Barry’s Blog # 91: Porn, Part Two

What, after all is the point of all this? Presumably the goal of pornography is the release of tension through masturbation. Yet religions, philosophers (Kant, Voltaire and Rousseau) and, until quite recently, scientists have condemned the practice. Doctors in the late 19th century used both female genital circumcision and castration to cure or prevent “diseases” such as lesbianism that were allegedly caused by masturbation.  As recently as 1959 a urology textbook advised mechanical restraints to prevent it.

But tribal societies, as far as I can tell, rarely punish masturbation. They do set limits on social behavior, but through their rich, polytheistic mythologies, they encourage the development of the inner world, or the imaginative capacity. By contrast, patriarchs from the Catholic Church to the Soviet state have attempted to restrict all imaginative expression – with the exception of the paranoid imagination, something they can control and manipulate. Recall John Ashcroft ordering a veil placed over the nude statue of Justice after 9/11/2001 and Colin Powell veiling Picasso’s great anti-war painting Guernica that hung at the United Nations before he argued for invading Iraq in 2003.

By the way, 2003 was the year the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to bar consensual sex between adults. Eleven years later, however, twelve of the fourteen states that had anti-sodomy laws at that time still refused to repeal them.  But let’s get back to porn.

In 2017 a lawyer who was defending a man accused of raping a 13-year-old girl accused her of acting as a temptresses: “You should see the pictures of her and the hair and the makeup.” We should recognize this kind of talk as classic, American blaming of the victim, and it was spoken by a female lawyer.

The clues to the real issues are in the Puritan’s own fantasies. In 1889, one firebrand ranted against babysitters who allegedly allowed children to masturbate: “…the crime could hardly have been worse had the nurse…cut the throats of those innocent children…” But let’s get back to porn.

Why are we so obsessed not simply with defining and controlling smut (related to schmutz), but with describing it – in detail?

Puritans, says the old joke, have the nagging suspicion that someone, somewhere, may be enjoying himself. What are they so afraid of? Hillman answers: “The free-flow of fantasy images. We don’t know where the fantasy might go.” “After all,” writes John Jervis, “sex represents the opposite of mastery of the body: an irrational subordination to the body…”

But the more we control images, the more we are obsessed with them – and the more they demand recognition (“to think about again”). In 1991 the Indiana Supreme Court agreed that the city of Indianapolis could close a private club that advertised nude dancing. Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion:

The purpose of Indiana’s nudity law would be violated…if sixty thousand fully consenting adults crowded into the Hoosier Dome to display their genitals to one another, even if there were not an offended innocent in the crowd.

Indeed. Would Puritans be so disturbed by naked dancing if the act didn’t already exist in their imagination? This is critical: nobody prodded Scalia to visualize that image of sixty thousand people displaying their genitals. His imagination produced it.

Similarly, Texas senator John Cornyn argues, “It does not affect your daily life…if your neighbor marries a box turtle. But that does not mean it is right…” Cornyn’s imagination conjured pictures of inter-species marriage. We could go on and on…Pat Robertson wonders if a man who “…likes to have sex with ducks…” should be protected by hate crime legislation. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum (do not, under any circumstances, google the word santorum) muses:

If the Supreme Court says that you have a right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy…to polygamy… to incest…to adultery. You have the right to anything…That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog…

Indeed. Do they care so deeply about these images because they can’t stop thinking about them, or are they unable to get them out of their heads because they care so deeply about them?

But they can’t allow them into awareness with a clean conscience unless they have demonized them and displaced them onto someone else. Only then do they feel entitled to invent images like “sixty thousand fully consenting adults” and invite the Grand Inquisitor back. This is precisely how the Paranoid Imagination works.

What about the feminist perspective? Women are justifiably concerned about objectification, desensitization and the fear that porn consumption leads to rape. But Psychologist Michael Bader argues that countries with more porn and Internet usage than ours have much lower rates of sexual violence. His male patients feel lonely and powerless, but they can differentiate between fantasy and reality. They view porn because it provides imaginary scenarios that safely gratify their wishes.

Researchers have never correlated consumption of porn with violence. Indeed, evidence suggests that its cathartic effects reduce the likelihood of acting out.

Here is the archetypal question: what if rape results from a deprivation of images? While Susan Griffin argues that porn exists to suppress real Eros, to Hillman it exists precisely because of that suppression, especially among conservatives. One study found that states that consume the most online porn tend to be more conservative and religious than states with lower levels of consumption.

Let’s go a little “deeper.” Hillman’s real concern was with the overwhelming presence of soft-core porn. Denied meaningful access to Aphrodite, we turn to her toxic mimic. She returns in the appeal of consumerism, in material goods, although she is ultimately unattainable through them. But the appeal is so strong – and our longing so infinite – that we become life-long addicts who could consume the earth chasing her.

The fundamental cause of this mess is our modern inability to think mythologically. We all are heirs to a three-thousand-year legacy of literalism. Ideology, whether religious or political, always tends toward this kind of thinking and always suspects the free flow of imagination. Of course there are exceptions, but typically fundamentalists of both the right (Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim) or left (feminist or communist) see no difference between fantasy and action, and all condemn the erotic and the aesthetic. Recall how Jimmy Carter confessed his belief that having “adultery in my heart” is the same as enacting it.

But the more we recognize the reality of the psyche, the less need we have for acting out; and the less need we have to project Aphrodite or Dionysus (or the war-god Ares, for that matter) onto others and thus to demonize them.

Hillman concluded that our fundamental liberty should be the right to fantasize (ideally, through producing one’s own images in art, but if not, by viewing those produced by others). And that right can potentially ignite an insurrection of the imagination “…for fomenting curiosity to pry into what is concealed.” That curiosity could in time disentangle our obscene violence from bodily images, because violence is the enemy, not sexuality.

This means that our discussion of porn and the imagination has political implications. What if porn, rather than religion, were the opiate of the masses? What if a “well-imagined” population were willing and capable of prying into things other than porn sites, such as secrets their leaders are concealing? And – here we go – where does Donald Trump, alternately obsessed with bragging about his infidelities and covering them up fit into this story?

I write this in late March 2018, as the porn star Stormy Daniels appears on the Sixty Minutes TV show and more women come forward with tales of Trump’s affairs and his efforts to hush them up. On one level, who cares about this tacky gossip, worthy only of the National Enquirer?

Well, we perhaps we should all care. Consider Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model who had a nine-month-long affair with Trump. But despite the fact that her story has already appeared in the New Yorker, she is legally forbidden from speaking about it publically because she signed a $150,000 contract, called a “life-story rights agreement.” This granted the Enquirer’s parent company American Media exclusive ownership of her account. AM’s CEO David Pecker (I’m not making this up), a friend of Trump’s, then directed the Enquirer to never publish her account.

So when we are talking about porn and a culture alternately obsessed with viewing or concealing images, we are also in the realm of “non-disclosure agreements.” Heather Digby Parton writes:

What’s unfolding isn’t just a story about a rich man’s extracurricular liaisons or his alleged episodes of illegal sexual misconduct. (This) isn’t really of much interest except to the extent that it exposes the flagrant hypocrisy of his supporters, who rent their garments over the personal immorality of presidents of the past and now profess to be uninterested in such private matters.

But beyond the cultural and social aspects of this scandal and what it says about the privileges of rich, white men and the exploitation of women, there is another serious issue of national civic importance. This is a story about a rich (and now extremely powerful) man who is so worried about being exposed or blackmailed that he has everyone who works for him sign nondisclosure agreements. Now it appears that he set up an elaborate system for paying hush money to keep people quiet. If Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels are telling the truth this system may include coercion, conspiracy and threats of violence.

Conclusion

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined porn in 1964: “I know it when I see it…” But its etymological essence is

…depicting prostitutes, from porne (prostitute), originally “bought, purchased” (with an original notion, probably of “female slave sold for prostitution”), related to pernanai (to sell).

What is being sold? The obscene? The forbidden? Who forbids it? Is it, as Hillman said, “lustful images, or imaginal lust” that already exists in our own fantasies? Who is selling these images to us? Why do Americans seem to agree that images of extreme violence are not obscene?

Cui Bono…follow the money. Only in America does the government pay wealthy farmers not to grow crops that might feed the poor. In a culture, as the poet W. S. Merwyn wrote, “…up to its knee in shame,” what does it mean for rich men to pay women not to disclose images of people making love?

So where do we go from here? Back to mythology, of course. Psyche, the loveliest maiden in the world, disobeys Aphrodite’s instructions and opens a box of cosmic secrets. Eventually, after many difficult trials, she marries the goddess’s favorite son Eros, the beautiful, winged youth.

Religion, whether institutional or monastic, commonly raises those who deny the insistent call of the body, who choose abstraction over embodiment, to the highest levels of admiration.

But this story tells us that the soul, Psyche (the word in ancient Greek also means “butterfly”), cannot mature without union with the erotic imagination. 

And the product of this union is their daughter Voluptos (voluptuousness). Here, taught Hillman, is our answer to Puritanism’s hatred of images: The end-result of soul-making is not asceticism but pleasure!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Barry’s Blog # 91: Porn, Part Two

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s