A New Sexual Revolution? Critical Theory, Pornography, and the Internet

By Garlick, Steve | Canadian Review of Sociology, August 2011 | Go to article overview

A New Sexual Revolution? Critical Theory, Pornography, and the Internet


Garlick, Steve, Canadian Review of Sociology


Spiritual "procreation" is just as much the work of Eros as is corporeal procreation, and the right and true order of the Polis is just as much an erotic one as is the right and true order of love (Marcuse 1974:211).

HERBERT MARCUSE WAS WIDELY REGARDED AS a leading intellectual figure of the "sexual revolution" that marked North American popular culture in the 1960s. As Douglas Kellner (1984) notes, "Counterculture advocates of play, free love, flower power and personal liberation could find powerful articulations of their values in Marcuse's writings" (pp. 2-3). Although he was a theorist in the Marxian tradition, concerned with the dominance of technological rationality and the contradictions of advanced industrial society, Marcuse melded his critique of capitalism with a call to liberate sexuality from the strictures of bourgeois patriarchal morality. As a result, his work fitted almost seamlessly into the social, cultural, and political climate of the 1960s.

Today, we might wonder whether we are living through a comparable period of sexual history. Sociologists speak of a "hypersexual society" (Kammeyer 2008), historians document the emergence of "a world made sexy" (Rutherford 2007), while media studies scholars analyze "the sexualization of culture" (Attwood 2009). The impetus for these diagnoses is a strong sense that sex has now entered the mainstream of contemporary Western popular culture--that its presence in advertising, on television, and in other media reflects the advent of a "striptease culture" based in the imperatives of sexual confession and self-revelation (McNair 2002). Everywhere one turns today, it seems as though sex is increasingly out in the open and has become a key dimension of social relations and commercial culture alike.

A central element of this new "sexual revolution" is the Internet and the proliferation of various forms of "cybersex." Sexual representations have always been closely linked with developments in technology--most notably, the printing press, photography, film, and video---and the advance of digital technologies and the Internet has allowed for both a vast expansion of pornography online, along with increased ease of access. In this context, some commentators have argued that we are seeing a "democratization" of sexual desires and the advent of a more pluralistic sexual culture (McNair 2002). This argument intersects with a recent "sex-positive" current in feminist theory that rejects calls for censorship or the characterization of heterosexual pornography as inherently misogynistic, in favor of celebrating porn's capacity to represent active female sexual desires and to express previously hidden forms of sexuality. From this perspective, pornography operates as a form of "cultural critique" insofar as it transgresses societal conventions (Kipnis 1999). Although many feminists remain highly critical of pornography, arguing that it degrades women (Dines 2010) and contributes to the rise of a "new sexism" in popular culture (Walter 2010), the emergence of more diverse forms of "netporn" challenges sweeping condemnations as new sexual economies begin to take shape via networked social interactions (Jacobs 2007). Within an expanded critical perspective, it seems apparent that research on pornography needs to consider the changing technological environment and to ask whether the Internet is more than simply another medium for the delivery of familiar pornographic representations and a "distorted" version of sexuality. As Simon Hardy (2008) notes, the issue is no longer so much the impact of porn on our "real" sexual lives, but the fact that "it is an increasingly significant part of that reality" (p. 63). Such a situation, I suggest, requires a move beyond pro- or anti-porn positions toward an approach that is sensitive to the complicated relations that hold between sexuality, pornography, and gender relations in contemporary culture.

Given that we are in the midst of a technologically mediated reorganization of the social relations of sexuality, then what of Marcuse today? …

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