This article appeared in the Sunday Herald
BASED on the evidence on offer in dentists’ waiting rooms, it seems to me there was a time in the 1990s when women’s magazines always contained articles about the frequency with which men think about sex.
Such information seems difficult to come by these days, the reason being, perhaps, that post-feminism, post-religion, and whatever else it is we’re post- these days, women themselves are allowed to think about sex all the time, too. More than that, they’re entitled to be at it (and, my old son, it had better be good. Or else).
But still, I often wonder whether us chaps are thinking any more or any less about sex than we used to. Every seven seconds it was at one time, I think. My feeling is that it must be more now; every four seconds, say, and sometimes even during the other seconds in between. For try as we might to ignore it, female sexuality confronts us everywhere: on the high street, in the background noise of advertising and pop videos, in the negligees and thigh-boots women go out in at night. Shame and modesty are old hat; Girl Power is rampant.
And then there is pornography. Yes, there is pornography. And the internet. From the beginning porn was a major driver of the worldwide web: one of the first industries online, it helped shape a consumerist model of it. Now there are some 450 million adult web pages out there, a vast ocean of naked flesh, gift-wrapped femininity, straightforward, kinky, perverse or just downright disturbing sex. And it’s all just there, always, at the click of a mouse.
Perhaps inevitably, pornography has also gained a foothold in mainstream culture. Soft pornographers like Hugh Hefner have long been part of the plutocracy in America; nowadays the world takes an interest in what Paris Hilton is doing, Hollywood churns out fluffy comedies about porn stars, and chat show hosts like Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross are rarely stuck for semi-ironic but still cool-with-it repartee about pornographic sex.
And the word, too, has started to drift in meaning: to label reality television or documentaries about the Nazis “pornographic” is to be derogatory about those things, but also betokens cultural acceptance of pornography itself.
Being cool about porn has, in fact, become almost an assertion of one’s lack of stuffiness. Any debate over its rights or wrongs tends to focus on whether the women who feature in it are empowered businesswoman or exploited victims; but it’s a debate many liberals shy away from. Put off, perhaps, by the thought of coming down on the side of both hardline feminists and the religious right, most tend to take the view that so long as children aren’t involved this is something that should be left to the dictates of the market. Some go further, though: Salman Rushdie has argued that a free and civilised society can be judged by its willingness to accept pornography.
But what of the users of porn? Men and boys in civilised societies have taken an interest in depictions of sex for at least two millennia, as the Victorians were rather shocked to discover when excavations of Pompeii were undertaken in the 1860s. But the Victorian attitude to pornography – that it should be forbidden to the masses – is distinctly at odds with our own; and neither the Romans nor the Victorians had to contend with hardcore.
Studies have revealed that a sizeable minority of children in the UK are now being exposed to the most “adult” material imaginable at a stage when they are only just discovering their own sexuality. Today’s adolescent has ease of access to the whole gamut of the polymorphous perverse. What does he take away from it? Do the myths peddled in pornography about female sexual availability influence how boys, and men, see women generally? Do we start assuming they’re wearing hardly any clothes because they want to attract our attention?
Pornographers, like advertisers, are smart: they know they must drip-feed stimulation. And so they tease and tantalise, but ultimately they give the hard sell, they show you everything, they frame it for maximum exposure, the pneumatic breasts, the flat stomach, the luminescent skin, the hairless crotch. There can be little doubt that women nowadays feel pressure to conform to certain ideas of anatomical correctness. Pornography, in its commodification and regimentation of such correctness, is unlikely to foster reasonable expectations among men of how women should look.
Psychologists and psychotherapists have all manner of theories about why it is boys take an interest in pornography and girls, generally speaking, don’t. In their book Raising Cain: Protecting The Emotional Life of Boys, Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon argue that objectifying sex comes easy to boys because from the moment they start getting erections they become aware of their physical hardware making its own demands.
Pornography, thereafter, offers the adolescent male release from the alienating experience of continually striving against his peers, provides a sphere in which he is in control, in which the object of his desire is eager to please and cannot pass judgement on his performance. Most young men will have experienced this as a “phase” on the way to more fulfilling sexual relations; but the more time is spent in this illusory world in which real women are kept at arm’s length, the more pornography acts as a fix.
In Pornified: How Porn Is Ruining Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Family the American writer Pamela Paul argues that the ubiquity of online pornography has created an epidemic of male addiction to the instant gratification of “adult entertainment.” Using interviews with “sex addicts” as her source material, she extrapolates the theory that young men start out curious about softer pornography but quickly become “desensitised” to such material. They then expand their menu of pornographic interests to the point where their habits make them neglectful of real-life partners or indeed less likely and less able to form relationships in the first place.
But as one of Paul’s critics, the author and “mating” columnist Amy Sohn pointed out when Pornified first came out in 2005, it would be unwise to deduce general trends from the stories of men being treated for sex addiction. “The real question,” she wrote in the New York Times, “is whether the ease of access afforded by the internet is changing American male sexuality for the worse, or simply appealing to male urges that predate the internet – and porn – entirely.”
In his 1966 essay On Pornography, Gore Vidal penned the now oft-repeated line about the only thing pornography causing being masturbation. By contrast, in 2004 anti-porn advocates stood before the US Senate and likened pornography to heroin; which is probably reason enough to steer clear of talking about porn “addiction” at all.
Oliver James, the clinical psychologist and author of Affluenza: How to be Successful and Stay Sane, says anyone who becomes addicted in any real sense to pornography is already likely to have other problems. “Boys who access pornography are much more likely to do so if they’re depressed or lonely or feeling inadequate,” he told me. “The great majority of boys will be curious at first but very quickly switch off. The same goes for men. Those who become addicted happen to become addicted to pornography, but they could easily have become addicted to something else.”
Besides “addictive isolation”, he says, pornography can encourage promiscuity. “The sort of teenager or young man who watches quite a lot of porn is often more likely to have multiple partners. He’s more likely to be sexually adventurous.” So pornography might actually help some men, um, get laid? “Well, it’s probable that it encourages them to play fast and loose and to imagine that all women are gagging for it. And they’ll be more likely to attempt sexual practices that they wouldn’t otherwise.
“But there again, there is a potential up-side of that. There’s a book by Brett Kahr called Sex and the Psyche, which is a study of the sexual fantasies of 20,000 Britons. It shows that there is a huge gap between people’s fantasy lives and what they actually do in practice. So, yes pornography may cause problems to do with addiction and the stereotyping of women, but it must also be said that it may lead to better sexual relationships in some cases.”
More openness between sexual partners is perhaps a desirable thing, but while consenting adults may rejoice in society becoming a bit more, well, Dutch, this does not address the as-yet unknown consequences of a generation becoming sexualised with the internet for company. In an investigation for the BBC earlier this year, the journalist Penny Marshall discovered that a growing number of girls in their teens and early 20s think nothing of posting naked or semi-naked pictures of themselves online, for “a bit of a laugh”. Their male peers are then seizing on these images and passing them around on their mobile phones.
Parents may well be concerned, but they are increasingly powerless to regulate the online activities of their clever-dick offspring. Arguments about freedom of expression and the rights-based society seem all-persuasive, but perhaps we forget about the rights of young people to grow up without feeling pressurised to conform to a pornographic yardstick; or indeed the rights, as Paul has put it, “of people who don’t want pornography shoved in their face everywhere they turn.”
A feminist conceit Paul repeats is that women cannot enjoy pornography. Anti-porn campaigners in the 1970s, including Andrea Dworkin and John Stoltenberg, said it was all about hating women and linked it to rape (not on any evidential basis, mind: more that, uh, they had a hunch about it), but Dworkin subsequently lost credibility for her crusade when she extended her argument from pornography to all male-female sexual intercourse.
Nowadays there are those, like Paul, who claim that female enjoyment of porn can only ever be a performance for the benefit of men, and others who insist that it offers modern women an avenue in which to explore the innumerable facets of their sexual identities. Meanwhile, feminists on the whole tend not to have such a problem with pornography when it’s written down (by women) and given a bit of literary polish, as in Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M, a best-selling account of the author’s best efforts at shagging her way around Paris and, for the most part, enjoying it.
Simultaneously a new wave of female stars – from the risqué Pussycat Dolls, to the queen of burlesque, Dita von Teese, to Sasha Grey, the porn “actress” who stars in Steven Soderbergh’s new film about a sex escort, The Girlfriend Experience – are busy hawking a narrative all about pushing boundaries and pioneering female sexual freedom. Grey has said: “I am a woman who strongly believes in what she does – it is time that our society comes to grips with the fact that normal people, women especially, enjoy perverse sex.”
This is where we are at now. One no longer has to look at pornography to find the pornographic in our culture. And in a sense online pornography and what it may or not be doing to men is inseparable from a more general depersonalisation of our interest in sex. Grey, like Rushdie, clearly believes in a free society; but free societies must have the moral conviction to protect those things they cherish most, including modesty and innocence. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has written that sexual shame arises not, as moral shame arises, “by the thought that you are being judged as a self, a free being,” but rather that you are being “judged as a body, a mechanism, an object.”
For better or worse, sexual shame has been abolished; the genie is out of the bottle. And yet we must be clear that it would a catastrophic stain on liberalism if the realm of pornographic fantasy were henceforth to be allowed to dictate sexual norms.
In our state of shamelessness perhaps it will become easier for fathers to talk to their sons about women and sex – whether or not young men come away from watching pornography feeling hateful of women, hateful of themselves, recklessly lustful, perturbed, unperturbed or unaffected may well depend on what other influences are at play in their lives.
A small minority of them may come to ruin using it. At the other end of the commercial equation some women are victims pure and simple. But, in another sense, pornography is equally degrading to us all as a species. Oliver James says of hardcore pornography: “It is a complete bore. It’s a tedious succession of bits of meat colliding.” More than that, perhaps, it enjoins us to discount the differences between ourselves and the other animals. By observing the machinae animatae, the human animal, at such close quarters, we disavow the duality of body and soul; we judge others and come to be judged as mechanisms. And ultimately we risk feeling somehow less human.
Pornography’s champions point to the fact that “obscene images” were outlawed in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. Being afraid to challenge the smug consensus that porn is a mere benign indulgence is unlikely, however, to benefit our overall sense of freedom or well-being.