Two nights ago, fittingly enough, our talented troupe of young actors performed our play Two Nights to an audience of parents and students, with the aim of making it easier for them to start discussions about pornography, and the role this is playing in shaping our intimacy culture. Clearly, having spent three years with this play now, taking it around schools and facilitating discussions with thousands of students, I have an opinion on this issue, one that has become stronger as time has gone on.
One might characterise the response to pornography as falling broadly into three camps. This is a necessarily inaccurate characterisation, but for my purposes it will do. The first is the ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ camp. These folk will typically argue that the problem is either overhyped, non-existent, unavoidable, or unsolvable. I’m not much interested in addressing their arguments here. Suffice to say I think they’re wrong, and in other entries on this blog I’ve done my best to explain why. It’s the distinction between the other two camps which interests me more, because here there is an argument about the best way to respond to the changing landscape, and given I’m actively pursuing solutions in schools, I have an obligation to get my head around this dispute.
One school of thought is that the answer is to promote what is sometimes referred to as critical engagement with pornography. That will take many forms, but it asks us to engage young people in a discussion about types of pornography, how it’s consumed, how the sex portrayed differs from real sex, why some people object to pornography, what ethical pornography might look like etc. It essentially says, given this stuff exists, isn’t going anywhere in a hurry, is easily accessible, and is being viewed by young people, let’s talk to young people about what they’re viewing and let them make informed decisions for themselves about the material. It’s akin to an approach to drug education which aims to give young people as much information as possible about recreational drugs, be it legal aspects, purity, possible side effects, typical experiences and so forth, so that those who do make the choice to use drugs (as many young people will) do so with better information and hence a better chance of protecting themselves.
The opposing school of thoughts is concerned that this approach, by sending what is essentially a value free message (we’re not telling you what to do, we just want you to be aware of the consequences), sends a tacit signal about values nonetheless. And the value message we send is – actually, there’s nothing wrong with this per se. Just be aware of what you’re getting into. Be a well informed consumer. And that value, goes the argument, is exactly the wrong one to be promoting, as it lets us off the hook, allowing us to grow complacent in the face of a problem that is both real and pressing.
For my part, the last of these arguments is the one I endorse, and I want to try to explain why. I think the critical consumer model is absolutely a product of the neo-liberal model that has dominated much of our economic and social thinking over recent decades and is specifically designed to suit the needs of corporations. I think it ignores the way people actually make decisions, and I think it ignores the way value systems are woven into the social fabric. It is essentially falling a back on the parody of human nature upon which neo-classical economics was built, and it appeals precisely because it relieves adults of the messy responsibility of owning and promoting ethical positions.
Fast food is an excellent example here. In New Zealand our health system labours beneath, and this is only going to get worse, the massive burden of dealing with diet related diseases, most notably but by no means exclusively, type-two diabetes. That portion of the food industry that has grown massively rich on the back of the simply trick of finding new and imaginative ways to package salt sugar and fat together in attractive packages, runs a very appealing line it its defence. It’s not the food that’s the problem. All things are fine in moderation. We just need people to make more sensible choices. We need to inform and educate, we need to make them critical consumers. There is simply no evidence this approach works. This is because we’re not particularly rational when it comes to the consumption of foods that provide instant hits of gratification. We go for the accessible, the cheap and the addictive. And it’s really dangerous. But society sanctions it, glorifies it, promotes it, and in the face of this message, critical engagement is sort of useless. This is not to say there is some easy solution here, but at the very least finding the courage to stand up to the industry and say, actually your product is crap to the point of being immoral, is a blight upon our ability to flourish, is a good starting point. That stance allows the strong unambiguous messages, and on the back of these, the strong and unambiguous social and political action that can start to turn back the tide.
There are any number of groups you can substitute for the food lobby, and in each case the tactic has been the same. Tobacco pioneered the whole approach (and haven’t they done well with vaping, or ‘ethical smoking’, shall we call it. A whole new generation are being lured back into the inhalation culture and profits are recovering.) The fossil fuel industry is fighting a brilliant rear guard action as the waters rise, the alcohol industry, the gun industry, all of them make clever use of the critical consumption model. It takes real courage, from people who will inevitably be called out as alarmist lunatics, to stand up and say, actually no, to hell with my liberal instincts to let others make choices: semi-automatic weapons are designed for murder, carbon consumption is screwing the ecosystem, the cost of alcohol and drug consumption is borne disproportionately by the poor and the dispossessed, and the pornography has effectively put the aspirations of gender politics back twenty years, and that’s all bullshit. Young people don’t just want information, they want the bigger picture of social aspiration, of belief systems, they want the narrative of value and of hope, they want to believe that the world they have inherited does not represent the sum total of choices available to them. They desperately want the adults they interact with to have opinions about the business of being human. They don’t want to be told, ‘well different people have different points of view on this and they’re all valid in their own way’. They want to interact with adults who actually give a shit.
There are a great many reasons pornography should be seen within this context, and look up my entry ‘13 Reasons Why Not’ if you want the fuller version. But if I had to boil my motivation in this area down to one argument, it would be this:
Human nature is defined by its plasticity. Culture plays a huge role in defining our norms, especially when it comes to social and sexual interactions. There is no natural sexual equilibrium to which we naturally tend. The Victorians told us women couldn’t enjoy sex and we’re still untangling the mess of that stupidity. Countless societies thought homosexuality was wrong and far too many lives were made too miserable or too short by this ignorance. Only a few short decades ago in this country, the law considered there was no such thing as rape in marriage. Female genital mutilation still exists in the world, otherwise sophisticated people are still weird about discussing menstruation in public, and young pre-teen girls are dressed by their mothers in the manner of sexual prizes and paraded before strangers in various forms of dance competitions – and the audience find it all thoroughly sweet.
Young people absorb the lessons of the norm. They look to the behaviour all around them and this becomes their truth. Given our nervousness when it comes to discussing sexuality with the young, they turn elsewhere for their social cues. Pornography is easily available, and shows them, in a constructed world devoid of social context, that sex is a series of acts performed by men on women, who exist as bit part players (in every sense), extras in the playing out of frequently violent male fantasises. Allowing an algorithm driven industry to set the sexual agenda in this way is so clearly ridiculous to me that I find it tremendously easy to take sides on this one. Yes, of course we want to give information. Of course we need to make sure young people do not withdraw from the conversation through guilt and shame. Of course we need to be subtle and clever in the way we engage young people. But not by refusing to own a value position in the debate. That’s precisely what the industry wants us to do.