Our best shot at understanding the foundation of obscenity law is through watching Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror film, The Evil Dead. In it, a group of (who else?) students stay (where else?) at a cabin in the woods. Amidst the jokes and sexual tension, they uncover a book of demonic spells and rites. They also find a reel to reel tape player, and on it, the voice of scientist reciting a string of incantations. The kids, as usual, never had a chance. Simply playing the tape summons the demons; such was the power of the muffled words. Aside from the normal possessing and flesh-eating demons, there are also demons in the form of the woods themselves, which assault – physically and sexually – one of the girls. The demons literally fall apart at the end of the film when the occult book is thrown into the fire.
The movie is a cult classic and has spawned sequels as well as inspired later films, such as The Ring (and its Japanese original) in which the same sort of thing occurs except this time (perhaps more germane to the topic of pornography) from a VHS tape.
The obscenity trial of Michael Peacock arose from such fears of the supernatural power of the image and word, and even though he was found not guilty and we are told these laws will perhaps undergo a radical reevaluation, the fear will stay with us.
Peacock, a sex worker, was arrested in 2009 by an undercover policeman from the UK’s Human Exploitation and Organised Crime Command for selling sexually explicit DVDs that featured fisting, piss-play, and BDSM. He was charged under the Obscene Publications Act. Though the acts on the DVD were not illegal, selling depictions of them was.
The obscenity laws hinge on something less defined, even, than pornography: “moral corruption/depravity”. A legal definition is, “to deprave means to make morally bad, to debase or to corrupt morally. To corrupt means to render morally unsound or rotten, to destroy the moral purity or chastity, to pervert or ruin a good quality; to debase; to defile it.” Of course, it doesn’t matter much what the state’s definition is – they will choose what depraves and corrupts.
The counter to this, often raised by intellectuals and cultural heroes concerned with sexuality, is that sexual morality and ethics are about consent. This is true, and well-said. But this is not, as often thought, a point overlooked by obscenity laws. Indeed, it is a truth all-but conceded by them. The substance of these laws is that when we watch certain sexual acts, we give up our consent. The distribution of and ultimately the encounter with these images corrupts us without us having much say.
Like the kids in the woods, by the time the tape is playing, it’s already too late.
During a sexual act, consent should generally be easy to establish (of course there are exceptions and victims of these exceptions) – it is an inner feeling of “go ahead” or “stop” expressed outwardly to our partner(s). This go-and-stop is ongoing throughout the act, though it can become increasingly more difficult to flesh out consent after initial consent is given.
An image, however, is one-sided. It can only assume you’ve said yes to its effects.
When we encounter an image, we are thought to be saying, “go ahead” to the image. To decide to watch or to see at all implies consent. But is it so simple? What if the recording contains something we do not take seriously, but has serious effects? What if it unleashes something we’re not ready for?
While some commentators have pondered the newness of these questions in an internet age, the magical quality of the danger in The Evil Dead and The Ring show us that these are not new questions at all, but ancient ones.
I agree wholeheartedly with the Michael Peacock’s innocence, but it will be an incomplete victory if we merely applaud and do not go on to ask these questions:
How do the image, the word, the symbol truly affect us?
Another recent item of porn – and law – related news: The Los Angeles City Council recently voted that porn performers must wear condoms. This law vote was ushered through under auspices of performer safety. But of course, a cultural element echoes through the decision: Should bareback porn exist?
Gay men, whether porn-performer, producer, or consumer have been arguing this at great length for a long time. Some demand it be legally abolished: It is said to promote and inspire sexual behaviors that could lead to illness. Others revel in it: It is a demonstration of sexual freedom, and it shows that condom-less sex is not dead or wrong. Because pornography is often one of the first affirming depictions of homosexuality a gay man will see, its power to influence is understood. In fact a gay porn performer can even become a sort of cultural icon for his work displaying a sex-positive attitude.
Another example: do constantly sexualized depictions of women (or men, for that matter) in advertising affect how women feel about their bodies and their behaviors? Many liberals would be fine with pornography, but less willing to give advertisement – conceived of as being wed to corporate power – a pass. Progressives with media literacy campaigns are often the most vocal about their concerns about “objectification.”
I know firsthand that body image and presentation of the body are wed to corporate interest. Though most porn studios and producers have proved compassionate and kind, one studio owner once assured me that I needed to lose weight if I wanted to continue working, and another gently asked me to do steroids. They had perceptions of what the public wants to see, and pressured me into conforming to that image.
Of course “perfect” bodies – cut abs, huge muscles – are almost an artifact in porn. Wedged between average-bodied men of 1970s and early 1980s porn, and today’s slew of wildly popular amateur pornography and XTube, the chiseled man’s popularity may turn out to be a 1990s blip. But the idea and effects of image still drove the porn producers to push me to unhealthy acts to meet their imagined standard.
In a strange imaginary loop, these two porn producers were creating the images that they thought the public wanted, which reinforced their idea of the sort of porn they should make. Whether they were right or wrong, I struggled with both insistences, and eventually decided to ignore them. But it sure didn’t feel good. And it’s not difficult for me to see how the viewer could feel the same if he or she begins to compare himself to the models – in porn or in advertising.
Since on the one hand, we say no, media cannot affect us, and on the other, we fear its affects we turn to the experts:
A popular approach to answering how the image affects us has been through scientific experimentation and social science surveys; and science is our most occult of philosophies, filled with symbols, images, and tools. But there, we have mostly failed. Not because we haven’t gathered evidence, but because all the evidence seems to clash. How can there be so many books on sex and violence that reach different conclusions?
In the meantime, a demand is made: Take sides.
Will watching fisting make someone want to try fisting? Yes or no. Do you believe that bareback sex in porn makes the viewer want to have condom-less sex? Yes or no. Will watching horror movies make you more prone to violent acts? Yes or no. Do fantasy portrayals of incest in pornography glorify abuse? What about portrayals of rape? What about gay or lesbian sex? What about general corruption and depravity – can watching a sexual or violent act make you a worse person?
The questions gather and back us into a corner, so it is easy to see why such a callous and ridiculous statement as Andrea Dworkin’s, that, “The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too,” becomes appealing: It’s not an answer, it’s an escape.
Just give up one or the other – your values or your sexuality.
Yes or no, please.
But most importantly, answer quickly, there are monsters at the door.
Permitting one form of the image on principle or cultural critique alone, but not permitting it in another form proves very difficult, and all arguments seem to undo themselves.
For example, one might object to comparisons of pornography and sexualized images of women in advertising because porn is consumed privately and advertising (sometimes) isn’t. But the logical consequence could easily – and often has easily – become: we cannot have women depicted sexually in public. To keep the argument logically consistent: in porn, we consent and so it’s okay, in advertisement, we don’t consent, so it’s not. That means banning advertisement with questionable content, back to women showing their ankles off in ads, and wearing full-length dresses otherwise.
More evidence for how problematic this is: Would you object, as many did, to gay cruising site Manhunt.com’s billboard campaign prominently displaying two men about to kiss (and surely, one thing leads to another) to anyone on the street? Yes or no.
What if they were kissing and you had your kids with you?
Since you’re reading this essay, I suspect your answer would be no, but you can see how the question weaves into others, and evades easy answers.
What if they were fucking?
Whether it’s behind closed doors or freely displayed must shrink in importance in our conversation next to the question, “How does the image affect us?” But to answer, we need to do more than respond with feelings and thoughts.
The menace of the image and its affects leads some to talk supernaturally about images, as if stating their names is evidence enough for their power. Because the depiction of the act is what has initially repulsed the critic, one only needs to state what the act is to argue. This is why arguments against pornography are often simply descriptions of the act. “He had a bullwhip up his rectum!” anti-Maplethorpe censors cried. Or, in Chris Hedges’s essay (in an otherwise thoughtful book – Empire of Illusion –from an otherwise thoughtful man, in which he desperately clings to Dworkin’s escapist quote), “The Illusion of Love”, he falls under the (sexual?) trance of naming what he sees and believing this naming presents some sort of self-evident truth: “…oral sex, vaginal sex, double penetration, and double anal.” He quotes a performer who says during a shoot, “Shove it up my fucking ass…: and “Fuck, motherfucker…” and “Fucking love it…” No explanations required for Hedges, who is always more rigorous than this.
The supernatural: To say its name is to evoke it.
Of course, no name, word, image, has the same effect on everyone. And each image changes meanings in context. A doctor sees (and even enters) naked bodies all the time, but this is not considered sexual. Yet I’ve played a doctor in a porn, having sex with my “patient” – and this, of course, was meant to elicit arousal. Furthermore, some patients may be aroused by their doctors, and vice versa, or else why would the fantasy be portrayed in pornography at all?
All of this is another way of saying that – even in the light of Peacock’s innocence – the State and its supporters still consider us their children. Why else would they present us with monsters? How else could an entire law hinge on something as clumsy, as childlike as “to make morally bad”?
We’re expected, not just through obscenity laws, but by so many governmental and corporate actions, to share morality. And this morality will be decided by a group of our leaders. This, in spite of the fact that we all agree they are no longer our leaders, now that confidence in government has waned.
They and their processes are, we all know, corrupted and depraved.
Their argument goes that individual morality is impossible. Better to come up with it under a system and a structure, otherwise there would be too many individuals striving for too many different goals, and all those would clash. Especially when it comes to culture, individual morality would collapse all order. We’d have burning buildings, raped women, busted out shop windows. The environment, the whole world would turn against us. The demons would be unleashed.
But if we trained ourselves to be unafraid of individualized morality, we could see easily that everything they’ve told us to be afraid of is already here, and that they are the product of collective morality. Destruction, famines, sexual fear. And of course, war is collective morality’s greatest expression.
“Sexual morality is about consent.” What “consent” really needs to indicate here is context. Contexts arise from a strata of culture, nature, race, class, but most importantly from the individual. Our duty is to be unafraid of bearing the responsibility of the image, especially the sexual one. We continue to be the children of the State so long as we do not (or are not allowed to) develop – and it’s important to note here that culturally as well as biologically, sexual development is a dividing line between being a child and being an adult.
So Michael Peacock’s innocence is not merely a legal triumph, but an invitation to a shift in thinking. The responsibility of sex, pornography, and more broadly, the image is more and more becoming ours. Now is the time to investigate what that means or we’ll still be stuck in the old narrative, and we must be willing to do this as individuals. We must even go so far as to say that it is our right to decide whether we want to be corrupted or depraved.
Pornography, the image, and art in general is not fantasy, nor is it real. It is something beyond both. It has fantasy effects and real effects and everyone will encounter them differently.
We cannot understand if it affects us without understanding how and why – and that is a long and sometimes frightening trip that only freedom can afford. If we leave any aspect of it to the State, we only have the two choices presented in The Evil Dead: Throw it all into the fire or die.