Critiques of pornography, though now by and large relegated to academic journals, have not changed since the 1980s, when they routinely made front-page news. The average antiporn argument still turns on the idea that there is a vast underground pornosphere, the horrifying details of which are not public knowledge. A locus classicus of this genre is the 1986 report of the Meese Commission on Pornography, which contains a bullet list of the titles of what it says are 2,325 distinct pornographic magazines. Here is a sampling from the Gs:
901. Girls Who Crave Big Cocks
902. Girls Who Eat Cum
903. Girls Who Eat Dark Meat
904. Girls Who Eat Girls
905. Girls Who Eat Hot Cum
This goes on for some fifty pages.
The members of the Meese Commission then give us a taste of the contents of the materials they have catalogued. Here, for example, is the first part of a plot summary for the book Tying Up Rebecca:
Chapter One introduces 13-year-old gymnast Becky Mingus and her middle-aged coach Vern Lawless—who hasn’t had sex in seven years. In the locker room a 15-year-old cheerleader named Patty begins to masturbate, but mistakenly sticks her fingers in Becky’s vagina. Patty then goes into the boys’ locker room, discards her towel, rubs her breasts, and exposes her genitals. A boy forces Patty to her knees; Patty tongues his anus; he shoves her face in the drain; Becky masturbates; the boy performs cunnilingus; Patty performs fellatio; the boy has vaginal intercourse with Patty.
Chapter Two. At home, Vern’s wife wants to make their marriage better, and has bought a skimpy bra and crotchless panties from a girl in the lingerie store who had submitted to Vern’s wife’s uncontrollable sucking on her breasts and fingering her vagina. Lawless is aroused and masturbates when he sees his wife lying on the rug in the lingerie, but he loses his erection when he spots a picture of Becky. Vern explains his problem, and his wife says she understands and goes to the bathroom to masturbate.
Chapter Three. Becky’s father, Henry, sits at home remembering a teenage encounter with a girl and masturbates. He accidentally ejaculates on Becky’s face just as she comes in the room. Her face dripping with semen, Becky sees her father’s erection and runs to her room crying. The next day, Louise decides to tell Henry, Becky’s father, about Vern’s lust for Becky. They go to a room upstairs that is equipped with leather clothing, ropes, chains, metal sheaths. Henry unbuttons her blouse, pulls up her skirt, pulls down her panties. His erect penis splits his pants. He performs cunnilingus and analingus. She performs fellatio.
Tying Up Rebecca is the only novel the report discusses in detail. One imagines that the commissioners’ agenda in letting it stand as the example of pornographic writing was to license their condemning in the strongest terms the eroticization of, at least, adultery, pederasty, incest, and rape. But of course the plot summary itself reenacts this eroticization. The commissioner-author forgoes the possibility of arid description and resorts instead to conventional pornographic lingo (“tongues his anus,” “uncontrollable sucking on her breasts,” “dripping with semen”). And the sense that the summary was written in pornographic breathless haste is reinforced by the writer’s sloppiness: the ambiguity about the recipient of the Chapter One boy’s oral favors; the failure to identify “Louise” as Vern’s wife; the unintuitive uses of the concepts of “mistake” and “accident.”
I suppose it’s conceivable that the members of the Meese Commission were too busy crusading to see that to describe a piece of porn is to produce a piece of porn—that in this subgenre of writing, at least, intentions count for nothing. There are people who enjoy accusing Andrea Dworkin, the iconic antiporn feminist, of being asleep at the same wheel. But, as implausibly extreme as her views were, Dworkin was no Meese Commissioner. She understood that readers of her 1981 book Pornography, which is basically one graphic Tying Up Rebecca–ish plot summary after the next, are at least as likely to hold their genitalia as they are their noses. Dworkin’s strategy was to persuade us that the sensibilities of contemporary men—all men, not just habitual users of porn—are founded on pornography’s eroticization of the subordination and abuse of women. Her goal in documenting instances of porn was to get us to experience the discomfort of becoming aroused by what she hoped she had convinced us is fundamentally soul-crushing, and not just for women.
What Dworkin demanded of us was a species of deep self-hatred, the kind you might live with if you weighed 300 pounds and were desperate to lose weight but just couldn’t stop yourself from succumbing to the temptation to eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Dworkin hoped to elicit in ordinary prurient adults the kind of self-loathing our present culture hopes to elicit in pederasts. In other words, Dworkin was asking us, we who cannot just throw off our pornographic investments, to inhabit a state of shame. This demand differs from that of the moralistic Meesian, who in his bad-faith posturing would have us pretend that pornography and decent people by definition have nothing to do with each other, that only certain fringy folks get aroused by anything other than the touch of another human being (preferably, one’s spouse), and that everyone but the real sickos has the wherewithal simply to swear off smut. Dworkin wanted all of us to recognize and despise the sickos within ourselves.