icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

From Phyllida's Desk

The Aesthetics of Porn

In the recent movie The Kids Are All Right, an early joke is that the lesbian couple watches gay male porn. When their fifteen-year-old son discovers their stash and wants to know why they don’t watch movies about women, his biological mother, played by Julianne Moore, tries valiantly to come up with logical explanations. Women’s sexuality is all “internal,” she says, and sometimes it’s more of a turn-on to see sex that’s “external.” And most “lesbian” porn is really two straight women pretending…

Nobody questions the basic premise: that porn must be directly related to its viewer(s)’ sexuality in order to fulfill its “purpose” of getting its viewers off.

Several years ago, I participated in a small study of women who watch gay male porn. (I don’t actually watch much porn, but I have read some. And when it comes to sex scenes in non-porn movies, I prefer seeing man-on-man action.) So I’ve known this little secret for some time: women of all sexual orientations enjoy seeing men having sex with each other. The reasons they give don’t seem that strange, at least to other women. Men together are sexy in a way that a man and a woman, or even two women, are not. We don’t have to worry about coercion and victimization when we watch men; everybody in a gay male porn film seems to be having a good time. The acting may not be great, but the pleasure looks real, not faked.

Many people are bothered by the seeming “purposelessness” of women watching men having sex with each other. “Do you want to join them?” we’re asked. “Or do you want to take the place of one of the men?” People probably wonder the same things about men who watch “lesbian” porn, but that whole idea has been so overexposed in the media that it’s no longer thought of as unusual—and therefore, not questioned.

One of the sexiest scenes of all time (for me) was in the (not-porn) movie Wilde, starring Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde and Jude Law as Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie). Bosie, no longer willing to engage in sex with the older Wilde, energetically fucks a rent boy on the bed in one of London’s most expensive hotels while Wilde sits in a chair, watching and smoking. Porn is often described as voyeuristic, and this particular scene allows viewers to both watch and participate through the character of Wilde.

When I watch that scene, do I want to join this group? God, no! Do I want to take the place of one of the men? Yeah, right. Of course, in “real life,” should Jude Law somehow have the misfortune to land in my bed, I would not, as the saying goes, kick him out—but the reason the scene works for me (I still get excited picturing it) is what I would call aesthetic. There’s something beautiful about the young actor, slim and blond, muscular and masculine, performing this (I assume) simulated sexual activity. Who wouldn’t enjoy such a sight? And for me, the idea that we’re seeing Oscar Wilde and Bosie, not just two or three random people; that the scene depicts a climactic (so to speak) moment in their story, as Bosie’s irate and mad father, the Marquess of Queensbury (a scarily believable performance by Tom Wilkinson) is in the lobby demanding to know his son’s whereabouts—all this adds immeasurably to my enjoyment.

By contrast, a clip I stumbled across years ago on my computer, searching for “bisexual m/m/f,” was one of the most unaesthetic things I’ve ever seen. The actors were ugly and I don’t recall if there was any attempt at a story. It’s enough to give porn a bad reputation.

Probably the most famous quote about porn is Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it.” This reminds me of another famous quote, from Gelett Burgess, artist, critic and poet: “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” We’re constantly revising our definitions of both art and porn, and some works that were banned as obscene are, a few years later, considered classics of art or literature.

Art is venerated and porn reviled, but they share the same “purpose:” to give pleasure. Many beautiful things, not obviously useful or practical, are luxuries in some way, from higher education, to art and music, and reading fiction. In bad economic times, the “purpose” of college is devalued from producing educated citizens who can think critically and for themselves, to simple preparation for a high-paying job—or any job. On the gender front, it’s sad to read about Thomas Jefferson, who dearly loved his daughters and granddaughters “for their individual gifts” and encouraged their education, while reminding them that they were “destined for housekeeping.” (From the New York Times review of The Women Jefferson Loved by Virginia Scharff. Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010.) In this case, we’re torn between wishing that learning could have the “purpose” of freeing its beneficiaries from housework and grudging recognition that for the landed gentry like Jefferson, “purposeless” learning was the most valuable kind—just as I’m arguing here.

Art has often had a religious significance or “purpose”—but so has porn. In ancient Babylon, worship of the goddess Ishtar involved a stint of temple prostitution for both men and women. Scholar Rictor Norton theorizes that exposure to this foreign custom during the Jews’ captivity is what led to the infamous prohibition in Leviticus against men who lie with men. (I’m still waiting for explanations of the rules against shaving or wearing clothing of mixed fibers—and wondering why our Christian leaders hardly ever sermonize on them, despite the ongoing and flagrant disobedience in most congregations.)

We don’t have to have a practical reason for what we like or what turns us on. If we enjoy something, it doesn’t have to “make sense” or serve a purpose. The perception of beauty and the attainment of pleasure are all that matter.

Now if I can just stop imagining Fitz(william Darcy) and Charles (Bingley) making love with each other, I might be able to get some work done..
Be the first to comment