You can also check out my essay on my friend and mentor, biologist Lynn Margulis, on RealitySandwich.com.
EXCERPTS from “By the Time You’ve Seen It, It’s Too Late”
Our best shot at understanding the foundation of obscenity law is through watching Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror film, The Evil Dead. In it, a group of (who else?) students stay (where else?) at a cabin in the woods. Amidst the jokes and sexual tension, they uncover a book of demonic spells and rites. They also find a reel to reel tape player, and on it, the voice of scientist reciting a string of incantations.
The kids, as usual, never had a chance. Simply playing of the tape summons the demons; such was the power of the muffled words. Aside from the normal possessing and flesh-eating demons, there are also demons in the form of the woods themselves, which assault – physically and sexually – one of the girls. The demons literally fall apart at the end of the film when the occult book is thrown into the fire.
The movie is a cult classic and has spawned sequels as well as inspired later films, such as The Ring (and its Japanese original) in which the same sort of thing occurs except this time (perhaps more germane to the topic of pornography) from a VHS tape… (and) by the time the tape is playing, it’s already too late.
The obscenity trial of Michael Peacock arose from such fears of the supernatural power of the image and word, and even though he was found not guilty and we are told these laws will perhaps undergo a radical reevaluation, the fear will stay with us…
* * *
A popular approach to answering how the image affects us has been through scientific experimentation and social science surveys; and science is our most occult of philosophies, filled with symbols, images, and tools. But there, we have mostly failed. Not because we haven’t gathered evidence, but because all the evidence seems to clash. How can there be so many books on sex and violence that reach different conclusions?
In the meantime, a demand is made: Take sides.
Will watching fisting make someone want to try fisting? Yes or no. Do you believe that bareback sex in porn makes the viewer want to have condom-less sex? Yes or no. Will watching horror movies make you more prone to violent acts? Yes or no. Do fantasy portrayals of incest in pornography glorify abuse? What about portrayals of rape? What about gay or lesbian sex? What about general corruption and depravity – can watching a sexual or violent act make you a worse person?
The questions gather and back us into a corner, so it is easy to see why such a callous and ridiculous statement as Andrea Dworkin’s, that, “The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too,” becomes appealing: It’s not an answer, it’s an escape.
Just give up one or the other – your values or your sexuality.
Yes or no, please.
But most importantly, answer quickly, there are monsters at the door.
Permitting one form of the image on principle or cultural critique alone, but not permitting it in another form proves very difficult, and all arguments seem to undo themselves.
For example, one might object to comparisons of pornography and sexualized images of women in advertising because porn is consumed privately and advertising (sometimes) isn’t. But the logical consequence could easily – and often has easily – become: we cannot have women depicted sexually in public. To keep the argument logically consistent: in porn, we consent and so it’s okay, in advertisement, we don’t consent, so it’s not. That means banning advertisement with questionable content, back to women showing their ankles off in ads, and wearing full-length dresses otherwise.
More evidence for how problematic this is: Would you object, as many did, to gay cruising site Manhunt.com’s billboard campaign prominently displaying two men about to kiss (and surely, one thing leads to another) to anyone on the street, ? Yes or no.
What if they were kissing and you had your kids with you?
Since you’re reading this essay, I suspect your answer would be no, but you can see how the question weaves into others, and evades easy answers.
What if they were fucking?
Whether it’s behind closed doors or freely displayed must shrink in importance in our conversation next to the question, “How does the image affect us?” But to answer, we need to do more than respond with feelings and thoughts.
The menace of the image and its affects leads some to talk supernaturally about images, as if stating their names is evidence enough for their power. Because the depiction of the act is what has initially repulsed the critic, one only needs to state what the act is to argue. This is why arguments against pornography are often simply descriptions of the act. “He had a bullwhip up his rectum!” anti-Maplethorpe censors cried. Or, in Chris Hedges’s essay (in an otherwise thoughtful book – Empire of Illusion -from an otherwise thoughtful man, in which he desperately clings to Dworkin’s escapist quote), “The Illusion of Love”, he falls under the (sexual?) trance of naming what he sees and believing this naming presents some sort of self-evident truth: “…oral sex, vaginal sex, double penetration, and double anal.” He quotes a performer who says during a shoot, “Shove it up my fucking ass…: and “Fuck, motherfucker…” and “Fucking love it…” No explanations required for Hedges, who is always more rigorous than this.
The supernatural: To say its name is to evoke it…