Alain de Botton has a ‘self help’ book on ‘sex’ out, and to publicise it, had a recent Q&A on ‘sex’ in the Guardian. I put ‘sex’ in inverted commas as the Q&A is mostly about porn.
de Botton is supposed to be a philosopher and public intellectual, so it’s disappointing to see how meagre his arguments are, and how frequently he misses the point. Two female (or at least with female IDs) commenters (and as a NB I’m only looking at the comments that were extracted for the main CiF article, I’m not wading through the comments below the line) point out that he seems to have an entirely male-centric viewpoint, his response is to ask them to explain it for him! (It’s a bit late to think of asking women for input after the book is written!)
On the subject of pornography, he says this: “The real problem with current pornography is that it’s so far removed from all the other concerns which a reasonably sensible, moral, kind and ambitious person might have. As currently constituted, pornography asks that we leave behind our ethics, our aesthetic sense and our intelligence when we contemplate it. Yet it is possible to conceive of a version of pornography which wouldn’t force us to make such a stark choice between sex and virtue – a pornography in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than permitted to undermine, our higher values.”
At first glance this looks rather good – ethical porn! – but then one realises that what he is describing as ‘ethical porn’ already exists, we call it art, literature, film.
He is, quite innocently I suspect, making the mistake that sex industry advocates and ‘sex positive’ ‘feminists’ make disingenuously, that the problem with pornography is simply one of a lack of quality.
He seems to be entirely unaware of exactly why men (and some women) consume pornography; it isn’t just about ‘getting off’, the consumption of pornography is an act of male supremacism, men do it to assert themselves as dominant (women may consume porn for masochistic reasons, or to feel dominance over those other women in porn, to assure themselves that they are not victims themselves).
Pornographers know and understand this, and are completely honest about it when they describe their pornography in terms of how it allows men to feel better about themselves, or get revenge, after they’ve had an argument with their girlfriend, or been talked down to by a female boss – porn allows men to feel superior by vicariously acting out their supremacism on the bodies of prostituted women (remember, all the things that happen in porn are real).
Does de Botton address any of this? Not in the Q&A certainly, all he offers is incredibly abstract notions about ethical content and aesthetic value, and is completely silent on what this ‘better’ porn might realistically look like.
“Erotica realises there is a problem with porn and locates the issue in explicitness. If only porn were less explicit – the argument seems to run – then it would be OK. One might start from a different point of view. Explicitness is fine, the issue is what it’s in the name of, where it’s pointing us too, what it’s attempting to excite us about.”
He’s missing the point completely here (or just being strangely coy while saying explicitness is ok). Feminist objections to pornography are not specifically about the fact that genitals are on display, as if a woman being subjected to multiple, simultaneous penetrations would be ok if you just couldn’t quite see what was going on.
Pornography is degrading to women, the PlayBoy bunny outfit and Page 3 are degrading to women; they are not explicit, but they do reaffirm male supremacy, and the idea that women exist solely to service men.
de Botton is disappointing on evolutionary psychology as well. He finds it “both very persuasive and ‘true'” – wonderful, we need a ‘public intellectual’ for this? Evolutionary psychology, at it’s most simplistic (ie the way it is almost always framed in public debate) tells us ‘boys will be boys’, so don’t bother trying to do anything about rape except tell women not to go out alone after dark; it provides atheists (who can’t rely on traditional ‘sacred texts’) with Just So Stories for justifying the status quo.
On the subject of whether pornography affects our real lives or not, de Botton says this: “I think porn marginally (and really only marginally) increases the dangers of people acting out fantasies. 99% of people won’t, but a very few will.”
So then, is he completely unaware of the increase in women having cosmetic surgery on their genitals so they look more like airbrushed porn, and the ubiquity of men and boys demanding that women and girls allow them to perform acts from pornography (eg ‘facials’)?
de Botton also makes this rather strange comment: “It is perhaps only people who haven’t felt the full power of sex over their logical selves who can remain uncensorious and liberally ‘modern’ on the subject. Philosophies of sexual liberation appeal mostly to people who don’t have anything too destructive or weird that that they wish to do once they have been liberated.”
Is he unaware of the BDSM ‘scene’? Of ‘sex positive’ ‘thought’? ‘Excess’ and extremeness in sex and pornography are celebrated as ‘liberation’ – it’s a strange kind of reverse prude-shaming, and suggests (as does a lot of what he is saying) that his thoughts on sex and pornography are largely abstract and have very little reference to the wider world beyond his own, limited, personal experience.
I did end up scrolling down the comments on the first page. In his first below the line comment de Botton says: “Most of the time, we’re worried about being gross and revolting: sex purifies us. So much so that in oral sex, the most ‘dirty’ sides of us are symbolically blessed by the mouth of the other.”
Well, that doesn’t explain ‘facials’ then does it? Maybe women’s eyeballs are purifying too, or will ‘facials’ not be included in de Botton’s ‘better’ porn? Again, he is missing the point; men, in real life, and as porn consumers, want certain acts precisely because they are disgusting and degrading; sex and pornography is how men act out their dominance over women.
In his second comment he says this: “Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple in the ways we might like it to be. It can die out; it refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Perhaps ultimately we should accept that sex is inherently rather weird instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses. This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realise that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way. Sex is to be welcomed because it prevents any of us from taking ourselves too seriously. It makes all seem ridiculous. It’s a destroyer of pomposity – in a good way.”
I could probably title every other post on this blog ‘It’s the patriarchy, stupid’, but de Botton’s analysis doesn’t seem to belong in the real world, a world where rape, rape culture, sex trafficking, child sexual exploitation and victim-blaming exist. It’s an analysis coming from a place of extreme privilege, from a white, upper class, heterosexual male (and the emphasis is definitely on male) who doesn’t have to see what happens to women and girls in our male-supremacist world. He offers no acknowledgement at all that sex is used, by men, to hurt women.