These Tumescent Times
"Give me chastity and continence, but not just yet." - St. Augustine.
I'm at the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre for The Everything to Do About Sex Show, an annual sales celebration of tab A into slot B. You could also describe the scene as HottieLand. Most of those in attendance, including the salesunits in the booths, are buffed, bronzed, aerobicized, inflated, molded or otherwise modified into Aryan ideals of beauty. (Well, not quite everyone. Over at one stage, a heavy-set dominatrix busts a half-hearted move to a techno beat, while parading around a scrawny leatherboy on a leash.)
I don't see too many smiling faces among the browsers; there appears to be a certain grim determination in the buying and selling of pleasure here. The pneumatic consumers inspecting the lotions, lubricants, videos, vibrators, sex tour brochures, balms, beads, bondage gear and buttplugs might as well be Puritans down at the general store, examining the latest thing in stockades and horsewhips.
It's been a long, strange journey for lust, from the catacombs of the early Christian era to the convention centres of the cosmopolitan present.
From the standpoint of the early church, there were compelling reasons to include lust among the seven deadly sins. Clearly, such thoughts and feelings took one's mind off Higher Things. And not incidentally, policing human behaviour through guilt and repression turned out to be a powerful means to herd the sheeple. In the place of lust and the pursuit of its quarry, the faithful were promised an afterlife in Heaven - the ultimate cosmic carrot (the stick being Hell). Not that lust among the laity was entirely a bad thing from the clergy's point of view. The sins of the flesh always kept 'em coming back for more confession.
The demonization of lust has arguably taken a huge toll in human happiness - though this has to be qualified by the possibility that repression was one of the principal drivers behind technical progress in the West. Centuries of policing eros may well have redirected its energies into commerce, the arts, and sciences. Sexual shame certainly never held back the erections on Cape Canaveral and the New York skyline. But times change. Lust has been subject to the same cultural currents that have effected gluttony, sloth, greed and the other so-called deadly sins. All have been spun into desires promoted and valorized by the consumer market. They are profitable states of mind - for the system, if not the individual - and when it comes to lust, the lucre is positively filthy.
In the USA, the adult porn business is estimated to total between $10 to $14 billion annually. And that includes the Internet and video rentals, porn networks, pay-per-view movies on cable and satellite, in-room hotel movies, phone sex, sex toys and magazines. This isn't just some frill in the US economy. Frank Rich, a reporter with The New York Times, puts it succinctly: "Pornography is a bigger business than professional football, basketball and baseball put together." People pay more money for pornography in the US in a year than they do on movie tickets, more than they do on all the performing arts combined.
And adult porn, in fits and starts, with advances and occasional retreats, is going mainstream. In 200I, Bell ExpressVu, the Canadian direct-to-home satellite TV service, shut down two of its adult film channels, True Blue and Extasy. The decision to pull the plug came as a preemptive strike against possible federal regulatory investigations, following a broadcast on CBC's Fifth Estate on the content of the cable companies' porn shows.
These weren't shows with your average plumber-meets-housewife plotline. Bell ExpressVu was offering rape and bondage scenes as standard fare. Somehow this material escaped the attention of the CRTC, which perhaps was too busy policing Howard Stern's use of the "F" word. Or perhaps the regulators looked the other way because of the size of the players in the Canadian porn game. The conglomerate BCE Inc. owns Bell Canada, the CTV television network and The Globe and Mail - and Bell ExpressVu. The latter's porn fare originated from US-based New Frontier Media, North America's leader in the distribution of hardcore pornography. The company trades on Nasdaq.
The Fifth Estate report indicated other corporate behemoths, such as General Motors, AT&T, and Time Warner, that have been "seduced"in the past by trafficking in hardcore porn through their subsidiaries.
So what's the problem? Joe or Jane Average can vote with a remote or a mouse. No one is forced to watch any of this stuff. The argument is convincing on the face of it, but it leaves out one important variable. Children.
This leads us, naturally enough, to the topic of Britney Spears, and a performance several years back in Vancouver. The bubblegum diva is on-stage. She's doffed her duds for a bra-and-miniskirt pole dance, after which hundreds of gallons of water rain down on her from the overhead rigging. She commences to shower on-stage, and launches into her big hit, Baby One More Time. "At the end of the song," writes a reviewer from the entertainment weekly The Georgia Straight, "four inflatable condom things flanking the stage slowly become erect...(with)... a couple of cannons firing arena-filling geysers into the air."
It all sounds like mindless fun, with the cannon-spunk counterpointing the teen queen's supposed celebrity-virginity of the time. But considering the lip-synching singer had a target audience largely comprised of prepubescent girls, with thousands of them present in the audience, you might wonder exactly what messages are being sent in such performances and why.
In the past 20 years, the demographic for sex-related consumer markets has expanded, subsuming the elementary school years. In fact, lust has gone so mainstream that many of us accept this sort of thing - a Gap ad with overtly erotic content, for example - as our culture's background noise. The megacorporations are as ready to push sexual imagery on kids as they are to offer stronger fare for an adult audience. This is different, and is some ways more troubling, than the straightforward problem of Internet porn - it's the market-endorsed sexualization of the very young.
"Sex sells tween fashion," announces a recent story in The Vancouver Sun, describing how thong underwear and Playboy Bunny logos are part of a new fashion trend aimed at young girls. Marketers pitch fashion brands with names like Porn Star, Hot Buns, and TNA. According to reporter Kerry Gold, "at a West Vancouver elementary school, it's cool for a girl to show her black bra strap underneath her tank or tube top."
For more than a decade, MuchMusic and MTV have portrayed girls in heels and bikinis, bumping and grinding in accompaniment to the bass-heavy strut of cock-rock and hip-hop. For young girls, is this the payoff of decades of feminism, buying into the semiotics of the strip bar and the back alley? By the time the Spice Girls came around to grab the tween female market share, pre-pubescent girls were insisting on makeup and nail polish. "In 1998, the year the Spice Girls were at their peak, tweens spent $1.4 billion per year," according to Gold. "In 2002, the figure had gone up to $1.7 billion per year."
(When my sister went shopping for her daughter at a high-end boutique specializing in fashions for 8-12 year olds, she was dismayed to discover padded bras in the store. She indicated to the staff this was inappropriate for children, and the what's-your-problem-lady response from a clerk speaks volumes: "well, the kids seem to like them!")
Marketers have found an Eldorado in barely formed libidos, and not incidentally, studies indicate kids are having sex at younger ages, and music, television and fashion are implicated in the trend.
In his book The Disappearance of Childhood, sociologist Neil Postman points out that the free and easy commodification of desire - not just in advertising. but in cable programming and prime time shows - erases an important distinction between the universe of the child and the adult:
"One might say that the main difference between an adult and a child is that the adult knows about certain facets of life - its mysteries, its contradictions, its violence, its tragedies - that are not considered for children to know. As children move toward adulthood, we reveal these secrets to them in ways we believe they are prepared to manage. That is why there is such a thing as children's literature." Postman writes that television, with its round-the-clock programming, makes this arrangement impossible. "Television requires a constant supply of novel and interesting information to hold its audience," he adds.
"This means that all adult secrets - social, sexual, physical and the like - are revealed. Television forces the entire culture to come out of the closet, taps every existing taboo. Incest, divorce, promiscuity, corruption, adultery, sadism - each is now merely a theme for one or another television show. And, of course, in the process, each loses its role as an exclusively adult secret."
Before his death last year, Postman told me that of all his books, he believes his 1982 study has held up the best. He's right: the thesis of this work has greater relevance now than when it was first published. Given the cultural trajectory since its publication, what does this bode for the future? "You won't believe how bad television is going to be in 10 years," said poet Robert Bly in an interview with writer Michael Ventura. "You're literally going to have to protect your children from it."
Given the cultural Chernobyl we seem to be up against, we might wonder how much we have gained over the repressive climate of earlier generations. Long before there was a global media to both connect and divide us all, the early Christians believed no soul existed in isolation: there was some connection to a divine ground of being. Yes, the flesh was a source of shame, but such cultural conditioning emerged partly because the body was - even more then than now - the vector for communicable illnesses and unwanted births. And in spite of the perverse view the church took of lust over the centuries, with all the campfire tales of hairy palms and soul-sapping succubi, there may be things more damaging to the self and society than the belief in a pathologically uptight father figure in the heavens. Today's sexual freedom may seem infinitely preferable to the psychological self-abuse of religious-based repression. But are we willing to pay for this freedom in the currency of childhood?
The imagery of mass desire for bodies, shoes, cars, homes and lifestyles, comes with a poison pill. It is the toxin of isolation-through-desire; we are little more than the sum of our wants and needs, we are told, which can only be satisfied through participating in the market. The ideal consumer is the one alone in the dark in front of a movie screen, television or computer monitor - watching, paying, ordering - and suspended in a purgatory of market-driven desire.
The central dogma of the unregulated, free market is as false as silicone breasts, though its specifics are rarely expressed outright. It is the idea that a hole inside one's soul can be sutured through a financial transaction, and that the only rituals left of any importance involve buying or selling. Most adults have intellectual and emotional barriers to this bright and shining lie. But a child has none.
So where does that leave us? In a position of greater responsibility, which many parents now recognize. The number of homes without televisions is growing, as families learn that having the one-eyed glowing box as babysitter is less a welcome distraction than a devil's deal. Marketers may up the ante in an attempt to grab mindshare, but I suspect the response will be somewhere between voting with the remote and a Keith Moon-style window-tossing of the tube. Protecting children from other areas of the market, including trends among their own peers, may prove to be a more difficult task.
Meanwhile, back at the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, the scene has a certain Dante's Inferno feel to it. My friends are in agreement; its time to go. With some brochures in hand, we stumble back out into the cool night air, feeling vaguely creeped out by the adult vision of sexual liberation. Perhaps it was the joyless looks among the buffed and bronzed that did it. Wasn't the brave new world of guilt-free eroticism supposed to be more fun than this? Does the glum slumming among dildos hint at the logical absurdity of marketing lust, with sexual ecstasy reduced to exchange relations between human widgets?