Pornography’s promises are usually offered to men only. On the pages of Hustler and Tight Rubber you can always get what you want; but women are merely wanted, prisoners of the image. To some feminists, pornography is patriarchy’s arrest warrant for the female sex, a license to harm that must be revoked at all costs.
Caught Looking, a beautiful, glossy picture book, is the best argument yet against that position. The texts, mostly reprinted from other sources, provide a thoughtful account of the feminist case for protecting—and encouraging—sexual or “deviant” speech, but it is the photographs that form the book’s rebellious heart, enlisting pleasure and imagination in the struggle against fear.
In the belief that most of us are unfamiliar with pornography, the designers set out to reclaim the freedom of erotic fantasy for women—not by presenting a politically correct vision of sexuality but by collecting a wide range of images that they found exciting, and inviting readers to respond for themselves.
The result is a great cornucopia of erotic images from the 1890s to the present, brilliantly arranged to bring out their infinite variety. They are tender, torrid, romantic, bluntly biological, anatomically perplexing, scary, funny, and very stylish.
There’s a page of fantasy outfits, a collage involving leopards and tigers, a rippled layout called “liquid” (featuring semen, Volume Pills, and spas) and a gorgeous lady in a satin ball gown dusting her nipple with a white fur powder puff. The overall impression is not of objectified, fragmented bodies but of an ecstatic crowd of people released from guilt and shame.
Although the more violent, meat-grinder school of pornography is not represented here, there is plenty that might seem threatening to a woman walking alone through Times Square.
But context changes everything. By creating a safe, adventurous place, Caught Looking allows even nice girls to imagine, for a moment, what they really want.