Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Logo of The Middlebury Campus
Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Sarah Says: So, I took a class on porn

When I tell people I took a class on porn — “Decolonizing Porn: Circulating Desire Between Europe and the Americas,” to be more specific —  the question that invariably follows is “Did you watch porn in class?” To that, I say, yes, sort of, but we watched most of the porn outside of class.  

Most people are still quite prudish, or maybe worse, overly prurient at the prospect of a substantial discussion on porn. Why the hand wringing? If the early twentieth century lays claim to the Golden Age of Television, I’d venture the early twenty-first century will someday endure as the Golden Age of Porn. Considering the average age someone in our generation will first see porn now is now 12 and, in 2019, Pornhub reported 3.5 billion visits per month. Porn is now the primary medium forming our generation’s ideas on sex. 

Despite how much porn you, the individual, watch, sex is still mediated by porn, either by porn your sexual partner watches or by norms so cemented in our sexual fabric the fact of the source material is almost insignificant. 

Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s seminal essay collection, “Talking to My Students About Porn” details her surprise about the strength of her students’ conviction in porn’s discursive power, considering they are the first generation “truly raised on internet porn.” But one doesn’t need to be a philosopher to opine on porn’s influence. 

In my class, comprised mostly of women, we described the normalization of choking. Irrespective of the consent and pleasure enjoyed by both participants, this trend is a straight-line inheritance from porn’s ethic of masculine dominance.  

Women can and do choke men, but what the women in my class described was not an exchange but a proposition: “Do you mind if I choke you?” This was a proposition they accepted as a normal function of the new college sexual repertoire.  

Consider also, that blowjobs shot to prominence with the release of “Deep Throat” in 1972, the first mainstream porn. The movie is premised on problematized notions of female sexuality: Despite her participation in sex parties, Linda Lovelace, the film’s star, cannot have an orgasm. When she visits a doctor he surprises her with the news that her clitoris is located in her throat, therefore she can only orgasm from blow jobs. This fantasy did not spring from a vacuum. Men were reacting to the anxieties from “The Myth of The Vaginal Orgasm,” a book which suggested women did not need men to orgasm. 

Consider also the bruises on Linda Lovelace’s thighs, and her admission years later, “Virtually every time someone watches that movie, they’re watching me being raped.” 

Consider also when bodily hairlessness in women became an expectation. 

I could go on. 

I’m not concerned with demonizing the particulars of anyone’s sexual practices. I only want to suggest that sexual representations in mainstream porn have real influence on our lives, beyond sex. 

Regular porn use among men is associated with increased support for violence against women. This relationship was stronger for sexually violent porn but was also found to be significant in those who watched non-violent porn. Numerous studies have demonstrated a link between male porn consumption and attitudes toward affirmative action for women and rape victims. In 1974, radical feminist Robin Morgan wrote, “Porn is the theory and rape is the practice.” She was derided for overestimating porn’s reach, but her words were just several decades too prescient. 

Our final project in the course required us to produce a creative research project that utilized secondary sources and primary sources (porn) in service of our thesis. For reasons of self-interest, I decided to compare white women and Latin women’s representations in porn by surveying the most popular PornHub videos in each category. My results were unsurprising: in my admittedly non-scientific sample, Latin women were more likely to be recipients of anal sex, more likely to get their hair pulled and heads pushed, more likely to give deep head and more likely to get choked. 

The Latin body in porn is hyper-visible; unlike the demure white women, often schoolgirls or stepsisters, they are the sexual instigators berated by men for liking violent sex so much. This is, of course, but one example of the many racial stereotypes mainstream porn helps codify and reproduce. In their projects, the women in my class focused on representations of the Black and Asian body with great intelligence. 

The moral implications of porn were one of my class’ favorite topics of discussion. Nearly unanimously, we believed porn was a net social evil. We did not need much convincing; students that elect to take “Decolonizing Porn” likely arrive with pre-existing biases. I can anticipate the arguments. What about feminist porn? Queer porn? On principle, I don’t object to people paying to watch or getting paid to have sex, but the principle is irrelevant. The overwhelming majority of porn that is produced and watched is backed by corporations like Pornhub. 

Yet, the argument against porn is fraught with futility. Despite the recent laws passed blocking Pornhub’s normal operations in several states, I remain skeptical that any legislative body can curb its power. Mainstream porn is now part of the program. The more pressing question is how we navigate it. 

As the most technologically literate generation yet, it falls to us to figure out how to demystify porn and talk about it as frankly as any other aspect of sexual health and intimacy. 

One of this past decades’ greatest literary sensations, Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” demonstrates the power in fearless depictions of sex. During one of Marianne and Connell’s early hookups, “She asked him if it felt good and he pretended he didn’t hear her. She was on her hands and knees so he couldn’t see her facial expression or read into it what she was thinking. After a few seconds she said in a much smaller voice: Am I doing something wrong? He closed his eyes. No, he said. I like it.”  

Enjoy what you're reading? Get content from The Middlebury Campus delivered to your inbox

This passage nails the alienation of intimacy under porn. Connell embodies masculine ambivalence, in control but somehow both turned on and tortured by the control, while Marianne, submissive in action and bearing, asks for a reassurance he withholds. Between them yawns all that is left unexplained and unsaid. 

As a first year, I submitted a series of naked and mostly naked pictures of me in my childhood bedroom for my first year seminar’s final project. At the time, I considered the project to be fundamentally interested in body image (“cellulite” on the back of my thighs), but my time in “Decolonizing Porn” prompted me to reevaluate the project. 

I felt more confident, more free and more silly (my friend and I laughed a lot) naked in front of my friend’s camera than most of the time I walk through my city or this campus, tense with the knowledge of observation.

It was the rare moment my body was not an object of consumption, not posing for someone else’s eye, but just for a minute it might belong to me. Like those pictures, my greatest moments of sexual intimacy come when I am able to disentangle myself from the performance and embrace vulnerability and all its beautiful awkwardness.


Sarah Miller

Sarah Miller '24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large.   

She previously served as Opinions Editor and Staff Writer. Miller is an English major on the Creative Writing track. She hails from Philadelphia and spent the spring studying English at Trinity College Dublin. She has interned for The New England Review and hosts a WRMC radio show where you can still listen to her many opinions. 


Comments