It is almost impossible to talk about pornography without wading into a swamp of controversy. Facts are not neutral, the politics are contradictory and, if you suspend judgment altogether, it often reads as silently taking a side. And still, we try. Good old us.
Last month’s Goop was The Sex Issue. If you browsed through pieces on the ethics of porn and one titled “Reality Check: Anal Sex” you found yourself in Gwyneth’s “Get It On Shop” where you could spend $885 on a pair of silver “benwa balls” to “strengthen your kegels and have a better orgasm all at once”, and $20 on individual sachets of “sex dust”. Goop sex is mindful, artisanal, aspirational and typically expensive. If US shipping costs put you off I have a good recipe for sex dust you can make at home that simply requires a swab from the underside of the far booth in the Brighton All Bar One, and some finely ground turmeric.
Last week, Rowan Pelling (ex-editor of the Erotic Review) launched the Amorist, which she describes as “an erotic version of Woman’s Hour”, a phrase that will undoubtedly be swimming in your head the next time you wake at dawn with a start, sweaty and scared, the taste of pennies on your tongue. It’s “a general interest magazine for those who are generally interested in sex and desire – and an antidote to Brexit”. It seeks to “counter the excesses of online pornography and the tendency to see sex through a functional prism”. It’s based in the same building as the Oldie, and the tone is that of a frisky couple whose youngest child has recently left home to study PPE.
Elsewhere, porn is being investigated in a new Netflix series of documentaries called Hot Girls Wanted, produced by a team led by Rashida Jones. In their first film we meet female filmmakers in the porn business; in the last, a teenager in Ohio facing 20 years in prison and a lifetime on the sex offenders’ register for livestreaming the rape of her friend on Periscope. Jones “wanted to show where there was dark, there was also light”. In particular, she said she was interested in “self-empowerment versus self-objectification”.
Except, says the New Republic in a crushing critique: “In their rush to ‘humanise’ adult performers and explore the concept of ‘empowerment,’ the producers enact precisely the kind of objectification and dehumanisation that they aim to critique.” Thinking about sex sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Every seven seconds, a thesis.
We snap the word porn on to images of excess. We understand the meaning of phrases like food porn, property porn, plant porn, travel porn, cocktail porn, not because these are sexy things, but because we associate the word “porn” with the feelings we have when we look at them – a combination of desire and guilt, and fantasy, and disappointment at the celibate reality of our real lunch, our real home.
But while we know what porn means, what it stands for, to judge by the ever-growing number of takes on the subject, the lure of learning about it seems almost as powerful as porn itself. That’s how we excuse our obsession: porn stops being something private and dirty, and becomes instead something you can discuss with your partner’s boss at dinner parties over cheese.
The cycles of thought have rolled between empowering to dangerous and back again, with new incendiary debates on whether it’s right to call porn “work”. What the commentaries have in common though, is that they’re all deeply enervating.
Porn has proved as slippery and ungovernable as sexuality itself. However much people attempt to pick away at it with words, porn remains, this mountain looming above us, its shadow falling over everybody’s private lives. Ironically the act of intellectualising porn, drilling into the stone of it, is the one thing that threatens it, in that it makes pornography a chore and not sex, and therefore much harder for a person to enjoy during their “me time”. Despite featuring nudity and lust, debating pornography is the opposite of talking dirty.