What Do We Even Mean When We Talk About Porn Today?
Thinking about Camille Paglia, ahegao and the limits of our current ability to discuss our sexual culture
Hello and welcome to Many Such Cases.
I am deep in the midst of a late summer creative stasis. I have been working — a lot, actually — and some of the fruits of that work will be published soon. I turned 27 a month ago. I am also in the midst of writing a book proposal. It centers on the concept of our current cultural libidinal rut, tracing how the Internet, sex positivity and reactionary shame have brought us to a present era that feels zapped of sexual energy. I think about this proposal constantly, and have accomplished very little.
In an attempt to, I don’t know, have new ideas and be better versed in this discourse, I’ve been reading a good deal of Camille Paglia (sorry). Somehow, I’d never read her before this year. Anyone else who has read Paglia can probably guess that I now see her work as completely foundational to my own. All of my thinking has since been in conversation with hers.
In her introduction to her essay collection Sex, Art and American Culture, she lays out her philosophy of sexual politics. Writing in the early 90s, she felt what her time was lacking was a feminism that emphasized personal responsibility, in contrast to the hysterical anti-porn, anti-sex feminism of writers like Andrea Dworkin. This emphasis on personal responsibility further ought to be emboldened with the global consciousness and progressivism associated with the Sixties. These are her words, not mine. “We need a fusion of idealism and realism,” she wrote, something that combines these elements of the Sixties with the “hard political lessons of the Seventies and Eighties, sobering decades of rational reaction against the arrogant excesses of my generation.”
She is calling, in other words, for a healthy synthesis between a free love type of ideology and rigid, prudish sexual moralism, with priority given to the privacy and liberty of the self. My own sexual political philosophy is similar: our contemporary culture is defined by the stalemate between unchecked sex positivity and reactionary puritanism. Like Paglia, I don’t see this divide, or my imaginations of a solution, as inherently liberal or conservative. There is no “side” that is “winning” the sexual culture war entirely.
What is both fun and devastating about reading early Paglia is that it is pre-mainstream Internet. She was writing in a time when porn was exclusively consumed through magazines, VHS tapes, adult theaters and cable pay-per-view. Debates about what that level of access to porn does to the individual and society writ large are laughable in comparison to the essentially unrestricted, endless catalogue of content everyone is capable of viewing at any moment. Surely that yields a different effect, one worthy of critiquing. But nobody could have entirely predicted this, nor could they have predicted what social media would do to our shared sense of culture and sexuality, either. What exactly does personal responsibility mean in a time where the personal is so public?
Yet it seems as though we’re still stuck in the same discourse of the feminist sex wars of the late 20th century, despite how radically our conditions have changed. One salient example of this from the last week is a clip from the torturous Whatever podcast, a livestream YouTube show designed to make you hate women. In a recently viral clip that nobody liked, an OnlyFans model (named FitnessnNala) wearing blue fox ears and TikTok makeup describes herself as “the ahegao queen,” referring to a Japanese pornographic facial expression wherein a woman is so enraptured by pleasure that her mouth hangs open, tongue out, eyes crossed, cheeks flushed. This model performs the face for the camera, along with a series of other jilted, NPC-like gestures and phrases. She describes herself as dominant, says that she’s “Daddy,” that she loves cheating, whatever. The clip is edited to be as jarring as possible, a compilation of this woman’s most salacious moments. Even if it wasn’t, the whole thing is obviously an act: she behaves this way because it works. It makes her money.