Reactions to pornography are often very strong, simply to the idea of it, never mind the actual phenomenon, which tends to mask the fact that things labelled pornography or “pornographic” can be very different in nature, circumstance and function.
The word “pornography” goes back to a Greek word relating to prostitution, and that term goes back to an Indo-European root relating to “selling” (see podictionary and online etymology dictionary). So we’re already onto the conjunction of sex, commodification and money right back then. Pornography in this very old sense would have related to writing about prostitution, but the link back to prostitution is there. I am no scholar of Greek social history, but we all know you don’t buy something you can get for free, nor sell something without a market, so there are implicit questions about the valuation and freedom of sexuality even that far back.
The word starts to appear in its more modern form in the 1880s (possibly earlier in the French speaking world), relating to depictions of sex, or “portrayal of explicit sexual subject matter for the purposes of sexual excitement and erotic satisfaction” (Wikipedia) and “salacious writing or pictures” (online etymological dictionary). Here we are getting a more explicit focus on attitudes and judgements about sex and sexual arousal itself. Feminist critiques of pornography used to focus on exploitation of human subjects though (specifically of women in this case) when I was young. I was very aware of this criticism of porn, and selective as it is, I think there is no doubt that people have been exploited in the production of pornography at times, even though this is not always so. Many kinds of depiction of women and men, not just in pornography, can be seen to have an oppressive subtext or overt message, which was another analysis of the destructive action of pornography. But just how far and wide, and universally, does this apply?
If we wish to separate out the exploitation aspect, then I think we look to the choice, autonomy and conditions of those working in pornography. Are they free, are they safe, are they reasonably paid, is it their free choice (given that we’re talking about work)? Slavery and abuse are unacceptable under any circumstances – but why do we have difficulty decoupling the erotic from this area?
If we separate out the exploitation aspect, is paying for something bad in itself? Well, only if we disapprove of it apparently. We pay doctors for their services, in spite of healing being considered something approaching a sacred responsibility. We pay priests similarly. Do we object to these people “prostituting” their services? No, not really, though in the UK we have transferred the transaction to taxation in the case of doctors. Financial transactions can certainly distort human relationships, depending on the nature of the transaction and the attitudes of those taking part.
We live in a society which has had a problem with sex for a very, very long time. Think back to the various obscenity trials and controversies we have seen over the years, and the role that the term “pornographic” used to play in the censorship of writers and artists. Think back to the hounding of DH Lawrence and the book burnings of Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Think of Henry Miller, and of Ginsberg’s “Howl”. Think of the vandalising of ancient statues and sculptures by colonialists and missionaries. I can remember performance artists ending up in court on such charges in the 1970s, and Gay News being prosecuted on related blasphemy charges about the same time. Remember the controversy over Cronenberg’s “Crash”? There’s clearly a powerful censoring and anti-sexual (and sometimes anti-intellectual) cultural drive that can come into play here which really has nothing to do with preventing or critiquing exploitation, and it meshes with attitudes towards “pornography” and eroticism. These are strands which we need to separate and gain some clarity over, yet they are strands which many still cannot achieve that clarity on.
Given that our society still suffers from anti-sexual attitudes, and has not kicked the habit of it being ok to exploit people, it would be something of a miracle if the entire field of pornography did not somewhere reflect these distortions. But is pornography the problem, or is it “us”? Is porn the demon seed, or is it our own problem with sex and human equality? Is porn the malaise, or is it an attempt to articulate an answer in spite of the malaise? Is it even that much different to the rest of life? It’s sometimes hysterical detractors characterize it as “bestial”, “dirty”, “perverted”, which is odd given that a good deal of it does seem strikingly plastic, verging on the hilarious at times. But what these terms really point to is the body, sex and sexuality and human difference. Or rather, they point to our inexplicable trouble with these things.
While for some porn is a simple source of pleasure, or employment, or mirth, for others it is something akin to moral panic, which they would feel guilty of even by association. This seems strange in this day and age, but it is so. The only word really I can think of is shame, with a whiff of damnation, to describe the complex of quite irrational reactions surrounding porn for some – surprising given that these folks presumably do not view porn themselves, let alone make it.
I think a lot of this comes down to what sex can and can’t be for, in the society we live in, and I think we have one hell of a moral hangover. Where sex had to be for procreation in order to be sanctified, then of necessity we made of sex and sexuality an iceberg with an impossibly policed “tip”. Most of the iceberg is below the surface. Every time the sea moved, you had problems. It’s a big iceberg, and the sea of Life never stops moving. You can see many driven and convoluted scenarios arising from this scheme, but is it not the denial of sexuality that powers these scenarios, rather than the implicit nature of sexuality and eroticism?
One question here is: do the things we associate with things like pornography and prostitution make sense in a sexually free world? Sexuality is a mighty force, which for some reason we think less sacred and more morally culpable than the drive to have a child say, even in these horrendously over populated times. Procreation and sexuality are two different things, circumstantially linked for heterosexuals, but only some of the time at that. If these things were not so, then we would view someone expressing the desire to have sex with the same rosy glow we are encouraged to feel when someone says “I want to have a baby”. At least we’d say “congratulations”! Until we kick the habit of procreative necessity, and can look at everything calmly and reasonably, then we are stuck on that wobbly iceberg where everything is perfect and pure, but actually nothing really is. These issues are also another reason why effective contraception was such a landmark development, and why it led to greater sexual freedom for all I feel.
But in an area as contrived and conditioned as pornography, does any real sexual liberation happen? Well actually yes, as a side effect, or more particularly dependent on our relationship to it, and the type of porn. I only really have experience of viewing male gay porn, and a good deal of it seems to be, as I said above, plastic and unintentionally funny. I hope some of the actors have a sense of mirthful irony in this, because I do think a good few viewers enjoy both the comedy and any incidental turn on. Anything that helps us laugh at sex and the predicament of human desire is a good thing, and if it turns us on as well, that’s even better. We are in a sense laughing at ourselves, and celebrating what human beings will do in honour of the erotic.
Having said that, in general it’s pretty much a turn off seeing even attractive men being professional in front of a camera; the posed tough scowl, the faked passion, the “come hither” narcissism that somehow sends the libido plummeting. Not just the pose, the formula, but something in the eyes, that makes you feel like you’re actually stuck on top of someone else’s frigid iceberg again. It is emotionally unreal. A good film, or even watching a guy weight lifting, is actually better porn, but of course that isn’t porn at all. But there are of course other things.
If well paid, well treated, autonomous porn models and actors take us away from the old Greek associations of the word to a healthier part of the river, other people have actually burst that river’s banks. The gay Bear community brought about a mind blowing world of non-commercial amateur porn, of men sharing themselves with the adult male community by means of their own cameras on the internet, entirely for free. This was not for money, and this was not formula, it was an overflowing of male generosity and self revelation (and I suspect self discovery in many cases). This was not producers and consumers, plastic “perfection” marketed to the “imperfect” – the “objects” were all subjects themselves, which was very much part of the message of this medium. You could see it in people’s eyes, and their average Joe smiles. Someone real was home, and the lights were on. It wasn’t even porn in the usual sense, because it was freely given. It was genuine “community porn” and that entirely bucks the term.
I think these men gave an enormous amount, in a way which was nurturing, sustaining and profoundly humanizing. For me they brought recognition, empathy and self-understanding to an entire area of sexual manhood during an important time in my life. Beyond that it was sheer celebration of the goodness of the erotic, and may it remain so.
Far from the demonized myth, these men were benevolent, humorous, harmless, ordinary and embracing. The only way in which this was porn was either in a redefined personal sense, or in the sense that it would be judged too sexual and naked, and too candid by an outsider, which is exactly the kind of judgement we need to disregard. They did just that, with immense good will.
Would such a phenomenon have arisen without professional pornography being there in the first place? Given the repressiveness of our sexual history, I don’t know, but I know that professional porn couldn’t do it. Of course they wouldn’t have gone through any of this analysis or theorizing that I just have (any more than I did when I saw it), and thank the gods for that, because they let the real into an area of human sexuality and shared it with us, and debunked all the porn myths in one go, without even thinking about it. What an education. Bless them all.
There is hope.
“solarized version of public domain image by Priwo”
29/1/12 – corrected inaccuracy re payment of priests in the UK.