One or two words on the sticky subject of pornography

23 August 2005
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In his look at the "genuineness" of pornography, Tim Ochser finds that in many ways, life has come to imitate pornography "in an almost grotesque parody". Rather than judging pornography as good or bad, moral or immoral, Ochser focuses on the reasons pornography exists, what purpose it serves, and the effects it has on both viewers and non-viewers.

As I sit at my desk writing this in the comfort of my home, I have done a lot of reading about and a lot of looking at pornography. On balance, I probably did a little more of the latter. But both were ultimately unsatisfying. In the abstract, intellectual pursuit and sexual desire both strive towards the same unobtainable ends.

Pornography has fascinated me ever since the tender age of seven, when I discovered a damp and crumpled page from a magazine in my primary school playground. It showed a close-up image of a woman’s gaping vagina shrouded by a wild tuft of black pubic hair. The image was thrilling and disgusting at the same time. I had the feeling that I was looking at something forbidden, a raw secret exposed.

But that was before the time of the internet, before video even. Now pornography, in all its many manifestations, is more accessible than ever before. Children don’t require a fortuitous breeze to blow a torn-out magazine page their way or to furtively gaze up at the top shelves in shops to encounter it. The language of pornography has penetrated mainstream culture to such an extent that it has actually become a codified mode of thinking for many people.

A great deal of academic research has been carried out into pornography. Is it obscene? Is it immoral? Does it degrade women? Does it demean sex? Does it inspire sexual violence against women? And the questions just keep on multiplying: essays engender new essays, neologisms inspire new neologisms, metaphors beget new metaphors. Yes, we all know that porn is an area of extreme significance, but what, exactly, is that significance?

A friend of a friend of mine once asked me if I wanted to make some easy money writing short stories for porn magazines. You’re a good writer, she said, it should be easy for you. Being in need of the money, I decided to give it a try. But it was one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted to write. Once upon a time there was a man with a huge cock who met a woman who desperately wanted that huge cock for herself, she even begged for it, in her arse, in her mouth, in every possible way, until she greedily swallowed his cum down, like the cat that got the cream. In the end, I just couldn’t finish the story, if that is really the word for it. I love language too much to subject it to such a brutal battering of nonsense.

Pornography is an extremely complex phenomenon despite its apparently primitive fa�ade. The word itself is a mid-nineteenth-century term derived from pornographos: porne “prostitute” and graphien “to write”. Its etymological and historical roots are telling. Literally, the idea of pornography is rooted in female sexual slavery and subservience.

Until relatively recently, pornography was a socially clandestine affair, confined to squalid alleyways and dimly-lit basements and other such mythical social nooks. The Victorians certainly had a taste for porn and they bequeathed a vast collection of sepia-coloured photographs showing rotund and melancholy-looking women in various sexual poses to their porn-loving offspring. Some of these images were extremely graphic and comfortably fit into the relatively modern concept of “hardcore” pornography.

But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that pornography really began to enter the mainstream. A pornography industry began to emerge first in Scandinavia and then in the US, and then with the arrival of video in the 1980s, and soon after the internet, it finally found a means of mass distribution into the private realm of people’s living rooms and bedrooms.

I remember when I first saw a “porno”. I was about 13 years old at the time. Two friends and I persuaded an Indian man at our local grocery store to rent us a film “under the counter”. He waited until the shop was empty of customers and then handed it over to us with a knowing wink. We excitedly ran to my friend’s house and slotted the clunky black tape into the video machine. When it finally began, I truly couldn’t believe my eyes. I remember being startled by how incredibly erect I was as I sat there on the floor, my eyes frantically straining to devour the fuzzy imagery in front of me.

There, right in front of me, was a man and a woman, actually fucking! I had never seen anything like it before. I had glimpsed bare breasts and silhouetted couples making love to soft music in films. But this was something else. This was raw, unrefined, rampant sex. And they both seemed to be enjoying it so much. He moaned, she groaned. She said “Fuck me harder!” and he obligingly fucked her harder. And as he flipped her this way and that, I idiotically dribbled in excitement.

That was a long time ago, and I hope I am a little less gullible now. But to this day what has never ceased to fascinate and disturb me in equal measure about pornography is its verisimilitude, its almost viscous seduction of the senses.

It is important to remember that pornography is, first and foremost, a commodity, and as such it is governed by certain rules. Those who make it want those who consume it to do so in ever-greater quantities. The aim of pornography, put simply, is to stimulate sexual arousal in those who use it.

A casual glance through an internet directory reveals a staggering diversity of pornographic categories: anal, hardcore, blowjobs, bukkake, cum shots, gangbangs, drunken women, spanking, butts, breasts, legs, feet, pregnant women, schoolgirls, blondes, brunettes, red heads, babes, lesbian, celebrities, bikinis, lingerie, interracial, anime, fisting, piss, faeces, smoking, rape, incest, Asian women, Latin women, Russian women, and so the list goes on and on and on, with each category divisible into endless sub-categories, especially in the area of so-called fetishes.

But this ostensible diversity masks the desperate lack of imagination behind pornography. Porn is a cold, calculating, and utterly cynical product designed not to satisfy but to tantalize the many people who regularly use it. By its essentially unreal and abstract nature, porn can never satisfy.

It has frequently been argued that the rise and spread of pornography is in large part a male conspiracy, created to redress the hard-won political gains made by women over recent decades. The idea is that pornography, as the ultimate sexual objectification of women, is implicit not just in graphic sexual imagery, but in a far wider cultural sphere, from beauty and fashion magazines to cosmetic advertising and pop music. As a result women have become increasingly self-conscious and alienated from their own bodies.

There is certainly some truth in this. There is no doubt that pornography is a masculine language, and that it revels in the abuse, humiliation, and exploitation of women for sexual gratification. Men profit from the vast pornography industry. Women don’t. It’s as simple as that.

When Annabelle Chong, a British-born Singaporean woman, attempted to set a “world record” by having sex with 300 men, the almost painfully unwatchable results were there for all to see in the documentary “Sex: The Annabelle Chong Story”. As Chong lay there with her legs wide open, an apparently willing sacrificial victim on the altar, a seemingly never-ending line of naked men queued up to have their turn, apathetically masturbating to stay erect during the long wait. To begin with, Chong theatrically groaned and rolled her eyes in feigned ecstasy, but after a while the groans were quite clearly from pure agony. She finally called it a day at 251 men.

Throughout the documentary, Chong attempts to justify her “career” as a “professional” porn actress. She theorizes about passive-active relations and how pornography has been a liberating force for women. But Chong was utterly abused by the pornography industry she naively thought she was an equal part of. She never got the $12,000 she was promised, while her vagina was seriously damaged as a result of her record-breaking exertions.

A year later, Chong’s record was bettered by 50 men. And then a couple of years after that, a porn star called Houston eclipsed the record when she slept with 500 men in an event billed as the “Houston 500”. She was widely criticized for icing down her vagina during the interminable proceedings.

Pornography is too complex to be understood in purely political terms. To do so is to confront metaphor with metaphor. Pornography is structured around the spurious polarity of soft/hard, and the debate surrounding it revolves around the equally inadequate dichotomy of good/bad. The question should not be whether it is good/bad, moral/immoral, but why does it exist all? Pornography has permeated culture to such a profound extent that it has to be understood as a phenomenon in itself. Men, women, teenagers, children: everyone is affected, even those who have never seen it. A recent survey of women showed that a significant portion of them had been asked by their boyfriends and husbands to perform a sexual act that they had seen in a pornographic film. Life has come to imitate pornography in an almost grotesque parody of it.

I used to work above a photo developing shop in Old Riga. I made the acquaintance of a young woman who worked there and we would sometimes have a cigarette and a little chat together on the street. I once asked her out of curiosity if people ever brought in films of themselves having sex to be developed. She looked at me as though I had just asked her the most ridiculous question. You wouldn’t believe how much of that stuff we get, she said. She told me that they got several such films every day, some of which were extremely explicit. She told me that I could see some of them if I wanted as she had made duplicates for her own private collection.

I was so curious I immediately put my half-smoked cigarette out and went straight to the back of the shop. She made sure no one was around and then pulled out a huge stack of pictures from a cupboard. As I flicked through them, quickly enough to almost make a film of sorts, I was astonished by what I saw. In one picture, a young girl was having sex with four men in the middle of a living room floor. But it was the living room itself that most interested me. It was furnished in that painfully ordinary way that I have seen so many times before: it could have been almost any flat in Riga. It also struck me how immaculately tidy the room was if you ignored the heap of bodies on the rug in the middle of the floor. In between playing at porn, the woman certainly kept her house in order.

Picture after drably sad picture showed the same thing. In the midst of the action, these eager and “amateur” (a popular category of pornography itself) participants would glance awkwardly at the camera (with a theatrical grimace rather than a grin). It wasn’t even important who was behind the camera. The camera itself imbued the act with its significance, transforming performer into viewer, and subject into object. The essential appeal of pornography lies in its ambiguous relationship between subjectivity and objectivity and its promise of using sexual pleasure as a means of overcoming oneself.

John Berger explored the nude in western art and how it is perceived through its presence: a man’s presence is defined by what he can do to you or for you; a woman’s is defined by how she is seen, and sees herself being seen. Pornography conforms to the same principles. Much of the feminist objection to pornography rests on this idea, that it defines women as passive rather than active, as object rather than subject, as “other” rather than “self”.

But while pornography doubtlessly objectifies women and creates a crude anatomy of sexuality which men use as a template to measure and judge women by, it is ultimately sex itself which is the real casualty of this internecine relationship of misunderstanding between men and women.

Pornography has increasingly subsumed the idea of sex into its sphere of meaning. Pornography is a language and as such it is governed by logic. But, like any language, its significance is determined by cultural exigencies and corrupted by the same powerful socio-political forces that have reduced all language (alas, this included) to parody. Sex, or rather the idea of sex, is the predominant force in contemporary culture, precisely because it has to be. Culture always accentuates that which it most needs to sustain itself. And so sex permeates almost everything to one degree or another. It is not a philosophy in itself, but rather the anti-climatic culmination to centuries of doomed and self-defeating rationalism.

Friction is at the heart of western dialectical history, but ever since, at some imaginary point in recent history, history apparently stopped happening, society has of necessity become a grotesque parody of itself. Pornography, which is the perfect embodiment of capitalist logic, is an endless repetition and perpetuation of an impossible idea encapsulated in an ideal. Just as the fundamental principle underlying the entire capitalist system is constant growth, and so has led to a conceptualized world that exists only as the ever-receding idea of itself, so pornography is the ever-receding attempt to overcome desire through the idea of sex.

I once told a dear friend of mine in London that I didn’t masturbate because I felt like an idiot whenever I did. Imagine, I said, that I could step outside myself and take a long look at myself. I would look ridiculous, I told her, thrusting and poking away at thin air. Hmm, she said thoughtfully. But my dear, that is exactly what you do with almost every woman you make love to.

It is a fundamental human desire to wish to overcome ourselves (ie language), be it through sex, love, alcohol, philosophy, death �- choose your weapon. Pornography is just the (superficially) extreme application of this logic. It is not good or bad, in this sense, but just pointless. It only becomes bad when it leads, as it very easily does, towards darker, more violent and abusive extremes. In the vast pornographic labyrinth of the internet, you are only ever a few clicks of the mouse away from a child being physically abused or a woman being raped, if you only know which way to turn, and which coded signs to look for.

Having been liberated from its historic and cultural constraints, sex has quickly become subsumed by pornography, which is the antithesis in every sense of the erotic. Pornography is such an overwhelmingly powerful and seductive force because, in that great European empirical tradition, seeing is believing. Pornography is all about seeing. Its tangle of limbs and sexual organs is a way of wringing some cogent sense out of the world, normally in the form of a good thick serving of semen on some woman’s face.

Pornography seduces even the most sceptical senses in its staggeringly simple story of a man and his cock, and a woman and her pussy. Its bestial and primitive metaphors amount to a pantomime of almost metaphysical proportions. It is an endlessly re-enacted variation on a theme that is dizzying in its arduous attempts to overcome the word and the body. Perhaps one day Genesis will even be pornographically revised, so that Eve reached not for an apple, but for another man’s cock.

As for me, all I can do is struggle against it. In this hot and sultry summer, in which a seemingly never-ending parade of seemingly beautiful women walk along the street with a self-confident bound in their step and a knowing wiggle in their hips, I see how so many women wittingly and unwittingly play their part in this sexual pantomime. And as I see yet another voluptuous pair of breasts spilling out of a top, or yet another pouting pair of lips smirking in mid-conversation, I can only remind myself that I do not want to copulate with thin air.

There is a beautiful scene in “Hourglass,” by the extremely talented Croatian writer Danilo Kis, in which the book’s narrator is sitting on a train carriage. He notices an attractive young woman sitting opposite him and glimpses her naked ankle. The mere sight of this fragment of exposed flesh sends him into a rapturous appreciation of the summer. I get to see a whole lot more than mere ankles on a daily basis, but it is not in the least erotic. Pornographic, potentially, but erotic, no.

Perhaps I secretly long for the time when pussies went meow and cocks went cockledoodledoo. I am tired of this sexual farce in which beds bustle with strangers’ bodies. I am tired of this debilitating and exhausting obsession with sex that reveals nothing more than our self-disgust rather than the self-satisfaction it purports to. I am tired of this insipid mirage of desire that poses as reality. Perhaps it really is better to fall in love with an ankle. Perhaps it really is better to make love with closed eyes.

Published 23 August 2005

Original in English
First published in Rigas Laiks 8/2005 (Latvian version)

Contributed by Rigas Laiks
© Tim Ochser/Rigas Laiks Eurozine

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