God, Sex and the Left (Part 2)

by Clive Hamilton, Alex Doherty

Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, based at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Freedom Paradox, Growth Fetish and, most recently, Requiem for a Species. In the second part of a two part interview he discusses contemporary pornography and the need for its regulation. Part 1 can be read here.


Regarding porn one of the arguments made is that the way to deal with misogynistic porn is to create non-misogynistic porn. What do you make of that strategy?

A firm distinction should be drawn between erotica, which is the depiction of healthy, vigorous explicit sex between two equal people, on the one hand, and extreme and violent pornography which is characterized by the degradation of one party or the depiction of perverse practices. I don't think we should shy away from the fact that some things are perverse. As Slavoj Zizek observed: perversion is not subversion.

Of course people always pick on the practices that are in the grey area, which we can have an argument over. But the fact that there's a grey area should not blind us to the fact that there's a very big black area. We shouldn't be afraid of commenting on the black area just because some questions are not so easily answered.

So my view is that good healthy erotica is fine for adults who want to look at it. But it’s hard to find. If you read Gail Dines’s description and analysis of modern pornography you can't fail to be sickened by what is out there. The pornographers, who now form a huge industry, are quite frank: 'Our customers become bored by the most extreme acts we can think of and we're constantly having to come up with more extreme forms of sexual practice to keep them entertained.' So they turn increasingly to new and more extreme ways of degrading and brutalising women. It astonishes me that there are left-wing intellectuals who defend this sort of stuff. They have blinded themselves to what is really happening, trapped in the innocence of 1960s sexual liberation. They still think pornography is Playboy centre-folds and a bit of slap and tickle. That is so distant from the truth about modern porn that I wonder how they can be unaware of it. The kind of misogyny of a Playboy centre-fold has been taken to another level, particularly in so-called gonzo porn, which is really about the explicit degradation of women. The truth is that large numbers of men get off on seeing women sexually degraded. It is troubling that this not a huge public issue led by the left.

Why do you believe sexuality has gone down this pathway?

Sex has taken this path because of the shadow side of sex and sexuality. Among some men there is a fascination, a craving, an inability to exercise self control, a penchant for degrading women that is no longer subject to the same controls. For all the oppressive aspects of the old sexual morality, it was an effective way of keeping the male libido in check.

So you think there's something inherently problematic about the male libido?

Every society throughout the history of humanity has adopted certain measures, prohibitions and taboos whose function has been to regulate the sexual relationship between men and women so that the male libido doesn't get out of hand. And we see what happens when it does - in wars for example. When people say rape is a weapon of war, what they're talking about the circumstances in which discipline breaks down the restraints on the male libido. Sometimes that collapse of discipline is actively encouraged as a way of terrorising the enemy. It can be a horrendous thing. So all societies have modes of discipline to keep it in check, so that the male libido is a positive force rather than a destructive one.

We see on the internet what happens when there are no restraints—every violent fantasy is indulged. We have regulation of every other form of media--newspapers, magazines, books, television, cinema. But somehow the internet is sacrosanct, and we see what happens as a result.

Yet the left is now skewed by internet libertarianism. You see it with WikiLeaks and Anonymous. The politics are of a naive libertarianism, with both left-wing and right-wing tendencies, but which essentially has no real politics. Adam Curtis skewered the heroic individualism of this kind of cyber-utopianism in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. These are mostly young people or those now in their 30s who have grown up in a neo-liberal age, surrounded by media and political parties that have propagated an individualist view of the world. They have often absorbed an unthinking idea of personal freedom, essentially a market-based freedom, and have turned that against certain manifestations of political power. Julian Assange seems genuinely to believe that the source of all wickedness in the world is the capacity for governments and corporations to keep secrets. It reflects a weak understanding of the nature of power and its deployment in the world today, including the way in which corporate power is actually translated into political power. The secrets are out; but the power structures remain.

The problem with internet libertarians is that they don't have any real politics. An activist I knew, once a member of Communist Party of Australia, would say disparagingly of someone: “no politics”. It meant that the person just drifted with the current political fads, and had no real structural sense of how societies work other than what they absorbed from media representations, the usual ideology that underpins political comment in mainstream newspapers. So they become media creations themselves. Many who've grown up in a neoliberal age and see themselves as progressive, even radical, often don't understand the extent to which their conception of the world has been determined by the very people they say they oppose.

The UK Government recently reached an agreement with the four leading internet service providers whereby internet subscribers will have to opt-in if they wish to view pornographic material. This measure has of course been welcomed by conservative forces within the UK. What is your view of this new measure?

In Australia and the US an interesting alliance has emerged bringing together progressive people, including many younger and older feminists, and some traditionally more conservative elements, to campaign against the proliferation of porn, and all that goes with it—the degradation of women in the industry, sex trafficking, and so on. There are always risks in these kinds of alliances. To make them work the parties have to agree to stick to the issues on which they agree. But that’s how politics works.

A couple of months ago I was at the launch of a new book, Big Porn Inc., that brought together many of these people. They are accused of being “anti-sex” by post-modern academics who style themselves “pro-sex”. Of course, the authors are not anti-sex—they are anti-degradation, anti-exploitation, anti-coercion and anti-trafficking. They want to rescue sex.

After some short speeches, including one from a former sex worker who had a chapter in the book on what the trade did to her, a young women stepped forward and said she wanted to thank everyone who’d helped make the book because she is a victim of porn because her partner had become addicted. It was poignant because it was obviously the first time she’d had the courage to say anything; she was breaking the silence.

So the task is to draw a line in the sand, because young people have grown up in societies where no-one, and certainly no progressive people, have said that some things are beyond the pale. So whatever the practical pros and cons of the opt-in system, it’s important to see the ISP’s participating in the process of drawing a line in the sand. It needs to be backed by national conversation about sexual practices that challenges the presumption that anything goes.

In your last book 'Requiem for a Species' you wrote about the fearful prospect of rapid climate change. What is your view of the future - how do you see things playing out in the next few years, with the financial crisis, climate change and so on. How hopeful are you?

Any objective study of the conditions we face leaves little room for optimism. That's what Requiem For A Species is about. However, Nietszche drew a distinction between what he called the pessimism of strength and the pessimism of weakness. I think that, given the circumstances that we face with climate change and possibly peak oil and the limits to the capacity of humans to live in such huge numbers with such voracious appetites, we can either resign ourselves to it and become politically quietistic and live as though we don't care about what happens, or if we adopt the pessimism of strength we can say to ourselves: 'well ok, the circumstances are grim but what do I have an obligation to do?'

I think as a matter of personal integrity we have to attempt to make the world as good as we can in the circumstances. So with climate change, as someone said, there's a difference between being fucked and being completely fucked. In the book I talk about the democratisation of survivability; for progressives that's the huge task ahead of us. How can we work towards creating political and social structures that will minimise the chances of the poor and dispossessed being heaped with all of the consequences of climate change and the disruption that's going to come?

It seems to me that having genuinely democratic polities is more important than it's ever been, particularly when we have sham democracies at the moment. Think about the dominant parties, the power of the media and the essential conservatism of neo-liberal society, the way in which it constantly reinforces corporate power and the kind of marketing ideology that goes with it, including the capture of the culture by those forces. We need truly democratic, revived democratic societies more than ever, and that is of course a massive task for the left.

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First published: 11 November, 2011

Category: Gender equality

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6 Comments on "God, Sex and the Left (Part 2)"

By George, on 11 November 2011 - 17:14 |

Fascinating article. But I would query the bit about the increasingly violent manifestations of sexual imagery being the result of innate darkness in the male libido. There is the logic of consumer capitalism.  I can think of no material more guaranteed to grab the attention and raise desire than sexual material. (Admittedly this applies more to males than females.) Now sexual images alone are not going to provide satisfaction. Thus the images produce desire but no relief – the perfect consumer trap. (I have often suspected that one of the reasons why porn is treated with such distaste in the mainstream media is that porn, as it were, gives the game away in the sense that it so blatantly produces this vicious circle of self-perpetuating desire – and therefore self-perpetuating profits.)

By Catherine Orian, on 13 November 2011 - 22:19 |

Like George, I am concerned by the characterisation of the male libido as innately dark and tending towards the degradation of women. Surely the socialisation of men (and women) has far more to do with men’s appetite for porn? Hamilton’s argument assumes that men exist outside of any wider social context and ignores the structural sexism inherent in society (a bit strange coming from a supposedly left-wing site). When men are brought up from the age of dot to see women as sexual objects, when the average age boys are first exposed to porn is eleven (yes, I have read Dines too), when on all sides they are bombarded with images of sexualised women in advertising, music, on TV, in movies, and indeed when women are led to believe that the only way they can achieve power or success in life is by being sexually attractive to men, is it any wonder that the degradation of women is becoming more widespread, including through the proliferation of extreme violent porn?

Although it is possible that the increasing violence of porn is due to some inherent property of male sexuality, we have no way of knowing whether this is the case because there is no place in the world where men can escape this socialisation. Turning pornography into a problem of male sexuality removes the responsibility for their own actions from men, and is entirely counterproductive because it removes the emphasis of the debate from something that can be fought, that can be changed (i.e., the socialisation of men and women) onto something that cannot be changed, that must be accepted as a fact of life. The only option then is to resort to crippling moral restraints, and who wants to return to the Victorian approach to sexuality?

I also have a big problem with Hamilton’s characterisation of certain sexual practices as perverse. This very much weakens his argument against porn as it leaves it open to accusations that the definition of what is perverse is an entirely subjective process (I would argue that it is actually an ideological process, but that is somewhat  beside the point in this discussion). In western culture in the past homosexuality and sex before marriage were considered perverse, and in certain parts of the world today it is considered perverse for a woman to reveal her hair or even her face in public. I would hope that Hamilton would not attempt to argue that these things are perverse in any kind of ‘universal’ sense. I am sure that many who are in favour of pornography, or at least against its limitation, would accuse Hamilton and his ilk of being old-fashioned and indeed anti-sex.

No, the real problem with porn, as feminists have recognised and argued - Gail Dines is one of these feminists, and the women who contributed to Big Porn Inc. are others - is that it encourages the sexual objectification and violent abuse of women. Do not forget that this extreme violence is actually performed on the bodies of women - the women who ‘act’ in porn (according to Dines the average length of time a woman can remain in the porn industry is three months; bodies simply cannot survive this kind of violence for longer), the prostituted women on whom men act out their most violent fantasies, and all other women who are increasingly being pressured into performing porn-inspired sex in their private relationships. This is not and never should be an argument about morality or about sexual perversity; it is an argument about treating women as human beings rather than as an underclass who exist to be sexually used by men.

By Clive Hamilton, on 14 November 2011 - 05:45 |

Thanks for these thoughtful comments. Of course I agree that the socialisation of men plays a powerful role in men’s conceptions of sex and the appetite for porn. But if that is all that is in play then we must despair at the total failure of the women’s movement and the sexual revolution to bring about some major positive shift, if the extraordinary proliferation of the darkest sexual practices on the internet and the routine degradation of women in mainstream gonzo porn are anything to go by. I don’t claim that the male libido is inherently dark—it is both light and dark. My point is that our societies, still in the grip of the fantasies of the sexual revolution (backed relentlessly by commerical forces), suppress any public recognition of the dark side. That means that the informal social prohibitions that have always regulated the dark side are nowhere to be seen, so it spills out in the kind of nasty and deepy misogynistic material on the internet. I really don’t understand the sqeamishness about using the word “morality”. If the degradation of women and the commodification of sex are not moral issues then I don’t know what is.

By Catherine Orian, on 15 November 2011 - 21:09 |

Just because the women’s movement didn’t succeed doesn’t mean it was wrong. It failed because it threatened those in power and they fought back, and won. The backlash was and is immense and I would say that the proliferation of extreme violent porn today is part of that backlash; this is evident in the fact that a clear theme of gonzo porn is that of “putting women in their place”, i.e. as objects for men’s sexual use.

The reality is that men simply do not want women to be equal. There are massive reasons for this: to take just one example, capitalism simply would not be able to operate without the unpaid labour of women, especially in the third world, as well as the consumerism of women in the first world (I cite anything by Maria Mies to back up this point). So that is why the women’s movement failed to bring about a major positive shift, and that is why this whole thing about dark and light sides of the male libido is a bit silly - when the enormous advantages created by socialisation are revealed, it becomes clear that looking for any explanation for the way things are that is based on innate characteristics of men or women requires a great deal of ignorance about the way the world works.

I am squeamish about using the word “morality” because of its connotations. To me, and apparently to you too, the degradation and commodification of women are of course moral issues. But many others clearly do not see it that way, and labelling them as such leaves you open to attack on the basis that systems of morality are subjective and depend on the culture and time in which they are constructed. I certainly do believe that there is some form of universal right and wrong that can be applied in this case, as in all others, but I do not think that calling it “morality” is helpful to the cause.

By Clive Hamilton, on 16 November 2011 - 01:15 |

Catherine. The dispute goes to what it is to be human. Your view seems to be that we are born tabula rasa and whatever we become is solely the product of socialisation. On this view you have to identify a social reason for gonzo porn, and you find it by drawing a very long bow indeed, in the need of capitalism to exploit women economically. I would guess that the men who most benefit from exploiting cheap female labour in the Third World (the corporate execs and shareholders) are not those mainly responsible for getting off on gonzo porn. Having published a lot on consumerism etc, I don’t underestimate these forces. But we really have to go deeper. For my part, on these issues I am much more persuaded by the feminism of difference than by crude (philosophical) materialism. I recently wrote a piece on why the Australian Government’s decision to allow women to fight in the front lines was a victory for liberal feminism and the way it confuses equality for liberation. A few women threatened to punch me in the face; more quietly cheered.

By Catherine Orian, on 16 November 2011 - 20:15 |

Well, Mr Hamilton, I can see we will have to agree to disagree on this issue. There are a number of things I do not agree with in your latest comment, but I will just point out that every man benefits from  the undervaluing of female labour, especially those men who have a wife or partner or mother. The relationship between women’s unpaid work and capital is considerably more complicated than corporate bosses earning insane profits through the exploitation of third world women’s labour.

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