In her book, Resisting Nudities: A Study in the Aesthetics of Eroticism, Florence Dee Boodakian points out that when it comes to cultural restrictions on nudity, apparent modesties quite often tend to draw attention to what is being ‘hidden'(13). The thong bikini is a case in point: where tiny pieces of cloth actually serve to call attention to the very parts of the body that they purport to cover. She muses on the curious fact that while the exposure of Janet Jackson’s nipple during the half-time show during the 2004 Superbowl caused a nation-wide controversy, at the height of political repression in East Germany (GDR) nudism was culturally acceptable (14-15). Similarly, Zizek points out that while hard-core pornography offers viewers the promise of ‘showing all’, there are things that porn is not allowed to show: a believable, emotionally engaging narrative (Looking Awry 110-111).
This brings us to the interesting conundrum of the recently enacted UK law covering the remediation of sexual acts for Video on Demand. While the realistically less likely act of group bukkake is acceptable, female ejaculation, face-sitting, and bottom spanking are designated as obscene and illegal. It is exactly this type of illogical, absurd application of power serves to remind us who, ultimately, wields the power and how little justification is required to wield it.
But, as Zizek would rightly point out, hegemony is far more than the explicit rules. Just as important to its stability is the “the shadowy double of legitimate Power” (Interrogating the Real 280), those unwritten, implicit behaviours that not only constitute hegemonic power, but provide enough of a minor pressure valve to keep the revolutionaries at bay.
“We do not have the public ‘repressive’ rule of law and order undermined by undercover forms of rebellion – mocking the public authority, and so on – but rather its opposite: the public authority maintains a civilized, gentle appearance, whereas beneath it there is a shadowy realm in which the brutal exercise of power is itself sexualized. And the crucial point, of course, is that this obscene shadowy realm, far from undermining the civilized semblance of the public power, serves as its inherent support” (Interrogating the Real 326)
As much as writers in the erotica genre protest that society is still sexually repressive, the reality is quite the opposite. While the mainstream may still make a fuss about a glimpse of nipple at the Superbowl, explicit sexuality is actually so ubiquitous we have to invent programs to stop our kids from stumbling across it on the internet. In a way, the internet has become the obscene underbelly of hegemonic power. Almost everyone watches internet porn, but the mainstream agrees not to discuss it.
It occurs to me that, within the erotica genre, we have a similar thing happening. Any amount of explicitness is permissible, as long as we include the unreality of the Happily Ever After convention. The popularity of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey sets up a similar paradox. The mainstream can accommodate fiction that contains explicit BDSM practice, as long as it is not framed within a realistic context: Anna Steel is a very poorly written 21-year-old virgin who has never masturbated or orgasmed and doesn’t own a computer, while Christian Grey is an entirely phantasmatic and impossibly young billionaire who seems to do very little for a living. But in the end, they’re in love, getting married and having a baby. There is a facile, escapist and unreal aspect to the narrative that distances us from any serious realism. The recent film version of the book is even more of a paradox. While it promises to be the most erotic mainstream film ever made, and there is no shortage of sex scenes, no one ever orgasms.
In truth, consumer culture is constantly acting as our super-ego – not commanding us to behave, but in fact commanding us to ‘enjoy’ – but only within the parameters on offer. In erotica, you can have as much explicitness as you want, but you have to take the totally unrealistic happy ending with it. As Zizek notes, “the unwritten obscene law articulates the paradoxical injunction of what the subject, its addressee, has to choose freely; as such, this injunction has to remain invisible to the public eye if Power is to remain operative. In short, what we, ordinary subjects of law, actually want is a command in the guise of freedom, of a free choice: we want to obey, but simultaneously to maintain the semblance of freedom and thus save face” (335).
There doesn’t need to be a law against erotica that eschews the happy ending or pedantic formulations of safe-sex or consent. The rules of what is ‘acceptable’ are so deeply embedded into the culture that no law is needed. We have been acclimatized to believe the choice is ours. Deviation from that ‘right choice’ doesn’t need to be punished by the law. Obscurity or being shoved over into ‘literary fiction’ is exile enough.
Bookdakian, Florence. Resisting Nudities : A Study in the Aesthetics of Eroticism. Peter Lang, 2008.
Zizek, Slavoj. Interrogating the Real. Ed. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens. London: Continuum, 2010.
Zizek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture. Ed. Joan Copjec, Rosalind Krauss, and Annette Michelson. MIT Press, 1991.