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Apr 20, 2004 9:44 am

Pornography and History

The recent stories about the discovery of an outbreak of H.I.V. in the Los Angeles pornographic movie industry and the reasonably responsible response (no word that I've seen on whether pornographic still photography is similarly affected) led me to think. Not quite at the level of Hugo Schwyzer's musings about personal responsibility and the avoidance of culpability ("Porn, HIV, Freedom, Responsibility"), but a more confused musing on sex, culture and economics.

Most discussions of pornography in the West start with the rise of photography, but there was a long history of written erotica, and visual erotica that was either hand-drawn or printed. In Japan, from the 17th century on, the woodblock print was a popular medium for erotic/pornographic imagery, as well as mixed text and image pornography and a quite extensive unillustrated erotic literature. Greek and Roman theater and art and literature were suffused with sex.

Part of the problem with discussions of this sort is the problem of classification. We think of pornography as a mechanically produced visual form -- still and moving pictures -- ignoring the narrative, explicit or implied, which goes along with most of it. Pornographic images and narratives may or may not be part of that genre called"erotica"; I've never been sure of the difference, if there is one, particularly between soft-core and erotica, and then there is the literature and art and movies and TV that is sexual, even bawdy, but not graphic. We distinguish between reproduced images and live action -- peep shows and strip clubs -- though their distributors are often the same. There is supposed to be a difference between sex for hire -- prostitution -- and sex for show (and a difference between non-sexual contact for hire and sexual contact for hire). Depending on where we draw the line in our investigation of sexual industries very much determines how the history is shaped.

But there is something about examining the literature of sex separate from the practice of prostitution and sexual performance, or separate from less explicit but nonetheless sexualized culture, which seems artificial to me. I guess I'm just not sure that pornography is a thing in itself, which we can wall ourselves off from in the present or which we can separate from our historical discussions of culture and society and literature and economics in our past. I'm not saying that it isn't problematic, but it is not a discreet problem.

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Tim M. Matthewson - 12/4/2005

What do the stats say about the impact of violence and porn or sex in the media? Well, they say that teen pregnancy and abortions are way down and so too are the stats on violent crime. These trends have been observable over the past twenty years, but there seems to be a disconnect between social trends and our willingness to relate them to the media. Perhaps the deluge of porn and violence in the media has generated an aversion to promiscuity and conflict in real life.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/21/2004

That should read "if there is pornography that appeals more to women than to men"

Damned inconvenient spot for a typo.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/21/2004

Hmm. I keep finding Potter Stewart's old line "I know it when I see it" ( popping into my head.

The distinction you draw between erotica and porn is interesting, but depending on who's drawing the line, the line will be drawn in very, very different places. With the exception of an odd and frightening minority, most pornographic (at least, you and I would probably agree that it was pornographic) narrative involves great satisfaction for all parties. And the pornography industry is rife with participants who claim great fulfillment and self-satisfaction (as does the prostitution business). I guess the problem for me comes when you classify erotica as involving "genuine reciprocity" and pornography as bodies which "exist solely for the consumption of ... the viewer" [emphasis added], which leaves a huge gray (or grey, if you prefer) area.

And I noticed that you omitted any mention of women as consumers of pornography. What I don't know is whether that's justified, or if there is pornography that appeals more to women than to me (or lesbian porn, to parallel the gay porn). In theory, I assume, the feminist on this is identical to the feminist position on male-oriented pornography.

And I do look forward to an explication of "erotic justice" and "Christian erotics." Jewish tradition, too, has some interesting things to say on the subject of sexual satisfaction as a man's marital obligation. We'll see if there's a correspondence.

Hugo Schwyzer - 4/20/2004

Terrific stuff, Jonathan! Feminist analysis is keenly aware of the "narrative" of porn. The key difference for many (including me) between "erotica" and "porn" is the presence or absence of genuine reciprocity. In any kind of erotica, all characters have their own agency and their own right to pleasure and delight. No woman's body exists solely for the consumption of the male participants or the viewer. (We could go off into a tangent about gay porn and erotica, but that's another day).

In a Christian erotics (there IS such a thing, and I WILL post about it), erotic exchanges are not merely reciprocal but JUST. What "erotic justice" looks like (it's the title of a book by a Marvin Ellison) is radically different from traditional conceptions of visual erotica or pornography. More soon.

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