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We need to talk about porn

CybersexYou can’t move for it. Porn, that is. So ubiquitous has it become that the Graun even has its own dedicated porn page. We are, apparently, living in something called ‘pornified culture’. Diane Abbot has very recently partly blamed this for a crisis of masculinity. Christians lament the damage pornified culture has on relationships, and feminists have consistently critiqued the adult industry for its depiction of women. It’s everywhere. There’s even soon-to-be an academic journal dedicated to the study of porn. Though I for one am not sure how “the compression of editing reshape the relationship between director and audience” in Hairy Babes Compilations 1, 2, and 4 adds something to the sum total of human knowledge.

This week porn has been in the spotlight again. The Children’s Commissioner’s report (Graun summary) makes the customary points about the perils of violent pornography and their impacts children. It found “pornography could influence children’s sexual attitudes, foster a negative attitude towards relationships and lead them to engage in risky behaviours such as unprotected anal sex, sex at a younger age and the use of alcohol and drugs during sex.”

Porn is more than just one, two, many people engaging in sexual activity on our screens. It has an aesthetic that is reconfiguring and conditioning the way our culture thinks and talks about sex. And you don’t have to start prying into people’s bedrooms to reasonably assume many a romp lives out porn-inspired fantasies. I previously arguedthat it makes sense to think about porn as if it was a diffuse and decentered ideology. Borrowing my old friend Louis Althusser, he rightly noted that as well as ideologies being a set of ideas that offer a partial and typically obfuscatory view of the world, there is a wider sense in that ideology is the lived relation by which ideas, values, cultural codes, and language mediate the constituting/constitutive relationship each of us has with the social world (Bourdieu’s understanding of habitus elaborated on this, but that’s for some other time).

Porn as ideology is a dispersed jumble. But in as far as the adult industry dominant of heterosexual porn goes, it is a mess of body aesthetics, sexual prowess, display, genital-centered reductionism, and gendered power play. In and of itself there is no coherence, but its ready availability allows particulates of porn to flow widely around popular culture. Porn therefore cannot but condition popular outlooks and expectations of sex, which makes Althusser’s approach to ideology particularly useful in the first (and not the last) instance.

Diane Abbott and reports such as the Children Commissioner’s are right to be thinking about and drawing attention to pornified culture. Because porn as an aggregation of all the things I’ve talked about is deeply embedded in the collective experience, whether particular individuals view it or not, society as a whole has to start thinking about how to make sense of this experience. Clearly, Diane’s discussion of masculine crisis points to the social pathologies that may be associated with it. But for others, for all of its reductionism, might porn prove to be revelatory and liberating? I have no particular insights to offer, except we absolutely *do* need to talk about it. Getting all Victorian and trying to sweep it under the carpet, like Claire Perry has been wishing to do will only store up trouble for the future.

This article first appeared at A Very Public Sociologist

 Image credit: copacool / 123RF Stock Photo

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