Porn Works

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Last night I went to a free screening of Orgasm Inc, part of the Westminster College Documentary Film Series. (I would provide a link to the film series if I could find a link to the current season, on either Westminster's site or the site of the SLC Film Society, the series' cosponsor. But I can't. The SLC Film Society's page is especially crappy. This is disappointing, because I would like to know what else is showing in this year's series, which focuses on gender and sexuality.)

It was a pretty remarkable movie, about the pharmaceutical industry's effort to make "female sexual dysfunction" into a medical disease treatable with pharmaceuticals. This involves pathologizing female sexuality in new ways, beyond all the many ways it has already been pathologized, all in an effort to make money off people who worry that they're not "normal."

It's hard to quote from a movie you've seen once, for so many reasons: I didn't bring a notebook, didn't take notes, and even if I had, the notes would have been incomplete 'cause you can't rewind a movie in a theater. But I will try to hit some of the high points of this film.

One very interesting thing that emerged was that for women, porn works better for stimulating arousal than drugs, in that porn gets the job done without additional expense or medical risk. Trials for a particular drug involved having women apply a cream to their genitals, then watch some porn, and see how much blood rushed to their special areas. But it turns out porn alone works as well as porn + genital pharmaceuticals in turning women on. The best quote from the movie was, in my opinion, two pithy words: "Porn works."

Another thing that emerges is no one can define sexual dysfunction because so far no one has been able to define normal function, especially in women. Should you have twelve orgasms a month to be "normal"? Do the orgasms have to occur with a partner, meaning that no single person could be "normal," or are orgasms induced through masturbation as good as orgasms with a partner in making one "normal"? Should one have no fewer than twenty sexual thoughts a day? No more than sixty? If "porn works," is it more normal or not normal to look at it?

You get the idea.

Plenty of people were interviewed in the documentary. The one I admired most and most want to support was Leonore Tiefer of the New View Campaign. The organization's website states

The pharmaceutical industry wants people to think that sexual problems are simple medical matters, and it offers drugs as expensive magic fixes. But sexual problems are complicated, sexuality is diverse, and no drug is without side effects.


The goal of the New View Campaign is to expose biased research and promotional methods that serve corporate profit rather than people's pleasure and satisfaction. The Campaign challenges all views that reduce sexual experience to genital biology and thereby ignore the many dimensions of real life.

In other words, as various experts in the film point out, people's sex lives are influenced not just by a narrow medicalized view of biology, but by their lives--what happens to them every day, and how they interact with other people and with themselves. You can experience diminished desire not because there's something wrong with your ovaries, but because you're exhausted from chasing five small children around a dingy basement or in a relationship with an asshole. Similarly, you can experience a surge in sexual desire and responsiveness not because your genitals and sex glands are in tip-top shape, but because you're on your honeymoon in the Caribbean.

The second best quote from the movie is from a guy whose name I forgot, but he has a PhD in... something appropriate, and studies sexual behavior in both humans and monkeys and perhaps other creatures as well. (His credentials weren't discussed in detail, and I can't remember his name so I can't look them up.) The film maker asked him what was the single most important thing he had learned from studying sex. He said, "Pay attention to females," then went on to say that in every species, females are always giving males lots of information, a great deal of which the males tend to miss or ignore.

This of course comes as no surprise to any woman. I wrote recently about a few examples from my own life, pointing out that it's annoying to have to ask someone you're in a relationship or friendship with to notice that what you're doing actually involved effort and good will on your part, and to ask them to acknowledge that.

What really interests me about this failed exchange of information is not that men don't get it, but that women keep trying to provide it--maybe not to men in general, but to specific men. You'd think at some point we'd realize that certain men aren't going to catch on, and we'd stop trying to get through to them. But I guess it's pretty hard to admit that your husband/boyfriend/friend (and dare I say government/employer/church) just doesn't think whatever you're saying or doing is worth his attention, acknowledgment or response.

3 Comments

Mary Roach's highly entertaining survey of sexology, *Bonk*, explains that watching porn creates physical arousal in most women, including those who say they're not mentally turned on by it. The NYT piece on female desire from about a year ago (I think?) mentioned that women can even get aroused from watching non-human mating.

I know some women say porn works fine for them as-is, but I can't help but think: Just imagine if porn managed to engage women's minds as well as our genitals!

I'll have to check out "Bonk." I vaguely remember the NYT piece you mention.... and also appreciate the distinction between something that affects the genitals and affects the mind. It's definitely nice to have both involved.

Really interesting read, altho it doesn't come as a surprise that women get turned on by watching porn, apparently 1 in 3 viewers watching online adult videos are female.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on January 14, 2010 8:00 AM.

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