Other People’s Eroticism
During the controversy provoked by pornographic productions, someone quoted this sentence:
“Pornography is other people’s eroticism.”
A formula which had the merit of using two stupid words intelligently, if not three. It was an argument for tolerance: but also a criticism of those discriminations we make to separate ourselves from what we then boast we “tolerate.”
For perhaps other people’s eroticism is not so different from our own in terms of what it has to show; perhaps we are contemptuous of “pornography” simply because it pictures us without our masks—sad bodies, seedy rooms, squalid compromises, graceless gestures, pathetic fantasies. We don’t like it when our copulations present as poor a front in films as they do in our existence: erotic works must wholly conform to our illusions, and must not be, in substance or in price, as petty as ourselves.
Then what distinguishes eroticism from pornography is not a difference between our own beautiful sexuality and the disgusting one of others: in reality, in terms of establishment standards, all real sexuality remains guilty, ugly, bestial, miscarried. We are never rich enough, handsome enough, young enough, mature enough, virtuous enough, endowed enough, normal enough, man enough, woman enough, to have a sexuality that is permissible, respectable, or simply possible. These are the exigencies shaped by our laws, our moral codes, our ideals, our masterpieces, our very rules for desire. It is not surprising that they apply to entertainment as well. But “pornography” commits the crime of insufficiently idealizing what it shows—and yet in its abundance of nudes and exploits, it is a garden of delights alongside our real life. Even this free and this fulfilled, sexuality, in order to be absolved, would still need to be transfigured, eternalized, raised to mythic heights, daubed with analyses, smeared with Humanism, larded with “disalienation,” laced with garlands covering just the right spots: an atonement afforded by—each in its own way—Love, Art, Science, and Subversion.
The necessity of this redemption has been understood for a long time by the American manufacturers of porno books and magazines. They have been publishing texts which though obscene are covered with a psychiatric gloss treating them as “documents.” They have been amassing indecent photographs, but with the alibi of physical culture or nudism, chaste children of Health. The market is flooded with naked men photographed from every angle, but only to furnish artists a means to perfect their touch without expensive models. And thick brochures of photos with commentary have given amateur sexologists vivid dossiers on sodomy, fellatio, masturbation, large penises, infant eroticism, or group sex. The prosperity of these publications demonstrates that the U.S. censors, touched by the nobility of intentions, were not eager to learn whether the budding draughtsmen were actually using the nudes, whether the collections of children’s gang-bangs were only serving to inform educators and mothers, or whether the close-ups of pricks thrust into every hole of Human Nature were examined only by Scholars.
Let us regard these simplistic liberties as the product of a democracy naive enough, notably, to have expelled a President on the pretext that he was dishonest—for it seems that power, as wicked as sex, needs only, like it, to be angelic in order to be tolerable. A reassuring certainty.
Our country is not the victim of such an unsophisticated logic: in France, when we defend
freedom, it is mostly against those who want to use it. So we realized, among a thousand other
things, that, before liberating sexuality, we had to educate it so that nobody would have any left:
or that, if we authorized pornography, it would obviously have to give up defying morality.
Yet when we suppressed censorship, we discovered with indignation that censorable works took advantage of that suppression to appear. This is certainly proof that we were not ripe for freedom of expression.
Normally, the French spontaneously boycott the pseudo-products a greedy capitalism claims to
make them consume: in particular, they are deserting the movie houses showing the commercial
garbage called “films for the general public”—cretinizing accounts which are an insult to the masses, and thus to human dignity, as has been repeated energetically for years by Messrs. Marchais and Séguy and Cardinal Marty.* But this time profit-hungry and underhanded members of the industry succeeded in hoodwinking the People by offering as a shining lure a bait of all-too-real obscenities. Immediately, millions of fathers, mothers, and workers, grandma by the hand, babe in arms, rushed to movies of fornication-without-love: and, hypnotized, thunderstruck by so many horrors, no one dared to react. I have not even heard a baby cry in the theatre, which shows how precociously these images paralyze response.
The State and the various elites protested from their positions, and freedom was reorganized. A
separate category of film would be defined, heavily taxed and narrowly distributed: the kind that
depicted “other people’s eroticism” (those others suitably baptized X): pornography. Our own
eroticism, of course, would continue to enjoy all necessary freedom of expression.
I have said how the two genres were distinguished: since majority eroticism has beauty for its principal trait, any ugliness, vulgarity, stupidity, gratuitous obscenity, in the representation of sexuality, is our signal that it is not ours, but that of the X’s.
A measure totally commendable. Shortly before this, as a matter of fact, François Mitterand had suggested in the Nouvel Observateur that pornography be restricted to reserved circles: for it was really too ugly, and manufactured, from all evidence, by pornographers. Moreover, these literal pictures of organs, he remarked, remained infinitely less moving than a certain touching of hands in Straight Is the Gate. Mitterand did not specify whether the little pee-pees of If It Die overwhelmed him as much as Alissa’s hands—both, however, duly fingered, and sung with all proper style, by a Nobel Prize Winner. In any case, this socialist position coincides with what our government, so liberal in the circumstances because it coincides with the choices of the Left, will have decided.
So now, for the first time in our society, we are asserting that mediocrity is intolerable, and that our citizens must be institutionally protected from it. It is unthinkable that members of the film industry should go so far as to exploit human lust: and business would be betraying itself if it suddenly ceased to strive for our moral and artistic uplift.
Henceforth we may read on the pediment of Eros’ temple: no one enters here save the inspired. Our nation, which seemed so to hate, persecute, and condemn sex, turns out on the contrary to admire it, to deify it to such an extent that it no longer wants the disreputables to touch it. This bon-bon, this salt of the earth will be, as is only fair, reserved for great men. If they are good enough to accept it, of course. And if your talents are very modest, your I.Q. very low, your passion for money unbounded, your vulgarity incommensurable, produce family films, romanticize conjugal love, comment on politics, be a critic of Arts and Letters, enter the Academy, glorify war, sports, work, virtue, crooks, racism, the State: but cunts, pricks, and ass-holes are strictly taboo to you—as to all the opportunists, morons, impostors, pigs, and nonentities who have invaded other domains. Eros is going to feel a bit lonesome.
To me this demand for quality, for disinterestedness, for artistic mastery, seems completely justified (I need only think of the marvels it would produce in politics, journalism, or education). I have noticed pornos shown that smelled of amateurism, the rush job, the production without billions or government subsidies: and I felt, of course, very different from the X’s with whom I had mingled for a moment, and whom this nullity did not embarrass. What is left, then, in these films which have nothing to recommend them?
What is left is precisely a certain something that good films never show. And since the universe is bursting with glorious film makers, many of whom denounce the scandalous mediocrity of pornos, I wonder why they, who film so well, leave to bunglers the erotic subjects—which they seem to admire, however, since they won’t allow them to be treated shabbily—instead of putting themselves to work. Is it because of the humility habitual to geniuses confronted with themes too large? Or because the realization of their creativity and the representation of sexual acts are incompatible? In this case, we must admire the abnegation of the unfortunate directors who, in order to film what others hide, do not hesitate to compromise their chances of acquiring talent.
In fact, the existence of specifically “pornographic” works calls to mind Jean Genet’s remark when he was asked why his theatre was obscene: because, he said, the other theatre is not. We are in a paradoxical situation in which it seems conceivable, evident, even desirable, to create a work (and every work speaks only of humanity and human life) where sexuality is reduced to nothing—nothing but a zone of silence toward which every narrative moves, however, and upon which it breaks off. Our culture is the historiographer, or rather the mythologist, of a man desexed. Put his sex back on: it will not be said that you are filling a lack, it will be said that your work has an excess—and it is this excess, this “obscenity,” which will define it. Thus sex, with its billions of manifestations, sensations, and nuances, whose subtleties and lessons are certainly worth those of sentimental psychology, is not a spontaneous, necessary, diversely present (if only in a “low” way) component of our representation of man: it is only an indelicate speciality, characteristic of certain authors, certain artists, certain scholars, who create for themselves alone something which, outside themselves, has no right of asylum. Each creator must decide if he is going to create “with” or “without”: it is the least of his liberties, and if we all know what cultural destiny awaits those who create “with,” there is no doubt that this encourages future geniuses not to cut that.
To tolerate sexuality, as we claim to do, to explore and understand it, as we say we need to do, would be, however, to allow it to appear everywhere, to be expressed and experienced everywhere, in short, to let it blossom in the bright daylight of social life. And not to wedge it in between chic books, the shops of Pigalle, royal marriages, and latrine doors.
It is not the appearance of “erotic” works or “pornographic” products that demonstrates freedom here, it is rather the disappearance of special places and rites where sexuality, pleasure, and the body have been closeted. It is not for porno magazines to show nudes, orgies, lesbians, child-fucking, but France-Dimanche, l’Espress, Paris-Match, Tintin, Spirou and other humanist publications. It is not for the makers of X-rated films to show sexual lives, but for the film makers who draw crowds, and for television. It is not for “special” authors to decipher our bodies, it is for the whole of literature. Or else we might as well say that sexuality is intolerable, and must remain the prisoner of a few maniacs who are bound and determined to show how it exists, and fill as best they can this void in our culture and in our moral codes.
Clearly, in a society where sexuality would not “have a place” but would resume its own, the substance of the erotic would be very different from what originates in our ghettos—where one resignedly shuffles through the hotpotch of illusions, cliches, sublimities, and obsessions that define our sexual obscurantism. I see only obscene photography which, when it avoids the affectations and the conventionalities of the Beautiful, is already liberated, doubtless because of its inferiority, from the stereotypes which, from Eroticism’s height to porno’s depths, manufacture a phony representation of the sexuality we “wish” we had.
But what do the X’s want? Some of them participated, without reacting, in a cruel experiment of “mise-en-abyme” (the Quaker Oats Box syndrome), which would have delighted every well-born member of the avant-garde, and which illustrates a paradox of pornography.
It was a showing of a very good hetero porno (market conditions rarely permit mixing tastes in the same product). Title: The Talking Sex (the heroine is afflicted with a miraculous ability borrowed from Diderot: like a character in Bijoux indiscrets, she speaks from her cunt). This film contained the following scene. In a movie theatre, ordinary viewers are watching a porno. Suddenly, a female spectator, spurred to action by the film, grabs her neighbors’ pricks. The next moment, the whole audience, bare-assed and cocks in the air, is joyously fucking. On the screen, of course. In the other movie theatre, the real one, nobody was doing anything. We were watching the pornophiles of the filmed movie theatre. The ones who could actually do it.**
This imaginary scene is thus supposed to represent the pornophiles’ fantasy: and, in short, it puts their backs to the wall. But the wall is too high. In a real movie theatre (apart from the fact that the porno movie theatres lack more female spectators than the leftist faction of women’s liberation), this transition to action would be a criminal offense, an event that would summon the police cars and occupy the front page of the newspapers.
Impossible legally, this orgy is just as impossible aesthetically and physiologically. As ordinary as the false spectators of The Talking Sex appear, they were chosen to present, once they were drawn from their seats, pleasing bodies with quick reflexes and immediate satisfactions. Characteristics having no relation to the appearance and the sexual behavior of the average Frenchman, pornophile or not. We see that the obstacle to the orgy is not simply in the legal violation it would constitute (a violation that homosexuals risk committing accustomed as they are to heterosexual cops). The obstacle is rather in these accommodating passions and attractive bodies at the disposal of the film actors, and not of the audience. Indispensable advantages in a porno, since they are already the rule in all films and novels. Inconceivable, the aversion aroused by actors with small penises, actresses with fatty deposits, flabby breasts, callused feet, by the third-rate copulations, thighs dribbling semen, exhibited by certain films: “defects” which are, however, the common lot of humanity. Of course, it can be judged normal (and nothing is more revoltingly so) that a film should be pleasant to look at, that it should thus avoid showing us to ourselves, and that it should select enchanting human samples exceptional enough so that the humanity which does not resemble them is willing to recognize itself in them. Unfortunately, this cult of the exception
reinforces our certainty that we are sexually unfit: and, instead of making us love beauty more, makes us more detestable in our own eyes. Here we are, poor, stupid men and women, dreaming that doubtless one (lay, the Handsome One, the Beautiful One, will redeem our ugliness—as God saves, under their vermin, their spittle, and their snot, the pure in heart. We are not worthy. They, yes. So, let us titillate ourselves with the idea that tomorrow, they will descend to our very own studio-kitchenette-john.
Pornography thus reminds us that to obtain beautiful objects of desire, either we must resemble them, or else (and this is the execrable philosophy of Sade, who, in the exploration of desire, would stage only the ecstasies of economic power over another’s body)—we must be rich. The rich don’t watch pornos (except among themselves, at their own homes, and in addition). A nice whore, a gigolo without major defects in fabrication, goes for 200 to 300 Francs and up. By telephone in Paris, you can get young boys and girls recruited by middle-men, and the fix costs exactly one month of S.M.I.C.*** Then, are the pornophiles exclusively the riff-raff who, in contrast to the elite who draft our laws, can only afford an X-cinema seat? Are the child molesters who are taken to court only guilty of being insolvent? In the porno-shops, the sales clerks complain of innumerable customers who come in to “handle” the merchandise and never buy anything. And one does, in fact, come across a proletariat of sad voyeurs. But let us rejoice
that these lovely magazines are finally removed—sealed under cellophane so that they don’t get
fingered by these detectives who come in to fill their eyes without spending a sou, like Rimbaud’s Effarés sniffing at the night bakery’s air-vents. The girls, the boys, and the neighborhood transvestites can be had for the price of two of these ruinous reviews. So everything is laid up, meat and paper both. Business is certainly hard.
We can rest easy: every penniless pornophile, every john with a flat wallet is a potential husband, and a future papa, since marriage is the only cheap and decent solution to the problems of the cock. Which proves that the sex industry, in its way, offers an incentive to Real Love.
The exercise of desire has an extremely narrow economic and aesthetic code: this code excludes the majority of men and women. We have in addition a pleasure code, which assigns a specific behavior and necessary aptitudes to both sexes; and this code, too, excludes many people. The two codes are reproduced by porno and, in an aggravated form, by the Erotic. The lover of pornography, like the lover of eroticism, or of romantic novels, is convinced that sexuality must have a “good form”: he judges himself unfit to experience such a form and looks for fiction and entertainment that depict the ideal in whose name he is frustrated. It is a circular movement of self-education in not making love.
Here we see the difference between the actor-pornophiles of The Talking Sex and the pornophile-viewers: the film does not show what they would do if they were free, it shows why, even free, they would not dare do anything.
However, this self-repressive movement depends on each person’s adherence to the values that condemn his right to pleasure. And this adherence is the effect of the difficulty in making love we have met with ever since childhood. Nobody would believe that a botched anatomy, an unattractive face, or mediocre or reluctant genitals constituted a handicap, unless people more beautiful, more endowed had not made us feel it from the first day we experienced desire. And this reflex of exclusion would be extremely rare if all of us had not been taught a rule of “sexual sharing” in whose name we must reserve ourselves, handsome or ugly, for an advantageous bargain, a distinguished partner who persuades us finally to compromise our bodies. The strictness of the moral code, the minute number of situations in which physical contact, sexual enjoyment, even the simple liberty of speaking to someone, are permitted, force the unhappy and guiltridden internalization of these values. In other words, the less freedom we have to make love, the more we cling to codes that keep us from making it. Those whom this logic escapes are termed debauched: there is no middle ground between submission to principles and trespass against them.
Or rather, the middle ground is the business solution: when one pays for porno, or for a whore, one is not so much buying sex as the right to enjoy it apart from the establishment, but without the threat of the law.
Pornography is thus an element of the system. Yet it would be ridiculous to hold it responsible for a situation which precedes it and accompanies it, does not need it to sustain itself, and can, in the long run, suffer from its presence.
It is this context which must be understood. Actually, the countries which preceded us in lifting restrictions on pornography are very different from France. Not because France is Latin: we are even more gloomy, tense, paralyzed than the somnolent Scandinavian populations and, sociologically, we are not really Latins. Nor is our Catholicism significant. Any libertine who has visited the most Catholic countries on earth—Portugal, Spain, Italy—has discovered the sexual paganism of the proletariat youth of these Mediterranean Christendoms. Catholicism and its indictments reign very far over the heads and the groins of the “proletariat.” The prohibitions, of course, are known: but however much they make things clandestine, they can do nothing against their impregnable prosperity. Moral rigidity in France is actually a sign of the “empetitbourgeoisement” of the masses and a testimony to the absolute power of the industrial disciplinary regime over our behavior.
In the North, in any case, the appearance of pornography was not an isolated phenomenon, but a consequence of reforms which, in laws, moral codes, and institutions, questioned all sexual morality. A questioning followed by impressive results: actual legislation in Denmark and Sweden, concrete allowances in the Netherlands and in some American states, constitute precedents unique in the history of civilizations. And what is important is not so much the happiness that these freedoms might bring today to those who have initiated them, as it is the society in which from now on men will be born for whom this new morality will not be a conquest but an immediate, normal, and, in fact, invisible datum of existence.
In France pornography has been permitted without reforming the morality it transcends, a morality we are instead striving to save more energetically than ever, a morality which, alongside the opinions of an elite that is liberal-minded but incapable of affecting laws and moral codes, continues implacably to govern the private life of the masses. It is this stagnation that gives its power (and its strange status of a national question) to the production of pornography in France. For such production offers a representation, at once mythical and saturated with the concrete, of the freedoms we do not have.
From now on, what matters is to know these freedoms not as voyeurs. Such an experience would
doubtless teach us that the free exercise of sexuality leads to a universe where the bourgeois beauties of the Erotic and the stereotyped joys of porno are simplistic and outmoded. It is up to us to emancipate ourselves from the clichés, the illusions that our sexual conditioning and our frustrations have produced. The expression of sexuality need not be either beautiful or ugly, cultivated or crude, brilliant or idiotic: but it must become the free discourse of desire authentically expressed and no longer the staging of an eroticism we dream up for ourselves when we are deprived of the right to experience any at all.
—Translated from the French by Joan Templeton
* Georges Marchais, head of the French Communist Party; Georges Séguy, head of the C.G.T., an important leftist trade union; Cardinal François Marty, Archbishop of Paris. [Translator's note]
** Homosexuals are less timid (but this is a result of their uncivilized condition). During the showings of Histoire d ‘hommes, there were cruising crowds watching from their places in the toilet conspicuously located right at the side of the screen. It is true that the gays haven’t waited until now to take over certain popular movie houses, and (when the back row, the toilet, and the balcony weren’t inundated with juvenile delinquents or plainclothes cops) to do there what no film yet dared show.
*** Salaire Minimum interprofessionnel de Croissance”: the French minimum-wage. [Translator's note]