“Should pornography come out of the closet?” Medieval Smut, Modern Sensibilities

Yesterday’s New York Times featured a Room for Debate exchange among a number of academics, writers, producers, and industry figures–including a former performer and a current producer–over the future role of pornography in the public sphere (“Is pornography good for us?” the shout-out on the front page reads). The contributors represent a diversity of perspectives, some highly critical of the sexual, racial, and economic politics of porn, others thoroughly invested in its culture and its promotion.

Whatever the merits of the contributors’ various positions on the matter, though, what’s baffling about these sorts of debates is how often they overlook the very long and very public history of pornography in various traditions, both western and non–and, more than this, how such oversights reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of present-day conditions on the ground. The notion that pornography is somehow in a “closet” out of which it might or might not emerge is simply absurd. The display tables of Barnes & Noble are littered with multiple editions of Shades of Grey and its dreary sequels, even as news reports tell us of the case of a woman who’s divorcing her husband because he won’t reenact scenes from the novels (no, this is not an Onion story). Over a decade ago the Times’s own magazine featured a lengthy story by Frank Rich detailing the extent of the pornographic saturation of American culture. As Rich pointed out at the time, “pornography is a bigger business than professional football, basketball and baseball put together. People pay more money for pornography in America in a year than they do on movie tickets, more than they do on all the performing arts combined.”

Memories are short, though, and we love reading about what we’re not supposed to read about. Our society continually tells itself that porn is illicit and shameful, even as our culture openly displays a deep investment in its terms, idioms, and pleasures–and such pretense is itself a highly erotic form of enjoyment. This, of course, was one of the central points of Michel Foucault’s controversial discussion in the first volume of The History of Sexuality: we like to imagine that the Victorian era (and thus our own) was an era of repression, to such an extent that Victorian long ago became synonymous with prudish and puritanical. In Foucault’s view, though, this “repressive hypothesis” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The Victorian era was an age that allowed talk about sex to proliferate in many new forms (criminology, sexology, psychoanalysis), all of them titillating in their own ways, creating those “spirals of pleasure and power” that Foucault described so compellingly. The notion that we “other Victorians” don’t or shouldn’t or musn’t talk about sex–along with all the talking we do about how much we don’t talk about sex, all the looking we do even as we tell ourselves we’re not looking–is the primary symptom of the pornographic condition.

The New York Times exchange on the question of whether porn should come out of a non-existent closet is a particularly sublime case in point. I mean, just look at the Room for Debate feature. Should pornography come out of the closet?” is a highly efficient mechanism of porn distribution in its own right, linking readers to myriad websites, books, films, toys, and other parts of the pornographic universe. Even the biographies of the contributors take us to realms of hard-core porn and sex work that will be marvelously new even to jaded aficionados:

Click on Candida Royalle’s name and you’ll find the many films, photos, and toys featured on her website, whether for subscription or sale (to say nothing of her book). Click on Herbenick’s “Sex Made Easy” and you’ll find an amazon.com “Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought” scroll that will keep you and your partner busy for a lifetime. Clicking on Professor Miller-Young’s name will take you to her UCSB bio, which in turn will teach you of the existence of $pread, a magazine for sex workers in the porn industry and the broader sex trade to which Miller-Young has contributed her own academic essays.

There are crueler ironies here as well. Several of the Room for Debate contributors have written compelling and articulate critiques of the porn industry, pointing to poor working conditions (including the impossibility of unionizing), the culture of sexual and racial degradation, the trauma experienced by industry workers, and other disturbing aspects of the pornography machine. Yet these critics of pornography are here participating in an on-line exchange which, even as I write this post, is providing millions of New York Times readers with links to new sources of pornographic delectation.

Thus has it always been. It’s no mistake that Foucault found in the medieval confessional an important source for modern discourses of sexuality. As medievalists such as John Boswell, Pierre Payer, Allen Frantzen, and many others have shown, the penitential writings of the Middle Ages are chock full of detailed instructions to confessors asking them to plumb the sordid depths of their subjects’ sex lives, with the aim of inspiring detailed and graphic accounts of sex from the cowering faithful precisely in the name of repression and extirpation. Here is a typical example, from the penitential of a sixth-century writer, John the Faster (the translation is Boswell’s):

Likewise one must inquire about arsenokoita [anal intercourse] of which there are three varieties. For it is one thing to get it from someone, which is the least serious; another to do it to someone else, which is more serious than having it done to you; another to do it to someone and have it done to you, which is more serious than either of the other two. For to be passive only, or active only, is not so grave as to be both. One must inquire into which of these [practices] the penitent has fallen, and how often, and for how long, and if it happened before marriage or after, if before the age of thirty or after. It must be ascertained further whether he has penetrated an animal, of which sin there is only grade.

What are you getting? Are you getting it passively or actively? How often are you getting it, and in which position? With your wife, or with someone else? How old were you when you first got it, and are you still getting it at your advanced age? Oh, and are you getting it from your sheep?

Medievalists who have worked on premodern pornography (and its corollaries: obscenity, smut, and so on) have long recognized the abundance of erotic media in the first millennium of the Common Era, and the scholarship on these subjects registers the proliferation of pornographic imagery in written and visual sources alike. Here, for example, is part of the “List of Illustrations” in a recent essay collection titled Medieval Obscenity (edited by Nicola F. McDonald, and published by Boydell & Brewer):

Like the bios in the Times exchange, the phrases alone are enough to get us turning pages: Vulva on horseback! Ambulant phallus! Devil with grinning bottom! and, of course, (phallus missing)!  This is to say nothing of the book’s cover image, which features a couple of medieval nuns picking male genitals off of a phallus tree. I wouldn’t want to put actual porn on my blog, so you’ll have to click here to see a picture of the tree in question (c’mon, you know you want to look); and if you Google image-search “phallus tree” you’ll get an instant sense of the variety of sources in which this topos appears (you might look at this post from the blog Got Medieval on a recently restored mosaic of a phallus tree from a public fountain in medieval Tuscany).

As such examples show us, pornography–”the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement,” in the strict Merriam-Webster definition–has always been with us, and in public, often spectacular ways. To suggest that it currently lives a closeted existence is to misconstrue the present as thoroughly as we forget the past.

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One comment on ““Should pornography come out of the closet?” Medieval Smut, Modern Sensibilities

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