The pointless policing of pornography

Over the past few days my social media timeline has been quite literally stomach-churning. The UK has quietly passed a bill which has banned certain types of pornography from being produced and sold in the UK which has subsequently produced a mini-outcry and reams of discussion in terms of the merits of what has now been banned. In short anything deemed to be violent or involving female bodily fluids can no longer be produced or purchased within the UK. You might still be able to beat Victoria Wood on the bottom with a Woman’s weekly, but you need to ensure that it’s done in a gentle and respectable fashion and not too hard.

woman's weekly
Careful now!!

One might think that a prude such as me, who obviously hates sex or the idea of anybody enjoying it, would be hanging out the bunting with jubilant delight, but actually the legislation itself seems to make very little sense in terms of what it has banned and what is now allowed.

The new laws will probably have a minimal effect on the average consumer of pornography, unless one is a particular connoisseur of the British genre. I have no idea whether or not British porn varies in tone or content to that of other countries and frankly no wish to. As far as I am concerned it is all pretty base and disgusting regardless of where it’s produced. But for Joe (or Joanna lest I commit the cardinal modern day sin of sexism) Public, wanting to watch all sorts of unmentionable things, whether free or via pay-per-view, very little has changed. It’s all right, just so long as it hasn’t been made in good old Blighty. No imaginative sex please, we’re British.

Naturally enough people are jumping up and down and protesting about censorship and how the impoverished British BDSM industry is going to manage to eke itself a meagre living now that it has effectively been banned. My heart bleeds.

For some it boils down to a question of whether or not we ought to legislate for what two consenting adults chose to do to each other sexually. Most people would probably be against any sort of criminal penalties for deviant sexual behaviour, so long as it didn’t involve animals, children or genuinely non-consenting adults (some of the banned material contains simulated scenes of non-consent) therefore it seems strange that the government sees fit to legislate and thus send signals in terms of what they deem is okay to get your rocks off on.

Nothing better demonstrates that no matter how hard she tries to be the cool swinging Austen Powers kid of the sixties, the UK still can’t shake off her Puritan heritage when it comes to matters sexual, which she still has to control.

There are distinct parallels between this type of ‘politically-correct’ pornography and the sex education which is being pushed in schools. Basically, the government is prescribing and attempting to impose their version of what your sex life should look like and define the parameters. Lots of partners, lots of contraception, every possible orifice should be utilised and all must be clinical, sterilised with absolutely nothing messy or uncomfortable that could give rise to the ‘ew’ factor.

What the government seems to be willfully missing is that all sex is messy, a bit eugh and carries a certain amount of risks. That’s half the fun. Their attempt to eliminate various bodily fluids from the process misses the point. The futuristic society portrayed in the film Demolition Man where sex was conducted only by virtual reality headsets “you want to swap bodily fluids – gross, we stopped doing that years ago” doesn’t actually seem all that fantastical these days.

Obviously,  and I suspect in accordance with most of my Catholic readers,  have certain ideas or opinions of what constitutes a healthy and holy sex life, and I’ll concede that BDSM would not be a feature.  Neither would the use of  orifices not designed for the purpose. Enthusiasts may well attempt to argue the point that it can be ‘loving and selfless’, but to me it’s hard to see how deliberately hurting someone else does anything else than instrumentalise another for pleasure, regardless of whether you like to give or receive, so to speak. No doubt a case could be made about ‘gift of self’ but to be blunt, sex should not preclude the procreative act, therefore getting your jollies from tying your genitals to the dimmer switch and being slapped about with a frozen trout, isn’t going to fit comfortably within the confines of Catholic theology and praxis.

One might argue that Catholics are no different to the government in terms of attempting to proscribe the parameters of a sex life, but we are not seeking to dictate or impose what  every single person does, or ought to do, in their bedrooms via legislation.

This new porn legislation is fundamentally dishonest and symbolic of society’s general malaise and decline in terms of the debasing of human sexuality. What shocked me about the debate I saw on my timeline on various forms of social media,  was how widespread knowledge of what would once have been deemed unacceptable and obscene boutique sexual terms, has become.

Twenty or thirty years ago these words would have been niche; the conversation about what constituted acceptable pornography, taboo, and rightly so. One of the downsides of the internet is that it has consolidated sex as a purely selfish recreational activity – a development which harms both men and women, not only spiritually but physically, affecting their ability to form long-lasting and genuinely intimate relationships.

If my daughter had been able to see my Twitter feed she would have been subject to ideas and material which could have irreparably damaged her and would have done so, regardless of whether she was 10, (as she is now) or 20. I don’t want to name some of the practices that I saw discussed, but I fail to see how knowledge of any of them has made us a better, more enlightened and tolerant society or how they have in any way contributed to human flourishing. All it has done is made our sexual appetites dangerously broad (and yes I’m not afraid to state that certain acts are physically dangerous) and rendered us as slaves. These days if you aren’t enthused or made curious by the prospect of doing it every which way with at least 50 lesbian llamas eagerly watched on by a crowd of onlookers in a car-park in Purley, there must be something wrong with you and you’re missing out.

If we are not trying new and diverse ways of having sex, or find certain things perfectly distasteful, according to the new ‘progressives’ we are ourselves dysfunctional and intolerant.  Sexual libertinism is not a positive development; people may well have wanted to do all kinds of depraved things hundreds of years ago, some of them undoubtedly did, but the difference is that they were kept underground and not encouraged for a reason – namely it was accepted that they would have a deleterious affect on society.

Legislation regarding what sort of porn ought to be allowed and acceptable to produce and  watch in this country is therefore pointless tinkering, especially when the rules seem to be quite so arbitrary. One example is that graphic close-ups of a male achieving orgasm wherever he choses are permitted, however the female equivalent is now strictly banned in a move which has intensified the victim rhetoric employed by mainstream media feminists.

The problem is that the government is attempting to differentiate between what constitutes good and bad pornography in the absence of all evidence and in a profoundly unscientific fashion. For this exercise to be undertaken, a degree of honesty is required. The conversation ought not to be based on subjective notions of harm, but whether or not porn is proving to be a positive or morally neutral influence in society. There is a growing body of both scientific and anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that it is not, and yet there seems to be an unspoken consensus that certain types of porn are harmless; an opinion that has made its way into the curriculum for those wishing to teach sex education to children. (Don’t believe me, just check out Bish training, which is widely vaunted as an industry standard and who will charge a school £1,000 a pop for some leaflets to facilitate discussion of what constitutes good and bad porn in the classroom).

There is no evidence to demonstrate that pornography, whether online, on TV or in printed format has had any positive effects, either on the economy or society as a whole and yet this is taken as a given.

Any government claiming to be serious about tackling the insidious damage done by pornography ought to consider a much wider consultation and examination of the issues,   along with measures which would ban UK USPs from supplying material considered pornographic, no matter which country it originated from. Turning off the porn tap could prove the most positive step that the country could take in terms of protecting its citizens. Nothing would send a stronger signal when it comes to reversing the often sexist and misogynist culture which seeks to reduce humanity into objects of desire for the selfish pleasure of others.

The concept of ‘safe’ porn is an utter misnoma. Not only does it violate the dignity of everyone involved in its production and consumption, which ought to be unacceptable to any forward-thinking society, especially one which is seeking to stamp out sexual exploitation, but it contains the same potential for addiction as substances such as tobacco and alcohol, but in common with other mental health issues, the damage is overlooked and hidden because it is psychological in nature and thus not easily quantifiable.

Either we accept that the internet means that the government can no longer control the viewing habits of the public as once it did and ban all watersheds, or a wider discussion needs to be had about whether or not the proliferation of online porn is in the interests of the common good. Do we as a society wish to mandate the watching or pornography and the exploitation within that industry or not? Why are we so afraid of taking definitive moral positions in terms of deciding policy that has the potential to affects the welfare of future generations. Why for example is it acceptable to all but force people to accept and welcome developments such as same-sex marriage as an unfettered good, but not to take a decision that pornography is damaging and harmful.

This is not the issue of free speech that some might claim – we already have laws about the type of material and behaviour that can be exhibited in public and pornography is fundamentally not about artistic expression or communication of intellectual ideas. Pornography is neither tasteful or discerning – it may pander to different and often increasingly hardcore palates, but always with the same aim in mind.

Back in the ‘70s a woman who found pornography in her husband’s bedroom would certainly not have been advised to relax and perhaps join in her husband’s habit. It was seen as the betrayal of intimacy that it is, women did not face the same widespread pressure to be accepting of or or even join in a mainstream culture of porn.

The banning of pornography would cause a massive outcry and inevitably incite  false comparisons with North Korea. It’s scary: never mind the invasion of the state into our personal details and confidential information, forget secretive trials and closed family court proceedings, access to unfettered graphic pornography is the defining mark of a free society.

People don’t like having their fun turned off.  It would mean that they’d have to return to the bad old days of having to furtively sneak off to the corner shop and face someone else actually knowing about their seedy little habit, rather than celebrating it and passing it on to to others. Women wouldn’t have to be forced to pretend to be open, liberal and accepting about men’s pornography habits and vice-versa. Heaven forbid we might have to go back to a more authentic and less superficial acceptance of others physical appearances and sexuality. What if sex became about a mutual overflowing of love and affection rather than a series of prescribed functional performances to suit a taste that has been shaped and moulded by a commercial industry.

But perhaps without a constant on-stream supply of (frankly unappealing) sexual images, people might find some other, better, more constructive ways of channelling their sexual energy and appetites. Heck they might even turn off the computer and go and do something far more fulfilling than an empty and shallow act of auto-eroticism. Why does that scare everyone so much?

Escaping the ‘choice feminist’ honey trap

One of the concepts that I have often struggled with when expounding on the subject of pornography is whether or not the female stars are themselves victims. Recently there has been a lot of discourse regarding the topic of sex workers in mainstream media, Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 recently had an illuminating discussion, in which one sex worker passionately, articulately and  convincingly argued that she was no victim.

The problem is that mainstream soft-porn such as the ubiquitous 50 shades of grey, and Belle de Jour’s Diary of a Call Girl, has brought the taboo into the mainstream, giving practices which are often seedy, grim, painful and unpleasant, an alluring and glamourous appeal. It is not sufficient to be well-educated or cultured, or professionally successful, ideally we should all be sexual gourmands willing and able to indulge in and expand the flavours of our sexual palate, if we are to be considered true sophisticates.

Catholic culture and theology will naturally eschew and reject such worldly thinking, nonetheless this narrative of women involved in pornography as victims, is a difficult one to unpick when discussing on a secular level. One doesn’t need the reams of emerging data on the dangers of pornography and of porn addiction to believe that pornography is essentially the misuse of another human person, whether that’s the person involved in the making of it, or the person viewing it. Pornography is not only damaging to the individuals associated with it or who choose to use it, but to society as a whole.

Which is why this piece, written by a mainstream feminist is an essential read, as it rejects the entire frame of sexual empowerment, expressing sympathy with someone who is the target of abuse as a result of their sexual activities does not mean that one has  to embrace their choices as valid. It rejects the frame of pornography as being an issue of individual choice and validates critique of pornography as being about the manufacture and commodification of sexual desire.

By asking “how does porn – its material production, its normativity, its wide availability, and its ubiquity in pop culture – affect our desires and our capacity for intimacy?” feminists can offer a critique of porn without falling into the honey trap.

Summing up, the author asks

“The issue isn’t whether porn is liberating for her.  The issue is:  is porn liberating for us?”

Now that’s my kind of feminism and of course it will give fuel to those who would wish to despairingly equate feminism and/or Catholicism with Puritanism, whereas actually both Catholics and feminists would agree that sex is a good and pleasurable thing which should be enjoyed by women and men alike, but we would differ on the appropriate context. The default Catholic position is one of sex positivity, so long as the parameters of sex were described as being heterosexual and within marriage. It’s not that sex per se is harmful, dirty or bad, we accept the sheer power of the thing, which is why we wish to harness the power as a force for good, namely reinforcing intimacy between a married couple and procreation.

But what really struck me about this intelligent piece was that it, perhaps subconsciously rejected individualism and moral relativism and the popular feminist mantra that woman’s choices must automatically be celebrated by virtue of her gender. Female solidarity does not mean that we have to applaud, ostracise, shun or pity women who choose the lucrative career of working in one of Hugh Heffner or Peter Stringfellow’s establishments, but rather that we ask deeper questions about the nature of female flourishing and freedoms and use reason to explain, persuade and convince others of our point of view.

The technique is similar to Catholic humanist apologetics however, feminists will be at an advantage in that they may not have to face the ‘you are an irrational believer in the sky fairy’ schtick, but that they will invariably have to fend off some critique of their appearance, sexual appeal and perceived lack of desire (such as the shameful treatment of Clare Short) demonstrates that sexism is still alive and well. This isn’t the fruits of patriarchy however but the consequences of the sexual revolution which held that every women had not only to be constantly ‘up for it’ but must also conform her appearance to a sexualised male gaze.

For all its coherence nonetheless, I couldn’t help but be frustrated, particularly when I noted that it had been picked up and tweeted, naturally enough, by pro-choice feminist and writer Sarah Ditum. If feminists are able to see the illogical and harmful stance of choice feminism, recognising and accepting that certain individual choices can contribute to and propagate wider harms, why can they not apply this principle to abortion. If they are able to identify the key issue about pornography, what it actually constitutes and signifies, then why are they quite so blind to the nature of abortion? If Naomi Wolfe, a key pro-choice feminist can state that abortion rights activists ought to acknowledge a death involved, then why is mainstream feminism unable to engage with and unpick the harms done to mother and child by abortion. And why are those of us who have been hurt by abortion, or who attempt to highlight the damage caused to womankind as a whole, rejected by the mainstream movement?

Rotten fruit

04Rot

A younger friend of mine introduced me to a bizarre tautology in conversation about her romantic life, complaining that her male friend did not enjoy ‘PIV sex’.

I’m going to regret asking this, I thought to myself as I asked her the inevitable question, imagining all kinds of peculiar practices involving animals, vegetables and minerals. It transpired that PIV is merely an acronym, for normal heterosexual intercourse, namely taking the first letters of the male and female sex organs and their relation to each other in the act of lovemaking.

It struck me how distorted cultural notions of sexuality have become that straightforward common or garden sex between a man and a woman needs to be explicitly defined as though it is some kind of niche practice with its own specialist term. While it would be absurd to portray myself as some sort of wide-eyed innocent ingenue, I’m obviously aware of other acts of a sexual nature, to me the term ‘sex’ in the context of a relationship between a man and a woman referred to ‘PIV’ intercourse. If someone tells me that they are having sex with someone else, perhaps naively, a situation involving ‘PIV’ (urgh still sounds awful, horribly clinical in its stark description) would be what I would imagine, hence the tautology, the term PIV being superfluous.

It turns out the phrase is in common parlance which is concrete evidence of the damage that pornography has inflicted on the sexual psyche of the nation, when you have self-identifying heterosexual males expressing a distaste for sex in the natural order of things, something that is designed to be pleasurable in order to secure the continuation of the species. It brought to mind shades of Prufrock, will this be the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper as our minds get turned away from good old-fashioned traditional sexual intimacy, in favour of clinical, sterilised, empty self-pleasure that we can only administer to ourselves or on our own, unable to experience the sexual joy of the other and requiring specific external stimuli as essential to sexual fulfilment?

Quite understandably, my young friend wondered whether or not her male squeeze may have homosexual inclinations. In the course of advising her and guiding her (i.e. do a runner and find a man who values you for who you are rather than what niche  and frankly stomach-churning sexual services you can perform for him, sex should never feel like hard work or a performance) it turned out that the guy had a prediliction for pornography which he believed to be ‘harmless’ and that his entire peer group seemed to share his preferences. Good taste and charity prevents me from outlining what they were in explicit detail, but they certainly wouldn’t figure in the repertoire of most men and woman I know and I can hardly claim to have led a sheltered existence – years as long haul cabin crew, not indulging in, but  witnessing some sexually louche lifestyles, certainly opened my eyes! My advice was that this group behaviour of individuals, who were admittedly all perfectly well mannered,  charming, respectable, professionally successful and well-educated people, should not be considered the norm and that they were all reinforcing each other in their deviancy.

The spread of internet pornography has enabled people not only to seek out material pertaining to acts and practices that would previously be considered taboo and removed the resulting stigma or shame as people have realised that they are not alone in fancying next door’s pet cat, or wanting to dress up like a Roman centurion to use deliberately surreal examples and thus their behaviour or inclinations have been validated and online communities formed, defining themselves purely by their sexual interests. Not only does the internet reinforce unusual inclinations, but it also provides suggestions of new potentially exciting and exotic ways of seeking out sexual stimulation and like a narcotic, research demonstrates that online sex surfers eventually seek out stronger and stronger stimuli, as the old images dull and lose their power to excite. Yourbrainonporn is an excellent resource for further scientific research, articles and  information on this phenomenon.

The ethic of personal autonomy doesn’t cut it morally: when men and women are eschewing traditional sexual activity in favour of a manufactured sexual hit at the expense of the other and potentially the procreation of the species, this is clearly contrary to human flourishing. We should not be aiming for a scenario of sexual pleasure like the one depicted in the popular science fiction film Demolition Man and this increasing phenomenon is an inevitable consequence of what happens when you divorce sex from procreational purposes.

Married couples should be enjoying penetrative sex with each other on a regular basis, rather than treating it as a duty or obligation for the purposes of procreation. As those of us in healthy relationships will testify, when we go through periods of abstinence for one reason or another, it is a privation, one of spiritual and physical benefit, but a privation nonetheless! Anything which leads to a lessening of natural God-given sexual intimacy between man and woman should be decried as a tragedy. I wanted to bang the aforementioned gentleman’s head against a wall, as indeed I do with many people and say “look, when you avoid PIV with your long-term committed (i.e married) partner you really don’t know what you are missing”. Sex is a God-given gift and as your relationship deepens and strengthens with your spouse over the course of a shared lifetime, it really does get better and better!

To put the cherry on the cake, I chanced across this piece, currently trending on the internet, so much so that the author has had to close comments, in which she, a radical feminist, claims that regardless of consent “PIV” sex is always rape. Sadly it is not a parody and one can only surmise that the writer has experienced some trauma which has led to various neuroses – this is an unhealthy and harmful way of thinking about sex and from a female point of view, I strongly object to many of the offensive assertions made, not least the audaciously unscientific “Penetration of the penis into the vagina is completely unnecessary for conception.” 

Thought like this demonstrates the theory that the feminism which is rapidly being adopted as the new cultural religion of the  media is becoming the New Puritanism in spirit that seeks to banish sex as a repugnant act. Feminism should be about encouraging female flourishing, it is difficult to see how rallying women to see a mutually enjoyable sexual act that enhances relationships, strengthens intimacy and pair-bonding as an act of violence, is conducive to happiness.

While ever wary of CS Lewis’ famous admonishment about the equal and opposite errors in thinking about the devil, one cannot help to see diabolical fingerprints all over contemporary thinking and ideas such as these about sex. God has given us something that is infinitely good and wants us to enjoy his gifts with thanks for our pleasure, for human success and His Glory. Who else would want us to convince ourselves that this fruit is thoroughly spoiled, rotten and harmful and we should instead search elsewhere for a replacement?