Cyber Porn - The Ethical Issues
Historically the law and ethical debates about pornography was for, or against, the representation of explicit sexual images. The Internet has overtaken that debate with a fait a complis. The only remaining ethical and legal issue that appears to be recognised is in relation to child pornography, otherwise it looks as if the law enforcement agencies have given way, as it were, in front of a bursting dam that they have been unable to control, without any attempt to draw any other lines. Similarly the ethical issues and psychological issues are not now discussed very much, as they were a number of years ago. In this article I suggest that there is a need to try to draw new lines around new legal and ethical principles. I suggest that the principle should be that it be legal to see what it is legal to do - however, this does not mean that it should be legal to intimidate, humiliate, to do things under duress or do things which clearly have negative long term health consequences, physical and mental. There is a need to draw new lines - and if the legal agencies are not going to act, at least to circulate ideas that will get people thinking about what they are seeing. This might provide the basis for new forms of electronic controls - setting up categories by 'policed' voluntarily controls that people can choose to block out and perhaps help lines and support agencies for those who have been tricked, humilated and manipulated.
Many porn web sites, at the bottom of the page, put some reference to their memberships of alliances against child pornography. Scroll back up the page, however, and you are invited to enter sites with titles like "Lolita" or "Barely legal teens". Since underage sex is not to be seen, the porn imperium is yet more keen to sign you up on your 18th birthday. However such sites also often tell you what software packages you can install to prevent your own children seeing porn. It seems to me that it should be possible to differentiate between porn sites which display explicit sexual images where there is no evidence of humiliation, intimidation and health damage and those which, for example, invite you to look at "anal destruction", "facial humiliation" or "exploited teenagers". If the legal agencies cannot, or will not, act it should not be difficult to set up a site (that is not hostile to pornographic images per se and which is not a state or police agency) to which people can pass on the names of web sites which appear to overstep accepted redrawn limits. Such sites would be ones to keep an eye on, perhaps for the agency to pass details on to police agecies, using the criteria that the people pictured appear to have been intimidated and in a state of distress. They would also offer, or link to, help lines to people tricked or humiliated or living under fear and intimidation.
Making the Porn Industry Safer
As things stand at the moment the consumer of pornography has no particular way in which they can contribute to the porn industry becoming safer. They can subscribe to a variety of electronic filter and parental controls which are designed to stop their children getting access to pornography. But it would be difficult to react to seeing those things on the net where fear, intimidation and unhappiness are only too evidently a part of the picture. You can see when people are really frightened and unhappy at the moment they are photographed and although, thankfully, it is not at all common, nevertheless there are disturbing pictures that can scroll down the page and what is sometimes on display looks as if it might be intimidation and assault. It seems important to me, that people who discover such pictures should be able to exercise a moral impulse and report them to somewhere. Of course in theory this could be the police but not many, I think, are going to do this. In any case one often has no idea which country is involved. Nor is this the sort of thing an individual, acting on their own, is likely to want to get mixed up in when the more frightening sites may be run by gangsters. An international watchdog agency, which is itself on line, which has links with legal and police agencies, but which is one step removed and not itself a police agency, is needed to patrol the web, to accumulate such alerts and then either hand them on or act in other ways on them. Such an agency might actually set some standards - which are not of the for or against porn sort but which are based on the idea that it should be legal to see what its legal to do - but that it is not legal to intimidate anyone to do anything, nor should it be legal to display acts of imtimidation and assault for people's pleasure as entertainment. That, it seems to me, really is depravity and corruption.
Consequences: for actors, actresses and consumers
The consequences of pornography need to be thought of as the consequences for the producers, the actors and actresses and the consequences for consumers, the viewers. As I haven't worked in the pornography milieu I cannot really write about that with the authority that comes from experience. In any case, as with the rest of life, there is not one "pornography milieu" there seem to be lots of them and, as watching a film like Boogie Nights makes obvious, they evolve over time. In my article about the Contexts of Marketed Sex (see my web site) I suggest that we need to think of these mileus as places where one is confronted, not by single choices of acts, so much as by whole life style packages - often a life style that glitters with the lure of money, luxury and association with big business. However, there are other milieus that appear to have some connection to art and aesthetics, others on the edge, even, of what might be called therapy and sex education, whereas others are at the opposite end of all that - in the realms of intimidation, addiction and gangsterism. What is extraordinary about the Internet is how a sex education site can be but one or two clicks away from frightening sites that appear to be run by gangsters - which is two clicks again from the site of Dolly Buster, former star, who shows the Buddhist shrine in her luxury home, her favourite dogs, and her marriage photos with her porn producer husband.
It is banal and obvious that the sexual feelings and the context in which the image is created is separated in time and place from where it is 'consumed'. Different people are involved in its creation and in its consumption, people who do not know each other. The consequences of these obvious fact are considerable. The consumer cannot know the feelings of the 'actors and actresses' before and after the image were taken from viewing the image alone. They may, indeed, be able to judge something of the feelings at the time that the images were made from the faces of the people in the images. I have tried to read some of the different kinds of stories in my accounts above. Sometimes, when one can see a lot of a pornstar, and here her interviewed frequently on main stream chat shows, as is Dolly Buster, alongside mainstream politicians and guests, you have to reckon you have a better chance of judging the persons real story. However the images and the words accompanying the pornographic images themselves obviously are written for their arousing effect - they do not, as such, often tell us true or full stories. Perhaps that is why the porn industry has a taste for "amateur" pictures - they are closer to ordinary life and are less staged.
Mostly the words with the picture will have been added much later. It is quite likely that the people in the picture had no part at all in writing the accompanying text of a pornographic image and may feel quite upset by how the image is presented. (In everyday life one controls for oneself how others perceive you - in media-ted presentations of the self it is always someone else that controls how one is presented and the result is very very frequently not how one would like it to be. Media people so often have a different message and agenda from the one that one was portraying. One has to be very careful how much one trusts a person with a camera).
Even as the pictures are taken people may be psychologically "in a role" - perhaps feeling high because they are the centre of a sort of attention, feeling aroused and exhilirated at excitement of rule breaking, enjoying acting. A smile or a smouldering expression may be a very fleeting thing. What has happened before to bring them there - and what happens after the image is taken, the porn consumer does not know and, as like as not, does not want to know.
The emotions associated with sex are never generated context free. The sex act can take place either as making love (associated with affection) or as rape (fear and hate), as play associated with humour or as an act of worship, as degradation or as exaltation. The matching emotions are not stable - that is to say what one feels mixed with ones desire before the sex act will be very different from what one feels after it. If one is well matched then after the sex act one is likely to be left with peace and affection with, and for, ones partner. In other circumstances one may feel lasting sadness, guilt, shame, revulsion or regret (which may not stop oneself repeating what one has done - until one has learned to understand oneself better, so that one "learns to drive" one's sexual drives). I used to think that if a porn actress was smiling, and one can usually tell a genuine smile from a forced smile, that was the main thing - but clearly, life isn't like that. A smile can quickly disappear off-camera.
Difficulties of Interpretation - the example of name-calling and PC language
This is why porn is difficult to interpet and this makes trying to regulate it for reasons of safety and for reasons of community mental and sexual health difficult. I do not imagine that the job of any kind of watchdog agency would be easy. There is a real minefield of different interpretations of what is to be seen and read. I write above about "redrawing limits" about what is acceptable - but in fact this whole field is subject to some very great difficulties of interpretation and the rest of this article is to discuss some of these issues.
To give an example, there are those who will not notice that some "name calling" in the pornographic field actually has a sexually appreciative and enthusiastic character. Words like "slut" often work as "permission words". The function of such words, for men, and often enough for women, is to switch off all those feelings about women associated with non-sexual and other roles, in order to entirely focus on what is happening sexually, raunchily. There are some simplifying feminist accounts in which this means ipso facto degrading women. However, name-calling in sex may just as much be about switching one's mind and emotions fully into its fleshly slippery vulgarity. An erotic artist called von Bayros managed to portray sex among the aristocracy as both "refined" and voluptous, however, there are those of us who seek to recapture the excitement we found as adolescents behind the bikesheds or in the bushes. To be sure we would like to have sex with a prince or princess but only if during sex games we are not inhibited by airs and graces. To call a woman a slut in pornography is often about dropping all pretense of etiquette and manners ( whose function is to demonstrate your superiority in a hierarchical society) and to go for the spontaneous and direct. It is to return to your animal functions. You can regard this as degrading if you think you are a princess but a princess who cannot become a slut in bed may be a very poor sexual partner. She may be a very good colleague in the office, a very good friend, she may have a brilliant mind, a 1st from Oxbridge, she may be many other things quite as good as a man may be - however, these are other matters.
These are other matters, and yet I hasten to add that, while the word 'slut' is often used to convey an appreciative respect for the power of a woman's sexual attraction, it has many other meanings, connotations and interpretations - which are not at all positive. Here the complications start. For a large part of the problem is that people tend to think in stereotypes and prejudiced categories. To be prejudiced means to pre-judge. Thus if a woman is lascivious, vulgar and enthusiastic in bed, she may well then be assumed to be a "bimbo" - that is to say many men (and women) leap to the assumption that she cannot also be a good colleague, an intellectual or a good mother - ideas perhaps conveyed with the slur that sexual attractive as she is, the slut only has her sexual attractiveness going for her.
Good girls and Bad Girls
Fortunately these attitudes are beginning to break down but, in the stereotyping chauvinist view, a woman is in one category of another - a good girl or a 'bad' one. As a heterosexual man, who is looking for sex, you couldn't want more than to find a 'bad' girl but, unfortunately, in the stereotype, a 'bad girl' couldn't possibly be a good mother (you couldn't dream of comparing her with your own mother could you?), nor could she be imagined to be able to function like the bluestocking schoolteacher women who you hated in the classroom, nor like those smart-arse career women, who are competing for your job.
Part of the feminist critique of male power was always that men wanted women "in their place" - i.e. in clearly defined roles where the old 'rules of engagement' applied and everyone therefore knew where they stood. That meant that a slut was a women whose reputation led to her being regarded in whatever community she belonged to as only a sexual object. To be sure she was popular and well liked by the boys, but too often it was only for sex - which the boys would then betray her for letting them have - denying any loyalty, lasting affection or commitment to her. Slut was therefore a permission word for uninhibited sex with someone - but often associated with a high cost to the woman and a low one to the men. The fact that she was uninhibited and didn't need Freudian psychotherapy to rid her of her inhibitions won her no prizes, few rewards and certainly no social respect. In a society characterised by hypocricy the reverse was the case - prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960s she was far more likely to be consigned to an asylum or punitive convent regime(for moral insanity if she had a child outside of marriage) than the loveless screwed up neurotic good girls, who maintained the pretence of being happily married wives.
The advent of contraception and higher education for millions of women with a new style of feminism changed these rules of engagement. Once women were no longer 'in their place' then men were confused and bewildered about how to play the new game. It was not the same as the game in the families in which they had themselves grown up and they were under attack for not knowing how to behave in the new ways being invented by the emerging new communities of sisters. The vulgar, trivial and play sexual feelings between men and women that had previously been a form of banter was now an "off limits" non-PC way of talking. This kind of banter could not be maintained while, at the same time, co-operating in serious job roles. Being a "bird" and being a colleague did not go well together. This way of thinking and feeling about women - retreated partly out of view, into the mushrooming world of pornography.
In addition, for many women being the object of male sexual desire was unwanted, when it got in the way, or was felt to be associated with aspiring, but being denied access to, other social (job) roles. Sexual feeling in the office is a nuisance from a performance and functional point of view when it complicates instrumental task-orientated relationships. Competitive feelings between rivals for promotion, frustration with one's boss, or with the incompetencies of colleagues or subordinates, impatience with missed deadlines, all these and other feelings associated with work, are unlikely to mix well with the further complicating twist of turned-on sexual feelings in the office. Indeed sexual feelings have the potential to be yet another source of jealousy, alliances and bruised egos.
Fighting their way into the clubby male world of work, with its mechanisms of well-connectedness, its defences and resistances, it is not surprising that some women became bitter and rejecting of men, and all things male, in a blanket way.. What the career woman wanted was to prove that she was quite as good as any man in the promotion hierarchy - and being regarded as a sexualised being as often as not got in the way of that. A slut, a primarily sexual being, was the very last thing she wanted to be associated as.
Intimidation, trickery and exploitation
To this should be added, of course, the very real vulnerability of some women who were bullied or tricked into the sexual industry by organised crime for example - or who entered it reluctantly out of economic vulnerability. Here and there are web sites that positively boast of tricking and exploiting teenagers for example - because, I suppose, the sad people who set them have the need to assert their attitude to the world - namely that nobody gives a damn for anybody and the world is purely and simply divided into two kinds of people: the hypocrits posturing on the moral high ground and cynical but street-wise people like themselves . Here being referred to as a slut by the sort of men who organise such sites has another function - it is a mental attitude that regards degrading and tricking someone else almost as doing them a favour - because it takes away their naivety and helps them join the club of the don't-give-a -damns, the realistic view of the world where the strong survive and if you don't do what you're told by the strong - then fucking watch out.
Even where organised intimidation is not occurring there is a problem that to go into the porn milieu restricts ones later choices for any other kind of subsequent career because of the moral leper status one may take on oneself- as one is not accepted elsewhere - a consequence of social hypocricy.
Social Intolerance and the Moral Ghetto
This depends on the general degree of social sexual tolerance. I am not one who, as such, regards pornographic and erotic images as always harmful and degrading. I have seen enough television interviews with porn stars and their life styles on German TV to convince me that these stars can find, when the conditions are right, social acceptance and a life style with affection and trusting relationships. I also feel that much demonisation of pornography and arguments about its harmful effects have the character of being self fulfilling prophesies. They drive the industry and culture into a semi underground moral ghetto where the harmful psychological effects on artists and voyeurs alike are, in large part, from the low self esteem that comes from feeling oneself to be a part of an socially outcast group of moral inferiors or as being engaged in a furtive voyeuristic passtime. The very same ghetto is where organised crime sells drugs, organises protection rackets and generally feeds on people's vulnerability.
All this is, and has, changed somewhat as the Internet and pornography has become more a part of general culture. In countries like Germany TV programmes like Wa(h)re Liebe carry serious discussions about sexuality and the feelings associated with it, alongside interviews with porn stars and prostitutes interviewed as ordinary people. An example is Dolly Buster - a woman who has made it big on German TV holding her own on chat shows with the great and the good from German society and politicians from all political parties. While these programes can sometimes get a bit po faced, and even banal, it is preferably, it seems to me, to programmes like Eurotrash, on British TV, where the emphasis is on poking fun and drawing out a tittilating distaste which is partly based on the lofty heights of a superior politically correct morality.
To sum up so far. I have gone on this long digression about the words used in pornography to show the many different meanings possible with just the same word. The permission words, slut, bitch, cunt, frequently convey an appreciative admiration, an open expression of lust and arousal sweeps away inhibition to release the most basic biological feelings but, on the other hand, these words are also associated with other connotations and it is not surprising that they arouse strong negative feelings too. We cannot "read" many of the words and images in the porn sites in one way. Multiple interpretations are possible - and what may seem obviously degrading may not be intended so, or experienced so. The meaning of words tends to slip and what upsets one generation may no longer affect the next in the same way. One has only to think of the meaning of the word "wicked", which has recently taken on positive connotations. I write about such complications, however, not as an argument for giving up one's ethical sense - only for fine tuning it, for keeping it up to date.
An industry blind to ethical distinctions?
Sometimes it seems as if pornography is a multi-million dollar industry characterised by the ostentatious displays of money and glamour - the rooms in which it takes place are almost palatial. I do not at all identify with the money values espoused in these pictures but I do not either see evidence of great oppression. Equally, however, there are sordid displays of vulnerable looking women with hard men in scruffy back rooms. There are women and men smiling and enjoying themselves - they look as if they are having a good time. At the same time the Internet also offers celebrations of cruelty, interpersonal power trips and a cruel voyeurism of the grotesque. All these are all mixed up together in a rag bag, in a most extraordinary mix.
It seems to me that that the ethical and psycho-sexual issues between these different sites, even within the same web page, are very varied. In very many cases the psychological and ethical issues are unclear, perhaps one should say, 'borderline'. In this and other articles on my web site I try to draw out and look at some of the issues. However, when you see an invitation to look at "60cm horse cock destroy young girls pussy" there is no doubt about the ethical, health and psychological issues. Yet the people who are creating the web sites appear to be blind to distinctions of the type I am making. As far as I can see it they are all just treated as different kinds of market segments on offer in the same shop front. There is no attempt to draw any kind of lines and there is an apparent indifference to doing so. I dare say too that most men trawling these sites simply switch off and are blind to the sorts of distinctions I am making - or are even seeking out the messages that confirm their emotional disposition and secret view of women, which confirm their view of "how the world is".
I have written about how the text on porn sites can be read in different ways. However there are other cases where the message is more frightening and sinister - the aroused text displays a callous enthusiasm for degradation, aggression and violence. It displays a literal hostility to the women concerned.
Pornography as Para-Social Interaction
Pornography creates what psychologists call a para-social interaction. Unlike a relationship with a real person pornography creates a connection between pornographic actresses and actors only by virtue of a medium - whether that be paper (a magazine) or electronic (e.g. the Internet). Para here means different from a real relationship but having some similarities. The similarities are that sexual feelings are generated during the creation of the image and during its "consumption". Whereas in a healthy relationship people take each other's feelings into account, in this kind of relationship they cannot, by definition, do so because they have no contact with each other. Here also lies the potential for abuse. As a viewer one is separated from the consequences that arose while making the image. Despite the claim of the internet to be an interactive medium there is little or no scope for ethical interactivity.
Virtually all human cultures have regarded sexual activity as a private event, which takes place outside the gaze of other people. This seems so obvious a thing that it appears hardly worth saying it - yet it is at the heart of what pornography challenges. What are regarded as public and private activities change over time - for example the ancient Romans constructed communal toilets on a bench and one might have a conversation with people while sitting on the loo. And of course sexual attraction forms largely around visual contact. Arousal has a visual component that is, so to speak, partly separable from a living context so that a para social form of arousal is possible.
However, sexual activity between people has been mostly private throughout history and herstory because, it seems obvious to relate, the presence of another person watching, does not add to the intimacy of the moment, it subtracts. Once you start performing for the observer/voyeur you are no longer concentrating only on your lover, their wishes and reactions, you are performing for the wishes of the voyeur (the camera and the subsequent audience). This may give you a different form of arousal out of the pleasure of self display - but that is another matter. Interviews with porn stars that I have seen on German television regularly talk about the difference between what they do on stage and what they do in their private life. They stress that it is possible to retain a difference.
Of course, because sex is usually felt to be a private activity, public portrayals of sex takes on the status of breaking a stated or unstated taboo (or law). Therein, however, lies a particular emotional kick - for performer and viewer too. The kick, as such, is not in the sexual nature of the situation but in the adrenalin associated with "naughtiness" - taboo breaking.
Pornography - arousal because of sexuality or through taboo breaking?
I dare say that people seek out the particular mixture that gives them the arousal cocktail that matches their personality and their wishes. Pornography will usually provide, for performer and audience alike, the emotional effects of rule breaking, of being "naughty". Sex as such is not "naughty" - although a variety of religious fundamentalists would sometimes have us believe so. However the arousal from sex, like any cocktail, can be heightened by mixing it with emotions derived from rule breaking.
The breaking of rules carries all sorts of emotional charge with it - it may be felt to be a defiance of authority and a personal gesture of freedom, it may, on the other hand, be associated with guilt and shame. Often, as I wrote earlier, this might be mixed up with another attitude and feeling: the need to assert that the world is not like the hypocritical moralists say it is. (There may be enlightened cheeky poking fun in the taboo breaking - or the same taboo breaking may be asserted to prove the cynical bitter world view that I spoke of earlier). So taboo breaking can associated with a variety of feelings and ideas - ranging from exiliration and/or (later) with chronic anxiety. Self evidently different people have different attitudes to rule breaking - and their attitude and the emotional fall-out from rule breaking will partly depend on "whether they get away with it" or not.
Often acts of defiance arise in the feelings of the moment - but these feelings disappear when the context changes so that the defiant person is dismayed to find themselves once again under the power and influence of those whose values, rules and moralty they have rejected. In this case exhiliration may be followed by fear and then by shame.
Given another context the person may then again act defiantly yet again - perhaps feeling driven to act again in the ways for which they are morally attacked in order to assert themselves. (So many times people do the things the powerful know-whats-best-for-yous in their world tell them not to, because the know-what-best-for yous tell them not to - it is a way of saying 'I will take my decisions about my life, not you'). It is not the person who is changing here - it is different sides of their personality being displayed in different contexts. If their lives are centred in a social milieu where they have found social acceptance for what they are and do, then regrets, and the fear of humiliation that might follow from public exposure, are likely to be absent or small. This is what I see as the positive effects of the tolerance that I see in German society - this is the positive effects that I see arising from the public lives of someone like Dolly Buster or Alice Sprinkle. They are making pornography safer for those who come after them - reducing the extent to which those who get involved later have cause for regret because they find themselves social outcastes. Perhaps, even, this is practical Buddhism. After all, there is no 'sin', as such, in Buddhism, only futile actions. The worst that happens in Buddhism are the consequences of one's unskilled and unaware choices and actions.
In conclusion - more pornography and more lonely frustrated people
The issues are not simple. The Skin Trades PR industry that has a hand behind German TV programmes like Wa(h)re Liebe still leaves me asking questions because, with a mouse click, I've seen degradation and misery work its way down the screen. It leaves me wondering how much lasting emotional misery the pornography industry may be causing. I think it is worthwhile trying to clarify some of the issues so that people can become emotionally literate about what they are looking at. Now that lots of people are making and looking at pornography we should examine this side of life too.
When Freud was writing and thinking at the turn of the last century it was a radical idea to suggest that their personalities were formed largely out of their earliest experiences and human relationships, around access to the breast and during potty training (the oral and anal phases) and what people made of these experiences. It was radical to suggest that people's sexuality was in the background of their psyches, forming their responses. All these had to be dragged out, teased out, as it were and be shown to be forming the way that people thought and acted. This was "the unconscious" - to be revealed by the word association games of psychoanalysis. The Greek philosopher Socrates was of the view that the unexamined life was not worth living. Know thyself was his slogan. What Freud succeeeded in doing was to show that people were busy forgetting and looking away from aspects of themselves - but that when they forgot, looked away from, or pushed these things out of their minds, their desires and fears nevertheless remained in their psyches and came back to haunt them in poorly understood forms of behaviour, obsessions, compulsions, fears, fantasies and dreams. If one does not know oneself one cannot really control oneself.
Nowadays, on the Internet, the collective sexual and infantile obsessions of humanity are on display. The most advanced technological and scientific development in the history of humanity is turned on and used after work to a huge extent driven by our sexual biology. A vast amount of fossil fuel is used in para-sexual relationships. A vast collective record exists of what is in, and on, the mind of the human ape. Our desires, obsessions. compulsions, fears and fantasies and dreams are all there, somewhere or another. The unconscious is rendered into colour on screen.
However, there is a different between awareness and understanding. We can see what is on our minds - but there are some more steps necessary if we are to move from this to self understanding, and even further to the improvement of our own sexual lives, which is a quite different matter. Never before has there been such a flood of sexual images pushing their way into the consciousness of society. This comes on top of a flood of erotic images in the mainstream media, in television and cinema, in the theatre, on advertising billboards, in magazines, in fitness studios, fashion shows so that there are those who talk of a pornographication of society or porn going mainstream. It seems doubtful however that this has unleashed a great deal more actual sexual activity.
Maybe even the reverse is occuring. According to Judith Mackay, of the World Health Organisation, in " Penguin Atlas of Human Sexual Behaviour" 50 million men in the USA and Europe are sexually frustrated, while 46% of American women describe themselves as preferring an undisturbed nights sleep to sex. In the German magazine Der Spiegel (for 3.7.2000) there is a description of a conference of 300 sexologists from over the world in Berlin in June 2000 many of whom describe the effect of the flood of pornography and images as making sexuality lose its magic, trivilialising it, making it matter of fact. A further effect is that, for many, imagination and pictures become more important than the mundane act itself - the intoxication aroused by the pictures are preferred to actual sex which often enough disappoints expectations and has a host of unwanted inter-personal complications attached to it.
Porn is an aid to sexual arousal without commitments and consquences - while it can be used to heighten the arousal between partners it is probably used more often as a sex substitute for isolated people. In the UK 17% of the population lived on their own in 1971. This had gone up to 26% in 1988. Pornography is largely what we are treating ourselves to instead of the real thing. If so we should use it at least as a vehicle to try to understand ourselves better and ensure that those who find themselves in front of the camera are properly protected. That involves emotional interpretation and ethical judgements - which is also what we need if we are to have real relationships.
© BRIAN DAVEY