On Pornography

Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle; drawing by David Levine

The man and the woman make love; attain climax; fall separate. Then she whispers, “I’ll tell you who I was thinking of if you’ll tell me who you were thinking of.” Like most sex jokes, the origins of this amiable exchange are obscure. But whatever the source, it seldom fails to evoke a certain awful recognition since few lovers are willing to admit that in the sexual act to create or maintain excitement they may need some mental image as erotic supplement to the body in attendance. One perverse contemporary maintains that when he is with A he thinks of B and when he is with B he thinks of A; each attracts him only to the degree that he is able simultaneously to evoke the image of the other. Also, for those who find the classic positions of “mature” love-making unsatisfactory yet dare not distress the beloved with odd requests, sexual fantasy becomes inevitable and the shy lover soon finds himself imposing mentally all sorts of wild images upon his unsuspecting partner, who may also be relying on an inner theater of the mind to keep things going: in which case, those popular writers who deplore “our lack of communication today” may have a point. Ritual and magic also have their devotees. In one of Kingsley Amis’s fictions, a man mentally conjugates Latin verbs in order to delay orgasm as he waits chivalrously for his partner’s predictably slow response. While another considerate lover (non-fictional) can only reduce tempo by thinking of a large loaf of sliced white bread, manufactured by Bond.

Sexual fantasy is as old as civilization (as opposed to as old as the race), and one of its outward and visible signs is pornographic literature, an entirely middle-class phenomenon since we are assured by many investigators (Kinsey, Pomeroy, et al.) that the lower orders seldom rely upon sexual fantasy for extra-stimulus. As soon as possible, the uneducated man goes for the real thing. As a result, he seldom masturbates but when he does he thinks, we are told, of nothing at all. This may be the last meaningful class distinction in the West. It certainly proves that D. H. Lawrence was not entirely sentimental; however, the sex-in-the-head middle class which he so much despised are not the way they are because they want deliberately to be cerebral and anti-life; rather they are innocent victims of necessity and tribal law. For economic reasons they must delay marriage as long as possible. For tribal reasons they are taught that sex outside marriage is wrong. Consequently the man whose first contact with a woman occurs when he is twenty will have spent, ideally, the sexually most vigorous period of his life masturbating. Not unnaturally, in order to make that solitary act meaningful, the theater of his mind early becomes a Dionysian festival and should he be a resourceful dramatist he…

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