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  1. Ideas
1 September 2023

Can Camille Paglia save porn?

The writer can help us find a new language of desire.

By Magdalene Taylor

In the introduction to her essay collection Sex, Art and American Culture, Camille Paglia lays out her philosophy of sexual politics. Writing in the early 1990s, she felt what her time lacked was a feminism that emphasised personal responsibility, in contrast to the hysterical anti-porn, anti-sex feminism of writers like Andrea Dworkin. 

This emphasis on personal responsibility, Paglia argued, ought to be emboldened with the global consciousness and progressivism associated with the Sixties. “We need a fusion of idealism and realism,” she writes, something that combines these elements from the Sixties with the “hard political lessons of the Seventies and Eighties, sobering decades of rational reaction against the arrogant excesses of my generation”.

Paglia was calling for, in other words, a healthy synthesis between a free love type of ideology and rigid, prudish sexual moralism, with priority given to the privacy and liberty of the self. My own sexual political philosophy is similar: our contemporary culture is defined by the stalemate between unchecked sex positivity and reactionary puritanism. Like Paglia, I don’t see this divide, or my imaginations of a solution, as inherently liberal or conservative. There is no “side” that is “winning” the sexual culture war.

What is both fun and devastating about reading early Paglia is that it is pre-mainstream internet. She was writing at a time when porn was exclusively consumed through magazines, VHS tapes, adult theatres and TV pay-per-view. Debates about what that level of access to porn does to the individual and society writ large are laughable in comparison with the essentially unrestricted, endless catalogue of content everyone is capable of viewing at any moment. Surely that yields a different effect, and one worthy of critique. But nobody could have entirely predicted the rise of online porn, nor could they have predicted what social media would do to our shared sense of culture and sexuality, either. What exactly does Paglia’s conception of personal responsibility mean in an era when the personal is so public?

Debates around sex have not reckoned with these shifts. It seems as though we’re still stuck in the feminist sex wars of the late 20th-century, despite how radically conditions have changed. One salient example of this was a recent clip from the torturous Whatever podcast, a livestream YouTube show designed to make you hate women. In a viral clip that nobody liked, an OnlyFans model (named FitnessNala) wearing blue fox ears and TikTok makeup describes herself as “the ahegao queen”, referring to a Japanese pornographic facial expression wherein a woman is so enraptured by pleasure that her mouth hangs open, tongue out, eyes crossed, cheeks flushed. This model performs the face for the camera, along with a series of other jilted, NPC-like gestures and phrases. She describes herself as dominant, says that she’s “daddy”, and that she loves cheating. The clip is edited to be as jarring as possible, a compilation of this woman’s most salacious confessions. Even if it wasn’t, the whole thing is obviously an act: she behaves this way because it works. It makes her money.

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[See also: Why OnlyFans wants us to regulate the internet]

People generally responded to this video with disdain. It was a moment on to which one could project whatever opinions they had about porn, women, sexuality and the decline of Western civilisation. I shared that I felt sympathetic to why something like ahegao would be appealing – open mouth, head empty in sexual bliss – but that these erotic signifiers had been lost in internet addiction. To do the “ahegao face” is not to depict pleasure, but to perform a pornographic meme. It’s lost whatever made it hot. (I’d also bet that some of those who expressed similarly negative opinions subscribed to her OnlyFans, regardless.)

Much of the debate around the video centred on a comment that argued it represented “feminism and its consequences”. One clip of an OnlyFans performer certainly doesn’t represent the breadth of feminist thinking, but it does represent a genre of it. In this feminism the only real principles centre on the idea that a woman’s decision to get her bag and do whatever she wants sexually is only of consequence to herself. There is some truth to that idea – at very least, these choices ought to remain her decision. But there are still consequences that accompany these choices, and consequences for the culture they spring from. FitnessNala didn’t create any of these tropes, nor the platform through which she sells them, but she does participate in shaping our sexual culture when deploying them. The people who consume this content do just the same.

We lack the language to work through all of this. Plenty of people have more nuanced interpretations, but we’re still broadly navigating between the ideology of sex positivity that says this sort of thing is good and liberating to all, and the ideology of puritanical asceticism that says this sort of thing should be forcibly restricted. Like Paglia, I think porn as an overarching genre of art is important and useful, often even beautiful. It is an indulgence like any other, though it is rarely treated as such. Meanwhile, shame, too, serves an important function. It’s in the shame of transgression that much eroticism lies. A problem of contemporary porn and our relationship to it is that this sense of transgression has broadly been lost. When we view the video of the woman on Whatever, we aren’t shocked by its newness and raunch, but rather are repelled by the normalisation of pornography it represents.

In a 2013 interview with Salon, Paglia shared her thoughts on contemporary porn. “I continue to support and defend pornography, which I believe exposes the deepest, darkest truths about sexuality,” she said. “As an industry, pornography also helps to rebalance the modern psyche: middle-class workers are trapped with their tyrannical machines at home and office. Pornography, with its surging animal energies and guiltless display of the body, brings the flame of organic nature into that mineral wasteland.” Paglia said she sees porn as a “classic example of ever-controversial unregulated capitalism – the market automatically responding to individual needs and desires”.

Say, then, that this “ahegao queen” is just a reflection of the truth of our sexuality, an example of the middle-class outlet that is pornography and a response to our desires freed under capitalism. What does that mean for us? Does it sound like we’re doing well?

We lack the ability to conversationally differentiate between porn as it has classically been known and the internet addiction that defines it at present. Yes we’re dealing with porn, but in a form that has traded the fun of transgressive sensuality for a hyperreal loop of addictive internet simulations. But as the response to the video shows, there is a massive distaste for this, even if the market for it remains just as large. A different world where our sexual culture embodies the erotic and its boundaries is still possible.

This is an edited version of an essay that was first published on “Many Such Cases”, Magdalene Taylor’s Substack. You can subscribe here.

[See also: Netflix doesn’t understand why people watch porn]

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