The Moral Economy of Porn, pt. 2

video-xxx by Randall S. Frederick

When I was little, my parents hid nothing from me. I was very aware of sex, sexuality, and the nude form by the time of kindergarten. One time, when the teacher stepped out, I proceeded to give an anatomy lesson to my classmates – “Boys have penises and girls don’t” – complete with physical illustration.

The teacher, Ms. Gwen, was horrified and it was the first time I recall my parents sitting me down and explaining how nudity was not appropriate in public. Until then, I freely drew breasts and penises with Crayons the way other children draw puppies and unicorns.

By the third grade, my mother had exposed me to so much nudity in art that it wasn’t arousing. My classmates giggled and twittered amongst themselves when we went on field trips to museums and galleries, but I was oblivious to it all. What did they find so funny? Today, a well-shot photograph of a naked woman, even if explicitly pornographic, does not elicit the response one would expect for a straight male in his thirties. It’s not that the erotic nature is lost on me anymore, it’s that I have been conditioned to see beauty in artistic nakedness – whether intentionally done for “artistic” purposes or that of the erotic. Sadly, many of the people I grew up with were unable to make the distinction between erotic and artistic. Because of this, they often miss the sensuality and beauty all around them. The swell of a woman’s breast held tightly under her blouse, the sharp angles of a man’s thighs, the hairline (my god, the hairline!), the resemblance between the back of a well-toned hand to the arms and roots of a tree.

Where the line exists between “art” and “porn” is difficult but important distinction to make. And when it comes to our own sexuality, even more so. A person may want to feel beautiful or attractive without there being anything else to it. We meet and brush up against attractive people – friends, coworkers, family members, neighbors – but that doesn’t mean we want to strip them down and lick the sweat from the corner of their upper lip. It is enough to notice and be noticed. However, when it comes to porn, we approach beauty in a decidedly different manner. We are here for the express purpose of arousing those sensations we suppress elsewhere.

To be very candid, something that arouses me greatly in porn is the coloration of a handprint – whether on a wrist, or a bottom, or anywhere else, the blush of one person touching another and leaving a brief echo of imprint on another arouses me greatly, to say nothing of the sounds that human bodies make when connecting more intimately. But where does that exist in art? How do you explain to the gaggle of elementary schoolchildren the usage of color by an artist to assure we, as viewers, catch that there is an imprint of a hand on that figure’s bottom? I suspect we never have those discussions because the line between art and real life is blurred. We are able to distance ourselves from the work, and in creating distance, a disconnect between what arouses us and what we able to process and name – this thing here, this arouses me – is blurred and muddle as well. So, for safety, we judge it. We name it as “bad” and relegate it to the dirty weekend. Clear cuts are made. We are good people, so we will ignore it because it is bad. People who notice those kinds of things are bad. And we are not bad.

How can it be wrong when it arouses us so much? That is, were I to explore my own body and my own sensuality and find, yes, that certain places on my frame are excitable – say, the nipples – and find through experience that seeing another person’s nipples become hard makes me excited too, what is the harm in that?

Porn, as a medium, as an art form – yes, even if it is a bad art form – seeks to meet these niche desires. Be it nipple play, or sweat, or interracial, or age, or whatever turns you on, porn is a very specific industry seeking to satisfy those desires and, implicitly, normalize them. After all, I’m not the only one turned on by gay football players. There are others, like me, who are watching these same films. Enjoying them the way I am.

In a sense, porn is an equalizer. It serves a socially cohesive function, if we are being utilitarian for a moment. None of us, even in our most private and intimate ways, are “weird” or alone. There are others out there like us.

The trouble comes when judgment is present; when I, in some great sense, betray the privacy of that moment. My desires sated, I turn on my compatriots. “Look at you pathetic wastrels, masturbating to lesbian cheerleaders. You sick bastards. You should be ashamed of yourself” as though I am not truly projecting my own sense of guilt.

Then again, there are some that do not find the idea of sex all that arousing. These are the good people. As a warm-blooded mammal, I find such people fall neatly into two categories – the liars and the asexuals. The asexuals I am curious about. The liars I simply laugh off. “You’ve never seen an adult film? Don’t know what a dildo is? Don’t know about Victoria’s Secret? Oh, come off it.” And in so doing, even I am “judging” in some sense. Some judge people for having desires, some judge people for not admitting them.

Recently, a close friend confessed that they “really get off to tentacle porn.” I would have never expected this of them, but it both surprised and surprised me as much as it bonded us together. Though tentacle porn does nothing for me, I was touched – genuinely touched – that they would share this with me. After, we were able to laugh at the unusualness of my response – “I’d feel like anyone else would judge me!”

Still others object to porn, pointing to the health issues surrounding sex work. We somehow intuitively know that these are “dirty” people, and judge them. Which works wonderfully everytime. Who doesn’t love to hate on some sick people? Judge them back into health. And we know that historically, most artists have a story of rejection. Heretics and pariahs, the lot of them. And for some reason, we prefer it this way, believing that the best art comes from pain and rejection. It is an irony that once an artist goes “mainstream” and had a measure of success which insulates them from the pain of their former days, their fan base turns on them. The artist, having escaped their pain and garnered adulation, has “betrayed” the fans.

We love dirty people. They excite us. It’s the squeaky ones we find dodgy.

The issue with porn then seems to be the exchange of money, then. Once money is involved, it is no longer art or pleasure, or even recreational. The commercialization of the art form necessitates our despisal of it, de rigueur. This makes most sense when and where social justice concerns are present.

As stated previously, I should hope that we can all agree that sexual slavery is a gross injustice. And while this is always a present concern with sex work, it is so large that we must set it aside momentarily as best we can. Yes. Sexual slavery exists. Yes, it is an important concern which deserves our attention. But it is not the sole concern of sex work. The two are not unanimous any more than industrialization is synonymous with global warming. A link certainly exists, but not in every instance nor every place, for all time. Sweeping statements both ruin an argument by making it massively unwieldy so as to ruin all possible dialogue and divert our attention from all other matters which might either expose other troubles like the hydra, or which would reveal new possibilities of insight for the future.

Put another way, sex work and specifically porn does not mean sexual slavery in all cases. To say so is imposes a theory – even a plausible theory – which does not exist. It is illogical. By contrast, it would be like saying every food service worker was an African American. Many are. But such a sweeping claim causes all other races to “vanish” by becoming African American against their will. It also causes all African Americans to become synonymous with food service, thus prohibiting future employment with the establishment of caste (ex: “Ah, well, we can’t hire you because you’re African American, and everyone knows African Americans work in the food industry”) not to mention the inherent and overtly racist nature of such a claim. The logic fails and actually exhibits a lack of insight rather than the moral superiority it seems to be claiming.

Said again, not all sex workers are sexual slaves. However, and this is as close as I will come to the matter, I want to circle back to my own upbringing. My parents, while candid and even in some sense “revealing” on matters of sex and sexuality, were well-intentioned and (I believe) innocent in their parenting style. The lines became blurry at times. My father proudly showed me my first “nudie magazine” when I was six. I saw my mother bathing naked for a few years past the “innocent” stage. The environment I was raised in may lead to my occasional lapses in respecting boundaries. “You weren’t raised with healthy boundaries” my mother, a therapist, told me once. “And that explains a few things.” While not all sex workers were abused as a child, many were. This “abuse” takes on different faces and contexts. Part of the difficulty in ascertaining whether sex workers were abused at some point has to deal with the degrees of secrecy we, as humans, layer our lives with. Were my parents abusive? I genuinely do not think they were. However, I do recognize that they were much more open about sex and sexuality than many of my peers growing up.

Most sex workers, even those who vehemently deny abuse, will admit a high degree of awareness of sex from an early age – myself included. That my (arguable) place among sex workers is clinical, sociological, and therapeutic does not distinguish me or my professional colleagues from the common trait of high degrees of awareness at an early age, often facilitated in some way by an adult. Consensual or otherwise.

Moving on, and again circling back in a broader way, the issue proposed is what role, if any, money has to do with sex and sexuality. Does it cheapen it? Make it sinister? It is my inclination to say a conditional No. The one condition is, again, that of sexual slavery which we will return to later.

As for the economic side of sex, I see no issue here. Humans have, since time immemorial, made sex into an economic transaction. Even in nature (thus confounding those who look to “natural law”), primates, marsupials, birds, even reptiles often provide food and shelter – some measure of “trade” – in exchange for sexual congress. Are humans above this? Hardly. How many wives would leave there husband if not “for the kids”? Or what of the couple who turns a blind eye, or even opens their marriage up, so as to avoid the costs of divorce and child support? What man has not gone home frustrated that, having paid for dinner and roses, he got not so much as a peck on the cheek? Or the girlfriend who finally breaks up with her boyfriend because she “does everything for him” and is fed up with “mothering his lazy ass”?

Problematic as it might be to say so, we all make tradeoffs for the love, attention, affection, and sex that we seek. Just today, for example, a close friend of mine had her on-and-off-again boyfriend break up with her. Her lament? “I’m going to miss the sex. He was an immature man-child, but goddamn the sex was amazing.” The issue I see is not that we make tradeoffs in exchange for sex, but that we speak of it at all. It is very much like flatulation in this way. The primmest among us acknowledge that yes, they have on occasion and in the privacy of their own dwelling, passed gas. But it must never be spoken of; to acknowledge it aloud is to violate some principle of propriety and decorum by which civilization is held together. What then of porn, which is the single most profitable industry the world has ever seen? Is porn our global scapegoat – acknowledged, but never spoken of in polite company?

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