Chamber Music or Pornography – It’s a Matter of Choice

I have never bought a pornographic magazine or film. Or seen one. The closest I ever got to an interaction with it was through pop culture references to it, a TISM video clip that satirises it and Boogie Nights. There are a number of reasons for this. Put it down to being an only child of older parents, growing up in a home where Beethoven and Mozart wafted through the house, along with ABC TV programs. Put it down to me enjoying spending my time listening to chamber music instead of being in a dingy chamber in Sydney’s downtown watching it.

It is a difficult thing to admit to for a male living in Sydney’s western suburbs. It was a social expectation for every boy growing into manhood to sneak porn mags into one’s room, or watch illegally obtained movies together. To not be interested in seeing it was seen as proof of the worst crime imaginable – homosexuality (which is a curious link to make, really).  Mind you, people already saw me as a bit different. At our Year 10 Informal Costume Night, while everyone tried to be as sexy and charming as possible with their outfits, I dressed as Lurch from The Addams Family. High schools was like that, though. A group mentality struck – and most boys liked to talk about girls in sexual terms. Not when girls were around, of course.  However, even today, if I mention my aversion to porn in conversations about the topic, I am seen as some kind of freak to the people present – especially men.

Part of the reason I didn’t like pornography is that it was just a big industry. I tended to shy away from supporting brands and popular things, even as a young adult.  Porn was just something every male was watching. It was to me the commodification of sex and sexuality – which to young, innocent me should have been about love and intimacy between two people. This is why I have been attracted to a number of arguments about the topic made by campaigners such as Melinda Tankard Reist, who has been continuing a long campaign against “Big Porn Inc.” This argument has continued to concerns about the exploitation of women by the industry as well as providing an unrealistic idea about sexuality to the community. I also have concerns about the sexualisation of women being used to sell products as well as the current encouragement to women to abandon intellectual pursuits in order to be “sexy” and “raunchy”, in the line of Ariel Levy’s arguments in Female Chauvinist Pigs. The Playboy brand is an example to me of something our society doesn’t need. I am also concerned that women are having plastic surgery to their genitals in order to have bodies that resemble those of stars of porn films.

The arguments about pornography and the way they are discussed, however, are not that clear cut.  My own concerns, like those of Levy and Tankard Reist, have been framed by my own opinions towards sexuality and its representation in culture as well as my dislike for various elements of capitalism and cultural products.  I also don’t have a lot of time for the music I have heard that is played in pornography. It definitely needs more chamber music. Perhaps this:

or maybe this:

I don’t have any desire, however, to be a part of a campaign to stop pornography and impose my tastes and opinions on others.  In addition, I don’t think we will ever see a string quartet in a porn film.  If women enjoy making the films, get paid the money they deserve, then it’s not necessarily a problem.   I also not convinced by the argument that pornography make men into sexual predators. This is the point made by Justin Shaw in his King’s Tribune article – that pornography doesn’t make a man who watches it a demanding, sexually perverted monster, men who are like that already are.  We are also in a society where women have become empowered enough to assert what they want and don’t want in a sexual relationship.  I would add that if pornography did pervert men’s view about women, then most men would have those views – which they don’t, if you ask men to be completely honest about their attitudes

The problem is, however, is that arguments about pornography are easily polarised. Whenever it becomes a discussion point in the media or on television programs, we see the arguments being brought back to the gender of the person speaking as well as their religious and cultural background.  This was especially the case with Gail Dines’ appearance on Q and A in 2011.  Shaw, with some accuracy, characterises her performance as consisting of “hysterical screeches”.  The difficulty for her, however, was that Howard Jacobson, Brendan Cowell and Leslie Cannold, were in turn provocative, testosterone driven and hectoring.  What we witnessed was a provocative statement by one person, then an exaggerated,  personal response from Dines that was a little too passionate for some people’s tastes – and certainly could be portrayed as hysterical on a couple of occasions.  As a result, her performance on the evening did not provide an overly positive representation of her views.  It highlighted one of the difficulties of the format of Q and A – that it can become a polarised mess that is more soap box posturing than reasoned debate.  More than once have we heard hysterical screeching from men and women.  Another problem is that Dines would have experienced a lot of opposition to her views over the years, leading to a battle hardened approach.  The Twitter and forum response to Dines’ performance provided us with many examples of why it would be hard to be someone arguing against society’s support for the pornography industry. She was almost universally panned for her views and performance – and worse things than “hysterical” were said about her online.

Another issue in relation to Dines, however, is that she argues that the extremes of the porn industry – the “cruel and violent” variety – is becoming typical of the production of porn, which is not necessarily the case. That’s like arguing that because we have a small number of violent video games, that all the others – like games for the Wii – should be stopped. Another of her arguments is that it’s limiting the sexual imagination – people are turning sex into “plasticised, formulaic, generic version of sex that is boring, lacking in creativity and disconnected from emotion and intimacy”.  There are a couple of problems with that argument. One is that she is claiming that people immediately take what is on a TV and copy it to the letter in their sexual relationships. That’s akin to saying family conversations and interactions are changed permanently after they have watched an episode of Packed to the Rafters. While I’m sure Marieke Hardy’s writing is very good, I can’t see families trying to sound like one of her screenplays afterwards. People’s imaginations are not necessarily limited by what they view or read.  If anything, people’s minds are often expanded when they see new things.  Another is that there is a problem if people are trying to be formulaic and generic with their relationships. There are people in society who like to conform to society’s mores and expectations. That is their choice. Some people already have severely limited imaginations and need to be shown new ways of doing things. She may find a lot of the positions in the films “generic”, but viewers who have previously had little idea of what can be done may enjoy it.

The role of Melinda Tankard Reist in the debate has also been problematic, partially because she is a divisive figure, who sees a wider “pornification” of culture everywhere. She sees it as all pervasive – popping up in a variety of products, clothing lines and programs.  Her arguments tends to impose her views of what is tasteful and classy on others. For example, she finds the video of Lady Gaga’s Telephone to present a “distorted” and “one dimensional” view of sexuality. This, however, is more a negative review of the video based on her taste than a serious argument about the degradation of society. In her work in relation to clothing and other items that can be purchased, she comes across as wanting to remove any adult or parental agency from the viewing and/or purchase of such clothing items.  She seems to work from the base that people can’t be trusted to make their own choices and that we need social pressure on companies and governments to make them for us.

An example of MTR’s approach is the one she takes to the popular Sexpo. She found the whole show distasteful and exploitative, because that was what she was looking for. The married people I know who have been to it have found that the objects and videos have helped give variety to their intimacy.  Personally, I tend to have the same view of Sexpo as the people from Things Bogans Like – it’s just silly maxtreme stuff.  However, instead of railing against it, I think people should have the choice to attend or avoid such events. Give me a Musica Viva concert anytime.

The issue is a difficult one to address in society because it frequently slips into discussions about feminism and the role of women in society. And this is a topic that easily dissolved into impassioned debate about what it is like for women to be treated as objects in society. This is where the argument becomes very difficult for people on either “side”. It cannot be denied that women are turned into sex objects by some men and that women often find it difficult to be taken seriously, especially in predominantly male domains.  It can be argued, however, that pornography didn’t create this situation. Attitudes towards women in society – as well as pay scales – should be constantly improved. Eliminating pornography, however, won’t achieve that job.  In any case, it can also be seen in our culture that many women like turning men into sex objects as well. Humanity does tend to like to commodify and objectify. In addition, as pointed out in Ben Pobjie’s article in the same issue of The King’s Tribune, it’s not just women who feature in pornography. It’s an industry that welcomes and entertains all comers.

Pobjie’s article highlights something that is missing from this discussion at times – a light touch, a backing away from the idea that the issue of pornography has world-shaking importance attached to it.  It is a form of entertainment like any other, where the audience enjoy what they pay for, those who perform in it get paid (often quite a lot) and other people make a profit from it.  I don’t like the form – apart from lacking chamber music, it also seems more than a little silly. Then again, I don’t like Two and a Half Men either.  As much as I would like it to disappear forever, I know that there are people who find it hilarious in the privacy of their own homes.  It has been an appallingly sexist program, portraying women as playthings to a character played by the known wife beater Charlie Sheen. Yet we don’t see Gail Dines or Melinda Tankard Reist railing against that program.

What we also need to see is the concept of pornography being separated from that which surrounds what women wear in public. This discussion is often extended to judging women wearing short skirts on a Friday night. I can’t see, however, that wearing a short skirt at Penrith’s outstanding Phriction Nightclub would encourage men to re-enact in public a scene from The Rides of March or We Bought a Zoo Weekly (I have no idea if these are real films). Instead, the women who wear the clothes they want to wear are generally enjoying their evening out without concerns about the men they are with. We should not be pointing at the finger at a woman for dressing a particular way. Men should be more than capable of acting in a mature, decent way – no matter what piece of cloth is being worn. In addition, if a man and a woman hook up at that nightclub and go back to his or place want to and consent to recreating a moment from that film, that is their business.

Perhaps what is needed is a little more of a dispassionate approach to the discussion of pornography. Gail Dines and Melinda Tankard Reist are not ideal spokespeople, due to their style and agendas, which tend to be absolutist.  Nor are people who aggressive in their justification of all pornography. Pornography is an often distasteful reality and will continue to be in society, no matter what campaigners say.  If it was banned, it would be done illegally.  On the other hand, some pornography is degrading and terrible and should not be seen by anyone – I think society should continued to be concerned about the more extreme edges.  Porn is also leading some women to take steps of altering their appearance and attitudes in order to be more “acceptable” to men, which is not a positive step. This is why we need a sensible, sensitive approach that contains the acceptance that young people like pornography and will access it – but that there needs to be an understanding that some of it is degrading and should be avoided. This approach is outlined by Shaw in this paragraph:

“We need to talk to our young boys, make sure that they that know some porn is bad, and some, although the thought of them looking at it is mortifying, is not so bad. We need them to know that they are not one small step from becoming a sexual predator because they are aroused by watching couples from the internet shagging each other’s brains out.”

This approach has its benefits because the real people who need educating about this are the generation growing up with competing and often confusing visions of sexuality. I would take it a step further, however, and say to our children that it is also ok to not want to watch porn at all. That it’s ok to say to others that it doesn’t appeal to them – that they shouldn’t feel pressured to watch it by their peers. We should also be telling our girls that they need not feel intimidated to be just like the girls in pornography, to alter their appearance to give into male demands “because it looks great in that film”. This advice, though, should apply to many forms of culture – music, television and the like, not just pornography that make women look like mere sex objects. Boys and girls should be told that these forms do not necessarily represent the way people should be acting towards each other.  That is why, ultimately, it’s good parenting and mentoring that is needed in this issue – not facile television three ring circuses. For me, I will continue to shy away from porn, because it is, in my opinion, just a fairly soulless industrialised form of sexuality. However, if people want to watch it, that is their choice.  That and watching Two and a Half Men.

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