Posts Tagged ‘art’

Private Vice Leads To Public Virtue

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

Recently I’ve been writing out plot summaries for some of the future story arcs in Comical Interlude, and I noticed that a lot of them were about the characters’ sex lives – and more to the point, these aren’t the sorts of stories that will still work if they conveniently fade to black just before a boob comes into view (though don’t worry, they will be proper, relatable stories, as opposed to the ridiculous Hollywood satire put forward in my latest comic). On one hand, I didn’t actually sit down and say, “okay, time to write some sex comics” – and indeed it is something which I’ve been kind of subconsciously avoiding for a while now, despite the fact that I have these stories I want to tell, because I don’t particularly want to be associated with the current porn culture. But on other other hand, sex is naturally a subject that is going to be of considerable interest to humans, and being a human myself, I don’t see any problem with that… in principle, at least. So, given this direction my work is now heading in, I thought it would be useful to work through some ideas about the depiction of sex in art and our cultural attitudes towards it.

A good place to start would be Justice Potter Stewart’s famous failure to define pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

I’m sure there are a lot of things we could discuss about such a statement, but what catches my interest is what it reveals about the unspoken rules we live our lives by. We all possess an extensive catalogue of cultural values which have been instilled in us – largely through memetic behavioural imitation – as we have grown up, often without conscious realization of the process. The main reason we don’t notice what is happening is because usually, we are surrounded by people behaving in the exact same way, so this all seems perfectly normal according to our only available reference points. By the time we gain enough knowledge and experience to properly reflect on our behavourial patterns, we are usually well and truly enveloped within our cultural constructs, and deconstructing them becomes a rather daunting and complicated task indeed.

Justice Stewart’s problem seems to be that when he encountered something outside his own cultural domain, he simply lacked the necessary self-awareness to properly define it as such (hence being forced to rely on intuition). This observation, I think, highlights the crucial distinction that separates porn from all other forms of art: namely, art is an expression of culture, while porn is a deliberate violation of it. Porn is not simply “depictions of sex”, because such things will sometimes also fall within the domain of art; rather, porn is depictions of sex which fall outside of the cultural values we attach to such material. Additionally, whilst it is of course common for art to challenge cultural norms, porn doesn’t even attempt to do this – it exists almost as an acceptable violation, and not one which is striving for higher ideals or that needs to be met with counterarguments, because everyone already knows that it is wrong, and indeed, that is usually considered part of the appeal. This is also why the term has become shorthand for certain other forms of entertainment – for example, excessively violent and sadistic movies being labelled “torture porn” – because it’s a way of expressing that this material violates the unspoken rules we normally live by, but at the same time, we are also acknowledging that it’s not a true violation, merely an imaginary one. And interestingly, this is true regardless of whether the speaker is using the term in a positive or negative context.

To understand how this strange situation came about, we need to remember that culture is an artificial construct that has essentially evolved on top of our pre-existing emotional and behavioural responses, and which manipulates those responses into different and highly complex patterns. The defining pattern in Western culture has been a variation on the common patriarchal dominance hierarchy seen throughout the world, influenced particularly by Christian theology and, more recently, democratic nationalism. Like any other culture, it is a highly imperfect system with various strengths and weaknesses, but people invariably play along with it because, as is the way with all dominance hierarchies, they feel they gain a net benefit from it, even if they’re not at the top of the tree (and they probably also comfort themselves with fantasies about climbing higher up that tree one day, too).

But one of the more curious aspects of this system is the extent to which it has repressed sexuality. From a modern context it seems absurd to imagine humans, of all species, adopting an anti-sex viewpoint, but you have to keep in mind that this system dates back to before reliable contraception and birth control, when even extremely brief, one-off encounters could carry considerable consequences, especially in a culture built around arranged marriages and such, where maintaining the family unit within fairly narrow confines was central to all aspects of life. This was exacerbated by the fact that the culture was modelled as a dominance hierarchy, meaning there was increased competition for mates, which equates to fewer mating opportunities for almost everyone except perhaps the alpha members of the group. Additionally, people at the top of social hierarchies often benefit from controlling the reproduction of those beneath them, so it’s in their interest to start interfering with the cultural values they dictate to the masses. Combine this with the fact that sex is one of our major sources of fear anyway (it’s the reason why we die, after all), and it’s not hard to imagine why people could get freaked out and start inventing all kinds of crazy rules to try and control it.

But a sexually repressed culture brings Problems. In particular, it leads to increased and unfocused aggression, because people are left with the subconscious feeling that something, some unseen force, is preventing them from fulfilling their biological imperatives, but because they don’t know what it is, that aggression generally just gets directed towards whoever happens to be around them (this is especially true for males, of course, because they compete through aggressive behaviour, whereas females have traditionally competed more indirectly through appearance-based sexual selection). Taken to extremes, this can result in the kind of problem that the Islamic dominance hierarchy model is currently dealing with: young, almost exclusively male suicide bombers who have been persuaded to their cause in part because they think they will get laid in the afterlife. When people have reached the point where they think their best chance at having sex is to kill themselves then it is perhaps time to start rethinking your cultural values. [Note: yes, obviously the situation is much more complicated than that; I don't have time to deconstruct the entire psychology of a suicide bomber here. My point is, sexual repression is certainly one of the factors that directs people towards such a path, and moreover it makes the whole process easier than it would have been if that element were not present.]

This is where porn comes to the rescue of the patriarchal cultural model. If you want to run a sexually repressed society then you are going to have to deal with the increasing pressure to rebel against this artificial repression that will be quietly building up in your populace. And of course, the perfect way to do that, whilst still keeping the original culture intact, is to construct an outlet outside of those cultural values, where people can seek refuge as needed and let off some steam before falling dutifully back in line. So this, then, is the strange truth about porn (and similar, seemingly-contradictory constructs surrounding sex): it is the moon to the patriarchy’s Earth, an orbiting satellite which stabilizes the main body and allows it to flourish where otherwise it would have failed.

[Note: in researching this blog post I have come across several articles citing this study (pdf link), which indicates a slightly higher percentage of porn subscribers in conservative states in the US compared to their more liberal counterparts - but on further reading it appears the correlation is not statistically significant. Unfortunately I haven't come across any other, more helpful statistics here - but at the very least, the Edelman study indicates that porn consumption doesn't vary all that much across a range of political and religious belief sets across America, which I suppose is what you'd expect of a unified culture that drinks from the same mass-media well, despite the variations within that culture. So, as much as I wanted for this to be the part of the post where I cited that study as another in a long line of religious hypocrisies, I guess I will have to hold off on that one. For now. Plus, they may not be consuming more porn than anyone else, but they're not exactly abstaining from it either, so I guess there's that.]

Ultimately, this just serves to highlight the exact same point that we regularly reach when deconstructing patriarchal culture: this whole thing is a really dumb idea that never would have happened if intelligent people actually sat down and designed the culture from scratch, as opposed to accidentally allowing it to evolve this way over several thousand years. But it also highlights the mistaken assumption people often make when trying to counteract this culture: that by supporting porn and promoting its ideals, we can start to break down the repressive parent culture. Clearly, when that parent culture is actively reliant on porn to sustain itself, this approach is not going to work out as people would like it to. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that, regardless of whether people are pro-porn or against it, very few will disagree on the actual use of the word “porn” to describe the material in question. Generally, these arguments are not about changing the overarching culture, they are about whether or not it is appropriate to have an externalized outlet for things that don’t fit within that culture. And indeed, for many people, the entire appeal of porn is that they see it as a place where they can break the rules they normally live by (which just raises the obvious question of why they choose to live by rules which are by their own definition unsustainable…). This is also why some of the few attempts to actively redefine porn as “erotica” or something similar and instill some cultural values in it have often failed to catch on (or at least, have certainly failed to achieve the popularity of regular porn), because people are inadvertently removing the very characteristics that attracted them to porn in the first place, whilst not taking it far enough to remove the need for those characteristics entirely.

As an aside, an interesting illustrative example of how arguments about porn are based on cultural values rather than measured evaluations of its actual content is a movie called The Good Old Naughty Days, which was released in 2002 after being edited together from a collection of old silent porn films from the early twentieth century. These films had originally been made to screen in French brothels, so obviously, at the time of their creation, they would not have been held in particularly high cultural esteem. But fast forward eighty years, and this same footage suddenly has enough “sociological” merit to be classified for a limited cinematic release in the freaking UK, of all places, despite containing not just explicit sex scenes but also some bestiality and stuff like that. And whilst there was an inevitable backlash from the usual religious types, there was also apparently enough interest for people to quite happily attend their local cinema just so they could watch such a film. The lesson here is that all you need is the thinnest of pretenses to allow people to tell themselves that they are watching the movie for any other reason than just because it’s porn, and suddenly it becomes a perfectly acceptable and reasonable idea. Or, essentially: it’s okay to watch porn for intellectual reasons, but it’s not okay to enjoy it. I think you will agree, this is a fairly transparent set of rationalizations by any standard – and it also recalls the cultural distinction between art and porn that I mentioned earlier. So long as the material is ostensibly not being put forward for the purpose of sexual gratification, it is clearly not serving any practical purpose at all, and therefore is much easier to define as “art” – whereas regular porn, which does serve a practical purpose, is barred from such standards. A barbeque pit is not art, but a broken barbeque pit beaten to an incomprehensible mess by Homer Simpson is.

So how do we go about fixing this problem, then?

Ironically enough, in my view, the best approach would be to start promoting depictions of sexuality in non-porn settings – sort of like the cinematic release of The Good Old Naughty Days, except with material that is designed to be unironically enjoyed, rather than being presented as some pretense at a history lesson. That way, you are not escaping the culture, you are actively confronting it, and forcing the audience to consciously reflect on their absorbed values. People will subsequently begin to criticize these ideas, of course – and that is when real progress can begin to happen. Improvement will only occur if we actively hold the material to a higher standard. In fact, I believe it should be held to the same standard we expect from any other form of art or storytelling, and the fact that the material is sexual in nature should neither cause us to automatically discount it, nor automatically accept it. More important questions, such as what sort of artistic merit it possesses, whether or not it is degrading, what sort of emotional depth it carries, etc, should instead come to the fore. In particular, the current porn standard of either completely context-free sex scenes or absurd and childish scenarios where people suddenly start having sex for no reason is the thing I would really like to see changed, because it stands in the way of a culture which could instead feature much more emotionally fulfilling kinds of entertainment, built around the same real, human stories we spend the rest of our time preoccupied with anyway. And sure, it is certainly possible to detach yourself in order to enjoy the kind of emotionally bankrupt porn that currently overwhelms the market, but it is not particularly… hedonistic.

This is the main way in which art can play a role in influencing the course of human development, incidentally: not by actively solving problems or swooping in to rapidly change people’s views through transcendent expression, but simply by disseminating new ideas and subtlely influencing people’s thoughts and beliefs (for better or worse, sadly). Art doesn’t end discussions; it starts them. And perhaps most importantly, it can entertain and reassure people who already agree with the ideas in question, so they can then go on to make more important strides in achieving these goals. Realistically speaking, a deeply ingrained problem like this is not going to go away overnight – it’s something that can only be changed over successive generations, as people grow up and readily adopt new behaviours and new ideas before the old patterns have a chance to take hold. This is how cultural evolution always works, of course, so if we wish to consciously influence its path then we need a realistic understanding of its mechanisms, and we need to be ready to play a much longer strategic game, because it doesn’t generally produce immediate results. Although another thing to keep in mind is that the pace of technological development illustrates perfectly how evolutionary processes can rapidly accelerate after they reach a certain tipping point, so that is definitely something to aim for, and it’s certainly a comforting thought if you wish to spend your time advocating something which may never eventuate within the course of your lifespan.

Which brings up another point: obviously, I am drawing a fairly fine distinction here, not to mention asking you to consider endpoints in the far future that aren’t all that immediately relevant to our own lives, so these ideas won’t be of much use to people who are simply looking to porn as a way of getting off and who don’t much care about the larger significance of their actions. If that is your view then you are free to live your life that way, of course, and no one can force you to change. To be honest I am surprised you are still reading at this point. But since you’re here, I would ask you to keep in mind that these things, so easily dismissed as irrelevant, have a way of coming back and biting you in the ass. If sexuality is constructed as something which exists outside of normal culture, then it becomes associated with other things that have been relegated to that same place, which is why porn has become largely synonymous with misogyny, racism, sexualized violence, and similar concepts. Because of the way our brains categorize ideas, grouping them together when they apparently have something in common, this is not the kind of association that can be drawn without consequence (as many of our current pop culture and porn tropes will all too readily attest). Ultimately, the choice to do nothing about this problem is essentially a choice to allow it to continue along its current evolutionary path, which, to the extent that we can foresee such things, does not appear to be a path with a happy ending.

On the other hand, if you do agree that this is an extraordinarily dumb situation and that we can clearly do better, then our primary goal – regardless of whether it is accomplished through art or other means – should be to try and integrate a healthy and robust understanding of sexuality into our shared cultural values, so people don’t feel like they have to escape from everyone else or break their own moral codes just to participate in an activity which is, after all, not only the very archetypal example of a “natural” behaviour, but one which brings considerable benefits, both socially and on a more personal level.

It is difficult to define exactly what a liberated sexual culture would look like, because the only convenient reference point we have is a history of failure (which in turn served to suppress or probably even wipe out a lot of wisdom which may have been garnered in more distant historical periods). Indeed, it is akin to ancient farmers at the dawn of the agricultural age attempting to extrapolate the limits of human technological development based only on their own nascent achievements: they would have absolutely no way of knowing that twelve thousand years of cultural evolution would produce the civilization we live in today. I would guess, however, that an idealized culture would have no need for an externalized concept called “porn”, because sex would be a common and unremarkable theme in all the regular artworks and entertainment, not only rendering the concept redundant, but replacing it with something which is much more holistically fulfilling anyway. And yeah, there has been some relaxing of attitudes towards sex in pop culture in recent decades, but the general climate is obviously still fairly farcical. We don’t go to the cinema to watch movies about sex, we just have romance movies, which occasionally feature a blurry pseudo-sexual montage (which isn’t to say that romance isn’t important; obviously, sex needs context to become emotionally meaningful. But that’s just part of the story, not all of it). And more to the point, we have action movies, we have horror movies, and generally speaking, we have a culture set up to venerate another concept entirely: violence. As you would expect of a sexually-repressed culture, this has become the popular surrogate obsession. A good litmus test for these values is children’s entertainment, because this is an area where people instinctively become much more careful about the ideas they are passing on to the next generation: and indeed, not only are fight scenes commonly depicted, but attempts to sanitize these depictions usually result in entirely unrealistic scenes where “bad guys” are dispatched bloodlessly by valiant heroes who suffer no negative consequences for their actions. Compare these tropes with the arguments commonly put forward to justify real-life violence; the similarities are striking (haha, yeah, as my twitter followers would note, I was quite annoyed by that particular article). Meanwhile, of course, you’re not even allowed to hint that sex exists, let alone suggest that it is a healthy and normal activity that you can look forward to when you get older, much like getting a driver’s licence or whatever. Oh, but don’t worry, you do get to kiss someone once you’ve defeated all the bad guys and gotten married – that is, providing you’re not gay, because that doesn’t exist either.

I guess basically what I’m saying is, a truly sexually liberated culture would presumably have much the same attitude towards sex that we do towards the allegedly “justified” violence that so dominates our present-day culture.