Do we live in a ‘pornified’ world?
Yes, there’s an increasingly ugly culture of sexualisation, but the government campaign against it will get us nowhere.
Are our children, is British society itself, drowning in porn? Yes, says Claire Perry, Conservative MP and adviser to David Cameron on ‘preventing the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood’. Perry has made waves with her campaign to stop British kids from encountering so much sauciness, whether it’s porn on the web or a grinding, barely-clad Rihanna on TV. But others, particularly observers of an anti-Tory bent, claim this talk of rampant sexualisation - or ‘pornification’, as some describe it - is nonsense. Children, and more broadly society, are not being warped by images of naked flesh or by slutty song lyrics, they say, and the Conservative war on sexualisation is just an attempt to ‘traduce liberal values’.
Who’s right? The panickers about pornification or the chilled-out critics calling for calm? Neither. The fact is that there is a problem of ‘sexualisation’ today, with sex now omnipresent in popular culture, on TV, in film. You don’t have to be a blue-rinsed prude to recognise that there’s something off about seven-year-old girls sitting around eating Wotsits while watching Lady Gaga whip her backing singers with a bicycle chain. But this so-called ‘pornification’ of society doesn’t spring from the underbelly of the internet, or from MTV, or from Rihanna’s thongs, or any of the other things Perry and her backers are fretting about. Rather, it is a consequence of deeper social trends, and primarily of today’s denigration of intimacy and demonisation of romance, which have led inexorably to the fetishisation of sex.
Everyone, it seems, has an anecdote to demonstrate that we live in a ‘pornified’ culture. Mine is hearing my eight-year-old niece sing the words ‘I love it when you get up on me’ (Rihanna) in the same casual way I might have sung ‘Scooby Dooby Doo, where are you?’ when I was eight. But this is the problem with the debate about sexualisation to date - its reliance on anecdote, and more strikingly its obsession with imagery. Listening to Perry and others, including Labour’s Diane Abbott, who has likewise declared war on ‘hypersexualisation’, you could be forgiven for thinking that British society and the attitudes of its inhabitants were directly shaped by media images, whether it’s S&M-inspired pop or billboard bra ads. In truth, it is far more likely to be the other way around: that all this media imagery of sex reflects a longer-term shift in society’s and individuals’ attitudes towards sex.
Because they recognise there is a problem (they call it ‘sexualisation’) but can’t fathom what it’s all about, Perry and others end up putting forward a massively unconvincing ‘media effects’ theory. Just as 1980s campaigners against horror films claimed, without the benefit of anything resembling evidence, that warped films could warp people, so Perry and Co. claim sexualised imagery and advertising are poisoning people’s minds and attitudes, particularly children’s, and are even shaping how we relate to the opposite sex. Their cluelessness as to the origins or meaning of what they brand ‘pornification’ means they often sound a bit like conspiracy theorists. ‘We’re seeing an alien, warped view of sex normalised into our culture, ingrained by the invisible hand of the market’, says Abbott (note the dearth of active clauses). ‘Our daughters are being abused by a culture of porn’, says one commentator, as if porn were a sentient force, seeking out young girls to despoil.
Campaigners’ obsessive focus on imagery means they end up promoting image-busting - that is, censorious - solutions. So the government’s 2011 Bailey Review into the sexualisation of childhood called for a strengthening of the 9pm TV watershed and for the ‘music, retail and magazine industries’ to stop producing so much sexual stuff. Perry wants to stop young people from accessing porn on the internet (good luck with that). The campaigners are aware they come across as prudishly censorious and furiously try to deny the charge. ‘I am in no way the Mary Whitehouse of this’, insists Perry. ‘We don’t all want to be Mary Whitehouse’, says an observer keen to clamp down on pornified things. These ladies protest too much; the end result of their campaigning is indeed likely to be strengthened watchdogs and more cautious culture producers.
We end up with the worst of both worlds - a more cagey, possibly censorious culture, alongside a continued failure to get to grips with, far less address, what the government calls sexualisation but what I think is better described as the fetishisation of sex. To discover the origins of this culture, our leaders ought to look closer to home rather than finger-wagging at Rihanna. For today’s weird attitude towards and depiction of sex cannot be separated from the culture of fear and suspicion that now surrounds relationships of human intimacy and commitment - a culture that officialdom has done its fair share to spread. It is fundamentally this, the problematisation of intimacy and the corresponding crisis of romance, that has given rise to the treatment of sex as a fetishised category, a commodity almost, a displacement activity for relationships.
Ours is an era in which intimacy is deemed dangerous and commitment is pathologised. From popular culture to the political realm, there’s a powerful trend for depicting closeness and intense love as things that could damage you. Government campaigns targeted at teenagers claim intimacy is risky, full of pitfalls, where you might experience ‘emotional violence’ (whatever that is) or ‘being made fun of’. A government-funded website about relationships, aimed at young people, is called ‘This Is Abuse’, where everything from ‘getting angry or jealous’ to being ‘called names’ - all part and parcel of the most intimate bonds, surely? - is listed as a potential downside of getting close to another. Meanwhile, the sinister-sounding phrase ‘behind closed doors’ is increasingly used to cast aspersions on any private, intimate relationship between adults, including in marital homes. From the therapeutic world (where experts have discovered a new pathology: ‘loving too much’) to the policing sphere (where forces concentrate great effort on uncovering abusive relationships) to popular culture (where no one is ever happily married), modern society’s discomfort with intimacy is palpable, overbearing.
These social shifts and moralistic campaigns have had a huge impact on how sex is viewed, discussed, even experienced. This process was noted by Christopher Lasch in his seminal Culture of Narcissism (1979), where he described how Western societies increasingly ‘make a virtue of emotional disengagement’ and how this can nurture ‘a strict separation between sex and feeling’. In the modern period, ‘intimacy is more elusive than ever’, said Lasch; there’s ‘a revulsion against close emotional attachments’, and this can lead to a ‘desire to divest [sex] of the emotional intensity that unavoidably clings to it’.
This process has intensified in recent decades, giving rise to entirely fetishised forms of sex that are bereft of dangerous emotional entanglement or even feeling. At the most extreme end, we have the increased use of media for sexual gratification, whether by porn or through popular culture, which speaks to a desire to bypass human communication or interaction entirely in pursuit of sexual pleasure. But even in the more respectable realm of expert-led discussions about ‘sexual health’ or ‘sexual wellbeing’ - things we’re all expected to cultivate these days - we can see the promotion of a fetishised form of sex that is focused far more on self-realisation than on engaging with, collapsing into, another human being. Today, sex is often pursued, not out of a longing for engagement with another, but as a means of avoiding precisely that. It’s a displacement activity for intimacy. In such circumstances, it is inevitable that forms of culture have emerged that both reflect this relentless fetishisation of sex, in pop and film, and which also facilitate it, through the rise and rise of web porn and porn identities that provide for sexual activity without risk or feeling.
The campaigners against sexualised imagery have got things entirely the wrong way round - it wasn’t the images that changed the nature of sex and alienated us from one another; rather, the images speak to an already-existing, deeply rooted process of individual, social and sexual alienation. This is not to say that all sex must take place in a committed relationship, or be driven by love, that there isn’t room for sleeping around or sexual experimentation. But when earlier generations experimented, they were conscious of the fact that they were breaking boundaries; their sexual encounters could be measured, whether positively or negatively, against a broader cultural view of sex as an expression of deep feeling between two people. Today, there are no boundaries, no rules; there is only the collapse of what sex used to represent, with this collapse then being described by some observers as a ‘process of pornification’ and by even more deluded ones as ‘sexual liberation’. The apparently pro-sex, ‘liberationist’ side to this debate is the maddest; its outlook is ‘regression masquerading as progress’, as Lasch said of earlier thinkers.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.