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Maybe Porn Will Change the World

February 12, 2013

Now put your eyebrows down and let me explain what I mean by that. It’s actually not a question of maybe, but how, and how much. Changes are already happening.

webcamTo be clear, I am not anti-porn. Like most things, it has its place; there is good porn (sex-positive, body-positive, a normal part of a healthy love life) and then there is… stuff that would make you wish you could bleach your brain if you ever accidentally stumbled across it. As for the latter, there are those who believe it’s getting worse and those who disagree. But one thing is without question – porn of any and all kinds is far more easily accessible today than it ever has been before, thanks of course to our mutual friend Teh Internetz.

Since I’m not a social scientist, but merely a person who surfs interesting articles on the web all day when I’m not at work, I’m not qualified to profess exactly what kinds of effects this fact is having on our society. But I can read things like this article about middle school students in London that say things like this:

Researchers who carried out an in-depth study of the lives of pupils at two London schools in 2010 say that year eight was when they began to feel confused and overwhelmed by sexual expectations and demands.

Claire, who must be 12 or 13, is quoted as saying of the boys in her class: “If they want oral sex, they will ask every single day until you say yes.”

and see that that effects of some kind are clearly happening – and rather troubling ones.

What are we to do? Given that today’s average 12-year-old could probably hack the FBI mainframe three times before the steam has risen off their morning Pop Tart, increased online security and censorship measures seem destined to fail. There will always be somebody who can get around this kind of fix, and they will pass it on to other somebodies who will pass it on to your kids. In other words: graphic sex is out there. Kids will see it. If we accept this as fact, we can start to have a real discussion about how we, as a society, need to respond – and not just respond, but change.

We need to change how we talk about sex. We need to change how we think about sex. We need to change how we don’t talk about sex except in snickers and euphemisms. Because if we don’t figure out how to shake off our collective prudishness, Internet porn is going to become kids’ main (if not only) source of sex education.

But it's art

But it’s art

Throughout history there have been cultures with very liberal attitudes towards sex, and of course others with very repressive ones. And although many would put modern Western society in the former category, I would disagree. Ours is a society that has rapidly transformed in the last two centuries from a sexually repressive one into a third, and possibly even more alarming category: a society whose approach to sex is liberal in practice but repressive in attitude. We’ve reached a point where we can do pretty much whatever we want with our bodies – but our minds are still ensnared by the guilt, shame and squeamishness of our sexual cultural heritage. We indulge our impulses but we hate ourselves for it. This is a dangerous situation.

A truly sexually progressive society would view sex as normal, healthy, and fulfilling. Sexual body parts would seem hardly more shocking than fingers or toes. Perfectly natural, commonplace behaviours such as masturbation would not be taboo subjects. And it would be well-understood that children are not eunuchs until the age of sixteen, but rather sexual beings with natural curiosity about bodies and behaviours – curiosity that they will find a way to quench, one way or the other. Certain segments of our society have already embraced these attitudes, but they are by no means mainstream.

I believe that projecting a healthy, positive attitude about sex and bodies is the best way to empower young people to make safe, responsible choices – because it allows them to feel unashamed about discussing these choices with adults they trust. Education about STDs, pregnancy and other consequences is absolutely important too, but if it’s only ever discussed in oblique terms by embarrassed and judgemental people, kids will pick up on these attitudes and will be unwilling to discuss real issues when they encounter them in real life. And, as mentioned above, they WILL encounter them.

Even if some über-programmer managed to solve the Internet porn access problem, this issue wouldn’t go away. Before the World Wide Web, how did kids learn about sex? Mostly from their peers, or movies, or smutty magazines they found hidden in their older siblings’ rooms. Western society has been perpetuating conflicted messages about sexuality for decades – the Internet is simply shining a spotlight on the problem.

I’m not a mother, but I heard someone say once that your children will force you, over the course of your lifetime, to confront all of your insecurities and secret shames. Maybe this is a version of that, on a cultural level. Will we use this as an opportunity to mature and evolve?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Erin Leigh permalink
    February 12, 2013 10:57 pm

    You are my new favorite.

    (I wish I had something more profound to add, but that basically sums it up.)

  2. kip1981 permalink
    February 13, 2013 3:55 am

    Chandra,

    1. You are a spectacular writer.
    2. I completely agree with you.

  3. Donkey Hotay permalink
    February 13, 2013 6:39 am

    You’re absolutely right: things need to change, but things are such that it’s impossible to be the pioneer without being viewed as a sexual deviant and a threat.

    I’m a new parent–brand new–and right now I’d like to think that I’ll raise my child with a healthy attitude to her body. But then I think of the practicality of it and wonder how parents can possibly destigmatize the body, no matter how carefully and lovingly through good modelling, without it ending in a visit from the Children’s Aid Society.

    Sure, we could have those frank conversations about sex, as uncomfortable as they might be to have with a 12 year-old whose innocence we want to protect, but any action beyond that–no matter how uncreepy–will be viewed as creepy when our child tells her friends (maybe with the same good intentions), who will tell their parents or teachers, who will tell CAS. Somewhere along the broken telephone line, benevolence will be misinterpreted as deviance.

    The result of any regime of prohibition is fetishization. Sexual inhibition results in extreme sexual behaviours, some of them unhealthy, some of them healthy but just plain weird. (As you probably know, Freud, despite being way wrong about a lot of things, accurately theorized this about a century ago.) This in turn produces hyper-paranoia among helicopter parents wanting to protect their children from any unusual attitudes to sexuality, on suspicion that they represent a threat to their children. I know some new parents who, despite living in the safest of neighbourhoods, speak as if there’s a pedophile waiting around every corner, drooling over the opportunity to snatch their baby away.

    Besides a censorious media, it’s mainly the good intentions of paranoid parents that will make it impossible for attitudes to change.

    • February 13, 2013 8:43 am

      These are very valid points. I think it’s true that sexual inhibition can produce unhealthy behaviours, but so can sexual repression. There has to be a happy medium somewhere. Any kind of social change has to start with baby steps, and will nevertheless create a certain amount of backlash. I agree that this is an especially sensitive topic open to an especially reactive kind of backlash, but maybe we could start simply with parents not actively freaking out when their child starts asking questions or exploring their own body.

      I should make it clear that I don’t blame parents (and I know there are parents who don’t freak out) – there are many good reasons I’m not one, and one of them is that I’m not at all sure I’d be up to the task. The idea of raising a child in this society terrifies me. I am a product of this culture as well, and I have as many hang-ups as the next person. I have no idea how I’d go about trying to have these kinds of conversations, or how to effect the kind of social change I’m describing here. But I do believe we have to find some way to adapt to the changes that are already happening.

      • Donkey Hotay permalink
        February 13, 2013 2:49 pm

        Yes, it’s a toughy, a Cirque-du-Soleil-worthy tightrope act to be a parent in the 21st century. How does one take those baby steps without the kind of backlash that will result in losing one’s child. I guess we’ll find out.

        I’ve been thinking about this all day, and it seems to me that there’s just no solution to the dilemmas you describe. If a parent wants to be proactive about modelling a healthy attitude towards the body, she could perhaps destigmatize it with casual nudity in the home, which is normal in the first few years, especially in the bathroom, but it would probably just get weird after that, wouldn’t it? In fact, my best friend’s dad was like that when we were teens: he usually walked around their home in the nude, but would, as a courtesy, put on underwear when I came over to visit; however, sometimes, if drunk and in a jovial mood, he would tell (show) us his “elephant joke” by dropping his gonch and stand there in front of us, guffawing away, much to my friend’s embarrassment and my scandalization. As liberal and progressive as that may have been, even if it weren’t done so crudely, it was just gross. It may have even nudged us towards inhibition through negative modelling.

        And, to return to the titular subject of your post, there’s really no way that I can think of to be proactive about introducing the “right” kind of pornography to a young adult in order to preempt the shock she will endure when curiosity leads to her first viewing of the all-too-plentiful bad kind, as I’m sure a lot of kids experience huddled with their friends around the an uncensored home computer. Any way you cut it, parents showing pornography of any kind to their children seems like it will end with an audit from Social Services and probably show up on the six o’clock news. Frank conversations are one thing, but the practicalities of teaching sex-media literacy in the twenty-first century will just be a minefield of potential peril.

        I can’t imagine a worse media environment for children to grow up in. Between the retarding effects of the repressive sexual attitudes you discussed above and the breakneck speed of development forced by the information superhighway, it’ll be a miracle if the kids turn out alright.

        Thanks for the reply, Chandra. I never tire of your posts, your eloquence, and your thoughtfulness.

  4. Matthew Chiglinsky permalink
    February 21, 2013 11:39 pm

    Porn is an evil lie.

    http://agalltyr.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/delusions-of-porn/

    • Mike permalink
      March 10, 2013 10:15 am

      Chandra has written a thought-provoking, intelligent article here. Great stuff. Matthew, your linked article is so lacking in an appreciation of the complexity of the points that Chandra has raised. Your article seems simplistic and judgmental in comparison and your posting it on her site borders on disrespect. I came away from her post having learned something and sure cannot say the same about yours. I apologize to Chandra for putting my reply to you here but found that – unlike Chandra – you don’t accept comments.

    • March 21, 2013 9:20 am

      I meant to reply to this comment ages ago. Although I agree that a lot of porn is, as you say, harmful to women, I don’t think blanket statements like this are helpful or accurate. Porn in its loosest definition is simply a depiction of human sexual activity – so does that mean that all human sexual activity is inherently misogynistic? I certainly hope not. I also don’t think you’re doing much to honour women’s autonomous voices by saying that female porn stars who claim to enjoy their work are always deluded, coerced or lying.

      For a counterpoint, here is an excellent article on feminist porn that might help you to understand an opposing viewpoint.

      And Mike, no apology needed – I think your comment is appropriate here as well.

      • kip1981 permalink
        March 21, 2013 9:22 am

        Porn is the greatest thing ever.

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