Disturbing arousal

‘We’re the 4chan generation – can’t get off unless it’s at least borderline disturbing.’ (via Twitter)

Recently I participated in a research project examining female desire and pornography. As part of the project, I watched a short female-directed adult film and answered a series of questions about my expectations versus my actual responses.

Once I got past the awkwardness of watching an adult movie in an empty university tutorial room, I actually found the film surprisingly sexy. It wasn’t like other porn that I have seen. The actors were attractive and natural looking: no plumped-up lips, plastic boobs or monster cocks. The costumes and sets were likewise visually appealing. The film paid attention to both the male and female characters’ needs. None of the activities the actors engaged in appeared painful or gravity defying. There was no spitting, hair pulling, or anal savaging, and no one looked as if he or she were in pain. The actors displayed passion and desire for one another, not just each other’s orifices. They kissed and caressed like lovers, rather than, well—porn stars. This might be what two good-looking people who are actually into each other get up to in an ideal session of loving hot sex.

However, when it came to answering the questionnaire about my expectations and what I valued as important in such a film, I hesitated. I wanted to say, ‘Yes, this film is exactly what I want as a woman. It’s not crude, it doesn’t objectify the characters, and it contains emotion and eroticism: THIS is what porn should be!’ The problem was, if I am honest, it didn’t turn me on as much as other porn that I have seen (and I don’t think I can entirely blame my viewing situation).

I could easily answer, ‘Yes, I found this movie enjoyable.’ But by that, I mean I could see myself happily sitting down to watch it for an evening. In lingerie. With popcorn. Possibly even with my lover beside me. But it’s not likely to do the trick if I’m looking for a quick get-me-off-before-the-housemate-comes-home fix.

The hesitation came because in saying this, I feel like I am somehow letting women down. Not that I am any kind of ‘spokesperson for women’, but I feel this is an opportunity to have input into the kind of porn produced by women, for women, and that I should be fighting for quality material that doesn’t objectify or degrade, which addresses a lot of the things I hear women complain about in more male-oriented porn.

In Even Better Than I responded to an article that dealt with men’s complaints that porn is ruining them for sex in real life by setting up unrealistic ideas of how they (and their partners) should behave in the bedroom. Women, I argued, are just as ruined by the sorts of images and ideas our culture conditions them to like, which can set up equally unrealistic expectations of sex and relationships and leave us reliant on our imaginations to fill in the sexually satisfying gaps.

Because I have exposure to romance-fuelled Fabio-ideals from my adolescence, feminist ideals during my late-teens and early twenties, and hard-core pornography during my Dirty Thirties, when asked to put pen to paper, I struggled to distinguish between what I thought I should want, and what actually turned me on. The ‘conditioned woman’ in me felt I should want ‘nice’ porn, the ‘feminist’ wanted porn that was all about the woman’s needs, while the ‘hard-core watching woman’ had to admit to not responding as strongly in the absence of power-play and objectification.

The truth is, when it comes to how the brain is wired, objectifying images may be less comfortable and more confronting to watch, but they evoke a more direct physical response. At least, they do in me.

One of the questions the researchers asked was whether I felt disgusted at any point during the film. They also asked about feelings of guilt or shame, to which I answered that I experienced none. Had they asked these questions about some of the male-oriented hard-core porn that I have watched, I may not have been able to answer the same, and yet watching that porn was more physically arousing. I found myself asking, is that because I already have exposure to more hard-core porn and this has somehow desensitised me, or is this an innate physical response hard-wired to get me off on images that are more graphic?

I have seen porn that I haven’t enjoyed, that I have found so uncomfortable watching, I switched it off. This was porn that to empathise with made me squirm in imagined pain, humiliation, or disgust. But on some level, there was still a physical response going on—an involuntary one, and one that disturbed me.

Mental stimulation is very important for me during sex. I respond keenly to role-play and dirty-talk. This stuff hits deep inside my psyche and will get me off even when the scenarios are of things I would dread happening in real life. On one level my brain is firing, ‘Yes!’ but on another, ‘No, really—no.’ And I don’t think I can blame these responses on exposure to hard-core pornography. For me, at least, something innate is going on.

By contrast, the porn I watched during the study was both arousing and enjoyable. I suffered no inner conflict, and it left no residual guilt or disgust. I thought to myself, this might be a good introduction to pornography for people with waning libidos, who don’t want to watch anything too confronting, or perhaps a good antidote for those who have lost their lust for sex in the real world, in that it might help them re-connect emotion and eroticism.

But just at the moment, I don’t fit into either category. I’m somewhere in the middle. My ideal pornography would be something with enough power play and objectification to be stimulating, but enough emotional connection and respect between the characters that it doesn’t leave me feeling conflicted and dirty.

Because what if there is an emotional cost of continually engaging in a kind of ‘disturbing arousal’? Whether the impact is on the level of intimacy in my relationships or an inability to ‘get-off’ with my partner, or manifests as scars upon my psyche from residual feelings of shame and disgust. I’d rather not take the risk if I can help it, and instead make use of material that is arousing minus the emotional disturbance. I just wish there had been space on the questionnaire to write that.

First published as ‘Disturbing Arousal’ in Rhonda Perky’s Bits.

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