Following is a transcript of my Columbus talk earlier this year on Sex & Sexism in Ancient Rome (video and bibliography and backstory here). Much thanks to Jacob Aliet who did most of the work putting this together.
Following is a transcript of my Columbus talk earlier this year on Sex & Sexism in Ancient Rome (video and bibliography and backstory here). Much thanks to Jacob Aliet who did most of the work putting this together.
My talk for PolyColumbus last month has now made it to YouTube! It is age restricted due to its sexual content. A transcript is underway. I will add a link for that to this post (and announce it in comments, so if you want, subscribe to comments below to be alerted when that happens). But you can read the bullets (not quite a transcript), and for those who want to study further, I have provided my bibliography. Note also that this event was co-sponsored by the Humanist Community of Central Ohio and PolyColumbus, and a talk on this subject might never have happened but for them.
The full title of the talk is “Sex and Sexism in Ancient Rome: Crossroads of Sexual Freedom & State Oppression,” and the official talk description is:
In two weeks I’ll be speaking in Columbus, Ohio. On what you ask? Sex and Sexism in Ancient Rome: Crossroads of Sexual Freedom & State Oppression. Co-hosted by PolyColumbus and the Humanist Community of Central Ohio. This will be Tuesday, July 14 (2015), at 7pm until 9pm EDT. Location: Kafe Kerouac (2250 N High, Columbus, Ohio 43202). It will be both naughty & entertaining and illuminating & disturbing (when you realize what life was really like back then for the would-be sexually liberated). With Q&A. But probably no visuals (so the talk can be posted to the internet without incident, copyright or otherwise).
Description… [Read more…]
A debate is flourishing on FtB over the morality of pornography and prostitution, and it illustrates some principles of political and moral philosophy that I think are important to disseminate more widely than just among the privileged West, and illustrates how easily the strange realities of the Western democratic world aren’t readily understood or even imagined by those who come from outside of it. It also touches on the philosophy of aesthetics, the metaphysics of human sexuality, and political epistemology. In other words, it spans anyone’s entire worldview, all five Aristotelian categories: semantics/epistemology, physics/metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and politics. Which those who have read my Sense and Goodness without God will recognize completes the description of any worldview (and I use them there to describe what I believe to be the most credible and coherent atheist worldview).
International freethought heroine Taslima Nasrin has recently joined us at Freethought Blogs, an important voice for the half of the world most of us never know, or know as much about, a hard-core frontliner in our movement who has faced serious oppression and danger (I suspect she’s the only one of us who has had actual mass death marches calling for her murder; plus numerous actual fatwas, which in the West we would call having a contract put out on you). Imagine being an exile from your own country because thousands of people there want to kill you–for no other crime than simply saying women should be treated nice. Her command of English is not perfect, but she writes passionately, and has interesting experience and perspective. (And though American readers might find her self-comparison with Salman Rushdie a bit boastful and self-aggrandizing, it’s hard to find fault with her facts in the matter; except in matters of opinion, perhaps, e.g. I’m unaware of the evidence that “women have complained that Rushdie doesn’t consider them anything more than sex objects” [my emphasis], especially since I don’t exactly trust gossip or tabloid reporting about his relationships, but he does seem to be a bit of an unreliable hound in that department.)
Taslima has blogged avidly since she started this month (at No Country for Women), and among her posts was Sex Slavery Must Be Abolished, in which she railed not just against actual sex slavery, but all forms of sex work (and then responded to critics of it in Do Women Really ‘Choose’ to Be Prostitutes). For example, she repeats the Old School Feminist adage that all “prostitution is sexual exploitation” (which must mean “engineering is intellectual exploitation” and “janitorial work is domestic exploitation” and…well, you can already see this kind of thinking just doesn’t make much sense) and that all hookers are “forced to enter prostitution” by the need to make money (which must mean my wife was forced into accounting by the need to make money, therefore she is a business slave, and therefore accounting is “not an acceptable job for women,” and we should outlaw accountancy). All this kind of logic is fallacious because it enshrines sex as somehow sacred and different from other human behaviors, which is a distinctively religious thing to do. Which makes it peculiar for an atheist to be caught back up in that superstitious thinking as if it’s somehow correct (and not just correct, but beyond dispute).
Greta Christina (another fellow feminist and Freethought Blogger, and avid advocate for sex workers and a sex positive worldview) took justifiable umbrage and wrote Prostitution Is Not Slavery, which hits every point I just did and more, and backing her up is Natalie Reed’s But Seriously, Prostitution Is Not Sex Slavery, and both of those posts together are awesome reads. You can also see a roundup and observation of this exchange by Chris Hallquist. Crommunist also weighed in with Swedish Sex Models!!! (the title, like mine, is a joke, even though his topic actually is Swedish sex models…as sex workers), in which he links to several other informative blog posts on the subject of legalizing sex work. And though not directly responding to that exchange, another fellow feminist Freethought Blogger, Stephanie Zvan, posted Talbot’s Awkward Commentary, which is relevant not least because it references that peculiarly Western event called the Sexual Revolution, which changed our society’s attitudes toward sex and sexuality, in such a fundamental and pervasive way that it seems Taslima Nasrin has not yet acclimatized to it, having been born and raised in a world that was never transformed by it.
Morality and Legality of Prostitution
I needn’t rehash the whole debate over why legalizing prostitution is the correct thing to do, or why there is nothing intrinsically immoral about it. In fact it is morally and politically imperative, in all the same ways we legalize the food service industry, which has all the same concerns of disease vectoring and labor exploitation and abuse (including the problem of actual human traficking and slavery). We have no trouble distinguishing illegal and immoral from legal and moral labor agreements and practices in the food service industry, so we would have no greater difficulty doing the same in the sex industry (and the U.S. porn industry, which I will get to shortly, illustrates that).
The notion that sex is somehow relevantly “different” from producing food, transporting food, making food, serving food, cleaning up food, is a religious concept. It has no objective validity absent religious myths and superstitions. I can abuse, mistreat, enslave, exploit a food service worker. That in no way means food service work is inherently degrading or in any way wrong or shameful, or even undesirable (I know many who love the work…as long as they find employers and customers and coworkers who treat them decently, which is the moral reality of all work and employment whatever). It obviously also makes no sense to declare food service work illegal for any of these reasons (men like to eat laboriously prepared food and be waited on hand and foot and not have to clean up after…and they will pay women to do this…and no one is outraged by that). Ditto, sex work.
Sex differs in some respects from food service work, certainly. But not as much as you think, and not in any way that really matters. It’s not inherently more dangerous, for example. There are serious, even lethal, accidents in the food service industry, too (not just workplace dangers, but criminal ones as well: many a food service worker has been beaten, raped or murdered by armed robbers). We didn’t solve that problem by banning the industry. We solved it by improving (and continuing to improve) all aspects of safety and legal protection. We could do the same in the sex industry–and in fact, we can only do that by legalizing it.
On the other hand, sex work is more intimate, more personal, and more violating than food work. But so are other industries. Sex involves being penetrated, but many professional athletes intimately and abusively touch each other, too; we pay surgeons to grab our balls, finger our anus, cut open our chests, and shove things up our every orifice; people pay professionals to pierce and tattoo them; cops and soldiers get paid to take a bullet now and again. Sex is very intimate and personal, but often so is professional writing and acting and dancing, interviewing people for oral histories or news reports, giving and receiving a massage, or speaking to a therapist. Indeed, that latter is arguably more intimate and personal than hired sex work. Think about it. Paying someone to listen at length to your most personal thoughts and darkest secrets, and being paid to listen to strangers’ most personal thoughts and darkest secrets. That’s exposing the real you, the deepest and truest form of nudity and vulnerability and penetration. Compared to that, sex is a mere dance.
The best philosophical treatise ever written on this subject is Martha Nussbaum’s “Whether from Reason or Prejudice: Taking Money for Bodily Services,” which you can find in her excellent collection Sex and Social Justice, pp. 276-98, or in its original form in the Journal of Legal Studies 27.2 (1998): 693-724. This is required reading on the subject. She thoroughly dispatches every objection, and addresses, directly, several major feminist authors on the subject. If you want to be informed on this topic, you should start there. And yet, as a practicing Jew (and thus a religious believer, not an atheist), Nussbaum personally regards prostitution as immoral and degrading. Which illustrates the importance of distinguishing between seeking to persuade someone to find other employment, and seeking to use the armed force of the state to compel them to. Drugs being the model example: excessive drinking or doing blow may be immoral or not good for you, but outlawing them creates an even more unjust society and exacerbates every evil rather than mitigating any. Thus the moral question is distinct from the political one.
Even so, I do not agree with Nussbaum that sexwork is degrading or immoral. For those who enjoy sex work, cleaning toilets is often far more degrading and exploitative. Yet everyone agrees that’s a legal and necessary occupation. And in my view, cleaning toilets for an income is only degrading if you aren’t being paid well for it or are otherwise badly treated by your employer, and it’s only immoral to employ someone to clean your toilet if you aren’t paying them well for it or are otherwise badly treating them. Prostitution is no different. Likewise working in porn. It’s easier to see why religion blinds even Nussbaum to the reality of this if we imagined an alien society in which all the religious taboos and myths associated with sex were attached instead to playing tennis. These aliens would say that being paid to play tennis with a stranger is dangerous and degrading, that it exploits the poor, that it’s shameful for anyone to play tennis for money, that tennis play should only ever occur between intimate loving couples. We would immediately recognize that that alien belief is ridiculous.
But making a blanket cultural declaration like that is not the same thing as heeding individual relationship dynamics. If playing tennis is something you and your wife have agreed to treat as a special thing you do only with each other, and you make that fact meaningful to you, then your playing tennis with another woman would be an insult to your wife. But that’s only because of your particular relationship. It’s not an objective cultural fact that this will be true for everyone. Polyamorous couples, for example, have no such agreement, nor desire one. Likewise the nonmarried who are honest and clear with their partners how short term their relationship may be and whom they may in future play tennis with. And so, too, anyone who decided to play tennis for money. Either because they like it, or prefer it to other work, or because they need an income, or all of the above. To declare them a shameful, exploited, tennis slut would just be bizarre. To try and use the government to force them not to do it would be even more bizarre. It would make no intelligible sense outside an irrational system of religious mythology.
For a good, thorough scientific demonstration of that fact, see Darrel Ray’s Sex & God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality. If you want to understand the true ethics of sex, you need to understand the metaphysics of sex (what sex and sexuality really is), and to understand that you need to understand the science of sex. Ray’s book covers it all.
In short, Taslima doesn’t yet realize that we see sex differently, and that women’s liberation has advanced so far in the West that they actually can choose any job they like (which is why, as I’ll point out, no one here is “forced” into the porn industry), and the few who fall through the cracks of our privilege and prosperity (e.g. women who turn tricks for money because they actually are forced into sex slavery or because it’s the only way they can sustain an illegal drug habit) do so precisely because we have driven the industry underground and criminalized it. Imagine if we criminalized food service, and the horrors and abuses that would then occur in the inevitable “black market” food industry. It’s not hard to, because we did it once: with alcohol (Prohibition); and we’re doing it again (with the War on Drugs). Look what happened. Contrast the alcohol industry under Prohibition, with that industry today. Compare, from one period to the other, the conditions and dangers of those laboring in it. As for that work, so for sex work.
Taslima then argued against pornography (Let’s Eroticize Equality), which is essentially a form of legalized prostitution. Again, her main point we all agree with (just as actual sex slavery is certainly an evil we ought to outlaw, eroticizing equality is also an awesome recommendation for improving the aesthetic experience of pornography). But the rest, not so much. She repeats Old School Feminist mantras such as that pornography is “an industry of woman-hating dehumanization,” when in fact a rising portion of the U.S. and Canadian porn industry is run by women, and reflects women’s interests and decisions more than ever before (and I agree this trend needs to continue), and women consumers are a significant part of the video porn market (about a quarter share in fact), while the relative proportion of what could properly be called “dehumanizing” porn is starting to shrink.
Which is why I wonder if perhaps Taslima does not know this because she is not as immersed in our culture as we are. She sees the porn industry through the lens of a selectively biased literature, and perhaps from experience with the market and industry as it exists (insofar as it exists) in countries like India or Iran, which have not developed progressive sexuality and women’s liberation as the West has done (the way men treat women on the streets of Egypt, for example, is simply unthinkable here–that’s how far we’ve come, and how far behind they are). Conversely, we see porn and prostitution from the perspective of a highly progressed and very privileged Western democratic society, where women’s power and influence is increasingly pervasive, as is women’s liberation (sexually and intellectually, and economically), and where sex is increasingly seen in the context of women having the free choice to do what they want. How a legally recognized prostitute or porn star is treated here, what the actual opportunities and options she has, is a product of Western wealth and justice, and nothing at all like how a prostitute or porn star would be treated in, say, India’s society and courts of law. The difference has nothing to do with sex or prostitution. It has everything to do with American culture being fifty years more morally advanced than India’s.
Lest someone take umbrage at that suggestion, the fact that Indians keep trying to kill Taslima while Americans don’t is proof enough of the difference. Imagine if Taslima also became a famous porn star…do you think Indians would treat her better after that? When Americans look at nations like India, they see a past that we left behind more than half a century ago (see A Billion Indians and Millions of Injustices). This does not mean America is a paragon of moral virtue. We have a great deal to fix in ourselves, and most other Western democracies are far ahead of us on almost every matter of moral and social justice (and even they are not paragons of moral virtue). But bringing them into it just makes India look even more backward by comparison (much less Bangladesh). Even where we seem comparable is misleading. For example, the murder rates in India and the U.S. are more or less on par, but it hardly needs pointing out that this is in large part due to the fact that most potential murder victims get the hell out of the country (case in point: Taslima Nasrin) or cower to the social pressure to not speak up against injustice or even in defense of one’s own rights, precisely out of fear of being murdered for it. This is one of the reasons why we cannot cite a low murder rate in Iran, for example, as an endorsement of Iranian society.
This is a very significant point, because it means there is a real problem in other countries that don’t materially support women’s rights or any sound concepts of a just society. Prostitutes there have it bad. But not because they are prostitutes, but because their societies are morally backward. It would be easy to conflate (albeit fallaciously) the exploitation of women in those countries with the legalization of prostitution, with the result that our Western advocacy of the morality and legalization of prostitution looks perverse. But that advocacy is based on living within a moral and social infrastructure in which the exploitative and unjust elements of any industry (like prostitution) have a real chance of being suppressed, redressed, and abrogated. We, in other words, are ready to move on. The result is attitudes about sex and commerce that look inconceivable in cultures mired in social and moral oppression. But once you realize the way forward is not outlawing prostitution but improving the moral and social infrastructure of the society that abuses its prostitutes, you’ll see that our view of things is not wrong, it’s just the future you need to work toward.
This cultural difference would explain, for example, why Taslima assumes all porn “is implicated in violence against women” and “pornography leads to an increase in sexual violence against women through fostering rape myths” (and then claims studies prove this, when in fact I am not aware of any that do). This of course cannot be true, since porn is far more widely available and consumed in the U.S. yet sexist and abusive treatment of women is vastly greater in countries like Egypt where porn is supposedly not (certainly, even if it’s all going on “on the sly,” Egyptian men can’t be consuming more porn than American men). And rates of rape and other violence against women in the U.S. have not substantially changed over 35 years (e.g. rapes nearly doubled around 1990 relative to 1975 and 2010 but have steadily declined ever since, right back to the 1975 level), even though in precisely that period the porn industry consistently exploded in production, use, and availability–in fact, most significantly after 1990, with the advent of internet porn, which would sooner suggest that increased porn availability causes the decrease of violence against women; but even rejecting that conclusion, no argument can be made that porn increases violence against women. The standard confounding factor is that men who will rape or sexually abuse women will obviously consume porn. As with any correlation fallacy: it’s the rapist’s mind that causes a rapist’s porn consumption, not the porn consumption that causes a rapist’s mind. Which means the fact that India and Egypt treat women so badly is not caused by porn. That is entirely the wrong target to attack.
I can’t say for sure, but inexperience with Western culture might also explain Taslima’s assertion that “most female performers are coerced into pornography,” because that hasn’t been true in the U.S. or Canada for a very long time. The salient point should be that we ought indeed to oppose, morally and legally, coercing women into pornography–as we ought to do for all forms of labor coercion, such as being coerced to work in a factory or as a maid or, and this is far more common, coerced into being an uneducated stay-at-home baby-producing housekeeper. In other words, it’s not pornography that’s the problem. It’s coercion. Be against that. But being against pornography is like being against manufacturing, housekeeping, or homemaking.
There might, however, be another issue here, not one of cultural misinformation, but one of relying on bad sources that resonate with you emotionally but that you don’t actually fact-check, or reacting to things you see happening in porn without first trying to understand it.
In the first instance, I see that Taslima relies a lot on Old School Feminism (which we sent packing years ago; we’re in Third Wave Feminism now), and that old guard often engaged in argument by assertion and ignorantly fallacious rhetoric. As when Taslima paraphrases Gloria Steinem’s argument that porn is bad and erotica good because [here quoting Steinem herself] “porne, in its root, means female slave, and eros obviously means love and has some idea of free choice and mutual pleasure,” which even if true (it’s not) would only have been true 2000 years ago, in a completely different language, spoken before English even existed. So why, then, mention it?
And if you are really going to push a non sequitur like that, at least try to get the facts right. In reality, ancient porneia just meant prostitution, which even in antiquity was not solely an occupation of slaves (it only usually was), and in fact the word was frequently used simply to mean unchastity, i.e. free women having consensual sex for no material gain but the satisfaction of their own desire (and its root, pornê does not likely derive from the mismatched verb pernêmi as has been suggested–though even if it did, that would not necessarily be a reference to slavery but simply selling sex–but more likely comes from pornos, which meant boy lover, not female slave–the connecting element was the assumption of anal and oral sex, which was frequently practiced by female prostitutes as a simple form of birth control). And eros did not mean love in Steinem’s intended sense, but sexual desire, which did not entail choice or mutual affection (but could involve either). Indeed, a man could pay a pornê for sex precisely because of his eros for her. The Greeks had other words for love in its nonsexual aspects.
The Porn-Erotica Divide
That citation of Steinem (who was clearly no Classicist and more into her own rhetoric than actual cultural understanding) relates to Taslima’s acceptance of erotica, which she says is acceptable and good, and which she demarcates from porn using Diana Russell (another Old School feminist, one of the most radical even, and practically a poster child for what Third Wave feminists have rejected):
Pornography: Material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone, or encourage such behavior.
Erotica: Sexually suggestive or arousing material that is free of sexism, racism, and homophobia, and respectful of all human beings and animals portrayed.
In the English language as everywhere spoken, porn is either of those things. To demarcate “porn” as, in effect, “erotica + endorsement of sexism/abuse,” is simply to speak a different language than everyone else. And I do not accept semantic games like that. As I have defended before (Sense and Goodness without God II.2.1.4, pp. 33-35), we need to use words as they are actually used and understood. We can correct errors and inconsistencies and make distinctions. But we can’t try to foist an alien language on people.
Greta Christina has also tackled this subject of what really demarcates porn from erotica (Porn or Erotica?) and she came to a different conclusion, based on how the terms are actually used in English-speaking countries, particularly to market content (in other words, based on how people actually used the words):
Porn is sexually explicit art that has, as its primary intent, the sexual arousal of the audience, and in which any other artistic/ political/ cultural intent is secondary or incidental.
Erotica is sexually explicit art that has, as its primary intent, some artistic/ political/ cultural goal other than the sexual arousal of the audience, and in which this sexual arousal is secondary or incidental.
She ultimately finds that this demarcation is largely artificial, but this is indeed how the words are used. If, for example, you peruse books and videos labeled “erotica” and books and videos labeled “porn,” you’ll see her demarcation play out. I would only add the qualifier that I also find “erotica” used to mean what Greta defines as porn, but without specifically showing or mentioning any of the good parts (for example, a movie made solely to arouse, but that never actually quite shows any penetration or even a fully naked body, gets classed as erotica and not porn).
Getting the semantics right is important, not only to avoid fallacies of equivocation but also for the simple reason that we need to know how the language works to understand our language-saturated world and discourse. “Porn” simply does not mean “that which endorses abuse and degradation.” Where I live, there are specific stores you can go to that specialize in carrying little to no material that does that, yet what they do sell is still all classified as porn. And even anywhere else, if I peruse the “porn” aisle at a video store, I won’t find that it all endorses “abuse or degradation.” And it’s not as if there are two aisles, one marked “normal porn” and the other “endorsements of abuse and degradation.” There might be an S&M section, and things of that nature, but that’s not the same thing.
Which leads me to another issue of cultural divide: if you have not grown up immersed in cosmopolitan Western culture, you might not know about the normalization and acceptance of S&M and other forms of kink. And if you don’t know about it, you might react to seeing it in completely the wrong way. Certainly, if I was a rural kid from Idaho and walked into a magazine store and browsed a kink mag, I might be horrified at the way people (often, but not always, women) are being tormented on its pages, and conclude this is endorsing the brutal torture of women. But it’s not. And it never has. Nor has it caused any escalation in such things. Greta again wrote a very good piece on this, herself a woman into kinky porn: Porn, Social Criticism, and the Marginalization of Kink. And she has explored (in Why Porn Matters) how in fact porn has improved social understanding of women and sexuality, and made the lives of individuals better by eliminating the previous culturally-enforced assumption that their fantasies, whatever they are, must be perverse and wrong. These two articles will educate any reader on how different a sex positive Western culture is, compared to what one might encounter or hear in, say, Bangladesh.
In the first of those Greta explains, and illustrates, that kink, which often does appear to normalize sexism and abuse, is actually a sexual fetish many women, even feminists, find erotic, and even enjoy participating in. However, she does not explain how we’re to tell that “women being dominated and humiliated and slapped around” isn’t promoting the dehumanization of women, even though she clearly does believe you can have “women being dominated and humiliated and slapped around” that doesn’t. Someone not already familiar with a lot of our sex culture might be left confused by this. How can you dominate and humiliate a woman and not be dehumanizing her? It sounds like a patent contradiction. I think it would be helpful if Greta answered this question in more detail, perhaps in a future post, especially one aimed at readers who might really have zero experience with this [she has since done something nearly along those lines: see On Writing Kinky Porn in Rape Culture].
Particularly since this is not only an East-West thing, but a cultural divide that exists even within our own country, as many people do not have a close familiarity with our various sexual subcultures or with sex workers or even open communication with porn consumers. Thus, for example, Sunsara Taylor, for Black Skeptics here at Freethought Blogs, also took a stand against porn: protesting Women-Hating Pornographers (see also the brief discussion of concerns for International Women’s Day). She, too, sees kink and sexist fantasy play the same way that Greta considers to be uninformed. In the latter post it’s claimed that, for example, “ejaculation in a woman’s face is standard” (and, it is implied, intrinsically dehumanizing), although that has been commonplace for some thirty years now; in fact, long ago I watched some porn reels from the 30s and 40s and it was happening then, too. But some of the other points raised in that post might reflect genuine trends, and some of them might even be bad.
But the solution, of course, is to change the way porn gets made, to influence the consumers to be more reflective about what they buy (as we’ve successfully done in respect to environmentalism), and inspire the artists to be more thoughtful and creative (as we’ve been doing in respect to film and television). For example, Greta and many others have long criticized the fact that “action movies commonly perpetuate some very common sexist tropes: e.g., weak helpless women who need rescuing by strong male heroes,” and as a result we have seen gradual improvements in that over the last thirty years (Joss Whedon‘s opus, and its market success, is not the only evidence of it). The solution was not “ban action movies” because they promote sexist assumptions about the world. As for action movies, so for porn.
Artistic Criticism Requires Understanding
However, to push for change, you still have to be an informed critic who actually understands the material. Otherwise you will just come across as an ignorant outsider, and that will give you no sway with anyone who can actually make real changes happen. It’s like someone who heard about roller derby, then concluding it’s harmful to women and exploitative, but after understanding current rollergirl culture they realize it’s viewed by everyone involved in it as empowering, and was recently revived by women for that reason (as my wife once said to me, “The way men get Fight Club, women get Roller Derby,” although I should mention Jen also loves Fight Club). Like an outsider who doesn’t get roller derby, the assumption that facial cumshots are inherently “degrading” is precisely the kind of thing that reflects being out of touch with the industry, the artists in it, and what consumers actually think about it. You need to be in touch with all three of those first. And when you are, you may end up seeing things differently.
We also must accept two key realities about the aesthetics of any art or performance:
First, just because a fantasy is depicted, does not mean it is being endorsed or encouraged. This should be obvious from all other fantasy video media: the heroic depiction of the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter (particularly in the film Hannibal) is certainly not telling the audience to kill and eat people; action movies are not endorsing dangerous car chases and public gunfights; Dirty Harry is not supposed to inspire us to go on vigilante killing sprees. And, you may notice, it didn’t. Nor did Hannibal cause a rise in cannibalism. Nor have action films caused an epidemic of gunfights and car chases. Fantasy has to be recognized and understood for what it is. Heroes in films get to do things we fantasize about but never do. Like shoot drug lords in the head. Or have lots of beautiful sexual partners. Or sleep with your husband’s secretary. Or get spanked until we cry. Or ejaculate on someone’s face. (As my sonar supervisor’s gun-toting wife once cheerfully said to me in my Coast Guard days, “That dear brave girl takes it in the eye, so I don’t have to!”)
Second, what a scene looks to be saying is not necessarily what it is saying. Art is complex, even when it’s not trying to be. I remember someone I knew back in middle school who idolized a character in the film Apocalypse Now: Lt. Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall, who utters the famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”). He modeled himself after him, dressed like him, talked like him, spoke of him reverently as a kick-ass soldier, his ideal hero. The disturbing thing about that (for those who haven’t seen the movie) is that Kilgore is a grotesque character, he is meant to horrify the viewer. He was specifically written as a metaphor for exactly the kind of stiff-backed war-idolizing lunatic who causes and perpetuates unjust wars like that in Vietnam, men who are never touched by any sense of danger or loss, who puff their chest with exaggerated superiority, who utter such absurd racist patriotisms as “Charlie don’t surf!” This kid didn’t get the joke. He was inspired by that movie to become the very thing it was criticizing.
In no way can we blame the director or the actor or the movie for that. Anyone who failed to get the point they were making is clearly at fault (or their parents were, for not educating them on the matter). We can’t call for Apocalypse Now to be banned because occasionally some idiot doesn’t get it and is inspired by it to become a dangerous asshole. In fact the Kilgore scene is a brilliant work of art, powerful and poignant in all the things it was trying to say. The solution here is to teach and inspire people to think more reflectively about the art they consume, so that they grasp and benefit from the meaning and nuance being conveyed by it. (I say more about my theory of art in Sense and Goodness without God VI.3, pp. 361-66.)
Porn is an art form like any other. Like ordinary film and television, most of it is crap by any artistic standard. But it’s still art. And some of it is much better than most. In fact, aesthetically, I think porn could be far better than almost all of it is, that there is a real need for serious humanist artists to get in the business and change the way porn gets staged and filmed. But even among what exists, there is a difference to be seen between the best of it and the worst of it, and there are still the same artistic principles demanded in how you reflect on and understand what you see. And that’s the viewer’s responsibility. Just as it is when watching Apocalypse Now.
Example. In porn now there is in fact a rising trend (although I suspect it’s a passing fad) toward “throat gagging” (in the 90s it was anal sex; and from what I saw, in the 30s it was banging nuns and seeing semen spill out of things). I don’t enjoy this, even to watch it. It’s not my thing. But one particularly avid performer of it is Sasha Grey, one of the most successful and empowered women in the industry, an outspoken feminist and sex worker advocate. I’ve seen and read interviews with her and it’s clear she enjoys the act of throat gagging and doesn’t do it because she’s forced to or just because she’s paid to, that it turns her on, and that in fact she regards it as an expression of her liberty and power. By body language and spoken word, she calls the shots in every scene. Many women in the industry don’t like it, and don’t do it, and their right not to is generally respected and in fact defensible in court. But if you aren’t watching for the nuances of how Grey behaves in a scene and controls it, if you don’t realize that she considers it sexually exciting and comes to no harm from it, you might get the wrong impression about what’s happening in front of the camera. Just like you might get the wrong impression about Kilgore.
If any man tries this act on a woman who doesn’t like it, because he likes it and doesn’t care what his partner feels, then what we have is another Kilgore admirer. No different than a wife beater or sweat shop operator–yet in neither case do we ban marriages or factories. We criticize the idiot who doesn’t care about his fellow human beings. Sasha Grey is not evil. He is. And she is not responsible for what he does. Just as Robert Duvall is not responsible for the occasional chest-pumping Kilgore-loving military asshole.
There is a way forward here, and generally protesting or banning porn, or any other kind of prostitution or sexual commerce, simply isn’t it.