For centuries now the battle has raged over not only what is pornography, but also the extent to which it may be acceptable or may not be. In a curious irony, while we consider ourselves these days to be more liberal than our predecessors, in some ways we are more prudish, because the argument about pornography is no longer merely social or moral: it is political. In times gone by, the difference between pornography and erotica centred around something as simple as social acceptability. While it is true that in each generation new advancements against the limitations of erotica were invariably classified as obscene by the status quo and simply as artistic by the avant garde, today we are more likely to find the proposition that something is obscene (and therefore pornographic) even if it is still artistic… because of its political ramifications.
Ever since we lived in the world of our so-called “primitive” ancestors, the erotic has been an important ingredient of society. While on one hand the totems and fetishes of these early cultures abounded, on the other even the physical application of make-up and costuming and rituals were designed to develop and enhance a sexual response. The murals of some cultures and the ceramic images of others all attested to a healthy interest in the sexual component of human behaviour. The artistic works of Rubens and the like displayed the feeling of their times that the natural form reflected the skill of God in creating beauty. Yet even these were subject to their own censorships at various times. We all know of the grotesque habit of some societies of covering up or even eradicating the genitals on statues, especially those of the male.
Little of this was ever deemed anthropologically to be pornography because for the greatest part we have arrogantly equated sexual naturalness with an assumption of primitivism, and because, also for the most part, the inherent sexuality was observed in vacuo: there was little in the way of sexual behaviour between people. On those rare occasions when interaction did occur, such as on some Greek vases or on some Japanese or Hindi parchments, these were immediately classified by the Western observers as ‘pornographic’.
The erotic has always stimulated us, and yet has remained acceptable, because it appeals to some higher ideal of the society in which it is found. And sex at its rawest level is not seen as one of those ideals in the modern, Western, Christian and constricted culture.
The political argument most often proposed from the 1970s is that pornography is wrong because it “objectifies” women. The only substantial course of argument against this proposition seems to be based on considering whether it is true: does it really “objectify” women? However, another unused argument is equally worthy of examination: what is wrong with objectification anyway, even if it were such a thing? As we rummage through the photographs of our last summer holiday, of the beach scenes, the skiing escapades, the tramping trips, the local faces in the side-of-the-road cafés, most of us do not consider that all of these are in fact forms of “objectification”. The famous paintings in the art gallery are objectification. Even the Catholic idol of Christ on his crucifix is objectification. Anything which removes the real person from the social equation is objectifying them. By extension, even the communications by telephone or over the Internet are interactive forms of objectification, since the real person is not there in the flesh: they are iconicised into a voice, a string of words… or a picture. Advertisements, which run our modern, commercial, capitalistic world, rely on objectification, and of a fantastical level which easily rivals that of pornography.
‘Ah, but that is different,’ says the counter-argument, ‘these are all socially acceptable forms of it.’ By this is a non-argument. We can not logically examine the conclusion, that pornography is or is not socially acceptable, by relying on a course of argument which includes the premiss that some attribute is socially acceptable: something can not be both a premiss and a conclusion at the same time! The lame aregument is based on a presupposition that we have all already agreed that certain types of objectification are wrong, and that is based on the presupposition that we have all already agreed that sex is wrong. And it is for this reason that we see that we are more prudish than the Victorians.
One point which has never been adequately dealt with is that if in 95 percent of pornography the woman is portrayed as in a state of extreme pleasure, and that in only five percent of pornography do we even get to see the man at all, being relegated to just the penis, then it is in fact the man who is “objectified” more than the woman! He does not even deserve to have his face seen! True, she might be no more than a piece of flesh on paper, but there is even less of him!
There are divisions of the feminist polemic which hold that the activity of sex can be very self-empowering, but that the observation of sex is intrinsically misogynistic. This stemmed from another 1970s notion that women entered the world of pornography as the result of an inherent subjugation of their self-worth, that they were to a certain extent forced to participate in a self-demeaning activity. Yet it is only demeaning if we again agree that the sexual organs are innately disgusting. There are many people who make their entire livelihoods out of advertising some part of their body, if not all of it, from fashion models to teeth models to hand models. Yet the prudish sector demands that no one is allowed to survive on the livelihood of one’s genitals, because we have again all greed that there is something special about them.
In the 21st century, we would be hard pushed to find any woman (or man) who has embarked on a career in pornography because men have made it the only avenue for them. Modern pornographic “stars” are very aware of what they are doing, and indeed many women are themselves leading their own profession. If at an extreme stretch it could be argued that women were forced into performing pornographic sex, it can not be argued that they were forced into becoming a movie’s director or producer or financière.
We have also found the false argument that there is some correlation between pornography and crimes against women, such as rape or relationship violence. No such correlation exists. The news media have often advertised when a convicted rapist may have had a collection of fifty dirty magazines and videos. However, no advertising is given to the tens of millions of people who have pornography who do not commit rape, nor to the rapists who had no such pornography. The presumption is promoted; the counter-argument to the presumption is not. No cause-and-effect can be established to profess that if one views pornography, they have a greater likelihood of perpetrating violence.
The question which does remain, despite all attempts to accept diversity, has to do with the level of psychological dystonia involved in some forms of pornography. When a person finds that they can not get sexual gratification unless the pornographic image is one subjugation or of suffering or of debasement, then there is clearly something psychologically problematic with the person… but the fault does not lie in the image, and we do a disservice by blaming the image for the mental outlook rather than the outlook for the image.
In a very twee and patronising way, we consider the erotic to be the exposition of an elegance of form or the acceptance of a ‘lesser’ social behaviour, while the pornographic displays what we consider to be the ‘vile’ pragmatism of sex. We want to believe that sex is special and elevated in the modern human, because the classical Christian attitude that sex is vile, unless it is performed in a very narrow environment, still abounds even in the secular world of today. Feminism has adopted both the Christian and the psychoanalytical attitude that sex is special and that certain values are attached to it. Until such time as we find pornography commonplace, the tyranny of Christianity and of psychoanalysis alike will rule. And if we wish to have a greater control of our own lives, these tyrannies must be overcome.