When Everything Is NSFW
Has the sexual ante-upping of modern media pushed past a sex positive society into something darker? And can we come back?
By Kara Roberts, University of Texas at Austin
Coated in a porous sheet of ash and debris until a group of Spaniards rediscovered it in 1738, the once flourishing city of Pompeii is a dusty time capsule for the year 79 A.D.
After its unearthing, the world was like, “Hey, what’s up? Hello” to the buried city that had housed some of Rome’s most distinguished citizens before Mt. V erupted. Everything from fleeing families to grandiose villas, artisan shops and the earliest known amphitheater were all cemented beneath a thick layer of volcanic icing.
Also cemented: All the dirty little secrets of the Roman Empire, because as fate would have it, the city of Pompeii was the erotica hotbed of the ancient world. That’s right, you can walk the archaic city streets to the soulful tune of Marvin Gaye and bask in the resurrection of one of the world’s sexiest civilizations.
In Pompeii, sex was everywhere and it was cheap—the cheapest in the Empire—and archeologists were keen on carpe DM’ing the world about the erotica buffet they’d just discovered. Public bathhouses and brothels were the common man’s watering hole and the artist’s blank canvas, and historians lined up for a chance to study (“I said alone, please”) the Mediterranean all-you-can eat Kama Sutra left on the walls of these windowless sexual sanctuaries.
Households were even more extravagant. The décor fused luxury with kink, creating a style that would make for an uncomfortable dinner party even today.
Imagine a world where scholars filled chamber pots by the light of flying penis lamps, and courageous young gladiators sparred with wooden swords in courtyards where penis-shaped wind chimes shimmered in the breeze. Statues of bearded dwarfs on penis ponies and pornographic murals of Priapus weighing his forearm-sized erection were marks of distinguished taste.
There must have been a lot of mixed emotions during the dig. Discovering body after penis after body after winged penis is a lot to process.
But out of all the erotica that was dug up, there’s one sculpture that some argue should have been destroyed by the eruption. And now what you’re looking at here is a beautiful mid-century piece depicting Pan, the god of the wild, having sex with a goat.
Disturbed? King Francis I of Naples was. Following a family vacation gone terribly wrong, Francis locked up most of the erotic collection—yes, that means you, Pan—and today the collection is behind closed doors and only available during 45 minute guided tours.
But considering how easily accessible graphic imagery and porn is today via the Internet, the restrictions seem like a misplaced effort. The exhibit should be regulated, yes, to prevent curious tots from corrupting their malleable little minds, but the irony is palpable. The museum is hiding imagery that, quite frankly, is PG compared to what’s waiting a Google search away.
Now, if a volcano erupted every time someone violated a sexual taboo, humanity would cease to exist, let alone fulfill the sexual fanaticizes that led to our demise.
For the most part, a standard prescription of sexual mores have rooted society-at-large to fairly status quo intimate practices. However, there’s always been an appeal in pushing those boundaries—for every culture, a counter-culture, for every mainstream, an alternative.
But even without volcanoes to wipe the slate clean, humanity has historically balanced itself in what retrospectively resembles a tidy pendular motion, swinging over the centuries from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal with fleeting moments of sanity in between.
And over the centuries we’ve tasted some pretty rotten fruit, but thanks to our hardy sexual appetites our species has always managed to forge onward to strange new worlds. From the Agora to the Crusades, the Victorians to the Sade’s, there’s always been a reliable, and somewhat comforting, equilibrium.
But the pendulum seems to a bit unbalanced these days. Mass media in all its extant forms has been busily popping the bubbles that have always kept aberrant sexual behaviors in isolation, meaning that like-minded people across the world are no longer forced to stay in on Saturday nights. This is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good for people whose atypical sexual tendencies are harmless.
It’s bad because combining sex, mass media and capitalism has led to boundary-pushing for the sake of boundary-pushing, and it’s being broadcast worldwide. Mass media’s never-ending search to find the Next Big Thing looks a lot like a network exec constantly holding a carrot in front of whoever it is that’s pushing the sexual envelope the farthest.
The street name for this phenomenon is “shock value,” and it stems from the notion that what was innovative yesterday is old hat today. As a result, sexual provocation in the media has to constantly up the ante or it runs the risk of irrelevance, low ratings and failure.
It’s an occurrence that David Foster Wallace documents well in “Big Red Son,” his 1998 coverage of the AVN Awards, essentially the Academy Awards of the porn industry. Wallace describes how in porn, and in a smaller but just as real extent in the media, there’s a sort of sexual ouroboros in effect.
“The more acceptable in modern culture it becomes,” Wallace writes, “the farther porn will have to go in order to preserve the sense of unacceptability that’s so essential to its appeal…It’s also clear—all moral and cultural issues totally aside—that this is an extremely dangerous direction for the adult-film industry to have to keep moving.”
In other words, the system is destroying itself. The constant need to up the ante is driving the porn industry into some dubious, borderline-criminal areas involving such delights as barely disguised child porn and gang rape. All this while the morality police, understaffed and outnumbered, watch as the adult entertainment industry slips into an uncensored abyss.
The same concept is at work in mainstream media, although the ratcheting up has occurred at a much slower pace.
All the way back in 1947, the sitcom “Mary Kay and Johnny” made TV history when it aired the first married couple to share a bed. Scandalous, right?
Nearly 20 years later, in 1964, a British soap called Emergency Ward 10 aired the first interracial snog. Less groundbreaking—four years later, the African American actress was quietly written out of the show. Less than a decade later, the first live-action sex scene was shot in Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, in a scene in which the main character loses his virginity to a prostitute.
The bathwater started heating up as TV networks warmed to the idea that sex sold, and PBS aired the first female nipple during a production of the Bruce Jay Friedman play “Steambath” in 1973.
Then the 80’s unleashed a tidal wave of controversial sex scenes in both TV and cinema. The 1980 release of American Gigolo was the first mainstream film to show full-frontal male nudity; Bad Timing, another 1980 release, was pulled because of a rape scene involving an unconscious protagonist, a tableau that the website DVD Savant called “as disturbing as non-pornographic movies get.”
In 1995, Harmony Korine’s Kids, basically the narrative structure of every parent’s worst nightmare, loosely followed Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), a manipulative 16-year old who makes it his mission to take as many girls’ virginities as he can, though he unknowingly has AIDS. The film ends with Telly’s friend Casper raping Chloë Sevigny’s unconscious character, thereby unwittingly contracting AIDS himself.
The most recent torchbearer for boundary-pushing sexual deviancy is without a doubt the HBO megahit Game of Thrones. The show is great, trust me, I binge-watched the shit out of it this last summer: Dragons, giant domestic wolves, epic battle scenes, love and despair—it’s television magic.
But several scenes within the most recent season were torn up by critics for their “unnecessarily” (their words) brutal, grotesque sex scenes. One in particular took place between Cersei and Jamie Lannister, who are siblings AND secret lovers. Ew, I know.
Jamie returns to Kings Landing to find that his bratty son King Joffrey has been poisoned. As they’re mourning next to his body, Jamie suddenly makes a move on Cersei. Again, ew. To paraphrase: Cersei says please stop it, Jamie says I don’t care, and you can fill in the rest.
It’s a wildly grotesque scene, but even more incriminating is that in the books, the sex is consensual.
That means that at some point, an HBO exec somewhere must’ve said, “No, let’s make it a rape scene,” which kind of hints at just what’s so dangerous about becoming desensitized to extreme sexual behavior: it has to keep getting more extreme. Violent sexual deviancy in porn is one thing—but crossing it over to mainstream media is an increasingly slippery slope.
Dr. Robert Jensen, a professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, has an academic focus on pornography and the radical feminist critique of sexuality and men’s violence. He illuminated a disturbing trend.
“The amount of explicit and often very aggressive sexual content has increased in drama in the past 30 years,” said Dr. Jensen.
“What kind of society is likely to result when society accepts these views of women not only in porn, but in mainstream media? My observation is that it produces a very unhealthy sexual culture.”
As if to illustrate Dr. Jensen’s point, Emily* at Megaplex Videos told me that shows like Game of Thrones have sparked new interest in consumers’ appetites.
Referring to the hyper-sexualization, rape and incest in the show, Emily said they’ve noticed movies like My Dad’s Big Cock and My Mom and Me flying off the shelves more than ever. Personally, Emily said, she doesn’t believe in the stuff, but it’s what’s bringing in the money and preventing them from Blockbustering. At a certain point, Pan starts to look pretty good.
So where exactly is mainstream media taking us? It’s not news that society is losing its moral footing—any cynic 55+ will gladly tell you that—but it seems like the game’s changed, like the pendulum might not swing back this time. It’s as if in some cosmic irony, when Kim Kardashian’s ass “Broke the Internet” in 2014, maybe the Internet broke the pendulum.
There’s always been a comfort in knowing that there’s a balance, a back-and-forth morality, but that was a simpler time, a time before Google, Game of Thrones and Megaplex Video.
If the media continues to up the ante in the name of shock value to rake in the ratings, then who knows: Maybe one day in the future, our generation’s outrage over rape and incest will only be as intriguing to our descendants as Pompeii is to us. Hopefully not.