I need a break from the heavy stuff. The past few posts have been really weighty with world issues, suicide, murder, hate, rape…. honestly, my readers are going to think I’m morbidly incapable of ever seeing the bright side of life!
Not true. So let’s talk about porn.
Today is Lady Porn Day, a twitter and blogging phenomenon that is the brainchild of Chicago-based sex, gender and sexuality journalist Rachel Rabbit White, whose writing centres on creating a public discourse on private matters. Rabbit wants women in the blogosphere to talk openly and engage in discussions on sexuality, masturbation and porn – still taboo subjects for most women, no matter where in the world you live – and so she declared a day for it. The worldwide media has picked up on it and Twitter has been abuzz with thousands of tweets all day under the hashtag #LadyPornDay, with women (and men and gender-queer and people who refuse standard gender designations) chiming in with their joys, fears, laughs and tears all around the notion of porn.
So here is mine: porn is just fine with me. I don’t indulge in it very often (not as often as I’d like), but I don’t avoid it either. I’m a grown up. I like it (well I like what I like, anyway – mostly stuff that falls under the rubric of queer porn or feminist porn). And as a woman and a feminist, I refuse to be treated like a child and told that I am a victim of it. In a world where women are discouraged from owning their desires, where our bodies are invaded by governments and cultures who want to control what goes into them and what comes out of them, watching porn and publicly declaring that you do, is a radical act.
I first came across porn as a kid, when I realised that my dad had a subscription to Playboy. They came in unmarked brown wrappers back in those days, every month and, budding Agatha Christie that I was, over time I found out where he hid the stash, and I had a look. I didn’t like everything I saw. But that’s life. I was not scarred or damaged, nor did I turn into a serial killer (seriously: all things anti-porn activists will have you believe happens to any child or teen the moment their eyes touch a sliver of erotica or porn). I just saw some lovely bodies doing some interesting things that got me thinking about doing that thing I had figured out to do when I was alone and interested in making the day all warm and smiley. I liked the women’s bodies, but there was precious little to see of men’s, and while I knew that what they were doing with one another was sex, I wasn’t overly impressed by that part. I liked to just see the beautiful bodies and… honestly, really…. I enjoyed reading the journalism and the stories (I’m serious). But mainly, I enjoyed the thrill of the chase – sleuthing out those magazines was mostly about savvy and brains: I sussed out the secret behind the brown wrappers, I figured out where they were hidden, I evaded detection – I could slip every single magazine back in place leaving a trail so slight only a contemporary Quantico-trained forensic profiler could ascertain that I had been there. I was good. It made me feel smart, sassy and powerful. So, strangely, my first experience of porn had very little to do with sex and pictures, and much more to do with feeling that if I put my mind to it, I could do pretty much anything… without getting caught by my parents.
My most influential experience with porn, though, came with the Vanessa Williams Miss America/Penthouse scandal of 1984. I was 17. She was the first black Miss America – something a black girl growing up in the 1970s and 80s never thought could happen. No way. But it did. And I remember exactly how I was sitting in front of that television that night, mouth hanging open, breathless, chanting “She’s gonna win, she’s gonna win,” and wisely being told by my mother, who didn’t want to see me hurt, “No, honey. Don’t get your hopes up.” Because in those days black girls (of any skin shade) did not win Miss America. But Vanessa did. And it was like the world changed. And she was from my home town (well almost; a few miles away, but close enough), and I could not believe how unfathomably beautiful she was, and nothing could ever tarnish this feeling that no one could ever tell an African-American girl she was ‘black and ugly’ again damnit! That’s how I felt and that’s how important her victory was to so many black girls at the time…. and then a magazine I had not read called Penthouse broke a scandal that was meant to take all that away from me. Except, it didn’t.
I was too young to buy a copy, but I knew I had to get hold of one. And then one of the neighbourhood kids said something about his grandmother having a copy, because she thought this was a key historical moment for black people, even if it was a scandal, and we could get a quick peek of it if we ran over there right away. And a quick peak was all we got. And we were not allowed to look at any other part of the magazine. That history lesson – which to me was one about racism, sexism, homophobia and how if you rose ‘too high’ some people would try to bring you down – was marked for me by one particular photo of Vanessa and the other woman with their bodies forming a heart, tenderly embracing. I thought it was lovely – how could anyone not like this. I could not understand what the fuss was all about. Only later did it dawn on me that this was America’s newly crowned sweetheart and icon of purity engaged in a queer, interracial embrace. No wonder some folks went apoplectic. She had broken far too many taboos.
So my first experiences of porn were both very political and very personal. They were not marked, as some would have it, by abuse or tragedy or me learning a distorted sense of myself or what ‘real’ sex was about. I am not saying that there is no destructive porn out there…. so much of the porn made by men (sorry guys, but particularly, historically, straight white male porn producers) can be downright distorting and disgusting (to me; this is my personal opinion, which is why it’s on my own damned blog) and, yes, degrading to women. But to say all erotica or porn is cut from the same cloth is foolish.
To say that women who want to cannot and should not educate and claim their sexuality partially through an exposure to porn is to infantalise us and remove our right to decide for ourselves. To say that all porn is bad just buys into the notion that sex by its nature is corrupting and ‘good girls’ need to be saved from seeing or reading about it except in officially sanctioned media.
So, as a grown up, I began to watch the work of women sex-educators and pornographers like Tristan Taormino and read the works of sex-positive feminist such as Susie Bright – both of whom happen to be bisexual or queer. There’s another blog post here somewhere about why so many sex-positive or sex-radical feminist are also bisexual… but that is for another day. For now, it’s very late in Britain, it’s crossed midnight – but in North America and elsewhere, it’s still Lady Porn Day. Go enjoy!