The crusade against ‘fapping’ is eerily reminiscent of the anti-masturbation movements of the 19th century says Mark Simpson
(Originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph 29 April, 2016)
Those annoying porn ‘pop-ups’ are impossible to avoid these days. Especially when browsing serious newspapers. PORN HORROR! headlines zoom repeatedly into our sightlines, warning us that pornography is ‘addictive’ (despite an inconvenient lack of evidence), ‘ruins relationships’ and ‘rewires men’s brains’, turning them into sex zombie automatons.
Whether or not it’s addictive for people who watch it, porn certainly seems to light up the reward centres of the commentariat brain. Panics about porn are a habit that just keeps increasing alarmingly.
The UK Government itself is currently in the sweaty grip of this hysteria. With David Cameron’s controversial (and somewhat porous) ISP porn filters only recently installed, MPs are now turning their attention to the popularity of anal sex in online pornography. A recent consultation paper published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport pondered restricting access as a way of reducing the numbers of people wanting to try the back bottom instead of the front one.
“More young people are engaging in anal intercourse than ever before,” reads the paper, solemnly. “While the increase in anal sex cannot be attributed directly to pornography consumption, it does feature in a large percentage of mainstream pornography (for example, one content analysis found it featured in 56pc of sex scenes).”
The paper’s assumptions – as with all porn panics – appear to be entirely heterosexual: so much so that it doesn’t even bother to explicitly state them, even when talking about anal sex. Instead they just cite research which suggests that anal sex “is often not seen as a pleasurable activity for young women”.
In other words, the Government’s anxiety seems to be that straight porn is encouraging straight people to engage in ‘gay sex’.
It’s easy to forget, but just a couple of generations ago any sexual contact between two men, including of course anal sex – the sex act that male homosexuality symbolises for many – was completely illegal in the UK. It wasn’t until the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 that it became partially decriminalised in England and Wales (Scotland followed suit in 1980; Northern Ireland in 1982).
As late as 1986, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who also famously introduced the first anti ‘gay propaganda’ law, Section 28) demanded a mention of anal sex be deleted from a government Aids education leaflet.
Many at the time saw Aids as a divine punishment for the ‘sin of Sodom’. And the ‘deep-seated’ resistance to ‘sodomy’ is of course religious in origin. But it’s important to note that the religious and legal definition of ‘sodomy’ is not restricted to anal sex – it is essentially any non-procreative naughtiness, whatever the shape of the genitals involved.
Hence all same-sex sexual contact is sodomy – but so is hetero oral sex, for example. For monotheism, the point of sex is to make more uptight monotheists.
And here’s the rub. ‘Straight’ porn today is basically broadband sodomy – non-procreative sex acts piped into people’s hands for them to commit non-procreative sex acts over.
Current porn panics represent a digital-age, socially-concerned update of warnings about the terrible fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Nowhere is this clearer than in the US, where (thanks to the First Amendment) most of our porn, and also most of our panics about it, come from. America is a complicated, conflicted country founded by Puritans, constituted by libertarians and built by salesmen.
Despite a Supreme Court ruling in 2003 that anti-sodomy laws violate the constitutional right to privacy, several US states still have them on their statutes. One such state is Utah, which just announced porn to be a ‘public health emergency’ – five years after it was revealed to have the highest percentage of online porn subscribers in the US.
Indeed, one of the front runners for the Republican Presidential nomination race, Ted Cruz, tried in 2004 to defend a Texas law banning the sale and promotion of dildos and artificial vaginas on the basis that “there is no right to stimulate one’s genitals for non-medical purposes unrelated to procreation or outside of an interpersonal relationship”. He failed, but it just goes to show that the right to stimulate your own genitals isn’t to be taken for granted.
Nor is onanism necessarily a fundamentalist obsession. The mighty Time magazine recently devoted its front cover to a warning about a supposed emasculating epidemic as a result of of online masturbation: ‘Porn and The Threat to Virility,’ read the terrifying headline on the feature story.
America, we were warned, faced an epidemic of impotence amongst young men caused by porn and ‘fapping’, slang for masturbation, coined on Reddit’s comment boards. (The sensationalist ‘science’ of this story and many other porn panics, including ‘addiction’ and ‘misogyny’ moralising, was nicely diced and sliced by Joanne Bagshaw at Psychology Today.)
The crusade against ‘fapping’ is eerily reminiscent of the anti-masturbation movements of the 19th century, when male ‘self-abuse’ was widely-seen by respectable right-thinking people on both sides of the Atlantic – and also medical science – as a scourge that led to impotence, weakness, effeminacy, insanity, and the collapse of the nation.
That great American medical man, salesman and devout Seventh Day Adventist Dr John Harvey Kellogg, was one of the most famous foes of the ‘solitary vice’. His bland cornflakes were supposed to save you from it – like porn today, an exciting diet was thought to lead to over-stimulation. Other, even more unsavoury ‘cures’ included phenol dripped onto the clitoris and circumcision without anaesthetic.
Male circumcision eventually became dominant in the US – c. 81pc today – in part because of its perceived inhibition of masturbation. Though it seems to have been about as effective as corn flakes at getting men to stop ‘fapping’.
Likewise, today’s panics about online onanism are usually based on a cherished, quasi-religious ideal of ‘natural’ and ‘normal sex’. But instead of procreation, they often assume the ‘purpose’ of sex and sexual desire to be (hetero) ‘love and intimacy’ – and cast porn as the satanic lubricant of the fappers’ sins.
The US’s ‘foremost relationship expert’ Dr John Gottman praised Time’s anti-porn crusade in a doom-laden ‘Open Letter on Porn’ which labels it a “serious threat to couple intimacy and relationships” and talks a lot about ‘normal sex’. Again, as in most porn panic texts, including the Time piece and the UK Government consultation papers, the presumption is entirely heterosexual. Same sex relationships don’t exist.
There’s a very good reason for this. As gay therapist Joe Kort points out in this breezy, plain-talking riposte to Dr Gottman and the way discussions on porn as a ‘public health crisis’ and ‘addiction’ always exclude same sexuality relationships, the vast majority of gay and lesbian couples simply don’t have a problem with porn. It’s not rewiring their brains; it’s not destroying their relationships.
How can this be when porn is such a ‘serious threat to couple intimacy and relationships’ – along with the nation’s hard-ons?
Kort thinks it’s because same sex couples are less likely to believe that their loving relationship should forever satisfy the need for outside sexual stimulus for both partners – and less likely to hide their interest in porn. To that I would add that same sex couples probably have less investment in the notion of ‘normal sex’ than most hetero ones – usually having had to overcome social and religious stigma attached to their ‘abnormal’, ‘unnatural’, ‘sodomitic’ sexuality.
To put it bluntly: perhaps when you get over shame about sex there’s sweet FA to panic about.