I have two approaches when it comes to attending parties: show up very early or show up very late. By “late,” of course, I mean the following afternoon when it is certifiable that every guest has left but all the Solo cups, pizza boxes, roaches, and small mirrors (if applicable) are still strewn about like a bomb went off and when the bathrooms are still disgusting. I find these approaches to be greatly congenial to my temperament, which craves not the thrill of the spectacle but the intimacy of its being carefully assembled beforehand or the vulnerability of its being totally dismantled after the fact. Needless to say, the frequency at which I am invited to parties has steadily dwindled over time.
This is no less true of metaphorical parties. And indeed this is the case now as I find myself late to the pornography party that came and went last weekend.
As Twitter seeks to resemble the brute meritocracy of high school more and more, I seek refuge further and further from it. Yet I still could not help hearing through the grapevine that never ceases to grow that Ross Douthat threw a “ban porn” rager in his online corner and simply everyone who was anyone was there. I’ve been early to pornography parties before, which is awkward enough, but showing up late to a pornography party, even a metaphorical one, is quite like the old saying that one should never bring a knife to a gunfight, except there are much different … tools involved. But here I am, and I hold my nose accordingly.
Douthat’s piece is a standard spiel from conservatives who have achieved a certain level of prominence in the center-left forum. He tries to persuade those who would be his enemies that they are, quite contrary to their blasé conventions, his friends. They share a common ground that culture is in a bad way, with sexual mores being entirely tangled and lopsided as either gross power play or “joyless mimetic spamming.” We must seek to be better to one another, ergo we must seek to be virtuous. “So if you want better men by any standard,” writes Douthat, “there is every reason to regard ubiquitous pornography as an obstacle.”
It doesn’t appear that his pitch was altogether successful. But I believe there is reason for this.
Anti-porn crusaders are familiar with the standard line of pro-porn argument that pornography won’t be banned until humanity has ceded its dominion over earth to a less depraved species. Douthat was perhaps moved to write what he did when his employer published Maggie Jones’s long feature on “porn education” three days earlier. It tells of the push of sex studies professors introducing “critical thinking” courses on pornography to high school students. As one professor puts it, such classes are “grounded in the reality that most adolescents do see porn and takes the approach that teaching them to analyze its messages is far more effective than simply wishing our children could live in a porn-free world.” Hannah Witton, a YouTube vlogger who focuses on sexuality, also sounds the education horn in her video “The Benefits of Porn.” Granted, her pointers are not entirely consistent. Porn helps people in relationships open up about their desires and boundaries, and it provides escape when those sexual desires prove disappointing. But that seems beside the point, and indeed implies a much grander aim.
I suspect that pornography doesn’t factor too heavily in the schemes of the sex positive. It is, as the porn literacy teachers imply, something they’ve come to accept, albeit gladly. It is not sex sex, let’s be clear. It’s an ideal, or in any case it is a kind of magical realism. Whatever it is, though, it is not offensive or an aberration, but something that should be encountered, acknowledged, and not shunned. It’s a part of a ritual: a rite of passage. It is the entryway to rather than the final destination of the new adulthood.
Over the advocacy of pornography, or whatever atomized issue is presently at stake for them, is the blanket gospel of the maturity the advocates are demonstrating. It is less a concern to ask why a world takes this or that form than it is to adjust to its norms and to assimilate. This particular world is one that favors freedom, but a very joyous and extroverted sort. It’s the kind of freedom that comes to resemble mandatory fun as it depends on the assumption that one would be foolish or actively antagonistic not to want to bask in the bacchanalia. But of course there are such people, people who are awkward, people who have scruples, people with morals founded out of sight or while the screens were in sleep mode, people who are low energy, people who are fearful but who can’t really say why, people who had fun exactly once and felt awful, people who don’t care to talk right now, people who don’t live in cities, people who can’t afford to move, people who dropped out of school, people who need rather than luxuriate libraries, people who require considerable effort to be happy, people who may never be happy, people who are at least content and may not be interested in any ideas of happiness others are selling, among others.
It’s wrong to assume that sex positive advocates disparage these types of people. It is probably better to say that they simply don’t notice them, and when they do it is generally met with bewilderment. The negativists may be vulnerable to offensive notions, but they themselves are too strange to truly offend. The positivists will show compassion, if not empathy, but might lose patience once the negativists prove immobile on certain principles. But of course the prestige self-help movement where sex positivists thrive has become less ideologically inert, while remaining tonally so. Soon people like Jordan Peterson shrewdly come to take the place the last person who gave up left behind.
Ultimately it is less interesting in parsing the justification or logistics that go into restricting pornography. If it comes it comes, and no one crusader may have any significant say in how it does. The implications of that shift, no matter what, will be messy and any benefits derived from it will not be apparent after maybe a couple of generational turnovers. What’s more interesting, and for my part more important, is to figure out how to jump off of this pendulum that swings violently between repression and liberation, and which calls for an all-consuming hegemony on either end. The greatest case against pornography, and the world in which it thrives, is that sooner or later it’s going to get boring.