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Have you ever considered porn?

No, the title is not a proposition – and indeed, if you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m not much of a supporter of the pornography industry. Those who surely don’t are those rather confused interviewers, who often contact me to ask my opinion on some sparsely clothed young lady and her «B-side» [Spoiler: if you write “news stories” for a living in which you trade the nudity of strangers for clicks, please at least have the honesty to call it ‘ass’ without acting all sophisticate with outdated euphemisms]. This approach reveals a worrying underlying model that conceives sex only as a commodity or performance, and feels somewhat inappropriate when discussing with someone who stalks philosophers in order to unravel its neoliberal drifts.

Without diminishing an undoubtedly pleasant pastime which brightened many unremarkable days, I have very little to do with porn. At most I study its most particular aspects, such as its social implications, the interactions with online inner works, how it plays with the media, its neurological mechanisms and health responsibilities, its optical illusions or ridiculous derailments. On the other hand, there is no point in getting irritated: the media often deal quite sloppily with the topic, treating it only as a filler or exploiting it to please the current powers that be (did you know that most of the “scientific research” on the awful damage caused by porn is commissioned by political and religious extremist groups using the results to justify requests for funds?)

The issue is further complicated by the fact that there is not just one type of porn. Very different products fall under the same term: from ethical and feminist videos to deeply misogynistic content; from slick parodies almost as good as the original movies to complete nonsense; from deliberate career choices to exploitation of human cases. This makes it impossible to consider most of the so-called experts and their statements on the subject reliable.

Nevertheless, in the last few days I have coincidentally encountered several variations on the theme of an interesting concept. In fact, numerous voices have been repeating one concept in the last few years, claiming that «porn is the opium of the masses». Among them are scaremongerers by trade, scientifically-oriented observers, and absent-minded conspiracists who have forgotten a long piece of the history of our country. This is social sexology: it is my very cup of tea, so it was inevitable to ponder about it a bit.

There can be no doubt about the unmatched ability of porn to capture attention. I’ll always remember an adult movie set overflowing with provocative actresses… waiting in annoyance for their partners to get “ready to shoot”, so to speak. Their preferred method? Even though they were in the same room, to get aroused the guys preferred to use their phones to watch porn, which felt more appealing than reality itself. But is it really a mass control tool?

Scientific data – of the real kind – indicate that in a sense it is. The more porn you watch, the more your inclination to commit rape and sex crimes decreases, and the effect is even greater the more extreme the legally available content is. In other words, violent people who indulge in pornographic fantasies feel much less need to act on their urges, and even come to discriminate less against women (who, by the way, according to an analysis of the usage of specialized sites were shown to be  the main users of misogynistic pornography themselves).

There is however a big difference between this and regimented mass control, directed by some hidden power multiplying adult video sites in order to divert people from revolting. Also because it is not even necessary.

The immense energy wasted – they would say ‘invested’ – by billions of people every day  building personal realities on social networks in defiance of the material world around them suggests that the masses are already abundantly distracted and manipulated without the need to bring up tits and asses. We see the proof in the rise of unthinkable “political” characters around the world who manage to get to power against all logic and without any concrete proposal, just riding the emotional engagement on Facebook. Pornography has been accessible to anyone for over 60 years (or 30, if we want to limit ourselves to the Internet era), yet I don’t remember it ever causing disasters comparable to this, or to the coup d’état that took place in the United States as a social networks-oriented performance.

Going back to the point, however, there is indeed something to resent current porn for. Historically, the explicit representation of sex has always had a very strong subversive value. Some examples can be the libels against Marie Antoinette that contributed to weaken her power and trigger the revolution; the countercultural magazines in ‘70s Italy that spread criticism of the Conservative power by mixing it with porn; the battle for freedom of speech fought by Larry Flynt in the following decade.

Ease of fruition on smartphones and broadband has nullified instead the shocking effect of showing how, underneath both designer clothes and workers’ overalls, human beings are really all the same, and all capable of primordial behaviors that disprove any claim of someone’s superiority over others. We know very well by now that the king isn’t really blue-blooded, that the politician’s dick is as shriveled as your uncle’s, and how that dame who is always ready to cast judgment on others from her pulpit once in bed is indistinguishable from the most seasoned hooker – but we don’t seem to give a damn anymore.

The fangs of the beast have blunted so much that it lately even admits its own harmlessness through stuff like gooning, the fastest growing pornographic genre in the last year. Metareferential like few others, its central theme is the subjection to porn itself: useless, unproductive, socially harmful, unsatisfying… yet addictive like the worst of drugs. Its subjects often appear clothed, censored or in animations that superimpose horrific images over what the user would most like to see. It’s an overt “game” whose fans are nevertheless complicit in and compete with each other to become the biggest loser of them all.

To be fair, this could be interpreted as a subtle and witty commentary on the abject condition into which most people have fallen under the machinations of the elites, but most users (and producers: it’s the new economy, baby!) take it rather literally. Where has the political value of deliberate obscenity gone? Mediatic activism of empty signalling and abstract declarations aimed – once again – at gathering followers and likes rather than changing the status quo is all the rage even in the world of sex positivity.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that it is impossible at this point to recreate the social impact of de Sade’s pantomimes, of the free love movement of the late ‘60s, of the subsequent politicization of eroticism and the social protests later embodied by BDSM and a certain fetish subculture – all of which spoke through the aesthetics of porn.

What will never change, however, is the curiosity about the most common activity there is, the engine of so many of our actions and the origin of everything. Perhaps this morbid attention towards sex can be transformed into an instrument, if not of revolution, at least of education: this is what I have been trying to do for years with my work, and what others are trying to do as well.

It was almost inevitable that the most surprising participant to this was that of the PornHub corporation, always (and sometimes not wrongly)  associated with evil and recently the preferred target of online hypocrisy. Partly to make a good impression, partly out of true social spirit, it recently opened the Sexual Wellness Center: an authoritative section of the site – to which I also collaborate – dedicated to sex education and couples’ well-being. To everyone’s amazement, in just a few months it has become the world’s most followed source of information on the subject, surpassing even noble institutions such as the Kinsey Institute.

I wonder whether, deep down, smut still has some aces up its sleeve….

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