Last week’s New Republic (September 8 & 15) contains a lengthy review (pp. 29-38) by Margaret Talbot of Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend by Karen Essex and James Swanson (General Publishing Group). Like the book itself, the review is a piece of nostalgia, including three photographs of Ms. Page, who flourished as “America’s underground pin-up queen” from 1950 to 1957. Although I was sixteen in 1957, certainly old enough to appreciate such materials, I must admit having no memory of either the name or the body of Ms. Page, whose dark page-boy makes her look (especially in one photo with glasses) like my idea of Lois Lane. But my subject here is not Bettie Page, but the widespread nostalgia for a sexually more innocent age, as expressed with some poignancy in the article’s final paragraph:
Finally [the Bettie Page photographs] are tinged with pathos, since they are survivals of a time when fetishism and exhibitionism and ordinary sexual adventure really meant something, when their setting was the cheesy chiaroscuro world of roadside motels with linoleum floors and vinyl furniture, not the fake expensive world of fashion magazines and rock videos, a time before pseudo-porn seeped into advertising and was made pleasant and normal. These images remind us what it was like when erotica was mostly hidden. There are many reasons to oppose repression, but in the universe of repression, one learned the twin arts of fantasy and mystery. Bettie Page always seemed so good when she was being so bad. It is a paradox made of distinctions that we have almost completely destroyed. Poor glutted smirking us. If we cannot be bad, how will we be good? (38)
Ah, how innocent things were back then! We have heard this so many times it sounds like a truism. But this kind of thinking is both pernicious and false. Contra Ms. Talbot, I think we are privileged with a far better chance than our fifties counterparts of transcending our “glutted smirking” side and of giving the “ordinary sexual adventure” we call love its best chance of success.
This way of writing about pornography is based on an extremely narrow idea of the erotic, one that could be summed up in the phrase “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” It implies that once one has seen a depiction of a normally hidden part of a woman’s body or of some particular sex act, then that body part or that act loses its interest, no longer “really means something.” There is an interesting glissement in this passage between the seepage of pseudo-, that is, softcore porn into advertising, videos, etc., and the general availability of hardcore porn which indeed is still set, mutatis mutandis, in the same “cheesy” world as the softer stuff of forty years ago–for that kind of erotica, although a lot easier to find than in the old days, is still “mostly hidden.”
But my critique is independent of this nuance. Because Ms. Talbot has an understanding of sexuality divorced from the idea of love–which I am sure she considers a “good thing” to add to the sexual mix, but clearly not an essential component–she not only fails to note the present era’s progress on the sexual front, she fails to understand that pornography and even what used to be called “perversions” themselves pay homage to the sexual ideal of mutual love: the mutual gift of sexual pleasure without the abandonment of mutual care.
My first point is that the generalization of sexual knowledge–through the media and the education system as well as pornography–spells not the universalization but the end of the “smirking” attitude, which is predicated rather on the rarity of this knowledge. No doubt the distribution of sexual information to the young has its problems; sex education in the lower grades is offensive, less in my mind through any direct psychological damage to the children involved than through the disrespect of our educational institutions that this kind of instruction inspires in them. This aside, the advantage that accrues to society from the dissemination of sexual knowledge is in foregrounding the difference, which previous societies tended to elide, at least above the lowest social levels, between sexual knowledge in general and “carnal knowledge” in particular.
That in the good old days one had real knowledge only of one’s presumably unique sexual partner–knowledge that such as Bettie Page hinted at but never revealed–is a limitation rather than an advantage. A look at the “marriage manuals” of past generations will convince anyone both that explicit sexual knowledge has always been of value and that the pudeur of the past made such knowledge difficult to obtain in a safe and respectable context.
What does one “know” when one sees a naked body or a sexual act? The general conformation of the organs, the general procedure of the act. But acts of love are not general but particular. One does not love the loved one’s body less because one has prior knowledge of bodies in general. The generalization of sexual knowledge among adults is conducive to reverence for one’s Other not as a generic sexual being but as a particular person who does not lose his or her individuality in moments of sexual intimacy. It is no doubt regrettable that some of this knowledge is obtained by means of posed images of real people: pornography is not a nice industry. But as a form of degradation, it is certainly preferable to the widespread prostitution that was the past century’s way of spreading sexual knowledge to the male population, while keeping “respectable” women in the dark as much as possible.
Let me not be misunderstood: I am not writing “in favor of” the distribution of pornography. But this distribution is a fact of our lives, and, aside from keeping it out of the hands of small children, attempts to arrest it in the age of the Internet are bound to be ineffective and to produce more harm than good. I would suggest that, like many objectionable forms of knowledge, beginning with that obtained in the felix culpa of the Fall of Man, sexual knowledge is ultimately more a blessing than a curse.
My second point is that pornography, as well as perversions like bondage, pedophilia, and the like, however reprehensible or even criminal, should be considered as manifestations not of “evil instincts” but of deviated desires for love. This does not mean that all such acts should be tolerated; but if we understand them in this way, we are less apt to mislocate the source of human evil in sexuality instead of in our desiring nature in general–a tendency that has been paradoxically encouraged by the Freudian mythology that dominates our era. Even the aforementioned biblical scene of the Fall often alluded to in support of this view suggests quite the opposite. The eating of the forbidden fruit is in no way sexual; it is a simple act of resentment. Only after the Fall does sexual desire become dangerous and shameful. It is desire as such that is the human problem; sexuality, because it is desire for another person, intensifies the inherently problematic nature of human desire, but it is not its source.
We should see love as the “natural” telos of sexual activity, and understand perversions in terms of the deviated means they use to reach this telos. Pedophilia, to take a particularly distasteful example, deviates the exchange of love to a child whose innocence of sexual desire substitutes for innocence within sexual desire. The child is in this respect a “fetish,” a sign of innocence used as an instrument rather than a person. We will condemn the pedophile with a better conscience, and perhaps even give him some hope of being cured, if we separate innocence from childhood and consider it as a rightful quality of sexuality rather than a naive illusion.
Similarly, sexual bondage perverts the mutual caring that is essential to sexual love. Here we are on more familiar cultural terrain; the complaints of Petrarchian poets about their love’s cruelty are less controversial than Humbert Humbert’s paean to Lolita. What lover would not suffer for his beloved? but asking her to whip him is, once more, “fetishizing” this suffering in a voluntary act as opposed to a context where suffering would serve a real purpose. (This is, to my mind, what “fetishism” really is; the current fascination for things and sexual organs that passes for a theory of fetishism is, on the contrary, fetishism itself. Sexuality, like all things human, is essentially interactive.)
When I look through the best-sellers in an airport news-stand or flip through the magazines at the supermarket check-out counter, I am always struck by the importance popular literature gives to love. In magazines like Cosmopolitan or Glamour, it may be cloaked in a mask of hedonistic sexuality. But beyond the recipes for multiple orgasms, these publications are primarily focused on finding and keeping the right person, not merely as a spouse, but as one’s “true love.” However corny this term appears in an academic context, it sells in a popular one because true love, in all its simple transparency, is what people want–it is what we need.
In our time, when the decline of the institutional sacred puts an ever-greater burden on the couple, I think we should be grateful for any form of knowledge that allows us a better chance of seeing and valuing the uniqueness of another person. We should not abandon the ideal of sexual innocence–au contraire–but it should be asserted en connaissance de cause, after sexual knowledge rather than before; only thus can the superficial cynicism of the “glutted smirking” response be disarmed. It is preferable that we appreciate and defend the virtues of love out of knowledge–even knowledge obtained from the unsavory purveyors of post-Bettie Page erotica–rather than out of ignorance.