The Death and Rebirth of Intimacy in the Sex Industry

There was an interesting article in the Sunday Times today called “How teenage access to pornography is killing intimacy in sex”. Natasha Walter addresses the issue of internet pornography and it’s effects on a generation of children who see their first hardcore porn at a younger and younger age.

According to a London School of Economics study in January 2002:

Nine out of 10 children aged between eight and 16 have viewed pornography on the Internet. In most cases, the sex sites were accessed unintentionally when a child, often in the process of doing homework, used a seemingly innocent sounding word to search for information or pictures.

I clearly remember attempting to visit the website for the US government and making the unfortunate mistake of typing in whitehouse.com rather than whitehouse.gov at a very young age. But I would imagine that as we see children dealing with adult themes earlier and earlier in their lives, a lot of this viewing is not unintentional.

We mustn’t make the assumption that children viewing sex at a young age is necessarily harmful – however, the problem is that most popular pornography is a very skewed and one-dimensional portrayal of sex. As a teenager, I personally thought of sex as something one does because men like it – that was the impression I had gotten from my exposure to porn on the internet. It wasn’t till years later that I would start to understand female sexuality, and then my own.

It would be great if our education system could provide sex education that taught more than just the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. How about teaching our children something about sexuality as an important way humans express intimacy and sometimes love?

I agree with Walter when she writes that:

“If the rise of pornography was really tied up with women’s liberation and empowerment, it would not be increasing women’s anxiety about fitting into a narrow physical ideal.

and

“…women are still encouraged much of the time to concentrate on their sexual allure rather than their imagination or pleasure.”

Unfortunately the article goes downhill from there, as she goes on to attack the sex industry across the board.

I was disappointed to see the conflation of the entire industry with the intimacy-less portrayal of sex in much popular porn and culture.

Walter completely ignores the shifting trend in the sex industry away from the “porn-star experience” (PSE) prostitute in favor of sex workers who offer the “girlfriend experience” (GFE). Many men are not interested in paying for sex without intimacy. The highest paid call girls in the industry are those who provide more personal interaction – not just completing a sexual act, but focusing on things like kissing, cuddling, foreplay, and conversation.

For more on this I highly recommend Elizabeth Bernstein’s “Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex”. In this model, intimacy is being sold along with sex. Sex workers are seen as just another kind of service provider (in line with therapists, masseurs, etc.) in a capitalist economy where (let’s face it) we all prostitute our time and labour for money in one line of work or another.

Walter claims that “women are scarred by the myth that selling sex is a positive career choice” citing two girls who worked in the sex industry as examples. But when she refers to the bestselling memoirs of prostitutes such as Belle de Jour, she completely ignores the validity of their experiences as empowered sex workers. Denying women’s agency and subjective experiences – is that not typical misogyny?

Surely we can do better than that Ms. Walter.

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Comments
Comment from senseandsensuality - January 17, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Ms Walter is a journalist. Journalists, in my experience, tend to have a view, or bias as cognitive scientists might label it. There is an agenda lurking somewhere in the background (I recall how in the 1970’s political journalists wrote about South Africa and apartheid without ever visiting the said country!).
The danger, in my view, is that in writing, especially in popularising something (ironically “popular” culture in this case!), there is too much non-rational bias and the content of the writing is anecdotal rather than researched. Who knows what agenda Ms Walter is driving or maybe she just wishes to be read and therefore writes to appeal to her view of the “popular”, whatever that may be?
Our sexuality is a complex and powerful issue, has roots in our childhood and our innate being and this natural force when interacting with social forces can lead to a plethora of behaviours not all exemplified by anecdotal bias from certain individuals. Our sexual interactions are a complex tapestry where it is dangerous to be over-moralistic and stand on a pedestal to preach.
Can Ms Walter do better? As a Knox Scholar at Harvard, where the scholarship is awarded to those who are viewed as giving a “…. future promise of leadership,…., keen mind, balanced judgement…” I am sure she can. Does she want to, ‘tho?
I have nothing against journalists per se but surely do they not owe their audience to read, listen to and report in a more balanced manner what social scientists, cognitive, neural and behavioural scientists and ideas in psychiatry also tell us?

Comment from PaulaS - January 17, 2010 at 9:52 pm

I agree that the method of teaching sex education in the schools needs to go way beyond having our period and male vs. female anatomy. Love and intimacy should definitely be a positive aspect of what children learn at a tender age. Then the idea of sex wouldn’t be so negative. I don’t know if parents will ever let that happen though.

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