When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I really felt uncomfortable with and uneasy about porn. I believed it was something that “all men watch” and “all men like”. I didn’t yet realize that there are lots of different kinds of porn out there, and so I believed that the mainstream porn I’d seen represented “all men’s desires”. Given that I didn’t look like women in mainstream porn and I didn’t want to act like women in mainstream porn, this made me suspect that I couldn’t possibly be awesome in bed; so I couldn’t help feeling pressured and threatened by porn’s very existence, because it seemed to be fulfilling “all men’s desires” in a way that I couldn’t. (I felt even more uneasy when I first came across SomethingAwful’s hentai game reviews around age 18. The reviews were so funny that I laughed out loud, but I also literally cried — right in a public computer lab, actually.)

But I accepted that the men in my life watched porn, and I made it clear that although I didn’t want to hear about it, I didn’t mind — that I certainly didn’t expect them to give up porn while dating me.

Except one. I dated one man who insisted that he didn’t use porn, and I believed him. Keep in mind that I had told him I didn’t mind if he used porn, so his insistence that he didn’t came entirely from him, not me. And then one day I was going through our computer’s search history looking for something I’d been reading the day before, and I came upon rape-fantasy porn. And I was heartbroken.

Way beyond the fact that the man I loved had outright lied to me — which, I think, legitimately entitled me to be angry — my reaction went something like this:

A) The only man I’ve ever met who I thought truly didn’t like porn was lying to me, which means I can’t trust men who say they don’t like porn, and probably indicates that men who have told me they don’t like rape porn were lying too.

B) Porn indicates real preferences, right? So what this means is that all men secretly crave to rape women, but that they are either too afraid of the legal consequences or care too much about the women they love to actually do it.

In other words, I thought something like: I can’t trust men to be honest about their sexuality, and their sexuality is scary and predatory.

This was a highly overwrought and almost totally wrong read on the situation! But that’s how I felt at the time. I couldn’t figure out a way to talk to my boyfriend about the porn without causing a fight (it was a rather non-communicative relationship, and I’m glad it’s long over). So I never talked to him about it, and it took me years to unravel all the incorrect assumptions I had wrapped up in my reactions to porn.

* * *

In the circles I run in today, saying that I’ve got sympathy for anti-porn feminists is kind of like saying I’ve got sympathy for the devil. But the truth is, I’ve got quite a lot of it. Don’t get me wrong: I emphatically do not support censoring porn. I screened some documentaries on feminist and alternative porn when I curated my sex-positive film series. And I often point out that, despite what anti-porn feminists say, there’s absolutely no evidence that porn increases sexual violence. In fact, there’s reason to think that increased porn access reduces sexual violence.

These issues have been highlighted lately with the release of Pornland, a book by anti-porn zealot Gail Dines. I haven’t read it, but from the reviews and excerpts and interviews I’ve seen, it’s obvious that Pornland is breathtaking in its lack of evidence. (My personal favorite coverage is this interview, in which Dines’ own former research assistant — who is now a porn performer — disputes Dines’ claims.)

So how can I have sympathy for anti-porn feminists? Only because I remember how I felt just a few years ago. I remember that I felt so confused about my own sexuality; I remember how resentful I felt, that sex seemed so easy for men — that the world seemed to facilitate their sex drives so thoroughly, particularly by providing all this porn!

I remember how hurt I felt by porn, because I believed that it represented “what men want”, and that therefore I was “supposed” to act like porn women — even though the way women acted in porn didn’t appeal to me at all. I remember how scared I felt, when I believed that rape porn reflected “all men’s desires”, and concluded that “all men secretly would love to commit rape”. The porn that I’d seen felt as though it set the standard for my sexual behavior, and I hated that standard, but I didn’t see a way out. Because even with all my liberal, sex-positive sex education, there were serious flaws in my knowledge about sex. Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t yet wrapped my mind around the concept of fully-negotiated, 100% consensual rape fantasy sex.

And that’s really the heart of the problem with porn: that is, the problem is not porn in itself at all. The problem is bad sex education. The problem is that all Americans are subjected to sexual mores that shame sex; that refuse to talk honestly about sex; that claim we shouldn’t be having sex at all. The problem is that millions of people are too ashamed and afraid and repressed to talk or think seriously about their sexual desires. That millions of people don’t recognize the diversity of sexual desire. And, therefore, that millions of people’s primary source of information about sexuality is highly stylized mainstream porn.

* * *

Anti-porn folks are shaped by society’s irrational sexual fears and stereotypes:

1) There’s a stereotype that male sexuality is inherently dangerous, unwanted, or predatory and that it must be contained or restrained at all costs. This means that porn cannot be allowed to thrive, especially if it seems to cater to men. This is also, I suspect, the source of the claim that porn access increases rape (again, false). Anti-porn activists rely on the societal belief that men’s sexuality is hard to control, scaring us into believing that allowing porn will enable uncontrollable men.

2) There’s anxiety about alternative sexuality. Almost everyone in the world can be freaked out by some form of sexuality, and most people are freaked out by very predictable taboos. This freaking-out reaction doesn’t actually mean that there’s anything wrong with that form of sexuality — because, folks, nothing is wrong with any form of sexuality as long as it is 100% consensual! — but most people don’t think past their immediate freakout. So anti-porn folks often use images of extreme sexuality to alarm people who aren’t prepared to see those images. In other words, they often rely on freaking people out to make their case — possibly because otherwise they haven’t got a case.

3) Does porn create certain desires? Or does it merely cater to existing desires? The answer is probably “a little bit of both”, but anti-porn activists rely on the idea that porn makes its viewers want certain kinds of sex or certain kinds of partners. Many of us (like me, years ago) are afraid that we can’t “live up” to our partners’ preferences, and many of us (like me, years ago) tend to believe that “all men” or “all women” want the same thing. So there’s an anti-porn fear that if we allow porn to flourish, those of us who don’t enjoy acting like [mainstream] porn stars will be unable to satisfy our partners.

Again, I got sympathy. I understand these fears because I used to feel them; I felt them so strongly that it made me cry in a public computer lab. But the solution isn’t getting rid of the porn, it’s getting rid of the fears. The solution is:

1) Reframing male sexuality so that we aren’t so damn scared of it all the time. Men can and will control themselves sexually, and they’ll only get better at it — not worse — if we encourage honest, non-scary, open-minded dialogue about male sexual desire.

2) Encouraging people to see alternative sexuality as just another human preference, rather than something weird and/or freakish. Encouraging people to accept and come to terms with their own sexuality, though this can be a tough and hard-to-recognize process — it certainly was for me. Once people feel comfortable in their own sex lives and recognize their own weird fetishes, they’ll be much less likely to judge other people’s sex lives.

3) Making it incredibly clear that everyone has different sexual desires, that different kinds of porn express different desires, and that “all men” and “all women” don’t want the same thing. Porn can be a wonderful tool for exploring particular desires, and allowing people to explore their particular preferences makes it easier for everyone to find sexual satisfaction, not harder — because it means that people with particular preferences can find each other, rather than ending up in unhappy partnerships where those desires are ignored.

4) Giving more airtime to alternative porn, especially feminist porn, to make it obvious that all porn isn’t the same. [1]

5) Oh, and of course we need to encourage people to recognize that violent sex isn’t necessarily bad sex; that even something as extreme as a rape scene can be 100% consensual. One key idea that I’m trying to push is writing about the amazing variety of sexual communication tactics derived from S&M — tactics that enable some awesomely extreme, awesomely consensual sex.

* * *

I have a theory about how porn affects men in bed. I don’t have any data, I’ve just got my experience, and that means I’m on the same level as Gail Dines (so maybe I should publish a book). I’ve had a pretty fair number of sexual partners at this point, and it’s true that, in my experience, men who don’t like mainstream porn are often better in bed: more attentive and less likely to make assumptions, for example. Perhaps they’re better off because they never learned or believed in the stereotypes of mainstream porn — then again, some guys who don’t like porn are horribly repressed and terrible in bed, so obviously the issue cuts both ways.

However! There’s another group of men who are excellent in bed. Often, they’re even better than men who don’t watch porn. And that group is men who have watched a lot of different kinds of porn and who have thought carefully about their reactions to it. They have learned how many different flavors of sexuality are out there in the world. They are men who have gotten over their sexual repression and learned to talk about sex in an open, accepting, honest way. Those men are fantastic in bed.

And they’ve probably got more exposure to porn than any of the men cherry-picked by anti-porn zealots who talk about the horrors of porn.

* * *

* Footnote: This point (#4) was added in February 2011. It’s late for me to add it in, because this piece has already been republished in multiple venues across the internet, but it’s an important point and I’m mad at myself that I left it out of the original version of this post. I think I take too much sex-positive theory for granted sometimes ….