Ethics and Pornography: An Interview

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Ethics and Pornography: An Interview with Norman Mailer

We had heard that Norman Mailer was not a fan of the Internet, but knowing him to be a provocateur and sex enthusiast, we made him an offer nonetheless. A response came, through his assistant, in the form of a ten-page fax. It was an out-of-print interview, conducted almost seventeen years ago by Jeffrey Michelson and Sarah Stone for the sex magazine Puritan.
     The story behind how Mailer came to do this interview is of some interest: Michelson was hired as Norman Mailer's houseboy at the age of 20 in 1966. When Michelson wasn't helping around the house or running errands, Mailer, an avid boxer, trained him to spar.
     After a year in Mailer's employ, Michelson went on to a career in the music industry, and then co-founded Puritan, in 1977, which he describes affectionately as "art you could jerk off to." Michelson and Mailer continued their friendship, vigilantly boxing on Saturdays in the late '70s and early '80s with various friends.
     On December 28, 1980, Mailer sat down with his onetime student to discuss sex, love and the nature of desire. Mailer later counted this among his favorite interviews. Michelson is now an infomercial director, and Puritan has shelved its literary interests in favor of straight hardcore.   — GF, RG

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JEFFREY MICHELSON: What do you think makes for great sex?

NORMAN MAILER: Great sex is apocalyptic. There is no such thing as great sex unless you have an apocalyptic moment. William Burroughs once changed the course of American literature with one sentence. He said, "I see God in my asshole in the flashbulb of orgasm." Now that was one incredible sentence because it came at the end of the Eisenhower period, printed around 1959 in Big Table in Chicago. I remember reading it and thinking, I can't believe I just read those words. I can't tell you the number of taboos it violated. First of all, you weren't supposed to connect God with sex. Second of all, you never spoke of the asshole, certainly not in relation to sex. If you did, you were the lowest form of pervert. Third of all, there was obvious homosexuality in the remark. In those days nobody was accustomed to seeing that in print. And fourth, there was an ugly technological edge — why'd he have to bring in flashbulbs? Was that the nature of his orgasm? It was the first time anybody had ever spoken about the inner nature of the orgasm.


MAILER: Okay. Looking at it now, that marvelously innovative sentence, with all it did, one of the most explosive sentences ever written in the English language, we can take off from it and say that unless sex is apocalyptic, we can't speak of it as great. We can speak of it as resonant. We can speak of it as heart-warming. We can speak of it as lovely. But we can't speak of it as great. Great is a word that should never be thrown around in relation to sex. My simple belief is that sex that makes you more religious is great sex. I'm going to live to pay for, to rue, this remark if it gets around.

MICHELSON: I'll never tell anyone. (laughter)

MAILER: Remember that awful priest who said, "There are no atheists in foxholes?" It was a remark to turn people into atheists for twenty-five years. I remember every time I got into a foxhole, I said to myself, "This is one man who's an atheist in a foxhole!" (laughter) Well, what I do believe is that you can't have a great fuck and remain an atheist. Now it seems that the atheists of America are going to excoriate me. This is striking at them; this is a true blow at their sexual happiness.

MICHELSON: What is the relationship between God and sex, and the Devil and sex?

MAILER: You can't talk about it that way.

MICHELSON: Tell me about the orgies you went to when you were younger?

MAILER: I'm not going to tell you. Certain things belong to my novels. Look, let me make one thing clear: there are matters I won't be able to talk about in an interview. Anything I would find tremendously difficult to write about in a novel, I'm not going to try to discuss in an interview. If it can't be done in a novel, it certainly can't be done here.

MICHELSON: Did you go to one orgy as a philosopher, or did you go to many as a pervert?

MAILER: You're referring to Voltaire's little remark, "Once a philosopher, twice a pervert." Voltaire went once to a male brothel and his friends asked him afterward did he like it, and he said, "Oh, yes, very much. It was better than I thought it would be." They said, "Are you going back?" and he said, "No. Once a philosopher, twice a pervert." Well, I'm not going to tell you.

MICHELSON: I would like to get on to your feelings about sexuality. Not to intrude on your own life, but just to discuss certain things. What do you think you know about sex that most other people do not?

MAILER: Jeffrey, I can't possibly answer that. I'd have to believe it's true . . . Really, all I believe is that I'm more aware of my limitations than most men. I have less vanity about sex than most men.

MICHELSON: You've grown to have less vanity?

MAILER: Yeah. I used to have an immense amount when I was younger. I needed it. I had an immense amount to learn. Sexual vanity probably has an inverse proportion to sexual sophistication. When we're young, we have to believe we're the greatest gift given to women because if we didn't, we would know how truly bad we are. When I was a kid, I remember I had an older cousin who was immensely successful with women. And I was always obsessed with performance. He used to say to me, "You're wrong on that; performance has nothing to do with it." I never knew what he meant. It took years — he was considerably older than me — to come to understand what he was talking about. Performance is empty in sex. Performance is pushups. I mean, we've all had the experience of making love for hours, and getting that airless, tight, exhausted feeling, you know, my God, will she ever come? For God's sakes, please, God, please, let her come! (laughter) I have a bad back today and one of the reasons is that I worked so hard when I was younger.


MAILER: I didn't work at lifting furniture, I promise you. If I'd been a furniture mover, at least I'd have some honor. (laughter) No, I have a bad back because I was stupid. Because I tried to . . . you see, the minute you try to dominate sex through will, sex escapes you. The connection of female sexuality with cats is not for too little. You cannot dominate a cat with your will. If you do, the cat goes right around you. Sexuality is the same way: can't dominate it. So over the years as you come to recognize this, you begin to approach it from the side, so to speak.

MICHELSON: Tell me about your first experience with pornography. Do you remember the first magazines you had as a kid?

MAILER: I think it was Spicy Detective.

MICHELSON: Spicy Detective?

MAILER: There used to be magazines called Spicy Detective and Spicy — I can't remember the others, maybe Spicy Romance. The girls always had marvelous large breasts, with tremendously pointed nipples. I don't know how to describe these breasts, it almost fails me. You couldn't call them pear-shaped, nor melon-shaped, somewhere in between. They were projectile-shaped. Literally, they looked like the head of a 105 Howitzer shell, about four inches in diameter, and went out about five-and-a-half inches, with those tremendously pointed nipples. The girl always used to be tied to some sort of hitching post with an evil man approaching. They always had one arm under their breasts. I remember that it made the breasts project out even more. They'd have a wisp of clothing. A torn panty would cover their loins. I've never seen anything I enjoyed as much. Now, I didn't learn much from it.

MICHELSON: Do you feel that there are any social benefits that result from a sexually free press, or do you feel that sexually explicit material must be tolerated simply to protect the wider benefits of the First Amendment?

MAILER: Well, the first benefit is sexual sophistication. Talk about pornography always revolves around: Does it excite more violent impulses, or doesn't it? The women's movement is absolutely up in arms about pornography. An encouragement to rape, et cetera. I just can't agree. I think they don't know quite what they're talking about. Of course, some kinds of pornography are on the cusp. I wouldn't have anything to say for pornography that uses children as models. I'm against anything that sets people's lives on certain tracks too early. Using a child to make money from sex is obviously offensive. If you were a magazine that had a pictures of children performing sexual acts, I wouldn't be in it. That's where I draw the line.
     But you asked what the social value might be. Pictures of men and women making love is not going to hurt people as much as it's going to help them. It gives them — and I would include pornographic movies — an education in that part of sex which is universal, as opposed to the part that's particular. Those tragedies of high school kids who get married too young, only to discover three, five, eight years later, with a couple of children between them, that they weren't meant for one another at all, and so split, come about because the sex is so compelling when they're young and they know so little about it. That's a profound error we've all made one way or another. We mistake the beauties of sex for all the beauties of the particular person that we're with, that is, think the particular person beautiful because of the sexual feelings they arouse in us. We don't understand those feelings are more or less universal, and could be felt with someone else. The faculty of choice is not present. Now when I was a kid, and I've never known a kid who wasn't riveted by pornography, I wanted more and more of it. I never saw enough of it to satisfy myself. That's because there's tremendous knowledge there, tremendous knowledge about human behavior. You cannot look at a pornographic picture without learning more about human nature. I can look at some girl who has, on the face of it, a stupid face, let's say — some of the girls who appear in pornographic magazines look stupid, some rather bright. But let's take one that looks stupid. Nevertheless, there's something in the very way she holds her hand (even if the photographer arranged her hand for her, she had finally to embody his order), there's something in the way her hand is holding a cigarette that'll tell you a great deal about her if you look carefully at these matters.
     You also get a sense of the sexual behavior of a panorama of people that you couldn't possibly have in your own life unless you devoted your life to sex. One of the ironies of pornography is that it enables people to free themselves from chasing after sex. A lot of that knowledge can now be obtained in a secondary fashion, through pornography.

MICHELSON: Knowledge as opposed to pleasure?

MAILER: Yes. If we all had to go out and acquire every bit of understanding through our own experience, it would take us forever to learn anything. That's why, in fact, civilization moved so slowly for so many thousands of years. From Gutenberg on, there's been an incredible rate of acceleration. Now, people were able to acquire most of their knowledge by reading. They didn't have to go through the experience themselves. The worst thing you can say against pornography, I mean, the only argument I would use if I were determined to stamp pornography out is that it tends to accelerate the same things that are being speeded up by all other communications. Pornography, right at this present point, is a peculiar frontier of communications.

SARAH STONE: What exactly is accelerated?

MAILER: The consciousness of people. In the simplest literal sense, a kid of eighteen will now know what he wouldn't have known till he was twenty-eight.

STONE: Why is that against pornography?

MAILER: Well, if you say that everything is speeding up too quickly and we may end up destroying ourselves because we're advancing at too great a rate and don't really know what we're doing, then, in that sense, pornography is dangerous. But by the same measure, television is endlessly more dangerous. Conservatives who believe that human nature should be slowed up have a legitimate argument, I'd say, against pornography. But they're not consistent. Because if this is their argument against pornography, let them ban television first.

MICHELSON: Do you feel comfortable about appearing in Puritan?

MAILER: Not altogether. I've thought about it, and finally decided I probably ought to. I'm not opposed to pornography — in fact, I think it probably has a social benefit. On the other hand, in Playboy I've had the experience of seeing my work printed between shots. Now, Playboy happens to treat its writers exceptionally well. No magazine is nicer in terms of courtesy, and you get fine pay for your stuff. They're a godawful magazine, however, in terms of layout, at least from the point of view of the writer, because the last thing you want for your prose, is to have a photo of a gorgeous model with her legs going from Valparaiso to Baltimore right in the middle of your prose! I'd rather you took an axe and drove it into the middle of the reader's head. Because the reader's not going to follow my stuff. His eye is on the bird. So there have been times when, despite the attractions of Playboy, I don't really want that piece there. It's not going to be read properly. In that sense, pornography is a tremendous distraction for a writer.

MICHELSON: I'll try to make sure the layout keeps all your words together.

MAILER: At least let me pick the pictures.

MICHELSON: When does a graphic representation of a sexual act become art, and when, smut? Can you suggest any criteria on which to base a judgment?

MAILER: Let me ask you: What would be your idea of smut?

MICHELSON: Things that are particularly degrading to either sex.

MAILER: Get specific.

MICHELSON: I guess it's stuff that turns me on in a way I think I shouldn't be turned on.

MAILER: Excellent.

STONE: I feel the difference is if it's commercially and sloppily done just to get another page in the book, then the insult is to the art. Where it's a true and honest representation of feeling, then no matter what it represents, it's got to be respected.

MAILER: Mmm, that's very well put too. You would be saying in effect then, Sarah, that smut is the equivalent of a sexual act that's casual, what we call sordid, no love, no real pleasure in it, a cohabitation with a rancid smell to it. So a lack of respect for the seriousness of the occasion when a photographer takes a picture of a woman in a pornographic position makes for smut.
     Jeffrey is saying, as I gather, that there are certain acts that tend toward the bestial, the fecal (I assume these are the sort of things you're thinking of) that may be arousing, but you find that your moral nature disapproves.

MICHELSON: I'm wondering: Is smut to pornography, to good pornography, as trashy romance novels are to good literature? Is it just the lower end of the genre?

MAILER: It's certainly complicated. Take Sarah's criteria, pictures that are transparently cynical. The model's worn out, the photographer's worn out, disgusting. Yet that can be arousing in a funny way. For instance, in Hustler, often I find that the most interesting section is those cheap Polaroid pictures that untalented photographers send of women who are not models.

MICHELSON: The reality turns you on?

MAILER: The sordid reality. My sexuality, I expect, is aroused by knowledge. The moment I know more than I knew before, I'm excited. Those gritty Polaroid shots in Hustler are often more interesting. They communicate. You know, the picture of some waitress who lives in Sioux Falls. I know more at that moment about Sioux Falls, about waitresses — even if they're lying, even if she isn't a waitress, there's something about the very manifest of the lie that's fascinating. It arouses your curiosity. Whereas superb pictures of models can get boring. There tends to be a sameness in them. Aren't enough flaws present. The very question of the sordid is . . . tricky.

STONE: In Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall, he's on the street and he walks up to this little old lady and says to her something like "Why are relationships so difficult?" And she says, "Love fades . . ." As a man who's had six marriages, what is your reaction to this dialogue? Do you think that love fades and do you feel that sex fades?

MAILER: I don't think that sex fades in marriage necessarily. Without talking about my personal life, I'd say that compatibility is nearer to the problem than sex. What I mean is people can have marvelous sex and not be terribly compatible. That sets up a great edginess in marriage. Some people, in fact, can only have good sex with people who are essentially incompatible with them. I might have been in that category for years, I don't know. If you're terribly combative, then you're drawn toward mates who are not too compatible. Anyone who has a violent or ugly or combative edge is not going to be comfortable with someone who is really sweet and submissive. They want something more abrasive in their daily life. Otherwise they are likely to lose their good opinion of themselves. There's nothing worse than being brutal to somebody who's good to you. Whereas if you're living with someone whose ideas irritate the living shit out of you, and you fight with them every day and feel justified about it, that can be healthier than living with a soul whose ideas are compatible to yours. All the same, if you do choose this fundamental incompatibility, there will come a point where it ceases to be fun and turns into its opposite. Faults in the mate that were half-charming suddenly become unendurable. Every one of us who has been in love knows how fragile — what's a good word for skin? — how fragile the membrane of love is. It has to be mended every day and nurtured. We have to anticipate all the places where it's getting a little weak and go there and breathe on it, shape it again. In a combative relationship, obviously, that's difficult. You have to have a great animal vigor between combative people or they just can't make it for long.

MICHELSON: What about love fading?

MAILER: Well, I don't think love fades; I don't think there's anything automatic about it. I think most of us aren't good enough for love. I think self-pity is probably the most rewarding single emotion in the world for masturbators, which is one of the reasons, I suppose, I'm opposed to masturbation, because it encourages other vices to collect around you. Self-pity is one of the first. You lie in bed, pull off, and say to yourself, I have such wonderful, beautiful, tender, sweet, deep, romantic, exciting and sensual emotions, why is it that no woman can appreciate how absolutely fabulous I am? Why can't I offer these emotions to someone else? Self-pity comes rolling in, and cuts us off from recognizing that love is a reward. Love is not something that is going to come up and solve your problems. Love is something you get after you've solved enough of your problems so that something in Providence itself takes pity on you. I always believed that whoever or whatever it is, some angel, some sour sort of our angel, finally says, "Look at these poor motherfuckers. He and she have been working so hard for so many years. Let's throw him or her a bone." So they meet and find love. Then they have to know what to do with it.

MICHELSON: Love is a function of having paid your dues?

MAILER: Truman Capote has got this book he's writing, Answered Prayers. I gather from something he said once that its theme is that the worst thing that befalls people is that their prayers are answered. Which is not a cheap idea. Love is the perfect example. Everybody prays for love, but once they get love, they have to be worthy of it. Love is the most perishable of human emotions. It never fades. That's my answer to the question. There is absolutely no reason why people can't love each other more every day of their lives for eighty years. I absolutely believe that. Without that, I have no faith in love whatsoever. I think it would be a diabolical universe if you're introduced to all these wonderful sentiments that illumine your existence but something is put into the very nature of it that will make it fade. That's the sentiment of a person who is full of self-pity: Love fades. That old woman was full of self-pity.

MICHELSON: Do you feel that there is a spiritual obligation to sexual relationships, and if so, what price do we pay if we don't live up to it?

MAILER: Well, it's always a spiritual obligation. But the trouble with the word spiritual is that we think of churches and priests and clergymen. I do think there's a spiritual demand in love, however, more a demand than an obligation. Love asks that we be a little braver than is comfortable for us, a little more generous, a little more flexible. It means living on the edge more than we care to. Love is always in danger of being the most painful single emotion we can ever feel, other than perhaps a sudden knowledge of our own death. La Rochefoucauld has that wonderful remark that half the people in the world would never have fallen in love if they had not heard of the word. I think that most people I know, maybe three-quarters of the people I know, have never been deeply in love.

MICHELSON: Talking about not being deeply in love, have you ever paid for sex, and what is your opinion about hookers and johns and the outright exchange of sex for money?

MAILER: Well, take it at its best. Because at its worst, there is nothing worse than paying for sex, and being thrown a bad, cynical, dull fuck by a whore who either has no talent, or no interest in you, or feels you don't deserve anything better than what you are getting. That's one of the worst single experiences there is. On balance, counting the number of times I've had good sex in whorehouses and bad, I could almost do without it. But, you know, living fifty-eight years, you end up with a lot of experiences. I've had a few extraordinary times in whorehouses, which I'll have to write about someday, too. So I wouldn't put it down altogether. It's just that it's immensely more difficult, I think, to have good sex with a whore unless you're oriented that way.
     There are a lot of guys who are not homosexual, but grow up in a male environment. They have four brothers, or they're jocks, or just live in a male environment as so many smalltown kids do. They're less comfortable with women, and so if all their buddies have been plowing the same broad — and I use these two words, "plowing" and "broad," because that's the way they're looking at it: they're actually looking upon it as a field — the fact that they're going to be mixing their semen with the effluvia of their buddies is tremendously aphrodisiacal to them. So sex can be intense for men in whorehouses. It doesn't mean that they're homosexual; that's too quick a jump to make. What it does mean is that they have to cut that close to the edges of homosexual experience in order to get a real send-off.

Part Two

Copyright © 1981, 1982 by Norman Mailer, reprinted with the permission of The Wylie Agency, Inc.