A year ago, I published an essay in Free Inquiry in which I affirmed that porn is generally a healthy art form (yes, art form) that hurts no one and possibly even benefits society by providing safe outlets for the otherwise-frustrated sexual energy of the populace.* A letter from a female reader accused me of championing an industry that causes rape and stalls women’s struggle for equality. The author cited Andrea Dworkin as the ultimate authority on the evils of pornography and quoted Dworkin’s anguished definition of the industry: “the graphic depiction of whores” (as if the words graphic and whore provided a “So there!” case for the dangers of porn).
In my answer to the reader, I argued against feminist anti-porn rhetoric. Feminism, I wrote, should be about each woman having more choices, including such traditional choices as housewife, or, I daresay, whore. This is an argument I have had with so-called feminists before. As a student at an all-women’s college in the early 1990s, I stood up to what I saw as neo-Puritanism masquerading as progressive ideology: I posed for Playboy, which is—let’s face it—merely a modest curtsy to the female form, a publication that even Caligula might cast aside for a Seinfeld marathon. Still, I got the venomous response I had expected from fellow students (although notably not from faculty). For these contentious defenders of female dignity, the bloated nouns exploitation and objectification became the practiced battle cry—literally shouted at me across campus. Sadly, somewhere along the way, feminism wrapped itself in a banner of prudery and betrayed 1960s sexual freedom. This betrayal has reverberated into the 2000s.
There’s more. The feminist anti-porn argument also loses for scientific reasons. In fact, I got into a bit of trouble with my geneticist husband when he saw that I only briefly mentioned science in my response to the feminist reader. Religious fundamentalists of all stripes trip over their own shoelaces by ignoring biology and embracing “faith” in scripture, no matter the evidence. Many feminists cite passages with the same religious fervor: they insist that sex roles are prescribed by “the patriarchy” and forced upon us through society generally and pornography specifically. Alas, what was once a political and legal aspiration to equality has become a willful disregard of biology.
Like it or not, evolution has had its way with us. Sexual dimorphism—a difference in form between the sexes within the same species—is an observable fact that exposes an evolutionary history of inequality. Of course, which sex is getting the shorter end of the stick, so to speak, depends on your point of view. Men are larger and stronger and have deeper voices and hairier faces to impress women and intimidate other men. Women are smaller and curvier and have higher-pitched voices and less body hair because men have consistently chosen their mates based on these traits. Across cultures and time, men are more drawn to beauty and youth and women to status and power. This is not true across all species or even all species of primates. Bonobo males prefer older, high-status females. (Frans de Waal has a story or two about “barely legal” bonobo nymphets having to beg for male attention.)
In fact, when we observe other primates, certain patterns emerge that give us clues to our own species’ sex roles and reproductive strategies. Male and female bonobos are more similar in body size than male and female humans. Male bonobos need not compete with other males for females. Everyone has sex with everyone else, and the power structure is largely matriarchal. Male gorillas, on the other hand, are significantly larger than female gorillas. They beat up other males, kill other males’ offspring, and steal other males’ females to add to their own harems. Testicle size likewise bears out this difference in mating structure, although in the opposite direction. Bonobos’ massive testicles exchange parsimony for brute sperm quantity, so that one’s own sperm may compete—literally—with the sperm of other males. Given the orgiastic nature of bonobo communities, a female may be quite aglow from a previous encounter at the time her next enthusiastic paramour happens along. In contrast, male gorillas have very small testicles—only the frugal necessity to fertilize a tightly controlled harem. That is, the sperm competition of the bonobo seems to replace the body-size competition of the gorilla.
Whether ours is a bonobo-esque or a gorilla-esque species is an interesting question. If we look to our own evolution as a guide, we probably see elements of both, with male-female body dimorphism somewhere between that of gorillas and that of bonobos, while testicle size is a Goldilocks medium. Penis size relative to overall body size, on the other hand? Well, hats off to Homo sapiens. Male-male intimidation may explain such a calorie-consuming expense of skin. Another explanation is that our female ancestors chose their mates based on something other than Acheulean hand-ax size. Now who’s “objectifying” whom?
And what do these sexually dimorphic traits have to do with porn? Everything! To see porn through this evolutionary lens is to see the caricatured expression of our biological difference: men are chest-beating, testosterone-driven, sex-crazed savages. Women are virgins, whores, exhibitionists, and everything in between. Most important, men and women are exquisitely sexually dimorphic. As a testament to what evolution hath wrought, Debbie Does Dallas may offer more scientific accuracy than even On the Origin of Species.
Of course, regardless of our evolutionary past, we are free (to an extent) to fight against it. Our fight against nature, including our own, is often a noble and species-defining attribute. Safe and effective forms of birth control—and many other nature-combating tools, from plastic surgery to cancer drugs—have allowed us to stand up to the tyranny of our own bodies. They have empowered us to say “no” to nature.
This said, when it comes to the very noble fight for political equality of the sexes, how are we to get anywhere playing make-believe? Isn’t that just religion all over again, and hasn’t religion done more to suppress women than any other force in history? Sexual injustice is a very real problem. But we cannot make progress claiming that all gender differences are merely “social constructs.” Let’s stop pretending that in the absence of “graphic depictions,” men will suddenly start talking about their feelings and want to cuddle.
Finally, I’ll mention a little secret about pornography and hope it doesn’t spoil the fun. Mainstream porn is really about female superiority. Women are clearly the stars, taking center stage in every scene, while men are faceless pawns groveling at their altars. Female performers are also famously better paid. Is this the degradation or the exaltation of women? Even behind the scenes, female execs of the “adult industry” are triumphantly stepping over the bones of their male predecessors. From Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to Jim Holliday’s Sorority Sex Kittens 5, the story has not changed. Women are the dominant sex, and men know it. So can we agree that while no means no, we should also be able to take yes for an answer?