Pornography, virtual reality and censorship [I]: presidents and feminism

Oculus Rift, recently purchased by Facebook and partnered with Samsung, and HTC Vive, manufactured by HTC with Valve technology, have lead the 2010 wave in developing virtual reality headsets. These technologies, innovative by today’s standards but primitive by science fiction’s, mark the beginning of a completely differently-structured society. They also mark a starting point for a new debate about privacy, the social affects of videogames, and especially censorship in media.

Virtual reality (in its not-too-distant actuality) offers an opportunity to behave outside of social norms in an environment that is phenomenologically the real world. The only comparable experience for humankind thus far is lucid dreaming, for which the rewards are less intense and the journey less traversible than the quick promises of virtual reality machines. One inevitable development for these machines is violent, sexually explicit experiences, available for cheap and accessible 24/7. To see how VR might be received, the closest industries to analyze are the videogame and pornography industries.

Interestingly, pornography has a very liberal history, in comparison to other “societal ills,” like drugs. (One of my favorite observations, indicative of the fluctuation of moral outlooks on sexuality, is the fact that rimjobs used to be a form of punishment in 17th-century Europe. I move for us to institute this as a contemporary alternative to capital punishment.) Erotica dates back to ancient cultures – notably, the Kama Sutra, hardcore by today’s standards, is still a staple of contemporary sexual experimentation – and today’s perversions were common themes: bestiality, pedophilia, etc., although pornography with an emphasis on violence might be a more modern trend. This isn’t to ignore, however, the roles typically played by women in ancient Western folklore and mythology, which are degrading by today’s feminist standards.

The case could be made that today’s censorial views on pornography come from a far more malevolent or oppressive stance toward women than two millennia ago. The free expression pornographic media once enjoyed was severely impacted over the 20th century. Only two years ago, a plethora of activities were banned from pornography in the United Kingdom. Reacting to the legislation, commentators were quick to criticize what was seen as policy that was specifically anti-female pleasure. Female ejaculation, fisting, face-sitting, and many forms of spanking or role-play were among the restrictions. There are puritanical, “moral outrage” elements to the restriction, but many noticed the absurdity of banning face-sitting: said one producer, “Why ban face-sitting? What’s so dangerous about it? … Its power is symbolic: woman on top, unattainable.” (There has been well-intended censorship as well. Los Angeles county passed Measure B in 2012 to require condom use during any pornographic scene with anal or vaginal contact, to combat the spread of venereal disease.)

Nowadays, there are plenty of porn directors that have learned to focus on both male and female pleasure, and reintroduced artistic merit to their directions. Erika Lust is one example. With the equalizing force gaining momentum in porn, it’s curious what the vehement, persistent condemnation springs from, when its not focused exclusively on abusive sex scenes. In addition, the negative effects of pornography’s presence in society are still being debated. Just the other day, a study which lead to headlines like “Porn doubles the risk of divorce” and “porn signifies a death knell for marriage” was criticized by Reason magazine for failing to address important underlying factors that more plausibly contribute to both pornography consumption and an unhappy marriage leading to divorce. There seems to be an obsession on behalf of the great majority of the public in assigning pornography to some sort of social harm.

Research on photographic pornography’s effect on society began early and aggressively. The Meese Report (1986), commissioned by Reagan and still frequently cited by anti-pornography advocates, determined pornography to be detrimental to society and family relations, and especially for women and children. Arguments built on similar reports attempt to connect sexually explicit material with rapes and domestic violence, alleging that the desensitization to rough sex carries over from the fictional world into the real one. Henry E. Hudson, the Chairman of the Meese Commission, alleged that pornography “appears to impact adversely on the family concept and its value to society.” The Meese Report, however, has been challenged numerous times for bias and irrational jumping to conclusions, and is not taken seriously as a body of research any longer. One criticism by writer, citing the traditionalist narrative embedded in the research, Pat Califia states that the report “holds out the hope that by using draconian measures against pornography we can turn America into a rerun of Leave It to Beaver.

Indeed, Edwin Meese, the Attorney General appointed to conduct the report, earlier withheld a grant of $625,000 to The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1985, after receiving a letter from 24 (mostly Republican) Congress members who claimed the coalition supported “liberal, anti-family activism”; was “pro-lesbian, pro-abortion … radical feminist” … with “different views on marriage and sexuality than those of the traditional Judeo-Christian values.” Ronald Reagan’s daughter Maureen called the Attorney General’s decision to withhold the grant “patently absurd.” The Coalition’s stated mission is to understand the impact of domestic violence and hold abusers accountable.

The United States’ Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, preceding the Meese Report and commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon, was unable to find evidence of any direct harm caused by pornography. (Although Nixon, despite the evidence under his administration, believed porn corrupted civilization.) It is curious that a new federal study was requested only sixteen years after the first extensive one, but maybe not too unusual given the growth of porn with technology (from adult stores and newsstands to unlimited free online access; the internet just celebrated its quarter-centennial birthday); also not too unusual given the absurd and expensive studies already undertaken by the federal government. It is also worth pointing out that pornography, though often connected by Republicans to feminism, is a divisive issue within 20th century and contemporary feminism: some thinkers, like Andrea Dworkin, condemned it as intrinsically anti-women; others feminists like Ellen Willis argued for pornography as liberating and its suppression as moral authoritarianism. The debate along lines of sexuality, online or otherwise, culminated in the feminist “sex wars,” with groups like Feminists Against Censorship and Women Against Pornography popping up. Thus, the debate is open across every ideological camp, and support of pornography is neither necessarily liberal nor necessarily feminist.

[In the next post, I discuss violent pornography’s cross-media transformation into videogames, more sociological research and the general point, and insecurity, of prohibitory measures.]

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8 thoughts on “Pornography, virtual reality and censorship [I]: presidents and feminism

  1. Great post, I’m curious to see where this is going. Are you going to debate the normative ethics of pornography, regardless of its legality, the positive sociological implications of banning pornography with an attention to technological innovations from virtual reality, or both? Sounds like a great series, either way.

    • I’m mostly providing a history so I can touchdown on the present, but yes, these are touched on too.

  2. In my own opinion, I don’t think, that porn is something bad when you watch it in your room with closed doors, don’t force others to watch it with you or trying to discuss it publicly without being asked. In some ways it can even fortify your family, as it brings variety in sexual life (without forcing, of course). And dozens of genres and styles also nullifies all sexist thoughts such as “it’s all about men who f**k women”.

    In Russia we have very strict laws regarding to child porn – you’ll sit in jail for ages (most likely you’ll be raped or killed to death in your sleep by jail-mates). Main mission of law-makers is to save childhood and youth from sexual harming. But there are dozens of new porn videos uploaded every day, private TV channels and paid subscribtions for ones who 18+. Do whatever you want, but keep it private.

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