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Pornography as Sacred Language, Or Why No One Gives Up Sex for Lent

Sexual meaning, empty as it may seem, has clawed into the iron cage and taken the place that religious meaning left behind.
Brian Duff

Issue #38, May 1998

It's Easter, and I am sure that Sister Dolorita, my sixth grade teacher from the order of the Immaculate Conception, would have been a little shocked by the way I spent my morning. Instead of dressing for church, I stumbled to my friend's house for some coffee and to mooch her Sunday New York Times -- only to discover that she was just settling in for an all day video porn-fest. She was writing a paper for her "alternative sexual identities" class, comparing gay porn, lesbian porn, and straight porn. I had little choice in the matter -- and the coffee was made -- so I fished out the New York Times Magazine and settled onto the couch.

Maybe it's just that it was Easter, but what came to mind watching that pornography, and thinking of it now, is that Sister Dolorita would not have found herself so completely out of her element as I would at first have suspected. This is because one of the most striking things about modern pornography is its absurd emphasis on the reality of what it depicts. Pornography has this obsessive concern with reality in common with Catholicism and most of the largest ancient religions like Islam and Buddhism. These religions all made use of a sacred language and sacred iconography, which was thought to provide sole access to religious truth and thus sacred meaning. These languages, such as Latin which most of us have probably encountered, did not operate like vernacular languages. Their most important feature was that they were considered to be completely non-arbitrary. They did not represent reality or religious truth; instead they emanated reality and truth. These languages were understood by a very select few and were almost entirely unspoken. Yet because of their unchanging and exclusive access to truth they were able to hold together vast kingdoms for century after century in thoroughly diverse social structures, incorporating rich and poor, illiterate and literate, and vernacular upon vernacular. Across all these modes of living, religious truth continued to come from one ancient source, accessible through the sacred language and unquestioned in its reality. These are large and somewhat sloppy generalizations, of course, but I think the basic functions of sacred languages illuminate something about the way pornography seems to work.

Pornography has no unchanging ancient and rarefied source of truth, so it has to be a little more insistent. Both the text that accompanies their photos and and the models' poses assure the viewer that everything we might expect of them is true. Soft core models really do love wearing next to nothing in order to tantalize men. Of course hard core models just love nipple clamps, repeated gagging, and excruciating anal sex. The letters section is similarly occupied. Correspondence from readers desperately insists that although "I was sure all the letters sent into your magazine were made up...," the writer has recently had an experience that demonstrates once and for all what dirty and delightful sluts women really are. (This is true, of course, even when the letter is presented as being written by a woman). The authenticity obsession reaches perhaps the height of its absurdity in pornographic films. What matters in these films, above all else, is the reality of the sexual act that is depicted. Everything in these films is fantastic, from the ridiculous dialogue and scenario to the breasts and breathlessness of the stars, but the sexual act is shown in the sort of gynecological detail that leaves no room for doubt. The thrusting is always interrupted, however, so that ejaculation may be depicted in full view of the cameras. One can only assume this curious practice is meant to assure the viewer that the sex portrayed was no act, but really accomplished what it was supposed to.

But if Latin provided the unchanging path to religious salvation, what exactly is it that pornography is accomplishing with its authenticity obsession? Radical feminists have suggested a rather controversial answer to this question: What pornography's representation of female sexuality is supposed to accomplish is the definition of who women really are. And based on the sexuality on display in pornography, women are the group in society who's sexuality is inextricably tied up in force and violation. Radical feminists maintain that society believes what pornography maintains, that women need to be forced, either a little or a lot, in order to enjoy their sexuality, and that this need for force defines their gender. Forcing or convincing women to push their sexual boundaries is depicted as liberating of women's true nature. These are bold claims, obviously, and the radical feminists offer some intriguing evidence. Take, for example, a rape law in which the victim must prove conclusively both that force was used in the sexual act and that she made it clear that she did not consent to it. The assumption on the part of the state is clear, that women will often want to be forced, and that men have a right to assume it.

But radical feminists have not always done the best job "proving" their claims about pornography. It is true, most rapists and sexual murders are obsessed with pornography; indeed, many children who are molested are shown pornography by the man who is about to molest them; and yes, Penthouse does sell more copies than the likes of Time, Newsweek, or even Sports Illustrated. And yes, in some cities the introduction of pornography has come with a growth in sexual crimes. But radical feminists are really making a much more essential (and maybe essentialist) argument that the sexuality on display in pornography plays an integral part in the construction of masculine identities. In order to make their case, radical feminists need to locate pornography a few levels further into the deep structure of male domination. The supreme pervasiveness of male domination demands that radical feminists perform an analysis at the level of religious meaning. That's where Sister Dolorita, my Easter morning, and my friend's project come in.

The similarity between pornography and ancient sacred languages suggests that pornography may be acting as a truth language in its own right. I have already noted the obsession with authenticity. Notable as well is pornography's international scope -- another similarity to sacred languages. American men who have no use for Asian or European books, films, and newspapers cannot get enough of Asian and European pornography. The images such pornography provides, equally as Ôreal' as the home grown variety, offer men shared access to the sacred truth about women the world over, about even younger girls, or about sexualized violence. The universality of the community is thus enhanced, with ever more males admitted to the group of dominators and ever more and younger females defined by their need and desire to be dominated. This is probably the most well-unified remaining global community, and it is unified primarily through this sacred and symbolic truth language.

These sacred language dynamics work themselves out not just in text and photography/iconography, but also through the importance of sacred spaces and ceremonies. Nothing resembles the now defunct pre-Vatican II Catholic mass so much as the modern strip-club. In the old catholic mass, the priests on the alter performed in elaborate dress an unchanging ritual in a language so unfamiliar to the audience that it took on the aura of chanting. And yet this weekly ceremony was the sole access to sacred truth and the higher order for the silent and unquestioning community in the pews. It bound them together with Catholics the world over who watched the same ritual in the same mysterious language, with the same symbol of torture hanging on the wall above the scene. Moving from the crucifix to the neon beer signs and the cheesy erotica of the strip club wall, the parallel is quite oddly perfect. Men sit before the elaborately dressed (and undressed) performers, who will never communicate with them in anything but the most ritualized and unchanging movements and language. This community comes together to sit shoulder to shoulder, looking forward and rarely talking, believing in the performance with an unquestioning awe. They each get a moment of personal attention from the performer as she circles the stage. It is a communion they receive personally, but it is open to all members of the community. They make their offering, placing their five dollar bills into the collection basket of a garter. Modern strip clubs come complete with confessionals in the form of booths in which any member of the community can be personally reconciled with the sacred meaning of their masculinity as the dancer confesses the absolute truth of her willing availability for him.

Men are so confident in the unique sacredness of their language that, like the Chinese conquerors who looked favorably on the barbarians who learned to paint their ideograms, men can immediately feel a palpable bond with other men through the performance of the necessary sacraments. A drive through San Francisco's red light district never fails to uncover a few groups of Asian businessmen being taken by their hosts for a night on the town. American business men in Japan are introduced to the "charming" glorified prostitution of the geisha culture. Having thus bonded, these otherwise suspicious corporate types can get down to business.

But let us for a moment consider the nationalist bigotry that these strip club visits help businessmen overcome. Has not nationalism and the dominance of nation-states replaced the great religious communities that held sway in the past? Does anyone besides Castro really consider the pope the most important man in the world anymore? Of course not. The great religious communities of the past have lost much of their former power. Today the once sacred language of Latin means more to your SAT score than your salvation. Perhaps pornography and the global community of male domination will go a similar route.

Well -- no. Such optimism is mislead for the following reason: unlike the classical religious communities that held sway in the middle ages and before, the community united through male domination and its sacred language of pornography can continually refresh and reinvent their language and their icons. They maintain all the benefits of their long legacy, without the disadvantage of inextricably being tied to it. Ancient sacred languages like Latin, classical Arabic, Pali, or Chinese maintained their importance in the present only to the extent that they maintained the rarity that came with their ancient origins. Thus they felt ancient even as they held sway over access to religious meaning for huge portions of the globe. The importance of such languages and their unique access to religious truth was permanently tied up in their ever more antiquated prophetic origins.

This was equally true of religious iconography. This explains the curious practice, common in the stained-glass windows of mediaeval churches and the painting of early Italian and Flemish masters, of artists being commissioned by patrons to create biblical scenes with the patrons included in the image. The patron, usually dressed in their own contemporary style, would be depicted kneeling next to the shepherds at the manger scene. This juxtaposition of sartorial styles amuses as much as it inspires religious awe. As recently as the post-Napoleanic restoration, artists as prominent as Ingres were called in to render members of the Bourbon dynasty in conference with the Queen of Heaven (see his Vow of Louis XIII, 1824). These odd artistic practices reveal one unique quality of pornography as a sacred language and iconography. The ancient power of the great religious communities was based on a concept of time that ignored historical causality in favor of a sort of divine simultaneity. Anything that occurred in the here and now was judged not in terms of an earthly chain of events but in terms of its link to a timeless Divine Providence revealed in the ancient past, but equally applicable to each moment since. This explains each generation of nobleman's interest in being depicted along with the Virgin.

Pornography experiences no such limitation. While the whole nature of men's beings is sacrally malleable through pornography and the accompanying sacraments of male domination, the continual renewal of this sacred language demands only that women's bodies continue to be malleable. Capitalism provides nicely for this contingency. Continual re-connection to the sacred used to be based primarily on the rarefied knowledge of sacred language (as well as the odd artistry mentioned above). The ebb and flow of village life, for example, was continually interpreted and reinterpreted for access to sacred truth by the priests who could read the bible for the masses who could not. Now the sacred truth of male domination is available at every drug and liquor store. It has seeped into almost every other aspect of popular culture. You no longer need to picture yourself with the Holy Virgin. Any woman will do, and will insist that she's a virgin if that's what you're into. The sacred link to the past is here married to the process character of all things capitalistic. The sacred is commodified, tied to the profit motive and eternally reproduced while never losing its concentration on its own authenticity.

Max Weber noticed long ago that the religious meaning that had transformed the west had escaped, leaving behind the domination of economics in western lives and a culture that imagined itself the culmination of history but was actually a nullity -- a society of cold calculation that lacked access to any form of higher meaning. But to the extent that culture in the west has become a nullity, it is a nullity that is obsessed with sex. Sexual meaning, empty as it may seem, has clawed into the iron cage and taken the place that religious meaning left behind. Radical feminism has pointed out the right thing for which to look to understand the subordination of women: the construction of masculine and feminine sexuality. But knowing what to look for is half the battle, we must know where to look for it. If sexual meaning has replaced religious meaning in the west, then it is to analogous depths that radical feminists and any of us who would like to understand male domination must look. And it is in appropriate terms that we must respond. A number of radical feminists have suggested measures that seem to border on advocating the censorship of pornography. Such an effort, of course, is only likely to add to the elements of mystification and the sacred that are already mixed up in pornography. Instead, it is a process of de-mystifying pornography that is in order.

Brian Duff is currently a graduate student in Political Science at UC Berkeley. Reach him at

Copyright © 1998 by Brian Duff. All rights reserved.