Jeff Koons and La Cicciolina, Madonna, For Women, the Journal of Erotica, they're all worthy subjects of chatter, but the chatter usually gets bogged down in aesthetics before it gets close to the purpose of porn. What do the people who know about the seamier side of pornography feel when they're using it?
Recently, there was a men-only day seminar on the subject. It was organised by John Jordan, an artist who set up 'Guilty Pleasures', a series of video booths in Nottingham, in which the videotaped images of men (electronically disguised) were shown talking about their hands-on experience of the stuff. 'Out of this,' Mr Jordan says, 'came the need for a proper discussion. Feminism put pornography on the agenda, but until now the debate has lacked the experience of the users.'
So we 20 men sat in a circle on our plastic chairs in a sunny room, nearly all strangers to one another, to talk about it. Two speakers got things started, taking different approaches. Alan talked about how men's culture prevents them from talking about their feelings, while Jerry, who was gay, described finding his father's stash of magazines.
This was something everyone related to - not just the shock of accidental-on-purpose discovery, but also the involvement of fathers. One young lad, a giant gay skinhead in cherry-red Doc Marten boots, was close to tears as he told of how his dad introduced him to gay pornography when he was a teenager.
In this atmosphere people began to open up, and for once a group of men talked about sex without being pompous, competitive or by relying on innuendo to dissipate their fears.
'I wanted the discussion to be grounded in feelings as much as possible,' said Mr Jordan afterwards. 'I didn't want people hiding behind theories of representation, but nor did I want too much of the feely-feely Robert Bly/Iron John find-yerself stuff.
'Pornography isn't just about the image or masturbation, it's the whole package, the adrenalin rush in seeking it out, the fear of being caught, what arouses you and how good or bad you feel afterwards. It's a complex process of addiction and ritual.' One could argue that this little circle itself mimicked pornography, in the sense that women were absent; but it also resembled therapy, in that people were more-than-usually trusting of each other. The pornography debate is a jungle, where feminists and 'post-feminists', liberal and libertine, left and right, clash.
No man is going to risk being labelled a sad lonely wanker by saying what he really feels in front of women (or unsympathetic men).
The gay men seemed at ease with the subject, describing their use as 'recreational'. Jerry said: 'In our house, two men and a straight woman, you might find Jeff Stryker's Power Tool (the video) lying around, and Out of Africa next to it.'
Another gay man, who works for an HIV support group, was even trying to set up a pornography video library for sufferers, as a substitute for sex.
But most of the straight men were deeply worried about the splits between men and women, between different women, and between themselves and 'rugby teams' who laugh at blue movies together, as part of a convoluted bonding process.
Someone stressed the need to celebrate sex in other ways than by doing it, while another saw porn as advanced sex education. Visiting a sex shop, which everyone appeared to have done at least once out of interest, was generally seen as just a more intense version of browsing through Razzle in the newsagent.
'I would count myself as being in a happy relationship,' said one participant, 'but I occasionally use porn, on my own. It's not the same when it's shared. I finally worked out that its real function is on its own.
'It's a mistake to think you just wish you were having sex with a prettier, more sexy woman than your partner. It's really about your relationship with yourself, your core sexuality and your self-
'My partner has been very understanding, partly, I think, because she has struggled in the past with eating disorders. The issues are the same - body image, how you feel about your own sexuality. . . . Pornography is like the equivalent disorder for men.'
Everyone agreed that pornography objectifies women (or whoever is in it), and that it is ultimately monotonous and unfulfilling, but there was a strong sense that this realisation could not stem curiosity.
One man analysed it thus: 'Women often say that it's all about men wanting to dominate them with their gaze and so feel less threatened, but I think it's more about wanting to be desired yourself. Men can't dress up and obviously express their sexuality the way women can, they're supposed to be the brutes, the ugly ones.
'So they create these sexualised beings, naked models writhing around on fur rugs, carriers of glamour and sexuality, who appear to want them.'
Linda Williams, the American writer, points out in her book Hardcore, that pornography might have a benign subtext. Women in hard-core films have a power and presence (because they are shown wanting sex and getting it) that women in mainstream film and television do not have. In Hollywood movies, women who express sexual needs are often killed off, or presented as tarts.
Is there a progression from softcore to hardcore? 'As an addiction, it makes you want more,' said another man, who was in a stable relationship. 'There's a frantic search for the perfectly erotic image, but that's not the same as an automatic progression to violent or illegal pornography, or to acting out.
'Anyway, the vast majority of porn is quite soft. If every man who used it went out and raped, God help us. There have to be other factors.'
Mr Jordan's installation ends with a peep-show window, upon whose glass is written WANTING BUT NOTHING IS INSIDE, and its reverse, INSIDE IS NOTHING BUT WANTING. 'That for me sums up the experience of porn,' he says. 'The piece is dedicated 'to men who mistake fear for passion', people who think their adrenalin rush with an unknown woman is love. This is not sociology, I'm just trying to get a debate going by valuing people's feelings.
'You can't have a strategy for rejecting porn until you understand why men feel empty and
in need of this non-relationship
John Jordan is interested in hearing from any men whose lives have been affected by pornography, and can be contacted at Platform Arts on 071-403 3738.
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