A Eulogy for Porn

The first time I saw a pornographic magazine, I was about twelve years old.

My older brother had gotten half a dozen issues of magazines like Hustler from a friend whose father had an extensive collection. The teen boys would look at the magazines in his bedroom, and I was invited to join in, in exchange for my vow of secrecy.

My brother hid them under his mattress. A few times, I snuck into his room when he wasn’t around and looked at them by myself. They held hidden treasures for my young mind, as I wandered through Larry Flynt’s misogynistic, objectifying mind.

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I’ve been told that my father had been subscribing to Playboy about the time that I was born. Playboy was seen as the magazine for the discerning gentleman: It lacked Hustler’s overt vulgarity. Playboy’s centerfolds had a naïve gentility that belied its deeper contribution to rape culture. Hefner reserved the true misogyny for the jokes that were on the back of the gatefold, where the punchlines were too often ditzy women or rich old men.

Playboy’s models were innocent, almost accidentally naked: They allowed their male readers to convince themselves that their monthly relationship with another nude woman was pure. About the time I saw those first Hustlers, J. Geils sang of “my homeroom angel” in her “soft and fuzzy sweaters.”

Even so, the family narrative goes, my mother made my father end his subscription and get rid of the magazine when she caught my brother, then a toddler, looking at it behind my father’s leather La-Z-Boy.

By the time I was old enough to have an interest in pictures of naked women, my father had taken the position that pornography in all of its forms was debasing. This included Playboy, and it definitely included Hustler.

At this point, I wasn’t consciously aware that my father had ever subscribed himself. I do not know if he was consuming any sort of contemporary adult materials, be they magazines, books, or movies. The evidence of my father’s sex life was scant: He had a copy of the recently-published “Sex in History” by Reay Tannahill, which he kept in his office at work. My brother and I came home to school once to find a package from Adam & Eve, discreetly packaged in a way that was hardly discreet. My younger brother was still a toddler, so apparently my parents were still having sex.

My brother and I got a cursory sex talk. My father talked about how we might wake up with stiff underwear from a nocturnal emission, and that we shouldn’t be scared by it. He told us where the condoms were, and that if we ever used them we would be in serious trouble, but if we ever failed to use them we would be in far more serious trouble.

My father later claimed that we had a much deeper, more serious talk, but I don’t remember it. Perhaps it was just with my older brother. Perhaps it never happened at all.

My father was a United Methodist minister and generally liberal. He had decent enough values, values that I generally share about how best to treat people. I have no problem with his strong position against sexually objectifying magazines.

What he lacked, as a product of his era and culture, was the emotional intelligence to parse those values in a way that would have helped me understand them then.

One day, a year or so after my brother had gotten his cache, I found a magazine in the alley between my father’s church and our house, the parsonage. It was even more vulgar than Hustler. Seeing my father, I waved to him and showed him what I’d found.

He took it wordlessly and threw it in the dumpster.

I looked upset, and complained that since I’d found it and been honest about it, I should at least be allowed to look at the pictures. He got angry and fished it out of the dumpster. He found a two-page spread of a vulva being held open by fingers, in full lurid color, and screamed, “Is this what you really want to see?”

I ran into the house, crying. I was angry that my brother was being rewarded for his stealth and I was punished for my honesty. I was sad that my nascent hormonal drives were being thrown in my face. I was shamed that, no, that wasn’t what I had wanted to see. I was disappointed that I had let my father down so wholly.

That started my unhealthy relationship with porn. I was never quite an addict: For most of my adulthood, I probably read as much as any other standard man of my generation. At any given time, I had two or three monthly subscriptions, mostly to Playboy and Penthouse. For a while, I bought some of the more vulgar and fetish titles. I would slip into the adult bookstores to buy Nugget and Leg Show.

I could talk about the role of pornography in supporting rape culture, but that’s the topic for a future article. The topic here is about my personal relationship with it. I bought it, I consumed it, I devoured it, but I did so in secret.

I don’t pretend that I’m unique in this way. Popular culture is filled with references to shadowy men sneaking into sex shops. Our culture is drenched in shame surrounding porn.

When I was a younger man, I thought this shame was part of the Puritanism of America. I would wax self-righteously about the beauty of consensual sexuality. I looked the other way when stories of Linda Lovelace being coerced emerged. When Traci Lords appeared in Penthouse at 15 and porn shortly later, I blamed her and exonerated the industry.

Now I feel this shame is justified: The industry is corrupt. There is no way of knowing which participants truly are fully consensual. With in-person sex acts, consent is often challenging to determine; magazine photos and videos are just too problematic.

But we men are a gender driven far too much by hormones, and we humans are a species driven far too much by personal satisfaction. Even when we know that an act is wrong, we struggle with doing it anyway.

This is the intersection of Hugh Hefner and Harvey Weinstein: The casual objectification of women, and the taking of those objects. Consent becomes a blurred line, but rather than taking responsibility for reinforcing those lines, we navigate our cognitive dissonance by pretending it’s our hormones. It’s all okay. “Boys will be boys.”

I trace a lot of my own dysfunction to my relationship with my father, and to that one incident in the alleyway.

We only spoke of it one time, some two decades later. I expressed my feelings, my anger, my shame.

When I mentioned my brother’s magazines, he admitted knowing about them the whole time. He said he’d known about them the entire time. I asked him why he had let my brother have them, and he said: “I expected more of you.”

At the time, that cut deeply, both for my own part and on behalf of my brother: What was he saying about each of us? It wasn’t really a compliment for either one of us.

Now, though, I think that was another lie. I think what upset my father was what I’d thought at the time: It wasn’t about the magazine, it was about the honestly. It was about exposing the reality to the light.

My brother had hidden his magazines. Hiding shameful things made them more acceptable.

My father couldn’t have known it at the time, but had he not passed by just when he had, I probably would have added the found magazine to the communal stash. Maybe.

In the wake of Hugh Hefner’s death, I have finally decided to stop being a consumer of photographed sex. Had things gone differently with my father, perhaps I would have made this decision long ago; perhaps not. I don’t know.

What I do know: I wish my father had had the emotional intelligence to have dealt with the incident better, and to have been more honest overall, in a kind and compassionate tone. Had he done so, that moment in an alleyway might have been one of growth and not scarring.

I owe it to my son to learn from my father’s mistakes.

Originally published at The Good Men Project.

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