Barry’s Blog # 90: Porn, Part One

Have I got your attention? Are there any other one-syllable words in American English that can provoke such strong – yet mixed – emotions? Some hear the word and anticipate private pleasure, immediate gratification or opportunities for male bonding, but may be unaware of shameful feelings that lie just below the surface, while others who express disgust, anger or condemnation may well be covering up a sense of titillation. It’s all so complicated…

Indeed, opinions about pornography do not break down into conventional right-left polarities. Religious conservatives hate it and everything it represents, but so do many feminists who lament the objectification of women. Andrea Dworkin helped frame laws in the 1980s defining porn as “a form of discrimination… sexually explicit subordination of women.” To Susan Griffin, porn is a “sadistic act” which humiliates all women.

Others, however, argue that censorship of any type always limits liberation struggles, or that anti-pornography activism preserves the virgin/whore dichotomy that denies women access to erotic pleasure. The mere existence of the gay and feminist porn industries counter the argument that porn by definition subordinates women. Wendy McElroy suggests a “value-neutral” definition: “explicit artistic depiction of men and/or women as sexual beings.” Janice Radway insists on women’s right to their own fantasies. In romantic novels: “… if he is ‘mad with desire,’ rape reflects her power over him.”

But we can all agree that porn is big business. Annual U.S. profits are $6-10 billion; worldwide revenues are $100 billion. There are 15,000-20,000 adult bookstores in the U.S. The industry employs 100,000 people and produces 13,000 movies/year. Seventy percent of young men visit porn web sites monthly. Some argue that porn is the economic engine that actually drives the Internet; in 2005 there were over 6,000 sites devoted solely to child porn. So we need to ask: Why is porn so appealing to so many of us?

James Hillman took a broad, archetypal approach and argued that porn is the return of the repressed. Denied access to our cultural consciousness, the goddess Aphrodite has cast a spell over Western culture, reappearing in images of the female body. But the only way she can reach us is through fantasy. Hilman suggested that we replace dictionary definitions that link “pornographic” with “obscene” with this one: “lustful images, or imaginal lust” that appear in the fantasies of those who lack any connection to Aphrodite or any of the pagan deities in their actual lives.

Myth tells us that Aphrodite had a son with Dionysus: Priapus, the grotesque, hard-core character with the enormous erection. For some reason, Hera cursed the pregnant Aphrodite, and the misshapen child resulted, along with our condemnation of porn.

Hillman saw repression of Aphrodite everywhere, not simply as the lack of sexual pleasure, but also as the loss of the “sensate quality of the world” – beauty – from ugly buildings and tasteless tomatoes to talk radio and the soul-less language of psychotherapy. Consumerism, for all its marketing of sex and free choice, actually limits our modes of encountering the world to the economic and the therapeutic. Because it has banished the aesthetic, we live “an-aesthetized” lives.

This brings us back to definitions. From the start, New England Puritanism attempted to regulate the internal fantasies of all members of the community. Three hundred years later, as recently as 1936, the U.S. government defined smut so broadly that the circulation of birth control information through the mail remained a federal offense.

But legislation cannot limit fantasy, and the market for sexual imagery persisted. Still, the censors tried. The Hollywood production code, adopted in the early 1930s, measured a film’s moral standing by its portrayal of crime and violence, but its chief criterion for a negative rating was sexual content. Images of men taking life were not obscene, while images of women giving birth were.

Cold Warriors claimed that porn would weaken America’s moral fiber. In 1995, Texas still banned heterosexual sodomy. Just before the invasion of Iraq, North Dakota’s state Senate explicitly voted not to repeal its anti-cohabitation law. The federal government has spent over $1.5 billion on abstinence-only education, despite its own studies that show that such programs have no effect on sexual behavior among youth. Why?

Our American obsession with denial and innocence makes the obscene wholly sexualized. Dislocated from its actual daily occasions (toxic dumps, rape, clear-cut forests, TV tortures, homelessness, mangled Iraqi children, etc.), obscenity is displaced onto the body, the source of all those desires, the thing that must, above all, be controlled. From the beginning American innocence has defined itself by its condemnation of The Other – the stranger, the outsider beyond the pale, the terror from the dark forests, or the black threat from within the inner cities. And the most basic characteristic that America has projected onto the Other has been its Dionysian refusal to restrain its own animal impulses. “The Devil,” said John Milton, “has the best music.”

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3 Responses to Barry’s Blog # 90: Porn, Part One

  1. Tony says:

    I went to Broyle Place, so good.

  2. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 143: What If We Allowed That To Happen? Part One of Two | madnessatthegates

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