Nineteen Eighty-Four is scarily prescient about porn's impact on society
Recently there has been a flurry of comment about pornography, all of it taking roughly the same point of view, which is quite remarkable, considering the usually irremediable plurality of opinion on more or less everything in our society. But here they all are, people as diverse as our own Francis Phillips and the Labour MP Diane Abbott, along with Allison Pearson at the Telegraph. They are all making the same point: pornography is morally corrosive, a bad thing, and an especially bad thing for girls, who have to live with its effects on boys.
That this is a serious problem, no one should doubt. Of course, there has always been porn. There was even porn of sorts in ancient Greece and Rome. However, today’s situation is different. Porn is now everywhere, and readily available at the touch of a computer keyboard. You do not, as in the past, have to pay for it. And by a process of osmosis, porn seeps out of its own sphere and into the mainstream. People like Jeff Koons and Ilona Staller are the harbingers of things to come. It is not hysterical to talk of a pornified society.
This brings me to the real point I want to make, which concerns the prescience of George Orwell and his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. You may remember that the Ministry of Truth, which is charged with pumping out lies, has novel-writing machines to turn out the equivalent of penny dreadfuls for the masses, as well as “Pornosec”, the pornography section, which produces porn for the proletariat (“the proles”). Pornosec is overseen by party members who are enrolled in the Junior Anti-Sex League.
Orwell has a point here. The first is that pornography is a sort of opium for the masses. It keeps them politically quiet. Winston Smith’s hope that the proles will one day rise against the tyranny of the Party is a vain one, because the proles are not interested in politics, but are stupefied by a diet of porn and bad fiction. Porn in short saps your strength, and turns you into what we would nowadays call a couch potato. (Orwell did not live to see the modern television age: if he had, can you imagine what he would have made of it?)
The second point is the concept of the Junior Anti-Sex League. The Party opposes sexual relations, encouraging its keenest adherents to forgo relationships and instead have children via artificial insemination (“artsem”); this is because a sexual relationship happens in the private sphere away from the prying eyes of the Party, and is something the Party cannot easily control. To be a member of the League and to work in Pornosec is not contradictory. People who denigrate the value of sexual relations will be at home with porn production. Because porn in the end is not about relationships at all. Indeed, porn signifies the end of all relationships and their replacement with something quite different, namely masturbation. That is what we mean by the commodification of sex that porn brings about: this is the product at which this whole vast industry is aimed.
Porn is, of course, morally wrong; but it is philosophically wrong too: it represents a perversion of reality, and that is extremely serious. To enter the world of porn is to go through a particular type of looking-glass, to be in a world where nothing is in fact as it is. Because we are in the world, we all need to embrace reality – porn represents an attempt to seduce us into an anti-reality.
The chief aspect of porn that contradicts reality is the way it exposes the private to public view, in the process perverting it. It creates what some writers have called “Pornotopia”. But the world is not like that. In reality, sex acts are private and not spoken about because they are in a true sense incommunicable. The feelings that may be shared and communicated by a couple cannot be shared by anyone else. To drag sex into the open is to destroy its meaning. Sexual relations are not a performance, and porn stars are not lovers. Porn represents not a caricature of love and sex, but a destruction of its meaning. And if we destroy the meaning of sex and love, then we damage our humanity and we damage our society.
George Orwell would, I think, be amazed by us. We are rushing into the sort of slavery that we should most want to avoid. We are proving one of the slogan’s of Big Brother’s English Socialism (“Ingsoc“): Freedom is Slavery.