Thursday, February 17, 2005


Freedom, pornography, De Sade, etcetera

NOTE: Slightly edited and expanded on Feb. 18.

Warning: this is going to be a long, rambling post.

One of my favourite novels is Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. In it, he presents a profoundly unsympathetic protagonist, Alex, who is deeply into extreme violence, rape, you name it. Eventually Alex gets arrested and treated in a novel fashion: an experimental medication removes all his violent, dark impulses. However, in doing so, it turns him into something less than human: unable to enjoy the bad things in life, he is also unable to enjoy the good things. He cannot listen to classical music anymore, and is defenseless and vulnerable. Alex eventually gets “cured” but, at the end of the book, when his mates want to go on the usual rape/violence/plunder spree, he makes a conscious decision not to. He conquers his own impulses by himself in a rational fashion. To me, the book is one of the most beautiful statements of Enlightenment values like individual autonomy and liberty: not the liberty to commit crimes, but the liberty to be in control of our own minds, of the light sides as well as the dark.

Why do I mention this? I'll get to that. Essentially, there were a number of news items that drew my attention lately, among for example:

That, apparently, porn company Extreme Associates has the state on its back again. Extreme Associates, as far as I know, publishes flicks with humilation, simulated rape, etc. Alberto Gonzales, the man behind the appeal against Extreme Associates, is co-responsible for the very real humilation, rape, torture and murder of largely innocent prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. He was the one that advised George Bush to flaunt the Geneva Conventions. And this miscreant believes the kinky movies of Extreme Associates to be obscene! News like this makes me want to go outside at night to wait for the spaceship to come and pick me up, since it's obviously I'm on the wrong planet.

In CounterPunch, Chyn Sung writes an article about Gonzales' censorship drive, but, while criticizing it (fortunately) she also is deeply concerned about the supposed degrading, anti-woman nature of porn:

Most of the women and men I interviewed first watched pornography in their early teens or even younger. In other words, pornography is sex education. In an already male-dominant society with epidemic levels of sexual and intimate violence, pornographic messages help further solidify and normalize male supremacy in the bedrooms and elsewhere.

Three decades ago, radical feminists began to raise concerns about pornography's link to sexual aggression and violence, and despite the ways in which the culture avoids the issue, it is still crucial. But pornography and a pornographic culture also affect "consensual sex," sexual identities and relationships.

Pornstar and progressive activist Nina Hartley writes a spirited response:

Professor Sun's reportage dwells at length on the most distasteful aspects of what she saw and heard, but makes no mention of any attempt to establish direct communication with any of the women who work in the adult video industry. No wonder she finds it so effortless to ignore our opinions and dismiss our perceptions of our own lives. It's that much easier to characterize all female sex workers as degraded, humiliated and unhappy if you've never talked to any of us. That we might be involved in constructive, effective efforts to improve our own working conditions, and that our employers might take our concerns seriously, clearly doesn't fit Professor Sun's pre-cut template for who we are.

Final news item: the internet provider which hosted the website of MARTIJN, the Dutch equivalent of NAMBLA, has removed that webside in order to get a takeover deal done. Here, I'm ambivalent. I think it's extremely important that organizations like MARTIJN are able to exist, for reasons I'll come to speak to below. But, I also believe that a website provider does not have to host material that it finds objectionable. It's their server space, after all.

Now, I can hear you groan. Two items about legal pornography and one about pedophiles. Surely I'm not painting with too broad a brush here? Be patient – I'll explain below.

My own ethics basically boil down to the simple “If it harms no-one, it's not morally objectionable or legally sanctionable” line. Applied to pornography, it means that I believe that everything except non-virtual child pornography (the production of which involves the very real harming of children), pornography involving animal abuse, or “real” snuff movies (the existence of which seems to be dubious) should be permissable. So-called virtual child porn I would probably find offensive – I do not exactly know, since I do not intend to expose myself to it – but as it “harms no-one”, it is outside of my moral judgement. Same with pornography involving animals but no animal abuse – not my cup of tea, but not morally objectionable. And definitely not a matter for government intervention.

An objection one could make to this is that by being a consumer of pornography, one reinforces a sex industry in which women get exploited; that pornography reinforces the attitudes that lead to oppression and abuse of women in real life; or that pornography may tempt the watcher to commit violent acts against women – therefore, it “does” cause harm.

The first objection first. There's most probably a big seamy side to the adult industry. However, there is massive exploitation in most of every industry, and I think one could seriously question whether a woman working in the porn industry is worse off than one spending her days in a poultry factory or in a clothes sweatshop. Most of the world economy is built upon the exploitation of labour – and often a pretty vicious exploitation at that. Why pick out the adult industry? I suspect that the real issue here is still sex and society's schizophrenic attitude towards it. As Nina Hartley points out in the linked article, the answer to exploitation would be to unionize and organize, and to work for the betterment of the conditions women have to work in there. Not to call for government bans supported by an unholy alliance between the Christian extremist right and sections of the feminist left.

The last reason can be countered with the fact that there seems not to be much evidence to support a causal relationship between consumption of pornography and sexual violence. As the Feminists for Free Expression point out:

No research, including the Surgeon General's report, finds a link between "kinky" or "degrading" images and violence. Exposure to such material does not cause people to change their sexual preferences or commit acts against their will. The derailed impulses of child abusers and rapists are caused by childhood traumas. ''They are not," wrote leading researcher John Money, "borrowed from movies, books or other people."

Studies on violent pornography are inconsistent. Some find it increases aggression in the lab; some find it does not. Research also finds that aggression will be increased by anything that agitates a subject (that raises heart rate, adrenaline flow, etc.), not only violent movies but riding exercise bicycles. Agitation will boost whatever follows it, aggression or generosity.

Dr. Suzanne Ageton, measuring violence out of the lab, found that membership in a delinquent peer group accounted for 3/4 of sexual aggression.

Studies in the U.S., Europe and Asia find no link between the availability of sexual material and sex crimes. The only factor linked to rape rate is the number of young men living in a given area. When pornography became widely available in Europe, sexually violent crimes decreased or remained the same. Japan, with far more violent pornography than the U.S., has 2.4 rapes per 100,000 people compared with the U.S. 34.5 per 100,000.

The same points are echoed by Arne Hoffman in a provocative defence of violent pornography, pointing out that (my translation):

In 1991 Professor Kutchinsky presented a study at Copenhagen University, which showed that between 1964 and 1984 non-sexual violent crime rose with about 300 percent in Danmark, Sweden and Germany, but the number of sexual crimes decreased. This effect could not be related to other factors such as less reporting or less attention on the part of the police.

And the Kinsey-Institute, which questioned 1.356 convicted sex offenders, found out that these men were even less interested in pornographic literature than the rest of the population. So it is not surprising that pornography is actually used in the therapy of sex offenders. Marcia Pally is convinced of the cathartic effects of such literature. Pornography, she argues, is for adults what fairy-tales are for children: a possibility to express their most primal emotions, desires and fears.

So, the relationship between pornography and sexual violence is a dubious one at best. As for the second reason, that's the only one that has me in a bit of trouble. Some people would argue that any depiction of a naked woman is inherently misogynistic and sexist. I disagree, of course, and even the lion's share of hardcore pornography does not seem, generally, misogynist to me. A subset of it does, however, seem to me to have a misogynistic streak in it. However, that does not mean that there is a causal relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexism in society, in that removal of the first would lead to less of the latter. Or that simplistic equations of pornography, sexism and racism as made by some of the anti-porno wing of the left have any value. Things are not that simple at all.

Between amoebe and modern man, about 600 million years have past. The human brain, that most complex material object in the known universe, has been cobbled together during those millions of years in a rather haphazard fashion. Some of the deepest structures in our brain do not differ much from that of a modern crocodile, and indeed, have been inherited in a relatively unchanged fashion from the time our ancestors walked on all fours and had scales. And also a lot of things relating to sexual drives, to our perception of the other sex, etcetera, is inherited straight from the animal kingdom.

Racism, however, is a political construct not that much older than the colonial age. The ancient Greeks were xenophobic – but they did not care much for the skin colour of various barbarians. The pragmatic Romans were not particularly racist at all.

What I mean by this is that a lot of the stuff that makes us human is detritus inherited from pre-human times, which is not going to go away by government bans, Politically Correct language, diversity training, etcetera. And this evolutionary flotsam may also quite well include the drives that cause some men to find degradation, humiliation of women or the infliction of pain sexually arousing.

(Small excursus, as if this post isn't becoming long enough: it is very much regrettable that the left, during the 1970s, chose to ignore or even to oppose evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, leaving it to the right to interpret their results. I, for one, do not believe that the fact that a lot of our behavioral patterns may be explained through biological evolution makes the struggle for Communism futile. I could add that the biologist Richard Dawkins, who has often been inaccurately presented as a crass genetic determinist, regards modern history partially as a struggle to liberate ourselves from the necessity imposed upon us by our genes. Dawkins is a passionate opponent of social darwinism).

In any event, I am not convinced of the argument that pornography perpetuates oppression of women through attitudes and convictions it installs in (male) consumers of it. I think the relationship presented here between outside stimulus and behaviour or consciousness is far too simplistic. Moreover, pornography is more a product of our society, which includes gender oppression and sexism, than the foundation of it.
That does not, in my view, invalidate the struggle against sexism, social and economical inequality between men and women, etc.

Finally, even if the second reason were valid, it would not be an argument for a government ban, for the simple reason that it is not the business of the government to change people's attitudes or opinions by forceful measures. If you wish to fight misogyny, fight the social causes at the roots of it – but respect the right of the individual to be a misogynist or a feminist, to be a nice and gentle person or to be a cold bastard, to be a liberal, a communist or a conservative.

Getting back to the main issue: I do not believe sexual fantasies as such to be open to any moral judgement, no matter how brutal, degrading or sick they are. The same would go for pedophilia – as long as it is not translated into actions. The reason why I do believe child porn should remain illegal is that children are abused with the express purpose of producing child porn, and consumers of child porn perpetuate this wretched industry. Most other (visual) pornography, however, is produced with the consent of anyone featuring in it – a consent as valid as anyone's consent is, in a society where inequality and exploitation reign.

The problem pedophiles have to deal with, I think, is that a) it is not that hard to think up rationalizations to sexually abuse children and b) opportunities abound. Compare that rape fantasies seem to be common with both men and women. However, it takes a lot to actually make the step to rape someone – it is an act of violence, which negates our humanity and alien to most normal people. A pedophile, however, might easily come up with such arguments as that the age of consent is much higher in today's society than it used to be, that sex with adolescent boys was common in ancient Greece, that perhaps in the future the sexual nature of children will be “discovered”, etcetera. You get the picture. Also, children are relatively defenseless, may easily “consent” out of fear – don't forget that most child molesters are father or uncle to the victim - whereas a rapist usually needs brutal force to gain control over an adult victim.

This is the challenge that society poses to pedophiles. They must, much like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, make an ethical decision not to act out their fantasies or desires in real life. There is a popular and well-intentioned notion that pedophilia is a "disease" - and that, instead of the usual hanging or disembowelling that Jow Public generally proposes when asked about pedophilia, we should "cure" pedophiles of their disease. However, I feel extremely uncomfortable with talk about pedophilia being a “disease”, as it seems to me to externalize, in a way, something that the person in question should try to master and put under control as a part of himself.

I do not believe the attitudes of current society towards pedophilia to be very helpful in this. Particularly laws like “Megan's Law” in some parts of the US, which make the residence of released sex offenders a public matter, effectively prevent any possible reintegration into society. Essentially, convicted child molesters have not much of a life inside jail - where every local hoodlum will project his own unresolved feelings of guilt upon him ("I may be a murderer, but at least I don't hurt children!"). With the current atmosphere being as it is, a released convicted child molester will have not much of a life outside of jail either. Child abuse is a very grave crime - depending on the specifics, arguably graver than rape of adults - but worse than murder? I don't think so.

I do believe the unhindered existence of organizations such as NAMBLA and, in the Netherlands, MARTIJN to be of enormous importance here, in that they may help pedophiles to deal with their desires without them actually harming children.

And as a fantasy, I do not believe fantasizing about children to be more open to moral judgement than fantasizing about rape, which is, as the following article reports, very common in both men and women:

Dominance and submission fantasies. In these, sexual power is expressed either ritualistically - in sadomasochistic activities - or through physical force, as in rape fantasies. Such fantasies are surprisingly common. Person reports that 44 percent of men have had fantasies of dominating a partner. Other studies found that 51 percent of women fantasized about being forced to have sex while a third imagined: "I'm a slave who must obey a man's every wish."

Which does not mean, of course, that women want to get raped. There is a big line between finding something arousing to think about and between actually wanting something. But the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for men as well. In my understanding, the BDSM scene acts as an opportunity for many people with non-consensual fantasies to act them out in a consensual manner (by which I do not mean that all people into BDSM have such fantasies).

I think such fantasies are extremely common, though. Even imagery of eroticized torture and eroticized death are common in our culture, from medieval passion plays which had a tendency to, over time, grow much more gruesome and bloody than the legend originally was, to, according to this page by, of all people, the Satanists, a recent movie such as The Passion of the Christ. But there is a taboo on enjoying such imagery for its own sake. As John Dolan of The Exile describes his dissertation on Marquis De Sade in a brilliant article:

You could write on Sade, but only if you tricked him out in borrowed jargon. Jane Gallop was the model: she wore boots to conferences, which was considered wild and daring, and was about as far as anybody was willing to take Sadean studies. As I discovered when I read her book, though, she had never read Sade. This was my disadvantage: I had read Sade, all of him, several times. Sometimes with one hand, sometimes with two. Well, as Nurse Hardcastle says, "You won't find anybody any good at this job who doesn't enjoy it."

Well, to make a bitter decade short: the dissertation went down badly. It sounded like I was a Sade fan, instead of an embroiderer. Which I was. It all seemed so natural; how could anybody who went through puberty uncool not think of every torture Sade listed? It was, I can't avoid the word, "obvious."

And, in my opinion, there's nothing wrong with such fantasies either, or with pornography depicting them (meaning, in a fantasized or simulated way). I'd not be surprised if these things, too, are a result, ultimately, from the many millions of years we have spent as minor predators hiding in trees or hunting in the savannah. The big gulp between fantasy and reality should be upheld here as well.

Of all people, it's that cartographer of the dark sides of the soul, Marquis de Sade, himself, who has brilliantly depicted an atheist ethic which I would hold myself to as well, in his short piece Dialogue between a priest and a dying man, widely available on the Internet. The dying man has just rejected the concept of an afterlife, a final judgement, or the reality of the Christian God:

PRIEST - Then we should not shrink from the worst of all crimes.

DYING MAN - I say nothing of the kind. Let the evil deed be proscribed by law, let justice smite the criminal, that will be deterrent enough; but if by misfortune we do commit it even so, let's not cry over spilled milk; remorse is inefficacious, since it does not stay us from crime, futile since it does not repair it, therefore it is absurd to beat one's breast, more absurd still to dread being punished in another world if we have been lucky to escape it in this. God forbid that this be construed as encouragement to crime, no, we should avoid it as much as we can, but one must learn to shun it through reason and not through false fears which lead to naught and whose effects are so quickly overcome in any moderately steadfast soul. Reason, sir - yes, our reason alone should warn us that harm done our fellows can never bring happiness to us; and our heart, that contributing to their felicity is the greatest joy Nature has accorded us on earth; the entirety of human morals is contained in this one phrase: Render others as happy as one desires oneself to be, and never inflict more pain upon them than one would like to receive at their hands. There you are, my friend, those are the only principles we should observe, and you need neither god nor religion to appreciate and subscribe to them, you need only have a good heart. But I feel my strength ebbing away; preacher, put away your prejudices, unbend, be a man, be human, without fear and without hope forget your gods and your religions too: they are none of them good for anything but to set man at odds with man, and the mere name of these horrors has caused greater loss of life on earth than all other wars and all other plagues combined. Renounce the idea of another world; there is none, but do not renounce the pleasure of being happy and of making for happiness in this. Nature offers you no other way of doubling your existence, of extending it.

I do not believe in an afterlife – except in the memories and feelings of those we leave behind, and in the traces, big or small, that our work has left on earth. And the way I would like to be remembered is the basis of my own ethics and morality.

Marxism is “merely” one statement of a worldview which regards history as a long, protracted struggle for freedom – freedom of the necessities outside circumstance poses us, freedom of the necessities our own evolutionary heritage poses us, the freedom to control our own destiny, to become masters of our own history. A similar view has been expounded by the Jesuit priest and palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin in his The Phenomenon of Man, and, brilliantly, in Dan Simmon's magesterial science fiction novel Hyperion and successors, which is partially based upon de Chardin's works, who regarded the whole of natural evolution, including human evolution, as a directional process, ultimately culminating in the emergence of God itself.

Whatever the specifics, freedom within one's own mind is a precondition to any freedom relating to the outside world. I mentioned earlier that Marxists should be unconditional defenders of free speech as any infringement on it serves to strengthen the bourgeois state. The same goes, obviously, for pornography as an expression of free speech (and one that, usually, is the earliest to be challenged). But that is not the only reason. The main reason is there are no prospects for human liberation without, as a first principle, the autonomy of human reason over any extraneous force – religion or state - that would impinge on it. It is only by that that we, much like Alex, gain control over ourselves – all of it. The "The personal is political" navel-staring that took over the left probably sometimes in the 70s or so is inimical to that end.

- Merlijn

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?