This piece was originally published in Slovenian for the cultural journal Razpotja, one of the finest magazines on the international scene. Artwork by Maja Poljanc.
The problem with pornography is not that it treats sex lightly but that it treats it seriously; not that it laughs at the sexual act, but that it cannot laugh at all. It’s an oddity of our “sex-positive” world — the iconic “sex-face” is negative.
One sees it, not simply in pornography, but in the proto-porn glaring from the covers of magazines. The “sexiest woman alive” looks remarkably annoyed by the fact. The man selling you briefs glowers at his public like they used his last scoop of protein powder. The celebrity plastered next to “25 Brand New Tricks For Getting Him In Bed” is pouting, like she ran through the tips, “got him in bed,” and now wants to get him out.
Porn glowers in sly, secretive, open-lipped pouts and indifferent, half-lidded masks. One might think this odd (after all, aren’t we being invited to look?) but then one would not really understand what pornography is. The basic goal of pornography is the exposure of one’s genital organs in a manner that an anonymous audience can enjoy. This sounds easy enough, but the genitals have the misfortune of being funny.
One could hardly imagine a more crushing blow to the would-be pornstar — to expose his genitals to an anonymous public and receive a gale of laughter in return. But could he be surprised? From the Ancient Greeks to the present day, mankind has known no more immediate way to score a laugh than to wave a phallus around or speak scornfully of the vagina. The area about the butt remains the butt of our jokes.
Philosophy has offered a number of theories as to the proper cause of laughter. Which ever one picks, the genital organ fits. If humor is based on the ridiculous, such that we laugh when we feel superior to something, then the genitals are prototypically comic — they are ugly, representing all that is “lower” in us. If humor is based on incongruence, then the genitals are comic once more — the nobility of human reproduction is joined to the baseness of human urination in one single organ. The pleasure of entry into the vagina is conjoined to the pain of a child’s exit. If humor is based on the let down between expectation and reality, then the genital organs are archetypally comic. The center and summit of erotic desire, in comparison to the rest of the body, is disproportionate, hairy, and odd. Hellenistic artists, in their effort to depict the glory of the beautiful body, were forced to erase the labia and shrink the penis to pre-pubescent proportions.
So the genitals and their activities are comic. They stick out and contradict human nobility. They are ugly bits at the center of the beautiful body. If a prototypical joke is a man in fancy clothes slipping on a banana peel, than the genitals are prototypical — they “bring down” the dignified person by their behavior and appearance.
Laughter can only occur in a creature who “takes a distance” from its drives. Animals do not laugh for the same reason they do not sleep or invent better housing methods — they cannot transcend the immediacy of their environment. They cannot see their eating and sleeping as abstract objects apart from their actual eating and sleeping. They are too “caught up” in mating to reflect on their mating as something funny.
Only the human can rise above his situation, look on it, and say, “after all, when you take a moment to think about, there is something rather humorous about all this.” If I am told, “You’ll laugh about it later” after breaking my leg, it is because I am able to detach myself from the immediate experience, consider it as an situation that could have befallen any man, and, finding it incongruous with my experience of myself as a dignified, upright being — laugh.
Now pornography must suppress laughter for precisely this reason, that to be able to laugh at the genital organs is to be able to take a distance from them, to cease considering them as immediately stimulating objects evoking an immediate response. The problem is that, when one is able to look at the genital organs outside of the immediate drive of arousal, one is able to see them in all their ambiguous functions of urination, menstruation or, by proximity, excretion. One is able to see them as aesthetically or anatomically — as bits of flesh. One is able to see them as belonging to this or that particular person, and even, as in erotic love, as signifying and effecting the self-giving of that particular person. Generally speaking, none of these views makes the pornwatcher want to keep watching pornography, to the chagrin of a wealthy class who make their millions on the habits of a porn-addled public.
This is the origin of post-orgasm humor, in which, upon the dissipation of arousal, a man laughingly looks at the same pornography and says “What on earth am I doing?” What “fit” by virtue of appealing to our immediate drives suddenly seems out of place when these drives are dissipated. What began as serious and sexy ends up as ugly and ridiculous.
Pornography can never be “light” or “fun.” Of course, this is the description that a pornographic age must give to justify its favorite mastrubation aid. We call it a “natural,” “healthy” — and thus manage to rhetorically coat it with the same gloss as a jog through a smog-free downtown. But pleasure does not always indicate fun. In fact, there is no more serious, grim-faced pursuit of pleasure than the face of the pornwatcher as he wards off all views of the genitals besides the aroused-view. There are many methods by which pornography keeps sex serious. Anger, violence and general attitude of “dirtiness” certainly helps. But I think that there’s two methods that don’t get much attention: crime and urgency.
Pornography has an ambiguous relationship to child-pornography. Obviously, we condemn and abhor any sexual exploitation of children unable to fulfill that basic requirement of sexual ethics, that all acts, filmed or otherwise, occur between “consenting adults.” At the same time, it is in the interest of the pornographer to promote the concept that pornography flirts with crime, because this renders it a serious, dirty affair, and thus helps to bracket the humor of the genital organs. Thus, a trope of the porn-world is that the pornstars shown are “barely legal,” that its actors have “just turned 18” and so on. The pornwatcher is invited to consider his act as existing on the fringe of the law, that his pornography is a birthday away from being a horrific, criminal act. This is no mere cult of youth — there is no visual difference between an 18-year old and a 19-year old. This is a method of bracketing the humor of the erotic by making the act as close to a transgression of the law as possible.
It is seen, likewise, in the pornographic scene that transgresses the law of the parent or any other authority. It is seen in the immensely popular pornography that purports to show / does in fact show someone being “tricked” into sexual acts. Transgression adds a seriousness to pornography that cancels the relaxed gaze and thus puts the humor of the genital organs out of play. The fantasy of some serious erotic situation, like adultery or incest, brackets the appearance of the organs as ridiculous.
Man is the animal who laughs because humor requires a step back from the immediacy of a drive. Urgency is the attempt to make “stepping back” impossible. Much of what critics call the “unrealistic expectations” of pornography is found here. This urgency is expressed in myriad ways, but the most obvious is in the constancy of the near-orgasmic. It is hardly a secret that pornographers use the “cut” to extend the period before orgasm to indefinite lengths — it is this tactic that has feminist critics crying out against the unreasonable expectation that a genuinely aroused man can engage in furiously-paced sex for thirty minutes without orgasming, that women can endure relentless, violent sex from multiple men without pain and disgust. This same tactic is criticized for inducing in men the vague idea that comfort, warmth, kindness, and repetition are necessary for female orgasm — that one can simply “go for it” and voila, she will exist on the edge of orgasm for the foreseeable future. But the success of the pornographic is to move quickly past the merely pleasurable, in which jokes are possible and ease and comfort allow for distance and even conversation between partners — to skip all this for the absolutely urgent period of coitus in which drive and desire are too intense for ironic distance.
All of this is pure mythos, but my generation can be roughly described as a generation that received its primary sexual education through the myth-making machine of hardcore pornography. Part of this education was a gradual association of erotic love with a grim-faced seriousness. We fear any association of the erotic act with joy and comedy as if such bright additions to our pleasure would sin against the proper darkness and dirtiness of the act.
We believe that there are professional standards and “best practices” to sex, and often argue that one must make sure that one’s prospective partner is “good at sex” before one weds themselves to that particular bed. Amateur means lover, but the thought of an amateur lover has become increasingly unloveable to a generation educated in the activities of professionals. We apply the same fetishization of the certificate to erotic love as we have to education — the idea of a marriage as a lifelong learning of the geography and contours of the other’s desire appears naive. Mistakes, jokes, learning, difficulty — these all threaten the return of the suppressed comedy of sexual love, and we, the sex-educated, know that sex is a very serious, very professional skill indeed. The desperation with which magazines publish new sex tips promising the “hottest sex ever” seems to take its cue from a porn-educated gaze that sex is serious skill that requires professional advice in order to be properly enjoyed.
The marriage that does make it past the fear of being amateur is immediately assaulted by the promise — from therapists, publishers, and merchants with vested interest in making such promises — that one can spice up their boring sexual existence with the addition of transgression, toys and group readings of 50 Shades of Grey. Here, the only thing sinful is not to sin; the only thing unlawful is to have sex within the bounds of the moral law; the only thing prohibited is sex without the transgression of prohibitions. The truly dirty act becomes the happy grin; our dark-unspeakable, the smile.