Sunday, 26 May 2013

We Need to Talk About Porn

You can't move for it. Porn, that is. So ubiquitous has it become that the Graun even has its own dedicated porn page. We are, apparently, living in something called 'pornified culture'. Diane Abbot has very recently partly blamed this for a crisis of masculinity. Christians lament the damage pornified culture has on relationships, and feminists have consistently critiqued the adult industry for its depiction of women. It's everywhere. There's even soon-to-be an academic journal dedicated to the study of porn. Though I for one am not sure analysing how "the compression of editing reshape the relationship between director and audience" in Hairy Babes Compilations 1, 2, and 4 adds something to the sum total of human knowledge.

This week porn has been in the spotlight again. The Children's Commissioner's report (Graun summary) makes the customary points about the perils of violent pornography and their impacts on children. It found "pornography could influence children's sexual attitudes, foster a negative attitude towards relationships and lead them to engage in risky behaviours such as unprotected anal sex, sex at a younger age and the use of alcohol and drugs during sex."

Porn is more than just one, two, many people engaging in sexual activity on our screens. It has an aesthetic that is reconfiguring and conditioning the way our culture thinks and talks about sex. And you don't have to start prying into people's bedrooms to reasonably assume many a romp lives out porn-inspired fantasies. I previously argued that it makes sense to think about porn as if it was a diffuse and decentered ideology. Borrowing my old friend Louis Althusser, he rightly noted that as well as ideologies being a set of ideas that offer a partial and typically obfuscatory view of the world, there is a wider sense in that ideology is the lived relation by which ideas, values, cultural codes, and language mediate the constituting/constitutive relationship each of us has with the social world (Bourdieu's understanding of habitus elaborated on this, but that's for some other time).

Porn as ideology is a dispersed jumble. But in as far as the adult industry dominant of heterosexual porn goes, it is a mess of body aesthetics, sexual prowess, display, genital-centered reductionism, and gendered power play. In and of itself there is no coherence, but its ready availability allows particulates of porn to flow widely around popular culture. Porn therefore cannot but condition popular outlooks and expectations of sex, which makes Althusser's approach to ideology particularly useful in the first (and not the last) instance.

Diane Abbott and reports such as the Children Commissioner's are right to be thinking about and drawing attention to pornified culture. Because porn as an aggregation of all the things I've talked about is deeply embedded in the collective experience, whether particular individuals view it or not, society as a whole has to start thinking about how to make sense of this experience. Clearly, Diane's discussion of masculine crisis points to the social pathologies that may be associated with it. But for others, for all of its reductionism, might porn prove to be revelatory and liberating? I have no particular insights to offer, except we absolutely *do* need to talk about it. Getting all Victorian and trying to sweep it under the carpet, like Claire Perry has been wishing to do will only store up trouble for the future.

6 comments:

Elly said...

I tend to take Foucault's view that sometimes talking about things only reinforces them. So for the people who dislike porn maybe ignoring it WOULD be the answer?

I personally have no opinion on porn as an 'ideology' as you say it's diverse (but my favourite genre is gay s and m if you're wondering).

I think the 'sexualised' nature of non-porn culture: advertising, film, branding, art, TV etc is here to stay. Feminists have been fighting that since the 70s to no avail. But what's wrong with sex anyway?

Chris said...

"It found "pornography could influence children's sexual attitudes, foster a negative attitude towards relationships and lead them to engage in risky behaviours such as unprotected anal sex, sex at a younger age and the use of alcohol and drugs during sex."

Porn is more than just one, two, many people engaging in sexual activity on our screens. It has an aesthetic that is reconfiguring and conditioning the way our culture thinks and talks about sex."


I would be tempted to argue the opposite actually, that the state, the church, adults, poeople in authority attempt to shape the way we think and feel and things like porn actually reflect our true desires and our true nature, albeit in a deformed and filtered way.

Phil said...

You into gay and bdsm? Who knew Elly, who knew?

While I think it is right to challenge objectification when it obviously reinforces and propagates stunted images of women (and men too), I do think there is a streak of puritanism that has historically run through the feminist work on the subject. Hence why large numbers feel the need to describe themselves as 'sex-positive'.

Phil said...

Both angles are right, Chris. Porn is a distorted, commodified expression of sex and sexuality. Historically dominant modes of sexual repression are similarly skewed attempts to 'manage' sexuality. And it cannot be otherwise in societies resting on class structures sustained by generalised commodity production, IMHO.

Carolyn said...

There is nothing wrong with sex and I'm pretty sure that as long as we've been on this planet we've enjoyed watching people make the beast with two backs. I personally enjoy a rifle through my partner's retro collection of Razzles (and similar) collected throughout the Eighties- it's such quaint stuff.

But, Houston, we do have a problem and we do need to talk about it. Porn is fine as long as we all know it isn't real but some people don't and it's not just the vile individuals who we end up hearing about on the news.

The people who don't realise it's fantasy are the teenagers I teach. in the twelve years that I've been teaching there has been a significant change in what teenage girls are expected to look like and what they expect each other to look like; the age at which they are expected to start caring is also getting younger and younger.

This might be because we are becoming less concerned about repressive organisations such as the church and are embracing our natural interest in sex but I sincerely doubt that this is the primary motivating factor when I see the highly sexualised media to which they are exposed on a daily basis.

The age at which teenagers have a working knowledge of some pretty niche sex acts is also getting younger. Yes, when I was at school, we passed around the Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, which (as far as I can remember) had some pretty euphemistic (but titillating enough) references to bondage but it was pretty tame stuff. I am regularly surprised by the knowledge that my students have that I really don't remember having at school. Phil and I went to school together (so I am hoping he can help me out) and I can't remember many highly sexualised conversations with my cohort.

Research into gender roles in adolesence suggest that a) many teenagers consider themselves to be asexual and b) those who identify less closely with expected gender roles are more psychologically healthy. I worry about the kids that I teach because they cannot escape from a media which floods them with the knowledge of what they should look like, what they should act like and what sexual acts they should be au fait with, when it might not be what they're naturally interested in and when it's unhealthy for them anyway.

For what it's worth, I believe that we should teach children about the perils of porn although I can't imagine that this will have the effect of making it less popular. Imagine the scenario-
Teenage boy: My teacher says that if I click on this link my attitude to romantic relationships and sex will become skewed. I had better not. Has anyone seen my Physics textbook?
But we do need to have an honest, serious dialogue about how we can diminish how much value we place on sex and the psychological effect it has on future generations.


allcoppedout said...

I think porn tells us how little we can trust public dialogue. This is what makes it important to discuss. It tells us something of what we are, sad as much of the lesson may be.