Pornocopia – Porn, Sex, Technology and Desire – by Laurence O’Toole



In Pornocopia, O’Toole delivers a well-researched, straight-forward defense of porn. His central focus is on the current legal constraints which curtail the porn industry, primarily in Britain and the United States, and his arguments deserve to be addressed one way or the other. He begins with the problematic lack of a functional legal definition of pornography, arguing that legislative restrictions of various shades operate on the basis of what the anthropologist Bernard Arcand calls “the Sophistry of the Elephant” – “the belief that there are things in the world, like the elephant, which are impossible to describe but are, nonetheless, instantly recognizable”. As an example of this rationale in relation to pornography, O’Toole quotes the American Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart – “I know it when I see it”. Pardon me for butting in at this point, but is “the Sophistry of the Elephant” really so absurd? Hasn’t O’Toole ever read the family-resemblance theory of meaning à la Wittgenstein? Maybe not, or if he has, he’s not letting on – liberals like their logic neat’n’tidy. No functional definition exists for the word 'table’, insofar as there is no single essential condition, or set thereof, which must be fulfilled in order for an object to be a table – not all tables have four legs. Some do not have legs at all. Nonetheless, our ability to recognize an unusually-designed table as just that is unproblematic. Not meaning to get too dogmatic, but let me refer back to some notes from Hermeneutics 101 – there is a human faculty called 'judgment’. It’s what we use in precisely those situations where the application of formal criteria and/or definitions will not suffice in rendering a satisfactory decision. Sometimes we need it to recognize examples of things which, for example, evade formal definition, as do most normative terms. Is O’Toole really denying this? Is it really necessary for me to explain this like Kurt Vonnegut explains little things about planet Earth to his readers? No, I didn’t think so. Let’s move on.

O’Toole also argues that many of the negative stereotypes of porn as, for example, boring, disrespectful to women, etc, result from most people’s lack of familiarity with the genre, for that is what porn is, just another genre – is he kidding? Let’s face it: the vast majority of us have seen some porn at some time or another – it doesn’t mean we were paying customers, or even that we had formed a premeditated intention of seeing the material in question, but the fact remains – the vast majority of us have seen some. For many people, their only motive will have been passing curiosity. Then we all turned thirteen and got bored with it (the 'adult’ tag is so inappropriate – porn is singularly the least adult film-genre). Pornography is consumerism in microcosm – realizing that it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be happens so much quicker than with consumerism per se.

The author is keen to examine legislative restrictions on porn as a freedom of speech issue, suggesting that porn can be seen as “an alternative viewpoint”. Not that I want to be seen to ally myself to Catherine McKinnon or anything, but isn’t her counter-argument to this worth taking seriously: porn essentially has nothing to say. Its purpose is manipulation. On the other hand, that doesn’t stop the internal logic of this or that particular porn-scene from being completely degrading or offensive. Our principles in relation to freedom of speech were devised in order to make it possible to discuss matters of serious public importance publicly, thereby offering some kind of check to bad government. O’Toole would doubtless raise the objection “But couldn’t that be used as a pretext to silence just about anyone? Who is to decide what is and is not a serious speech-act?” I refer to my previous argument – it’s a matter of judgment, and in spite of the fact that judgment is, by definition, an unmethodical process, the respective judgments of large numbers of people can be remarkably uniform. If you ask a thousand people whether or not the banning of Debbie Does Dallas would be detrimental to our democratic process, I’ll bet a very strong majority say no. Along the same lines, in discussing the rapid growth in the porn industry in the formerly communist states of central and eastern Europe, O’Toole maintains that the general tolerance shown toward porn is a product of the fact that, having experienced forty years of repression, the peoples of these states realize that freedom of speech is an all-or-nothing situation. Well, actually, no. I’m guessing Laurence O’Toole doesn’t actually live in any of Europe’s formerly communist states. I do. Here in the Czech Republic (my permanent home), as you’d expect, there’s a whole swathe of legislation concerning incitement to racial hatred, libel, defamation, etc, etc. In each case, the application of the law requires (here we go again) judgment. Whatever about elsewhere (I don’t live elsewhere, so I won’t generalize), the people of the Czech Republic aren’t nearly as naïve as Laurence O’Toole would like them to be. They were done with congratulating themselves on their new-found freedom a long time ago.

The anti-porn arguments of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon, and O’Toole’s analysis of them, are multi-faceted. The Dworkin/McKinnon position is that porn is produced under working conditions which are exploitative of women, that porn necessarily involves the degrading objectification of women, that watching porn is a harmful and corrupting experience, and that there is a symbolic connection, if not an actual statistical correlation, between pornography and rape. Admittedly, O’Toole’s treatment of this minefield is complex; he has no difficulty whatsoever in overcoming most of these arguments in their original form, but that is only because the Dworkin/McKinnon thesis was not sufficiently complex. For a start, there are ample examples in this book of women who make porn and have perfectly equitable working relationships, but then again, these women are not representative of the industry as a whole – they are the stars at the summit – they’ve inevitably come to enjoy a certain level of professional respect. Is it the same for newcomers? Speculatively, I’m thinking no. On the question of porn as “harmful”, the author quite rightly blasts the implicit paternalism of this argument out of the water, constructing a particularly skillful critique of the Victorian legal concept of “the young person”, noting that in the paternalist’s mind, it’s always “other people” who are in danger of being corrupted. As for the connection between porn and rape, the categorical lack of any evidence whatsoever which might suggest a causal link just makes this part of the argument a non-starter. However, on the issue of objectification, I do think that the Dworkin/McKinnon argument can be reconstructed. In order to do this, it’s necessary to attempt a hermeneutics of porn, to work through the internal logic of a particular porn scene. It’s silly trying to discuss reification unless you’ve actually seen an example of it. So let’s take the standard fellatio scene, culminating in the come-shot (also 'pop-shot’ or 'money-shot’). Do women enjoy having men ejaculate on their faces? Not being a woman, I wouldn’t know, but I doubt it. What, then, is the internal logic of such a scene? Perhaps that it doesn’t matter what the woman likes – she’ll like whatever the man wants her to like because she has no inner life of her own, in turn because she’s not a real person. Then there is the power-aspect. As a form of sexual gratification, porn is fairly unsatisfactory – most of us, I would hope, have better sex at home. What, then, is the added ingredient in porn? One suspects that it’s not really about sex – the central theme is power. As such, porn is implicitly violent. It is eroticized hatred.

Maybe the harm-argument can also be reconstructed along non-paternalistic lines by shifting the focus from the individual to the culture. Here’s what I mean – it is possible to argue that whoever may or may not be offended, harmed or corrupted by watching pornography, that it still damages our social environment, just like bad architecture. I know that’s a highly normative judgment, and that I’m attempting to make taste a legal criterion, but we all play the role of the self-appointed arbiter of taste at least some of the time, and we do actually legislate against bad taste in matters which have nothing to do with sex, the best example being architecture. In the city where I work (Hradec Králové), the planning laws are extremely stringent – if I want to erect an eye-sore right in the middle of Jan Kotera’s municipal architecture from the early twentieth century, they simply won’t let me, and quite rightly so. Needless to say, most liberals won’t buy this analogy; on this level, they are prone to precisely the same fallacy as their sworn-enemies, the religious conservatives: both groups imagine that there are essentially two moral orders, which are entirely unrelated: the first to govern our behaviour in matters connected to sex, and the second (presumably less important) order for everything else. Others might ask, if we categorize porn as a cultural pollutant, then why not Britney Spears? Fair point, and the bottom line is that, as self-appointed arbiters of taste, we have to pick our battles. The people who distribute Britney have astronomical legal budgets. On the other hand, we can win against porners. I would also quite happily ban most of the work of pseudo-intellectual charlatans like David Cronenburg (O’Toole mentions Crash and The Naked Lunch in discussing double-standards within the intelligentsia’s attitude to censorship). My only reservation with banning Crash, one of the most pointless, pretentious, heroically bad films ever made, is that such a measure might make Cronenburg’s iconoclastic-artist-pose more plausible. Ugh. In counterpointing porn and erotica, O’Toole argues that the distinction between the two is “partly a class issue, a matter of taste, and gender politics too.” Maybe so, but to say that it’s a matter of taste, and attempt to subjectivize the question on that basis, is just a cheap trick. The whole concept of taste necessarily implies a distinction between good and bad taste. Taste does not exist in isolation – it is intimately interconnected with values and validity-claims which, by their nature, have some “inter-subjective” aspect. People like gangster-movies because of their existential ethic, or because of a nostalgia for the values of modernity (the self-aware actor). People like punk-rock for the perceived no-bullshit honesty of the punk-rock lifestyle. You take any style of anything, scratch the surface, and there’s an implicit morality buried in there somewhere. To treat taste as some kind of involuntary, irreducible variable is just a copout. If you think that my taste in novels, architecture or music is terrible, then let’s each of us cite our aesthetic criteria, examine where those criteria come from, and we’ll argue the toss. Maybe it’ll turn out that you’re right. The Romans were wrong – taste can be accounted for, if somewhat imperfectly. Even at that, the harm-to-individuals argument has one other possibility – namely that when people inevitably become bored with the hyper-sexualization of everything, it may actually lessen their ability to enjoy real sex.

In the chapter entitled “Future Sex”, O’Toole just goes off the rails – he hails the cybernerds having sex online as courageous adventurers pushing back the boundaries of human experience, quoting one self-proclaimed cybersex goddess as saying that the net has “liberated nerd sexuality.” This was where I started to break up. O’Toole continues:

“The media-theorist Marshall McLuan, the novelist J.G. Ballard and, more recently, the cyberskeptic Mark Dery have variously suggested in their work a system failure intrinsic to future sex, where machines and human desire have combined to create endless titillated lust but offering no proper release. It is implied that it doesn’t matter how many times you 'jack in’ to 'jack off’, future sex won’t bring you real fulfillment, and erotic burnout is the culture’s shared destiny.”

He quickly tries to explain these reservations away with some amateur psychoanalysis (as if the professionals weren’t annoying enough):

“A residual religious guilt over non-procreative sex, perhaps, and the social disapproval of non-profitable effort, most often find idle sexual plenitude as causing harm.”

Or, alternatively, in spite of all our neurotic post-religious guilt, we might have stumbled upon a bloody good argument. How does O’Toole expect people to take him seriously if he uses evasive tactics like this, if he actively avoids confronting the argument of the other on its own terms? On a final note, not once in this book is the word ‘commodification’ used. In discussing mediated sex, O’Toole has simply chosen to overlook our predominant post-war experience that every time another aspect of our lives is commodified, the quality of experience is invariably damaged. Everything’s more fun if it’s DIY. Playing football is more fun than watching football. Cooking something special with food from your own garden is more fun than going to a restaurant. Restaurant cuisine is inferior to real home cooking, for one simple reason – the extra work you put in adds value to the results. Is it really such a stretch to imagine that sex is the same? Stupid question – for liberals and religious nutbags alike, sex is always the exceptional case.

Pornocopia: Porn, Sex, Technology and Desire by Laurence O’Toole is published by Serpent’s Tail

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