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Pornography, puritanism and Prurience

Went on a whim last night to the excellent Chris Green (from Duckie) and his new show Prurience which was part of the Sick! Festival in Brighton.

It wasn’t purely chance since the blurb in the festival brochure talked about a immersive evening exploring the nature of porn addiction which is a subject I’m interested in both personally and professionally.

As a gay man growing up in a pre-Internet age, my exposure to porn was probably typical in being a few feverishly hoarded pictures and then, later, when I was more ballsy, a carefully curated collection of gay magazines, stories and cartoon books. In a period of UK history when being gay was demonised these images and stories probably carved a space for some semblance of erotic life to grow. I didn’t see a pornographic film until some fumbled moments in a cabin on the Rue St. Denis in Paris when I was 22 – it took a lot of one franc coins as I remember.

The advent of internet chatrooms in the 90s (dialling up Compuserve after peak hours, anyone?) led to the beginnings of a more ‘interactive’ titillation. But this was pure innocence compared to the supernova of porn that has erupted all over the Web in the last five years. Highspeed internet access is the fuel. I got burned by that for while but managed to escape the worst ravages of this epidemic, but I have clients who have fared less well.

After the show last night, which was a clever meta-piece set in a porn-addicts self-help group where we, as audience, were never sure who was actor and who was genuine, Dr. Clarissa Smith spoke in her capacity of Professor of Sexual Culture about the nature of porn.

I have to admit I found her rather dewy eyed about it, as if the realities of the porn-epidemic had passed her by. She spoke admirably about the freedom to experiment and try things out in the world of fantasy but that is – I believe, – quite different to what is happening on the internet in the last few years. This is not the playful erotica of yesteryear but porn on an industrial scale aimed perfectly at the slavish synapses of modern consumers.

The combination of sex, almost infinite novelty and privacy, makes modern porn consumption a lethal cocktail for brain chemistry. The brain’s SEEKING system (as described by Panksepp) is wired entirely to enjoy and explore novelty and chase. It is the system that is fired up by cocaine and it is regulated by dopamine. It’s pleasurable and it supersedes other more bigger-picture views while it’s fired up. Most significantly, it is a quite different system from the SATISFACTION system which is largely ruled by opioids.

Consumer capitalism thrives on a constant stimulation of the SEEKING system and a minimisation of the SATISFACTION system. Business and commerce are not interested in our being satisfied, they want us to be constantly seeking, and so any product that ruthlessly stimulates the dopamine system is like a gold mine. Pornography is the silver bullet. It stimulates the sex seeking system; sites like PornTube allow access to almost infinite short clips, so the novelty button is also pushed; issues of shame and embarrassment meant that the satisfaction of orgasm is rarely pleasurable and preferably delayed which leads to marathon sessions of ‘edging’.

Industrial internet porn leaves people (often men) uniquely vulnerable to the predatory incursions of consumer capitalism. With the long-term prospects of unemployment, educational debt and impoverishment on the horizon for lots of young males in the affluent West, getting lost in a sticky haze of porn might seems like a good hole to hide in.

You may well bridle at the idea that we should feel sorry for these people who are locked into hours and hours of increasingly hard-core and brain-corroding porn consumption but I think this is a really large and as-yet undiscussed issue.

I was amazed that Professor Smith seemed to dismiss the connection between this industrial-scale consumption of porn and erectile dysfunction. She didn’t give any evidence why she doubted this but there is masses of circumstantial evidence and native testimony that describes a very precise link between the constant viewing of hardcore porn and a massive decrease in the ability of users to respond to real people – girlfriends or boyfriends – in sexual situations. They can reach orgasm with porn, but suffer erectile dysfunction with real lovers.

I am aware that as a Buddhist meditator, I have a particular axe to grind here. It’s not a moral thing but rather an existential one. You could style the project of meditation as a recalibration of life from concept to reality, so naturally I am very much on the side of real, messy challenging skin-on-skin sex rather than the safe and self-circuited nature of porn but I am conscious that other people might have a different view on it. My tendency is – admittedly – to radical realism but I can imagine that some people have a more nuanced understanding of the power of image and word.

In either case, Christopher’s piece is a great experience – teetering on the edge of too much meta-theatricality but outlining a really interesting area that I agree needs much more discussion if we’re not going to end up with a psycho-sexual time-bomb, ticking under our noses.

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