Pornography and Death

Broken Mannequins. Location unknown. February 2003.

It’s difficult to access pornography in Yemen. Most adult websites are blocked by a firewall. It was at the end of a particularly bloody week in the capitol city, and I was looking for some diversion. An article in Gentlemen’s Quarterly intrigued me, not the least because GQ is itself somewhat risqué.

The article was appropriately-titled 10 Reasons Why You should Quit Watching Porn, and cited an admittedly weak survey of the subreddit NoFappers. One of the findings stated that about half of the subreddit’s users have never had sex in their lives – meaning that their only link to physical intimacy is synthetic.

I paused for a moment, since this was something I never considered about times of war in conservative Muslim states. What happens when the only link we have to physical lovemaking is virtual, and the only forms of physical intimacy that we experience are tied to bloodshed?

Gender segregation, particularly in a country as heavily influenced by Saudi-peddled Wahhabism as Yemen, can be flexible in many areas. However, among marginalized fighting-age men that are most likely to be the target of state and tribal violence, feudal ideology holds strong. This is mainly because they become defined against an anxiety-producing cosmopolitanism. Thus, in many areas of Yemen, and also others including Pakistan, the only contact many fighting-age men are ever guaranteed to experience with women is with their family members, and eventually, their wives (there isn’t much of a choice about that out here.)

This has had a number of violent effects on gender, not the least of which is that many of those men begin seeking sexual release in each other, and often on violent terms. Particularly in a country in a constant state of war, where men feel physically violated by military violence, and yet are inhibited from seeking out affection from each other. What sort of psychology results from that reality, where online Western pornography offers the only remotely healthy release?

Army Marrionettes. Cairo, 2012.
Army marionettes. Cairo, 2012.

I was speaking with a friend the other night about the deteriorating political situation in Yemen. Inevitably, the discussion turned to our own experiences. For his part, he described to me how human flesh looks when it is sprayed across a tarp as a consequence of an explosion. Our reflections were anchored by a sudden awareness that a car bomb had detonated fifteen minutes away from our dormitory a few days ago, and the fact that we initially treated that revelation as something not worthy of emotional reaction. It was deeply unnerving. I went to bed with a desperate yearning to be held. But all I could do was feel threatened.

Out of habit, I turned on my laptop, and began seeking out porno. But, as to be expected, what I found only made me feel more lonely. It wasn’t what I needed. It was a tantalizing celebration of sexual deviancy, particularly in the conservative religious context I find myself in. But it couldn’t erase the feeling of vulnerability that the car bomb had instilled in me. I still felt violated.

And that violation is inevitable in combat settings, even when discussing them in retrospect, as a Westerner used to feeling more secure. My own experiences as a foreigner who is only temporarily operating by Yemeni standards of gender decorum should be remembered here, since it conditions my perspective. However, I wonder if at a certain point, violence can just be considered violence, and have nothing to do, for example, with sexuality.

Perhaps not. Warfare is, after all, a deeply sensual affair. It dramatically undermines the integrity of the body, and itse sense of wholeness, of stability. It also inspires more indirect forms of violation, such as always finding ourselves under the suspicious eyes of security forces , or getting frisked at checkpoints by nervous soldiers, whose hands inevitably touch everything. One is always being undressed, so to speak, either virtually, or literally.

In militarized societies, the psychological consequences of such stress are deadly. Intimacy is synonymous with violence, not love, or neighborliness. Naturally, one is inclined to reach out to anything that can remind you of being alive, irrespective of gender, or medium. Porno might be lowbrow for some – particularly the kind that flourishes online. But, when all you can feel is the grip of death, it’s like an oasis in the desert. (Let’s not forget my location.)

The issue, though, is that inevitably, pornography has a limited shelf life. I never thought I’d say that, but it’s true. It has an aura of privilege about it, which is socially and culturally alien to circumstances like this, which beg for depth, and interpersonal connection. Certainly, fantasy is important, particularly in dystopian circumstances, where American drones are the biggest and most manly phallic symbols dominating people’s lives – and fears. However, there are limits to the relief it can provide.

The fact is, that in cultures such as that which exist in Yemen, most people know this. While I can’t speak for women, obviously, for many young men over here, who are unmarried, there is no escape. They remain lonely, and threatened, to the point of despondency, fearing that circumstances have not only imposed a potential expiration date on their lives, but have denied them the right to any escape whatsoever, in the present. What happens to them?

The alternatives are what you’d expect: prayer, or drugs, neither of which are especially redemptive. Indeed, they are palliatives, just like pornography. Substitutes for the real thing, which, while temporarily satisfying, do little to fill the vacuum created by violence in their lives.


Photographs courtesy of Manuel Y. and the author. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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