I did not go to pornography because I’d been sexually abused, but the fact that I’d been abused made the world of pornography one that it felt natural for me to inhabit.
One of the effects that sexual abuse often has on those who survive it is make any expression of our own sexuality feel as if we are reenacting the pattern of the abuse we suffered. In me – and I am writing here about the years spanning my mid-teens and early twenties – that feeling had less to do with experiencing sex as a kind of instant replay of my own victimization than with the fear that being sexual in and of itself made me no different from the men who had abused me. Yet I was sexual. No matter how hard I tried I could not make my sexual feelings go away, and so my desire for women, my lust and emotional spontaneity, became repugnant to me, defects of character I needed to repair; and I did try to repair them, to remake myself as a man in complete control of his feelings, sexual and otherwise, because only when I had attained that level of control would I be a man incapable of victimizing others.1
My efforts, of course, failed, and it was in pornography – not consciously, not deliberately, but nonetheless, I think, inevitably – that I found a way to deal with my failure. For the world of pornography, or at least of the mainstream heterosexual pornography that was available to me at the time, is in many ways very similar to the world into which a sexual abuser indoctrinates the person he or she abuses; it is a world in which everything, every human interaction, whether with another human being or an object, is sexualized. More than that, this sexualization is normal; it is what the people of that world expect from each other and of themselves; and so to feel sexual in that world, to act on those feelings in that world, cannot be defined as abuse. As opposed to my friends, in other words, for whom pornography began as and continued be primarily a kind of instruction manual for how to be sexual in the real world, for me, once I’d been abused, pornography became a place where I could cloister my sexuality, and therefore my shame, shutting it out of the life I lived in the real world as much as I could and creating the illusion that I had put the shame and the abuse behind me.
Not that I hid my interest in pornography. On the contrary, I spoke about it quite openly, insisting that it was possible to engage respectably and intellectually with the topic, even though most of the conversations I tried to start ended with someone accusing me of camouflaging with the respectability I was claiming my real and more prurient interest in the material. They were, of course, correct. As often as I could manage it, I immersed myself in the world that heterosexual pornography offered me: a world of women, semi-clothed or fully naked, open-mouthed and open-legged, waiting to be for me what I wanted them to be, and every detail, page after page, frame after frame, right down to whether or not a woman had goose bumps, spoke to me of sex, of the mysteries contained in her body and in mine, and I imagined I was gleaning the truth of it, though not only did that truth always prove always elusive, but it had also had very little to do with the intellectual pursuit I pretended during the day that my interest in pornography really was.
The picture that changed forever the way I looked at pornography was in a magazine called Puritan, in the bottom right corner of the right hand page. The man was seated on a chair with his legs splayed out in front of him, his face and upper body hidden by the woman, who was sitting with her feet on his thighs, her legs bent at the knees and spread wide so you could see how deeply she’d taken his penis into her. Her head was tilted slightly forward, and her eyes, which were round and moist and oh-so-innocent, were looking directly at the camera. Her lips were full and pouty. I don’t know why, but what I saw in the first moment I looked at that picture was not the sex kitten she was supposed to be, but rather a little girl made to open her legs for the world to see the “slut” she “really” was, and this perception touched my own sexual shame, and I got sick to my stomach, and I started to cry, and I could not bring myself to look at the picture again, even though I kept it in my desk for weeks.
Over time, I came to understand that what I thought I saw on that woman’s face was in part a projection of what I saw in myself, and that it might well have had nothing to do with what she herself was feeling or with what other people looking at the same picture might have seen. I found I couldn’t look at images of people having sex anymore without wondering about the degree to which the interior landscape of the performers’ experiences corresponded to what I thought I saw in their performance. This change in perspective was transforming. I began to see sex not simply as a series of particular acts that I performed with particular people, including myself, but also as a way of knowing, not just a method but, literally, a path into knowledge; and I believed then, though I would not say this now with the same sense of finality, that this path would lead me out of the uncertainty that looking at sexually explicit images made me feel. What I am certain about, though, is that claiming sex as a path into knowledge helped me feel in ways that I never had before that I had a right to the physical presence I inhabited on this planet, precisely the right that the men who abused me had presumed to take away.
- For a detailed discussion of this double bind and how it works, see Mike Lew, Victims No Longer: Men Recovering from Incest and Other Sexual Child Abuse (Harper & Row, 1990) 185 – 87. [↩]