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Ask Thad: Dirty Picture Raises Vexing Ethical Questions

Dear Thad:

Let me begin by explaining that I don’t get off on pornography. Watching other people have sex doesn’t make me horny; at most it makes me curious. Rather, I am writing you concerning the very vexing question of why I get off watching a representation of me getting off.

My partner was performing oral sex on me and, in a rare moment of lucidity –with her permission— I snapped a picture of her head going up and down on my member. It was a decent shot which fully captured both the beauty of her face and the unmistakable fact that she was performing the act in question.

She’s gone out of the country on a research trip and will be gone another week and a half. I have taken to using the picture as an aid to self-pleasure, and it never fails to achieve its objective–in fact it does so in record time, by filling me with a kind of mad lust I can’t fully explain. This raises some psychological and philosophical questions in my mind.

Am I getting off on the representation of my girlfriend performing the act? Or am I getting off on some fragment of the representation, like my girlfriend’s pretty face or my own member? It seems doubtful that looking at a picture of my girlfriend’s face, as beautiful as it is, would be enough to get me off. I frequently see her face when we’re not having sex, when we eat or walk or drive around together, etc. And I really don’t think I’m getting off looking at a partial photo of my own penis. I know several guys that like other guys’ penises, and while I prefer vaginas to penises, even if I were a dick man I wouldn’t find it all that titillating to look at my own.

That leaves the idea that I am getting off looking at the act — my girlfriend’s mouth around my penis, looking at the picture and remembering all that is associated with the act. It is the complication that arises from this realization that makes me feel this is a foundational metaphysical question. Namely, am I getting off on my relation to the identity of the person in the picture getting the blowjob? Am I dissociating myself from that person in order to objectify him–or at least objectify his penis, and her head and mouth?

For that matter, am I objectifying my girlfriend in the same way–does the fact that I utilize a photograph of her in this act mean I have turned her from a sex partner to a sex object? Have I objectified both her and myself in masturbating to a pictorial representation of us together? Have I turned us both into porn?

Desperate to answer this profound question by myself, I tried looking at a video of some woman giving some guy a blowjob, and it did nothing for me. Then I looked again at the picture of my significant other doing me, and I climaxed in less than two minutes. Please share your thoughts on what you think is being “re-presented”  in this picture, and my accompanying pleasure in it.

“Yuri” — Salem, MA

Dear insightful, sensitive “Yuri” :

You’ve committed an act of open, mutual voyeurism on your own relationship, a playful bit of deviance that reaffirms your underlying bond.

You are not getting off on yourself, or a picture of yourself, or a picture of your girlfriend, or even your memory of a past act. You have not “pornographied” your lady. You don’t want to catalogue her, freeze her in time, or symbolically kill her. You clearly love her, and love the act, and you’re obviously pretty comfortable in your own skin, too, to be seeking her consent to snap a pic of it, and then actually doing so. I hope you both shared a wonderfully pleasant shock over it all.

There are many things that lovers do that non-lovers could not ethically do. Pornography exists as an industry within a mode of production; the relations it consumes and reproduces are not the same as the relationship that exists between you and your girlfriend, and snapping a picture of her doing something intimate to you is not the production of pornography.

Instead, what’s giving you those furious, reliable, shockingly quick orgasms is your irrepressible awareness of what you and your sweetheart owe one another as a result of this act of intimacy. You’re thinking about the way you exist, in relation to one another, in the bedroom. In other words, you’re getting off on ethics; coming into your own on the issue of reciprocity, if you will.  And it’s because there’s no reciprocity, no evidence of consideration of primal human ethics, in pornography that you don’t feel the same emotional attachment to it—and for you, sir, that lack of ethics-based emotional attachment is why porn doesn’t get you off. You may very well be a prototype of the New Man, so congratulations in advance for that.

In Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, the philosopher Roland Barthes distinguishes between interpretations of photographic images that reflect only “what I invest with my sovereign consciousness” and other interpretations that critically reflect an “explosion . . . which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.”[1] For Barthes, effective artistic photography is “asymbolic.” The images it captures are irreducible to language, culture, or propositional logic. In your case, the photograph of your girlfriend sucking your member is irreducible to the propositional content “Yuri’s girlfriend sucked Yuri’s member.” “What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially,” Barthes writes. The photograph is “a mad image, chafed by reality.”

Barthes speaks of something coming to life from the picture when you look at it. Following Emmanuel Levinas, what comes to life behind and before symbols are ethical relationships; intimate reminders of the love and obligation created by the couple’s primal encounter.[2] What is in that photograph is what you owe your girlfriend and what she owes you–the enjoyment you commit to sharing together, the safety of the act, the play of “shame” and “freedom” in its intimacy. The voyeurism of the picture is also an assertion of deviance, shared by the two of you, augmenting the oath that your intimacy has implicitly made you take together.

So like good photographs, ethical relations also exist outside of, independent, and prior to, the symbolic world. Most western thinking, and particularly the sort of thinking that results in mass production of things like pornographic images, or chewing gum, occurs in order to obfuscate that primal ethical encounter. But some ethical actions acknowledge that primacy–celebrate it. If, when you snapped that picture, you were celebrating the intimacy of your relationship and, when you look at it you feel uncontrollable pleasure, it’s because it brings that moment of intimacy to life.

There now–I’ve overthought it for you, and you no longer need to. Now be sure and tell your girlfriend all about how looking at that picture makes you climax in two minutes. From your description of her, I imagine she’d think that’s pretty hot.

Have a question about sexual pleasure, sexual culture, or sexual ethics? Email Thad at thadeusmcgregor@gmail.com. 


[1] Barthes distinguishes between two types of affect garnered from photographs: “studium denoting the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph, punctum denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it.”

[2] Suppose, much to your alarm, someone else gets a hold of your camera, or phone, or whatever, and sees the picture. Lacking the relationship you and your girlfriend have built, the voyeur may see it much as you saw the video with the actors who had no context for you. (Someone might also look at the picture and invest it with some other, imaginary life force, but for our purposes, such a hypothetical relationship would also be ethically invested.


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About Thad McGregor

Pseudonym for a writer who has been around the global block, leaving a pile of lovers, political victories, and empty beer bottles in his wake.