As a writing exercise, I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.
Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.
I'm doing the movies chronologically. Number four:
Quite a few times I pondered just dropping this movie from the list, because I knew it would be hard to write about with both honesty and class. But the challenge is the point of this writing exercise, isn't it? Be warned; if discussions of pornography or masturbation disturb you, you should probably browse somewhere else.
Bear with me; this is going to take a lot of unpacking.
I only saw this film when I did because of two coincidences. The first coincidence was the satellite dish our family purchased some time in the 1980's.
At the time, television broadcast companies were sending content to cable providers by passing it up to satellites and beaming it back down without any sort of encryption, so if a private citizen got ahold of a satellite dish they could get the full spectrum of expensive cable programming for free. My Dad thought this was a cool idea, so he paid a crew to drive to our property and plant a dish at the top of our hill. It was five feet across, weighed 200 pounds at least, and you oriented it by turning a steel crank.
We enjoyed that for a few years until the broadcast companies got wise, and "scrambled" their signals so that home receivers couldn't process them directly. My Dad tried to get ahold of a "pirate" descrambler chip he could stick into our receiver, but couldn't find one. Then the cable company ran real cable to our neighborhood and we gave up on the dish.
The second coincidence was a black-and-white television.
My grandmother gave me one as a gift, so I could play Nintendo games without hogging the downstairs TV. (In retrospect I find it terribly American that we had four television displays in a five person household, counting the one with the computer...) The black-and-white TV was a cute thing, about the size of a cinderblock and almost as heavy, with a carrying handle on the back and a broken-off antenna. It looked a lot like this:
It didn't have a digital tuner, so I couldn't hook it to our cable feed. But I knew the old satellite receiver would display stuff on "channel 3" so I commandeered it, hoping to have my own personal cable selection. It was underwhelming. The only stuff that wasn't scrambled was boring government stuff, weather reports, and scrolling "tv guide" channels. But I kept messing around, and eventually I discovered that if you put a scrambled signal on "channel 3", then set the TV to halfway between channels 3 and 4, and futzed with the fine tuning knob, the image would straighten out and de-invert itself. Suddenly I could watch scrambled television!
It was still underwhelming. Most of the time the audio was missing, so movies were incomprehensible. But I was inspired by this new freedom, and one weekend I dragged the television up to the dish at the top of the hill, along with the receiver and an extension cord, and began slowly turning the dish across the sky, marking what I found by etching lines onto the adjustment arms of the dish. The "tv guide" channels gave an inventory for each satellite, which I wrote on graph paper. I found HBO, Cinemax, the Disney channel, et cetera. Lots of diagnostic channels and random stuff I couldn't identify. I kept at it.
After a few hours my Dad saw the extension cord and followed it up to the dish, and asked what I was doing. "Wow, did you actually get that thing to work?" he said.
"Sort of. All the satellites have moved around, so I'm making a new map."
He watched as I turned the crank until another picture resolved from the snow, then as I flipped up through the channels to find the diagnostic channel that would tell me what satellite I'd found. For a second, an image appeared of a woman. Her shirt was bunched up around her neck and a man had one of her breasts in his mouth. I still remember it even now because of how weird it was: The woman was leaned back on a fence, and holding a parasol over one shoulder, and looking down with arched eyebrows as if to say "oh my!", like her old-timey garden picnic had just gone very rogue indeed.
"What the heck was that?" my Dad said.
"I have no idea," I said.
A moment later I found the diagnostic channel. This was satellite S-1. I scratched a mark on the dish, wrote the name in my notes, and started turning the crank again.
Dad watched as I located three or four more satellites this way, then he went back to his yardwork. A few days later I went through my map and cranked the dish down to S-1 again, and found the channel where I'd seen that very sexy picnic. It was an all-pornography channel. I now had a 24-hour feed of fuzzy black-and-white silent pornography set up in my room. (This may sound unremarkable to teenagers today, but back then it was quite scandalous. You can read about the channel I found and its pathetic legal history if you want.)
It was fascinating. I'd discovered masturbation years earlier, and was already good at using my imagination, but my imagination was still fuzzy. I didn't actually know what sexual intercourse looked like in motion. I'd seen pictures in magazines before, and knew I liked looking at naked women, but seeing them move was way more interesting. I began watching the TV at night before bed. It was a parade of silent sexual encounters, with boring bits in between that I ignored by reading or writing or messing with electronics. Only a couple of nights went by like this before I stumbled across "Bodacious Ta-Tas".
I never watched for the titles on the black-and-white TV, and there was no schedule I could refer to, so I only know the name because of some online research I did years later. (In case you're wondering, the title is inspired from a line in Officer and a Gentleman, from 1982.) The movie stuck in my head because of a scene about 20 minutes in where the actress Kitten Natividad does a strip-tease. In the scene she has an enthusiastic grin and ridiculously large breasts and does an energetic dance to show them off, and I thought it was the best thing ever. The other dancers were going for laconic and sultry, but Kitten went for aggressive and (literally) in-your-face. I immediately wanted to see it again.
But I couldn't rewind the broadcast, and I couldn't use the VCR to record the scrambled signal because it wouldn't play back. My only choice was to keep watching the channel and hope they repeated the movie. And that gave me even more incentive to watch the TV late at night, or to turn it on and glance at it while I was doing other things, just in case that movie appeared. This went on for months, with decreasing frequency, and I caught plenty of other movies - or parts of them - along the way. For a kid, a few months can be a long time, and during that time, lots of interesting things happened:
First, I saw a whole lot of women having sex in black-and-white. It's impossible to be sure, but I think I this is how I got a preference for women with very pale skin, even though my own skin tans easily.
Second, the only time I had any privacy to watch the porn channel was at night. I was already a night-owl from burning my sleep hours to keep messing with the computer, and this made the desire to stay awake even stronger. For my entire adult life it's been way too easy to delay sleep, and this channel is partly responsible. (My usual bedtime is somewhere around 1:30am.)
Third, since this was porn from the late 80's, women did not shave their genitalia down to bald lumps, like what became inexplicably popular a decade later. So, I got used to the hairy look and have always preferred it. At the same time, the hair made it difficult to see things, so I still couldn't tell what was going on when, say, a woman received oral sex. What the porn did teach me was that oral sex was very normal, and also such a common part of foreplay that it was practically mandatory to give it to a woman before you did anything more serious.
No, really. Go watch a bunch of 80's porn. That's the pattern. Sure it was usually badly performed oral sex and not nearly long enough, but there it was.
I was convinced that if I ever actually had sex, I should be ready to give oral sex too. Textbooks were vague on things like technique, and porn was a poor teacher, but it was the attitude that mattered later on when I had the chance to learn.
Fourth, porn movies from the 80's often had at least one "lesbian" scene in it, and I was interested in seeing women, not men, so I paid more attention to the TV when these scenes appeared. I liked them because they were more patient, more exploratory, and focused as much on the actors reacting to each other than the mechanics of what they were doing. And I really liked breasts. The women together usually paid attention to them, whereas the men sometimes ignored them completely which I thought was stupid.
I enjoyed these scenes even more when I imagined I was one of the women participating. I don't think that exercise got me in touch with something like a "feminine side" to myself, but it did cause me to think about gender in a more fluid sense, about dominant and submissive behavior, and about how bodies felt from the inside as well as the outside. It also formed a connection between my own sense of pleasure and seeing a woman express pleasure outwardly. For the rest of my life, across all my real sexual encounters, half my satisfaction has come from seeing my partner have a good time, and knowing that we are sharing that feeling. I don't credit porn with this - that would be ridiculous - but I think the mental exercise of placing myself in a woman's body encouraged something that was already there.
And finally, I learned that sex was not just something that men did to women. Even in the liberal Bay Area, there was still a framework of social conservatism around me, whispering in my ear that women considered sex a beastly, traumatic thing they would rather avoid, and men were tainted sickos for wanting it or even thinking about it. Porn said otherwise. Porn reassured me that women not only genuinely enjoyed sex, but that they sometimes even initiated it. This counterbalanced the confusing behavior I saw in women my own age, who seemed to be obsessed with making themselves sexually appealing, but fiercely denied any interest in the act itself. (Of course, the real truth is that all teenagers - male, female, whatever - are completely insane, and have no idea what they want or what they're really doing until years later. If that. But I digress.)
Porn said: Sex is such a regular part of adult behavior that we've made an endless supply of movies just to cater to it. This was an echo of the sexual revolution, beaming down from space, with Kitten Natividad swinging her artificial boobs at the head of the parade, insisting that sex wasn't just a chore for making babies, and needed no penance, nor was it some secret off-camera spiritual apotheosis like swooning romantic films implied. (The man and the lady fall in love, then they kiss and he yanks her onto the couch, and the camera fades out, and presumably they "Do It," and in the next scene they're deliriously happy, smiling rainbows at their co-workers and walking in the park with big stupid grins. What the hell happened on that couch??) Instead, sex could be something else, something down-to-earth and understandable: A thing that people did to have fun together. Still a delicate terrain because sexual feelings are strong things, but a terrain that could be explored, without permanent damage or damnation.
This list of things is not what people expect a teenager to learn when they are exposed to a limitless, on-demand source of pornography. What made all the difference for me is that I was raised in a respectful household, and I did not use porn to learn about dating, or talking to women, or to set my expectations for anything social. I just used it to explore my instinctive fascination with female bodies. It was a sensory indulgence, very much like listening to music. I remember being in Davis years later trying to complete a boring work assignment in my room, and calling up a video clip of a woman masturbating on the computer screen just to give the bored part of my mind something to chew on. I don't remember the specifics of the video but I'm sure it was a few minutes long and set to loop indefinitely, so the woman had 30 orgasms or so in the periphery of my vision while I stamped out computer code. Just a distraction, without a trace of anything personal. And that brings me right up to the most fraught aspect of pornography, which I have to address: Objectification.
Over and over again, as I grew into an adult and for years afterwards, I've had to sort through an appalling quantity of baggage, dumped on top of the basic act of being a man deriving pleasure from images of naked women. I've wrestled with concerns of being "anti-woman", of being violent, of being sexually perverted, of reenforcing evil standards about appearance -- as if specific details about which women I find sexually interesting are not just my own personal business, but a matter of social justice, - like, oh my god, if I find light skin more sexually attractive, I must be racist - and so forth. Plus, there's the accusations of self-harm. What if I'm condemning myself to a narrow range of "idealized" or "unrealistic" bodies that inspire me, ruining my chances of being happy? What if I'm too focused on the way women look, and fail to appreciate the way they feel or smell? What if masturbation gets me too used to my hand and I fail to enjoy a good ol' vagina?
Actually, the range of bodies I've found attractive has grown organically over time, and has not been confined by porn, but reshaped my consumption of it. There was an era of my life where I was upset at myself for not having a broader range than I did, and I tried to force myself to find things attractive that I didn't. That turned out to be a huge mistake. Was it porn that set me up for failure in that effort? I doubt it. Before then, and after then, I found no shortage of women I was very attracted to, who were also very attracted to me. To lament my own "range" in that sense would be selfish. The only tragedy came from trying to make something work that wasn't going to, and hurting other people as well as myself in the process. And no, porn did not stop me from appreciating the way some women smell, either, or the way they felt. Looking back, that concern was especially ridiculous. What if adults marched around telling women that they'd better stay away from vibrators, lest they fail to appreciate good ol' dick? How would that play with women today?
All the more political worries, about whether I was being a good person by watching porn, turned out to be an even bigger waste of time. Yes, the porn industry can be terribly exploitative, and I've seen plenty of porn, but I haven't given a dime to the "industry." (Well actually I think the porn industry got about $20 from me over my lifetime, from renting a couple of erotic videos in college, but close enough.) The internet is full of anonymized "amateur" video websites and it's trivial to download from them or bookmark your favorites. A nicely shot video of a bright-eyed bushy-tailed man and/or woman is only about 30 seconds away on any of a billion devices these days, most of which conveniently require just one hand to operate; har har. And all you need to pay is the data fee. If you're nervous about who gets the advertising money for the ad next to your video, you can always go a step further and give your money to one of the modern pornography sites that is sex-positive and non-exploitative. The times have changed. Here's a good one that's been around for 17 years.
(By the way. The generation that engineered the internet and then the smartphone into existence is still largely ignorant of the almost incomprehensibly enormous change in access to pornography that these dual inventions have wrought. I suspect most people of that generation will go all the way to their graves with their ignorance intact, due to their own discomfort with what they might learn. But I digress, again.)
Objectification, that's the sticky wicket; the difficult patch that conversations about porn always spiral into. That concept lingers when you brush away all the political noise, and all the health worries. Porn objectifies women, and that's bad, case closed.
Porn did not turn women into objects for me. You know how I know? Because there was a part of my mind that was already adept at taking women apart into components - legs, skin, musculature, hair, coordination, sound, smell - long before I got access to porn. I remember a journal entry I wrote in the 7th grade, marveling at how obsessive this deconstruction had already become:
"Girls wear different clothes and makeup and change their hair. They try to decorate themselves just right. None of it matters. Boys are really good at removing it all in our minds. We see the shape underneath and how it moves. We do it without trying. We can't turn it off. We have learn how to pretend it's not happening."
The 7th grade, so ... I was 12 years old when I wrote that. Obviously, for me the "objectification" came built in with being a young man. When porn arrived it hooked into a way of perceiving that was already there. For me, the argument that porn "encouraged" me to see women as objects is suspiciously like the argument that distributing condoms to teenagers "encourages" them to have premarital sex, or the argument that abortion clinics should be shut down because the availability of abortions "encourages" women to have unwanted pregnancies. There's a bit of confusion between the metaphorical horse and cart going on. Yes, boys need to remember that girls are more than just mobile collections of body parts. But before we panic, we should also remember that boys are more than just mobile-body-parts-detectors. We can enjoy looking at parts - in private, where it doesn't threaten anyone - and still greatly value connecting with our lover.
That said, there is definitely a downside to the convenience of porn, and I was exposed to it by "Bodacious Ta-Tas" and all the other movies on that black-and-white TV.
Porn satisfies that hunger for women (or men) as objects, without forcing you to put in the effort to connect to a live human being. Porn won't help you socialize yourself, or give you any tools to talk to people and learn about their lives and minds, or help you build a bridge between that realm of objects and the realm of emotional connection so romance can appear. It's a pressure-release valve to keep the engine from overheating, but it won't teach you how to drive. As a teenager, it kept me keenly interested in sex and somewhat sane, through a long delay of about eight years, until I was finally old enough to have meaningful conversations with girls during my first year of college. At that point a whole new universe of learning and connection opened up to me. Am I glad I delayed? Yes, because I had too much going on in my own mind to meaningfully discuss with girls in high school anyway. But porn only helped the time to pass; it didn't teach me to converse, and I had to catch up in a hurry.
Later on, dating as an adult, you enter a world of plausible deniability, where women truly appreciate it when you're very into sex with them, but require you to hold that desire in check when you're getting acquainted, because you need to prove that you are in control of your urges, and see them as human beings. Porn and masturbation kept me balanced in that world. If I'd had to rely exclusively on intercourse with women to find sexual release, my dating history would probably read like a string of dirty limericks, ending in a late-teenage pregnancy and a shotgun wedding. Thank you, big steel satellite dish, and thank you, Kitten Natividad and your aggressive dance routine. You helped me come to terms with a part of male sexuality that no one wanted to talk about, and almost no one could talk about rationally.