When I first got into academic life, I couldn't have predicted some of the questions that would come my way. But after nearly two decades of writing and speaking about the contemporary pornography industry, not much surprises me.
This question was posed to me recently by a man who had read an essay of mine in which I had argued that men's ability to achieve sexual pleasure by masturbating as they watch DP scenes in pornographic movies was an example of a failure of empathy.
Is a DP inherently degrading and therefore sexist, as my essay implied? After corresponding a bit with the man, I realized I had never addressed the question directly in print. He pressed for a simple yes-or-no answer, but it seems more useful to walk through a careful response to the question. So, let's start with ...
Observation #1: The only people who have ever asked me that question are men. I'm not suggesting that no woman has ever considered the question. But it is the case that in my 18 years of working on this issue, it has been a question raised exclusively by men.
From there, let's move to other important observations and assumptions on which my conclusion will be based.
Assumption #1: There in considerable individual variation in the human species, yet there are also patterns in human behavior. That is, we cannot ever predict what any specific individual will feel, think, or do, but we often can find patterns in human emotions, cognition, and action. That leads to ...
Assumption #2: There are women who in their personal lives find sexual pleasure and/or emotional fulfillment in DPs, which I call an assumption because ...
Observation #2: In my 48 years, I have never met a woman outside the pornography industry who has acknowledged participating in a DP or having a desire to do so. It's possible that I have met an unrepresentative group of women, or that some of those women have participated or harbor such desires but remain silent about it. But neither of those possibilities square with my experience, which includes traveling widely for many years to talk in a variety of settings about these issues.
Observation #3: When I ask women whether they think a DP is degrading and sexist, all have answered yes or refused to answer, suggesting the question is meant to be a diversion from a focus on men's behavior. I do not claim this is a scientific sample from which generalizations can be made. Again, it could be that I have spoken to an idiosyncratic group of women, but I think there's a pattern here.
Observation #4: I have never met a man outside the pornography industry who has acknowledged participating in a DP, though some have told me they would like to. Given men's typical celebration of their sexual feats, there's no reason to think men are hiding their participation in DPs. These observations lead me to ...
Assumption #3: Outside of pornography, very few heterosexuals are participating in DPs. There is no systematic data on this, because surveys of sexual behavior don't ask specifically about DPs. But the most reasonable assumption is that DPs, while common in pornography, are relatively rare outside of the industry and are not part of the routine sexual practices of the vast majority of people.
Assumption #4: Heterosexual men who watch pornographic movies featuring DPs -- whether or not they have a desire to participate in DPs in their lives -- know that the vast majority of women would not find sexual pleasure or emotional fulfillment in a DP and do not desire to participate. Male pornography consumers have told me they think that the women being DPed in pornography like it, and some say that women outside pornography might like it if they tried it. But I'm relatively confident that most men don't think most women really want to be DPed.
Based on those observations and assumptions, I reach a conclusion that seems uncontroversial to me:
Conclusion #1: The key to the sexual attraction of DPs for men is the knowledge that women don't want it. The men who watch DPs in pornography know that the vast majority of women outside pornography do not seek out that sex act, and this knowledge is at the center of the sexual charge. The attraction of a DP in pornography for heterosexual men is not just that it's a social taboo -- a sexual practice considered by many to be inappropriate or immoral -- but that men know women don't want it.
So, is a DP inherently degrading and sexist? In the minds of the men who want to watch them, I think the answer is yes. That is, men understand and experience it as a degrading and sexist practice. That's why it's sexually exciting, precisely because of men's assumption that women don't want it -- because it's degrading, something that has to be forced on women who don't want it.
Please note: This conclusion is not based on a moral or political judgment of mine about the practice. It's based on the moral and political judgments of the men who want to watch DPs. Lest we float too far away from the real world of pornography, let's remember how DP movies are marketed to men. I put "double penetration" into Google, and this was the first site with text that explained DPs to potential consumers:
"This blonde slut is in serious double penetration hardcore sex. She is getting her p*ssy and a**hole destroyed by two fat cocks that will enter her holes and make her cry. Her p*ssy and a**hole were tight a long time before, but now this slut is ready and willing to do anything like double or triple penetration hardcore sex scene. Her holes are destroyed and she cannot be satisfied with one co*k so we give her two cocks for the beginning!"
There may be DP movies marketed with less overt misogyny, but this is typical of the material I have seen. Again, I think the pattern is important.
My main goal here is to refocus our attention. When this question about the nature of DPs is posed to me by men, their focus is implicitly on women: Is a DP inherently degrading for a woman and therefore sexist? The more important question: Is a DP inherently degrading in the minds of men? The only conclusion I can reach is that men think of a DP as a way to degrade women. Based on my analysis of men's use of pornography, I believe men see a DP as a something dirty and degrading that is pleasurable to watch women submitting to.
That a DP is dirty is not my moral judgment, but is simply borrowed from a popular female pornography performer, Ariana Jollee. In an interview with a documentary film crew, she said: "Double penetration isn't painful at all. It's one of the best feelings in the world. It's filthy and if you believe it feels good, it will always feel good, so just give it a try."
That a DP isn't painful is not so clear. The human body is amazingly flexible and can adapt to a variety of practices, but that doesn't mean all such practices are easy on the body. I am not a woman, and so I obviously cannot experience a DP. While I speak without knowing how such acts feel, from watching these acts on screen it's reasonable to assume -- even though women performers routinely say they enjoy them -- that they are hard on a woman's body and require conditioning to endure. Belladonna, another well-known pornography performer, in an interview with ABC News, described such scenes this way: "You have to really prepare physically and mentally for it. I mean, I go through a process from the night before. I stop eating at 5:00. I do, you know, like two enemas. The next morning I don't eat anything. It's so draining on your body. "
Some men have challenged my analysis by saying that the women they see being DPed in pornography seem to enjoy it. This claim is rooted in the belief that pornography is not a performance but is "real sex," and therefore one can read the experience of the performers directly from their performance. But just as we wouldn't claim that a performer in a Hollywood movie was enjoying a scene simply because the person was acting enjoyment, we should be cautious about such claims about pornography.
Similarly, many Hollywood actors will say they enjoyed the process of making a film not because they necessarily did, but for complex reasons regarding their desire to continue to work in the industry. Just as we are skeptical that what actors say about the non-pornographic moviemaking process, we should maintain the same skepticism in regard to pornography.
This position is bolstered by the fact that while some women in pornography appear to be enjoying being DPed, many appear to struggle simply to endure it and others display facial or vocal expressions of pain. That is, it's plausible that in some cases a DP is so physically difficult that the women cannot maintain the "f*ck me harder" script of pornography and must concentrate simply on getting through the scene.
Conclusion #2: This conclusion is more speculative, based not on direct observation but on my experience and gut feeling: I don't think most men -- even those who enjoy watching -- want to do engage in DPs in their lives, though they may talk about such a desire, for two reasons.
First, remember that a DP puts two penises in close proximity during what is allegedly a heterosexual act. For many, if not most, straight men, actually participating in a DP likely would spark homosexual panic. They may be aroused by this gay subtext in a movie, but aren't ready to act on it in the world.
Second, I think men find it easier to watch certain acts they believe are degrading to women than to actually perform those acts. I realize that in a society with epidemic levels of sexual assault, such faith in the humanity of men is the most questionable assumption I have yet made. Perhaps it reflects a hope that I need to nurture. Perhaps it reflects my need to believe that even in a harshly patriarchal culture, men can hold onto their humanity. I'll leave that to readers to judge. I want to believe in men, to believe in myself. Sometimes it's difficult.
A final story: After a talk at Stanford University to a mixed-gender audience, a man raised a similar question, this time about a double anal (the practice in pornographic movies in which a woman is penetrated anally by two men at the same time). Was I suggesting a double anal is inherently degrading to women, he asked?
I don't remember exactly how I answered the question that evening, but I remember clearly what I wanted to say to him. I wanted to suggest to this privileged young man at one of the United States' most elite universities that we conduct an experiment. I wanted to ask him to come to the front of the room and take off all his clothes in front of the group, lie down on his back, put his legs up, and make his anus as open and available as possible. Then we would ask other men could volunteer to do a double anal on him, and he could then report back to us about whether that experience felt degrading.
It would have been inappropriate for me as an older man with a professor's status to be so harsh to a student, and I was more measured in my response. But that's what I wanted to say to him: Why don't you come up here and we'll let two of the biggest guys in the room f*ck you in the ass at the same time so that you can tell us from direct experience whether a double anal is inherently degrading.
I'm not a woman. As a man who has studied feminism and worked in feminist movements, I don't believe it's my place to speak about women's experience. I do, however, think it is appropriate as a man to challenge myself and other men to resist the ideology of patriarchy and the desires it creates in our bodies.
Is a DP inherently degrading to women and therefore sexist? I don't know, and I don't have to know.
Is a DP inherently degrading in the minds of men? That's a much more important question, and that answer is much more disturbing.