psychotherapists make a big deal of kids seeing their parents screwing. Many a shrink, confronted with my battery of functionality-disabling neuroses, has asked if I ever snuck a peek. No way, man! at least not that I remember. “Ja,” they note, “not zat you remember. Very interestink.” And then they write in their notebooks. Creepy, that write-in-the-notebook thing, though they were probably just making grocery lists.
For me, the real concern is not seeing your parents having sex, but seeing yourself having sex. That’s what’s fucked up. As John Barth points out in his first novel, The Floating Opera, “If you are young and would live on love; if in the flights of intercourse you feel that you and your beloved are fit models for a Phidias, for a Michelangelo then don’t, I implore you, be so foolish as to include among the trappings of your love nest a good plate mirror. For a mirror can only reflect what it sees, and what it sees is screamingly funny.” He’s right, of course, it is funny disastrously so, what with the, in my case, lily-white booty up in the air, the tongue aloll, the arms and legs oh-so akimbo. Sex is a grim reminder that there are spectator sports and there are sports that are better just to play. Despite the success of porn as evidence to the contrary, it is clear that the beast with two backs does a most curious jig. To watch it successfully (pleasantly, that is), you have to divorce the act from the humans involved. The moment of peril comes when you recognize, Oh my god, that’s ME! Yuck! To see copulation with anonymous or at least superhumanly famous participants allows ample abstraction for the indiscriminate sex button to be pushed (like the prostate G-spot that is supposed to make men come automatically), but to know the humans involved is to see sex non-symbolically, to uncover it as the atavistic twitch that it is.
Pornography is thus dependent on a certain distance from the everyday while at the same time reliant on the illusion of realism (or at least the hint of possibility) that encourages the viewer to superimpose her or himself over the protagonists. This need for mundane normalcy is the topic of one of Umberto Eco’s hysterical “Instruzioni per l’uso” (User’s Manuals), short essays he wrote for an Italian magazine on everything from how to avoid infectious diseases to, in this case, how to recognize a porno movie. After reading this, you, like former Supreme Court Justice Stewart, will know porn when you see it.