I’ll spare you specific examples: we all know the kind of material under discussion in The Aesthetics of Degradation, a searching meditation on the brand of hardcore pornography whose erotic currency consists primarily in implausibly lurid spectacles of control and domination. “The array of humiliations evinced in pornography over the past two decades,” writes Adrian Nathan West, “seem less the result of individual perversions than the kind of systematic refinement commonly associated with competitive marketing and research and envelopment in hierarchically organized positivist societies.” At what point, then, does pornography cease to be eroticism and change into something else, something qualitatively different? We are in a discursive terrain of semantic ambiguity; a starting premise of West’s analysis is that extremely degrading pornography tends to marginalize sexual desire as such, “substituting predominately sensual fantasies of doing-with for predominately visual fantasies of doing-to [… with] a heightened emphasis on humiliation, violence, and visual impingements on female bodily integrity.” Taxonomically speaking, it might be more appropriate to place it in the category of sadistic entertainments occupied by snuff movies and the like, rather than the realm of erotica. This formulation invites a number of possible objections with regard to freedom and consent, each of which West examines in turn.
“Pornography,” writes West, “is a play of illusions constantly struggling to transcend its irreality.” It is perhaps for this reason that the depiction of abuse is so popular among its users. To put it simply and crudely: A woman having an orgasm on-screen may or may not be faking it, but a woman being urinated on on-screen is, genuinely and verifiably, being urinated on. So the oft-repeated moral defense that such abuse isn’t “real” because it is staged is manifestly disingenuous; the things being depicted have, self-evidently, actually happened. West gives similarly short shrift to another common argument, that the actors involved give their consent: “It is fallacious to suppose we possess a single subjectivity and are incapable of forcing ourselves into situations contrary to our will.” If this feels a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut — casually panning out to an attack on freedom of contract, the entire basis of economic existence for the past three hundred years — it tells us something about why the debate around pornography is so compelling even to people who have no particular interest in the material: it contains, in concentrated form, many of the ethical dilemmas that underscore all our lives as workers and consumers.
West raises a more subtle and immediately pertinent point when he questions whether it is even possible to give informed, meaningful consent on behalf of one’s future self, when undertaking something one has never previously done, and which is likely to — indeed, appears designed to — cause psychological harm. If, as a society, we are sufficiently sophisticated about consent to understand that in certain circumstances it is vitiated — say, when a person is underage, or mentally infirm, or extremely intoxicated — then why can we not take proper account of the likelihood of psychological damage arising from certain forms of extreme ill-treatment? West also discusses the psychological phenomenon known as repetition compulsion, in which victims of abuse feel compelled to reenact a trauma. He speculates that a significant proportion of porn actresses may well suffer from this condition, in which case the profession would amount, in effect, to an industrial-scale abusive exploitation of a self-selecting group of vulnerable people.
West’s primary target is indeed an industry that is both exploitative and, in its fraudulent pretensions to moral propriety — its “cession of ethics to legalistic sophism” — borderline psychopathic. But a concern with the end user is never far from the surface; moving away, as it were, from the production side to the consumption side, the implications of such sadistic pastimes for gender relations at large are hugely significant. It is hard to quibble with West’s assertion that there is a direct link between the systematic subjection of an individual to humiliation or distress and that person’s “symbolic annihilation.” In this regard, it is worth noting that making computer-generated images of child abuse is, quite rightly, forbidden by law: because, even though there is no “victim” involved in their production, it is understood that the dissemination of such material is likely to fuel certain proclivities that will lead, in turn, to actual real-life abuse. That the same sophistication of insight is not extended to material that portrays the abuse of women — in a world rife with domestic violence — is an anomaly that warrants scrutiny.
The Aesthetics of Degradation is an idiosyncratic work, but its eccentricities do not significantly detract from its readability. One inevitably finds oneself wondering if West is holding something back in terms of his reasons for writing the book: a number of personal reminiscences, such as a recollection of feeling physically ill after seeing a gaping on-screen anus, have a certain melancholy candor, but the matter of the author’s own relationships with pornography and sexuality are kept, for the most part, tantalizingly off-stage. This is probably for the best, though: it would have meant a very different sort of book, and likely a less interesting one. What we have instead is a brief, punchy provocation, informed by a strong sense of human compassion — an incitement to readers to think deeply and honestly about a question of profound social importance.
Houman Barekat, LA Review of Books, 2016