The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Porn Tuesday: Fucking It Up

At this point, I want to take a minute to examine the way people were living, and how that affected their attitudes to sex. Again, the same caveats as the last column: these are very broad brush strokes, things happen gradually and are always more complicated than a brief run-down can accommodate.

So, in medieval times, people live much more communally than now, and this includes sleeping. Everyone sleeps together in the hall. Even if the lord and lady of the manor have a separate room – a solar – they will share it with their servants and children. There is no concept that you have a room that you go to to sleep – or have sex – in private.

In the Renaissance, the bedroom becomes something of an audience chamber for your closest friends and advisors – rather like your room in a student flat, you take your friends in there to talk. Bathing and dressing would happen with an audience.

By the Georgian period, this starts to change. Even for the middle classes, houses become big enough, and easy enough to heat, that children have their own rooms, and so do servants. The bedroom becomes a private place. By Victorian times, well-mannered married couples sleep alone, in adjacent rooms.

It’s important to note that this progress to privacy for sleeping – and for sex – lagged behind for the lower classes. So in that same Victorian period, the working class were still living in dismal two-room dwellings, and having sex in the same room where their children slept.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive enough to expect that bed has ever been the only place to have sex, but also if you’re working a twelve or sixteen hour day, bed may be the only chance you get.

Another strand of the weave. In 1805, William Wordsworth wrote a poem called Intimations of Immortality. In it, he explores the idea that children have purer souls: they’re more innocent and closer to God, and have a purity of vision that people lose as they grow older. At the time these ideas are actually pretty controversial, and he enters a spirited debate with Coleridge. By the mid-Victorian period, the sentimental idea of childhood innocence is pretty much standard. We still cling to it now, even those of us who’ve actually raised children. It is, however, fairly recent, and came out of an age when the children of the working class were being sent up chimneys and down mines.

So, now our children are sleeping apart from us for the most part, and we believe they have a special purity that is tainted by adult things.

At the same time, social and  technological advances – notably the printing press and universal schooling – were making visual and written art available on an unprecedented scale. Along came Fanny Hill, and non-political censorship.

The Americans were particularly keen on sexual censorship, as championed by Anthony Comstock. Comstock’s battle against pornography included his championing the banning of anatomy textbooks and birth control information. One noted distributor of “marriage manuals”, Ida Craddock, explicitly blamed Comstock in her suicide note. (Much as I hate to say so, in Comstock’s defence, it seems likely Craddock was not of entirely sound mind.)

Comstock’s aim was to protect those of “weaker mind”:

 the assumption always was that if you were well-educated, if you were upper class, you could consume erotica, you could consume pornography, with no ill effects. And there’s a sort of built-in prejudice against what we assume to be sort of uneducated minds, and this was the way Anthony Comstock sort of characterised the danger. He thought that the real problem was that what he called ‘immature minds’ might stumble across material like this. And of course he launched these campaigns to stamp it out. And what he meant by immature minds were the minds of children, the minds of immigrants, because they were always suspicious and to him they were always lower class. And women, who were thought to be weaker, so that they had to be protected.

So. No more porn on the walls. But it’s better, right? Our children are free to be children? Because the sight of consensual pleasurable sex is somehow deeply, inherently damaging to children. “Sexualising” children is bad. Sex is a deeply private thing – and that’s not at all because we regard it as shameful.

From Not in Front of the Children “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth:

 Intellectual protectionism frustrates rather than enhances young people’s mental agility and capacity to deal with the world. It inhibits straightforward discussion about sex. Indeed, like TV violence, censorship may also have “modeling effects,” teaching authoritarianism, intolerance for unpopular opinions, erotophobia, and sexual guilt. Censorship is an avoidance technique that addresses adult anxieties and satisfies symbolic concerns, but ultimately does nothing to resolve social problems or affirmatively help adolescents and children cope with their environments and impulses or navigate the dense and insistent media barrage that surrounds them.

Now, these days in New Zealand we censor for a few remaining reasons: drug use, violence and sex. Is it really completely outrageous to ask, what real demonstrable harm is done by depictions of sex? By encouraging a culture where we’re almost unable to speak about sex at all, where we censor it from relationships and put it in the “porn ghetto”, are we really doing our children more good than harm?

I’m actually asking that question, as a Big Fan of evidence-based policy-making. All I really want people to take from this is the idea that censorship is not a natural state, and that our “society” has not always been more repressive than it is now.

21 responses to “Porn Tuesday: Fucking It Up

  1. Bart Janssen June 21, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Without wishing to derail, the same applies to nudity. I know parents who do not allow children to see naked bodies of the opposite sex – at all.

    The human form, undressed, is something many cultures simply take for granted. But our current western culture perceives it as something that can and will offend.

    I’m not sure I know the origins but there really seems to be some weird point where our culture stepped away from normal, natural (animal?) functions of humanity and set them up as things to be hidden and things that are offensive.

    It’s tempting to suggest that it comes about as a result from a desire to see humans as something more than animals but how real that is I don’t know.

    • Curvaceous Dee June 21, 2011 at 2:13 pm

      I’m inclined to think that one of the reasons I am able to love my body in all its curvaceous glory is because I grew up in a skin-friendly home. I was able to see mum and dad and my brother and myself, at all ages, in all moods. Bodies walking down the hallway, asleep, in the bathtub, on the loo.

      Yes, it took away the mystery, but it added acceptance. And overall I am very glad of that.

      xx Dee

      • coleytangerina June 21, 2011 at 2:24 pm

        I couldn’t agree more Dee. And this similar experience for me morphed into encouraging Naked Cleaning Sundays in my student flats because I missed being freely naked so much!

        • Curvaceous Dee June 21, 2011 at 2:26 pm

          Plus cleaning in clothes is no fun at all – everything gets sweaty! Better by far to do it all in minimal/no clothes, then shower off after 🙂

          One thing that’s continued into my adult life is being naked often. Generally indoors at home. But given my exhibitionistic streak, outdoors when I can manage it as well…

      • tallulahspankhead June 21, 2011 at 2:26 pm

        I can pinpoint the exact moment I realized my body was a thing of shame. I was getting changed in my room, the curtains were open, and a neighbor was mowing the lawn. Suddenly, I desperately didn’t want him to see me. It is a long road back from being that 9 year old girl.

        • Jackie Clark June 22, 2011 at 7:49 am

          I wanted to acknowledge this, T and I’ve been thinking hard about what to say in reply. We learn our lessons well, and we learn them early. Your words break my heart, and anger me. I have always maintained that children (we) have a really healthy intuition and self esteem until the voices from around them – parents, siblings, teachers, friends – start chiming in. Children (we) start to lose faith in our own judgement, we believe what the voices tell us, we internalise the negative in those voices. And then we spend the rest of our lives trying to either drown the voices out, or get rid of them entirely, or replace those external voices with our own, and finally, restore us to ourselves. I wish all young girls the fortitude to keep the voices out for as long as possible, to have someone in their lives who says “Don’t listen to them, Listen to you.”

          • Psycho Milt June 22, 2011 at 10:51 am

            My kids had all the body modesty of a cat until we engaged a housekeeper to look after them who was a devout Christian (overseas – no prof childcare facilities). She certainly taught them to be ashamed of themselves, alright – probably thought she was helping them be good. That episode’s just one of a long list of reproaches I get to make myself about quality of parenting.

  2. Hugh June 21, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Good questions, Emma. A lot of people will say it’s “inappropriate” for children to see sex, but they are short on what the negative consequences are.

    I actually remember my cousin telling me that her then five year old daughter, after having sex explained to her, commented that she’d be interesting in seeing the bit where the penis goes in the vagina. I don’t think my cousin and her husband felt comfortable granting that request personally, but it was a perfectly natural bit of curiosity – just a “So how exactly does that work?” moment. Although I admit I did find it kind of funny in a puritanical, “kids say the darndest things” way.

  3. Tamara June 21, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    How does this tie in with religion, cause the Old Testament is pretty clear on the wrongness of nakedness between the sexes outside of marriage? I grew up in a european jewish family where nudity amongst people of the same sex was okay but not with the opposite sex (thereby avoiding all issues of heterosexual relations etc).

  4. muerknz June 21, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    What about the report from the Australian Psychological Society: Submission to the Inquiry into the sexualisation of children in contemporary media?

    http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/eca_ctte/sexualisation_of_children/submissions/sub115.pdf

    It outlines concerns they have about children seeing sexualised images.

    • Emma June 21, 2011 at 4:16 pm

      Casting a very quick eye over that (I’ll have a closer look tonight), it appears to have some of the problems mentioned here – for instance, no definition of either “sexualisation” or “child”.

      However. What I’m talking about is something almost impossible to judge now: what the effect would be of growing up in a culture where sex is just another part of life. So exposure to sexual images NOW comes with the baggage of being abnormal, dirty, secretive and stigmatised.

      Also. They appear to be talking a lot about music-video style “sexay”, which is not sex. Sex is not like that.

      • tallulahspankhead June 21, 2011 at 4:20 pm

        “Also. They appear to be talking a lot about music-video style “sexay”, which is not sex. Sex is not like that.”

        Really? Then, shit, I have been doing it wrong.

      • muerknz June 21, 2011 at 9:18 pm

        My youngest (6) told me a few months ago that a couple we know weren’t having sex. He said this quite out of the blue, but it transpired he was worried about them because they had been married for years and hadn’t had children.

        We are quite a cuddly couple, we’ll kiss and canoodle in front of the kids and we always have. We’re also a skin friendly family. I don’t mind the boys seeing nudes and I never have. There’s nothing shameful about the human body and we talk openly about sex when the boys ask questions.

        OTOH I do worry about media that portrays women as merely objects of male desire. I worry whenever any human person is shown as an object or commodity.

    • Jackie Clark June 22, 2011 at 7:52 am

      I’m with Emma on this one. (Sorry, Tallulah). That report has everything to do with “Sexay” and nothing to do with sex itself. Sexualised images are very much not the same as images of sex.

  5. muerknz June 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Milt:

    I’m a devout Christian and I’m happy for my kids to run around naked. Just so you know it’s not specifically a Christian thing.

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