Il Venerdì—a weekly supplement to the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica—ran a cover story last week on Don Jon, a brazen new film that’s one part love story, one part cautionary tale about the pitfalls of pornography in modern relationships. Joseph Gordon Levitt (for whom this film is a directorial debut) plays the leading role of the cocksure Guido who despite having a, shall we say, robust romantic life finds greater sexual satisfaction in front of a computer screen surfing pornography. As he soliloquizes in the movie (and trailer) his cares in life are fixed and simple: “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn.”
The author of the Il Venerdì's article, Riccardo Staglianò, was curious: was porn as problematic as the film made it out to be? To answer his question he went to Margret Grebowicz, author of Why Internet Porn Matters.
While Staglianò routinely returns to this initial question throughout the article, Grebowicz is less interested in questions of real vs. virtual sexual encounters—whether or not people will copy what they see online and which kind of sex is better or worse. Rather, her inquiry is more focused, not on how Internet porn influences particular relationships, but how it influences sex in general.
Grebowicz’s book constitutes one of the first feminist critiques to privilege the effects of pornography’s online distribution networks over what it depicts—and particularly how porn-sharing communities online are increasingly taking cues from communicative and self-exposing social networks, like Facebook and Twitter. In the article she describes how the transition to online channels have revolutionized our relationship with pornography:
"Just as Google Maps
changes the way humans
inhabit space, internet porn
changes the way they
Grebowicz points out how online porn has drastically altered and reduced barriers to access—now anyone can view some triple-X-rated action "without having to worry about the stigma of interacting with a ticket seller or dispensing machine."
But for her, one of the most inriguing aspects of contemporary Internet porn production and consumption is how its occupation of cyber real estate puts it in the same virtual neighborhood as any other exhibit of self-expression, from a Flickr photo album to a personal blog. Because of this new online tenancy, she argues in her book, "Pornography moves from being understood as illicit, indecent materials which pose a challenge to contemporary mores and customs, to being just another vehicle for 'honest' sexual expression for and by the masses" (p. 48). One of the chief lines of inquiry in her study of internet porn contemplates the pros and cons of categorizing internet porn as speech and the consequences of pushing it under the umbrella of First Amendment protections.
Staglianò concedes that perhaps his questions regarding cybersmut may not be the most pressing ones, though both he and Grebowicz regard the ubiquity and popularity of internet porn with more than a little skepticism. In the article he gives the last word to porn star, Nina Hartley who says: "Watching porn to learn how to have sex is like watching Vin Diesel movies to learn how to drive."
Why Internet Porn Matters is the first feminist critique to privilege the effects of pornography's Internet distribution rather than what it depicts, Grebowicz examines porn-sharing communities and the politics of putting women's sexual pleasure on display as part of the larger democratic project. Unlikely convergences between thinkers like Catherine MacKinnon, Jean Baudrillard, Judith Butler, and Jean-François Lyotard allow her to formulate a theory of the relationships between sex, speech, and power that stands as an alternative to such cyber-libertarian mottos as "freedom of speech" and "sexual freedom."
Why Internet Porn Matters is now 30% off ($9.00) through the end of the year as part of our Holiday Sale.