Monday, June 15, 2009

Rachel Wells, Clive Hamilton, Time magazine's worst covers and yet another moral panic


"Prurient" is one of those words I love.

It feels like a portmanteau word, packing in prudish and luxuriant and deviant and penitent. Coming from the Latin for itch or to yearn for, it has now settled into a kind of sullied, soiled unwholesomeness:

Inordinately interested in matters of sex; lascivious.
Characterized by an inordinate interest in sex: prurient thoughts.
Arousing or appealing to an inordinate interest in sex: prurient literature.

These days prurience is the staple of low rent tabloid newspapers, but it's always been thus. There's nothing like a staple diet of salacious content - balanced by hysteria about the sinister effects of salacious content - to keep the turnstiles clicking. Guilt and repression are as good a coinage as when god invented women and a tasty apple as a metaphor for male panic, fear and loathing.

Which is why it's worth dropping in on The Top 10 Most Absurd Time Covers of The Past 40 Years. It was no doubt a tough job - Time itself is absurd, a kind of Reader's Digest of news for those who like pre-digested pap - and I'm sure there are any number of worthy contenders that didn't make the cut, but what Jeff Winkler and Radley Balko have selected is an amusing explanation of why I wouldn't cross the street to buy Time. Come to think of it when we picked up a free subscription, I almost felt like ringing to demand they stop sending it, but then the cost and effort of the phone call weighed on my mind.

Winkler and Balko include in their top ten a cover (above) about porn which could have got an outing in the fifties or the sixties but which got a run on April 5, 1976. They follow the cover with this commentary:

Why So Worried? Porn, Time says, is sweeping the country, leaving our deflowered Puritan sensibilities in its wake. "The First Amendment may safeguard the rights of pornographers and their audience," the magazine posits, "but surely the majority of Americans who find porn objectionable have rights as well. Must they and their children be under constant assault by the hucksters of porn?"

Cue Ominous Music: The article quotes U.C.L.A. psychiatrist Robert J. Stoller, author of Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred, who warns that porn "'disperses rage' that might tear society apart, but also threatens society by serving as propaganda for the unleashing of sexual hostility."

Oh, Just Settle Down: Time was right about the increase in production and availability of pornography in the 1970s, it was just wrong about the effects. Two years after this cover appeared, the number of reported rapes in the U.S. began a 30-year free-fall, a period over which pornography became increasingly easier to obtain. Today, porn is more abundant and ubiquitous than ever, while incidence of rape in the U.S. is at its lowest rate since the government started keeping statistics.

And they throw in a bonus graph (below) which looks at the drop in rapes in the United States, at a time when pornography now infests the intertubes like a plague of locusts looking for a way to turn Egypt into a desert.

Now I can hear all the usual explanations. The lack of reporting of sex crimes, the ambivalence and simplification of the data and yadda yadda, and the lack of direct links or causal explanations in the the bald faced graph, as a way of maintaining the rage, as well as the joy of prurient fascination for matters sexual. 

But enough of that. Let's get on to the latest angle on pornographic hysteria. And as usual it features our old mate Clive Hamilton, all purpose loon and intertubes wannabe censor, and his latest discovery of pornographers under the bed. 

First here's the shots featured in Rachel Wells' Sun Herald story, about retailer American Apparel and its founder Dov Charney, apparently deemed as suitable enough by the Herald to place on the intertubes within ready access of the six billion plus people around the world, or at least those able to access an intertubes cafe in the quest to satiate their lust for images of ripe young womanhood:

Disappointed? No doubt. Perhaps instead of clicking on Retailer accused of using pornographic images, you should have gone over to the Daily Terror's story on celebrities who have gone nude (complete with 31 pictures in a gallery), amongst which you would have found this picture of Katie Holmes, squeeze to scientologist Tom Cruise:

Physician heal thyself. That's right, time to introduce internet censorship of muck raking newspapers trading off on harmless images dressed up as pornography? Come on down Senator Conroy, the world is in need of prurience.

And just why does Katie have her hand between her legs, just like the awful retail images above her? Oh never mind, let's listen to the interminable twaddle from that latter day puritan Clive Hamilton, with his professorship of public ethics always offered up as part of the package:

Clive Hamilton, the professor of public ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, and former chief of the Australia Institute, which issued the 2006 report, Corporate Pedophilia, on the use of images of children in advertising, is also concerned about the impact the images could have on children.

"Clearly they are using pornographic-style images, pornographic-style poses in order to promote the product, and what it does is it normalises the pornographic genre," he said.

"On this website there is also a section for children's clothes, which means kids who go to have a look at the website for clothes for themselves are just one click away from adult women posing in ways that are unquestionably sexually provocative."

Yep, Helen Lovejoy, won't someone think of the children, especially if they take a look at Australian newspapers. 

Gee, it all sounds terribly serious. Alarming even. I'll bet the relevant authorities have been flooded with complaints:

The Advertising Standards Bureau's chief executive officer, Fiona Jolly, was unavailable for comment but The Sun-Herald understands that it has not received any complaints about the imagery.

Oh okay, then employees hate the whole business:

Ms George also raised concerns that young American Apparel staff might feel "pressured" to appear in the company's provocative advertising campaigns.

However, a spokeswoman for American Apparel said it only used staff who "applied" to take part. "We very often photograph employees to appear in ads and catalogues, on our website and in-store art," said the spokeswoman. "Employees and fans of the company apply to model for us on a daily basis, we also sometimes scout them on our own. Photo shoots are often done with members of our creative team or other employees, like in Liz's case."

Oh okay, beating them away like flies from jam. Well then surely there's another basis to establish guilt and hysteria:

Since launching the label in 1997, Mr Charney has been the subject of four sexual harassment lawsuits brought by former employees. None have been proven in court.

So here's the thing. I have no time for Dov Charney - you can read a lot more about him at his Wikipedia entry here - and in particular I have no love his brand of selling or his company management techniques, and I never shop at American Apparel, but then I never shop at Victoria's Secret either - partly because the catalogue always seems to disappear before I can see it.

But the kind of nonsense indulged in by Rachel Wells' story smacks uncomfortably of the moral police beloved of Islamic fundamentalists, patrolling the streets to check that women are in the right kind of repressive dress. The lascivious, lip smacking, prurient buzz in the writing is palpable:

The Australian website also features images of a semi-naked young woman it says is "Liz, an American Apparel Melbourne retail employee". In one shot, the former Melbourne retail assistant is pictured topless, in a short skirt, her long hair covering just one breast. In another, she is lying provocatively in a leotard, on an unmade bed.

In a leotard. On an unmade bed! Not only is she salacious, she's untidy. Thunderclaps rend the air, the end of the world is nigh.

What else? Well, wheel out Katrina George, spokeswoman for Women's Forum Australia, and Clive Hamilton as usual and another hard story on decadence, with a nice touch of prurience, hits the tubes. 

Which is why I don't buy The Sun-Herald, along with the permanent ban on Dov Charney stores ...

(Below: the graph referred to above)


Susie said...

I get your point that you're trying to balance out any alarmism regarding pornography and advertising, but the subject deserves a lot more thinking than you've given it. It's easy to dismiss concerns over advertising campaigns like American Apparel's as just moral panic, but if you're serious about making a case against the links between pornography, soft pornographic advertising, and sexual violence against women, your points need to be a lot stronger and more serious than the ones that come across as flippant and simplistic. The ads are certainly on a continuum of the media's growing content of sexualised images, but you know as well as I do that the question is never, 'is this picture good or bad', but what do we think of the consequences of the the fact that these images push the wider trend of sexualising really young, and in some cases barely pubescent, girls? To say that there is zero effect is just to deny that there are consequences to the media or any other mass activity. Which is perhaps your underlying point, but again, that's so black and white, and not very interesting. Also, should the fact that there have been no complaints signify that there's no issue? Surely you don't use that reasoning with other matters you're concerned about: nobody's said anything, so it must be fine. Isn't your 'counterpoint' all about rectifying 'lazy' majority thinking? The debate is really interesting, and I like that you're trying to challenge knee-jerk reactions against sexualised images, but it's frustrating that you didn't give it a bit more subtlety, and also show some respect for the issue.

dorothy parker said...

Sorry, I grew up reading The Golden Ass and Suetonius, and I don't have much time for the moral panic surrounding a barely 14 year old Juliet for that matter. I never said that there were zero effects in any sexualized image - that would be a delusion of the first water - just as to think that the media is a zero effect machine means advertisers waste billions a year.

Of course there are effects - that's the point of a sexualized image - but when you talk about a growing continuum, you clearly know little about Victorian pornography or the prevalence of child prostitution in the nineteenth century.

And really I don't care that much about rectifying lazy majority thinking, what I care to oppose is the moral humbuggery and delusional certainty of prurient puritans, whether from the Islamic or Christian schools of thought. At that point, I'll go with a Bill Maher simplistic flippancy over subtle and nuanced reflections on sexualized imagery. Images which have always been with us, though I'm regularly startled by people who fail to see the sexual violence in a painting by say Bosch in The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Sad to say, the puritan libertine divide is binary, simplistic and eternal, and for every Song of Solomon there's a chapter by Paul. Moral panics are the stock in trade of the charlatan - perhaps you caught the Four Corners on Nigerian fundamentalists labeling kids as possessed by witchcraft, charging a fortune to cleanse them, and killing or exiling them - and moral panics about pornography and youthful sexuality are like tasty Mars bars for fundamentalists.

Of course society will impose checks and balances, but perhaps you missed the prurient tone of the original article and the way the 'dangerous images'. - when put up against cheerleader attire, or ballet dancer attire, or America's JonBenet Ramsey fantasy - turn out to be remarkably modest.

If you want to see female sexuality for young girls in full flight, have a look at Japan's schoolgirl syndrome and check out this report