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.
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.]
This is a micro alert. Be careful, reading this might make you uncomfortable.
It’s a November afternoon, a rather nice November but November all the same. There is a wedding on the little lawn on the cliff right above Steamer Lane. (Note for my overseas friends in Germany, Turkey, and Illinois: Steamer Lane is a famous cold water surf championship spot in Santa Cruz, California. The whole area, on the Monterey Bay, is exceptionally beautiful.)
The bride is late; surprise! The groom’s buddies are milling around in their comfortable enough tuxedos.* The bridesmaids are sitting and flocking together in their bareback, bare-arms, low-cut long dresses. A cool sea breeze is blowing, of course. Anyone could have predicted it. The ladies are obviously cold, as they should be. Anyone would be. Exemplary social scientist that I am, I make it a point to pass close enough to verify that goose pimples prevail. This goes on for at least an hour. It’s true nippling weather. Maybe that’s the point and I am just missing it.
I don’t know why no one in charge of the women of the bridal party planned for this weather. I don’t know why the bridesmaids’ uniform could not have included a tasteful shawl. Frankly, I don’t know if any of them would have used a shawl in preference to shivering though. (One young woman in my entourage says, “No way!”) At any rate, it’s difficult to take seriously the claim that women are tired of being considered sex objects. Those women, and the women of every American bridal party I have ever seen are bravely and determinedly on display. It’s not an intellectual display; it’s not a talent show; it’s not an IQ contest. I would swear they are disturbed, possibly enraged at the thought of not being considered sex objects on this occasion, after so much effort. The chasm between public discourse and reality has rarely been so wide since the Victorian Age. In the long run, political correctness is sure to induce some sort of collective schizophrenia, it seems to me.
Just to be painfully clear: I am not criticizing the bridesmaids’ behavior – bless their hearts! I hear that young men are ever more reluctant to commit. And you don’t catch flies with vinegar. And there must be a reason why Mother Nature placed women’s breasts on their chests rather than on their backs. (It’s so they can watch men watching them and take it from there.) I am not deriding the women in the bridal party at all. Female exhibitionism has been an attractive part of my worldview ever since I can remember (maybe since three or four years of age). I am just not becoming used to the grossly hypocritical denial that forms today the social context of such displays. It even bothers me worse than ever.
Someone has to shout, “Bullshit!” I wish older women would do it. In their regretted absence, here I am! You can count on me.
* “How gauche,” my snobbish Parisian side is thinking. Tuxedos are evening attire; they should never see the sun.
Brandon’s comment about just finishing The Fountainhead reminded me of the summer of 1963, a pivotal time in my life. I can’t imagine why anyone but me would care about such personal stuff, but here goes.
I had the good fortune to attend a fine private engineering school, Case Institute of Technology (now part of Case Western Reserve University). Tuition was modest by today’s standards, even if adjusted for inflation – something like $1,400 per year, but still substantial. There were no student loans and my parents were just a little too well off for scholarships. They and my grandparents provided more than half my tuition and I used my own savings and job earnings to cover the rest. I didn’t work during the school year because the engineering curriculum demanded all my time and energy.
Toward the end of my sophomore year as a civil engineering major, I began to look for a summer job. An opening advertised in the administration building seemed like it would offer good experience and good pay for the time: $295 per month. I applied and got the job, little knowing that three huge life lessons were coming my way. The value of those lessons, in the long run, overwhelmed the monetary reward.
The first benefit was to learn meticulous work. I was an assistant in the Bridge Department of the City of Cleveland. No technology of any kind, beyond dial telephones and possibly an electric typewriter (more likely manual) had penetrated the department. The engineers drew their plans in pencil on large sheets of paper mounted on drafting tables. It was my job to make archival copies of final plans.
Think about how we make copies these days. It’s pretty much a quick “save as” operation, or, in a throwback to past times, people still make photocopies. Although Xerox copiers were available by 1963 (Case had at least one), they were nowhere to be seen at City Hall. Typists made copies using carbon paper (look it up). I made copies of drawings by mounting the original on my board, placing a special sheet of linen over it, and tracing the drawing using india ink. Every line had to be duplicated at the proper width and every character of text carefully drawn by hand. Erasers? No such thing. A tiny slip could be scraped off with a knife but otherwise the only resort was to start over.
Astoundingly, a technological advance that had become universal more than seventy years previously – alternating current – was absent from City Hall. The whole building ran on direct current, a legacy of the Municipal Power authority that was launched early in the century to undercut the monopoly Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. Fluorescent lights were out of the question as, I presume, were were any motor-driven devices like electric typewriters.
My second benefit was to learn some realities of bureaucratic life. There were six engineers on staff of whom three actually worked. Mr. Sevcik, who sat in front of me, had the same drawing on his table for the whole three months I was there. He appeared to put himself into a state of suspended animation. Somehow he could sit there motionless all day without falling off his stool. His wall calendar was blank except for every other Friday where he wrote “haircut.” Another fellow was constantly out of the office. Nobody seemed to know where he went or why.
One of the actual workers took me under his wing. He trained me in my job but also explained the facts of bureaucracy. All that could be done about the slackers was to keep them out of the way. They couldn’t be fired.
The third and most important benefit – actually two benefits – I got from Sam. Sam was a girl; I never did learn her real name. I say “girl” advisedly because in those days adult women in the workforce were typically, and without malice, called girls. She was a technician of some sort, not an engineer, and she was a worker. Her nickname may have reflected the fact that she was something of an intruder in this man’s world.
Slacks for women were gaining more acceptance by then but generally not in the workplace. I remember her wearing only skirts, and shorter skirts were coming into fashion then. So when Sam sat on her stool at her board, her skirt invariably rode up. I mean, all the way up to there! Sometimes I would get to sit next to her to consult on some work issue. Needless to say I found it difficult to concentrate.
I made no attempt to hit on Sam. She was probably five years older than me and was clearly savvy about many things beyond her years. I was a nerd and unsavvy to say the least. It just wasn’t in the cards.
Sam was perfectly well aware of her effect on me and she charitably deflected my energy by taking it upon herself to educate me a bit in the ways of the world. After work we would usually walk together to the Terminal Tower to catch our trains. She would tell me about her boy friends – what attracted her to them and how she liked to be treated. She said nothing about her sex life and I didn’t ask. Open and frank talk about sex was still in the future.
One day Sam mentioned a novel she had just finished – The Fountainhead. “I think you’d like it,” she said. I don’t think I read it before leaving my summer job, but I soon did and I found it transformative. The character of Howard Roark was electrifying but it was many years before I understood Dominique. At that time I was trying to figure out who I was and what I stood for, and Rand got me started on my libertarian path. Later in the sixties I had read all her work and took tape-transcribed courses on objectivism from the Nathanial Branden Institute. Fortunately I never became groupie and in hindsight I see many shortcomings, as well as strengths, in Rand’s objectivism.
Not knowing Sam’s real name, I have no way to trace her. If she’s around, she’s well into her seventies. I hope her life has been good. She deserved it.
I have sorted thing out finally and I am old enough to have rid myself of nearly all social pressures on my preferences. I figure there are only four things I really like, four keys to my happiness. Here they are:
I like writing and I like re-writing. That’s any time of day or night that I am awake. I enjoy writing just about everything, including stories, essays, scholarly papers, but also advertising slogans, and even technical “how-to” notices. I write on my PC but also long-hand, even on the back of envelopes. Sometimes, people even read what I write. My friends think I have a self-esteem problem because I am pleased with just about everything I write. I have no clear idea of what they mean. I am mostly happy because I write nearly every day.
I like foods that taste like themselves, beef that tastes only like beef and fish that tastes like fish. There are a few exceptions though. It’s OK for tripe to carry other flavors. That would be cow stomach, served as menudo, in Spanish, for example. In season, I eat fresh cauliflower raw with a little vinegar. I can do that five meals in a row without tiring. As a rule, I will eat anything any other human being anywhere eats as long as it’s distinctive. I make only two exceptions: Ordinarily, I would not consume people, or even dogs whose name I know.
Nouvelle Cuisine is not for me. It’s just putting together foods that don’t belong on the same plate and sprinkling them with raspberry vinegar. California Cuisine just means eating fresh vegetables. My grandmother advised much the same and she was not from California. Almost any wine will do to accompany my food. I have no refinement in that respect (or in any other) and I don’t pretend to.
I am married to an intelligent, resourceful woman who would rather please me than not, at least much of the time. I am a decent cook myself. My tastes are not luxurious. Usually, my food is satisfying. So, I am happy most of the time.
A silvery, bounding fish hooked while trolling under sail on a sunny day at sea, I like desperately. Why “desperately”? Because it’s only happened four times. Each instance occupies an unseemly amount of space in my pleasure memory.
Making love ziplessly to a needy woman who is almost a stranger, I really, really like. It happened more than four times but it was a long time ago so, I am not even completely sure I was involved anymore.
© Jacques Delacroix 2008, 2009
The arrest of international banker Dominique Strauss Kahn on several charges amounting to sexual assault has occasioned more discussion of sex on the airwaves than I have heard for many years. Some of the statements I hear are absurd or annoying. Others are downright dishonest. I am trying to sort out the most salient points.
Warning: If you are prudish, don’t read what follows. If you are under fifteen, read at the risk of undermining your healthy sexual development.
First things first: A couple of days ago, the Spanish minister of economy and finance, I think, was one of many female commentators committing a deeply immoral amalgam. One the one hand, she said, there is the presumption of innocence, on the other hand, the charges are so serious, so awful. It’s common thinking in academia among bureaucrats in charge of hunting down sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and in the end, sex differences.
Here is a reminder, girls: The seriousness of an alleged crime, whatever great, has no influence on innocence. Those are separate things completely. Get this: Continue reading
A reader, MM, sent a comment criticizing an off-hand, snide remark I had made in my micro-essay, “Sex Advice.” I welcome the opportunity MM gives me to take him into the alley and beat him to a pulp. His full comment:
Though usually considered much of a stick-in-the-mud regarding language, and especially neologisms, I must offer a cordial disagreement regarding the word “gender” when used instead of “sex.”
Ordinarily I despise changing the language (you should see, for example, my battles with the ignorami who say “healthy” when they mean “healthful”), but when a change improves and clarifies, then I can not only accept but embrace it.
You are right that “gender” was originally intended for language references — more important in French and other furrin tongues — but since “sex” has become such an important, or at least such an ever-present, part of everyday life, having a separate word, such as “gender,” keeps the meaning clear.
I mean, I have compromised my formerly inviolate principles so that now I even use the word “gay” rather than “homosexual,” after swearing I would never degrade the language in that fashion.
But, after all, “gay” is the polite term, the one preferred by the people to whom it applies.
So, if I can change, linguistically, so can you.
MM’s justification for the widespread substitution of “gender” for “sex”makes sense. I agree that it clarifies. However, it ignores the fact that such a change rarely occurs as a result of a technical-rational process. Such changes, this one in particular, are loaded with sociological and, with political importance. To ignore them is to assent. Winning the substitution of one word for another is like winning an election forever, an election in which the winning party never even ran and the opposition never campaigned. What I am going to say about “gender” applies even better to “gay.” Continue reading