Better porn with de Botton

There is scope to re-think the porn industry.

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).
 

Photograph: Getty Images

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496