What is pornography?


What is pornography?

As soon as you read that question I suspect most of you would have intuitively formed an answer. My guess is you would classify pornography as images of a sexual nature that you wouldn’t want your family to know you enjoyed.

My next guess is that the word, ‘enjoyed’ took you a little by surprise: if you were ever asked such a question in polite company you would, of course, deny that you enjoyed such a thing as pornography.

The paradoxical thing about pornography is that it is simultaneously denounced and desired: when used in public the term is pejorative and yet pornography exists purely because many people from society privately desire it.

Let’s look at the people who desire it.

I once read a startling statistic that claimed over fifty percent of all Internet traffic is dedicated to pornography. Such traffic is not created by a small group of perverts satisfying their lusts.

Human beings are sex machines. After puberty, most of us are subject to powerful sexual drives – it is, after all, the fundamental reason we are all on this earth. Sex should be as natural as breathing or sleeping and yet our society has chosen to largely hide that drive or to sanitise it to such a degree that the only time we come across it is via a movie or marketing. Why is that?

Human society is built on rules; it can’t function without them – in the UK we all agree to drive on the left hand side of the road to facilitate traffic flow. The bigger and more complex a society becomes, the more its members are asked to behave in increasingly predictable ways. This allows certain systems and processes to operate smoothly and on a level that allows other layers of complexity to develop on top.

Sex, by its very nature, requires participants to ignore other things going on around them. It has an urgent immediacy that demands gratification. When a couple fall in love the sex urge is extremely powerful and dangerous within them. People who would normally consider themselves to be law-abiding and even prudish can find themselves performing all manner of outrageous acts once under the thrall of love.

And here lies the paradox: sex that excites demands a loss of control while society demands predictable order. The more order demanded in a society, the more extreme its pornography will be.

This inverse rule can also be observed in strict hierarchies: the higher up someone is in the official administration, the greater will be their desire for loss of control (and their positions of power usually allows easy access to opportunities). Stories about government ministers being prone to drug taking and participating in disreputable sexual practices are unremarkable due to their regularity.

Pornography is a subjective term. Only the individual can decide on the criterion – what is pornography to one is art or eroticism (or just plain sex) for another. I recall learning about the excavation of a Roman villa during the Victorian era: some of the mural images were vandalised by the outraged archaeologists because of what they depicted. This in itself is a fascinating philosophical puzzle: whose crime is the most heinous – the Roman hedonists unashamedly illustrating their practices or the Victorian archaeologists destroying evidence?

And everyone has an innate sense of what is acceptable in pornography. I’m sure many online searches for pornography by curious users have thrown up something that the searchers would regard as criminal, obscene or revolting. Porn exists at the very limits of the pale. Significantly though, it has to remain on the right side of it.

Society is in constant fear of disorder – that’s why one of the first buildings a society constructs is a prison. A human being in the throes of orgasm is a person out of control that is why sex is suppressed by nearly all human societies.

Pornography is like Revolution: it is a novel state of lawless abandon that bestows a sense of power on the participants.

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