LONDON, ONTARIO – It has long been recognized what a nuisance photography has become at weddings. Yes, it’s important to record such an event for posterity but the amount of time and focus that’s ripped out of the most important day of many young couple’s lives while they get everyone in attendance to stand around in different configurations and blandly smile is nothing short of criminal.
Equally widespread and longstanding is our derision for a certain class of tourist so preoccupied with recording foreign vistas that you wonder if they even see the place they’re supposedly visiting until they get back home and fire up the slide projector. It’s like the perceived need to capture some fleeting experience in pictorial form, precludes experiencing the experience.
With the digital revolution and the development of infinitely easier, quicker, cheaper and more private ways to procure photographic images – particularly of our own glorious selves – that nuisance has become a pestilence. Folks who really ought to know better like President Obama and Prime Minister Crazy Socks have even been caught taking selfies at funerals - Nelson Mandela’s and James Flaherty’s respectively. And twice as tacky - and a trillion times more prolific - than the collapse of decorum in our statesmen, has been the boom in homemade pornography. “Come on, everybody. Do you know what this means? If nobody at the Black’s or Kodak stand has to see what we’re taking pictures of, then why don’t we shove our cameras down our pants?”
There has been a series of stories out of Woodstock this month about a dozen young women who are outraged that “nude, erotic or sexually explicit photos or videos” of themselves which they originally sent to their “intimate partners,” have been posted on “anonymous websites” after those partnerships dissolved. And now those images are being leered at and commented on by a far wider circle of louts than they were ever intended for. It’s a shabby and depressing situation all round. And one can only concur with 27 year-old Shainee Chalk who is going public with her complaint about this violation when she says that, “The men we trusted with the photos should be ashamed of what they have done to us.”
However I’m not so sure that I agree with her prefatory statement to that one, where she says, “None of the girls involved should be ashamed of what happened.”
In order to be ‘ashamed’ one must be aware of some sort of standard that one has fallen short of and it would appear that Chalk has no such awareness. Even though it was her who hit the ‘send’ button in the first place, she doesn’t seem to believe that any sort of censure or shame should attach to her for producing and then posting such images. Indeed, she doesn’t see herself as responsible in any way because, in effect, her boyfriend made her do it and thus she denies having any agency in this awkward matter at all.
“I was devastated,” she told Post Media News about her exposure on the internet but regarding the genesis of the pictures themselves, she neatly pins that on her ex: “When you are with a boyfriend, you do what they want you to do.”
Really? It doesn’t sound like much of a partnership if he’s calling all the shots and coercing you into activities that you want no part of. Why would you consider someone who pushed you around like that your “boyfriend” and pass images along to him that you didn’t want anyone else to see? After all, the well-nigh universal impulse when someone has what they consider a great or remarkable picture is to pass it around for others to see as well. Whether we deem her behaviour reckless or just naïve, I really do think Chalk bears some blame for foolishly entrusting the care of highly confidential images to someone whose character (and whose regard for her) she had no reason to be confident about.
As you can perhaps tell by the bemused tone of this essay, I don’t really ‘get’ the attraction or the point of sharing intimate pictures with someone when the two of you are already sharing an intimate relationship. It could be my temperament. Some might deduce that it’s more likely to be a reflection of my age. But I don’t believe there has ever been a time in my life when I would have been interested in doing anything that would threaten to objectify such a rich and quintessentially subjective aspect of my life.
As a special bonus to this week’s Hermaneutics, I’m attaching a related piece below that I wrote in 2004 which traces the development of my attitude towards pornography.
THE MAINSTREAMING OF PORNOGRAPHY
LONDON, ONTARIO – I was recently asked to take part in a panel discussion on pornography and reached into my earliest past for two stories that would show why I have come to believe that porn is a personally and socially corrupting force that should be shunned as much as possible. I believe that sometimes our earliest encounters with something that shocks or disturbs us should not just be discounted as naive; that we can lose valuable insights and judgements when we bury our instincts under the armour of cynicism and sophistication.
As a 10 year-old with a lively interest in inspecting the stash of Playboys in the lowest drawer of my friend’s father’s bedside table, I drank in the astonishing physical details so deeply that I believe I could sketch for you today a fairly accurate semblance of the postures and proportions of at least two of those pin-ups.
Simultaneously, that experience excited me in a way I’d never known before and also managed to make me feel crummy – about myself and the ladies in the pictures. I felt that I was trespassing in an intimate area of life where I just didn’t belong and I felt awful – maybe, ‘disappointed’ is the truer word – that there were people in the world who could be persuaded for whatever reason to take off their clothes like that for just anybody to look at. I remember being deeply grateful that my dad did not maintain a similar collection at our house. I was glad because I instinctively felt – and still do – that harbouring such materials constituted at least a mild form of infidelity and disrespect to one’s wife.
About eight years later as editor of our high school newspaper I was able to wangle a free pass into a newly opened downtown nightclub called Tracy Starr’s Strip Palace. The first such establishment to ever set up shop downtown, the brazen indignity of it all was only compounded by the fact that the previous long-term tenant in that locale had been Sophie’s Bridal Shoppe. To see that blushing world of virgin-white veils and chiffon gowns shoved aside by a flock of bumping and grinding vixens was enough to keep the radio talk show lines buzzing for weeks, mostly with cluckings of consternation as well as the occasional cackle of delight. Indeed, what was the world coming to?
As an 18 year-old male, I was intrigued to say the least. We might wish it otherwise but if you offer young men any sort of chance to see naked women dancing about, they’ll move mountains to attend such an event. As the editor of my high school newspaper, I was already savvy to two great perks of the writing life: people will let you into shows for free if you promise them a review and you can mask your most prurient, morbid or infantile fixation as a strictly objective and professional interest in some fascinating subject of immense sociological significance.
“Female nudity doesn’t do much for me personally,” I planned to say to anyone who saw me ducking into Tracy Starr’s emporium. “But in the interests of investigative journalism, I thought I’d better come down here and see what was going on, or coming off, as the case may be.”
The place had only been open about a week on the day of my visit and everything still felt raw and unfinished on that bright September Saturday afternoon when I stepped inside this small and darkened chamber smelling of plywood and recently applied paint. Still awaiting their liquor licence (I had just turned drinking age that spring and would have appreciated the further confirmation of my adult status that a bottle of beer might have imparted) I settled instead for an over-priced bottle of Mountain Dew (“Filled by Clem & Gert”). Stepping over electrical cables splayed on the floor, I took my place among the half dozen or so rows of plush theatre seats with a grand total of five other patrons; all of them much older than me and each of us sitting studiously alone.
When an audience for any sort of live performance is that small, it’s not unusual for a reasonably sensitive patron to feel almost as exposed and self-conscious as the performer. Multiply that to the power of ten for this awkward little spectacle where each stripper’s routine lasted for the duration of three canned tunes and at the conclusion of each song she would stand perfectly still, eyes cast down, as the sound guy up in the booth took his sweet time changing records. The first tune was performed fully clothed (a sort of getting to know you round) concluding with the removal of all outer layers and accoutrements. By the end of the second tune, the breasts were displayed and by the end of the third she was briefly starkers. Then it was goodnight and lights out and the next girl came out and started her set.
I quickly grasped the unchanging formula and after four or five rounds, relaxed a little in my discomfort with it all and instead started to feel a sort of agitated boredom. Amidst fluctuating waves of heat and botheration, I was starting to get cheesed with the whole arrangement. I couldn’t help noticing that these ladies really weren’t particularly good dancers. They didn’t seem to love their work or take any pride in it but at least they were getting paid for their efforts. The people who really seemed to be getting sexually exploited here were me and my five older compatriots who sat there in our seats running the gamut of sexual stimulation from A to B over and over again until we were almost numb with it.
And then with the arrival of the fifth or sixth stripper, the whole game changed. I knew her. Not well. We’d moved in different circles and hers had always been a little faster than mine. But she had been in my year through half of public and all of high school until she’d quietly dropped out about six months earlier and disappeared off everyone’s radar except, apparently, Tracy Starr’s. Her eyes briefly widened in recognition when they first clapped onto mine then quickly darted away for the duration of the first song. She’d always been a remarkably cool customer, so I wouldn’t presume to know which of us had the more uncomfortable time of it. My appetite for a strip show having utterly evaporated, I sank a little lower in my seat and then quietly slipped out of the club at the end of her routine.
I wanted to walk the 20 blocks home so I could sort out my sense of implication in the weird and rotten dynamics of what I’d just been through. What did it mean if recognizing the identity of the woman who provocatively and publicly peeled her clothes precluded any possibility of enjoyment? And then I thought back to that earlier encounter with the skin magazines and recognized an unsettling link. In both situations the idea that someone I knew or loved or cared about might be involved in either providing or partaking of such entertainments, made the whole prospect suddenly turn rancid. And if I felt so strongly and instinctively that pornography wasn’t good enough for them, then why on earth did I ever think it might be good enough for me?
The range of pornography now available has been vastly extended from anything I knew in 1962 or 1970. The statistics on pornography’s proliferation over the last few decades are almost ungraspable. According to a TIME magazine story from 1998, the American pornography industry annually reaped $10 billion in revenues, meaning it out-grossed (in both senses of the word) all of Hollywood’s domestic box office receipts, and the combined take of the rock and country music record biz. In 1996, 665 million hard core videos were rented out in the States – more than two videos for every man, woman and child in the country. This immense and rapid expansion in an industry that few people are proud or comfortable to be seen supporting, had been achieved almost invisibly thanks to technological developments that made it possible for even the most respectable or reticent folks to consume porn with complete discretion.
First it was private videos, for rent or purchase, which eliminated the need to attend some scummy, run-down cinema full of furtive looking men. Then came the X-rated cable services which invisibly piped the stuff right into your home – services brought to you not by some oily greaser in a muscle shirt with too many tattoos – but by such established and respected communications firms as Ma Bell and Rogers TV. Then the Internet turned up the stakes even higher with more than a million utterly unregulated pornographic sites on the World Wide Web.
The proliferation of porn on the web has been so massive and uncontrolled, with a flood of free amateur sites based on the You Tube model, that the financial, um, bottom, has fallen out of the professional porn industry. The good news here is that purveyors of pornography no longer have a licence to print money. It is highly doubtful that the industry will ever again experience the kind of profitability it knew the late 20th century. The bad news is that there’s more of it around than ever before and it has become all but impossible to keep it out of the viewing range of younger and younger viewers.
We’ve now reached the point that, with the sole exception of child pornography, mainstream Canadian society no longer regards the consumption of deliberately arousing imagery as a bad thing. After more than a generation of force-fed, watered-down Freudianism, most of us have been persuaded that the only really bad thing in life is to ever repress our lustful longings. Granted, the materials designed to stoke such appetites tend to be droolingly stupid and immature at best; nasty and vulgar at worst. And like any other form of addiction, porn inevitably requires ever stronger stimulation to work the same hydraulic magic once a user has become immured to the softer stuff. But hey, who are we to pronounce on what’s unacceptable in the victimless arena of sexual fantasy? It’s none of our business. Whatever turns you on, right?
The low key public reaction to the Commodore Lehre affair a few years ago was most dismally instructive in showing just how mainstreamed the consumption of pornography had become in Canada. Eric Lehre, you may recall, was the forthright operational commander of the Canadian Forces’ Pacific Fleet who made headlines in June of 2001 when he was charged with conduct prejudicial to the good order of service discipline, for viewing Internet pornography on a government-owned laptop. Lehre was relieved of his command, pending resolution of the case.
Lehre viewed the porn quite legally on his own free time and accessed it via his own personal service provider. His only actual crime was to view the porn on a computer which was the property of the Canadian Forces.
The most shocking part of this story as far as the public was concerned, was that Lehre’s infraction wasn’t suspected or readily detectable by anybody else. His crime would never have come to light if the Commodore himself hadn’t voluntarily admitted to it in a bid to avoid acting as judge at the hearing of a sailor who had been charged with the very same crime. To his immense credit, Lehre said he would’ve felt like a hypocrite, sitting in judgement over some poor underling for a crime he himself had committed and never been charged with. Much to the humiliation of Lehre and his family, military investigators then had no choice but to submit Lehre to the same disciplinary actions as his subordinate.
A women’s shelter worker interviewed on CBC TV at the time of the scandal, said Lehre got exactly what he deserved, that pornography viewing objectifies women and would render the Commodore incapable of fair and equal treatment of female subordinates. A little sweeping, perhaps, but I thought she was closer to the truth than all the other commentators I heard and read who – without exception – took a far more lenient approach, denying that there was any problem here at all. In their soothing, laissez faire chorus, one unmistakably heard the throat-clearing, shoulder-shrugging tone of personal implication; an uneasy and unspoken admission that, “Sheesh, that so easily could’ve been me.”
“Surfing racy Web sites has become the online of equivalent of jaywalking,” editorialized the most morally conservative of Canadian newspapers, The National Post. “Sex is on every man’s mind and it is not surprising to see it occasionally pop up on his computer screen,” they merrily continued, wrapping things up with an alliteratively elegant variation on the old saw that boys will be boys: “Looking at pictures of naked women when off duty is more male than malfeasant.”
The whole affair quietly wrapped up two months later with Commodore Lehre paying a small fine and being reinstated as commander of the Pacific Fleet. If any similar incidents have come to light since involving sailors and government-owned laptops, I expect the naval authorities learned their lesson and now just look the other way and whistle.
More recently here in London the Christian men’s group, The Promise Keepers, held a convention drawing about 1,000 men where all the participants publicly condemned and personally renounced the evil of pornography. Their initiative was no sooner announced than it was quickly criticized on two different fronts.
Megan Walker, executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre, dismissed the convention out of hand and said these men don’t even understand why the problem of pornography exists. “You can’t end pornography through prayer,” she told The London Free Press. “You end pornography ultimately through achieving equality for women.”
Tim Kelly, executive director of Changing Ways (a men’s group that seeks to eradicate male violence against women), told the paper that he’d like to see a broader debate on pornography than anything the Promise Keepers had planned and a few months later Changing Ways hosted a debate on the stage of the Wolf Performance Hall, inviting your faithful scribe and three well known London feminists – Barb MacQuarrie of the Centre for Research Against Women and Children, Shelly Yeo of Women’s Community House, and Dr. Joan Mason-Grant, a professor of women’s studies at UWO – to debate the question: “Why are men conspicuous in their absence when it comes to speaking out against pornography?”
The evening was full of surprises. When I called around to a few Promise Keepers earlier in the day to make sure they’d be on hand to voice their opinions during the public forum portion of the evening, I was appalled to learn that no one in their group had been invited to take part in this supposedly broadened debate. I’d always thought you broadened a debate by inviting others to join in, not by ignoring the first people to raise an issue and then rustling up a whole different raft of speakers instead.
Thankfully, there was a comical explanation. All invitations had been e-mailed and when the filtering systems on the Promise Keepers’ computers saw the ‘P’ word in the subject title, “A Forum on Pornography,” those invitations were automatically discarded. Considering they only had four hours’ notice and attendance meant missing three different series-final hockey games (though one multi-tasking gent discreetly packed a transistor radio with an earphone), the Promise Keepers made a pretty good showing, constituting about a quarter of our audience.
The other big surprise – in light of the question we’d all been set to debate - was that the lone man, moi, was the only panellist who unambiguously spoke out against pornography. While my co-panellists certainly condemned violent or misogynistic forms of pornography, none of them rejected in principle the idea of viewing or reading material solely designed to arouse sexual feelings.
So, why are men conspicuous in their absence when it comes to speaking out against pornography?
Well, if you’re a man named Commodore Lehre, it’s because we as a society will tell you in unmistakable terms, “Tut, tut, my good man, there’s no problem with pornography worth speaking out about. Just keep quiet about it, for goodness’ sake.” And if you’re a Christian man our spokespeople of feminist grievance will tell you, “Come off it with all this prayer crap. Just because your heart has been changed by one of the most profoundly transformative powers in the world that still doesn’t mean that you know what you’re talking about. We need to have a broader debate so instead of sitting around listening to some repentant Christer take the anti-porn pledge, we’re going to stack three quarters of our panel with people who really know what makes men tick – professional feminists. And they’re going to be the ones who refuse to speak out against porn while the only man on the panel conspicuously does.”
From Herman Goodden's essay collection No Continuing City, 2010