Mary Harrington: Sex is either about the reproduction of humans or it’s about the reproduction of money (Part II).
Jake Scott: I think at the end of the day, you can’t deny the fact that agency is a big factor in this, and obviously people can try to abstain. Because it is the same thing, in my opinion, as fasting, whereas in the modern day there is this kind of fixation on fast easy experiences. But talking about pornography, one thing I wanted to ask about was that in the last year I’ve noticed an extraordinary number of young women that have turned to soft-core pornography as a means of income, especially with the rise of OnlyFans. And it seems as though Twitter’s now moving into that space with this whole tip-jar thing, and there’s an extraordinarily, I don’t want to say vibrant, because I feel like that’s giving it an energy credence but there’s an extraordinarily active pornography culture on Twitter. But at the same time I noticed there’s a lot of young men that simplify into two groups: either they reject it entirely and almost become misogynist in the process, or they become extraordinarily ‘sex positive’. How is how is pornography, especially self-made, amateur pornography affecting the relationship between sexes in the modern day?
Mary Harrington: You’re probably better placed to answer that me because I got married in 2012. You’re very much closer to the coalface on that one.
JS: I dare say that I am.
MH: You know what I what I can say is that, and as you’re probably aware, this subject has some interest to me and I’ve got an article coming out in this month Spectator US, which is titled “the sexual revolution”. It talks about what I see, it’s a marginal thing at the moment, but I see developing actually among America’s young elite, which is a backlash against this, mass pervasive culture of porn distillation, that says “no actually this is destroying us, it’s tanking… it’s tanking the birth rates, it’s destroying our capacity to relate to one another, it’s making it increasingly difficult to form and sustain lasting relationships; we’re done”. I spoke to one attractive young Harvard graduate who has deleted all of her Bikini photos from Instagram.
She won’t wear tops that expose her shoulders or collarbones and she’s not the first and she’s not the only one. I’ve seen a growing number of Tik Tok and Twitch videos posted by 18, 19, 20 year old women who are absolutely blasting the way social media grooms young women into prostitution. There is a backlash gathering against all of this, which is really quite considerable, and I think could have some fairly far-ranging wide-reaching effects in the coming years, whether or not it will ever go mainstream or holding the institutional power remains to be seen. Because there certainly is the vested commercial interests in maintaining sexual titillation as something to monetize, the vested interests are all behind that. The status quo is behind “gratify your every desire” because that’s how people make money.
I talked to Louise Perry – who’s another, I suppose, sex-negative feminist, which is something I’d actually like to contest, because in my view, a measure of sexual repression is necessary in order not to become completely desensitized to erotic stimuli. So, in my view, you know sexual openness is, in fact, the “sex negative” position because it just it numbs people to any sort of any sense of something being at all exciting. You know, once you’ve looked at enough butts, they’re just butts, there’s nothing, nothing thrilling going on there at all. In popular parlance, “sex negative” means wanting to keep sex or something special, that is apparently the negative position and so on.
So Louise Perry is of the view, and I rather glumly am as well, that what we’re likely to end up with is an elite culture of modesty where people have quietly accepted that in fact sex probably does need to be kept as something special, in that marriage is probably better than just screwing anyone you like, and trying not to get divorced is probably good for your children, and most people are actually heterosexual, let’s face it, and those sorts of things.
But the vested interests want to propagate the existing culture. So, you end up with a sort of “any anything goes” kind of culture of porn distillation for everybody, in the direct parallel here with the promotion of junk food, in fact. You know, it’s a sort of erotic junk food for the masses and macrobiotic diet for the elites. Louise thinks that’s probably the best we can hope for from the sexual revolution, you know, I would like to hope that there’ll be a kind of revolutionary movements among the masses as well for more of a culture of mass consciousness, but whether or not the dopamine machine will unclench its claws from our brains that easily is another question.
JS: But I do think there is a kind of mass cultural pushback that it’s just not good for you, that’s the kind of innate recognition, and there’s got to be, hopefully there’s got to be some sort of mass movement.
Mary Harrington: I hope so, although I also suspect that when it comes we won’t like some of the trade offs. What I mean by that is that the original move for sexual liberation was driven in no small part by women because women objected to the idea that we should be disproportionately constrained as women, and in any system of sexual constraint and sexual regulation, we’re the ones who get pregnant. There have been several attempts at sexual revolution, pre-1960s. There was a concerted effort by various radicals in 19th century America to establish what they call free love; it’s been going on for 100 years longer than people think it has, but the reason the rubber just didn’t hit the road until the 1960s was because that was when mass reliable contraception became available.
You just cannot have a system of free loving women, women just aren’t going to play ball, with a system of free love until you de-risk it, you would just be mad because otherwise you’re either having to get an abortion every two or three months, which is just a monstrous situation to find yourself in because interrupting a pregnancy is a physically unpleasant thing to do; or else you’re going to have a brood of fatherless children in no time at all, which again is not an outcome most women will sign up to very happily.
So, of course, contraception is a necessary precondition for sexual revolution, as far as women are concerned because it de-risks it. So when that de-risking happens, there were loads of radical feminists who seized on it and thought “so wonderful, finally, we can we can unplug female sexuality from this whole hideous controlling patriarchal superstructure and explore the full beautiful polymorphous array of our sexualities and just allow them to develop into whatever forms they might actually take”. That was the theory.
But, in practice, what happened was that no sooner was human sexuality unplugged from the business of reproduction, then it was plugged straight back into the business of marketisaiton. I think it was the same year that Hugh Heffner opened his first Playboy Club, that the pill was legalized. And, by the end of the year, it was the most successful nightclub in the world.
Sex is either about the reproduction of humans or it’s about the reproduction of money. And it seems it doesn’t seem possible to have human sexuality as a free floating thing, without it being instrumentalised in one form or another. All of this leads me in my thinking to the suspicion that you know if there’s a, let’s say, “sexual control revolution” and the backlash is effective and people manage to plug sexuality back into the urgent business of making more humans, that will, of necessity, involve reinstating a lot of the constraints on human individuals and individual choice that were there previously. In practice, that means slut shaming; in practice, that means purity culture; in practice, that means shaming women who don’t dress modestly; in practice, that probably means a marginalized outcast minority of prostituted women.
You know, even more marginalized than prostituted women currently are in practice. It basically means bringing back a lot of what was thrown out as patriarchal under the old system, and I think it’s a legitimate conversation to have; which set of trade-offs we want, but we should be under no illusions: there will be trade-offs, one way or another.
Photo provided by Mary Harrington.