18. Porn and neoliberalism, two sides of a coin

While most addictions break the user away from reality, pornography stands out in confusing the user that reality should change to match the trip. This gives porn culture unique ideological properties, allowing it to not just reflect societies’ hidden desires, but also to shape aspirations and imaginaries. This essay will explore its special relationship with neoliberal society.

Pornography forms an interesting societal paradox. It is at the same time one of the most consumed cultural products (especially in times of quarantine), but also is still largely taboo to discuss in public. This hidden but ever-present property of porn makes it an excellent subject of ideological critique. A short note before starting: I’m talking about average, mainstream pornography from a male perspective, and its softer reflection in mainstream culture. Since it caters to even the most obscure tastes, there certainly will be exceptions to everything I mention, but that doesn’t change the overall ideological picture.

    Let me start out by saying that I will not critique porn from the respective conservative and/or hyper progressive angle that rages against the sexualisation of woman (and men) and their portrayal as objects of lust. My point will relate to inequality. The main problem with the routine sexualisation of woman is that this happens out of context, for example to sell bottled water, steak-restaurants or second hand clothes. In a context that is directly about sex itself, such as advertisement for condoms or erotic material, portraying men and woman as sexy is logical and expected.

It is also misleading because porn does not really sell sex. Hun? Yes, I will first explain why it doesn’t and later elaborate on what it does sell. To start with: what you see in mainstream porn is a highly codified and cultivated form of gymnastics rather than real sex. To put it nicely: it relates to real sex as tai chi or professional wrestling relates to fighting – the motions are vaguely similar. This makes the enormous consumption of this performance art problematic, as whole generations grow up learning ‘how things work’ as well as what to expect from online manuals rather than experimentation or sexual education. Of course, in that regard we were not much better off with cliché romantic movie and sitcom sex, with its two poses (her on top or under the covers – you can’t unsee it now!) and no cleanup nonsense. But in contrast to the latter it might come with unrealistic physical expectations (and matching adds to profit of those). These for once fall a bit harder on men, since – and this is positive – the average porn actress’s body seems more achievable than that of the unhealthy fashion model. But that is, dear girls, because porn does not mainly sell physique but behavior.

Porn is not about bodies, porn is about domination. I don’t know about woman, but straight, healthy men don’t need much more than the image of attractive woman to achieve arousal. If they are partially naked, as in the 20th century booby magazine, even better. But modern porn does not just sell female physique, it sells their subjugation and obedience. It’s all in the stare, hijo. This is so in terms of script, such as the mandatory wet humiliation at the end (such an oddity), but often also in terms content as the many bondage, rape-like or other strange trending topics suggest.

    Yet even most (but not all) standard porn narratives that you would find in top rated videos on sites like Pornhub involve men binding woman (or other men) to their will in uneven power relations. While there are various exceptions, these are often economic of nature: the landlord and the tenant, the boss with the secretary, the broke prostitute, the casting couch, etc. Even if the background story does not suggest it, the background setting does: porn typically takes place in more expensive, upper-middle to high class surroundings. With some professional exceptions, such as the famous plumber or Denisse Dresser’s doctor, the economic subordination of the hottie to the ego-replacing-actor is implied. At a bare minimum, even in the absence of all context or narrative implication, you can still assume that in reality she was paid to do so.

The ideological message of mainstream porn is thus aspirational: if you want this (threesomes and whatnot), you need to make a lot of money. As Homer Simpson famously said: ‘In America, first you get the sugar, then you get the power, then you get the woman’. This works both ways, as I explained in a previous essay capitalist society generates the public inequality which creates a desire for machismo validation and private dominance. Even outside the dark-but-popular corners of the internet, society is constantly reminded of the money-gets-bitches narrative. I used the word ‘bitches’ intentionally, because it is the humiliated version instead of real woman that you are trained to crave. Besides the implicit presence of this message is a good proportion of advertisements (casinos are an easy example), your average rap or much earlier rock video will happily explicitly repeat this narrative. So do the many Bachelor-like reality shows. As a hip hop fan, I’m still amazed at how they got away with this in modern times. The answer must be that it is ideologically acceptable.

    While there are many forms of (male) dominance, in our current political culture money is increasingly becoming the only accepted one. In contrast to the iconic plumber fantasy, this one also actually finds abundant validation in reality, as money does attracts certain types of men and woman. This in turn validates porn culture’s promise that subordination is not only achievable but acceptable for the rich. Therefore, in today’s society we shame ‘sluts’ too much, and ‘hoes’ to little. I understand the slur ‘slut’ to refer to woman with many partners, while ‘hoes’ are the minority of woman (and men) who intentionally use sex for upwards social mobility by appealing to the rich (not to be confused with the exploited profession of prostitutes). The first depends on antiquated constructs such as virginity and unequal sexual expectations towards boys and girls; while there is nothing progressive about the second. Money chasing woman (and men) betray both their class and gender by validating economic power relations and giving the rich what was promised.

Growing up, I remember the half-naked calendar girl above my uncle’s working bench as a part of working class culture. Scripted porn, however, is a fundamental part of neoliberal ideology. While political correctness increases on the surface, repressed desires are nurtured behind closed doors. Besides being a source of profit in itself, this assault on our sexual imaginaries has two important capitalist functions: a) It conditions us to accept (and desire) inequality, even in private life; b) it fuels greed, competition and – thus – economic exploitation. Let us be honest: one of the reasons men want money and expensive things at all cost is to try to attract certain woman that culture tells them about (and vice versa). And while in conservative circles some men might not acquire what porn promises, many if not most of them cheat by default anyway. What, you thought I didn’t figure you out yet, conservatives? Both porn culture and ‘hoes’ of all kinds are an integral cogs in the capitalist machine. While both have existed for a much longer time, it is no coincidence that since neoliberal times they flourished.

    As said in the introduction, I am not a conservative crusader that seeks to ban cultural products of sexual nature. Yet we must draw lessons from the ideological nature of porn culture. We must recognize that those who consume porn regularly are being manipulated on a biological level. While the surface promise might be to match your imagination or dreams, in reality it is shaping them. For the majority of men, it will remind us that we are (economic) losers who miss out on the ‘good stuff’; for the Mireyes, it teaches abuse of dependents (and potentially life-ruining taste in partners). And it might make you less potent, by the way – hello medical-sexual industry. Feminists should consider that pointing out the reality of exploitation behind this sector is a limited lane of attack, as viewers are conditioned to see exploitation as a core part of the attraction and arousal. It might work for prostitution, which is more of physical-affectionate, not ideological and narrative nature. If anything, it makes porn more realistic.

    What is the final solution? I don’t have most of the answers, but sexual education and more open debate about what ideologically lurks below the surface would certainly help to bring these answers out.

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