“The Pornographication of Modern Culture”

serveimageThis little piece of opinion isn’t meant to settle any arguments, or to be exhaustive, but to put forward some, perhaps, counter intuitive ideas. The title is the phrase used by the creators, David Simon and George Pelecanos, of the new series The Deuce. They were interviewed today on Fresh Air and there are also a number of online reviews and articles available. But getting back to that phrase. Their use of it piqued my interest because they clearly meant the term “pornographication” to be pejorative. And in respect to that, their usage is hardly noteworthy. The word, in every context I can think of, is pejorative.

As for myself, I don’t think the word, in its current modern usage, applies to what I do (just as the phrase “to make love” no longer has the 19th and early 20th century meaning of “affectionate conversation”). Who reads pornography? In the 21st century, pornographic is understood as the visual portrayal of sex, be it a centerfold, an advertisement, or a video. In that sense, I consider my writing to be erotic, not pornographic.

But there’s another reason I don’t like the term “pornographic”. Consider David Simon’s usage. When he refers to the pornographication of society, the underlying assumption is that the visual sexualization or objectification of men and women is aberrant. In his interview with Terry Gross he repeatedly refers to the “normalization” of pornographically influenced imagery. In other words: The sexualization/objectification of women (and he would qualify that as “pornographically”) is abnormal. Is that true?
I’m not so sure. As Wikipedia observes:

“The oldest undisputed works of figurative art [are] found in the Schwäbische Alb, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The earliest of these, the Venus figurine known as the Venus of Hohle Fels and the Lion-man figurine date to some 40,000 years ago.”

The Venus figurine is not only pornographic, not only objectifies the female, but in some of her slenderer incarnations is unmistakably a thirty thousand year old dildo. How’s that for pornographic? An objectified image of a woman used to fuck a woman. The 3000 year old Chinese Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs includes the earliest—and some of the most graphic—depictions of copulation in the world. In literature, that women were equal partners in expressing their eroticism is strongly suggested in the surviving poetry of the earliest societies from ancient Greece’s Sappho to the Chinese Shijing, dated to early 1st millennium BC. Women spoke as volubly and as gamefully of their desires and sexuality as men. It was only later, when societies were deemed to have become more “patriarchal”, that the voices of women and their sexuality were suppressed. And that brings me to the main reason I don’t like the word pornography: I’m willing to argue that the word was (or has become) a patriarchal code word meant to suppress (or make dirty) women’s voices, bodies, and sexuality.


As it is, pornography is understood as the objectification of women by men. It disenfranchises and denigrates women and has contributed to the perception of women as second class objects of sex: and yet it’s a curious fact that the more patriarchal a society, the less pornography there is—if any. In Iran, for example, or Saudi Arabia, pornography is punishable by death and yet both cultures have and continue to cruelly suppress women.

I think there’s a connection there, and the reason is that “pornography” undermines patriarchy. Pornography gives power to women and women’s sexuality. Why else does fundamentalist Islam, patriarchal in the extreme, demand that women hide their figures and faces? Historically, most synagogues segregated women into their own sections and even separate buildings. The reasoning of the Mishnah and Talmud rabbis was flatly stated: A woman and her body would distract men and give them impure thoughts during prayer. They could have said: Women are, by their nature, pornographic. Christianity’s conflict with women begins with Eve. It was Eve who persuaded Adam to eat the apple, and who then seduced Adam with the knowledge of her body and her sexuality—lust and shame. The meaning of Adam & Eve wasn’t lost on the ancient church fathers (note that there are no church mothers). In Tertullian’s “On the Dress of Women” women are “the devil’s gateway”, “the unsealer of that forbidden tree”. And Tertullian goes further, blaming women for man’s mortality and lividly questioning how any woman could “think about adorning [herself] over and above [her] tunics of skins?” Woman, the seducer, corrupter, dirty, impure. It’s a theme that runs through the texts of all Abrahamic religions. The power of women is the power of pornography. And it’s in that sense that the word pornography has become a safe place-holder for all those misogynistic assumptions about women and women’s sexuality—filth, degradation, dirt. Women’s sexuality is a source of power. More specifically, the pornographic image (read naked female) is an explicit threat to, and in competition with, the image of “God the Father”—male authority made divine. And it’s for this reason that opposition to pornography is so often couched in moralistic terms.

And so, getting back to the pornographication of modern culture. Which is normal and which is aberrant? The comments of David Simon and George Pelecanos suggest that the suppression of pornography, of the nude and sexualized female, is normal, ‘normalized’ over thousands of years. (The normal expression of male (and female sexuality especially) has nearly always been repressed.) Has there ever been a time when women could freely express their sexuality? And what would that even look like?

Male and female sexuality are different. At the two ends of the spectrum, and as far as procreation goes, men penetrate and women are penetrated. Full stop. If one believes that biology is destiny, then all shades and differences in male and female sexuality proceed from those two ‘ends’ of the spectrum. Men pursue. Women attract. Men aggress. Women embrace. Men like to see. Women like to be seen. In that respect, the ready available of pornography in the age of the Internet is a godsend to men—biologically programmed to look. Give men the ability to more openly express and pursue their eroticism and you birth a 4.5 billion dollar industry.
But what does that look like for women?

Few women, in reality, want to be porn stars, but the increasing ease of filming oneself and distributing ones videos is democratizing voyeurism and exhibitionism (avoiding the word ‘pornography’). Videos of amateur sex have rapidly exceeded the production of professionals and are increasingly putting professionals out of business. Amateur sex is considered more ‘real’, more exciting and, adding to the eroticism, more unpredictable and therefore fun. At their best, amateur videos are between fully consenting couples and friends and the sex looks safer, more fun and enjoyable. One hopes curious teens, viewing sex online for the first time, will increasingly encounter these types of videos.

But the number of women who want to be watched online is also slim. What does a culture look like where women can more openly express their sexuality? I think you’re looking at it—what the producers of The Deuce derogatorily call the pornographication of modern culture—tighter clothes, more skin, provocative gestures, modeling and imagery. The very thing that Tertullian railed against. How dare you “think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins?” Anything more is pornographic because the female body and female sexuality is, by definition, pornographic.
In the original 1960’s Star Trek series, the uniforms of women are tight, revealing and short. It’s a curious fact that feminists in the seventies and eighties railed against these uniforms as being exploitative and demeaning. But when the actress Nichelle Nichols was asked about these uniforms. She said that she and other women, at the time, considered them to be liberating and empowering. They felt they were no longer required to hide their sexuality. Tellingly, in Terry Gross’s interview with Simon and Pelecanos on Fresh Air, Gross’s last question pertained to the way modern women, in her opinion, dress like seventies prostitutes.

In fairness to Simon and Pelecanos, they were referring to more than just clothes. They were referring to the uglier facets of the porn industry, brutally portrayed in The Deuce. They’re referring to the ways women are treated by men in and out of bed. But here again the question: Why is the porn industry held to a different standard? Workers in nearly every industry, and not just women, are cruelly abused and exploited: the suffocation of miners in West Virginia, exploding chemical facilities in Texas, the exploitation of minimum wage workers throughout the country, the ongoing rape, child abuse and sex scandals in any number of religious organizations, most notably the Catholic Church. Why does anyone expect the porn industry, unlike any other human endeavor, to be immune from abuse and exploitation? Is it because it’s also tainted by the filth of female sexuality, nudity and desire? Is the condemnation of pornography, by definition, flavored with misogyny?

Simon and Pelecanos further observe that the sexuality of young men has become coarsened, in their opinion, by expressions of violence, but this begs the question: Did pornography create this discourse or is it responding to latent desires already there? Men are more ‘generally’ dominant and women more submissive—men like to spank and women like to be spanked. The most popular story at The Erotic Writer is a rape fantasy written by a woman—Ximena. The unspeakable truth is that many men and women enjoy the ‘fantasy’ of rape—emphasis on fantasy—fulfilling the reciprocal desires of complete sexual dominance and submission. And the unspeakable truth is that these fantasies have been with us since stories were first written. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis is a retelling of rape—Venus’s rape of Adonis—and was considered a kind of pornography in its day, hidden under the mattresses of Elizabethan students at Oxford. Simon and Pelecanos’s notion that the association of sex with violence got its start after seventies pornography strikes one as quaint and naïve. I remember in my own boyhood being sometimes surprised by the undercurrent of violence expressed in sexual desire. But I also understood it. The terminology of violence expressed the violence of desire—not a desire for violence.

Consider the possibility that the pornographication of society, like those uniforms in the first Star Trek universe, is what happens when women can express that facet of their sexuality that enjoys ‘adorning themselves above their skins of tunic’, of being seen, watched, and desired. And consider the possibility that the word ‘pornography’ is a sort of code word for the condemnation and suppression of that female sexuality. Modern western culture’s pornographication may not be an aberrance so much as a return to something more normal. Perhaps the greatest danger is not in letting women express their sexuality, but condemning it because it attracts the male—and female—gaze. Perhaps modern culture needs to develop a more mature and healthy recognition and acceptance of female sexuality—and stop condemning it as pornographic.

William Crimson | September 29th 2017


Addendum: After posting this, and the very next day, the Guardian posted an article, Maggie Gyllenhaal: ‘Pornography is an art form’, that amplifies some of what I’ve written, and adds to it. Well worth reading.


Categories: Opinion, UncategorizedTags: , , , , , ,


  1. Hi Will. Thank you, sir! I am encouraged by your comments…I was traumatized this evening worrying about risks I take when I actually post the title of my erotica site on my facebook page. And, Yes, I met Larry Flynt in his heyday, and am writing the story. If I’d met Hitler during the holocaust I would have written that story as well. It angers me that the violence settles just fine with people, but sexuality is taboo. More soon, thanks!

    • Hi Suzette, the tolerance for bloodshed has always perplexed me too. And I sympathize with your worry, especially having kids. I don’t discuss my erotic writing with any of my friends or acquaintances. Although I don’t really see a reason to.

  2. Dear Will, I host a page on FB titled ‘Authors and Artists Discussion Forum’ for readers over 18 years of age to discuss sexuality. It is also a platform for me to post new stories from my erotica site. May I have your permission to share your thoughts about the subject of “The Pornographication of Modern culture” on my page? You will receive full credit, plus some new followers!
    Thanks, Suzette

  3. Stephanie

    “The terminology of violence expressed the violence of desire—not a desire for violence.” This is but one of many good points/observations in a great piece of commentary.

    • Yeah, it sometimes exasperates me when I read or hear comments by others condemning what they perceive as an endorsement of sexual violence. I do get that sexual violence happens, more than it should, but criminal behavior shouldn’t be confused with the language of eroticism.

  4. While I’m attracted to the notion that ‘pornography’ is a patriarchal construct, it’s a simple fact that the most virulent denunciations of the form I’ve ever come across have been from feminists (to quote one notorious 80s trope, “Pornography does not promote violence towards women – pornography IS violence towards women”). I submit that the embracing of porn by women, both as producers and consumers, is a comparatively recent phenomenon in part encouraged, ironically enough, by the cultural changes wrought by feminism itself. Otherwise your piece is spot-on – cultures that repress porn generally also repress women, sexuality and just about everything else that makes life interesting.

    My own take is that pornography is a technical term, albeit an ill-defined one, like ‘erotica’ with which it shares many characteristics. I don’t mind my own work being described as ‘porn’ since, at base level, it’s designed to titillate you and that’s what porn does – if it moves you to play with yourself (or someone else), then so much the better. A lot of the material that describes itself as ‘erotica’ manifestly fails to be a turn-on, no matter how explicit or otherwise it is. Ultimately porn, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder – easier to spot than to actively explain.

    • Hi Alice, thanks so much for engaging.

      //…it’s a simple fact that the most virulent denunciations of the form I’ve ever come across have been from feminists…//

      I guess I would respond to this in several ways. First, virulent denunciations of “pornography”, before the word even existed, got started hundreds of years ago (long before 80’s feminists—and Dworkin) and was, I think, indisputably patriarchal in origin (in that women, not coincidentally, had no say in the matter). For example, the vast majority of Chinese women’s poetry, prior to the 20th century, is destroyed, gone forever, deemed “too sexual, suggestive, erotic” by men (and other women). I would also question just how virulent those feminist denunciations really were. In some nations, North Korea and Islamic Cultures for example, the denunciations of pornography come with a death sentence. I think I’d rather be denounced by an 80’s feminist. But really, one decade of denunciations doesn’t undo two thousand years of patriarchal suppression.

      I also have to say that some of the most misogynistic people I’ve ever met were women — and feminists to boot. And so I’d have to question what was behind those denunciations. As with any human endeavor, there were and are abuses in the sex industry worth denouncing, but one does get the sense that the denunciation of pornography by some feminists goes beyond patriarchy or feminism. They strike me as being propelled by the same (pathological?) disgust (and self-disgust?) with the human body and sex that you find in religious organizations that are, not coincidentally, dominated by men.

      // I submit that the embracing of porn by women, both as producers and consumers, is a comparatively recent phenomenon in part encouraged, ironically enough, by the cultural changes wrought by feminism itself.//

      I agree. And is that a bad thing? Is this what is being referred to as the pornografication of culture”? I think that women who revel in being seen, with the power to do so on their own terms, is still deeply troubling to and condemned by many men — and women.

Share your thoughts.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.