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Better porn with de Botton

There is scope to re-think the porn industry.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

Not content with ruminating on work, happiness, or airport queues, philosopher Alain de Botton has now turned his restless attentions to the promotion of an ethical porn movement, as reported here on Friday by the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis. De Botton plans to launch the "Better Porn" campaign and website promoting "pornography in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than permitted to undermine, our higher values." Sex-positive feminists and ethical sex enthusiasts, particularly within the kink community, have of course been espousing this for a while. Yet even if he is late to the party, de Botton’s campaign is ripe for the championing. Contrary to popular myth, the sex industry is not entirely recession-proof and while commercial porn will never run dry so long as there’s money in circulation, the faltering flow of finance makes it a good time to dump quantity for quality.

As idealistic as de Botton’s project may sound, even in the face of the internet’s daemonic libertarianism, there is nothing inevitable about the ethical paucity of our porn. 30 years ago, before the internet had tempted adult fantasy over to the crass side, Angela Carter encapsulated the sentiment in the opening line to The Sadeian Woman: “Pornographers are the enemies of women only because our contemporary ideology of pornography does not encompass the possibility of change, as if we were the slaves of history and not its makers”. Replace "women" with "21st century humans" and there is De Botton’s campaign. Right now, we may have the porn we deserve but we can make better. Mass production of anything, food, furniture, fashion, may serve a market but usually at the price of ethics.  Porn is no different. Blaming poor porn on atavistic urges is lazy and historically inaccurate. Better porn just requires letting our brains, rather than consideration for our bank balances, lead our late-night Google searches.

Following the murder of Bristol architect Joanna Yeates, in which it was revealed that her murderer Vincent Tabak had a taste for strangulation porn, the reactionary cry from the left and right, feminists and conservatives alike, was that such porn needed banning. I suggested we produce an ethical stamp for porn, something which has always been particularly resonant for the BDSM/kink kind, where social and legal prejudice, and the complications of the pleasure/pain-driven dynamic has heightened the need to prove harmless production. The responsibility of companies like kink.com in stepping up to the ethical mark proves it can be done, and De Botton should look to such models as he builds his Better Porn campaign.

Imagining that De Botton is successful, such is the relationship between need and want, between desire, its permissions and possession, a subculture of unethically produced porn would be bound to persist. But it would be cowardly to reject an ethical model on that basis, and what price the reduction of the populace’s guilt if we knew most porn stars were genuinely and consensually performing?

The most difficult challenge for de Botton won’t be persuading people that his kind of porn is better, but that it’s sexy.  As Camille Paglia observed wryly, if somewhat unfairly, about feminism, "leaving sex to the feminists is like letting your dog vacation at the taxidermist’s". The personal is political has rarely made for hot interracial or doctor/nurse tableaux. So while ethical porn will always face the taxidermist test, the last thing we need is an obsession with cleaning up our desirous taboos until what’s an offer is a dry as an Equalities Commission guide to getting it on. De Botton claims to recogise that what makes porn unethical isn’t its fantasies or explicitness, but the means of its production. He could do a lot worse than take an Arts and Crafts-style approach to his project. Avoid elitism, invoke passion, and society will be better off for its production. (Stuffed animals probably need not apply).