The Maltese Courtyard: Cultivating a Garden of Earthly Delights

Contents: Not terribly safe for work but much too long for you to read on the job anyway. Can however be read in the vicinity of your wife.

I’ve seen much written recently, among the journalism, cultural criticism and literary milieux, on the topic of pornography. On the rapid decline of the industry as the internet is inundated by amateur contributions. On its disturbing use as a modality in sex education for young adults in Britain. Informative “it’s a job” accounts from women neither expressly ashamed nor naive about their work. Manifestoes asserting its culpability in the rise of bad sex between couples. Zombie debates among feminists attempting to appraise its moral value once and for all. Creative non-fiction seeking to identify the locus of the genre vis-à-vis erotica. Musing essays on unidentified muses.

I’ve noted its increasing appearance in casual conversation in an era when data privacy, security, access and profitability are the stuff of dinner party-talk. It also feels like an elephant in the proverbial room into which we as a nation forced to choose our next President have been locked, a metaphor for the spectacle we watch day in and out, leaving us feeling collectively ashamed but captivated by the obscenity. Or worse, verbatim reportage from the campaign trail. In more intimate arenas, I, a comfortably sex-positive woman, don’t get far into conversations with men before the subject arises. Usually his opinion as expressed to me hovers between, “Yeah. But it’s lame,” and “Never. It is degrading to women.”

I did not end up a comfortably sex-positive adult woman out of pressure to avoid accusations of frigidity or to be a cool girl. Quite the opposite. My sexuality is unrelated to the opinions of men (or women, except that of my gynecologist.) I made a conscious decision early on to not let men define my self-worth and to not deny myself enjoyment of life in all its facets. I believe that our sexual, intellectual, emotional and spiritual faculties require equal cultivation and integrity and can be equal sources of transcendence, growth, vitality, wisdom, liberation and joy. I feel like it is something I got right against the odds and can speak about with some dignity and confidence.

I have no opinion of pornography as moral or immoral. I have concerns about the working conditions, as I do of all jobs. I have concerns about what stereotypes the content reinforces, as I do of all media. I have concerns about the general welfare of performers and consumers, as I do of everyone living under predatory capitalism. I am seriously fucking concerned if people are showing it to children. Never do this. But what an adult does alone in the privacy of their own home is of no interest to me. Abstractly, I think, “Yay, freedom of expression! Ew, whydya, uhm, express it like that?” Abstractly, I feel, pornography and war have this in common: However justifiable or unavoidable they may or may not be, they represent a failure to achieve a desired goal using our higher faculties.

I do however have opinions about both the way we talk about pornography and the art-erotica-pornography spectrum.

I. How we talk about pornography.

It is demeaning to women. Who are these women? Why are they doing this? Are they in positions of agency when they agree to be filmed in such a manner? Are they trafficked or on drugs? Are they being hurt? Paid? Do they even realize they are being degraded? Do they even realize they are being filmed? Are women watching these things as instructional lessons in male pleasure or internalizing messages about how they should appear and perform? IS ANYONE THINKING OF THE WOMEN? This is how most critiques of pornography are framed. This, and it’ll fuck up your computer if you aren’t careful.

Anyone who has read my previous tinyletters knows I am thinking about the women, but such framing gives me pause. There are many subgenres of pornography. Take feminist porn. They are thinking of the women. Or gay men’s porn. They are certainly not thinking of the women. In traditional heterosexual porn, scenes in which no men are present are common. Who is degrading whom in those scenes? The implication is that women being fucked are de facto women being degraded and/or the act of voyeurism is itself an act of degradation. Newsflash: fucking, being fucked and being watched are all things many confident, self-aware women enjoy. Some people are even into this thing called BDSM where humiliation is required for arousal. What a world! Of course pornography expressly intended to humiliate women for the arousal of men exists. A Presidential candidate expressly intent on humiliating women exists. There is no sliver of society so narrow that you will not find a humiliated woman in it. Be offended by the real or perceived humiliation of women in pornography, but then also be offended by the real and dismissed humiliation of women in workplaces, on campuses, in locker-rooms, etc. Speak up on that too.

So what if women learn things from watching adult entertainment? Would society judge them less if they honed their technique over years of experience with a vast array of partners? You’re killing me. And do people really believe women (and, c’mon, men too) refer to a handy porn manual? If a woman is sleeping with you and is performing acts she does not wish to but feels she should, that is a reflection of the relationship dynamic: insecurity, lack of trust and communication, suspected potential for abuse or genuine desire to placate a partner. There’s a lot of porn out there. There is also a lot of informed advice about how to be a responsible partner out there. As for internalized messages about appearance, it’s coming at us from every angle. But put down those razors, ladies. You will thank me.

Lastly, the “What is her story?” concern, though well-intended, makes me uneasy. She has consented to reveal this aspect of herself to you. Nothing else. And if she is performing or being filmed without consent, why violate her privacy further? I dislike the spectacle of passing public judgment on unknown women’s dignity or life-decisions. That can be as damaging as any sex act. Sexually immodest women will attest to the fact that at some point a man has worried about, questioned or made an eye-rolling comment about her self-esteem. This says more to me about men than women, either about men’s own feelings of worthiness and motivations or about what banging a woman does to her purity, that magical well from which all feminine good springs forth. Like I said, eye-rolling. Why do we never care about why a man is in this profession? Because men aren’t capable of feeling degraded? Because men never get into sex work for tragic reasons? Please.

Yet who among us has watched pornography and felt great about ourselves afterwards? Exactly. Why? Because it’s objectifying? Because you cannot be certain the on-screen performers gave consent? Because all the bodies look unreal and like people you’d probably hate in real life? Because of the awkwardness of masturbation that relies on other people, who are blissfully unaware of your existence? Because those people aren’t going to bring you a towel and a glass of water and tell you how fabulous you are? Because it requires no effort and therefore affords no sense of accomplishment? Because the biology of orgasm doesn’t guarantee the neurology of bliss? Because, racing to climax as quickly as possible, you can’t take the time to treat yourself with dignity? Because you close the screen and delete your history like a petty criminal rather than remember the episode fondly like the good lover you are? All of the above. Social and economic matters aside, consuming pornography is the uncanny valley of sex. Too human in appearance; too robotic in praxis. It doesn’t feel lame and degrading because it’s explicit. It feels lame and degrading because it is bad sex with yourself. You should feel terrible!

None of this is to say there are no meaningful, beneficial ways of consuming pornography, that concerns surrounding its production and content are unwarranted or that my experiences or comfort levels are more valid than anyone else’s. This is an attempt to unravel my own feelings on the matter, because the Internet.

II. The art-erotica-pornography spectrum.

I try to avoid the internet for anything but work, music and practical applications. With the exception of Twitter, which I’ve come to think of as an infinite archive of art, poetry, essays, wit and other morsels of personal enrichment and succor. It’s like a nicely catalogued micro-internet: Art Twitter, Poetry Twitter, Feminist Twitter… There is a Twitter genre devoted to something approaching erotica that follows a peculiar formula: a mix of classy black & white and/or artistic photography featuring professional models in various stages of undress or intimacy, positive-affirmation quotes, always pictures of women in bed drinking coffee and holding a book, paintings of flowers and fairies, snippets of Neruda and Anais Nin, portraits of Hollywood icons. The aesthetic is “female dorm-room as imagined by a man who never got into a female dorm-room.” The fairies creep me out, so I don’t follow these accounts. But if you search for them (because who doesn’t enjoy a tasteful, black & white, wide-angle photograph of cunnilingus) hardcore porn comes up in their mentions. Which I personally don’t need to see. Then I found a faeries-free account I was willing to follow, saving me the trauma involved in a casual search for high-brow sauciness. It’s Italian, of course.

The account’s namesake is a sea-faring comic book character and an homage to Sir Francis Drake, yet this isn’t a nautical endeavor. A more cultivated variation on the aforementioned genre, posts include quotations from cool people in Italian (which I don’t read terribly well and cannot attest to the corniness of), classical art, a vast selection of erotica from around the world and over the decades, and sometimes pornography. It is almost entirely devoted to imagery, with little if any personal communication from its curator. Pictures are posted from the account in rapid sequence: a Rilke quote, several Renaissance paintings, crumbling statues of Greek gods, ancient carved phallic symbols, illustrations from ribald18th Century French novellas, examples of shunga, Warhol-esque trash, ridiculous Victorian smut, drawings by Picasso and Matisse, a picture of an empty room in a beautiful villa, a Sontag quote. I find the pace, sequence and selection of images as provocative as the content of the images themselves. Like a Dadaist stunt, one cannot help but feel aware of one’s expectations being undermined. But is it mischief, one man’s cabinet of curiosities or a serious statement about all those ways of looking: What is art? What is erotica? What is pornography? It comes down to an individual’s disposition, to a point. And that point will always be dubious. But we will always agree that there is a point. Or is there?

The labels of “art,” “erotica” and “pornography” carry moral and aesthetic connotations. I find the terms refer more effectively to function rather than quality. Someone may look at Michelangelo’s David and label it pornographic. Someone may proclaim a 1970’s issue of Hustler Magazine art. Both would be moral and aesthetic judgments, expressions of personal taste that cannot be qualified or disputed. But if we consider function, it becomes clear that the David is art and Hustler Magazine is pornography, without either of those labels carrying moral or aesthetic judgment. Michelangelo’s intent is to invite contemplation of the human physique, the nature of marble, the Biblical hero, Florence, etc. It is not to get you off. Hustler’s intention is to get you off, with as little contemplation as possible. It’s an oversimplified example, but it illustrates this point: A nude is not a nude is not a nude.

No one will ever agree on an answer to the enduring question, “What is art?” Fewer will agree to a definition of erotica. A popular one is “pornography for people who fancy themselves too discriminating for pornography,” an opinion girded by the fact that much popular pornography labels itself erotica for marketing reasons. True, most people consume erotica because they get off on it, so it is pornographic in that respect. On the other hand, erotica can have a meaningful function beyond the getting off bit. It can invite contemplation of not only the content but of the medium, the context, the creator or the human condition, lending itself to art. If not its own unique genre, erotica fills that suggestively-shaped space formed by the overlap of art and pornography in a Venn diagram. It can multi-task.

We need also inject nuance into the way we discuss sexual arousal. Much happens physiologically during intercourse outside the locus of the action and orgasm. Why not expect these perks from other sexual experiences? You may look at L’Origine du Monde and churn a bit, feel differently in your own body, smirk, become self-conscious of your gaze, develop a heightened awareness of your surroundings, feel adrenaline flood your system, your heart pound, breath shorten, flesh flush. You may find this experience to be exhilarating enough without the compulsion to immediately act upon it. You may gaze at that tasteful black & white, wide-angle photograph of a woman receiving oral sex and not immediately shove a hand down your pants but appreciate the careful lighting, the class and discretion with which the moment has been captured, that anyone should care enough to present the act with such reverence. You may look at painting of a reclining nude and have no response at all, which is perfectly fine. On the other hand, if you look at porn and have no response at all, you might be Patrick Bateman.

Nuanced, low-key and intellectual kinds of arousal provoked by erotic imagery are often sufficiently sating in themselves. But I’ve no issue with the getting off part. I’m advocating for quality getting off and arguing that erotica –whatever it is for you- is more suitable to that end than pornography. Pornography skips the scenic detours around our imaginations and the subtler but no less desirable sensations of carnal bliss. Pornography wants you as hot and wet as quickly as possible. Which is not always a bad thing; we all have busy schedules. But I, and I suspect deep down most people, want the whole fucking package. Lacking that, many people turn to porn. I want something that makes me feel good about sex. Something that celebrates the sensual lingering over. The imagined possibilities created by what is left unrevealed. The whimsy. The surge of curiosity, creativity and energy. The sharpened senses. The heightened appreciation for the curve of a line. The awareness and enjoyment of being in one’s own skin. The luxuriating in one’s surroundings, like a cat. The weightlessness. The angelic feeling of no judgment. The memory, an image, a sensation, one can return to without shame. That is the stuff of great fucking sex regardless of your gender, orientation, libido, comfort-level, kinks or quirks.

And even if you’re still meh after a wank to Courbet, at least you saw some cool art. 🙂