In 2002 I published a book called Striptease Culture, which argued that the proliferation of pornography in the public domain and the “pornographication of mainstream culture” accompanying it were positively associated with progressive change in sexual politics.
Then it was all about Madonna, Demi Moore and Sharon Stone. Today it’s Gaga, Rihanna, and Angelina. Away from the pop charts and the multiplex with their evermore explicit female performances, more women are using porn, on their own and in the context of loving and consensual sexual relationships, than ever before.
Melbourne-based academic Lauren Rosewarne, who wrote in this space a few weeks ago, has just published the delightfully named Part-Time Perverts: sex, pop culture and kink management, which explores how pop culture has channeled sexual deviance into the mainstream, normalising it in the process. Lauren happily calls herself a pervert.
British journalist and feminist Caitlin Moran has published a book entitled How To Be a Woman, which asserts the validity of female pornographic desire. In an interview with the Observer this weekend, she explained the personal journey she’d made from the days when anti-porn feminism was the only kind available to any self-respecting woman.
“I’d always described myself as a feminist, but it seemed increasingly that my idea of what a feminist is was completely at odds with what professional feminists out there were doing and saying. It came to a head when I went to a meeting and there was a massive row about pornography, and all the old-school feminists just seemed to think it was totally unacceptable. There are problems in the world but pornography’s not a terrible thing. Pornography will never go away. The pornography industry’s sexist, and bad stuff’s being made, but the idea that all pornography must be bad is really wrong.”
I often compare pornography to advertising. There used to be some shockingly sexist advertisements around, and there still are, but in the main the content of advertising has evolved to meet the demands of the newly feminized female consumer. She won’t be patronized, or treated like a sex object in an advert for window frames or mustard.
But she is aware of her sexuality, and doesn’t mind an advertisement which reflects it back to her. Modern advertising embodies all the lessons of the last four decades of sexual politics, often in funny and ironic ways. Modern ads can be sexy, but rarely sexist.
Pornography has evolved in an analogous manner. Yes, there are still the misogynistic sub-genres, which eroticise the degradation and brutalization of women (many torture porn movies do this too, and receive less opprobrium).
Yes, porn is still predominantly a cultural form made for and by heterosexual men, who have traditionally dominated the means of producing and consuming sexual imagery.
But this patriarchal dominance has been eroded as gay porn and porn for women – and porn too, for straight men who are not misogynistic sadists, which is rather a lot of us – has become more public and available.
The genre, in short, is not defined by the worst it can be, but increasingly by the diversity of the market it serves. The bad stuff is still out there, but increasingly marginalized alongside gay porn, couples porn, porn for women, porn for every sexual fetish that can be imagined, and some that can’t.
Popular artists such as Gaga speak freely of their interest in porn, and borrow from its codes in their performances – “Bad Romance”, indeed.
That’s one side of the coin. The other is a global moral panic around cultural sexualisation which conflates the increased availability of pornography with a range of other trends, such as the inappropriate sexualisation of young children by advertisers and toy manufacturers, and the growth of negative indicators such as the incidence of sexually transmitted disease.
Teenagers strut their stuff with “Porn star” t-shirts. Young girls can buy thongs and pole dancing kits. Australia has seen a number of high profile reports on such themes as “Corporate Paedophilia”. So have the US and the UK, most recently the Bailey Report which calls for voluntary restraint on the part of commercial businesses in the marketing of sexually charged products and services to young people.
So, while the expansion of the pornosphere and the pornographication of culture has proceeded, along with major advances in the rights of women and gays, there is deep anxiety around what it all means for sexual ethics and morality, particularly within the family.
I count myself a hard-liner in the policing and punishment of sexual violence, and especially that involving children.
These are among the worst crimes in the world, and should be treated as such, as indeed they are in most civilized countries. So I welcome the fact that since the internet became a mass medium many thousands of paedophiles, in many countries, have been caught possessing or distributing child pornography.
Paedophiles long predate the internet, but it is heartening to see that the new communication technologies do not appear to have eroded a zero tolerance approach to their activities.
Paedophilia is an extreme form of sexual deviation, and not representative of what really concerns people in the era of “pornographication”. Parents, teachers and others are worried, to the extent that they are, by a perceived dissolution of the boundaries which used to separate public and private space, and which kept sexuality underground, or at least at decently separated from the rest of human behavior.
Pornography has existed for thousands of years. Only today can it be consumed by a teenager in front of a PC in the privacy of his or her own bedroom. Men have always been interested in sex, and in masturbation. Only today can they indulge in four-hour sessions with the aid of the most explicit pornography ever available to any human society.
That image of “porn addiction” as it is sometimes called, is funny as well as disturbing for many. As with children accessing porn, or teenage girls singing along to Rhianna’s S&M, it speaks to an era where the lines between intimacy and decorum, between fantasy and reality, are being blurred within the domestic space.
Control of sexual desire and expression, be it the control exercised by parents, churches or government authorities, is perceived to be slipping away in the torrent of sexual imagery and innuendo.
That this process is happening is not some kind of moral-conservative myth, and the concerns of the public as articulated in the Bailey Report and its predecessors should not be dismissed as moral panic.
Rather, we should now be working to define where in this new world the legitimate boundaries of control and consent are, and how to police them without damaging or reversing the real achievements of sexual politics since the 1970s.
It is entirely appropriate for free-to-air TV, for example, which enters the home as a friendly and often educational presence for the enjoyment of all the family, to continue to be regulated with the protection of children in mind.
Likewise, it is entirely appropriate, while loving Gaga and all her works, to assert that the video for “Judas” not be played on free-to-air at a time before the adult watershed. And yes, we know that children have computers in their bedrooms, but parents must deal with that in their own way, using the tools available to them.
As for pornography, the line must be drawn around the issue of consent.
That which is consensual should be permitted, though in spaces which are signposted as to the nature of their content. In the analogue era, porn mags were obscured in paper bags and placed on the top shelf.
There were licensed sex shops hidden behind curtains in “red light zones” of major cities. Today those kinds of images are much more easily available, and in the domestic tranquility of home, but should still come with an “Adults Only” warning.
Where consent is not given, or cannot be – as in child pornography – a crime is committed in the production, distribution and consumption of the image. That crime should be prosecuted with the full force of the law, as most societies do.
Where adults consent to make images of S&M or other acts which involve pain or injury for erotic ends, there are no ethical grounds for prohibition.
After all, we watch grisly medical procedures on TV all the time. Every second person one meets these days, male and female, has a tattoo emblazoned on their skin. That’s got to hurt, but we allow it.
The UK’s Bailey Review turns out to have got much of this right, in its emphasis on self-regulation over state censorship of sexual culture, with the aim of protecting children from the accidental exposures to inappropriate material enabled by the internet and personal computers.
Many, including this author, feared a moral conservative backlash which would consume much that has been achieved in sexual politics in recent decades.
The reality is more relaxed, less judgemental than might have been expected, and we’ll see how British businesses respond. Australians will be watching closely, because the same issues and decisions are looming here.