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.