By Maiko Kodaka, PhD candidate
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our way of life in many different ways. Since March, many governments all over the world have implemented rules of social distancing, which now regulate our everyday interactions. Many of us are forced to stay home to protect the vulnerable and our health care service; what can one do but to have sex? This is the perfect time to spend more time with loved ones, whether we like it or not. So why not dust of that Kama Sutra and have a go at position 56?
The current situation has already incubated its share of online memes. Neologisms such as ‘coronadivorce’ and ‘coronababy’ are trending on the Internet. Simultaneously, a global shortage of condoms was reported as the world-biggest producer of condoms, Karex Industries, had to shut down its factory in Malaysia under lockdown rules. While COVID-19 is also maliciously called ‘boomer remover’ by some due to the high mortality rate among those born during the post-war baby boom, the irony is that it might contribute to another baby boom a year hence.
But enough about those who are fortunate to have loved ones in their bed rooms. What about those who remain single and are literally left to their own devices? There is good news for them as well. Pornhub and xHamster, porn websites that provide both user- and studio-created content, are now providing free access for those who stay inside during the lockdown. It is obvious that in a pandemic that spreads between human hosts, self-pleasure is the safest way to cum.
Is pornography harmful?
Some people are skeptical of porn. Current anti-pornography debates are often based on three different arguments: a fear that easily available pornography on the internet will create addiction and unrealistic expectations, predominately in boys; the suspicion that there may be a causal relationship between porn consumption and sexual violence; and the older assumption that pornography contributes to the objectification of women. Although the Sex Wars – the debate between sex-positive and anti-pornography feminists during the 1970s – seem already archaic, the sociologist Gail Dines (2010) argues that the spread of porn culture is manipulating our own sexuality and that we should consider this to be a public health issue. In her analysis of our contemporary porn-saturated culture she warns against the over-celebration of the emancipatory potential of pornography. Yet to draw a direct causal link between porn and sex crimes, like in traditional behaviorists’ theories, is too simplistic. It is true that porn addiction has recently garnered attention as a social issue; but whether it should count as addiction in the pathological sense is hotly debated among health care professionals.
One thing often neglected in these debates is that contemporary pornography is no longer just a one-way traffic between producers and passive consumers. These days, the webcam market is facing a tremendous demand for 24/7 live-streaming of more or less sexual content. Webcam girls and boys are working extra hours and are also showing non-sex related activities, such as reading, cooking, and exercising. Many clients just want to talk to them.
Just as everyday sociality has moved online to “zoom-parties” and skype calls, so has erotic sociality. Online dating is literally happening exclusively “online” now. Media scholars often question the authenticity of the online realm and contrast it unfavourably with face-to-face interactions. But under the current regime of social distancing, we cannot but live in the moment of ‘the inter-indexical relationship’ (Inoue 2003: 327), in which online and offline, cyberspace and ‘meatspace’, become increasingly interchangeable.
Susanna Paasonen (2011) argues that online pornography is designed to trigger what she calls carnal resonance: it does “not simply involve sexual arousal but sensations ranging from disgust to confusion, surprise, titillation, interest, dismay, shame, boredom, amusement, curiosity, and many things besides” (2011:20). Since the invention of “modern” pornography, pornographic materials have stimulated and simulated our sexual experiences in various, technologically evolving ways. When I say “modern”, I mean the style of literature that absorbs its readers into the story and drives the narrative with the promise of titillation: the erotic page turner, so to speak. Such a format can already be discerned in Fanny Hill by John Cleland in 1748 and Juliette by the Marquis de Sade in 1797.
In reaction to the negative view of mainstream pornography as demeaning to women, we have seen in recent years an emerging movement of politicised forms of pornography: feminist and queer pornographies that challenge the depiction of erotic scenarios built around assumptions about male heterosexual desire. While those alternative forms are crucial for sexual and gender identity politics, the key to understanding the experience of pornography lies in the problem of identification and the dynamics of role play. In her analysis of pornographic comics, the sociologist Naoko Mori distinguishes three different sexual roles, the dominant seme (‘top’, lit. ‘attacker’), the passive uke (‘bottom’, lit. ‘receiver’), and the ‘peeping tom’, who enjoys others sexual play voyeuristically. While Mori points out that all pornographic experience is based on voyeurism, she also argues that at the same time the spectator can identify with either uke or seme. In other words, pornographic representations offer multiple possibilities of identification, which “do not alter the readers’ social identity…identifications and desire are not restricted to or contained within a binary” (Shigematsu 1999: 137). This suggests that there may be no direct, unambiguous line from the readers’ sexual orientation and identity to bodily identification and desire.
However, different forms of media may enable and delimit different processes of bodily identification. Live-action and cartoon-based pornography may engage the spectators sense of immersion and reality differently, as Mariana Ortega-Brena describes in her research on Hentai animation:
“our arousal to this spectacle of literally unreal sex and corporealities de-emphasizes the self-reflective awareness of our lived-bodies insofar as our identification with these non-live, non-fleshed entities might give us entrance into a world of imagined, animated sensations” (2008:28).
Whether acted in the flesh or cartoonishly animated, pornography has been a target of social concern mostly because it appeals to our bottom half, which people still often consider obscene, vulgar, or taboo. I would argue that watching porn is very much like other forms of cinematic escapism. Some people cry when they watch The Notebook (2004, Nick Cassavetes); other get goose skin when they watch The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick). So, go and enjoy your luxurious privacy. Explore what you like and get to know your body. The first hug after months of lockdown will be more than precious. But for now, let’s stay home and love ourselves.