Besides a few statistics here and there that reveal how pervasive porn is in our society (which, as any 14-year old boy will tell you, is not such a shocking fact), most of the information the reader gets from Emily Southwood’s Prude: Lessons I Learned When My Fiancé Filmed Porn is anecdotal. What you might expect to be an uncomfortably eye-opening look into the porn industry, revealing all the dirty details of what goes on behind the corny scripts and the tacky costumes, turns out to be a monologue of female insecurities. Prude is a memoir, so I guess personal musings are what you sign up for, but the anecdotes you get are second-hand, drawn from the experience of the girlfriend of a man who films pornography.
The memoir follows Southwood who, recently engaged to her boyfriend, moves to Los Angeles to live with him after finishing her master’s degree at the University of British Columbia. He has been offered a job as a cameraman on a reality TV show about the porn industry called Webdreams. It follows the porn stars’ careers and shoots behind-the-scenes footage. As time progresses, Southwood becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the way the porn industry clashes with her ideas of sexuality, as well as with her boyfriend being in such close proximity to women groomed to be the ‘ideal’ objects of male sexual desire. As she encounters these conflicts, she personalizes them and engages in a cyclical narrative of discovery, disapproval, rejection, and retrospective enlightenment that becomes pretty tiresome after the fourth time around.
Each chapter is titled after a sexual act or porn archetype: “threesomes,” “MILFs,” “squirting,” “masochism,” et cetera. In almost every chapter, our protagonist learns something new about porn and is consistently shocked at how large a role it plays in the industry. However, Southwood’s perspective is inconsistent with what most younger readers will have experienced growing up in the age of the internet. Pornography is widely accessible and, as Southwood points out, youth today are being exposed to porn by the age of 11. Those born from the mid-1980s onward would not be nearly as shocked as she was to know that many women shave their pubic hair or that anal sex is a common occurrence in porn’s narrative arcs. Southwood thus reveals a generation gap that restricts her work to a more porn-shy readership and comes off as either highly conservative or naïve, if not both.
She then becomes insecure about what she learns, wondering what men’s expectations are due to their exposure to pornography. MILFs, who are apparently played by porn stars past the age of 23, make our protagonist feel old. Her inability to squirt makes her feel sexually inadequate, and her discomfort with anal sex bothers her to no end. She translates these issues into insecurities about her own relationship, feeling that her fiancé must want everything from her that he sees from behind the camera. With a strand of argument that dabbles too much in the emotional, she bemoans unrealistic standards instead of dismissing them as patriarchal, doesn’t communicate her feelings accurately, and gets upset when her fiancé does not repeat her own views verbatim back to her. Instead of delving into the complex politics surrounding the industry, Southwood only focuses on her immediate emotional reaction to her boyfriend’s involvement with pornography. Then, a few pages later, we hear the author speaking calmly in hindsight about how now she understands that what once made her insecure is perfectly alright and that the porn industry is a-ok – again, without giving much depth to her justification of this new stance. This melodrama is repeated at least once every chapter.
Southwood’s flip-flopping of opinions throughout her memoir is not only uninteresting to the reader, but also doesn’t offer much information about current debates in the porn industry in the real world. There is a large body of scholarship in feminist and liberal theory about porn and what our society’s stance ought to be on it. Some feminists believe pornography perpetuates sexism; showing barely legal girls being penetrated in every orifice possible and then being ejaculated on isn’t typically thought to empower women. Many are convinced that the average girl does not grow up wanting to become a porn star, but rather is pushed into becoming a victim of the male gaze due to limited employment opportunities.
Others argue from a point of view of concern over the amount of influence porn can have on the viewer. There is no lack of rape pornography that glorifies and legitimizes sexual assault, or of porn that, to many, seems to encourage degrading women as part of sexual encounters. Many worry that viewers’ sexual desires and expectations will be influenced by the material they consume and that this will cause an increase in sexual violence towards women or perpetuate women’s inferiority. In response to this, some feminists have taken up the task of making feminist porn, depicting non-violent, overtly consensual, and respectful sex that is for both persons to enjoy.
However, others argue that no sexual act is degrading in and of itself and to assume that someone who enjoys bondage or sexual submission is being forced into it is to take away sexual agency, both from the porn star and from the viewers who choose to imitate certain acts out of their own will and with the consent of their partner. Advocates of freedom of speech argue that no matter how perverse it may seem to some, pornography should not be censored. Southwood touches on some of these viewpoints in her memoir, but only superficially in her epilogue. These are only some of the arguments surrounding porn that are worth debating. Instead, the reader gets an internal dialogue about expectations in relationships and Southwood’s own body image.
Prude is an interesting examination of the insecurities women feel when faced with unrealistic standards and sexual desires cultivated for male enjoyment, but it fails to give a critical analysis of what is purported to be the focal point of the novel: porn.