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June 22, 2005

Erotica Policies

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've been reading about Gil Reavill's new book "Smut: A Sex Industry Insider (And Concerned Father) Says Enough Is Enough." Reavill is a writer who makes his living working for racy publications like Penthouse and Maxim. He started off his career thinking that sex must always and everywhere be liberated -- down with hypocrisy! But he has come to think that sexual material ought to be regulated. Reavill's website is here. The current paper issue of The American Conservative carries an excerpt from Reavill's book, but the excerpt isn't available online. Here's an excerpt that the National Review Online ran.

The surfing I've done has left me feeling a little silly. Here I blog, yakking about ultra-daring French films and linking to amazingly out-there websites. Yet I've never spelled out my stance on sex-themed art and entertainment.

I do so wish that I had something resembling a stance on the topic. Instead, I'm a mess of preferences, tastes, and hunches. Personally, I love sex-themed art and entertainment. I'm happy at the theater when a production features a talented actress contending with a sexual scene, and I'm annoyed with the current American theater because 9/10ths of the performers who strip onstage these hyper-gay days are guys. I watch even Balanchine ballets -- the highest-toned art-dance imaginable -- thinking, "Wow, this is really all about sex, isn't it!"

At home, I have a couple of large shelves full of books on the theme of sex: fiction, how-to manuals, histories of the art, memoirs, collections of the photography, academic tomes on obscure subjects, etc.

"Erotica" is probably my favorite movie genre, if it can properly be called a genre at all. Some people dislike the way that sex scenes force movie viewers to wrestle with the "is this real or not?" question. Me, I like walking that particular documentary/fiction line. Recently, Netflix has been delivering a lot of Radley Metzger and Jess Franco to my mailbox and DVD player. And le cinema francais -- well, we all know what that means, don't we? In the last year, I've even made the transition between being an erotica observer and an erotica maker; The Wife and I have taken to co-writing satirical pornography. We like to think our work is pretty hot and pretty funny.

Art and eroticism are No Small Thing to me, in other words. It's considerably more than that, in fact: Give me a micro-excuse and I'll launch into a rhapsodic, cringe-making, sub-D.H. Lawrence-esque monologue about the deep-down connections between art, the erotic dimension, religion, and the mysterious Pulse that Animates All Being.

But that's all a matter of personal tastes and private pleasures. There's also -- sigh and alas -- the question of public policy. Not being a PPP (Primarily Political Person) myself, I generally do my best to slither away from policy discussions. Why not leave them to those who enjoy debate, and who love imagining that laws emerge from rational discussion? Me, I'd rather compare impressions and experiences. How did you respond to "Swimming Pool"? Which current actors/actresses pique your erotic curiosity? Where enjoying-a-tingly-daydream is concerned, do you prefer movies, still images, or books? Have I mentioned that I found this audiobook version of one of Anne Rice's porno novels enjoyably trance-inducing? A tip of the hat to Amy Brenneman for giving her reading of this very kinky book a lot of little-girl sweetness, earnestness, and avidity.

Still: Public policy. OK, then. (Big breath.) I guess I generally view sex-themed art and entertainment as something on the order of tobacco, booze, and light drugs: as an adult-oriented pleasure that's easily abused, and that thus ought to be regulated and generally kept from kids.

Balance is important, as is tension. I get as annoyed by the "Sex is good, therefore it ought to be allowed everywhere" crowd as I do by the strictest Puritans. Sex is (or at least can be) a major pleasure: But by what leap of logic do we conclude that it needs to be encouraged always and everywhere? Sex needs protecting (and some individuals need protecting from sex): But how does it follow that adults shouldn't be able to use art as a way of exploring the erotic dimension?

My perhaps lame-o conclusion: Don't try to stamp the stuff out. Like wine and grass, erotica can be lovely. But also: Make some effort to protect the public arena from explicit sex-themed art and entertainment. Do this for the good of both society generally and eroticism too. After all, eroticism seems to flourish when it's kept slightly apart, perhaps even slightly repressed. (At least this seems to be the case in the West.) Finally: resign yourself to the fact that these matters are elusive -- how do you define "too explicit"? -- and that they may never be resolved in any completely satisfying, once-and-for-all way.

(Above all: Don't be too fanatical about any of this. Kids are probably best off being allowed to encounter charged-up erotic material for themselves, and bit by bit. If you keep it from them entirely until they're of age, they're likely to go off on the sex equivalent of binge-drinking benders.)

But what chance is there of any of this taking shape in America? It can be beyond-challenging to get Americans not to stake out either/or stances. I love America, but lordy we can be such one-track literalists. We tend to think that if something is good then we need more of it, and that if it's bad then it ought to be banned entirely.

While we're always lurching between warring impulses -- to suppress entirely, or to cut to the chase -- the French and the Japanese know about the value of embracing ambiguity, contradiction, and paradox. Where personal erotic behavior is concerned, this means cultivating and enjoying the arts of flirtation, concealing-while-attracting, teasing, seducing, and restraining-while-arousing. In the political arena, it seems to me to mean permitting-while-also-withholding. After all: The slow build ... Finding a lowdown rhythm together ... Taking the trouble to tune into the erotic frequency ... Savoring the process rather than bolting to the finale ... Well, yowza.

On the other hand, the people of Pompeii seemed to get by fine with erotic imagery plastered everywhere ...

All of which has got me wondering about blogging too. It can be such a freeform and transparent thing. On this blog, I enjoy scattering links to erotic content amidst all the artsyak. I find this mischievous and fun. I also have the semi-serious intention of hinting that I believe there's much to be said for bringing together the high and the low, the left and the right, the refined and the vulgar. I also assume that we're all adults, capable of handling zingy material, and capable as well of being ruefully amused and amazed by the passing over-eroticized spectacle. Are we supposed to pretend that the media world isn't showering us with boobs and crotches these days? There's much to be said for taking-note of life as it is. Still, taking-note doesn't imply endorsement. Or does it?

Curious to hear from anyone and everyone about these questions. How do you feel sex-themed art and entertainment are best dealt-with? Politically speaking, I mean. Should it be banned entirely? Allowed but regulated? Or should we just let it rip, and cheer the fact that it's running rampant throughout all society?



posted by Michael at June 22, 2005


Mark Twain has something for everything doesn't he:

"Solomon, who was one of the Deity's favorites, had a copulation cabinet composed of seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. To save his life he could not have kept two of these young creatures satisfactorily refreshed, even if he had fifteen experts to help him. Necessarily almost the entire thousand had to go hungry for years and years on a stretch. Conceive of a man hardhearted enough to look daily upon all that suffering and not be moved to mitigate it.
Now if you or any other really intelligent person were arranging the fairnesses and justices between man and woman, you give the man a one-fiftieth interest in one woman, and the woman a harem."
- Letters from the Earth

Like you, I am torn between the wish for total non-censorship and the realization that society must be "protected" in terms of children, etc. One thing Americans have not been able to learn or put into practice very well: all things in moderation.

Question: Is there a difference between pornography and erotica? I tend to associate the first as a male preference and the second as female and "softer", if you will.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on June 22, 2005 5:44 PM

How did I react to Swimming Pool? I generally like thrillers with a resolution that has a modicum of thought and intelligence put into it, so the answer is that I didn't enjoy it.

Posted by: jult52 on June 22, 2005 5:58 PM

I am about as conservative as you can get: orthodox Catholic, four kids under age 11 and one on the way. I am opposed to pornography in principle. If you were a personal friend, we could sit on the porch, have a couple of glasses of wine, and argue this out in a civil fashion. OK, so we all have opinions -- what about public policy, where we enlist the power of the state to make things happen, or not happen? I think it woulod be a foolish mistake to try to emploly the power of the state to actually ban most such things. Some exceptions, such as abuse of children in pornography, should be illegal and the state should try to stop or at least minimize it. However, to my surprise, I do seem to be close to your view on how to handle this material. It should be labelled and limited so that people who do not want it in their face can easily avoid it and take reasonable steps to keep it away from their children. If this required some kind of mandatory marker on the web addresses of porn sites, I'd favor that as well. Parents could insulate their computers, and people who just wanted to avoid the stuff could do the same. Employers could do the same on work equipment, which would keep people out of trouble -- they could wait until they got home. Many would scream that this is a violation of the 1st Amendment. I would disagree. It is more akin to a "time, place and manner" restriction, and prevents no one who wants to get it from getting it. Porn is drug-like as much or more than it is speech-like. It is one thing to have to skulk around a news stand to buy a magazine, it is another to get high quality producgtion value video samples with the click of a mouse, something that has come along in just the last few years. Raising the bar on this, I predict, will be a popular political issue, and reasonable restrictions will be popular politically, and I will favor them.

As to the larger culture pushing (usually female) body parts at us everywhere we turn, there is an easy first line of defense -- get rid of the TV. I'm 42 and I've never owned one. My kids see a fair amount of TV at other people's houses, but I control my own environment. That in itself is a statement of what I think is important and what is appropriate. They listen to a lot of books on tape. They have never seen Seinfeld or whatever is popular now, but they know about Odysseus and Robin Hood and Mozart. They will grow up and do whatever they Hell they want. But I am giving them the foundation I think they ought to have. What they do with it will be up to them.

Posted by: Lexington Green on June 22, 2005 6:28 PM

It shouldn't be limited by politics, it should controlled by culture.

That is, let the social sphere handle this by creating the norms. So with drinking: most people are OK with social drinking, but frown upon over-indulgence. If you go too far, you'll start losing friends.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on June 22, 2005 6:58 PM

I think you walk the line perfectly: Reasonably moderate access controls on erotica so that those adults who choose to partake can do so, while protecting those who would rather pass from having to be confronted by it. When it comes to the internet, I believe it's up to the person to control for themselves their access to content that they don't want to view, and to control their children's access to content they don't want them to view. This comes close enough to meeting the criteria in the first sentence, because you don't HAVE to follow any link or surf to any particular site, so moderate access control is there via that reality alone. The fact that it's merely a link away for those that want to go there fulfills the rest of the criteria.

I don't always enjoy erotica in "mainstream" films because sometimes it breaks the forth wall for me (though not always). The actress and actor really had to get nekkid and pretend to boff, or in some well-known cases - like the French "Romance" - actually have sex for the camera. I used to be concerned that the actors were coerced and may not have been doing those scenes voluntarily, but have since read enough and met enough folks in the know to realize they're adults who can make their own decisions, and almost always the actor/actress was more than happy to do the scene. So, the forth wall being smashed for me seems to have more to do with how well it fits the movie. If it seems pretty clear that the director just wanted to have a voyeuristic moment, like I think Jane Campion did in "In The Cut" (in her director's commentary she gets all breathy and gushes about how much fun it was to make the actors do these various sexual things), then the forth wall explodes. But if it really plays to the plot, like "Body Heat," then it's just fine.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 22, 2005 7:11 PM

The question of controlling children's access to porn or "erotica" is academic. Despite parents' best intentions, anybody, of any age, who really wants to see porn, even disturbing explicit porn, can do so.

The real question is, given the fact of what is in effect universally available pornography, that things haven't gone crazier than they are. I can't find the data, but it seems (IIRC) that teen pregnancies are down from their peak, for example. My guess is that porn, even rather grotesque porn, has less effect than people think...even on the young.

Posted by: PatrickH on June 22, 2005 7:37 PM

I loved The Swimming Pool. And yet, as previously stated on another thread, I *am* a prude. How to explain? The funny thing is, I didn't see it as erotica. I didn't see that at all. That is how prudes watch French films. Denial is wonderful; denial has many healthy and interesting effects.

Isn't Charlotte Rampling a goddess? Oh, I know you don't care for her MB, but she is so controlled and tightly wound and adult and just her age, no apologies, if you know what I mean.

And (sort of a SPOILER, so look away if you can't bear even hints)

the scene at the end? Her face looking through the window in the door, full of wonder and memory and imagination, and frankly, utter nutso-ness. I felt a secret admiration for her bitchiness; I craved it and her 'dry' writerly wardrobe. It goes with the prude schtick. When the world is all Britney-fied around you, the only way to be a reactionary, or is that revolutionary, is to be the type who reads Anita Brookner with all seriousness. But I digress.

Was it a book first? It seemed like a book that was filmed; I adore movies where you can imagine the prose on the page as you watch the images slide by. I can imagine the words she says, all of them. I love this in a film because books are my first love.

Posted by: MD on June 22, 2005 7:42 PM

I don't think people can be blocked from seeing porn, without dismantling the Internet. Blocking, in the way that pols and busybodies usually envision it -- i.e., as a centralized enterprise -- isn't effective. (It doesn't work for mere text spam, so how likely is it to work for images?) What's more likely to work is filtration at the margins of the network -- i.e., by your ISP, or on your own computer. That's how we deal with spam (however imperfectly) now, and it also has the advantage of letting different people work out different, personalized solutions.

But God forbid we should encourage imperfect, personalized solutions. I mean, where's the political payoff in that?

Posted by: Jonathan on June 22, 2005 8:41 PM

I do think that genitalia should be private, not public, and that modesty is essential -- for good sex, among other things. In other words, I don't know what the answers are.

Posted by: Luke Lea on June 22, 2005 11:42 PM

Michael, what do you think of the Museum of Sex? I for one would vote not to have it right on 5th Avenue! (27th St)
Folks who bought my grandparents' house in CA were hauled off to jail for making kiddie porn on the premises. We had to find another buyer!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on June 23, 2005 12:44 AM

I've responded in advance, a couple of days ago, to this very theme here.

I wonder when simple boredom will set in. We are exposed to an endless diet of supposed shock that isn't shocking at all any more. Technology rendered government regulation impossible.

Cowtown Pattie, your observation about the difference between men and women just isn't true any more. I'm not a statistics man. As I recall women consume now a third to a half of all porn.

Posted by: Stephen on June 23, 2005 8:39 AM

Pattie -- Twain really does have something good for every occasion, doesn't he? I've never been clear on the distinction between erotica and porn, myself, although "erotica" certainly sounds classier. Someone once joked that "porn" is the sexual material you don't like where "erotica" is the sexual material you do like ...

JT -- So, watching "Swimming Pool," you didn't linger over the getting-there? You were focused on the climax?

Lex -- I think porn and/or erotica's an interesting test-case for libertarianism, don't you? Interesting to see you wrestling with it. Is it something that needs policing? Can social mores take care of it? Yet commercial pressures (ie., "the market") do seem to conspire with leftie fantasies of "liberation" to erode social mores. So is government intervention needed here? But that doesn't seem very libertarian. I have no idea what responses to these questions might be, but would certainly be curious to hear your thoughts about them...

Todd -- There's a lot to be said in favor of social pressure. I think shame is a much-undervalued emotion these days myself. There was a good book about this -- comparing shame and guilt, and arguing that part of what the '60s did was shift the country from being shame-centric to being guilt-centric ... Hmm, what was it called?

Yahmdallah -- That fourth-wall question is such an interesting one, isn't it? Many people find that anything that's too "real" throws them out of the fiction, and god knows that sex can seem too real. I think it was Balanchine who was once asked why he never choreographed a piece for naked dancers, and he joked it was because there'd always have to be an extra beat or two at the end of a phrase to let the freer-hanging body parts settle down. I often like those real/not-real moments myself -- they seem like experimental art to me, and they raise all kinds of dicey questions (about voyeurism, about what acting is vs. being, etc) that I love returning to over and over. I'm a big fan of "Romance," for instance. But I suspect it's a minority taste.

PatrickH -- I wonder if one effect of EZ access to porn is what you're suggesting: maybe the kids feel so saturated in it that nothing's a mystery any longer, and thus nothing's alluring about it. Seems kinda sad if that's the case. On the other hand, teen pregnancies being down seems like a good thing. Grr: nothing's simple ...

MD -- You write "Denial is wonderful; denial has many healthy and interesting effects," and I say here here to that. Yet there's a sly something in your ability even to say that that co-exists with the denial, no? Which is lovely: why not enjoy both, and enjoy the coexistence of both too? And then suddenly you're savoring the flavors and textures, and you're in real French-movie-watching mode. A hard-to-beat frame of mind to enjoy and explore, as far as I'm concerned ...

Jonathan -- That's very funny. Small question for you? Politicians seem to need something to do. God forbid they should simply do their best to get out of our ways and enable society to function smoothly. Maybe once in a blue moon a self-controlled and modest someone will wind up in office, but 99% of the time that doesn't seem to be the case. Politicians are power-centric people by definition, after all. So, given that most of them need some sort of ambitous something to do with their stupid egos and drives (and our money), how would you feel about siccing them on spammers and scammers? Tracing down the ones they can trace down and prosecuting 'em, working out deals with other countries to do likewise. As far as political crusades go, it strikes me as one of the less harmful and most useful. I might regret it from a principled-libertarian point of view (not that I'm a principled libertarian), but I might also cheer it from a practical point of view.

Luke -- Modesty's role in good sex is another underdiscussed topic! I wonder if the kids are aware of this. I think I saw in some fashion mag or other that the slutty look is on its way out, not that you could tell by the way the girls are dressing in NYC ...

Winifer - I found the Mus of Sex academic in a chic, confrontational way that didn't interest me much. There wasn't much there I couldn't have enjoyed just as much from a book. But it also seemed to me to miss a central point about sex, which is that sex may be less about displayable artifacts -- condoms, pessaries, and lawmaking -- and more about the experience of having sex. And how do you put that in a musueum? So it finally seemed to me to miss the point of its own subject.

Stephan -- I wonder if boredom and jadedness (crossed with a kind of overstuffed overstimulatedness) is a central emotional-spiritual fact of life for many youngsters. I wonder how they'll choose to handle it. I do notice a kind of disengaged, slipping-by, nothing-matters-but-I'm -still-in-a-hurry-somewhere whimsicality among some of the youngsters. It seems like an understandable attitude to take, though I'm also left wondering where the hell they're hurrying to. Off to snag their own slice of the pie, I guess. I see a crisis of meaning on the near horizon ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 23, 2005 11:24 AM

May I suggest two resources on this topic. "Modern Sex: Liberation and It's Discontents", a collection of essays edited by Myron Magnet, and "Sexual Desire: a Moral Philsophy of the Erotic" by Roger Scruton.
"Morality does not inhibit desire, it creates it"

Posted by: Bill on June 23, 2005 12:04 PM

Michael, you wrote:
Politicians are power-centric people by definition, after all. So, given that most of them need some sort of ambitous something to do with their stupid egos and drives (and our money), how would you feel about siccing them on spammers and scammers? Tracing down the ones they can trace down and prosecuting 'em, working out deals with other countries to do likewise. As far as political crusades go, it strikes me as one of the less harmful and most useful.

I share your sentiment but think that the cure is likely to be worse than the disease. A better way to deal with politicians might be to turn off their air conditioning.

Posted by: Jonathan on June 23, 2005 12:23 PM

Regarding Pompeii:

On my recent tour of the ruins during my recent Italian vacation, the guides were insistent that the inhabitants were not sex-crazed (or sex-happy) maniacs. Apparently in Roman times in the region of Naples, the erect penis was considered the only effective antidote to the "evil eye," and that is why so many apparently licentious images cropped up around the city. (And many of the more explicit images were removed from brothels, which is a sort of special case.) So, actually, they were more superstition-crazy than sex-crazy.

Or maybe the guides were protesting too much...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 23, 2005 2:12 PM

Check out Dr Leonard Shlain's new book--I just heard him talk at NY Open Center:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on June 24, 2005 1:01 AM

Dunno if this is all bogus or not, but I found it surfing the Net:

Functions of the Ancient Prostitute

"The chief roles of the ancient (female) whore were to school men in the sexual mysteries (called by mystics, "The Whore Wisdom"), act as a transmitter of the all-powerful female energy, and keep track of the passage of the seasons, and of time itself. In their role as temple-priestesses, the Horae or Holy Whores would perform a magic ceremony, then anoint a man's penis with sacred oil (called in Greek, chrism), and mount him to orgasm. This allowed for the transfer of procreative power from female to male, since, according to Goddess tradition, men lack the ability to generate the life force. As the "caretakers of time," the whore's role was primarily to aid in the construction of astrological charts, which were called "Whore-Scopes," or rather, "horoscopes" (which literally means, "watcher of time"), named after the temple priestesses-the Horae-who guarded the "heavenly spheres of time" kept inside Goddess's Temples.

Mary the Virgin-Whore-Mother and Jesus the Sun-King

...realizing that they could not eradicate her, the early Church Fathers simply transformed the Great Virgin Whore-Mother-whom the entire ancient Indo-European world had known as "Mari" into "the Virgin Mary." Her sacrificial Divine Son, the Pagan Savior Hesus, they recast as Jesus (whose name is in part a hebracization of the name of the Pagan Greek Savior-God-King, Jason.) The name "Christ," meaning "the anointed," was derived from the Horae's sacred sexual oil, chrism, which means "to anoint." The word chrism is, in turn, a derivation of the ancient Chaldean word, chrs or-with vowels-chris, meaning the "Sun."

Posted by: winifer skattebol on June 24, 2005 1:08 AM

Interesting post on the state of erotica. A few thoughts:

My slightly tongue-in-cheek explanation of the difference between porn and erotica. If I like it, it’s erotica. If you like it then it’s porn (especially if I disapprove of your choice).

The irony is that even though new technology (as always) is permitting an explosion of porn, some in the government, under the pretext of “protecting children,” are attempting to stifle all erotica. For example, some fear that the new interpretations of the section 5227 regulations will result in ham-fisted attempts to censor or shut down adult sites or even internet service providers who currently permit adult content. A further irony here, is that even though unsolicited porn-related spam is a real problem, the last time I was at the library, a few teens were obviously and deliberately searching for porn on the library’s internet terminals, and whether or not this is a “good” thing, none of them seemed to be particularly harmed by what they were viewing. Other young adults, clearly not seeking to be “protected” from porn, are busy snapping naked pictures of one another with their cell phones and posting the pics on photo blog sites (

With respect to erotic films, I also have a bit of a “fourth wall” issue at times. If a mainstream film has non-simulated sexual conduct (for example, “Intimacy,” “Romance” or “Nine Rooms”), I wonder how the actors can react as their characters during a scene’s most intimate moments. But apart from this, I have no problem with adult treatment of adult themes, and figure that it is up to parents, not the gummint, to use that V chip or change the channel. I find it a bit interesting that even in these supposedly more permissive times, many film critics have problems with sexually explicit films. While they would have no problem saying “I laughed, I cried” with conventional films, very few of them would admit to being turned on by Nicole Kidman in “Eyes Wide Shut” or Eva Green in “The Dreamers,” and instead take refuge in declaring that dreary films like “Romance” or “The Fat Girl” are supposedly not erotic at all, but serious feminist decontructions of the patriarchy or “isn’t it a wonderfully serious critique of ageism that Charlotte Rampling is willing to get naked at her age?” in the preposterously overrated “Swimming Pool.” BS! I long for an adult mainstream film that is willing to explore or celebrate sex, not making viewiing the film seem like a trip to the dentist, something along the lines of the ridiculous but often fun and sensual “Mr and Mrs Smith,” but with sex toys instead of guns.

Equally unhelpful, I think, is some of the hysterical reaction to erotic memoirs like “The Surrender,” “The Story of M” or “The Sexual Life of Catherine M,” especially by some American and British critics who find these works unacceptable because they unabashedly celebrate the search for sexual pleasure and experience, and are not political or social statements. I was also recently bemused by some critiques of the Marguerite Duras short story, “The Seated Man in the Corridor,” which insisted on viewing the work as an allegory about the impossibility of desire and refused to see it as a precisely executed piece of literary pornography, despite its explicit and somewhat extreme scenes.

Posted by: Alec on June 25, 2005 4:54 AM

Artist Alex Grey recently set up the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in Chelsea. Now anyone can be a Sacred Mirror, it seems...they will take your pic in the nude and frame it.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on June 25, 2005 7:13 AM

Just two days after this post, a British court officially delared David Hamilton's books showing girls in suggestive poses to be pornography. Here's my post on the decision. And if I sound undecided in the post, that's because I am.

One of the most interesting things I saw about the controversy over his books was from a reviewer at Amazon, who thought adolescent boys should not be allowed to look at the books, but that the books were fine for older people (or, as a cynic might say, dirty old men).

Posted by: Jim Miller on June 26, 2005 12:41 PM

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