• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

The mainstreaming of porn

The following is an edited version of an essay originally published in spiked in 2013, under the title, ‘Porn: no longer a dirty little secret’.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, pornography consisted of printed or visual material that was available only on the margins of society. Individuals who bought pornographic literature would feel embarrassed if they were seen by others. Salacious and obscene magazines were kept in brown envelopes; buying porn was a dirty little secret between shop assistant and consumer.

That was then. Today, pornography has gone mainstream. It has been so normalised, people talk openly about ‘my porn’. Porn talk is a part of modern-day conversation.

Some of today’s debates about pornography are just a clash of views over what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ or ‘appropriate’ porn. ‘We need better lesbian scenes, not ones that blatantly pander to men, with heterosexual actresses looking vaguely nauseated as they gingerly trail their fake nails across each others’ breast implants’, argues one commentator and avid connoisseur of porn.

Of course, the normalisation of a culture of pornography has not gone unchallenged. Some use the term ‘pornification’ to describe the proliferation of self-conscious and explicit exhibitions of sexual themes and activities. Britain’s then shadow health minister, Diane Abbott, warned that British culture is ‘increasingly pornified’ and is damaging young people. In 2013, a proposal was put before the European parliament calling on the EU to ‘take concrete action on discrimination against women in advertising’ via a ‘ban on all forms of pornography in the media’. The parliamentarians’ response captured the spirit of our times. They insisted that the proposed ban on porn should be dropped but they voted to regulate the media portrayal of women. In other words, porn is okay but the media degradation of women is not. This curiously selective approach towards censorship reveals officialdom’s acceptance that pornography is now an integral part of the European way of life.

The cultural significance of pornography

Historically, debates about pornography have focused on its alleged harms and its moral corruption of society. There have also been arguments about the very meaning of pornography. The question of what makes a particular picture or literary passage pornographic has been a source of dispute between artists and their moralistic critics for years.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, pornography is ‘the explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc, in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings; printed or visual material containing this’. This definition links pornography to obscenity, which the OED defines as ‘the character or quality of being offensively indecent, lewdness’. Of course, definitions offer only limited help for clarifying the problem of porn, because the idea of what constitutes lewdness is to some extent always open to interpretation. Throughout history, important literary and artistic achievements have been condemned by moralists as pornographic.

In principle, literary and artistic works may well contain scenes that are lewd and degrading, as part of an effort to disturb or to express an aesthetic sensibility. What makes a visual scene or literary passage pornographic is not its content but its aspiration to depict the obscene as an end in itself. Invariably, it shows sexual themes out of context. Unlike erotic literature or art, the mission of porn is to represent people obscenely. It derives its force from objectifying sex to a point where it becomes freed from the everyday realities of life. As Christopher Lasch, a social theorist and historian, argued, pornography even dents our capacity to fantasise, since ‘fantasy ceases to be liberating when it frees itself from the checks imposed by practical experiences of the world’.

What’s fascinating about the current moment is that the old arguments about whether or not specific visual material is pornographic have lost their relevance. Today, pornographers rarely pretend to be something they are not. There is little attempt to package up obscenity as high or erotic art. Instead we are witnessing the self-conscious industrialisation of pornography – alongside the rise of a new claim that porn contributes to the wellbeing of society. There is no need for books devoted to the promotion of sexual voyeurism to disguise themselves as literature when their publishers are happy to promote them as ‘mummy porn’.

Pornography has become a culturally, even socially validated fetish, and this resonates with today’s wider tendency to devalue the private sphere. In recent decades, the ethos of transparency has trumped that of privacy. Contemporary society is increasingly suspicious of private life and intimacy. Everything conducted behind closed doors is viewed as a prelude to abuse or domestic violence. The longing for intimacy is depicted as a dangerous desire to lose oneself in someone else. Love is often described as too risky. This stigmatisation of private relationships runs alongside a ceaseless attempt to push sex out into the public domain. There is a drive to ‘normalise’, routinise and demystify the sphere of sex. Sex educators, agony aunts, TV programmes and popular music continually warn people not to have high expectations of sexual relationships. Sex is discussed as a problem that requires helpful advice or support from experts. In other words, sex has been turned into a very public health problem.

Popular culture celebrates voyeuristic behaviour. It demands that we talk about our feelings in public and encourages us to be ‘brave’ and disclose our desires to a mass audience. ‘How do you feel?’ is now the only question that matters on reality TV shows, where the more you disclose, the more you are respected.

This constant demand for revelation empties intimacy of meaning. When the very private thoughts that were once only disclosed to an intimate are communicated to a mass audience, then human relationships corrode. Sex also changes dramatically when it becomes a public spectacle. It is only in the private sphere that it is possible to make love; in public, sex becomes just physical coupling. Paradoxically, the more sex is transformed into a public spectacle, the more it becomes unsexed. Sexual desire, a very human attribute, is transformed into a need for physical release. From this perspective, the principal virtue of pornography is that it allows physical release to be experienced outside of a human relationship.

So, should porn be censored?

Those who insist that porn should be censored or regulated claim that it sexualises children and promotes immoral behaviour. Others are happy to live with ‘healthy’ adult porn but want to ban porn which degrades women or celebrates sexual violence. Some are comfortable with all sorts of obscenity but feel that child porn must be criminalised.

As someone who takes freedom of speech and of expression seriously, I reject any form of censorship – including of obscene material. The right to have access to ideas and information regardless of their social or moral worth is a fundamental one. Those who, like me, believe the world would be a better place if we didn’t have the industrialisation of porn should counter this phenomenon by challenging the culture that underpins it, not through censorship.

Regrettably, those who challenge the status given to pornography tend to focus entirely on porn’s influence on childhood. So in early 2013, the conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers discussed a motion on the negative impact of pornography on school pupils. There is little doubt that the ease with which children can access pornography is problematic. Parents and educators have every right to do whatever they can to keep pornography out of children’s lives. However, the problem does not lie with childhood but with the normalisation of pornography in adult society.

In a world where the line separating adulthood from childhood is ill-defined, and where there are powerful cultural pressures to put everything on view, it is not possible to shield children from obscenity. Instead of putting forward ineffective technical ideas for how to limit children’s access to pornography, educators would do better by stimulating their pupils’ interest and curiosity in exciting ideas and knowledge.

In any case, pornography can no longer be censored, not when Western society has created such a demand for it. The one-dimensional emphasis on the problem of pornography overlooks the real crisis today. Civilisation does not disintegrate when young people stare at obscene pictures. However, if the boundary separating the private sphere from the public sphere continues to be eroded, than we will begin to lose some of our distinctly human qualities. The problem is not so much pornography as a culture which encourages people to turn their lives into public spectacles.

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