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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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