The sexual drive is a primal force in our species and as such maintains a near omnipresence in our modes of self-expression. Engaging in the time-honored philosophical debate of trying to draw lines between what is considered art, eroticized art, and pornography can be a fascinating, maddening, and ultimate fruitless endeavor. Justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio stating “I know it when I see it” might be as true as it is pithy but it is also ultimately rather unhelpful.
Sexual materials in some form or other have been with us since our earliest recorded histories and while social and religious attitudes have swung from accepting and approving to harshly disapproving and repressive — especially in Western cultures — eroticized forms of expression have remained ever present.
Advertisers use attractive models and performers to more favorably dispose us to their products because we have measurably more positive responses to those we find attractive. There has been extensive psychological research demonstrating our tendency to view attractive people more favorably, beyond the obvious consideration of romantic partners. From seeing them as more employable, more trustworthy, more positively unique, worthy of higher salaries, as better communicators, we are even inclined to see attractive people as more unique and sophisticated.
Fair or not it is a biological truth we all acknowledge and accept either overtly or implicitly. We groom ourselves for job interviews, we put on our best clothes for important social events, we purchase fashion and cosmetics which flatter us the best, and we pursue physiques and body images consistent with current social paradigms. We seek those who are more appealing and we seek to be more appealing ourselves.
But there has always been a line between what are considered acceptable uses of psycho-sexual tactics and sex as a commodity. It is a line which has shifted more dramatically in the past one hundred years than in the previous thousand but it has always been there.
Depictions of sex and sexuality have been found as far back as 11,000 years ago and while they may certainly have had an arousing effect virtually all have been in the form of religious iconography. Fertility, virility, and sexuality were directly connected to spirituality as the miracle of life was clearly the work of the gods.
For the ancient Greeks and Romans depictions of the exposed and idealized human form were associated with homages and exaltations of the gods, therefore not only permitted by spiritual directives but encouraged and celebrated.
With the rise of Christianity after the fall of the Roman Empire came the view of nudity, and the sexuality it obviously implied, as being something seductively evil. People were given the paradoxical edicts to be fruitful and multiply but be modest as desire was evil and only safe if kept shielded away in private and felt properly ashamed of.
The somewhat profound arrival of the high art erotic nude during the European Renaissance has been explained by some art historians as a backward-facing artistic envy of the free expressiveness of the ancient Greeks and Romans and by others as an artistic parallel to the newly established presence of the upper class courtesan. Sophisticated sexuality aimed at the cultured, educated, and elite.
They were of course decried by some as scandalous and lascivious but they were also being created by undeniable masters of the artistic crafts granting them a degree of credibility more difficult to assail. Even the pendulum swinging more drastically into the sexual repression of the Victorian era was unable pull the frescos filled with nude forms down from chapel ceilings.
Then came the twentieth century and the creation of the entertainment celebrity, the Hollywood icon, the ‘movie star’. The growing cinematic industry began generating new Davids and Mona Lisas every year which were at first only permitted to embrace and modestly kiss one another. As the decades passed the boundaries were pushed further and further by our cultural march towards wanting more and sooner.
By the 1950’s there were still ‘modesty clauses’ in most Hollywood contracts but men were bearing their torsos, women their shoulders and legs, and entire movie plots were allowed to be solely driven by the quest for romantic consummation. The controversial publishing of Marilyn Monroe’s nude photos in 1953 didn’t destroy her career, as was at first assumed, but instead actually helped it. Sexual appeal being the primary focus of her Hollywood persona not doubt played a large part in that fact, the career of someone like Judy Garland would not have likely faired so well.
And now in the early decades of the twenty first century even A-list celebrities are going full frontal in mainstream projects and every few years a creative envelope pusher will release something containing explicit displays of genuine sexual activity.
Whether this is to be seen as the progress of personal freedom or the decay of moralistic decency is an entire other debate but the line has undeniably shifted dramatically. And more than that, it has become increasingly more convoluted and confusing.
As information technologies have progressed with the advent of radio, the telephone, television, and now the internet so too have our societal attitudes prioritizing individual freedoms of access and expression. Debates about what are considered appropriate modes of sexuality or appropriate levels of its presence in publically consumable media were rather less nuanced when such materials were photos, magazines, and eventually video tapes mailed discretely in brown paper packaging.
The debates over where the lines of acceptability should be drawn have shifted from the fire-circle to the altar to the pulpit to the aristocracies to the classrooms to the marketplace, from issues of artistic depictions to the content of broadcast cable television to the guidelines for online platforms. Many different voices and ideologies have taken swings at defining and confining it but our definitions and edicts have remained murky and confusing.
The gremlin haunting our footsteps and confounding our quest for simple answers — the fickle adrenaline rush of novelty.
As a species we are paradoxically afraid of the unknown and addictively enticed by the intrigue of the new and un-experienced. Once we have had an experience we crave the next one and the newer the experience the greater the thrill it produces, our neurochemistry responds to it. Novel experiences generate higher levels of dopamine in our brains, the neurotransmitter which plays a key role in the sensation of pleasure.
Even highly pleasurable experiences can only withstand so much repetition before there is a sharp and noticeable drop in the dopamine response, such as the infamous two month ‘honeymoon period’ for newly physical relationships. Long term relationships, with anyone or anything, take hard work on a multitude of levels due in no small part to the fact that we are hardwired to desire novelty.
The rapid sexual progression of the last half century has been driven on many levels by the at times almost exponential growth of the cultural empowerment and importance of individual preference. If we’ve been there and done that we want to promptly move on to newer and more exciting experiences.
There might have been a time when a flash of bare ankle would make knees go wobbly, there might have been a period when a bare shoulder was enough to make folks light headed. There might have been a time when couples falling out of frame to a crescendo of saxophone music was enough to cause flush faces and shortness of breath. But we’ve been there and done that and if they want to get us hot and bothered they will have to go further than that.
No amount of finger wagging can put the genie back in the bottle and simply saying ‘thou shalt not’ is futile and unsustainable. Not in a world where we can find virtually anything we can imagine with a search engine query, some scrolling, and a few mouse clicks — or have it made to order if we have our credit card handy.
So where has this all landed us?
If nudity is the where the line is drawn what constitutes nudity? Male nipples are fine but female nipples are not, except sometimes they are. Bare butts are okay, if a bit cheeky. Genitals of any kind are completely off limits, unless it is for genuine artistic purposes in which case as long as nothing is in a state of obvious arousal and an age warning is posted all is fine. Clear as mud.
If ‘sexually explicit’ is where the line is drawn what are the parameters? Participants can be passionate with one another they just can’t be nude, unless it is lit appropriately to provide convenient shade or limbs and set pieces are strategically placed. No female nipples can be seen, although sometimes that is fine as long as they aren’t specifically touched unless it is necessary for the scene in which case they can be touch or licked or sucked on or whatever. Absolutely no genitals, unless it is done tastefully then it can be permitted as long as there is no obvious physical arousal or penetrative acts or orgasmic byproduct…unless it is presented as part of a legitimate film in which case and age warning and limited release should cover it.
The only apparent common lines to be drawn are the obvious presence of the male erection or penetrative acts. But even there this only applies in certain cultures. In Western culture certainly but then countries like Japan have an annual penis festival with parades and ceremonies celebrating the phallus and some European countries broadcast openly visible intercourse as part of their reality television programming.
The sexual impulse always has been and always will be a primal force in our species, a drive hounded and confounded by our craving for novelty. All interpersonal connections and interactions are inherently complex and human sexuality is one of the most intensely so. Since separating sexuality from spirituality, placing societal morality between them, we have struggled with wanting something at a powerful and primal level while being told that desire is an evil. The current tactic for finding a solution seems to be trying to separate sex from any connection to either. I guess we shall have to wait to see how well that pans out.
My horrendously over-simplified offering for a possible answer? Look until you don’t want to look any more, then don’t look. If someone else wants to look further than you do that is their choice. Feel free to offer an opinion but ultimately the choice of whether to look or not, to experience or not, is no one’s but our own. We have no right to force others to adopt our choices. The only boundary — ensuring our choice does not cause harm.
Not always a simple task, except it actually kind of is.