In Response To The Atlantic’s “Hard Core”

Linda Williams Hard CoreLast month, respected media outlet The Atlantic ran an article that surprised many. “Hard Core: What Porn’s Ubiquity Says About Men and Women” by Natasha Vargas-Cooper surprised The Atlantic’s even-headed readers by depicting a pretty graphic, one-sided anti-porn argument. It just didn’t seem like an Atlantic article. Many people wondered what I thought about it: and while I considered my response, I enjoyed reading what the guys on Hacker News thought.

It really bugged me that no one mentioned that the article’s title is taken from a famous, well -referenced pro-porn book that is in many college courses: Linda Williams’ “Hard Core. It is an academic look at the effects of porn, and a true, comprehensive analysis of porn. Some criticize it because it does not conclude (or offer opinion) on the accusation that porn degrades women. It is highly recommended for an objective viewpoint.

Don’t confuse it with Vargas-Cooper’s article that uses the same name.

AlterNet responded eloquently, and with much balance in Tana Ganeva’s, The Anti-Male, Anti-Sex Falsehoods That Rule Discussions about Porn and Sexuality: The latest missive in the war against porn, courtesy of the Atlantic, presents male sexual desire as brutish and violent. Really?

(…) many of the pieces that decry porn’s impact on the populations allegedly most vulnerable to its harms come off as needlessly prudish and alarmist about sex. Even worse, many end up trafficking in some pretty nasty assumptions about gender and sexuality themselves.

This month’s contribution to the genre, published in the Atlantic, continues in that vein. Like many articles of this type, “Hardcore,” written by Natasha Vargas-Cooper, is characterized by an obsession with anal sex. (…read more, alternet.org)

As Tana Ganeva points out, the article tripped enough early warnings that Vargas-Cooper’s article was torn apart for its contradictions out of the starting gate by commenters on link forums. Cooper’s porn tropes were like an old laundry list of masturbation scare-myths from 1910. There is an unsettling repetition of mentioning double anal penetration – surely, to be shocking. Porn references throughout seemed 20-30 years old. Suggesting that women dislike anal sex, and that as a sex act it is inherently degrading.

With this, a conspicuous lack of anal sex in a male-receptive context, which is actually prevalent in modern porn. Threats that kids look at porn, that porn desensitizes, that it’s freaky and full of midgets, for men sex is a weapon, porn makes men sexually aggressive… pretty much every single anti-porn stereotype was presented as if it were fact. As if everyone is heterosexual, as if women are inherently victims, as if there are not (millions) of female viewers.

Vargas-Cooper did indeed attempt to present an “expert” point of view, despite having no experience or pedigree in writing or punditing about pornography. Lest we question her presentation, the entire article was wrapped in a cloak of a troubling sexual encounter she had, described too intimately to be objective, too difficult and tied to porn to make readers feel safe to go, hey – wait a minute.

A lot of cheap tricks to get pageviews and emotional reaction – and avoid reproach. If only The Atlantic would provide a counterpoint, or an objective view, from someone not so out of touch. I think it would be a lot more interesting if they did, and it would foster the click-baiting they apparently desire.

Funny thing is, I feel sorry for The Atlantic. Their reputation took a hit with this one. Most of the message board reactions thought it was way off base and it was massively ridiculed.

The Atlantic also suffered in that it continued Vargas-Cooper’s pattern of writing sensationalist and wildly inaccurate articles about sex; if they had done due diligence they would have discovered that her past articles contain outrageous inaccuracies. In one article about slash fiction, she described TV show “The Office” as a show about vampires (it was fixed after commenters pointed the inaccuracy out). Fact checking was not in the house at The Awl.

When the actual subjects of the Awl article left comments that they were very upset that they had been grossly misrepresented (even down to stating their ages incorrectly), the author responded in the comments by ridiculing the subjects themselves. She made fun of them. Commenters saw this and said that no wonder people in the article refused to talk to her – while in the article Vargas-Cooper suggested they would not talk to her because they were ashamed of their sex writing. Unprofessional on all counts. I would not hire her to wash my dishes, let alone organize my porn collection.

The article is a failure for The Atlantic. We expect the usual level of thoughtfulness from them. It’s factually incorrect, slanted, and explicitly portrays the writer’s perverse obsession with anal sex. WTF, Atlantic? The article is stitched-together, garbage opinions that are totally unfounded in data, but supported by conservative values.

What’s more, it dismisses the reality of the very subject it claims to describe.

It is as if someone is telling us the facts of modern American football after only watching the 1958 NFL Championships, and focusing far too much on the player’s butts. Also, the author seems grossly unaware of her own contradictions, which run rampant throughout the piece. It’s like, does The Atlantic not edit authors, either?

Frankly I don’t know what’s worse: the “all males are aggressively, dangerously sexual” undertone or that it maintains that all women are sexual victims.

Both value sets are harmful to perpetuate, in addition to being false.

There are no facts to support any of her conclusions; nor is there any data to back up her assertions about porn fueling male sexual aggression or male sexual apathy. Perhaps it is because the available data supports the opposite viewpoints on aggression and apathy, respectively.

It’s a shame to see a new article about porn be so dated and inaccurate. The contemporary, accurate portrait of today’s porn is so much more interesting, and more titillating. How awful, too, that the feminist pro-porn revolution, the LGBT porn movement, and the millions of female porn viewers have been left out of this opportunity to have a rich, engaging (and traffic-generating) article about pornography and how it affects sexual interaction. Instead The Atlantic got a quick sensationalist piece, a short-sighted spike and drop.

Pretty much everyone concluded instantly that the writer took a tiny slice of porn and tried to (unconvincingly) pass it off as the entire porn experience and define it to suit her agenda. No one bought it. The Atlantic did their readers a huge disservice.

It’s interesting to see this porn hysteria come back as a trend; porn is so easy to research nowadays that it looks like people are really having to make this stuff up to keep the hysteria viable.

I found January 15th, Salon article to be a much more realistic snapshot of how porn is affecting people’s (women’s) sex lives: The modesty of the porn generation: When it comes to smut, we’re much more shy — and basically human — than the media narrative would have you think. By the comments and sharing on Tracy Clark-Flory’s piece, it seems that I’m not alone in that opinion.

About violet

Violet Blue (tinynibbles.com) is a Forbes "Web Celeb," a high-profile tech personality and one of Wired's "Faces of Innovation." She is regarded as the foremost expert in the field of sex and technology, a sex-positive pundit in mainstream media (MacLife, The Oprah Winfrey Show, others) and is regularly interviewed, quoted and featured prominently by major media outlets. Violet has many award-winning, best selling books; her book The Smart Girl's Guide to Porn is featured on Oprah's website. She was the notorious sex columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. She headlines at conferences ranging from ETech, LeWeb and SXSW: Interactive, to Google Tech Talks at Google, Inc. The London Times named Blue one of the 40 bloggers who really count (2010). Violet Blue is in no way associated with the unauthorized use of her name (or likeness) and registered trademark in pornographic films.
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2 Responses to In Response To The Atlantic’s “Hard Core”

  1. Brianne says:

    wonderful read!

  2. Peter W Lock says:

    “Hard Core” and the challenge of sexuality: A response to Natasha Vargas-Cooper Peter W. Lock

    In her article Hard Core in the Atlantic Monthly (Jan-Feb 2011, Natasha Vargas-Cooper expresses her disgust and contempt for the debilitating proliferation of internet pornography. It is an urgently written piece, although I don’t agree with her iterated assertion that “sexual aggression and the desire to debase women . . . are certainly an animating force of male sexuality” with particular emphasis on two of its manifestations, to which she returns on several occasions—the male propensity for “perversion” (notably anal sex) and “brute force.”

    True, at the present moment, in spite of the so-called “sexual revolution” and “sexual liberation” of the sixties and afterwards, there is still widespread reluctance and fear in this country about speaking openly, candidly, and seriously about sex. As the Clinton and Weiner episodes show so clearly, rather than attempting to understand sexuality, we prefer to gossip, snicker, and make the crudest puns and jokes about sexual peccadilloes while reveling in the discomfiture of the high and mighty.

    What is needed is informed education and fearless discussion rather than uneasy joking or the imposition of what Vargas-Cooper calls “strenuously enforced norms.” It is a stunning fact that in spite of a hundred years of Freudianism and fifty years of “sexual liberation,” sex education in schools here is still extremely rudimentary and repressive—if practiced at all. In fact, according to a serious and courageous video on the topic of women’s self-pleasure (which I saw recently at the U of M), there is virtually no example of any school in the USA that includes any information on, for example, the topic of female masturbation. And we may remember that Jocelyn Elders, the surgeon general under Clinton, was fired (by the President himself!) for her suggestion that masturbation should be openly and fearlessly discussed in schools. Elders herself (in the video) claimed that 90 per cent of men and 70 per cent of women admit to practicing masturbation “and the rest are liars.” Regrettably, we are still taught to ignore or reprove certain unique pleasures of the body, and many of us are still incredibly ignorant about what goes on with our own and others’ sexual bodies. And we have seen recently some horrendous examples of young people being driven to suicide by ignorant and bigoted vigilantes because of their sexual preferences or activities.

    Another aspect of sexuality that is elided or sanitized in our culture is the vigorous and even fierce aspect of the sexual act. Freud, for example, a hundred years ago, was courageous in talking about the way in which the “destructive instinct” can become a component of sexuality and find intermittent expression in sadism and masochism in both sexes. It is perhaps symptomatic in a country founded on an undefined “pursuit of happiness” that this aspect of Freud has been almost completely publicly ignored and repressed here (as he predicted it would be after his visit to the States). It seems that his complex and sobering views about all aspects of human sexuality and “perversions” have tended to be publicly replaced in our culture by the anodyne and “lovey-dovey” aspects of sex, where all is sweetness and light, as if the urgent encounter of two erotic bodies can always be sublimated into the comfortable and comforting “joy of sex” or dissolved into the loss of self and the total union and fusion of two different human beings.

    In this context, Freud and, notably, his French interpreter Jacques Lacan, have insisted on the “asymmetrical” aspect of sexuality, that is to say that male sexuality and female sexuality are recognized as inherently different, and that is a debilitating snare and a romantic delusion to think that we can abolish difference and become “One” through sexual conjunction. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud wrote about the dangerous illusion of what he called the pathological “Oceanic feeling,” when, in love and sex, boundaries are dissolved in the feeling that “I and you are one.” He links this back to the feeling of the infant at the breast at a time when there is not yet any distinction between the self and the Other or the self and the external world. This desire to lose oneself in the Other through sex and revert to the narcissism of our inner child-as-baby, together with the manifest impossibility of doing so, can lead to anger and even violence, especially when lovers also attempt to deny individual difference and the lack of symmetry between male and female sexuality. Jacques Lacan goes so far as to say that “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship,” if that implies the union of the same, rather than the recognition of difference. Perhaps pornography is, in part, the frantic, isolated, and isolating quest on the part of “twenty million women” as well as “forty million men” not for the Other but for some kind of desperate, regressive attainment of the same, which aims to achieve the obliteration of what may be felt as one’s own tense and isolating individuality by means of the momentary extinction of self-propelled orgasm.

    In her article, Vargas-Cooper’s displays a rather fashionable and tendentious pessimism by claiming, without any proof, that “the history of civilization would seem to show that there’s no hope of eradicating those qualities,” that is to say “the unlovely aspects of male sexuality.” It is worth noting that she does refer on one occasion to Freud’s writing on history, referencing his discussion, in Totem and Taboo, of “emotional ambivalence”; however, she immediately and uniquely links this “ambivalence” with “the aggressive, hostile, and humiliating components of male sexual arousal.” In fact, it is quite clear in Freud’s essay that he is linking his analysis of “ambivalence” to contemporary persons (female and male) who suffer from neuroses; indeed, he connects the neurotic “need” for punishment or atonement for the violation of taboos to “all members of the community” (his italics), regardless of gender. This seems to me one of the several occasions on which Vargas-Cooper moves briskly from example to accusation, repeating such phrases as the following: “the typical male psyche”; “male sexuality as often a dark force streaked with brute male desire and therefore not at all free of violent, even cruel, urges”; “pornography neatly resolves the contradictions—in favor of men”; “most men will take every inch a woman yields”; and “while sexual aggression and the desire to debase women may not be what arouses all men, they are certainly an animating force of male sexuality.” Thus pornography not only tempts men; it uniquely expresses and defines the core of their perverse and rapacious sexuality, according to Vargas-Cooper.

    Is it really true that the history of civilization uniquely demonstrates what Vargas-Cooper calls “the unlovely aspects of male sexuality”? Actually, the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, in his three-volume work, The History of Sexuality, argues that the Greeks and Romans, for example, had a balanced, sane, and moderate view of “the arts of existence,” the “care of the self,” and the ethical and esthetic quest for pleasure in all its manifestations, including sex; however, Foucault claims that the rise of monotheism and the centralized control of the modern state brought about restrictive notions of conduct that reproved the quest for pleasure and “illicit” sex as inimical to “good citizenship,” which itself became narrowly defined by the utilitarian and constricting discourses of church and state, based on power, rules, norms, constraints, and punishment. Order! Order!

    It is disappointing to witness how the undoubted proliferation of the indignities of pornography can lead a writer like Vargas-Cooper to indulge in facile, unproven, and direly pessimistic generalities about the tyranny and waywardness of human (and, above all, male) sexuality. But it seems to me that it is possible and desirable to learn to study the varieties, vagaries, and potentially destabilizing aspects of sexuality and sexual conduct rigorously, openly, and honestly in a historical context, recognize the difference and uniqueness of each individual’s sexuality and discourse, and above all open up enlightened, ethical, and informative discussions in schools and in society as a whole. And in doing so, we may yet find ways to understand and celebrate the ethics and esthetics of the pleasures of the human body and come to accept and enjoy the qualities, complexities, and challenges of all aspects of all kinds of sexual relationships.

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