Problems of Pornography

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.

"Pornography is any matter or thing exhibiting or visually representing persons or animals performing the sexual act, whether normal or abnormal." — Ernst & Seagle, To the Pure, 1929

However narrow, quaint and prudish the above definition seems to be today, I don't think our modern definitions, however permissive, are any less narrow, quaint and prudish. This is because the term "pornography" is without exception a pejorative description of something that is sexually explicit. Those who do not automatically regard sexual explicitness as A Bad Thing will be unable to use the word "pornography" in intelligent discourse.

If a sexually explicit novel is exploitative one can say so, and say why, without resorting to the use of a puritan vocabulary overladen with emotional connotations. If a picture is stimulating one can call it stimulating, and explain in what ways it stimulates, without needlessly coloring the argument by labelling it "pornographic" or "obscene." Obscenity — like beauty, truth, and contact lenses — rests in the eye of the beholder.

Even one of the most liberal advocates of the freedom to read and see sexually explicit art, Peter Webb, author of The Erotic Arts (1975), completely loses his case when he accepts one definition of "pornography" by saying that it is linked to "obscenity" rather than to "eroticism." As I see it, the adjective "erotic" is simply used to describe an obscenity more than a hundred years old. It is very much a matter of the hallowed past, and a game with words that operates on the principle by which "second-hand" furniture eventually becomes "antique." At least in popular usage.

In Webb's more metaphysical approach — and all attempts to define "pornography" become murky — he introduces a "vital distinction" between these terms by claiming that the former is masturbatory while the latter is "celebratory." What kind of sentimental mush is he trying to set before us? Masturbation is as "celebratory" as anything else: it celebrates the pleasures of one's own body. Masturbation for Webb is apparently as much a vice as it was for the Victorian quacks.

Attempts to define "pornography" ultimately founder upon the difficulty of determining the reader's or viewer's reaction (in fact they all seem to rest upon whether or not a male reader achieves an erection when confronted with such material). The difficulty with this is the immense variability of human response: one person may be "turned on" by a perfectly "harmless" and "innocent" description of horses, while another may require lengthy descriptions of black shiny boots before he can achieve orgasm; nor can we discount the fact that sexually explicit material of the coarsest "pornographic" nature turns many people off.

The other difficulty of defining "pornography" — besides the fact that it really does not get us anywhere — is that the term does not exist in a vacuum, but is invariably part of a puritan complex which always concludes its argument thus: "therefore, it must be banned." Now, censorship is a serious issue, and I am not so simpleminded as to advocate the total abolition of all forms of censorship — which would mean, for example, that newspaper editors have the right to refer to black people as "niggers." However, I refuse to wholeheartedly enter this debate as long as censorship is aimed almost exclusively at sexual matters. This obsessive concern with cocks and cunts (I apologize for being coarse, but that is what it boils down to) seems to be fundamentally misguided, and founded upon the principle that the greatest source of pleasure is essentially and inherently evil. That simply will not do.

I do not wish to obscure the fact that there are many important issues to consider before one comes out either for or against the full legalization of "pornography," its production and distribution.

First and foremost is the charge that "pornography" degrades women. My impression is that, in general, this seems to be true; but when hard pressed I am utterly unable to define "degrading" any more clearly that I can define "obscene": it also rests in the eye of the beholder. For example, the placing of women upon a pedestal of purity often denies them their sexual rights — which to my mind is far more degrading than showing them to be actively interested in sex. If I were a censor, I would be far more likely to discourage writing which teaches women to be subservient to men and their family role, than writing which demonstrates that women desire sex as much as do men and can dominate in sexual decision-making (the fact that they may wear spiked boots and wield whips is really irrelevant). In other words, I would censor women's magazines and religious tracts far more readily than so-called "pornography." Nor should we forget that a basic assumption of some "pornography" is that all human beings are animalistic in their lusts: this goes for men as well as women, and in this respect the "degradation" of the sexes is about equal.

A second important charge is that "pornography" degrades the very quality of the erotic life. Much sexually explicit writing is admittedly unattractive: sloppy drawings, crude vocabularies, vulgar humor. Dirty books tend to leave a foul taste in the mouth, and to reinforce feelings of guilt. But I do not see that this is any concern for courts of law.

A third charge is that the reading of "pornography" results in harmful behavior. But merely to assert that smut is bad for you is not nearly enough: each person has the right to go to hell in his or her own fashion. One dare not underestimate the intellect or commonsense of the people: they do not need to be protected from things which they can decide for themselves. Censorship laws are nothing if not patronizing. They assume that we haven't sufficient mental powers to realize that some scenes in "pornography" are fantasies and ought not to be carried into practice (for example, hanging oneself to achieve erection, which indeed some men regularly try to do, and sometimes fail to release themselves in time).

There is the danger that mutual masturbatory rituals in a sex club can lead to wilder and wilder experiments and dangerous games — but this happens with or without the aid of bizarre sex manuals. Surely I have the right to inform you that some people insert their fists into the rectums of their partners. I need not tell you that this can be dangerous in order to exculpate myself from a charge of being "pornographic." If my matter-of-fact observation cannot be prosecuted, why, then, should sexually explicit descriptions of such acts be banned? Surely it is not because such "stimulating" descriptions make the acts seem desirable. This is simply not true: the description may well end up showing the death of the partner — as in the concluding pages of Teleny, doubtfully attributed to Oscar Wilde, in which a man inserts a large bottle or vase into his rectum, the glass breaks, and he bleeds to death, unable to get out the broken fragment. This tale has a moral.

Well, enough of my random thoughts for now. Let us turn from the question "What makes a good book dirty?" to a more interesting question: "What makes a good dirty book?"

Good porn — often like good sex — is gradual, slow and methodic. The very word "slowly" renders more exciting any description of rubbing, thrusting, stroking, whipping or whatever. The one exception is ejaculation, which is best described as "spasmodic jerks." But if the sexual narrative itself is spasmodic and jerky, it generally fails to produce the physical tension necessary for a good erotic read. One of the rhetorical techniques of portraying erotic gradualness is the repetition of degree-terms, the most common being "lower and lower," "harder and harder," or "deeper and deeper." The best anatomical descriptions are lovingly detailed, and proceed at the snail's pace of a large-scale geographic survey. As John Donne wrote in the seventeenth century: "Licence my roving hands, that they may go before, behind, between, above, below — Oh my America! My New-found-land!"

One of the reasons for this slow charting is obvious: each scene in a wicked work should be directly linked to the actual amount of time a reader requires to be aroused, to achieve climax, to sink happily into lethargy: the longer the narrative, the more stimulating the foreplay with oneself. Too-abrupt shifts to new scenes of debauchery result in a slackening of physical tension, and perhaps its loss rather than release.

Journalistic heterosexual porn is usually much too abrupt and swift to leave any time for arousal, as in the following, from Esquire:

"NOW I'll show you what kind of organ player I am!" he panted.
"No, oh no!" she screamed.
He stopped his violent thrusting for an instant, and wadded the bottom of her choir robes into her gaping mouth.
"Gwamph! oh gwoomph!" she cried.
"Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!" he answered, shuddering as he released his pent-up load. "Amen," he breathed as the police arrived.

As a far more satisfying example of loose literature, let us conclude this essay with an examination of the most famous example of all erotic fiction, John Cleland's Fanny Hill, or the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published around 1747-48. It is too well known to merit a lengthy analysis, but most commentators agree that it is one of the finest products of the erotic imagination — indeed they take pains to free it from the stigma of "pornography." This need not concern us overmuch, though we will appreciate that the book is written with taste, style, elegance and wit, and that its suppression as an "immoral" work is today unthinkable.

Unfortunately even many "unexpurgated" editions are not complete, and have omitted a homoerotic passage in the interests of heterosexual propriety. Now this is manifestly discriminatory — particularly since even the lesbian passages have remained unexpurgated. The gay passage did not appear in the very first edition, and it is possible that it was inserted into a later edition by the bookseller Samuel Drybutter, who according to tradition (possibly erroneous) was pilloried in 1757 for selling copies of Fanny Hill. In 1770 and again in 1774 Drybutter was arrested for attempted sodomy. He was satirized as a sodomite in pamphlets such as Sodom and Onan (1776), and there are contemporary prints illustrating the hangman trying to lead him to the gallows, but he escaped execution by fleeing abroad.

The missing passage concerns two men whom Miss Hill secretly observed during her trip to Hampton Court. The reader will note that Cleland (or is the author here Drybutter?) describes the event with the utmost delicacy and refinement — and no little coy humor — and uses the technique of methodical slowness described above. The diction is sometimes over-eloquent, but not devoid of literary excellence:

For presently the eldest unbuttoned the other's breeches, and removing the linen barrier, brought out to view a white shaft, middle sized, and scarce fledged, when after handling and playing with it a little, with other dalliance, all received by the boy without other opposition than certain wayward coynesses, ten times more alluring than repulsive, he got him to turn round, with his face from him, to a chair that stood hard by, when knowing, I suppose, his office, the Ganymede now obsequiously leaned his head against the back of it, and projecting his body, made a fair mark, still covered with his shirt, as he thus stood in a side view to me, but fronting his companion, who, presently unmasking his battery, produced an engine that certainly deserved to be put to a better use, and very fit to confirm me in my disbelief of the possibility of things being pushed to odious extremities, which I had built on the disproportion of parts; but this disbelief I was now to be cured of, as by my consent all young men should likewise be, that their innocence may not be betrayed into such snares, for want of knowing the extent of their danger, for nothing is more certain than that ignorance of a vice is by no means a guard against it.

Slipping, then, aside the young lad's shirt, and tucking it up under his cloaths behind, he shewed to the open air those globular fleshy eminences that compose the Mount Pleasants of Rome, and which now, with all the narrow vale that intersects them, stood displayed and exposed to his attack, nor could I without a shudder behold the dispositions he made for it. First, then, moistening well with spittle his instrument, obviously to make it glib; he pointed, he introduced it, as I could plainly discern, not only from its direction, and my losing sight of it, but by the writhing, twisting, and soft murmured complaints of the young sufferer; but at length, the first straights of entrance being pretty well got through, everything seemed to move and go pretty currently on, as on a carpet road, without much rub or resistance; and now, passing one hand round his minion's hips, he got hold of his red-topped ivory toy, that stood perfectly stiff, and shewed, that if he was like his mother behind, he was like his father before; this he diverted himself with, whilst with the other he wantoned with his hair, and leaning forward over his back, drew his face, from which the boy shook the loose curls that fell over it, in the posture he stood him in, and brought him towards his, so as to receive a long breathed kiss; after which, renewing his driving, and thus continuing to harass his rear, the height of the fit came on with its usual symptoms, and dismissed the action.

Copyright © 1977, 1998 Rictor Norton.

CITATION: Rictor Norton, "Problems of Pornography", Gay History and Literature, 1 October 2003 <>

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