminated.
To object that sex is not really that way is to miss the point: pornography does not portray reality, it portrays a dream. Sooner or later, more often sooner than later, a man finds out that such things do not really happen. That doesn’t make the old dream any less attractive.
It has been said that men today are made anxious by the modern aggressive female, and no doubt that is the case; the aggressive woman is attacking other areas of anxiety: will I be able to get it up? will I ever be able to satisfy her? A very specific demand is being made, a man’s masculinity is on the line, and some men, apparently, can be male only if they can take the traditional aggressive role. Otherwise, one would think men would like the aggressive female; she relieves him of a number of burdens from the past (for the woman, certainly, it must be a terrific relief to break free from that ancient posture of waiting). It would seem that this is one area in which there is an enormous gap between fantasy and reality. Men may fear aggressive women in the real world, but they obviously love them in their dreams. The world of pornography is full of them.
It is hard to say to what extent the actual acts that take place in pornography are significant. There are only so many that can take place, after all; one of pornography’s major shortcomings — that it soon becomes excruciatingly boring — is a result of the fact that all these things start to look alike after a while. (Of course, modern hard-core pornographers have dug their own graves by focusing exclusively on sexual acts; once they could show them, they seemed to decide to show nothing else. Pornographers could make their movies interesting by focusing on plot, character, situation — things which other storytellers take up as a matter of course — and there is no particular reason that a piece of pornography couldn’t be a viable work of art. The subject matter, after all, is unquestionably interesting. The reason I am writing about peep shows — fifteen-minute skinflicks that show at dirty bookstores — is that I have never been able to sit through a feature-length pornographic movie.) Probably most movies focus on acts that men don’t often get to perform.
Whatever acts a pornographic movie includes, it is finally just a fantasy of total acceptance: anything you want is perfectly all right, there’s nothing wrong with any of it. There really is nothing wrong with any of it, of course — we can’t help, in any case, the strange things we may like to do — but our sexual relationships do not always leave us with that impression. To some extent, when we want to do something new sexually, we are looking for confirmation that it is all right as a thing to want to do; our partner, confronted by a novel suggestion that doesn’t sound too attractive, wonders if it is something one ought to want to do. We grow defensive in such situations. She should say, “That is a perfectly natural thing to want to do and I really wish I could do it for you, but it would turn me off and ruin everything, I’m sorry;” instead she says, “How dare you ask me to do such a perverted thing!” He should say, “I really would like to do this thing, God knows I would, but if it would really turn you off maybe we can find something else that’s pretty close;” instead he says, “What a frigid bitch!”
The places where such movies are shown are dark, dingy, and revolting. They smell of urine or of a strongly scented disinfectant. (I’m not sure I don’t prefer the urine.) Men apparently do pee there, and God knows how many men come there, often enough, no doubt, on the floor. I see no solution to these problems except clean well-lighted bathrooms and the distribution of towels to all the patrons. It is surprising that profitable businesses don’t take better care of their premises, but obviously they don’t have to; you seldom hear anybody complain to the manager, and nobody writes his congressman. I suspect that the places are maintained that way because to some extent that’s how the customers want them to be. They want to lower themselves, to roll in the shit. A disgusting setting seems appropriate because they think what they are doing is disgusting, and they are ashamed of it.
Adult bookstores are frequented by gays looking for action, by the young and inexperienced, by the unattractive, the lonely, and — especially around the lunch hour — by what seem to be perfectly respectable business and professional men. Except for the gays, men don’t look at each other there, don’t speak to each other; they don’t see other men and do not themselves want to be seen. In fact, they hate the men around them, because they project on those men that part of themselves that wants to be there, and they hate that part of themselves.
I think I understand that part of myself. He is the part of me who is crazy about sex and loves to think and fantasize about it, who loves sexual pleasure and wants to be sexually satisfied, who longs after beautiful women and raunchy women and sweet soft women and dangerous women, who wants to do things that are daring and vaguely wicked, who wants all kinds of off the wall things sexually and does not want to feel bad about them; he is the part of me who is afraid to offer himself to a woman and often wishes women would offer themselves, who does not want to have to go to all the trouble of establishing a relationship just to get laid, who likes sometimes to sit off and watch the world instead of acting in it, who likes to lie back and masturbate. He grows tired of being a man, with all the responsibilities and burdens that entails; he longs sometimes just to be a horny adolescent, or a child (my earliest fantasies of the actively compliant woman, who came to me and kissed me and held me tight, date from my fifth year). I do not think of him as a dangerous part of me, or as the worst part. (Often enough the mature man in me — who seeks out assignments and publishes writing, worries about his standing and reputation, is envious of other writers and follows the book reviews as if they were the sports pages — seems the worst part. But all that is natural too.) I do not hate him.
There was a time in my life when I felt a compulsion to see dirty movies, and when I felt bad about that compulsion (as I have learned not to feel bad, I have felt less compelled). To some extent, I think, those movies held the attraction of the forbidden; I was a teacher and felt that I should not be seen in a dirty bookstore, so I loved to go. More recently, I have noticed that the urge to go to a dirty movie does not have much to do with sexual frustration, or even really with sexual feelings. I begin to feel horny, to fantasize about sex and to long to enter that world of fantasy, when something in the real world is too much for me: when life seems difficult, when I am facing a hard piece of work and want to avoid it, when a task before me is onerous, or routine, or just plain boring. Especially when I have had to face failure — and my early life as a writer involved a great deal of failure — I have felt an urge to turn to what is essentially a fantasy of effortless success. It wasn’t sex I wanted, but a vision of paradise, where a man’s wish comes directly to hand. Such occasions do not often occur in real life, but they are readily available in fantasy.
Pornography has few adherents. There are those who admit we need to allow pornography in order to preserve our first amendment rights, but almost no one claims that pornography itself is harmless — even mildly enjoyable — and should be allowed. (That, in case I haven’t made myself clear, is what I am saying.) There is a rather large army at the moment — including both radical feminists and members of the far right — that would like to ban pornography, and they have many reasons for wanting to do so: that pornography itself is immoral; that it leads to immoral practices; that — along with birth control and abortion and a host of other evils — it is leading to the dissolution of the American family; that sex should always be accompanied by love and pornography has nothing to do with love; that pornography degrades and exploits women; that it is responsible for sexual violence against women; that it leads to the sexual abuse of children; that it is controlled by organized crime.
Morality, for me, involves relationships between one person and another and between a person and God (or creation, or the cosmos, or mother earth); it does not involve an abstract moral code. Neither pornography, nor any other kind of literature or art, is immoral in itself; it is only immoral if it does harm to these relationships. I don’t believe that pornography creates a problem (that is, it doesn’t create a need for sexual fantasy) but that it reflects a problem, or rather, for me, not a problem but simply a fact: that a part of man’s make-up, a part of his sexual being, is this fantasy element. It can be harmful to our relationships — if we treat real women like our fantasy women, or if we imagine the real world to be the kind of effortless paradise that is represented in fantasy — but it does not have to be. It isn’t pornography itself that is harmful, but the way in which human beings perceive it.
This is no place for a disquisition on the nuclear family, though I do have opinions on it (unlike most commentators, I would guess it is probably here to stay), but I hardly think pornography is a threat to it; most real pornography addicts are probably family men for whom it is their only vice and who otherwise lead lives of extreme regularity. You don’t leave the wife and kids to run off with a movie. I would hope that the old American myths — also associated with the family — that sex should always be monogamous and always accompanied by passionate romantic love have been shattered by now; they have made people ask far too much of their marriages and other relationships. One can he monogamous by choice, of course, but that is not the only possible state, and sex can be accompanied by a vast complex of emotions not necessarily subsumed under the word love. (I do think sex should always be accompanied by what I would call Christian love — which essentially, to my mind , involves respect and consideration for the other person as a human being — but I think all relationships should be accompanied by such love, which is not a felt emotion but a way of being. I would guess that it is at least as common outside marriage as within it.)
The idea that pornography exploits and degrades women is widely accepted nowadays, no one even questions it; but I have never really understood it (I will seem ingenuous as I make this argument, but I’m stating what I really think). For one thing, I don’t see why a dirty movie exploits women any more than it does men. (In a way it seems to exploit them less. Women can fake the whole thing, nothing they do has to be real, but a man has to be involved enough to get a hard-on or the movie is a flop. The movie is exploiting his capacity for excitement.) What I don’t really see, however, is how pornography exploits women any more than commercial Hollywood movies do, or women’s glamour magazines, or a whole host of advertisements in slick magazines, all of which degrade and misrepresent women at least as much as pornography (why are there no picket lines in front of the ad agencies?). Sex is used to sell everything in this country, from liquor to political candidates to automobiles to tupperware; in pornography, at least, sex is only honestly selling itself. Giving a blow job on camera seems far less degrading to me than things women do on national television every afternoon. In any case, I do think it is the actresses themselves who should be questioned on this matter, not more conventional women who find the whole subject revolting and who try to imagine what it would be like for them to act in such a movie. I can’t escape the feeling that the shrillest opponents of pornography object to it because they feel uncomfortable around images of raw blatant sex, around the whole subject of sex. It is not just exploitation that bothers them — there is exploitation everywhere — but sex itself.
I have already to some extent stated my feelings on the connection which feminists draw between pornography and rape. Unless they mean it in a metaphorical sense — that pornography exploits women as sexual objects, just as rape does — I see no connection at all. As countless people have said, rape is an act of violence, not really a sexual act at all, and the great masses of pornography are not about violence but about idyllic sexual compatibility. As such, pornography would hardly lead to rape. As most people know (though few people say), what pornography most often leads to is masturbation and at least a temporary feeling of satisfaction. Men don’t walk out of dirty bookstores looking for little girls to rape; they are looking for a private place to jerk off, or a place to dispose of their wet handkerchiefs. There are apparently some movies which feature sexual violence. They too, I would guess, lead to masturbation and not to actual acts, but in any case I feel sure once again that they do not create a problem but only reflect it. I simply can’t believe that men who would otherwise not have done so have watched such movies and gone out and performed acts of violence.
Everyone, I suppose, draws the line somewhere, and I draw the line at child pornography. I don’t believe that an eight-year-old should be hired or forced into having sex on the screen or anywhere else. Adult bookstores are regulated by laws prohibiting minors from entering; I don’t see why there couldn’t be similar laws about the products that are displayed. There would doubtless be disputes about some actors, but plainly underaged children would be readily apparent. (I don’t mean that I don’t think people should ever have sex until they are eighteen years old. Assuming that they are taught about birth control and the dangers of venereal disease, I think young people should begin experimenting with sex whenever they feel ready to. What I am concerned about is the exploitation of young people — too young to make a responsible choice — by unscrupulous adults out to make a buck.) I do not, once again, think pornography has created this problem. From what we are beginning to hear, the sexual abuse of young people may be and may always have been widespread.
About organized crime I have no solution. Activities that are perceived as vices inevitably attract organized crime, then when the activity becomes legal the criminal influence sometimes remains. As of now, the pornography that the mob is involved in is perfectly legal, as are many businesses that the mob is involved in. I don’t know much about organized crime. I don’t know how much more ruthless or immoral it is than the average major corporation. I do know that, if we insist on avoiding activities in which there is mob involvement, we have all eaten our last pizza.
The only real danger in pornography is that someone might get carried away into thinking that it portrays reality. In that way, hard-core pornography seems far less dangerous than other kinds; when a woman meets a man and immediately falls to the floor screaming, “Fuck me, fuck me,” it seems obvious that we are dealing with fantasy. More subversive is the soft-core pornography in slick men’s magazines, in which it is made to seem that the girls really do exist (brief biographies accompany the photo spread) and in which feature articles and fashion columns and question and answer columns give one the impression that the playboy way of life really exists. For all I know it really does exist, for a few people, but it sounds like a pretty empty way of getting along with other human beings, and for the adolescents and college students and university intellectuals and clergymen who buy these magazines, it is about as close to reality as “Deep Throat.”
Our sexual fantasies, as reflected in pornography, are not blueprints for getting along with other people. They may hold clues to our personalities and to what it is to be male or female in general. They are strong, and will find a way to return if they are repressed; they have the strength of images that have been repeated again and again. Our real relationships do not have that strength. They are shaky and unpredictable and may change overnight. Pornography reflects something that is within us, so it always has a vague familiarity, whereas our real relationships — while they also reflect something within us — also exist out in the world, so they always seem a little strange. In an age when more and more of our lives seem surrounded by make-believe, it is important to remember that pornography is not real, it is fantasy. It is also important to remember that fantasy has a reality of its own.