“A Torn and Wrinkled Page On a Dirt Road”: Memories of Pornography as Somatic Archives

June 26, 2015
By | Comments Off on “A Torn and Wrinkled Page On a Dirt Road”: Memories of Pornography as Somatic Archives
Image: Lisa Anne Auerbach.

Image: Lisa Anne Auerbach.

Post by Katariina Kyrölä, University of Turku, Finland

This post is part of a partnership with the International Journal of Cultural Studies, where authors of newly published articles extend their arguments here on Antenna. 

My first memory of porn is a torn and wrinkled page I saw on a dirt road close to my grandma’s place sometime in the late 70s or early 80s (I’m born in 1973). … It was really hard to figure out what the picture was about. It was a close-up of a very hairy bush and manly equipment. I remember realizing what it must be about, and I was very confused, not turned on at all. (female, born 1973)

When I was younger, little things were enough to get me excited. A single torn page of a porn magazine, wet from the rain, could be a treasure I’d keep for a long while. … I haven’t thought that pornography significantly defined my sexuality as a child, but now I’m of course picky about what pleases me and what I aim for, perhaps because of my own activities as a creator and collector of porn. (male, n.d.)

These two excerpts, reminiscing first encounters with pornography and their influence in later life, are a part of a small but varied and colorful archive of 45 essays on how people have used porn in Finland. The essays, written as responses to a call for contributions in 2012, offer fascinating glimpses into the roles and meanings of pornography in every lives, sexual self-definitions, and media use practices from the 1930s to recent years. While yielding no possibility for generalizations, this archive is nevertheless rich in detail about the largely uncharted territory of the experiential power of porn for its users (see also McKee et al., 2008; Smith et al., 2011).

The two excerpts describe how one single page or image, seemingly bordering on trash but found and even treasured as a child, has stuck to the author’s memory for decades. The authors do not describe these early encounters as traumatic but as curiosity-provoking, looking at their younger selves with tenderness and amusement.

The influence of such encounters – or porn use in general – is impossible to specify or quantify. Instead, they can be understood to contribute to somatic archives (Paasonen 2011) concerning sexuality. Somatic archives are accumulations of memory, sensation and knowledge which layer in the body through encounters with sexual scenarios, be they lived, represented or imagined. Both personally specific and culturally shared, somatic archives direct our encounters with bodies, media technologies, and sexual acts in the present and the future, whether we are conscious of it or not. Somatic archives take shape just as much through chance encounters, carried in the body as a vivid memory of a wrinkled image of a bush, as through repeated actions of searching for porn online amongst the billions of available images.

Image: Lisa Anne Auerbach.

Image: Lisa Anne Auerbach.

The point of somatic archives is not to consider porn as an external influence on people’s sexuality, but to investigate the complex layering of cultural memory, personal inclination and media technologies. Body ideals, or sexual and porn use preferences more broadly, came up in the essays as questions of self-definition and self-styling as much as desires and orientations towards other bodies, acts, scenarios, and images. Especially memories from before the age of online porn, emphasized colors, textures and the work of gaining access to porn with much pleasure and nostalgic intensity.

It was the 80s, and one centerfold … has stuck to my mind. On the first page, it had a woman in heavy make-up and big blond curls putting her fingertip in her mouth, and between her labia in the second picture. She had bright red nail polish and equally bright lipstick, and she looked right into the camera defiantly. A teenage girl concluded pretty fast that big, curly, blond hair and red nails were sexy like nothing else! I grew out my nails and got blond highlights. It took until I was 16 before I was allowed to use even a hint of red lipstick, but oh what a victory of femininity it was when strange young men, and older ones too, commented on my red lips. (female, born 1970)

We invited a local horse breeder guy, decades older than the rest of us and of Irish decent, to one of our pornographic film viewings. He had never seen a porn film before and eyes wide he wondered about the large colorful image and the positions and skills of the man appearing in the film, and he stood up in ecstasy clicking his mouth and even went up to stroke the woman on the screen and said that his wife and him had definitely never had sex like that. (male, born 1948)

Both authors, the first describing mid-1980s, the second mid-1970s, recount the private and socially shared porn encounters as titillating highlights in their sexual history, but also as chances to expand ideas about what sex and sexuality meant for them or other people. Indeed, one of the most consistently recurring themes in the material was how pornography, whether accidentally encountered or consciously searched for and acquired, broadened and opened up authors’ somatic archives in terms of what they could imagine enjoying, desiring and being capable of sexually.

Often you hear the claim that porn gives the wrong impression of women, because they say it features only thin, beautiful, big-breasted and feminine women. But immediately when you look at what porn websites actually offer, you notice that this is not the case. You find fat, small-breasted, boyish and bald women there just as well. … I like to look at normal-sized, maybe a bit heavier women. … Men I don’t really want to see, although I’m not sure if I’m bisexual or lesbian. (female, born 1994)

For this author, like for many others in our material, porn preferences and personal sexual and romantic preferences were not always clearly compatible. The practically limitless contemporary online porn resources were seen as particularly useful and easy routes to experiment with one’s preferences and find new points of resonance for one’s sexual self-definition. Overall, our respondents’ narratives fit poorly in the current discourses of concern over the supposedly homogenizing or traumatizing effects of online porn for people’s body images or perceptions of sex.

For further reading on somatic archives, memories of porn use in Finland, and the notion of the archive in the context of queer theory, porn studies, and media studies, please read the recent article “Glimmers of the forbidden fruit: Reminiscing pornography, conceptualizing the archive” in International Journal of Cultural Studies, authored by myself and Susanna Paasonen.

McKee A, Albury K and Lumby C (2008) The Porn Report. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Paasonen S (2011) Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Smith C, Attwood F and Barker M (2011) Pornresearch.org: preliminary results. Available at: http://www.pornresearch.org/Firstsummaryforwebsite.pdf


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