Fantasy Islands

Review: Nancy Bauer, 'How to Do Things With Pornography'


There’s an occasional column in the newspaper I read daily about bad TV called "We Watch So You Don’t Have To." I read How to Do Things With Pornography so you don’t have to. What’s most interesting about it is not the book itself, which is a patchwork of largely technical academic philosophy pieces, very few of which are actually about porn. But inside this book is a more interesting one trying to get out, the way Michelangelo’s "Slaves" are seen as spirit struggling to emerge from brute matter, muscular men straining against unfinished blocks of marble. I think I can describe this more interesting book about porn.

Porn is almost universally condemned by a paradoxical consortium of left-wing feminist academics and right-wing Christians, yet it’s something that studies show to be almost universally viewed by younger men. Too young, certainly, because of its ubiquity on the internet. That’s a problem, and trafficking in underage or exploited models is a problem, and any kind of addiction (internet, porn) is a problem. But is porn itself a problem? Virtually all women and certainly all feminist philosophers say it is, and virtually all men disagree. (In this sense it’s the current version of masturbation, which the nineteenth century universally vilified, and which almost all men and not a few women practiced.)

The book itself is a hodge-podge. There are bitty takes on about a dozen subjects ranging from the author’s views of how the language philosopher John Austin has been misunderstood (the intellectual center of the book and the source of the title, which is a play on his "How to Do Things with Words") to insider pieces about a certain philosophy conference where people debated whether it was OK for philosophy to be the dry academic insider wheel-spinning it has become, or whether it should try and speak to real people (um—the second!), and a New York Times blog, and an analysis of a movie called Lars and the Real Girl.

What does this have to do with porn? Bauer is making so tiny and academic a point it seems embarrassing after the build-up of the title (we never learn "How to Do Things with Pornography"). But pay attention, class; quiz to follow. Here goes: porn has been defended in the courts on the grounds that it’s speech. And feminists have used Austin to argue that porn isn’t speech because instead it’s what Austin called "speech acts," words that do things (see the title both of her book here and of Austin’s). She disapproves of porn, sure, but for a different reason. (That’s the takeaway: highlight this in your notes, class.) Namely that porn shows actions and so has its effect on the world in a way that has nothing to do with speech.

That was it. Seriously. Bauer is likeable because she knows philosophy ought to be in the world, and is clearly frustrated with the fact that it has ghettoized itself. I couldn’t agree more. But the technical point she’s making here is one that won’t resonate with outsiders. And at the end of the day she’s still another feminist disapprover.

Porn is such a big topic and so ubiquitous that it’s frustrating to see it slip away like sand through Bauer’s fingers. Men like it; women don’t. Academics disapprove; porn viewers don’t care. That’s the problem that frustrates Bauer, and that she never solves.

All feminist disapproval of pornography and of men for liking it derives from the now-classic thinkers of the 1970s and 80s Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, and the development of their ideas by philosophy professors such as Martha Nussbaum. In a nutshell, porn is bad because it shows men how to do it: mistreat, rape, penetrate, demean. Not to mention "objectivize," a concept that is MacKinnon’s biggest contribution to the zeitgeist.

Women are objectivized, according to feminist anti-porn theory, if they are not treated as Kantian "ends in themselves"—but how you can have sex that respects women as an end in herself rather than an instrument, at least to some degree, of the man’s pleasure if he sticks it in and thrusts until orgasm is unclear. To some theorists, that’s just what’s wrong with all male-female insertive sex, and also what’s wrong with sex’s simulacrum, porn. As Robin Morgan famously said, "pornography is the theory and rape is the practice." And Dworkin was clear that any penetration of a woman by a man in real life was bad (she envisioned, like Tolstoy, celibate marriages). Very, very bad. And men show just how bad they are by continuing to view it.

Bauer is certainly right to be anguished about the fact that academic philosophy, here her nuanced rather than full-bore disapproval of porn, will never reach the ears of the frat boys watching porn, who would never listen anyway. Nor, as Bauer knows, does the blanket disapproval of porn from 40 years ago seem to account for the hookup culture she describes where her female students, who call themselves "girls" rather than "women" in violation of all twentieth-century feminist hopes, seem to be willing participants in their objectification. She somehow realizes that feminism has failed to "get" porn, but she can’t say why.

I can. It’s fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it has no impact on the world. Certainly it gives people ideas, as well as taking up time and imprinting images on our brains and channeling expectations. It’s quite wrong to defend porn on the specious grounds that when it’s over it’s over. But it’s far from the only thing that has that relationship to reality, so the solution is to talk about the relationship, not to ban this one thing.

I teach literature, and there have been many attempts to ban books on the grounds that they give people ideas, or that they make bad things seem plausible. And the thing is, they do! Now I’m finishing Flaubert’s Madame Bovary with two classes of freshmen, plebes, at the U.S. Naval Academy. The French prosecutor attempted to get the book banned in 1857 because the heroine is shown having affairs and the book can be read as a "how-to" guide for adultery. It was successfully defended on the grounds that the adulterous Emma dies a horrible death by her own hand. But it can be used as a how-to guide! And what she does is scandalous! Literature isn’t a silly pastime; it plays a role in the world. And so, for men, does porn.

People like living alternative fantasies that work out better than reality—the problem is in thinking that they can be found entirely in reality. That’s where Emma Bovary herself went wrong, concluding that she could recreate the sensationalized romantic novels that were smuggled into her convent. Or Don Quixote, who set out to find medieval romance in windmills and a washerwoman.

Bauer is certainly right that porn is neither "speech," as the courts say, nor merely harmless fantasy, as many of its defenders assert. It takes up time, it gives us ideas, it can make us dissatisfied with the world: all quite true. But it is so powerful because it allows males a space where the sexual encounter by definition goes completely according to their taste (they find the kind of porn they like), as it so rarely does in the world. That’s the nature of the alternative realities, sexual and otherwise, that we call both art and porn—and of course there’s a huge overlap. How many women have sighed over Brad Pitt’s naked torso in a movie theater? Lots of boys have gotten hard-ons from Greek statues of Venus.

There are no women in porn, just images—just the way books have characters, not real people inside their covers. If the men watching it are too young to realize that it’s not reality, then get parents to control underage internet porn the way they try to control liquor, and explain to men in school how porn isn’t reality. Now we pretend they aren’t and do nothing but disapprove of it.

The big mistake of theory about men from Kinsey through the current "gender theory" dominated by feminists is to say that men are sexual because of certain qualities about them independent of their situations. In fact men are sexual within very predictable parameters, with most of the world in their "no-fly zone," as I call it. Mom, sis, work colleagues, the supermarket cashier—for that matter, everybody except a wife, if married. If a military officer, female subordinates are clearly in the no-fly zone; if a male coach of a female team, the players are. Almost all men know this, and we typically feel collegial or protective toward such women. (Exceptions are exceptions. Don’t tar and feather all men for the sins of a few.)

Where is our "do fly" zone? Precisely those vilified college years, at those vilified frat parties. Nobody is married, nobody is sis, everybody comes with sex on his or her minds. It’s a tiny sliver of interactions with females. Can even this go wrong? Of course. The edges of the no-fly zone are sometimes unclear. It can happen and we say OK and leave. Got it. But this is definitely a situation in the do-fly zone, whereas propositioning a modestly-dressed woman with her family in a restaurant is not.

Porn is so satisfying for the same reason Emma Bovary found her sexualized romances satisfying: it’s a version of social reality, and it’s all for us. Of course it’s solipsistic, and of course it’s not real. Not knowing that is what cost Emma Bovary her life. But most of us get that it isn’t real. Explain to young men how real women are different; sure. Forbid porn using exploited or underage models. Promote safe sex. Absolutely. There are problems associated with porn, as there are with everything, like food and work, but porn itself is not the problem.

Bauer is a realistic feminist, and an academic philosopher longing to throw off the shackles of academic philosophy. I like her for the realism and the longing. But she doesn’t get out of the stone she’s trapped in.