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Madonna and child

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, September 8, 2005

Some years ago, I came by a fact about Madonna. I don’t know how it happened; I do everything I can to avoid learning about celebrities’ lives, but somehow the information keeps seeping in.

Madonna had let it be known that her daughter, Lourdes, was not allowed to watch television because Madonna believed it was a bad influence.

Perhaps, I remarked to a friend of mine, what Madonna was really worried about was that Lourdes might turn on MTV and happen across her mother’s “Erotica” video. That scream, I said, would be audible from space.

My friend demurred. He’s a physicist, so I initially assumed his complaint was that a scream cannot travel through the vacuum of space, but it turned out that what he objected to was my slur on Madonna’s parenting.

If Madonna’s raunchy videos would be disturbing to her daughter, my friend countered, it was not her fault, but the fault of our society for teaching her daughter that sex is something to be ashamed of. If only we could get over the puritanical idea that sex is dirty, if only we could get past our prissy Victorian taboos, then we would live in a less hypocritical and healthier culture.

This argument is made (or just as frequently assumed) in all kinds of debates, but these days it is most commonly encountered in discussions of pornography. I don’t think it’s a good argument, but it does seem to be an effective one (who wants to be a prissy Victorian?), and it has no doubt contributed to the increasing acceptance of pornography in our culture.

In the show “Friends” (a sitcom none more mainstream than which can be imagined), Chandler’s wife treats his predilection for internet pornography as a foible deserving of ridicule, rather than a vice deserving censure. It’s a familiar stance off screen as well as on; porn (notice how the abbreviation “porn” already makes pornography seem less serious, more familiar) is just one of those dumb things guys like, a bit embarrassing really, but hardly a moral issue.

Further signs that pornography has lost some of its stigma can be seen in higher education. Linda Williams, who teaches film studies at the University of California, Berkeley was described not so long ago in the Boston Globe as “a leading porn theorist,” which is one of those phrases that should set off alarm bells in the reader’s head.

Okay, so that’s Berkeley, which prides itself on being out of step with mainstream culture, but other universities are teaching pornography too. At Wesleyan University (Wesleyan!) Hope Weissman taught a course which required students to create their own pornographic works for their final project (“I don’t put any constraints on it,” she explained, “It’s supposed to be: ‘Just create your own work of pornography.'”). The University of Southern California invited Grace Quek, an “adult film actress” (all three words are accurate, but somehow none of them really gets to the heart of the matter), to create a “sex studies” major. Apparently, during one class Quek (who performs under a different name) had sex with two of her female friends in front of the students.

In Britain, the television networks are not permitted to show pornography, but they do everything they can to provide a close approximation of it, often in the form of late night “documentaries” about the adult film industry – as if what makes the films themselves dirty is the presence of a fictional narrative. Apparently we’re supposed to imagine that while a film showing people having sex counts as pornography, a film of those same people being filmed while having sex is cultural journalism.

These days even the feminists, traditionally opponents of pornography, are divided on the issue. Some still believe that pornography contributes to women’s oppression but are reluctant to denounce it for being seen as making common cause with the Religious Right. Others are keen to avoid the issue because they wish to avoid encouraging the stereotype that feminists are anti-sex. And then there are those have discovered that they actually rather enjoy pornography themselves and so declare that it can be empowering, a means through which women can take control of their own sexuality, and so on.

It is sometimes argued that we shouldn’t get worked up about pornography because it’s really nothing new, indeed it’s as old as civilization; the Greeks and the Romans were both fond of sexually explicit paintings and some of their poetry is pretty saucy.

Well, it’s notoriously difficult to define pornography, but wherever and however we draw the line there, it surely must be admitted that there is a major difference between the graphic frescoes found in Pompeii and the videos of real – albeit cartoonishly proportioned – people having sex that form the backbone of America’s pornography industry. And the fact that that industry has an annual turnover of somewhere in the region of $14 billion suggests that modern pornography is without precedent not just in its nature, but also in the scale of its consumption.

La Rochefoucauld said that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. So one easy way to do away with hypocrisy is to do away with the distinction between virtue and vice, but that would be a Pyrrhic victory, and a culture in which Lourdes could watch her mother cavorting around as a dominatrix might well be less hypocritical, but it certainly won’t be healthier.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department who had an English accent long before Madonna did. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.