Recently a good friend’s family was implicated in a scandal involving pornography. I have felt a great deal of empathy for this family, the children of the couple, my friend and the person implicated as well. This has caused me to do some thinking of this phenomenon we call pornography, how it comes about, its place in our world, and the ways in which it affects us amongst other things.
What do we know about pornography? That its taboo, somehow dirty, implicated in prostitution, implicated in child abuse, the abuse of women, implicated in degenerating our morals and ethics, that it is responsible for a great deal of internet traffic, that it is big business etc. How much of the above is true is of course open to speculation because it’s mostly just that, speculation. And this is so because pornography is essentially underground, meaning that it is beyond the pale and therefore not open to investigation. It is elusive.
As a photographer I am aware of the role that photography plays as a medium in this phenomenon. Photography is visual, and photography is responsible for 95% of the way it is communicated. The other 5% is probably animation, drawings and live acts. Again I’m speculating, but I’m allowed to since the facts are so thin on the ground.
Now, as a photographer, who is interested in all things visual, this grabs my attention, because I begin to imagine (in lieu of the facts) that the images must be produced by professionals like myself, so just as there are many kinds of photography, such as photo-journalism, weddings and events, PR, advertising, commercial, aerial, industrial, medical, scientific, wildlife etc. there clearly must be another called pornography.
A multi-billion dollar industry like pornography must have a great deal of people involved, these would be the actors themselves, the great number of them being voluntary and pretty well paid I’d imagine, and the involuntary ones as seems to be the case. It would include the technicians, photographers, lighting people, make-up, art design, and conceptualists in the odd occasion. It would include the business people whose companies produced the work, marketed it, dealt with the law etc.
Now, around the time of Princess Diana’s death, when the culprits were identified as being news photographers bent on getting a picture of her in a compromising situation, we photographers had to undergo a year of two of being accused of being ‘paparazzi’ in my neck of the woods. I’d rock up at an assignment with my camera and people would good-naturedly point a finger at me and say ‘here comes the paparazzi’ and we’d all have a good laugh. Caused me to think a bit about that back in the day, and I figured that ‘Hell yes, with the kinds of money involved in paparazzi photography, I should maybe be giving it some serious attention myself’. Jokes aside, the only other photography that comes close to what paparazzi can earn is advertising and commercial. There’s a good reason for this, all these three, advertising, commercial and paparazzi share one thing in common; they satisfy a great commodity market, and maybe pornography photography could join this group.
Paparazzi serve a hungry industry and market, there seems to be an insatiable demand for these photographs of hapless and not so hapless royalty and celebrities in compromising situations. The media that peddle this fare pay huge amounts for these titillating images, read hundreds of thousands of pounds in some instances. In a world where it has become acceptable to peddle arms, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are many photographers who are drawn to this way of making a very good living. And to be fair, in a world where the disparity of income is so great, as to make the income that many of those at the receiving end of the paparazzi lens and gutter press page earn, obscene in itself. So not only is the image captured obscene, as well as the means of capturing the image, but also the consumption of the image is also obscene. The paparazzi who supply the demand of an insatiable market can surely not be demonized alone for meeting a demand, however it may originate, manufactured or not, from a readership who are equally compromised in their demand and need.
So it would seem that pornography occupies the same space, and is even perhaps less obscene if one discounts the obvious exploitation of women, which of course one can’t. This because sex, which is ostensibly the core subject of pornography, the explicit sexual act, is after all a fact of nature, which can’t be said entirely about the subject of paparazzi, which is more about our social construct, what we consider moral and proper or not. Sex is in fact perhaps the most powerful natural impulse by which nature impels the act of procreation and the continuation of the species.
But of course pornography, in as much as it is related to the primal urge, is still an exploitative act even of the primacy of procreation. Pornography exploits this primal urge for its own short-term benefit, the generation of profit. It could perhaps be said that this primal urge of nature in fact co-opts pornography and ‘uses’ it to further the act of procreation, but this would seem a weak argument.
Pornography is probably at best a reflection of our hang-ups as a species over how we relate to this primal urge. You would be hard pressed to find a community of humans anywhere who are said to have an evolved relationship to sex. We complicate this relationship endlessly, and perhaps its not avoidable given how we generally organize our societies. Our social constructs of religion for example complicate how we perceive and engage in sex. How we educate ourselves around sex has been and continues to be problematic generally, with few exceptions.
So pornography becomes a signifier of this complication. It is a reflection of our general hang-ups around sex. These hang-ups have pushed sex underground, and our instinctual drive towards sex pushes us into what has now become a dark place. We’ve done the same thing with pyschedelic drugs amongst others. Blaming pornography shifts the responsibility we have to rehabilitate our relationship with sex itself. Pornography is a symptom of our disease if you like.
How is it possible that so powerful and necessary an impulse can have become so perverse? Easy explanations are the origin of patriarchal control and the concurrent development of the church and religion. Licentious sex, or what is perceived as such, has been seen as detrimental to this patriarchal control. Sociologists, anthropologists and other specialists probably have more accurate explanations then this. We castigate ourselves over our interest in sex which in the absence of an above-ground outlet for this powerful and natural desire, drives us under-ground into an illicit world with all its concurrent guilt, exploitation, fear and unease.
How does this help my friend and their family? Clearly we need to remove the stigma we place on our desires around sex, and having done so create the space for a healthier relationship to sex. The education process we have begun is a step in the right direction, but clearly the general population, and in particular the popular religions have not kept in step with this development and direction. For as long as we problematise our sexual instincts, how we relate to and consume all things sexual, we will find that this urge is driven underground.
Much the same thing has happened with alcohol prohibition in the past, and continues to happen with so-called illegal drugs. We have declared a war on drugs, and the drug industry has grown exponentially during this so-called war. It’s likely that the porn industry has been helped along by its underground and illicit status. It’s as likely that there are a great many victims of this unsavoury industry who are trapped by its illicit and illegal nature.
Whilst our economy, or what passes for an economy, is still exploitative based and centric, we should be sufficiently evolved now to transform how we relate to and engage with this most basic and primal of instincts, incorporating it into an evolved consciousness that recognizes the fact that we have a developed sense of what drives our sexuality. We don’t have to wait for the economy to transform, but use our agency to lead us into a more balanced, nuanced and evolved relationship to sex and each other.