In a series of conversations, some of them with a troll on a Village Voice article about Stoya, and others after the fact with friends about my anger and passion on the subject of sex-positivity, I’ve realized that while my reasons for writing impassioned essays and graphic novels and making films and continually making myself a part of sex-positive culture are very clear to me, they might not be to everyone else. It’s easy to forget, when you’re on a crusade, that to others, that crusade might be all well and good, but not nearly as important as it seems to the crusader.
So I’m going to try to write out, without getting too long-winded, why sex (and porn) are so important to me, and why I’d argue that the issues they bring up could be important to everybody with a humanist streak.
It’s not just that I like sex and therefore I love talking about it. I mean, I do. And I do. But there’s a lot more going on here. This shit is important.
Sex is powerful. Universal. Capable of transporting us, transforming us. I believe this to be true. I don’t think that all sex always has to be a transformative, mind-blowing, love-infused experience with the person you’re most bonded with. I think that sex can be equally awesome if it’s done for fun and recreation, with strangers or friends, here or there, on a train or in the rain… etc. But I think that human sex has the potential to change people’s lives and points of view because it can be such an intense, emotional, really visceral experience. It can bring people together in strong emotional and physical bonds. And it can give us a sense of peace and understanding and power in our bodies. Basically, sex can be a unifying and gratifying and powerful force in human life.
But because it’s so powerful on the individual and unifying levels, and because it can produce life, it has been one of the central focuses of control by church, government, etc. for eons. As the site of procreation, female sexuality in particular has been under the regulation of those in power in many cultures. The sexual impulse, particularly in Western cultures in which inheritance, lineage, and the control of growing empires have been of the utmost importance, has been discouraged and put under almost constant surveillance, analysis, and control. As power changed hands from religious leaders to politicians to corporations, and everything in between, female sexuality has been monitored and kept as far as possible under the control of those in power–often men, but that’s not my point. The point is that sex has been used against us for thousands of years–it has been turned into something that inspires fear, shame, revulsion, and a need for secrecy because we have been taught by the witting and unwitting heirs of this system of control for so long that sex is dangerous. Sex is bad. Sex is powerful, but not in ways that can benefit us. It’s powerful in ways that can harm us only. So we have to be afraid of it. Treat it carefully. Keep it secret–keep it safe in that secrecy.
And so we go about in a world that has changed drastically since the days when Hebrews prized procreation above all else as they vied for a political and physical foothold, since the Christians and then the Romans adopted many of the Hebrews’ rules about sex, since the Romans gave way to the Catholic Church as the locus of power in Europe, since the Church ceded much of its power to politically divided nations that maintained an interest in controlling their populaces, and up until the present day, when conservative interests are desperate to keep the power they once had over us all.
If you doubt this to be true because your personal experience doesn’t reflect it, just take a look at any online article about pornography or sex in a mainstream publication. Notice how it seems impossible for the journalist or commentors to look at sex with a clear eye, without turning everything into a joke or a back-handed insult. Note how incensed the commentors are by the idea that sexuality or pornography has any right to be discussed openly. Note how impossible it is for women to be noted as human beings by our media, rather than as their sexualized bodies. Also note how cultural conservatives of all stripes, who see the world changing in favor of gay rights and human sexual liberation and are terrified of losing their grip on power, seek to control the rights of sexual minorities and women over their own bodies and sexual lives–not by implication or suggestion, but overtly. These people do not want women to have the right to choose, or gays to have the right to marry, or anyone who is not a white male in a position of authority to have the right to their own bodies and sexual choices. The fight over sex, make no mistake, is alive and well. And the longer our bodies and our sexualities are treated as shameful, secret, taboo terrors to be controlled and manipulated by those in power, the longer those in power will have tangible control over all of our lives.
Because it has retained such a “special” status in our culture, sex has been largely removed from the marketplace. In many industrialized nations, the sale of sex is strictly prohibited. It occupies an “exalted” place that puts it “above” the economics that drive the rest of our capitalist society, and thus it can remain more effectively taboo. (This, by the way, isn’t an argument for or against capitalism, it’s just a statement of one more way in which sex is taken out of the mainstream and into the realm of fear, secrecy, and shame.) The idea of selling the body is repugnant to most of us because we have been taught that sex is some sacred thing that should not be sold, but because it’s so sacred, we have to keep it out of sight.
The one place in which US culture, in particular, gets around this silencing impulse is in pornography. Porn is legal. It is massively popular because everybody likes sex and nobody ever seems to get enough of it. We can’t buy sex, but we can buy videos and photos of other people having sex. Porn is the only place where straight-up, actual sex without moralistic jargon surround it can be bought, sold, and taxed in America. It is permitted to continue as a source of tax revenue and as a “necessary evil” in our culture. But it is punished simply for existing: porn companies face higher rates for payment processing and more difficulty finding distribution than other companies. Porn is subject to vague “community standards” for obscenity that leave it open to prosecution at virtually any moment, almost anywhere. Being involved in porn is a black mark on the reputation of individuals and companies alike in the eyes of the public because it dares to monetize sex for the advantage of those who make it. Our engrained sense of ‘propriety’ (read: thousands of years of programming as the result of religious and political control) shies away from this.
But at this point, because we live in a culture where sex is so deeply subversive and yet still so unavoidably enticing, we secretly (or not so secretly) love porn. We spend a lot of our money on it, and way more of our time on it. The internet is basically made of porn because we cannot get enough of it. And so pornography becomes one of the most universally accessible languages in which to talk about sex. What we like about porn, or what we don’t like about it, can be a jumping-off point for a real discussion about sexuality that is difficult for most of us to get to. We can talk about it in terms that aren’t quite as personal. Porn is the only public display of sex that is easily accessible. It is sex on display. We can talk about it: in terms of economics or morals or logistics or whatever. We can beat around the proverbial bush (pun intended) to get to the crux of the matter: sex is important to us.
It’s not that porn and thus sex are the only issues in our culture that are important. There are major problems in our culture with labor, economics, education, environmental degradation, access to clean water and sufficient food, and so many other things. But the one thing that almost every person, everywhere, with any exposure to our Western imperial culture can understand on a basic level, devoid of language and politics, is sex. It is one thing we almost all share and understand. It is one place where so many of us have been terrorized and controlled through assault, rape, fear, shame, legislation, confusion, and secrecy–where our personal experiences have been used by those in power to control us. And yet it is also one place in which we can all also understand ourselves, come to understand each other, and to feel power in our own bodies and lives.
I believe that utilizing our right to enjoying sex without fear and shame, taking control of our bodies, to taking joy and pleasure in sex… that these can be the start of a revolution. Porn is one gateway to a discussion and change of attitude toward sex. It is in the best interest of every human being to have the right to experience their own sexuality in their own way, with access to the education and tools and, yes, porn that helps them find pleasure in their sexuality. It is one way in which we can break the chains that have been put on us. By talking about sex, opening up dialogues about pornography as the public display of sex through performance and what it means to us, and refusing to continue allowing those in power over the legislation and attitudes that have governed our own bodies and sexualities for so long, we can raise a proud middle finger at thousands of years of oppression and start to move away from the things that divide us, toward a unified and humanist and ultimately free world. A world that might be closer to unifying on issues like the environment, the economy, our labor, our lives.
That’s what I think. It’s high-minded and maybe a bit hyperbolic in places. But it’s true. Sex isn’t just a part of life that should get tossed aside because it’s embarrassing. It’s an integral part of a much larger tapestry that we only have some small measure of control over, personally. But through our universal needs and desires, and our respect for one another and their needs and desires, we can start to understand one another. Sex is one of the most surveilled and controlled parts of our lives. It doesn’t have to be that way. The only way to change it is to change it.
So. Let’s just do it. N’est-ce pas?