No doubt by writing this piece, I will be inundated with nasty spam but this morning, when I checked my comments and saw what I had been sent under the guise of a flattering response, I had to put fingers to keyboard and get this off my chest! The comment was sent by a site that thinks it’s okay to show women being sexually abused. That’s what I call pornography: sexual abuse. But it’s not just the women who are abused, it’s the men involved, those who view these sites and anyone involved at any level, because to make money out of nasty photos of sex, is to my mind, seriously abusive all round.
Porn had been around for hundreds of years; probably thousands, maybe even millions? But even if I were living in a cave, wearing nothing but an animal skin and gnawing a dinosaur bone, I wouldn’t want to receive unsolicited pornographic cave paintings! It’s my choice if I want to paper my walls and ceiling with porn. MY CHOICE. I do not want to receive the stuff uninvited. And that’s what is happening to each and every one of us when we turn on our computers. We are suddenly at risk from unsolicited and offensive trash.
Freedom from censorship has been hard won. But the world wide web is a law unto itself. At present, it cannot be policed effectively and anyway, would we want it to be? But down in its murky depths are sites that should, in my opinion, be removed. The very worst sites are under scrutiny by the police but I think there are many that are allowed to continue because they are seen as acceptable. They are not acceptable. I do not find them acceptable. They insult women and they demean men.
I am no religious fanatic or a prude. But the abusive nature of porn sites really bothers me. I know you might say just don’t look at them. I don’t, but when they are thrust at you and you cannot stop the image flashing up on your screen, what then? The image has been seen. Like a horrendous car crash, you have to live with that image, your mind has been assaulted by it. My greatest fear is that one of my grand children should inadvertently, or through curiosity come across these abusive images.
The following is an excerpt from an article by Germaine Greer published in The Guardian in 2000.
The cool post-liberal consensus about pornography misses the point. Pornography has nothing to do with freedom of expression: it is primarily business, a ruthless impersonal industry based on the sound maxims that a) there is one born every minute; and b) you should never give a sucker an even break. It uses and abuses not only the boys and girls who provide the imagery, but also the fantasy-ridden sub-potent public, mostly male, that pays for its product.
New guidelines covering both mainstream movies and hard-core videos sold through sex shops mean we can now lawfully watch more pornography. There are virtually no constraints on the level of explicit sex in films now, and in R18 videos, close-up shots of penetration by penis, finger, tongue or sex toy, ejaculation, oral-genital contact and masturbation have become legal. But legal or illegal hardly matters, except that illegal, like all crime, pays better for less work. Can pornography go any further? Yes, it can. Can it go too far? No, it can’t. As far as male sexual fantasy is concerned there is no too far.
Illicit porn is the trailblazer. Where it goes, legitimate media must follow if they are not to allow the unscrupulous to walk away with the lion’s share of the profits, and ultimately the whole business. If cult movies can generate for nothing the kind of media interest that costs mainstream movies millions to pump up, mainstream movies will copy them – slowly, goodness knows, but inevitably. No matter how much froth and bubble there is around the question of what children may and may not be allowed to see, the real problem is what the parent generation demands to be shown. As long as there is demand, the porn industry will be there to serve it. As long as there are cigarettes, kids will smoke them. As long as daddy keeps tit mags and porn videos in his sock drawer, his kids will look at them. The notion that kids can exist in one world while their parents exist in another is a peculiarly English delusion.
Historically and etymologically, pornography is simply the advertising of prostitution. A great deal of pornography caters for niche markets of just this kind, and is totally unarousing to people whose sexuality has not been kinked in that direction. Minority sexual preferences are usually classed as paraphilias and dubbed abnormal; the permissive society tended to accept paraphilias as an essential aspect of human sexual activity. ‘Whatever turns you on’ was what you were entitled to in the innocent Sixties, before the lid had been taken off and we had a sight of the can of worms that is human sexuality. What the sex reformers of the Sixties thought they were liberating was people’s desire to pleasure each other; what they were not prepared for was the intensity of the need that many people have to hurt each other, and even to harm each other, if they are to get any closer to their own brain-sucking orgasm also known as ‘great sex’.
The inbuilt problem in the ‘whatever turns you on’ creed is that what turns one person on does not necessarily turn on his partner. Very few women develop paraphiliac interests; some say this is because their sexuality is still repressed, and that as they begin to share power and to identify their own sexual interests, they too will begin to demand exotic sexual services. The reality is that most women participate in sex games because there is no other route by which they can enter into what passes for intimacy with the person they love. In the sex industry the customer calls the shots; the purveyor of sexual services, like the purveyor of food or entertainment, like anyone working in any service industry, is in it for the money… Many sex workers find the faking of pleasure a service too far, and draw the line at pretending to enjoy whatever it is the client wants them to do. In an unfree society, most of the activities called consensual represent the capitulation of the powerless to the demands of the powerful. Power comes in various guises, as money, status, patriarchy, and as emotional invulnerability.
The purpose of pornography is to arouse desire in the absence of desire, to raise appetite where no hunger exists, so as to provide a market in which the purveyors of pleasure can make their living and their profits. Where need exists, there is no necessity to stimulate demand; where no need exists, enticing imagery must be used to create demand. People who have no desire to eat a piece of bread and butter, because they are not hungry, can be stimulated to desire chocolate if the chocolate is presented to them as something more than food, as ecstasy, rhapsody or orgasm. Chocolate is a fattening comestible marketed as if it were a drug; when foodstuffs from apple pies to processed cheeses are presented as causing euphoria, it is the drug experience that is presented as the way to wellbeing. Commercially produced food is also fake food, not made principally of the substances mentioned on the label, but with chemical analogues and fillers, and laced with taste additives and excessive amounts of salt and sweeteners. Your healthy yoghurt-coated apricot pieces are mostly vegetable fat and sugar, neither of which is mentioned on the label. In a similar way, commercial fast sex is fake sex, divorced from both passion and reproduction. Food advertising sells fantasy food and sex advertising sells fantasy sex.
Just as the advertising of fast food and confectionery has eliminated appetite so that no one now knows what it is to work up an appetite, or that hunger is the best sauce to any food, pornography has eliminated desire. Food marketing has brought eating disorders upon us, and it is as likely that sex marketing will have the same consequences. We already gorge and starve on sex, so that love-making becomes displacement activity – fetishistic, obsessive-compulsive and deeply pointless. The analogy with sex and drugs soon became obvious; we began with alcoholics who abuse one kind of drug, and moved to chocoholics who abuse another, and from heroin addicts to sex addicts.
There was a time within living memory when for most people, fast food and fast sex were both unattainable. The nation had much less food and much less sex than it has now, but it is very possible that it enjoyed both food and sex more than it does now. Pleasure, like pain, is difficult to quantify; one could never prove that we are having more sex but of poorer quality in 2000 than in 1950, any more than we could prove that potatoes really did taste better 50 years ago, but enjoyment and rarity do seem to be connected in the human psyche, if in a curiously problematic way. An orgasm prolonged for more than a few minutes would soon begin to pall. Routine sex is just that. If you drink champagne once a year, are you more likely to find it delicious than if you drink it every day? Or are you more likely to be disappointed and think that it is not the drink it is cracked up to be? The pleasure principle takes intelligent management; we need to know what to expect from our champagne, how to judge good champagne from bad, and when and where and how fast to drink it.
Sex is much more complicated than champagne, especially if two people or more are involved. A wine buff has to learn his pleasure by experiment and also by study; pornography might be thought of as the information system that shows the sex buff how to enjoy sex. There are important differences; the literature of wine cannot give us the sensations of drinking or having drunk; gratification must be delayed. People don’t often drink wine while reading about it, and less often find that they need to read about it before working up a desire for it, but people often have sex while watching other people having sex on video. Pornography both triggers a genital reaction, provokes excitement and suggests imminent release; pornography is what makes fast sex possible, alone or with others.
Fast food is a way of neutralising hunger and hence the intrusion of images of food into other mental pursuits. Fast sex, too, might clear the decks for a different kind of action. The proliferation of pornography is rather like the rise and rise of the potato crisp, which now occupies both sides of a whole aisle in the local supermarket. You used to have to hunt for a sachet of salt in your crisp packet; you can now get crisps not only ready-seasoned, but with sprayed-on chemicals that simulate the flavours of prawn cocktail, smoky bacon, Worcester sauce, smoked ham and pickle, roast beef and mustard, cream cheese and chives, sour cream and onion, scampi and lemon, and doubtless, one day, altar-boy semen. Crisps are a very good example of food that fattens and does not feed; virtual sex, like virtual food, is designed to leave the consumer unsatisfied.
The discussion of what we may and may not see in video and film has nothing to do with pornography, and everything to do with the ever retreating threshold of shockability. The censors take account of what may be routinely seen in other media, and decree that video and cinema may not quite catch up (catching up to the internet would be a lot too much a lot too soon) but can move a little closer to the ever-fluctuating norm. For 70 years or so, the movement has continued in the direction of showing more; what we would expect sooner or later is that the nation’s stomach will turn; a tidal wave of revulsion has been known to sweep away all kinds of practices, from dog- and cock-fights, gay bathhouses and sex-aid shops, to burning books, imprisoning deviants, veiling women and shaving men’s heads. The Taliban is no new phenomenon; what we should perhaps pray for is a quieter and less cruel revolution, in which people stay away from gross and brutal spectacles simply because they have no stomach for them, and their promoters start losing serious amounts of money.
There is absolutely no prospect of this happening that I can see from here. Virtual sex and sexual services go on expanding at an astonishing rate. Our best hope for a collapse of the whole monstrous business is that the constant pilfering of material from pay-as-you-view sites to be downloaded into free access sites will suck the profits out of pornography. But by that time, pornography will be all the culture we can pretend to. It is already a vastly bigger cultural presence than all our opera, ballet, theatre, music and fine art put together.
This article appeared on p1 of the Observer Review section of the Observer onSunday 24 September 2000. It was published on guardian.co.uk at 02.21 BST on Sunday 24 September 2000.
Now ten years on, where are we?