Policing Pornography/Policing Fantasy
On Monday (1st December 2014) new legislation was introduced which places restrictions on what can be represented in Video on Demand pornography produced in the United Kingdom. The new rules bring Video on Demand regulation in line with the regulations for what can be shown in pornography sold in licenced sex shops. The legislation and its legal ramifications are discussed in some detail by the admirable obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman on his blog. Essentially the legislation places restrictions on representing a seemingly arbitrary and disordered list of sexual acts, including facesitting – anything but gentle head-scissoring – depictions of female ejaculation (and particularly its consumption), urination, anything but the most gentle sado-masochism, and fisting.
It hardly needs to be said that the regulation of pornography, as part of a wider set of discursive practices about sex, is a political act. Morality is always political. It determines what is visible and invisible in our representations of the world, what should be pushed out of sight as much as possible, what it is tolerable to think with impunity, and as a corollary of the latter, how it is possible to think with impunity. In this way the regulation of pornography is a police act, insofar as it determines the possibilities of our modes of discourse and thought, possibilities that we can still transgress, but often at our peril, at the mercy of the repressive state apparatuses.
The most obvious and most important political implication of the new regulations is their misogyny. Even a cursory glance at the list makes it absolutely clear that what these regulations penalise are both certain displays of women’s pleasure and women’s power in the sexual negotiation. The disparities are clear: gagging and deep throat scenes with a man’s penis in a woman’s mouth are acceptable, but a woman sitting on a man’s face is not. Sometimes the disparities are laughable: eating a man’s cum, perfectly acceptable, but eating a woman’s, no, that is, apparently, perverse and depraved (these are the actual words of the Obscene Publications Act). I want, in what follows, to discuss another political ramification of these new regulations of pornography. On the issue of women and these laws I would rather highlight some women’s voices who speak with more knowledge and authority on the question of misogyny than I am able to. Women who make feminist porn have been interviewed about this by Vice; the pornographer Pandora Blake has discussed the politics of the ban at length on her ‘NSFW’ blog; and the erotic film maker Erika Lust has added her voice in the Independent.
I can do no more here than further draw attention to their work. Rather, I wish to discuss another political facet of these new regulations: their policing of fantasy more generally.
It is, as ever, important to bear in mind the fact that the regulation of pornography is not a simply repressive act, though it is a repressive act nonetheless. It is not enough to simply say we are returning to ‘Victorian morality’, whatever that means, or to suggest that this ban is in some way isolated from other political concerns, that sexuality is not intrinsically political, and that its repression does not produce other forms of political subjectivity. It is not a closing of representations, but a redistribution of them in the interests of power. As Michel Foucault puts it in The Will to Knowledge, the question is to ‘define the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality in our part of the world’. These regimes are multifaceted and demand to be analysed in some detail rather than uncritically saying, ‘this is a backwards step, sex should be open and now it’s not’. Handwringing about repression is not enough, the object of analysis is to ask what this repression does politically, for repression in itself is not intrinsically negative. Indeed, in order to experience sexual pleasure, repression is absolutely necessary. As Roland Barthes states, ‘a little prohibition, a good deal of play’ (and Georges Bataille too always stresses the essentiality of taboo in sexuality). One obvious production of these new repressions is the demand that the relationships between men and women as subjects are produced in a certain way. The message is not that pornography is banned, but that it must be produced in certain ways, which in turn, produce the subject and the body in certain ways. Inseparable from the prohibition of certain acts is the prohibition of various manifestations of women’s power in sex, which can in turn be linked to the Tory government’s opposition to gains in power for women in society more generally (there is always implicit in the regulations something of a critique of masculine masochism, which perhaps has been seen male weakness).
I want to discuss another form of political subjectivity that these regulations impinge on, a political subject who is closely related to the feminist subject: the fantasising subject, who can be a man, a woman or somebody who does not subscribe to that binary. I wish to adopt this particular emphasis not to suggest that the feminist angle is in some way less important, indeed, my own analysis is entirely predicated on the primacy of the feminist angle, but rather to stress the ways in which the regulation of sexuality by power moves subtly towards regulating subjectivities and experiences in the most multifaceted and unexpected of places.
There is a sort of vague, though unconvincing justification for some of these restrictions, based on an erroneous notion of public safety. As the Independent’s coverage of the restrictions points out, some of the practices that are banned are because they are ‘potentially life-endangering’, though it is very difficult to see how facesitting, female ejaculation, or any sort of responsible sado-masochism is likely to endanger people’s lives. On the other hand, the regulations seem to actually be in place in order to ‘protect children’, despite the fact that, as Myles Jackman reports, extensive research across the EU found no evidence that sexually explicit material does harm minors.
In the conjunction of pornography, its regulations and its viewers then, what is being constructed is a viewing subject who needs to be kept safe, not from pornography itself, not from seeing sex, but from some sort of unclear harm that certain acts supposedly pose which are somewhat divorced from the concept of pornography itself. This logic cannot maintain even a resemblance to a coherent set of safety principles, and where they cannot be maintained, they can be shielded from critique with the politically unquestionable logic of child protection. No politician, very few public voices in general, would dare be accused of supporting something that damages children, even if there is strong evidence to suggest that the thing in question is actually quite harmless. Though, indeed, the whole question of child protection seems frankly so absurd as to be discounted anyway. We are dealing with material that it is going to be difficult for any child to come into contact with. The pornography that has just been regulated is paid for, and thus requires access to a credit card, and besides, far more violent material is shown every day in the far more easily accessible medium of Hollywood cinema.
The safety argument also seems to misunderstand the use of pornography. For most of its consumers, porn isn’t some sort of how-to guide, very few people go to the effort of recreating complex sado-masochistic scenarios in their dining room with a multitude of equipment (of course some people do, but this is another form of political sexual expression whose terms are outside the scope of this piece). Rather, pornography is a tool of fantasy.
Often pornography works only to create fantasies that reinforce inequalities and violence in our society, though I wonder, unsure, whether there are not ways of experiencing even that pornography in subversive and pleasurable ways, at least for some spectators. On the other hand, from the arguments and critiques of the women who make feminist pornography, it can be inferred that a major problem with the current regulations is that they disproportionately restrict pornography that allows something else, whilst leaving intact that material that reinforces the unequal status quo. It is this radical porn that I am talking about in what follows.
Porn allows its spectators to fantasise sexualities outside their own terms of experience, to go far beyond what is available, or usually even desirable to themselves in their everyday sexual negotiations and encounters. It offers an experience of sexuality which is not a form of compromise with the other, though that compromise has its own set of pleasures and intensities that the spectator of porn would never want to give up. Pornography is a set of visual practices and discourses which allow extreme, exciting, fantastical encounters with otherness.
These fantasies are not isolated either; they are not somehow cut off from the world. Pornography changes our interactions with our sexual partners, not in the form of a guidebook for how to have sex like porn, but in how we mutually think of each other, how we constitute each other as sexual subjects. And this is why it is telling that so many women who make feminist pornography have spoken out about this, because these regulations are attempting to restrict a resource for fantasising about different power relations in the sexual experience, and thus to restrict fantasy’s ability to impinge on altering those power relations.
This in itself is political. Changing sexual power relations in our society is a revolutionary act. And if this constitution of safety, of the safe subject, by power, helps to restrict revolution in one key part of our social configuration, why should it not be part of a more general restriction of (non-sexual?) fantasy for other social configurations that intersect and interact with it? Fantasy is a constitutive part of all political change, to imagine other is a precondition of acting other, otherwise all that we have is what is currently given: a perpetual, homogeneous stagnation. It is telling that in the history of modern political repression, the safety of the political subject is so often conjured as a way of restricting revolutionary thought and change, from the Committee of Public Safety in the French Revolution to the Metropolitan Police repressing protests in the name of the safety of…who exactly? Not the people.
These regulations on pornography demand not the end of pornography, but rather, that what is represented conforms more precisely to the power relations that already exist. It attempts to ban fantasising about other ways of living and relating. In the current political environment, pornography, as an easy target, vulnerable under the auspices of ‘child protection’, may only be the beginning to the policing of our fantasies.