F*ck Me Ethically: The Bad and (Invisible) Good of Porn

Porn is a problem, but it’s not the problem anti-porn activists would have you believe.

In a recent Washington Post article, Gail Dines writes about the “public health hazard” of pornography, citing some of research correlations that I myself found back in 2010 when I did my own literature review of the effects of pornography on adolescents.

However, the article, like my own review, was flawed.

It’s true that adolescents exposed to pornography are more likely to engage in aggressive sexual behavior (Brown & L’Engle, 2009); however, even in the study which found this correlation, the authors acknowledged the limitations of not being able to differentiate between violent and non-violent forms of pornography in the study.

And there’s the first major flaw. Not all pornography is equal. At the time of my literature review, I hadn’t ever seen porn. I was basing my judgments off of statistics about which I had no personal knowledge. And research either failed to describe precisely what was happening in pornography and why the researchers thought that content was particularly nefarious, or it focused on the violent components of certain types of sexually explicit material.

The Washington Post article does the same.

The truth is that pornography is as varied as any form of entertainment. Yes, there is the underbelly of unethical or illegal porn, violent porn, non-consensual porn, and misogynistic porn, which I am fully on board with fighting and dismantling because fuck that shit!

However there is also feminist porn, ethical porn, porn from a woman’s point of view, educational “porn” used by sex educators (I call it porn because you actually watch people perform the thing being taught and it is *ahem* very explicit), and porn that demonstrates consent, safer sex, and mutual pleasure (even when there is choking or bondage involved).

Concerns about pornography tend to include a belief that porn is teaching people to degrade women and desensitizing people to sexual assault. To some extent, that is true. In one study that still stands out in my memory, 17% of men exposed to a suggestive date-rape scenario after viewing degrading sexual material reported a higher likelihood to commit date-rapey activities (Milburn et al., 2000). Yikes! Others have found that exposure to porn for adolescent boys contributes to a higher likelihood of viewing women as sex objects (Peter & Valkenburg, 2007).

However, one must take into account the reciprocal relationship of influence. Media often mirrors pre-existing attitudes because…capitalism 101. Producers produce what sells.

Moreover, pre-existing beliefs often influence what types of media people seek out (Peter & Valkenburg, 2006; Peter & Valkenburg, 2010). And, I probably don’t need to mention (or maybe I do) that parents and other aspects of culture can heavily influence children’s pre-existing beliefs.

In turn, media teaches us what to believe.

(Side note: PG movies, I’ve often found, can be far more sexist and misogynistic than R-rate movies. Rape still gets a lower rating than same-sex, consensual activity. WTF?!)

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to this influence with regard to pornography because we, as a nation, don’t give them anything else to act as a reality check. Our sex ed is deplorable. Often, children learn about sex first through pornography exposure (Brown & L’Engle, 2009).

And yes, teaching kids what sex is through a form of fantasy and entertainment is bad. We don’t show General Hospital to med students expecting them to walk away knowing how to be doctors and surgeons.

However, the answer to me seems infinitely obvious. Children need better sex ed. They need to know that porn isn’t reality and to think about it critically, the way we are teaching them to critically think about advertising and other forms of media.

In fact, it is my hope that the reason that sex ed now begins at age four in the Netherlands is because of the very research I used in my literature review. They want to create a foundation of respect and consent before children get sucked into the Internet world where that barely exists in discussion itself.

In my review, I focused on adolescents because there were substantial sources indicating the adverse effects of early exposure to porn. At the time I was on an anti-porn rampage. I had planned to do the review on porn’s influence on adults, but I couldn’t find enough articles that actually found adverse effects for adults.

I thought it was because the research was biased. Now, after having learned more about pornography and realizing that seeing it doesn’t turn me into a raging, woman-hating, unthinking, sexually assaultive animal, I think it’s because there actually aren’t that many consistent adverse effects (as in aside from other factors such as pre-existing beliefs and wider culture)…if you’re not focusing on the type of porn that is violent and degrading.

I can never pretend that porn is benign. I’ve read too many studies showing that porn does indeed influence. Just as with other areas of entertainment, prejudice and stereotypes need to be addressed. Better representation of women and minorities is needed. Consent needs to be apparent as much in our sexually explicit material as in our daily lives.

And sex workers’ rights desperately need to be addressed so that vulnerable people aren’t exploited or forced into work they don’t want to do.

But the answer isn’t to continue to demonize all porn.

We need nuanced discussion about how different types of porn reflect and influence attitudes. Erika Lust gave a brilliant Ted Talk about the importance of feminists getting involved in making porn so that they can change porn. “Mainstream” shouldn’t refer to degrading, violent, and illegal porn. That should be the fringe, not the majority.

Feminist porn makers have the capacity to change the conversation.

One aspect of the reciprocal relationship of porn that doesn’t get mentioned is that people can’t consume what doesn’t exist. Erika Lust and other feminist porn producers and actors realize this and have worked hard to create sex-positive feminist porn.

Today, porn that respects women’s agency and pleasure and that emphasizes the importance of consensual encounters (and I would include BDSM porn that demonstrates consent) does exist, but where are the studies exploring how that kind of porn influences people?

It is just as oppressive for research to erase the efforts of sex-positive feminists in the porn industry as it would be to pretend that sexist and violent displays of women’s sexuality are okay.

Since writing my literature review on the negative effects of porn, I’ve actually exposed myself to porn in a conscious way and have experienced some of the positive influences that I think a more nuanced exploration of porn might find—such as feeling better about my body image by seeing realistic women, exploring my sexual orientation, learning to value my own sexual pleasure more in my sexual activities by seeing women enthusiastically participate, and learning about sexual empowerment through porn activists like Tristan Taormino, Erika Lust, and Nina Hartley.

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that much of what I am refuting (and thus the literature I’m citing) focuses on heterosexual porn, failing to take into account the role of porn for LGBTQ individuals. I could probably write a whole other paper about the good and bad of non-straight porn, but suffice it to say that this is another area where representation is important and potentially empowering or degrading. I hate to make this the footnote on my piece because I have found porn just as important to my sexual identity as it has been to my feminist identity; unfortunately, I can’t pretend to have done nearly as much research on the importance of queer porn. For a recommended read on the topic of queer and feminist porn, check out Autostraddle’s post.

Non-linked References (Not all of the ones I used in my literature review, just the ones I cited today):

Brown, J. D., & L’Engle, K. L. (2009). X-rated: Sexual attitudes and behaviors associated with U.S. early adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit media. Communication Research 36, 129-151.

Milburn, M. A., Mather, R. & Conrad, S. D. (2000). The effects of viewing r-rated movie scenes that objectify women on perceptions of date rape. Sex Roles 43(9/10), 645-664.

Peter. J. & Valkenburg, P. M. (2006). Adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit material on the internet. Communication Research 33, 178-204.

Peter. J. & Valkenburg, P. M. (2007). Adolescents’ exposure to a sexualized media environment and their notions of women as sex objects. Sex Roles 56, 381-395.

Peter. J. & Valkenburg, P. M. (2010). Adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit internet material, sexual uncertainty, and attitudes toward uncommitted sexual exploration: Is there a link? Communication Research 35, 579-601.


A Sex-Positive Play List

I’m super excited about my classes beginning this semester. I get to take two electives in which I’m extremely interested, one of which is a class on sexuality. In preparation for a full semester of reading about and discussing all things sex, I’ve developed a sex-positive, badass playlist that is as representative as I can find.

I’ve gotten requests to pass on the playlist from a number of friends, so I’m posting it here.

I’m also really interested in continuing to expand it, so if you notice that there is a song you know about that I don’t have, feel free to make a suggestion in the comments. I’m currently strapped for songs by male artists that are sex-positive and respectful.

Enjoy the following playlist! (I’m having a hard time getting the new WordPress format to cooperate with YouTube videos, so I’m linking also to the song through the title).

  1. Love Myself by Hailee Seinfeld
    Everyone needs to celebrate masturbation! Can you scream your own name?
  2. Touch of my Hand by Britney Spears
    Another good masturbation anthem.
  3. Sexercize by Kylie Minogue
    Work it!
  4. Shut Up and Drive by Rihanna
    Because someone needed to make the obvious innuendo
  5. Made to Love by John Legend
    An all-around beautiful song with a beautiful music video celebrating beautiful sex in diverse forms
  6. Worth It by Fifth Harmony ft. Kid Ink
    What could be better than women celebrating their sexuality by saying exactly what they want?
  7. Let’s Talk About Sex by Salt n’ Pepa
    Isn’t it time we destigmatized the topic?
  8. S & M by Rihanna
    A little celebration of some kink needs to be represented, of course.
  9. Candyman by Christina Aguilera
    Just and all around fun song
  10. LoveGame by Lady Gaga
    Of course Lady Gaga needs to be on here!
  11. Three by Britney Spears
    Not everyone is monogamous. Britney gets that.
  12. Blow by Beyonce
    Possibly one of the sexiest songs on the list, and obviously an anthem to oral.
  13. Lick It by God-Des and She
    As much a celebration of women loving women as it is a tutorial on how to do a woman…Unfortunately, I can’t find a non-censored version of this song, but if you buy the actual version it’s explicit. 🙂
  14. Lady Marmalade by Patti LaBelle
    Although sex work requires a much more nuanced conversation, I included a sex-positive prostitution song because I think it needs to be represented. I would never presume that all sex workers feel positive about their work, especially given the deplorable way our nation treats them and the rampant sexism and violence of patriarchy; however, I also would never presume that all sex workers hate their jobs because that’s just not true. So, my disclaimer is that I recognize this song is a limited perspective, romanticized view of prostitution that may have limited applicability.
  15. None of Your Business by Salt n’ Pepa
    For all the haters
  16. Sugar in my Bowl by Nina Simone
    I had to end with a throwback to the dirty blues!

Silly Girls, Orgasmic Sex is for Divas

Should it be news when a woman expects to enjoy sex?

Probably not in a world that isn’t completely fucked up…but actually, yeah, I think it should be news in today’s world.

It’s certainly turning heads that Nicki Minaj stated in her Cosmopolitan interview, “I demand to climax.”

Some are cheering her on. Some, however, think that she’s a “diva.” Because…apparently expecting sex to be pleasurable is such an unreasonable standard.

Sex. Orgasms. Celebrities. Who cares, right?

Well, I care. It’s a big deal.

The very fact that Nicki can create such a fuss over that statement and that she can get such backlash for holding that opinion reveals pretty strongly that even in our “advanced” society, female sexuality is still considered “for others.”

No man—absolutely none—needs to declare that he expects to climax every time he has sex. It’s a given. It’s expected that men will enjoy sex and that sex will lead to orgasm for men.

But women who expect the same…that’s shocking, unheard of, bitchy, demanding, diva-ish.

We live in a society where the female orgasm is extra. Movies and porn center themselves on male pleasure and ejaculation but hold no expectation of showing a woman climaxing. Women’s sexuality is used to sell everything from beer to cars to deodorant, yet women enjoying sex and climaxing during sex is no one’s first concern.

I’ve come to the conclusion that if we hope to change the way our culture views women, we need to change the way our culture views women’s sexuality, not by fighting for fewer displays of sexuality but rather by fighting for displays of sexuality that demonstrate clearly that a woman’s sexuality is for herself.

We need more women declaring that they enjoy sex…and that they only have sex that they can enjoy.

The traditional ways of fighting objectification too easily play into the mindset that a woman’s only reason for being sexual is for the male gaze, male pleasure, etc. It reinforces the myth that women don’t have desires of their own.

Women, and girls especially, need role models who demonstrate…not modesty, but agency in sexuality. We need media that shows sex being rooted in respect, consent, and mutual pleasure. Expecting orgasmic sex shouldn’t have to be a newsworthy story. It’s time for women to take back their right to their own sexuality and demand that sex is as pleasurable for them as it is for their partners.

A Sex-Positive Reading List

I’ve been on a quest to reclaim my sexuality over the last several years, which has been a beautiful and wonderful journey. That journey has required a lot of education and re-education, both about the physical basics of “doing the deed” and about the attitudes I was taught to hold towards sex and my body. There have been a number of books that have been particularly influential in that quest, which I list below. I highly recommend them to anyone else on a similar quest to positive and celebratory sexuality.

The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy

This is, hands-down, the absolute best relationship and sex book I’ve ever read. While the majority of relationship advice in other books is formulaic (do this and you’ll be a strong couple and have great sex; don’t do that or you’ll end up divorced, alone, and very sad), this book recognizes that everyone is different and has different needs, desires, and goals in relationships. Despite being a “guide to polyamory”…or maybe because of being a guide to polyamory…The Ethical Slut offers great tips on boundaries, honesty, working through and owning your own emotions, working through differences with your partner/s, exploring your sexuality, and so much more. Whether you’re single, monogamous, polyamorous, or just plain promiscuous, this is a great book to read to gain a fantastically positive attitude towards sex. Show that judgmental, puritanical voice in your head the way out with a book that celebrates all consensual relationship styles and sexual desires.

Vagina by Naomi Wolf

A little heterosexist, but overall a really great way to start to get to know the female body and introduce yourself to the ways in which others, past and present, have found to honor and love female sexuality. It touches on anatomy and history enough to give you some really interesting information without making you feel like you’re reading a textbook. This is the book that introduced me to the possibility that the physical trauma of my sexual abuse could be treated, and it is thanks to this book (as well as gynecologist who was up on the latest developments) that I was able to seek physical therapy to treat my injured pelvic floor.

What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety by Jaclyn Friedman

This is a really great book that touches on a lot of the stuff that I loved so much in The Ethical Slut but in a way that is less overtly trying to reclaim the idea of “slut.” Each chapter has exercises and journaling prompts to explore your sexuality as well as references to great resources. It has one of the most in-depth guides to talking about sexual safety and sexually transmitted diseases that I’ve come across, which is great if, like me, you were basically led to believe your body would mimic pregnancy if you masturbated and that you could get an sti by holding someone’s hand.

What I love most about this book is that she doesn’t just expect readers to know how to have the conversations necessary with their partners. She infuses the book with excellent information but also incorporates advice on how to have those conversation with partner/s and suggestions of how you can practice them in advance. So, instead of just telling you to tell your partner what you want to do with him/her or if you want to stop at any point, she actually guides you through ways of communicating your needs and desires…which is also really important if, like me, you were basically taught that you didn’t have a right to have your own desires and that sex was something you endured because God expected you to fulfill your wifely duties. Friedman is also wonderfully inclusive of all genders and sexualities.

Women’s Anatomy of Arousal by Sheri Winston

If The Ethical Slut is the best relationship and sex book I’ve ever read, this is the best body and sex book I’ve ever read. Written with incredible beauty and wit (and illustrated with some of the best erotic art in history), this anatomy book is hardly the stuff you’d find in a textbook…yet surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) it covers far more information on the structure and function of a woman’s arousal and reproductive system than I’ve seen anywhere else. This book goes into depth on what Naomi Wolf only touched on and explains in mesmerizing detail how arousal works. Throughout the book, exercises are given to help you learn about and explore your own body and arousal network. Although this book is more about solo learning and play, tips are given for partners to learn how to navigate this amazingly complex system as well.

Succulent Sexcraft by Sheri Winston

I just started reading Sheri’s second book. Although I haven’t finished it yet, I feel pretty confident in recommending it to those on their own sexual journey. The same beauty and wit are present in the writing, but rather than being solely focused on women and women’s anatomy, this book is for anyone, partnered or solo, who is interested in expanding their sexuality in a more positive way. I can’t say yet what will stand out the most to me about this book, but so far it accompanies all of the others beautifully and is inspiring me with yet more reasons to love and honor my sexuality.

Modesty Culture and Yoni Worship: My Journey Out of Self-Objectification and Into Self-Respect

Warning: This post contains nudity. Respect is expected. Before you comment, please read my comment policy. Sexist or slut-shaming language will not be permitted.

The other day, Beauty Redefined had a post on their Facebook page about modesty. Several people commented that immodestly dressed women had low self-esteem. Although BR didn’t say anything to indicate that they hold that opinion themselves, they also didn’t contradict those comments either.

I’ve written about modesty once before when I discussed the place that objectification has within modesty culture. If you’re in the mood for a rant, it’s a great post, but I’m not here to rant today. Rather I’m here to wonder.

“Wonder” is such an interesting word. It can either mean “to contemplate” or “to marvel.” Today, I’m going to do both.

I’m noticing a trend within modesty culture that disturbs me. I know of no word that describes it, so I’ve decided to refer to it as anti-corporeality—being against the body.

On one level, I love what BR is doing in trying to expose the patriarchal power structures that dictate beauty and self-worth to women through the male gaze.

Notice how objectifying ads like this one from Tom Ford constantly degrade and dehumanize women, sometimes even violently, using their bodies for male pleasure while denying women agency.

Notice how objectifying ads like this one from Tom Ford constantly degrade and dehumanize women, sometimes even violently, using their bodies for male pleasure while denying women agency. Sometimes it’s a matter of personal interpretation, but often the creators of the ads are obvious in how they wish it to be interpreted. This one says, “my breasts are for men.”

Unfortunately, I often see that attempt hijacked by modesty culture. Rather than teaching women and girls that they are more than just a body, it seems that the teachings edge towards the other extreme—that women and girls are not bodies. There’s an underlying current that suggests that having a body, acting on sexual desires, or being visible is shameful.

Here’s where I wonder.

When you tell women that they are more than just a body, implying that they should keep themselves covered, I wonder if you are also telling girls that focusing on their bodies at all is wrong. When you link clothing with self-esteem, I wonder if you are reinforcing the idea that appearance is the source of self-esteem. When you hastily generalize being “sexy” with being objectified, I wonder if you are telling women that sexuality is dehumanizing.

Self-esteem and “modesty” are not directly related. On the contrary; they’ve been inversely correlated for me. In the IFB, I was taught that my body was a temptation. I was told that it was my responsibility to be modest in order to protect boys and men from lusting after me and that if I caused a man to stumble, I had committed a form of adultery with him.

I learned to be ashamed of my body, to disconnect from it, to fear it. There were times when I considered taking a knife to my face and my chest, mutilating myself to prevent men from wanting to lust after me.

At the same time, I was taught I was supposed to be attractive for my husband when I got married so that he wouldn’t cheat on me. My mother assigned books for me to read that told me that it was my duty to sexually satisfy my husband. At conferences, I listened to speakers who preached that sex in marriage was like going to a restaurant—as long as you fed your husband often enough at your “find dining” restaurant, he wouldn’t be tempted to go to that cheap MacDonald’s across the street.

In that way, I learned to hate my body, for it could never measure up to the ideals I saw on TV or billboards.

Modesty culture destroyed my self-esteem.

Over the last four years I’ve been going through a transformation. It wasn’t just a rejection of modesty culture as a toxic philosophy; it was a journey into the wonder of my body.

Nudity and sexuality can be beautiful and sacred, even with a camera present. In this picture, I see nudity and sexuality that honors rather than degrades. (Photo taken by Solus-Photography and modelled by Alex B. and Mike Cooney; used with permission. Click on the picture to see more of her beautiful work.)

Of course, first I had to do the work to free myself from modesty teachings. Feminism played a wonderful role in opening my eyes to the oppression inherent in rape culture (which I explain is related to modesty culture in my other post). It was key in helping me recognize that I wasn’t responsible for other people’s thoughts or actions—that I had a right to be treated like a human being regardless of my appearance.

Then in February, I started what I now see was a full-blown paradigm shift. I dedicated the month to reading about and celebrating the female body. I threw a yoni party (read about it here), complete with vagina straws and tampon crafts. What began as an archetypal reverence apparently became internalized. I didn’t even realize it until this past week when I saw the modesty post from BR.

As soon as I read the first comment linking self-esteem with modesty, I thought, “But that’s not true. I wear things all the time that I would have considered ‘immodest’ at one point, and my self-esteem is fine. I love my body.”

The last four words left me in awe.

I love my body.

Sometime between February and now, I fell in love with my body. I love the way it moves during yoga, when I dance, when I run, and yes, even when I have sex. I love my vagina, my sacred yoni. I love my breasts, small as they are. I love my legs, with the varicose veins beginning to form. I love the hive scars that scatter across my chest . . . and the cutting scars that speak of my survival. I love my eyes and my lips and my neck. I love my hair. I love my feet. I love my hands.

I don’t love my body because I look like a model or because it’s “perfect” in form or execution.

I love it because it’s part of me.

I am not just a body. I have a mind too. I celebrate my mind every day with writing, reading, discussions, even daydreams.

But I am not just a mind, which means that I also celebrate my body. Part of celebrating my body can involve things like taking a bath, exercising, eating, or snuggling into clean sheets. However, part of celebrating my body also involves celebrating my sexuality—learning to belly dance, wearing something that makes me feel sexy, actually having sex. If I listened to the modesty movement, I would think those things are objectifying and harmful to my self-esteem . . . except that they’re not.

Objectification is not about how much skin is or isn’t showing. It’s about the cultural lens through which we choose to view the body.

I objectified myself all the time when I ascribed to modesty culture because I constantly thought about myself in terms of what I did to others. Am I attractive enough to keep my husband faithful? Am I covered enough to prevent a man from thinking about sex with me? Is it okay to wear shorts on a hot day, or would I be looking like a tramp? Do I compare with a porn star in bed? Should I be like a porn star in bed?

What stopped me from objectifying myself wasn’t clothing. My self-esteem didn’t rise because of an extra inch of fabric. Rather, I learned to stop objectifying myself by living in my body. It is not a temple in which my spirit is housed. It is the part of me that connects to the world. I’m not ashamed of it or objectified by it.

I wanted to insert a video at the end here, but I can’t figure out how to do so. Please visit Hysterical Literature, a project that seeks to film women reading books while being sexually stimulated off-camera. Although there is no nudity, those who fear female sexuality would find this objectionable and uncomfortable. I think it is a beautiful illustration of the body/mind blend of being a woman. Also, if you’re interested in reading some great posts about sexual ethics, check out Sarah Over the Moon’s series.