Porn as a lived relation
This project is grounded in positioning pornography as a lived experience, an embodied practice. Here I want to build on the work of Clyde E. Willis who set out some of the theoretical concerns in his Phenomenology of Pornography.
In this article, he argues that the meaning of pornography depends on how it is subjectively experienced; ‘(i)t is the essence of the lived-experience, the total action, including subjectivity, that a person experiences when engaged – vicariously or otherwise – by pornography that determines its meaning.’
We are not used to such an approach. We are more used to understanding pornography as a product, text, or speech. Sometimes as a practice. But definitely as a distinct objective 'thing' that we, the living breathing subject, act on. We do not think of pornography as a lived relation, that, due to its commonality, might form part of an organising structure for how we experience ourselves sexually, bodily, irrespective of our individual practices.
This goes some way towards explaining the difficulties encountered in seeking an objective definition of pornography. Heidegger's concept of being-in-situation, developed by Beauvoir, feels useful here. For Heidegger, human existence has the inescapable characteristic of ‘thrownness’ (geworfenheit). We are thrown without knowledge or choice into a world that was there before us and will remain after us, and in this thrownness we find ourselves in the world always already in a particular situation, again one that is not of our own choosing. Our situation does not determine us, yet it does give us a location within the world through which it becomes meaningful – through which it becomes ‘ours’.
Beauvoir developed Heidegger’s concept to talk about how this situation that we find ourselves thrown into, a situation which includes our embodiment and the associated meanings and possibilities, is both the point from which we make choices—and thus the basis of our freedom— and the source of our limitations. Our actions, our agency, our sexual autonomy, are thus situated through forces both within and without our control.
The concept of situation poses a challenge to a commonplace assumption that underpins how most of us understand the world and our place in it. In a term derived from the father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, 'the general thesis of the natural standpoint' refers to the division of the world into an externally verifiable objective world ‘out there’ and what is ‘in here’, our internal subjective world. Instead of living the two as in relation, we typically experience the world as separate to our meaning-making of it. But this assumption is in error. This is not to condemn us to solipsism - that nothing exists outside of our consciousness of it (though Rae Langton has an interesting essay on pornography as sexual solipsism) - but rather to point out that we are never able to access objective reality because our access is necessarily mediated through a subject. And this subject is situated.
All of which is to say that attempts to derive pornography’s meaning from what its objective content is ‘out there’, will always fall short. But that this is not the same as the 'too simplistic' criticism levelled at analyses of pornography that attempt to report the objective facts of content. Such a criticism is commonly used to suggest that approaches that try to say something definitive about what pornography is or what pornography does, do not account for the myriad of ways in which people read texts.
What the criticism itself seems to discount is how these 'myriad' ways are lived, positioned, through bodies and contexts. We are stuck at the level of individual practices, seeing responses to pornography as discrete properties rather than as relational processes situated in and of bodies that are located in particular socio-cultural positions at particular historical moments. Some use the concept of ‘orientations to pornography’ to capture some of this, describing how people respond to rather than interpret pornography, with this response situated within one’s understandings of themselves, sexualities in their broadest sense, and pleasures. Such a conceptualisation however loses the reciprocity in the notion of relation, with 'orientation' suggesting a predisposed perspective which informs one’s experience of pornography, without the ability to account for how one’s experience of pornography may in turn become a horizon through which one’s sexuality reorientates itself.
Approaching pornography as a lived relation means that we can look to the different responses and experiences one may have of it, and explore how these are in reciprocal relationship to the social conditions within which such responses are situated. A shift in understanding pornography from the episodic to the embodied.