"I’m hesitant to kink-shame" Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty


March 24, 2023   5 mins

Is it time we started having less nuanced conversations about porn? We’ve all encountered the alternative: the sort of smug, self-styled progressive who maintains that every political controversy can be resolved by sufficiently “nuanced conversation”. The trickier a problem looks, these people seem to think, the more nuance you should probably dump on top of it. But nuance is not always a good thing. In theory, it leads to unwieldy over-complication; in practice, it leads to paralysis.

Polly Barton’s Porn: An Oral History — a transcript of 19 meandering conversations with anonymous interlocutors on the subject of sexuality, kinks, feminism and pornography — introduces narcotic doses of nuance into a “conversation” one might have considered already unwieldy enough to begin with. The book is “a compilation of messy, ugly conversations brimming with contradiction and ambiguity”. Indeed, by the end of her 19 conversations, Barton has been exposed to so much nuance she appears to have achieved full cognitive disengagement. “I am increasingly unsure what a position or even an opinion on porn could look like for me,” she concludes with satisfaction.

This is a common enough phenomenon when it comes to thinking reflectively about sex: bully your basic reactions with nuance to the point where you can disengage from the underlying phenomenon and believe almost anything. Barton’s conversations — especially those with women — are full of reports of sincere, sound, and persuasive first-order judgments about porn that are then swiftly crushed by second-order deference to a sexual morality of nuance. Her interviewees spontaneously notice that some sexual or pornographic convention strikes them as wrong, or degrading, or disgusting, then will immediately check themselves by noting that things are of course subtler and more “complex” than that suggests.

Contemplating the diverse horrors of porn — its violence, its tendency to warp and infiltrate sexual taste, its exploitative business model and association with criminality — Barton’s interviewees are near unanimous. They feel “extremely uncomfortable”; something “between anger and disgust”; “a kind of nebulous, all-pervasive worry and discomfort”. Porn is “unhinged”; “doesn’t sit right with me”; is “super off-putting”; “terrifying in a quite non-specific way”; “I just think about how the porn actress is in pain.” Barton notes the “flashes of discomfort in [their] eyes” as they answer. “I’m scrolling down,” reports one man, “and then I get to something that will suddenly be a turn-off. Women with their mascara running, or they start being tied-up, or they’re being abused and humiliated
 It’s awful
 It makes you feel dirty
[but] in a way I want to say, each to their own.”

Each to their own? This familiar corrective is more than an expression of the admirable liberal view that depraved practices ought not to be outlawed simply because they are wrong; it is the view that it is a mistake to register them as depraved or wrong in the first place. One interlocutor reports being made “queasy” by porn, but then to being “troubled
 because I don’t what to be a prude and I want to be sex positive”. Another person is disquieted by styles of porn in which “the woman is treated quite violently”, but smothers this thought with the “understanding of that diversity and wanting to celebrate it”. “Why am I strangling you?” one man recalls thinking with horror, while discussing the sexual choking he was invited by a partner to imitate from porn. He then urgently corrects the record: “It’s not that I’m against it. I’m not against any of it.”

He’s not against any of it? Another woman, having discovered her husband’s penchant for “eight person gang-rape” videos, feels conflicted: “I understand that is some people’s fantasy
 and I’m hesitant to kink-shame.” Several of the women are understandably scared by the idea that their boyfriends may be secretly aroused by the spectacle of misogynist sexual violence: “I struggle with it
 sometimes I get myself in such tangles,” one says apologetically. Of course, some people might see this mental tangle as symptomatic of enlightened political thinking. Perhaps these people are in the process of refining their baser aversions to being slapped, degraded, and ejaculated on. They are overriding their untutored judgements, tuning them politically to the sex-positive framework, making them more sophisticated. More nuanced.

One diagnosis is that these people are attempting systematically to loosen their grip on fairly reliable patterns of response that we unproblematically accept when applied to the rest of human life. They have imbibed a doctrine of sexual morality that tells them to uncritically embrace every sexual impulse, on their part and that of others, apart from the ones sending them warning signals of fear and aversion. Of course, as Barton’s interviews remind us, it is very difficult to restructure one’s basic reactions as to what is bad, dreadful, threatening, or gross. They continually reassert themselves, despite attempts on the part of the subject to crush them in vindication of some putatively more elevated sexual ethic. The upshot is a feeling of helpless conflictedness.

A striking feature of Barton’s interviewees is that they take it to be obvious that the broad-minded, sex-positive attitude that explicitly shuns “judgement” of others is the most empathetic view, and therefore the right one to hold. It is not at all clear, however, what is involved in the exercise of empathy free from judgement. Examined under a different light, such supposedly broad-minded assessments look more like failures to fully exercise empathy, rather than the opposite. “I’m not into people getting slapped in the face, or pinned down by the neck, or kicked,” says one interviewee. “I get that maybe some people are, but to me that doesn’t seem enjoyable.” Under ordinary circumstances, the judgment that another person might like to get slapped in the face does not strike us as a successful exercise of empathy. It seems about as successful an extension of empathy as the short-tempered schoolmaster’s judgement that, contrary to everything else he knows, what his student really wants is a good beating.

It is not obvious why we should accept the wholly exceptionalist picture of sex as immune to the relatively robust norms that we happily apply to the rest of life (for example, the norm that it is wrong to slap someone in the face merely for your own gratification). The sex-positive outlook of unconstrained nuance is not of much satisfaction to those who embrace it, as becomes all too clear to anyone who reads Barton wallowing in it for over 300 pages. As she comes close to admitting: she knows that porn is largely horrific, but wants to believe that it isn’t.

Barton attempts various unsuccessful means of easing this instability. One is to venture that while porn may be an ethical free-for-all, the general dislike she has of it might be to do with its “problematic aesthetic elements”. But the attempt to wholly divorce the aesthetic and ethical deficiencies of porn is almost certainly ill-fated. The two modes of appraisal are too closely entwined. The judgment that what one has just watched is nasty, or dreadful, or simply gross, invariably draws on both dimensions of value.

A more disconcerting reflection for the anti-exceptionalist view of sex might be that one risks denying an important truth: that the erotic has, to a certain extent, a life of its own. More, the erotic stands in some interesting relation to transgression itself. The attempt to tame sexual impulse with ethical norms immediately raises the prospect of their being flouted. It is the perennial pornographic leitmotif: the sideways glance, the final trembling protest of one’s better nature, and all the rest gives way to extravagant gratification. Erotic life takes us by surprise; takes us out of ourselves. It is ruled by murky and poorly understood impulses. Of course, even if we accept this picture wholesale, it wouldn’t follow that our account of the erotic should be similarly murky and poorly understood, as Barton seems determined to make it. More tellingly still, to attach any great significance to transgression, one must first acknowledge that there are some norms in play to be transgressed.

The fantasy of a sexual realm that can float untethered from the rest of ethical life and human judgment is just that, a fantasy: just like the view that ever more nuance is a necessary good, and conversation always remedial. As Barton’s book makes all too clear, in fact, “conversation” can serve to conceal, rather than reveal, the truth. The complaint — which she occasionally makes — that we do not yet “have a language” that is sufficiently nuanced to reconcile us to pornography and the degrading sexual practices it depicts can, under this light, take on a cynical quality. Actually, the language with which to describe violence, coercion, and the lack of self-knowledge and false consciousness required for people to uncritically approve it, is all too readily available; what we do not always have is a language of critical reinterpretation that is sufficiently opaque to disguise uncomfortable truths from us.


John Maier is a freelance critic and PhD student at the University of Oxford

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