There’s already a lot of debate around the ethics of engaging with (and, specifically, enjoying) unethical pieces of media (…however that might be defined). This isn’t about that so much.
This post is about the opposite.
Content Notes: sexuality and porn talk (non-explicit); morality & pleasure talk, including possible scrupulosity triggers.
A long time back, a friend (N) told me a story* about something that happened while they were visiting another friend (A) in another city, where the key event here involved them watching porn together. At the time, N referred to it as feminist porn — I didn’t ask for details on that, and if I’m going to get to the point of this post, I have to set aside the question of what exactly that means. What matters for the purposes of this retelling is that my friend, in the telling, was categorizing it as ethical representation. That matters because that perception itself, that this piece of media was both 1) feminist and 2) meant to be sexy, was why N seemed so uncomfortable in confessing to me that it wasn’t, so to speak, “working” for them.
It’s not unusual for me and that friend to have conversations about sexual politics and stuff like that. What made this story kind of unusual, as these things go, is the total divergence of our expectations — related to but not entirely determined by my being ace. Because yeah, I can relate to not finding things as sexy as intended, and for me that experience doesn’t really stand out as exceptional. That story — or maybe just the telling of it — has stuck with me for a while, though. It wasn’t just that N was disappointed at not finding something sexy, as far as I understand it. It was that they didn’t find it sexy in spite of the feminist credentials.
In a world of sexual representations that involve degradation or unethical ideological implications, finding an exception is supposed to be a relief, I figure — the idea being that you can just swap out your media for something without the BS attached and get results just as good or better. It’s one thing to talk about the disappointment when individual iterations don’t pan out quite like that. It’s another thing, I think, to experience it as a personal sting, an indictment of failure to live or do things the “right” way.
A certain expectation lives embedded in there: the idea that if something is good morally, it should feel good, too. This is the other side of the coin to expecting that bad things should be experienced as viscerally repulsive — not just mentally acknowledged with “that’s bad” but felt as bad, in the gut, like nausea. These expectations are placing the responsibility for your moral discernment on the level of gut emotion — all morality as physical intuition, as pleasure or disgust. This is a metric where the measure of someone’s adherence to proper morality is whether they experience pleasure at the right cues.
And you know what? I think we can hold that idea at arm’s length without necessarily embracing some kind of Catholic-flavored romanticisation of suffering and suspicion of pleasure, where feeling good is bad and feeling bad is good.
All of that’s a kind of feeling dogma — and while I might not know much about life or philosophy or any of that, one ideological decision I’ve come to is not to accept any kind of dogma that hinges ethical living upon feeling the “right” feelings. Feelings are just too fleeting, unstable, and inconsistent to stake a marker on them like that. It’s not fair to yourself or to anyone else. You either end up saying that because you find something gross, other people shouldn’t do it, or that because you like something, other people shouldn’t criticize its ethics. Maybe even both.
There’s a lot more that could be said on this topic, but I’ll close on this: the idea that ethical media should be enjoyed because it is “good,” morally, and that it does not need anything more than that to be fun and enjoyable because its “goodness” should suffice alone, is essentially the principle behind Christian rock.
*I’m sharing this story with their permission.