Adult Erotica Revisited: An Interview with Debbie Nathan

Nathan’s “Pornography,” for Toronto’s Groundwood Books, centers on the kind of explicit sexual entertainment that falls into quite a different category from webcam services – that is, interactive chats which are no more “pornography” than any other personal conversations between intimates. Still, I felt sure that Love and Health readers would be as fascinated and enlightened by Nathan’s views on porn as I was, especially since much of the shame that dims our enjoyment of erotic materials stems from the false beliefs that much of her research debunks.

I think you’ll find Nathan’s comments eye-opening whether you’re an older adult – perhaps even an “old hand” at viewing sexy images – or whether you’re a younger adult, new to the world of erotic pleasures; or whether you’re a parent with college students at home, uncertain how access to sexually explicit materials will affect them.

Revisiting Porn: an Interview with Debbie Nathan

Dr Joy Davidson: Debbie, you’ve been writing about sexual politics for 20 years. You were the first to take a critical look at the “satanic” daycare center panic of the 1980s, which led to your co-authored book, “Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt.” Later you worked on the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Capturing the Friedmans.” Now you’ve taken on the world of pornography and adult entertainment. What inspired you to invest so much of yourself in this challenging topic?

Debbie Nathan: A Canadian press asked me to come up with a subject for their “social issues” book series geared toward younger adult readers. I wanted to know more about pornography because I’m from that generation of feminists in which one group advocated banning porn, and the other defended the free speech right to make and view it – even if they weren’t into porn. I was in the second group. Yet, I knew very little about what pornography actually looks and sounds like, where it comes from, or who’s involved in it. I felt ignorant. I decided to learn by writing a book.

Doing the research, I saw a lot of porn I disliked, but was surprised to see a lot that intrigued me, charmed me, turned me on. Plus, I got an unexpected response when I talked to people about what I was doing. My college aged son and daughter and their friends were fascinated. So were my boomer-age pals who’d spent a lifetime avoiding porn – or, at least that’s what they claimed!

DrJD: In your book you discuss the idea that “pornography” does not actually exist; that only the naming of the thing creates it. Can you explain what you mean by that?

DNathan: Sexual images have been around for thousands of years, but in the old days, no one thought of them as porn. Roman households were filled with paintings of people having sex, even in rooms used by the whole family. Family eating utensils were decorated with sexual images. Churches in the Middle Ages and Renaissance regularly displayed sexual paintings and statues. No one blinked an eye. Only in the mid-19th century did authorities in countries like England and the US start worrying that sexual materials could hurt people and send them to hell. That’s when laws began segregating and restricting this material. The word “pornography” was first used then, to help pass and enforce the legislation. It does seem that saying the word created the porn.

DrJD: Many people contend that we are being harmed by the volume of sexually explicit materials available on the internet, and by the accessibility of adult entertainment to anyone with a broadband connection. Is technology really creating a porn monster that is about to eat the world, or is this an urban horror myth that alarms us unnecessarily?

DNathan: Probably the latter. For hundreds of years, every new media technology has been launched with sexual imagery. The first printing presses didn’t just make Bibles – they also created countless representations of people coupling. Photography started the same way. Moralists complained back then that dirty books and pictures would ruin civilization. They didn’t. The same is true for the Internet, where less than two percent of websites are porn sites anyway.

DrJD: Are any of the accusations about porn borne out by the research, i.e. – does porn cause rape? Does porn make men aggressive toward women or desire violent or sadistic forms of sex?

DNathan: No and no. Research has shown that legalization and mass consumption of porn is correlated with declines in rape rates, not increases. Studies suggest that young men who see violent or sadistic porn may act more aggressively in laboratory settings. But labs are their own fantasy worlds. Behavior in these artificial environments seems unconnected to behavior in the real world.

DrJD: The belief that porn objectifies women is so universal that it is rarely questioned. In your research, do you find this to be an accurate conception?

DNathan: My sense is that porn always objectifies someone – it’s the nature of the beast. Porn puts the viewer’s personal, self-absorbed fantasies front and center, and the performers are only props to fulfill the fantasy. But what else is new – in life as a whole?

Part of human development is learning, little by little, to “subjectify” people – meaning, simply, to get outside ourselves and consider the other person’s wants and needs. Learning to do this is what being human is about. But we don’t “subjectify” others all the time. Sometimes we take a self-indulgent break and objectify. We use many media to do this: Hollywood and fashion photos are just two examples. They’re not always overtly sexual, but they still use actors, actresses and models as objects.

DrJD: You’re saying that objectification is the very nature of fantasy – sexual or otherwise. So objectifying people in sexual fantasies isn’t much different from objectifying them in romantic fantasies. Either way, our focus is on satisfying our own needs, without regard for the other’s. But doesn’t it seem that the sheer volume of porn, made for straight guys, objectifies women? How about objectifying male sexuality, too?

DNathan: It’s true that a lot of porn does objectify women. But there’s always been a good deal that does the same to males. In a lot of S/M porn, women are dominating and “objectifying” men. In lesbian porn made by lesbians, one woman is “objectifying” another. Ditto for the men in gay male porn. As more and more porn gets made by and for sexual minorities and women, we’ll have more “equal opportunity” fantasy. Will it objectify? Sure – but it’s fantasy, not reality. We know the difference because we’re human and we’re social creatures.

DrJD: How have porn consumers changed as the internet has made adult entertainment more available? What do the most recent stats tell us?

DNathan: It used to be that practically everyone who used porn was male. But nowadays, more and more women are looking. A study done in 2001 found that a quarter of visitors to adult websites were women. By early this year, that figure had jumped to almost half.

DrJD: What do you think about the cultural pressure upon women and men to be sexy in a certain media-approved way? Is “pornification” of the mainstream media a function of pornography bleeding into popular culture or is the opposite true: that pornography actually reflects typical mainstream media images?

DNathan: My research revealed that many people feel that pornography pressures them to think they must wax their genitals, arch their backs, have anal sex when they’re not interested in it, and otherwise perform in ways that aren’t spontaneous – otherwise they won’t be sexy. Many fear that porn makes men dissatisfied with real women. Yet few talk about how mainstream media, from Hollywood movies to Vogue magazine, also imposes strict standards of beauty and performance on sexuality. People have always seen far more of this material than they have porn, so they’ve probably been much more affected by mainstream images.

If you dig deeply into the world of porn and adult entertainment, and particularly into the amateur genre, you run across much more variety in appearance and sexual behavior than you do in mainstream media. You see fat, cellulite, Caesarian scars, even spazzy orgasms rather than phony, gymnastic ones. It’s surprisingly sexy! To the extent that porn does stereotype, though, I think the solution is not making less of it but more. More, that is, if it’s produced by all kinds of people, and not just by big businesses catering to the mass market and trying to make mega-profits.

DrJD: The big change in adult entertainment does seem to be the advent of amateur performances, either in homemade films or through webcam relationships. How else are these genres different from traditional, “down in the Valley” films?

DNathan: Amateur performers aren’t in it for the money. They don’t have to pass a beauty test – they pick their partners, and they literally call their own shots with the type of sex they do on camera. Webcam performers interact with customers and may follow instructions about what to do sexually on camera, but if they don’t like the instructions, they can refuse to carry them out. They don’t have to worry about being forced into unwanted acts.

DrJD: What is your vision of the adult entertainment of the future? Where should we be heading?

DNathan: We should be working to open the media and technology to everybody who wants to participate, regardless of whether or not they’re rich or whether what they produce can make lots of money. That goes for all image-making and inventiveness, including the sexually oriented kind. If many different kinds of people could make images and design new products, the world would be filled with a great variety and creativity of expression. Porn would be just one genre that would benefit. But to keep porn in the mix, we’d have to demystify it, to stop condemning it as immoral. If we could do that, we might not have pornography anymore. Instead, we’d have a gorgeous carnival of sexual imagery and sexual aids which would speak to everyone’s fantasies, desires and yearnings. That would make a far more passionate and happier world than what we’ve got today.

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