THE BLOG
12/01/2014 01:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How I Can Be A Feminist And Still Like Porn

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When I was a junior in college, a friend and I went to see The Story of O, the sadomasochistic cult film. I don't remember how we got the idea to go, but I do remember worrying that I was betraying my entire Women's Lit class as well as my mother, who had told me growing up that I'd go to hell if I had sex before I got married.

Watching the film was like journeying into a strange land on acid. Why were men torturing women? Why were women making out with each other? Did they like what was happening or not? Maybe this sort of thing only happened in France? Midway through the film, my friend leaned over and whispered into my ear: Wasn't the movie disgusting? Didn't I want to go?

Well, no, I didn't want to go. As much as I didn't understand the movie, I felt connected to those women, although it would be years before I realized why. I also felt aroused, and I wanted to see how the movie ended. I couldn't admit that to my friend, however. So I feigned disgust and stomped out of the theater in solidarity, peering over my shoulder at the beautifully anguished women on the screen.

Almost three decades passed before I watched another porn film. My marriage was on its last wheeze and my husband bought some DVDs hoping to resuscitate our arid sex life. We laid on the bed fast-forwarding through scenes with pizza delivery boys, anal sex over pool tables, and lesbians in the shower. The women had balloons for breasts, spit was flying, the lighting was garish, and the collective IQs appeared to be in the double digits. It was a joke, and a total turn-off. My husband and I gave each other a perfunctory peck, rolled away from each other, and separated a few months later.

"All Men Watch Porn"

Several months after my split from my husband, I sat at a bar on my first date with Joost, a silver-haired man with whom I would have agonizingly hot sex for several months. Somehow the conversation shifted to the topic of porn. I told him that as a mother of a son, I was concerned about the prevalence of porn in our culture, and how such easy and unremitting access would make it difficult for adolescent males to form genuine connections with real live romantic interests.

Joost was in the tech business and followed web traffic.

"All men watch porn," he said, with a get-over-it look. "I watch porn."

I was slightly taken aback that he would admit this on a first date. And that porn was such a regular, integrated part of his life. It was difficult to imagine this erudite, polished man getting off watching dental assistants fornicating loudly with patients. Because, as far as I knew, that was the only kind of porn that was available.

Feminist Porn

When I decided to write a sex blog earlier this year, I began following sexy people on Twitter. One of them was Elle Chase, a sex blogger and educator who became famous for her masterfully curated porn tumblr, Lady Cheeky. This porn was a radical departure from the hokey, hard-core porn I had seen. The images and videos were aesthetically pleasing: many in black-and-white film with soft lighting. You didn't feel that you were watching anything scripted; the people seemed like they could actually be lovers. Sex was luxurious and passionate. Men loved giving oral. Women's faces seemed to be transported by passion, not agony. And the lovers often made eye contact. They had a connection.

I felt elevated, not cheapened, looking at these images. I could still be intelligent, and not worry that I was colluding with the objectification of women. Women were not penis receptacles; they were sexual equals. I would learn that Lady Cheeky is the hallmark of the Feminist Porn genre, which focuses on a woman's desires and pleasure. It was the kind of sex I had, the kind of sex I wanted to have. Not only did it give me permission to like porn, it also allowed me to understand my sexuality and own it as a healthy part of myself.

After decades of feeling mystified and frequently ashamed of my sexual urges, I embraced them.

Porn Leads to Self-Knowledge

Because the culture is male-oriented, and women are often raised to focus on men's needs, women often don't know what they like sexually. Last weekend, I had a glass of wine with my friend Grace, who had recently broken up with her boyfriend. Horny, and with no lover on the horizon, Grace had gone online to look at porn. But she didn't know what she was looking for. The only time she had ever watched porn was as a prelude to her sexual encounters with her boyfriend, and he chose what they watched. Now she was figuring out what porn she liked -- and there's a lot out there to choose from.

Porn Sex Vs. Real Life Sex

One downside of all the readily available porn is that it promotes unrealistic standards for sex. Advertising maven Cindy Gallop has created a new wave of porn designed to keep sex real. Her Make Love Not Porn site features videos of regular people, not porn stars, having sex. She has an hysterical meme that lists the differences between porn sex and real sex: contrary to what porn sex would have us believe, not every woman likes anal sex, dirty talk, or sex without foreplay. And most woman can't orgasm when sex occurs nowhere near the clitoris.

The accessibility of new porn genres has promoted a conversation about the breadth of human sexuality. Although my site is not porn, and never will be, writing about sex so openly has allowed me to explore the role of sex in women's lives, particularly older women. It's made me feel entitled to my sexuality. Instead of feeling that I need to hide, or re-package my sexual desires into something "acceptable," I now feel proud of my sexuality and I cherish it for its greatest gift:

It makes me feel alive.

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Photography by Nick Holmes

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