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Zombie Porn

September 17th, 2008 · 4 Comments

Back in June, a throwaway post about the alleged equivalence of porn and adultery spawned an almost absurd amount of blogospheric discussion. Well, I see the shambling corpse of that debate is still lumbering through the Internets, though in this case it takes the form of two very smart porn-friendly posts at Culture11’s new “Ladyblog”.  Liz Brown makes the spot-on point that should have shotgunned this brain-eating conversation from the outset, which is: It’s clearly going to bother some people, it’s equally clearly not going to bother others, and the solution is not to try to hash out for all of American society whether porn “is” like adultery, but to let couples talk out any conflicting preferences like grown ups.  Still, I couldn’t help adding my two cents in the comments there, and rambled on long enought that I figure I may as well replicate them here:

While I think Liz has the right idea here — relationships are different, people’s ground rules are different, and that’s all to the good — it’s also true that there are implicit default rules of all sorts in relationships. I don’t think there’s all that much to be said in favor of leaning very heavily on those implicit defaults; It’s not like some kind of generic rule is going to be very helpful in specifying when, in a particular instance, your partner is justified in (say) being dismayed by your platonic-but-intimate friendship with another member of the appropriate sex. But as James suggests, they do shape any subsequent negotiation of the specific relationship’s rules.

In a way, I think the “porn as adultery” framing is a red herring, because I can think of a variety of reasons to disapprove of (some sorts of) porn that have nothing whatever to do with whether it constitutes “cheating”. Still, just classing it as “adding a third party” is clearly pretty glib and unhelpful: As an earlier poster noted, there are multiple obvious reasons we have monogamy as the norm from which deviations require some special dispensation, and lots of those reasons aren’t applicable to porn–the obvious ones being disease, risk of pregnancy, and the threat that a sexual relationship will develop into an emotional one that supplants or undermines the preexisting one.

Ultimately, though, arguing about the “right” default norm seems a bit pointless. You may not think “the individual” should be the “final arbiter in matters of sex,” but at the end of the day, norms emerge bottom-up from the practice of lots of individual couples, so while there’s clearly a feedback loop between social expectations and individual preferences, you’re not going to be able to wrench the former too radically away from the average of the latter. Manifestly, plenty of people in some circles don’t especially mind it, and if the only way to change the norm is for them to *start* minding, well, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

If you DO want the norm to eventually change, you’re going to need a lot of those individual discussions where one party is just naturally (or has been persuaded to be by reading blog arguments…) uncomfortable with it and–horrors!–explains or justifies that feeling to the other party. Now, I certainly agree that “it just makes me feel bad” is probably adequate justification in a caring relationship, though I’m hard pressed to see any harm in a conversation that ends with the upset party deciding they don’t mind so much after all. In the cases where the offended party here feels an obligation to offer something further by way of justification, there’s a certain circularity: If porn viewing is sufficiently obviously awful–either for some of the same reasons we frown on adultery, or for quite different reasons–that we should all assume a strong non-porn default without further justification in most relationships, then to precisely the degree that’s the case, the upset person should tend to easily persuade their partner that a no-porn rule is reasonable.

Anyway, I’m guessing that in the real world this mostly gets resolved by social selection: People with strong anti-porn preferences will tend to cluster with other similarly aligned folks, so that the anti-porn norm prevails in their social circle, and vice-versa. The idea that there’s going to be some one set of sexual norms for all Americans is nearly as silly at the subcultural or regional level as at the individual level.

Tags: Sexual Politics · Sociology


       

 

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel // Sep 17, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    “…and the threat that a sexual relationship will develop into an emotional one that supplants or undermines the preexisting one.”
    That’s probably true but pretty sad that even in the strongest relationships such relationships are built partially on a deep and unavoidable fear.

  • 2 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Sep 17, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    No. I think in the real world the default norm is for nearly all men to use pornography and for some women to do so and for some women to really mind it when their men do so. Some of the minders tell their men about it, and those men are consequently more careful about hiding their use.

  • 3 Elizabeth Nolan Brown › The Great LadyBlog Pornography Debate // Jan 31, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    [...] and asking what people thought. A flurry of blog posts were spawned. And apparently this debate has been slowly eating people’s brains throughout the summer. I weigh in here. Join the [...]

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