Sunday, April 15, 2007

On pornography

The Apostate is justly contemptuous of much of the content of pornography and the sex trade. There's much there to arouse the disdain of the thoughtful and sensitive, but the Apostate earns our philosophical admiration by not jumping to easy conclusions, e.g. that porn should be banned or even condemned as the cause of our sexual and emotional ills.

Like many other social phenomena, porn exists in a feedback system with individuals' sexuality. It is absurd to believe that porn is a pure symptom, that it has no causal effect whatsoever on its consumers' sexuality and emotional state and most importantly, on their subjective morality; everything that one experiences affects his or her mental equilibrium. Likewise, it is absurd to believe that porn is a simple cause, that its consumers are blank slates and accept literally whatever porn happens to pass before their eyes; because likewise everything affects one's mental equilibrium, and porn is only one of millions of influences, which include those (as yet unknown) ineluctable characteristics supplied by our genes.

The disturbing content of much pornography should, I think, justly give pause to even its most ardent defenders; on the other hand, the all too often simplistic condemnation of pornography should give pause to its more thoughtful critics.

One very obvious and critical problem in the discussion of sexuality in general is the almost total lack of scientific study of sexuality. There are seminal studies, Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, but the point of seminal studies in science is to fertilize additional study, not to stand alone as absolute proof. By analogy, it is not Eddington's single observation of relativistic light-bending (an observation later found not probative) which conclusively proves General Relativity, it is the millions of experiments subsequently performed by the scientific edifice begun by Einstein. Likewise, had a scientific edifice been established around Kinsey's research, it would be the body of that research which would have separated what was true in Kinsey from that which was mistaken. Such an edifice was not built, and intellectuals even today can rely on little else but Kinsey's decades old research.[1]

Whenever you have a feedback system, with no clear hierarchy of cause, if you want to affect the system you must identify neither the most visible nor the most labile component, but rather the component where changes will be most magnified by the feedback processes.

What little scientific research exists suggests that every individual's sexuality is very stable, whereas his or her morality is quite labile. It is much easier to affect what a person sincerely approves and disapproves of than it is to change what he or she finds sexually exciting. Studies on pedophiles and rapists (and also—in of course a much different moral context—homosexuals) bear this out, as well as the tendency of consumers of pornography to focus on particular fetishes or narrow genres.

It is also clear to any student of history—and readers of Marx—that individual morality follows economic conditions. The bulk of both secular ethical philosophy as well as theology consists of justifying the moral superiority of the economically powerful, and the most obvious predictor of both political and moral revolution is when the government and the economically powerful become estranged. Again, we witness some evidence for this hypothesis in the context of the sex trade by the fact that indigenous prostitution sharply declines in those countries with both economic fairness and stability.

Another blatantly obvious factor in this context is that the social and economic dominance of men over women has definitely existed for millennia, and might stretch even farther, to the millions of years, even to our pre-human ancestors. This is a long enough time period that the idea of sexual inequality is almost definitely entrenched in our social structures, and may have even a genetic component. I am not one to indulge in the naturalistic fallacy, and neither tradition nor genetics is in any way a justification of objective morality, but facts are still facts, and cannot be changed merely by wishing them away.

The above is, admittedly, a thin basis for speculation. The most obvious starting point is to encourage serious scientific research into sexuality.[2] Absent such research, no conclusions can ever be reached with any degree of confidence. Thin though the factual basis, speculation is my privilege as a philosopher.

Sexuality does not appear labile, especially in adulthood, and all scientific study shows that children are labile in general, their minds positively optimized for the task of learning. It is thus critically necessary to begin honest and frank discussion of sexuality as early as possible in childhood. We should no more leave to chance and idiosyncratic parental influence whatever environmental influences affect a child's sexuality than we should leave to chance that which affects his or her morality. How can we expect our children to have a healthy, satisfying and fulfilling sexuality when the dominant paradigm is that sex is like smoking: Horrible, dangerous, and permitted to adults only because of the excessive cost of suppression, that "sex is so dirty and disgusting that it should be done only with someone you love very much."[3]

Sex is a primal need. Pornography and the sex trade (stripping, prostitution, etc.) fills that need where it is unmet by other means. It is therefore critically necessary to both legalize and legitimatize the trade itself so that criticism can be focused on objectionable content. Prohibition didn't reduce the number of drunks, it merely increased the number of gangsters and blind people, the unfortunate victims of poisonous wood alcohol. So long as parts of the sex trade remain illegal and the rest condemned in whole, it is impossible to have a differential effect on the content of that trade.

Because morality appears considerably more labile than sexuality, the criticism of the content of the sex trade would be more effective if focused on the moral context of sex work, rather than its specifically sexual content. For instance, one practice of some BDSM pornography which addresses the specific moral context is explicitly portraying the negotiation of consent prior to sexual activity.[4]

Lastly, the importance of economic factors cannot be exaggerated. Almost all forms of oppression, from sweatshops to sex slavery, have at their heart economic injustice. Working for both economic security and fairness cannot help but discourage all forms of sexual oppression.


[1] Furthermore, sociological research in general (with notable exceptions) seems often to not really "grok" the scientific method. Its practitioners all too often exhibit pseudo-scientific reasoning which, when not absurdly hyper-positivist, cannot be called anything but theological. I strongly suspect that such pervasive errors of reasoning are due in no small part to the inclusion of sociology in the humanities, where its practitioners have become intimidated by the Philosophy department's at best half-hearted endorsement and at worst venomously contemptuous dismissal of scientific epistemology. (It is no accident, I suspect, that physical scientists dropped "philosophy" from the origins of science in Natural Philosophy.)

[2] And, per footnote 1, work to place the scientific humanities, sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc., on a firmer scientific footing, eliminating the fallacious positivism and theology. It might too prove necessary and beneficial to convict much of academic philosophy of High Treason against rationality for their resistance to scientific epistemology.

[3] The quotation is from memory, and I'm unable to quickly determine its correct attribution. I suspect Carlin.

[4] This practice is cited only as an example; I lack sufficient expertise to endorse or condemn the specific genre or its practices.

13 comments:

  1. I agree that scientific study of sex would be a good thing, but I pretty much miss the rest of your point.

    I don't really understand why you think Apostate is justly contemptuous of the sex trade, or what you think the "disturbing content of much pornography" is.

    If I had to name some porn that I find disturbing, I would have to say kiddie porn, because children are not in a position to give meaningful consent.

    But adults are, so whatever they want to do in their movie is fine with me. "Water sports" (i.e. involving urine/feces) do not appeal to me, so I'm not interested in watching it, but it doesn't bother me if somebody else wants to watch that movie or star in it.

    You say Sex is a primal need. Pornography and the sex trade (stripping, prostitution, etc.) fills that need where it is unmet by other means. but I must disagree partly. Pornography and the sex trade fill a need even for people who have ready access to satisfying sex. That is, a man can marry a kinky nymphomaniac who will give him any kind of sex he wants at any time he wants, but still find porn and strip clubs appealing. This is just human nature.

    So what exactly is the moral issue here?

    -/mm

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  2. I don't really understand why you think Apostate is justly contemptuous of the sex trade, or what you think the "disturbing content of much pornography" is.

    The Apostate is my wife; she was looking over my shoulder as I wrote the lede, and she insisted on that particular wording.

    What is disturbing in pornography is the prevalence of imagery which shows the domination of women by men. This imagery ought to disturb anyone, such as myself who finds domination morally problematic.

    There are layers of moral evaluation here. Between consenting adults, porn as speech must be universally permitted.

    To exaggerate the moral distinction, consider racist hate speech: I can on the one hand defend the right of the most vitriolic racist to speak his mind, but I can without contradiction criticize the content of his speech. The analogy is exaggerated—I don't consider anything but perhaps the very worst of porn to be on a level of hate speech—but the principle carries over to porn.

    I'm going to post at greater length about the moral component of speech in general (referencing Don Imus as well as porn), but I want to get the multi-level approach across in this comment: I believe that freedom of speech protects the right to say anything, but it does not shield the content of that speech from criticism. So long as the porn debate centers around justifying or condemning government censorship, it's just noise. The First Amendment decisively settles that level of debate, as well it should.

    That is, a man can marry a kinky nymphomaniac who will give him any kind of sex he wants at any time he wants, but still find porn and strip clubs appealing. This is just human nature.

    I take your point. Even so, the sex trade must be filling some unmet need, even if for only additional variety, for such a person to spend his or her hard-earned money.

    I'll write more on the moral issue as soon as I can. If you'd like, you can peruse some background material on my views regarding meta-ethical subjective relativism.

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  3. We live in a degenerate society that is saturated with political, cultural, and media-generated pornography, yet as usual only sexual pornography is singled out for condemnation.

    Porn is the sexual equivalent of junk food - a low-grade, unsatisfying substitute for the real thing.

    Our problem is that sexuality itself is scapegoated from so many different quarters that it's extremely difficult for anyone to be matter-of-fact and self-accepting about their own sexuality and to form healthy, loving relationships.

    I doubt whether umpteen more 'scientific' research projects will tell us much more about sex that we don't already know. Havelock Ellis - who researched it more deeply, and earlier, than either Freud or Kinsey - said that there was more nonsense talked about sex than any other aspect of life. He emphasised the importance of guilt-free sexual fulfilment in the achievement of a balanced mental, emotional, and aesthetic life. But this is still not how the topic is usually approached today.

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  4. Anticant: I don't believe we live in a "degenerate" society; quite the contrary: Our society seems quite subtle and sophisticated. There are many aspects of our society that I find morally problematic, even disgusting, but such moral issues arise in any dynamic society.

    Porn can be —perhaps often or even predominantly—used as sexual "junk food", but I don't think that such "junkiness" is inherent to the genre in the same way that junkiness is inherent to Big Macs. Remember that Socrates condemned writing itself as junk food for the mind.

    Our problem is that sexuality itself is scapegoated from so many different quarters that it's extremely difficult for anyone to be matter-of-fact and self-accepting about their own sexuality and to form healthy, loving relationships.

    I doubt whether umpteen more 'scientific' research projects will tell us much more about sex that we don't already know.

    To have umpteen more, you have to have umpteen some. In the area of scientific sexual research we do not have umpteen some, and in a scientific sense we know very little about sexuality. Havelock Ellis' research is more than a century old (and shows the bias of his Victorian morality), Kinsey's a half century old. As I mentioned in the essay a single scientific study proves nothing: Only a body of scientific research can give us any sort of confidence.

    The sorts of things we don't know about sexuality: How is an individual's sexuality formed? To what degree can it be changed? How important is the environment vs. genetics? What features of the environment affect sexuality? How does a person's sexuality affect his moral, social and political behavior? How does it affect his self-constructed notions of physical and emotional health?

    We are always seeking to effect moral change, but without knowing the scientific truth we are helpless to do so.

    He emphasised the importance of guilt-free sexual fulfilment in the achievement of a balanced mental, emotional, and aesthetic life.

    There is undoubtedly far too much guilt attached to sexuality, and it is definitely attached to sexuality itself rather than differentially to specific content. Even so, learning only to be guilt-free is not a panacea: Should a pedophile or a rapist learn to have a guilt-free physical expression of his sexuality? Without knowing the scientific truth of how sexuality operates, it is harder to make distinctions in the content, and impossible to translate those distinctions we can make into effective change.

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  5. I was thinking of taste, not morals. Maybe I should have said 'debauched', not 'degenerate'.

    There have in fact been many 'scientific' studies of sex since Masters & Johnson. I could cite you a couple of dozen such books - many emanating from USA - on my own shelves.

    I am an old-fashioned moralist in that I think everyone - unless brain-damaged - is capable of taking responsibility for his or her behaviour in the sexual sphere, as much as in any other. Surely personal responsibility - or lack of it - is THE crucial issue in contemporary society?

    Absence of consent is the boundary line, and obviously rules out rape. Paedophilia is a much more complex issue, and our current punitive attitudes to it depend on far too many unexamined assumptions. [NB my own personal preference would be to abolish children, and for fully sexually equipped ephebic youths and maidens to spring from the ground like dragon's teeth. Maybe I have a Herodian complex....]

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  6. A couple of dozen books does not make a body of science. You need not just shelves full but libraries full of books, journals, and theses to make a body of science. I haven't counted, but I suspect there are not dozens, not scores, but hundreds (if not thousands) of just textbooks in physics.

    And how many of couple of dozen books you have contain actual scientific research, with the necessary methodology, measurements, statistics, etc. How many are, like Havelock Ellis, just collections of anecdotes? (There's nothing wrong per se with anecdotes, the make a good starting point, but only a starting point.) How many are bullshit sociological theology?

    I know a little of whereof I speak: One of my oldest friends (I went to nursery school with her eldest son) has a Ph.D. from, has lectured at (now retired), and is still affiliated with the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. There is of course some scientific study, but I have it on her authority that there is not very much science going on—much less in the US since the Bush administration—especially for such a critically important topic as human sexuality.

    Paedophilia is a much more complex issue, and our current punitive attitudes to it depend on far too many unexamined assumptions.

    Perhaps you are correct. But these assumptions can be examined only scientifically, and there is far too little science to determine what is truly harmful and what is neutral or even helpful.

    I am an old-fashioned moralist in that I think everyone - unless brain-damaged - is capable of taking responsibility for his or her behaviour in the sexual sphere, as much as in any other. Surely personal responsibility - or lack of it - is THE crucial issue in contemporary society?

    Personal responsibility is important, but it is not a catch-all rebuttal for every (or even very many) ethical issues facing a society, unless one is "I've got mine, Jack, die on the street if you're poor" conservative. It's not THE crucial issue, especially in a complex technological society where the illusion of self-sufficiency can be maintained only by delusions that would shock a Christian.

    Everything we do, everything we say affects us all, one way or another.

    Absence of consent is the boundary line, and obviously rules out rape.

    This is one boundary line, which demarks violently criminal behavior. There are other boundaries. You condemn pornography as "junk sex"; why should I not condemn at least some pornography as encouraging immoral domination? That one criticizes the content of some speech means neither that one is encouraging government censorship of that speech nor that people should not take personal responsibility for their reaction to that speech.

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  7. I didn't "condemn" pornography - I deprecated it. What I condemn is censorious and punitive attitudes towards basically harmless expressions of sexuality.

    Maybe a couple of dozen respectable pieces of research in the last half-century isn't enough, but it's better than nothing.

    I too know a little of whereof I speak. I've been professionally engaged in this area for a good deal of my life, and knew some of Kinsey's collaborators personally. I entirely agree with you that soundly based scientific research is as desirable here as anywhere - but who is going to fund it in the present near-hysterical moral climate? Remember the storm of opposition Kinsey himself had to contend with. I'm not optimistic.

    Can't think what 'delusions would shock a Christian'. Christians ARE delusionists.

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  8. Another deterrent to scientifically based research into sexuality is that politicians rarely take a blind bit of notice of it. Remember Nixon's famous response to the Pornography Commission's report to the effect that it was outweighed by an ounce of common sense.

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  9. anticant: Can I infer from your (accurate and sensible) enumeration of the reasons why we don't have sufficient scientific research on sexuality that you are in agreement that we do not actually have sufficient scientific research?

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  10. Yes, of course. Although I am sceptical as to the possibility of truly objective, detached research in this most emotional and subjective of fields.

    I've known many sex researchers, therapists, and law reformers, both in US & UK, and can't think of one who didn't have a personal axe to grind - usually concealed pretty deeply under a cloak of spurious 'objectivity'.

    I'm well aware of my own biases. Even so, it's difficult to discount them. I don't believe reams of painstakingly compiled statistical tables actually tell you very much about peoples' sexuality. I'm very sceptical as to how far research subjects can act out their sexuality spontaneously and naturally under laboratory conditions. They have axes to grind too, or they wouldn't be participating.

    The Victorian critic and bisexual John Addington Symonds said:"Good Lord! In what different orbits human sould can move. He talks of sex out of legal codes and blue books. I talk of it from human documents, myself, the people I have known, the adulterers and prostitutes of both sexes I have dealt with over bottles of wine and confidences."

    That broadly sums up my own attitude to "scientific" sex research.

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  11. anticant: I am sceptical as to the possibility of truly objective, detached research in this most emotional and subjective of fields.

    At one time the possibility of objective research on cosmology seemed dim. I'm not, however, expecting such research to happen tomorrow.

    [I] can't think of one who didn't have a personal axe to grind - usually concealed pretty deeply under a cloak of spurious 'objectivity'.

    Usually concealed?! Advocates on both sides, pro and con, seem all to often to have patently transparent personal agendas. So it goes.

    Absent good scientific research, literature will have to do, at least for now.

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  12. The videos on the various www.kink.com sites are bookended by negotiations and post-scene debriefings, as an example of what you suggested.

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