The historical formation of taste means that generic conventions constrain the production and consumption of sexual representations in ways that cannot quickly be undone. Nevertheless, I would argue that we do need to recognize, and challenge, the limitations in what is currently legitimate for circulating on television. ‘Soft core’ restrictions such as the exclusion of erect penises or ‘real’ intercourse are actually doing women a great disservice by limiting the focus to the display of women’s bodies. This works to perpetuate a construction of female sexuality that exists only to the extent that she arouses the passions of the male viewer (or lesbian viewers reading against the grain). Soft core also works to limit the availability of erotic entertainment for marginal sexualities that fall outside the heterosexual norm. The day has yet to come when cable television carries gay male pornography (as far as I am aware). The vanguard has its uses in this respect. As McNair and Kertz have pointed out, the mainstream raids the margins for new forms that often connect to emerging social forces and identities. It is in this way that an aesthetics of transgression can have a wider influence.
But these new social forces are not inevitably benign or ‘progressive’ in the sense understood by the campaigns for sexual citizenship mounted by the democratic new social movements of the post-war era. It is important, therefore, not to represent access to pornography as an inevitable progress towards ‘liberation’. The risks as well as the pleasures of sexual relations still apply. The widespread mediation of sexuality via visual forms of pornography will have social effects, contributing to the techniques of the self that regulate our sexual practices. While these may not be as straightforward as the copycat theses of the discredited ‘effects’ tradition, that doesn’t absolve us from thinking through what they may be. In an increasingly ‘liquid modernity’ the future pattern of sexual relations is uncertain but seemingly oriented towards greater transience and individuality (Bauman 2003). At the same time, projections of the potential for virtual sex made possible by the interactive television of the future are imbued with male fantasies of control over women’s bodies (Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation, Channel 4 1999). Can cyber-technologies linked in with television enhance the democracy of desire and pleasure? If machine-sex replaces people-sex what happens to intimacy?
Bourdieu, P. (1994) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge (originally published 1984).
Juffer, J. (1998) At Home with Pornography: Women, Sex and Everyday Life. New York: New York University Press.
McNair, B. (2002) Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratisation of Desire. London: Routledge.
Segal, L. and Mackintosh, M. (eds) (1992) Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate. London: Virago.
Williams, L. (1990) Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible’. London: Pandora.