- Spaghetti monsters and free exercise Ethan Blevins, NOL
- Social warfare (government schools) Mary Lucia Darst, NOL
- Vulvæ in pornography and culture Bill Rein, NOL
- Early childhood memories of a Cambodian refugee camp Chhay Lin Lim, NOL
Brexit isn’t the only ridiculous thing happening in the United Kingdom. In April, the British government is rolling out statutory adult verification for pornography websites and content platforms. This requires all adult content providers to have proof of age or identity for all their users, whether a passport or a credit card (or more ludicrously a ‘porn pass’ that Brits wishing to browse anonymously will have to buy from local newsagents). The government plans to require internet service providers to block pornography websites that are not in compliance with adult verification once the system is in place. For those with university institutional access, Pandora Blake has written a timely explanation and critique published in Porn Studies: ‘Age verification for online porn: more harm than good?’.
Technical challenges with rolling out the system have led the dominant pornography search platform owner, MindGeek, to develop proprietary solution, AgeID, in cooperation with regulators. This cooperation between the dominant commercial pornography platform supplier and a Conservative government publicly intent on restricting access to pornography might appear surprising. However, it can be explained by a particular pattern of regulatory capture identified in public choice theory as a Bootlegger and Baptist coalition. Bruce Yandle observed that throughout the 20th century, evangelical Christians in the United States agitated for local restrictions on the sale of alcohol with the avowed aim of reducing consumption but with the secondary effect of increasing demand for alcohol for illegal bootleggers. Hence both interest groups, apparently opposed in moral principle came to benefit in practice. We now have a classic British case study. In this case, MindGeek is not acting as a literal bootlegger. It intends to be fully legally compliant with the filtering regime. However, the law will block all non-compliant competitors without a comparable verification system. They can gain a competitive advantage with a proprietary technical solution to the barrier introduced by the government.
Introducing identity verification systems has high fixed costs and low marginal costs. It is costly to develop or implement but easy to scale once integrated. The larger the pornography enterprise, the more easily these costs can be absorbed without the risk that it will not be worthwhile to serve the British market. For many smaller international pornography websites, without in-house legal advice or technical expertise, it might prove uneconomical to serve British users directly. So MindGeek’s platforms could become the least-cost legal gatekeeper between small enterprises producing pornographic content and the British public. The government is raising transaction costs to accessing pornography in a way that impacts larger and smaller platforms asymmetrically and favors one dominant platform in particular.
Both the premise of this policy and its likely impact on the market for pornography is unpromising. At its most benign, this could be a characterized as a ‘nudge’ against the consumption of pornography and reducing access of inappropriate content to minors. But these limited benefits have costs for both producers and consumers. On the consumption side, it increases risks to data security and privacy because it will plausibly tie records of pornographic access to verified identities, with a clear likelihood of being to infer an individual’s sexuality from private browsing. This could represent a particular vulnerability for LGBTQ identifying individuals who live in communities where there is still stigma attached to minority sexual orientations.
On the supplier side, it takes what already appears to be a market with strong tendencies towards a winner-takes-all model, and then augments it so that a dominant platform has a legally enforceable competitive advantage over potential rivals in the market. Ultimately, it threatens to further strengthen the bargaining position of a single corporate pornography platform against the sex workers who supply their content.
This is a cross-post from my contribution to the Adam Smith Institute blog.
Last week the Crown Prosecution Service published updated guidance for prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act (1959). Legal campaigning has brought about a big change: the liberal tests of harm, consent and legality of real acts are now key parts of their working definition of obscenity. The CPS explain:
… conduct will not likely fall to be prosecuted under the Act provided that:
- It is consensual (focusing on full and freely exercised consent, and also where the provision of consent is made clear where such consent may not be easily determined from the material itself); and
- No serious harm is caused
- It is not otherwise inextricably linked with other criminality (so as to encourage emulation or fuelling interest or normalisation of criminality); and
- The likely audience is not under 18 (having particular regard to where measures have been taken to ensure that the audience is not under 18) or otherwise vulnerable (as a result of their physical or mental health, the circumstances in which they may come to view the material, the circumstances which may cause the subject matter to have a particular impact or resonance or any other relevant circumstance).
I was in a discussion recently on the effects of “porn culture” on young boys and girls. I went back and forth a bit with a debater, until she mentioned the rising rates of labiaplasty, prima facie caused by women’s lack of confidence in their own external genitals after watching pornography (which, according to everyone, is a massive, growing, all-pervasive industry).
Labiaplasty, surgery on the vulva to trim or cut away the labia minora (such that they protrude less than the labia majora) or the clitoral hood, is, indeed, on the rise in the West; it can also lead to complications including pain and infection. The number of girls under eighteen that paid for labiaplasty almost doubled between 2014 and 2015, and the number continues to grow.
Insecurity is a leading factor in many women’s decision to pursue the surgery. Patient satisfaction post-op is about 95%. Labiaplasty improves confidence and happiness and can lead to a healthier sex life. Costs are about $4000 – 5000, which is not terribly expensive for a life-altering operation.
However, the logistics alone are deceiving. Plastic surgery is a relatively young field with ever-improving techniques. To attribute the rise in labiaplasty immediately to the effects of an increasingly pornographic culture is disingenuous. There are other factors, and an analysis of labiaplasty patients shows that 32% of women undergoing the surgery did so for functional impairment, 31% for combined functional impairment and aesthetic improvement, and 37% for aesthetic improvement alone. That is a majority of surgeries for achieving or improving upon physical function. Of course, if you’re thinking of getting a surgery to improve a malfunctioning organ and it comes with visually pleasing benefit as well, you might incorporate this a little into your selection process – thus, it is reasonable to assume that many of the patients in the dual percentage were focused primarily on physical function, with visuals as an afterthought. The authors of the study found that “the majority of patients undergoing reduction of the labia minora do so for functional reasons with minimal outside influences affecting their decision for treatment.” This is an inconvenient conclusion if you want to argue that porn culture is causing these surgeries.
There’s also, as always, much more to the story. Female porn stars have what might be called “tidy” mons pubes, in terms of pubic hair and the conspicuousness of labia. These “designer vaginas” don’t accurately represent the general, mammalian populace of people with vaginas. Yet, as noted by Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College, the reason porn actresses in Australia maintain such kept labia is not male, female or porn-producer preference, but rating boards (which are government bodies). Soft-core porn, in Australia, can only show “discreet genital detail,” which rules out fleshy, extrusive labia. The labia minora is considered “too offensive” for soft-core. Similar distinctions apply elsewhere. In Germany, for instance, one must be at least 16 years old to purchase soft-core material and 18 to buy hardcore; the distinction falls along multiple lines some of which dictate how extrusive the labia are. In Australia, often airbrushers at porn mags apply digital labiaplasty to “heal” vulvas to an acceptable “single crease.”
One of the feminist authors I’ve linked makes the point clear by comparison: what if porn classificatory boards determined the testicles were too explicit? What if the scrotum had to be airbrushed out in order for men’s genitals to appear in soft-core?
Daisy Buchanan at the Guardian observes another reason women are seeking aesthetic “improvement” to their natural organs: the seductive exhibitionism of pornography is not confined to hardcore adult films anymore, it’s everywhere – at music awards, during celebrity photoshoots, in casual advertisements, whatever.
This point could be worded in one of two ways: society is hyper-sexualized, or, our culture is sexually liberated. The second, more optimistic one, symbolizes a social maturity into sexual autonomy. Buchanan exaggerates by claiming we’re “as likely” to see a vulva on a music channel as on a pornographic website, but nonetheless, sex has become a more tolerable phenomenon for more and more people. The labiaplasty rate can be disparaged as a coercive instrument for young women to meet societal standards, or, it can be lauded as the growth of opportunity for women with functional problems and their willingness (and increased ability to afford) to shape their body how they want it.
As detailed previously on Notes on Liberty (here and here), the stifling force of 20th and 21st century censorship has been obsessed with pornography and female pleasure. For those who view labiaplasty as a disturbing, sexist phenomenon, one place to start would be rating boards, often managed by the government.
In a recent article by The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry claims that “Porn is bad!” and, in addition, we all know he’s right. Star Trek is leveraged to provide the analogy that we are all playing a game – the game of pornography and all its damaging consequences, a game from which we all need saving. It is worthwhile to note that in the featured Star Trek episode, the only one who rescues the helpless players from their entertainment is, in fact, a robot. This is excellent, because Gobry’s point might best be summarized as a plea for us to transition to unfeeling automata, which runs rather counter-intuitive to his pleasant speculations about sensuality above sexuality.
The “game” metaphor conjures feelings of triviality, and entrapment, and our human gullibility; it is an attempt at guiltiness by association. The idea of a mind trap goes at least as far back as Brave New World. The topic of pornography in our culture is better understood through a separate reference to Sword Art Online, a recent animation out of Japan in which characters engage with the world of virtual reality. (Shout-out Michelangelo Landgrave for the science-fiction expertise. ) In the beginning of the show, Gobry can find the parallel he so desperately seeks: helpless entrapment in a virtual system. Then, the system becomes therapeutic – healing for post traumatic stress, introduction to a foreign world, character development, and so on. Pornography use can provide a channel for instincts banned from the real world, educate young people that don’t know where the clitoris is, and all throughout its growth sexual violence trends fall. Gobry doesn’t care about any of this because for Gobry, sex itself is just too damn naughty to support.
It is an opinion article, without any in-depth research, and yet his sources are painfully bland or biased. One of the few articles he draws on makes a fundamental error in assuming that “Pornography and tobacco, everyone can agree … have [both] been on the receiving end of public moralizing ever since their appearance in human society.” This is patently false. Corporate defense of tobacco hardly equates to public moralizing, and in reality, religious institutions composed the parochial mantle of society since society’s birth, and have explicitly condemned tobacco use (often as “sinful”) except in rare instances. Pornography, too, has faced severe criticism since its expansion over the last hundred years, and only went without prohibition in classical antiquity as erotica (in which, I have pointed out, attitudes about sexuality seemed less sexist and less morally authoritarian than today).
The analogue between tobacco and porn is intended to be striking. Frankly, pornography is not the new tobacco. Young men don’t watch porn together. Porn isn’t “cool” or fashionable or a social activity. Pornography faces severe private forms of social control in most instances. And smoking enjoyed a relatively long period of relaxed legal policy until its multi-directional assault; online pornography has been under attack since its conception. Smoking was banned from most public spaces for the most excellent reasons: it causes second-hand harm to others that do not consent. Pornography, being a bedroom activity, does not have any such social consequences. Tobacco also lowers libido, essentially serving as pornography’s antithesis as an anaphrodisiac.
With the pleasures of smoking under varying lock and key, the new freedom, porn, must face the wrath of the pleasure-fascists. No, porn doesn’t cause cancer (Gobry likely finds this a drag); but surely it must do some harm to the family – or maybe society.
However, the allusion to “good evidence that [porn destroys] lives and families” goes unfortunately uncited, leaving us wondering which religious or conservative think tank is providing these supporting arguments. Perhaps the evidence is provided by the federal research projects that discover no negative effects of pornography consumption; or the plethora of marriage therapists that recommend watching porn to fix relationships. And yet, though porn addiction is alluded too, there is not even evidence of this – sex addiction itself is considered controversial in psychological circles. Gobry, a closeted equinophile, also beats up the dead horse, pulling out the “desensitization” argument (that I have discussed previously) which is based on lazy reasoning and not empirically supported as a psychological or neurological feature. Horror stories, that describe a hardcore acceleration in pornographic taste, are the exception, and not the rule.
His sources for individual discussion are sketchy as best. /NoFap, an internet support group to encourage extended periods of auto-abstinence, described by Gobry as “increasingly popular,” was began as a joke, and exists only on subreddits or 4chan. It’s like No Shave November but nobody even shaves their neckbeards. The name itself has a crudity no serious movement possesses, and the idea is not to quit masturbating, but, ordinarily, to take a tolerance break, so that better quality masturbating might follow. (The only other website pointed out by Gobry looks like a nightmare-generator created by fear-mongering soccer moms, and contains just speculation.) It is true, for scientific consensus, that abstinence from masturbating often leads to more energy, better mood, and more sociability. And yet, as per the aphorism of the ages – you can’t be loved, or give love, until you love yourself. Masturbation is still a taboo for certain groups in society that don’t feel comfortable exploring themselves. Vocal chastising by journalists is not helping.
Pornography is inherently an interaction with the hyper-real. It is an opportunity to engage with every possible emotion, some negative and some positive, and explore that mysterious side of ourselves so subjugated in social spheres. Recall Sword Art Online: unlike real life, videogames have the opportunity to be played multiple times. We can explore life before our incredibly consequential interactions with it. Pornography can help us recognize attractive and repulsive behaviors, and examine our sexuality. It is, surely, a cheap thrill; no cheaper than fast food or blockbuster movies (also criticized by Gobry elsewhere. He should spend more time instead on the subreddit /NoFun). Yet all of these have their place, and it is no one’s place to demand the removal of another person’s harmless pleasure.
Maybe Gobry should just have criticized masturbating instead of porn. The entire paragraph on NoFap is a conflation of what he wants to despise, porn, and what his own testimonials criticize, masturbating. He writes as if his distaste is for pornography, but this is revealed to be a distaste for masturbation, and this too just a distaste for pleasure outside of marriage.
Gobry is enchanted with Pamela Anderson’s calls for a “sensual revolution,” which would “replace pornography with eroticism — the alloying of sex with love, of physicality with personality, of the body’s mechanics with imagination, of orgasmic release with binding relationships.” This evolution is in fact probable, and might even be happening today, except that sexuality constantly needs reinforcement for freedom. Freedom has never been free. Sexuality in particular has been brutalized for eons, with rare figures like de Sade encouraging promiscuity and removing stigma. Over millennia, sexuality has faced an unholy arsenal of reprimand, mostly along arbitrary lines, and the day when genuine sexual freedom is fostered by a culture may never come – it’s difficult to even imagine. Anderson’s quote is not about freedom and sensuality; it’s about connecting sexuality to commitment again, which is the opposite of liberation. Gobry is either ignorant to the insinuations, or the puritan inside him found a way to expose its true intentions: make sex stale and non-promiscuous again.
Gobry’s dislike of individual fulfillment is revealed in a few of his other articles, as he notes that the only way to experience God is for Him to “strip away” all the “feel-goody aspects of the spiritual life,” noting that enlightenment is thought to occur by a process of “purification”- and should be expected to be “very painful.” This metaphor for God’s purification is noticeably more akin to deflowering a virgin than offering nirvana. A thread of sadomasochism could be derived from much of his meandering arguments. Gobry is a conservative Catholic, but somehow The Week still thought it credible that he should write on millennials’ lack of sex, a piece in which he effectively blames society’s problems on men, Xbox, and Tinder. In fact, for Gobry, society is collapsing because of porn. The world is falling apart because a sixteen year old is beating his meat every night. He is a classic puritan, and a Luddite by merit of his technophobia, claiming there is no magic to casual sex. He is conflicted though, in suggesting less sex among unmarried couples is a good thing, while attempting to claim heritage to a great French tradition of expressive sexuality. France should immediately revoke his citizenship and ancestry as punishment for such unromantic viewpoints.
The article contains, alongside his claim to Frenchhood, an air of self-absorption. It is interesting that an anti-pornography (and really, anti-pleasure) essay sounds so masturbatory. More than a few great minds have posited intellectual activity, e.g., journalism, as a method for sexual satisfaction; it appears there is perhaps a sort of sadistic pleasure for Gobry in condemning others’ pleasure-avenues and simultaneously stroking his own ego. Kant’s first name is even spelled incorrectly to match with Gobry’s hyphenated name, as if to juxtapose his own intellectual endeavor with “one of the greatest ethicists of the 18th centruy” [sic]. Presumably, a great insecurity is at the bottom of his condemnation.
His essay could, and hopefully should, be read as satirical. The author doesn’t seem particularly passionate about his viewpoints (as might be surmised from the low quality research), but regardless, throwing crap opinions like this into the world does real damage if they go without criticism. Pornography isn’t “bad” in any special way; it’s bad in a way the author disagrees with. The opposition force to general pornography might attempt to award themselves the moral high ground, and assign virtue to their dissent, but they are ultimately products of oft-religious, anti-scientific reaction. Gobry also seems to have a distaste for equal protection under the law and critical thinking as another writer has illustrated. The only topic he seems to possess an adequate grasp of is Christianity’s fundamental opposition to those damn gays – an opposition it must never budge on, no matter how much open society tries to bully it by bringing up equality (this even as he awkwardly attempts to posit that China should become a Christian nation).
The only thing we really need to fight about porn is behind the scenes, and these are the legal battles and stigmatization of sex work. There are porn stars that knowingly spread venereal diseases and never receive legal accountability; these are the horrors of pornography, and they are the horrors of most industries. What is on screen and consensual is not the enemy. The expectations impressed upon people by pornographic standards – waxed mons pubis, athletic or curvy body types, well-hung penises, hours of sex – are not a battle for courts or culture. As much liberation is to be found in porn as is oppression. Columnists that still condemn pornography as sexist or oppressive are behind the times; female-centered erotica is on the rise, and the “bizarre and elaborate fetishes” are lost in the abyss of mild amateur sex tapes and high-definition, romantic cinema (PassionHD, Nubiles, etc.). The videos Gobry finds distasteful must usually be sought out, and speculatively, it is his own seeking-out that confronts him with what he so loathes.
Toward the end, we are told that the most powerful argument against porn is that his opponents denounce the arguments against porn. This is an essential part of internet argumentation: A is necessary because my opponents reject A. Here, A is anti-pornography reaction; in other places, it is other forms of authoritarianism. Ultimately, the headline of the article indicates the effort and intellectual integrity of its authorship. Porn is bad! sums up the chicken-clucking omnipresent in the work, but even better is the website address: porn-bad. Here, the true nature of the article is finally revealed, as 21st century duckspeak.
[Continuing from my last post, noting that feminists have not behaved monolithically toward pornography, and statistics have not provided any justifiable inference from violent pornography to violent crime.]
Most feminists would align, however, in a condemnation of violent pornography, even if they do not attempt to use legal coercion to restrict it. It has been particularly controversial when material becomes first-person, or even playable. And thus pornography, and violent pornography, often makes an intersection with the videogame industry. To name one infamous example, RapeLay, a role-playing game from a company in Yokohama, Japan, allows the player to assault a defenseless mother and her two children. Some critics argued that the videogame breached the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, agreed to by the United Nations.
New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn called RapeLay a “rape simulator.” Commenting on the game and other controversies, an IGN journalist added: “For many, videogames are nothing but simulators. They are literal replications, and, as such, should be cause for the same kind of alarm the real life equivalents would inspire.” Is this the same motive for consumers though – that of, essentially, practice? On the piratebay download link for RapeLay, a top commenter “slask777” writes: “I highly approve of this for two reasons, [sic] the first is that it’s a slap in the face of every prude and alarmist idiot out there and second, it’s a healthy outlet for the rape fantasy, which is more common than most people believe.”
I suspect that much of the appreciation for videogames is due to their simplicity, to be eventually supplemented by mild and mostly innocent addiction. Then – not to put too much faith in slask777’s psychological credentials – I suspect as well that violent videogames serve a “channeling” function, allowing some instinctual energies to exert themselves in a harmless environment and release some psychological tension. Perhaps the “rape fantasy” is not shared by the majority of the populace, but judging by the comments on the torrent site, the audience for this game cannot be confined to stereotypical images of basement N.E.E.Ts. (Studies of the occupations of internet trolls confirm as well the difficulty of pinning down an image for anonymous internet users). There was even an informative, civil discussion of reproductive anatomy on page one of the torrent site. Following this theory of channeling, we might find similar uses for virtual realities: nonreal locations to perform socially unacceptable acts. Locations for people with genuine sexual or sadistic pathologies, to release their desires and blow off steam without harming other people. The entire premise is empathetic.
Of course, throughout history, any activity which has the possibly of harmlessly releasing what could be described as primordial man, the “reptilian” side, the repressed id, or whatnot, has faced violent opposition from culture, religion, criminal law and various romantic-familial-social apparatuses. Here, we can already expect that, fitting into the category of “recreational and individuational,” virtual reality technologies will face a cultural blowback. RapeLay is an extreme example of both violence and sexuality in videogames: the high-profile protest it received could be expected. (Pornography has even been to the Supreme Court a few times (1957, ’64, ’89). In a separate case, Justice Alito, commenting on RapeLay, wrote that it “appears that there is no antisocial theme too base for some in the videogame industry to exploit.”) This moral outrage, however, is not simply content-based, but medium-based, and flows directly from the extant condescension and distrust toward videogames and pornography.
The simple fact that disparate ideological camps agree on, and compatible groups disagree on, the effects and what to do about pornography and videogames could be seen as demonstrative of the issue’s complexity; in fact, this implies that the nature of opinion on this is fundamental and dogmatic. The opinion provides the starting point for selectively filtering research. There are two logical theories concerning these violent media: the desensitization argument, and the cathartic/channeling argument. Puritans and rebels enter the debate with their argumentative powers already assigned, and the evidence becomes less important.
Before evidence that might contradict either primitive position on pornography interferes, many people have already formed their condescension and distrust. The desensitization theory is particularly attractive due on the most publicly-understood thesis of cognitive-behavioral psychology: mental conditioning. Thus when violence or abusive language is used as a male advance in adult videos and games, and women are depicted as acquiescing rather than fighting back, boys must internalize this as reality. Of course, media itself has no interest in depicting legitimate representations of reality; it is inherently irreal, and it would be naïve to expect pornography directors to operate differently. This irreality I think is poorly understood, and thus the “replicator” argument as adopted by the IGN reporter becomes the most common sentiment for people that find pornography affronting to their morals and are also disinterested in research or empirical data. Glenn Beck, commenting on the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, said “there is no distinction between reality and a game anymore.”* He went on to say that promiscuity is at an all-time high, especially with high school students, when the number of sexual partners for young people is at a generational low. The seemingly a priori nature of a negative pornographic effect allows woefully out-of-touch rhetoric to dominate the conversation, appealing also to the emotional repulsion we may experience when considering violent porn. It encourages a simplifying effect to the debate as well. Again, were it simply true that nations with heavy pornography traffic face more frequent sexual violence (as a result of psychological conditioning, etc.), we would expect countries like Japan to be facing an epidemic – especially given the infamous content of Japanese porn (spread across online pornography, role-playing games and manga). Yet, among industrialized nations, Japan has a relatively low rape frequency. The rape ratio of a nation cannot be guessed simply from the size or content of its pornography industry.
Across the board, the verdict is simply still out, as most criminologists, sociologists and psychologists agree. There are innumerable religious and secular institutions committed to proving the evils of pornography, but contrasting them are studies that demonstrate that, alongside the arrival of internet porn, (1) sexual irresponsibility has declined, (2) teen sex has declined (with millennials having less sex than any other group), (3) divorce has declined, and – contrary to all the hysteria, contrary to all the hubbub – (4) violent crime and particularly rape has declined. Even with these statistics, and of course compelling arguments might be made against any and all research projects (one such counterargument is here), violent efforts are made to enforce legal restrictions – that is something that will probably persist indefinitely.
I first became interested in debating pornography with the explosion of “Porn Kills Love” merchandise that became popular half a decade ago. The evidence has never aligned itself with either side; if anything, to this day it points very positively toward a full acquittal. Yet, young and old alike champion the causticity of pornography toward “society,” the family, women, children, and love itself (even as marriage therapists unanimously recommend pornography for marriage problems). Religion has an intrinsic interest in prohibiting pleasurable Earthly activities, but the ostensible puritanism of these opposing opinions is not present in any religiously-identifiable way for a great number of the hooplaers. So an atheistic condemnation of pornography goes unexplained. One might suppose that, lacking the ability to get pleasure (out of disbelief) from a figure-headed faith (which sparks some of the indignation behind New Atheism), people move to destroy others’ opportunities for pleasure out of egalitarianism, and this amounts to similar levels of spiritual zeal. Traces of sexist paternalism are to be found as well, e.g. “it’s immoral to watch a woman sell her body for money,” and through these slogans Willis’ accusation of moral authoritarianism becomes evident. Thus the attitudes which have always striven to tighten the lid on freedom and individual spirituality – puritanism, paternalism, misogyny, envy, etc. – align magnificently with opposing pornography, soft-core or otherwise.
*I try to avoid discussion of GamerGate or anti-GG, but it is almost impossible when discussing videogames and lunatics. Recently, commenting on Deus Ex‘ options for gameplay, which allow the player to make decisions for themselves, Jonathan McIntosh described all games as expressing political statements, and that the option should not even be given to the player to make moral decisions about murder, etc. It’s immoral that there is a choice to kill, was his conclusion. He’s right about all games expressing political statements. But he’s a fucking idiot for his latter statement.
[In my next post I’ll conclude with an investigation into the importance of virtual reality technology and the effect it will have on society.]
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 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. 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 that pornographic media once enjoyed was severely deflated 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. With the equalizing force gaining momentum in porn, it’s curious what the vehement, persistent condemnation springs from, when 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 led 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 depictional 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 extensively for bias, and is not taken seriously as a body of research any longer. One criticism by writer Pat Califia, concluding a traditionalist narrative embedded in the research, 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.”
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 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.]