to want them, to be them, or both? [perspectives in porn]

So last week I reviewed an anthology of essays on pornography, and kind of in passing I asked why we generally assume that people watch porn because they want to fantasize about having sex with the people the camera's gaze is trained on. That is, in porn marketed to men who like having sex with women, female actors take center stage and male performers are assumed to be exchangeable stand-ins for the Everyman Viewer. Women are cast with an eye toward what body types producers imagine their Everymen want to fantasize about exchanging bodily fluids with.

I don't understand where this narrative assumption comes from.

Is that actually how the majority of people watch porn?

Because that's certainly one perspective to take when consuming erotic material: the "would I wantonly ravish this person?" perspective. However the viewer/reader assesses the sexual attractiveness of a given performer/character (visual presentation, sexual style, aspects of character, voice, etc.), that question certainly informs how you enter into the fantasy of the pornographic scenario. If the answer to the above question is yes! it becomes easier to understand the motivations of the ravishers as depicted in said piece of smut. It's easier to get drawn into the story, just as it's easier to get drawn into any work of fiction when you care about the character's well-being, or want to know what happens next.

I get that. There's a reason I'm drawn to some relationships in fan fiction and not others; some character dynamics just don't do it for me. Others do.

But I find this an unsatisfying and incomplete assessment of how people (read: "men" in most discussions about pornographic film) interact with porn. Why? Because it's not the only way I -- as a consumer/creator -- interact with sexually-explicit material. And it's not the only way people interact with fiction generally. We know this. And yet, somehow, when the question of sexually-explicit material is on the table all of our wisdom about the viewer/reader and their complex interactions with what they watch and read flies right out the window.

To whit, when it comes to porn, despite the fact I'm a voyeur by definition (reading/watching the characters/performers interact in sexual ways without literally being involved with them) my pleasure is often less contingent on the question "would I wantonly ravish this person?" than it is on the question "if someone ravished me in this fashion, how might it feel?" Or, "is this dynamic between them an arousing one? how is it making the actors/characters feel? why is it making them feel that way? The sexual activity depicted doesn't have to be something I'd definitely find pleasurable in real life, but a successful pornographic or erotic narrative will encourage an imaginative connection, prompting me to explore how such an activity could be pleasurable to the performers/characters in question.

Like any good work of fiction, pornography and erotica asks us to put ourselves in someone else's shoes (or, you know, lacey knickers). And learn something meaningful or moving while we're there.

So all of this leads me back to the question: Rather than assuming people sexually objectify the performers in porn, why don't we wonder to what extent they're identifying with them? After all, we're human beings watching (or reading about) human bodies experiencing sexual pleasure. Doesn't it make sense that we'd -- at least to some extent -- imagine ourselves into their situation as much as we might imagine being the person sexually stimulating them?

I look at this image and I feel the water washing across my skin (via)
I haven't watched much moving-image porn, so perhaps the descriptions I've read of pornographic films are giving me the wrong impression here? But when I read synopses of films, I'm definitely aroused most often by imagining myself in the role of the performers whose pleasure is visible on screen. Like, if the film is going to show me a woman giving a man (or woman) a blow job, and it's the giver's body and facial expressions and responses we're seeing, isn't that the person we'd be likely to identify with -- not the disembodied dick (or clit) that appears as a prop on the screen?

And no, I don't think the answer can be as simple as "but dudes can't/won't imagine themselves into the position of a female performer because their bodies are different!" because I read plenty of erotic material in which the only bodies involved are male bodies and I definitely successfully identify with those characters. So I think we're too quick to assume that anatomical body difference is a barrier to imaginative involvement.

Maybe it's partly a (socialized or innate) gender thing? Recent studies have suggested that men and women generally interact with porn in different ways, with men being less flexible in what types of erotic imagery arouse them (women appear to be catholic in their tastes: it doesn't generally matter whose bodies are depicted, or even that they be human bodies -- if sexytimes be happening, our pleasure centers light up). But I'm tired of the simplistic assumption, without research to back it up, that men only interact with porn in a way that interprets the (female) actors depicted on screen as objects rather than subjects. At the very least, I'd imagine it's likely viewers of pornography -- just like readers of fiction or viewers of any other genre of film -- switch imaginative perspectives, so that response to a question about who is being observed and who is being identified with would change over the course of the viewing/reading experience in complicated, unstable ways.

I'm continuing to think about this question while reading Laura Kipnis' Bound and Gagged (1997) and Linda Williams Hard Core (1989) this month. They're both fascinating studies which have much to recommended them, though some of the debates they engage with are certainly dated. Still, on the watch for questions of perspective both authors seem only to nod in passing to the idea that male viewers might be watching the bodies in screen in less-than-straightforward ways. Williams, for example, seems to assume that heterosexual male arousal in reaction to viewing an aroused male body would be an experience of homosexual desire, rather than, you know, a response to the arousal of a body the viewer could imagine being. So it's clear that even the leading thinkers in this field have taken this question somewhat as read.

What are your experiences with sexually-explicit material? To what extent do you find yourself wanting to be and/or wanting to have the individuals depicted or described? How does the voyeurism of engaging with other peoples' (fictional or performed) sexual intimacy pull you in as an observer-participant? Do you tend to identify with all of the characters in a scene, or specific characters? To what extent does body type and physical sex contribute to your choice of character with whom to identify?

I'd love to hear your thoughts; if you want to share anonymously the form should allow for that -- and I'll try to monitor the thread carefully so that anon comments don't end up in the trash if they are actually legitimate contributions (95% of my "anon" comments are just straightforward spam).

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