The term ‘pornification’ has recently been given prominence in books by Melinda Tankard Reist and others. Naomi Klein has also been decrying the effects of pornography on women’s sexual self-confidence and the re-shaping of men’s desire. Young girls are the target of earlier and earlier sexualisation, especially through the fashion market, and boys it seems have acquired deeply sexist attitudes by their early teenage years. Indeed young girls’ and young women’s fashion can be read as a ‘sluttification’ of what is seen as desirable in women, while contemporaneously young teenage girls and boys are likely to count both oral and anal sex (read girls giving over in both cases) as normal practice amongst their heterosexual peers.
Of course this isn’t the reality for every teenager, but the research from various quarters is convincing in building a general picture of a trend. Left-liberal critics have, over years now, argued that the neo-liberal market has set this trend in motion, with advertising and markets being key factors; a story of exploitation through the selling power of sex. Conservatives typically pinpoint the issue as the moral bankruptcy of a certain ‘postmodern’ coterie who promote porn as liberating or, more mundanely, simply an aid to good sex. Needless to say, the conservative position neglects the fact that neo-liberalism has indeed unleashed an amoral market calculus in just about every sphere of personal and social life—the same one whose economic growth they celebrate—and if there is a morally bankrupt ‘postmodern’ understanding of sex and porn, it hasn’t emerged out of a vacuum.
Pornification refers not just to a revaluation of sex and sexual freedom—the message of the 1970s—but to the mainstreaming of porn in raunch, the style typical of Ralph and other mid-level-porn men’s magazines and represented over and over in sporting magazines, bill-board advertising and television shows revelling in the license now given to a certain range of men’s fantasies. Hard porn is certainly an object for both sets of critics mentioned above. But it is the filtering down of the pornographic gaze and attitude of barely contained salaciousness that is the larger cultural presence, and which is of special concern when we’re talking about children and the forming of sexual attitudes.
The idea in psychoanalysis and social theory that fantasy is important in individual and social life has by now filtered down into popular culture. Few would deny that how we think and act in the world is at some level mediated by fantasy. But the cultural inclination to see this as meaning our sexual fantasies should be ‘freed’, so that our unique needs are expressed, or amorally cultivated as an exploration of a performative self (sex is a complete construction), are already tired ideas. They certainly offer no critical help in grasping the meaning of pornification as a broad-ranging phenomenon. Sexual fantasy has jumped individual experience and the self’s individual projection in fantasy to return as an ideological object in the pornification of society as a whole. As there is no generally accepted social or cultural constraint in operation around the expression of sexual desire, we don’t know where to turn for justifications to limit it or why we should be cautious when it takes on a public life of its own.
Most of us register the greater presence of porn today, both its greater accessibility and the libertarian justifications put forward for it by business organisations like the Eros Foundation. But how we engage with pornography can no longer be contained within the terms of earlier understandings, where debate about porn assumed its limited circulation, a private sphere, a self capable of sustained reflection upon its actions and a market where the circulation of images and identities for sale had limits. Today porn circulates ceaselessly and is virtually ubiquitous in expanding networks of digital media, colonising and commodifying the body, sexuality and the private.
* * *
Germaine Greer was recently pilloried in The Monthly by Louis Nowra. As some feminist commentators noted, it might have been more appropriate to ask a woman to comment on The Female Eunuch’s 40-year anniversary (one might add, especially someone equipped to analyse Greer’s texts seriously and, even better, the meaning of the whole feminist, and now post-feminist enterprise). Nowra so badly missed the point about Greer, and The Female Eunuch, it was almost ludicrous. He thinks she doesn’t really like women, a view echoed by some younger women intellectuals over the years as part of their critique of second wave feminism’s emphasis on structure and patriarchy. But this is a view clearly not subscribed to by lots of women who see in her work a fearless advocacy on their behalf. Nowra also ridiculously criticised The Female Eunuch for not having got women into a better place over forty years—for having not got the future right—when surely its major purpose was to show how masculine power has worked to shape the lives and subjectivities of women. Does Nowra think that would have ceased to be the case?
One of Greer’s shocking observations that has always stuck with me is that it will be hard for men and women to achieve equality because of there being a hierarchy of those who penetrate and those who are penetrated. This is one of the things those younger intellectual women hated: the idea that women may be always-already vulnerable. Three other, not unconnected, contributions include Greer’s early observation of the tutoring of young girls in ‘how-to-look-after-your boyfriend’-type sex articles in girls’ magazines. Another was her rejection of the idea that a man who becomes a ‘woman’ is a woman. The third was her idea that the vagina is being replaced by other mere receptacles. Of course there is hyperbole in all this. But as people are more generally starting to worry about the pornification of society, devaluing of girls, the often criminal antics of footballers, with Ralph playing on prime time everywhere, it’s possible that Greer has a good nose for some of the brute-masculinising trends in our culture.
But should we be, as Nowra seems to be, worried about the kind of tough talk about sex that feminism itself has bequeathed us? Does it contribute to a general coarsening of sexual talk and imagery? Is it implicated in the pornification of society?
Of course feminists have been in an unenviable position in relation to the ‘exposés’ they have mounted in the spirit of laying bare gendered structures of power. ‘Making the personal political’ on one definition is pornographic itself, where practices once embedded in private life are flattened out and displayed on the cultural surface of conscious reality. Whether it’s domestic violence, incest or rape, the content is unseemly. But how is the unpalatable to be raised if not by breaking certain types of taboo?
An argument about the flow-on effects or unintended consequences of talking tough about sex might be applied to post-feminism too: if sex and gender are performative, in this view porn is just another sexual game, sophisticatedly understood as constructed in ironic narratives that only pious fools take seriously. But it follows that men’s-club-type fantasies and mass ‘sluttification’ are simply ‘what men want’, with lap dancers and swimsuit models enjoying being in on the joke. So billboards for men’s clubs are put up beside primary schools, while any basis in thinking as to why this might be a problem has been so undermined that those wanting them removed are called prudes.
* * *
Critics of feminism who blame the tough talk of feminist critique for adding to a culture of degradation and obscenity miss the deeper change that it going on around us. Older understandings of sex, desire and gender are being gathered up within new relations of power that draw upon older debates but also transform them. What is new here are our culture’s hyper-individualist belief in autonomy, a deep-going visual fetish fed by high-gloss advertising and screen culture, and the high-tech accessibility of porn; the old is inescapably patriarchal, but recreating itself in new forms. What might feel like an uncontrollable contagion moving through society is in fact a social process working its way through culturally authorised practices along old faultlines in our species being, part of which is that we are sexed and gendered and have an ambivalent attitude to our ‘animality’.
It’s unlikely that we are going to get over this ambivalence or complexity around nature/culture, an always volatile anchor point of sexual relations and the raising of children. Cognisant of this, not only should markets in sex and sexualised markets be restricted but moral discourse should be re-valued as a necessary adjunct to adult autonomous decision making.
Second-wave feminism was strongly focused on the question of women’s autonomy in the sense of women being able to act on the basis of their own decision making, when it was considered that women’s capacity for serious moral deliberation had been denied in historical patriarchy. This was itself a modern notion of autonomy; the rights of men, to their own conscience and sphere of personhood, applied to women. Post-feminism has been far more radical in its practices and understandings of autonomy, not unlike the culture in which it has emerged and flourished (although a reversion to young women calling themselves feminists seems to be underway).
In the context of the break-up of the modern social structures in the post-war period and the rise of neo-liberalism, autonomy can no longer be individual in the sense of the person exercising serious moral thought, including individual choice, about a taken-for-granted world. Rather, women, like everyone else, now experience a shifting world offering radically new kinds of choices built on technical means for dispensing with prior physical and social boundaries and the obligations that once attached to them.
Porn via high-tech massification of product, in a context of autonomy from cultural constraint, is exactly one such break out from obligation. It is also a break out from moral thoughtfulness as viewers of its content, as with pornification generally, are likely to believe it’s ‘just fantasy’. Yet the figures produced for and justified in porn culture will act back with the force of social facts, defining girls and women and enforcing their identities.
Some critical version of feminism, attuned to the new, will still be necessary.