Pornography: Bodily Consumption in the Age of Capitalism

We appear to have a relatively recent, popular, and liberal notion of pornography as healthy media. The opinion goes that the issue with pornography is not necessarily its content, accessibility, or economics, but the consumer’s maintenance of time spent with it. In other words, pornography isn’t the problem — addiction is. I am increasingly unconvinced by this position, especially when we have seen popular conflations of arguments for the civil protections of sex workers and arguments for the intrinsic healthiness of the work itself, moreover with no parameters set for one’s induction into that line of work. Perhaps this is because no such parameters can be set when the production of pornography has become a simple matter of using a phone to film or photograph and then upload that material. On this level, nothing can really be implemented. It is highly conceivable that the first-time age of consumption and production of pornography will trend lower and lower in the coming years, and it is not inconceivable to imagine that there will here too be a liberal holding of the tongue in the name of proper progressive manners. Fearfully suppressing the adolescent’s sexual reality, however, is not the same as guiding them away from prostitution.

An example of a radical leftist uncritically embracing pornography to the extent of advocating for pornographic sites and material which would cater to children. Note the attempt to fall into line with neoliberal sentimentality with the sentence, “Queer & nonwhite content front & center.”

In a sense, these arguments have also reinforced the hazy, lazy, pseudo-progressive arrangement of masculinity as associated with problematics and femininity as associated with empowerment. Men are often the focus in porn addiction, while women are by contrast ostensibly liberated by sharing their nude bodies. This is not to say that these demographics do not exist; rather, that inconvenient complexities (e.g., that the productions of the latter may be assisting the former) have been ignored in favor of easy conclusions. Perhaps the largest indicator of the narrowness of these politics is that to say any of this is to ostensibly reveal oneself to be a body-policing prude. Satisfied with the idea that what one is reacting to is just covert conservatism, those confronted by this viewpoint can continue to exist unperturbed.

It seems patently false to assume that the problem with porn is time investment, though. This treats porn as a sort of vague abstraction no different from any other adult media. If we look at the kind of performances pornography is providing for viewers, moreover with the assistance of sites like PornHub having front page space dedicated to the most popular videos (and we indeed may observe that such designations have the effect of making content which is perhaps not, in fact, as popular as described actually popular by suggestive effect), it becomes clear that the issue is much messier than pretended. On basic levels, we can observe the continual elimination of natural physical facts, like body hair in certain areas, such as the pubic region and armpits. On less basic levels, we can also observe a rise in misogynistic behavior: the revenge fantasy is frequently utilized, now often paired with incest (e.g., the older brother getting back at his younger sister, or step-sister, for being an annoying, uppity bitch), or gesturally expressed through the act of choking. Let us observe here too that the women involved are, presumably, willfully collaborating, and sometimes even the material’s producers. These participations in misogyny far exceed the nice ambiguities of old academic debates like whether the woman or the man is objectified in blowjob scenes.

The retreat into “alternative” avenues of consumption fares no better. One might assert that the culprit here is heteronormativity, and that “queering” the pornographic landscape, in terms of the material produced and disseminated and/or one’s viewing habits, represents a more ethical alternative. This assertion completely sidesteps the issue of the noncommittal consumption of bodies the pornography industry represents. Pornography, in a way, replicates celebrity culture, wherein we engage with the heavily mediated image of a person for a sort of emotional transaction. With pornography, the transaction results in our orgasm; and, in the most common scenario, post-orgasm, we can discard that image of the person as one would discard the wrapper of a candy bar.

In the other less common scenario, we comprise a sex worker’s “fan-base” and await their next performance, dependent upon a transferal of money. The usual defenses of this latter scenario amount to little more than an admiration of the industrial-celebrity framework on a smaller scale (e.g., “If people are willing to give you money for showing your feet, do it!”). Such defenses follow the logic of capital: if it makes a profit, good; the more profit it makes, the better. The mere facts of the individual’s willingness to do the work and the monetary transaction are, quite bafflingly, taken to be justifications in themselves. No serious inquiries can be made into issues like how, if we accept the comparison to the cult of celebrity, a woman is only as valuable as she is desirable, or if indeed this kind of work would be done at all were there no monetary exchange or the possibility for popularity (as is associated with the dopamine effect of one being given attention on social media), because to question the psycho-social dimension of sex work, at the moment implicitly feminine, is to question the feminine itself. This is to say nothing of the opportunistic activities of sites like PornHub and its advertorial strategies done in the name of appearing “humane” and “fun.” Even the simplest comprehension here can determine that this is a corporate structure with all of the regular evils in place, including the exploitation of minors.

Two exemplary details taken from PornHub’s page during 2020, showing — in the first — how font, colors, and pictures are used to pretend a totally non-problematic aspect surrounding the consumption of pornography.

Extending our view, we can see that there is another “alternative” avenue of consumption: that of drawn and animated pornography. Sometimes this animated pornography is realized using polygonal models. The rationale here, regarding alternativity, is that, since one is not consuming the image of real people, one has avoided the pitfalls of “real” porn. This is not true at all. Drawn and “3D” pornography are a stage for potentially even more dramatic distortions of sexuality precisely because the strictures of reality — the morphological and psychic limitations of the human body — have been obliterated. This universe is the perfect breeding ground for neuroses wherein repressed affects find outlets in otherwise unrelated places. Here, the fantasy of sex comes to be preferred over the act of sex. Sometimes these fantasies will bleed over into live-action porn, as has been the case with the ahegao expression, complete with a simultaneous acknowledgement of the artificiality of the thing and the desiring of it for that very artificiality.

Moreover, when one speaks of morphological distortion, one need not even be referring to fringe pornography of people transforming into sentient genitalia; it can just as well refer to relatively mundane codifications like the size of facial features, the apparent physics of breasts, or the sexual stamina of a given participant. Indeed, it is so common as to be unremarkable now in the popular domain of Japanese-authored/-derived drawn pornography (itself ultimately indebted to Walt Disney’s cartoons) for the woman to be a saucer-eyed being with balloon breasts and the ability to arouse in the man a capacity for ejaculating half-a-dozen times in one session.

As with elsewhere, strange defenses of these preoccupations have emerged in the name of open-mindedness, wherein all sexuality is reduced to a critically immune, biologically predetermined matter, as if ejaculating to a cartoon of a woman being petrified were the equivalent of having brown eyes. Although the two usual abominations of pedophilia and bestiality are condemned, both are often symbolically quite present in popular live-action porn, given the prevalence of “barely legal” material and the pairing of women with “monster” penises (often of black men, thus preserving the narrative of black men being more primal and animalistic than white men).

In my estimation, none of this even scratches the surface of the topic. I admit, of course, that all of it is derived from personal experience and observation, and also that, when not dating, I can find difficulty in breaking free from the occasional consumption of pornography. I enjoy masturbation, as I believe everyone should, and I have no intent of demonizing the very idea of sexual imagination; but if I were to reflect on this consumption, I don’t find anything healthy about it except that it facilitates the process by which one can come to orgasm. It is a sort of imagistic, dehumanizing device which has nothing to impart except an excitation and consequent ejaculation. For some people, this language may seem to stray too close to sacred intonations to be postmodernistically palatable; for others, those intonations might create an assumption of a kinship of ideas about, say, the reservation of sex as a post-marriage activity and so on. None of these responses interest me.

Just as I’m increasingly unconvinced by the propositional problematic of addiction as being central to the matter, I am too increasingly unconvinced by assertions that pornography is indeed “body-positive” at all. The body is not an image; it is, rather, as real of a thing as any of us has — it is through the body that we understand ourselves and the world — , and I don’t think that a medium which treats this as another commodity, and is so intertwined with the voraciously scopophilic culture of the Internet, honors this reality. We must continue questioning the norms of pornography, indeed its very basis as media, just as we would of any other cultural construct. Sex and sexuality are too important for us to do otherwise.