I’ve been writing a lot lately about the nature and importance reading (and non-reading), the role of the reader, and the significance of the printed word. Regardless of the genre, a good book can provide infinite food for thought, and it can certainly be said that reading is good for thinking. But how about pornography?
I just finished reading an essay by Robert Darnton titled “Philosophical Sex: Pornography in Old Regime France.” I approached this essay with excitement because it combined some of my favorite subjects; French Intellectual History, Enlightenment philosophy, forbidden knowledge, and well… sex. It did not disappoint, and in fact, it ended up being about more than I originally expected. I have a good understanding of the use of pornography in pre-Revolutionary France as a vehicle for attacking social inequality, the Catholic Church, and the Absolutist monarchy of the Bourbons. What took me by pleasant surprise was his underlying thesis that “like most forbidden fruit, [pornography] has served as food for thought.” In short, that sex (and reading about sex) is good for thinking.
Darnton argues that in ancien regime pornography, carnal knowledge often lead to the opening of the mind, to philosophical knowledge. In fact, eighteenth century publishers referred to any book that was seditious or pornographic in nature as “philosophical books,” and they were often linked to freethinking. These texts were good for thought both because they were social criticism, and because through them, the reader would be exposed to and guided though various philosophical complexities (in , for example, in Thérèse philosophe, the main character’s introduction to sexuality was paired with Cartesian dualism). In L’Academie des dames (1658), Octavie “gains intellectual maturity as soon as she loses her virginity,” and in the case Thérèse philosophe, it is only after her sexual awakening that she was able to become a philosophe in her own right, discussing physics, metaphysics, and ethics between bouts of physical pleasure. The Enlightenment desire to know (even illicit or dangerous knowledge), their reliance on the senses, and their emphasis on the importance of experience lent itself easily to sexual metaphor.
Darnton goes beyond the specific texts, however, and makes a broader argument that pornography and sexuality, by their very nature, are good for thinking. He states that
sex is not simply a subject but also a tool, used to pry the top off things and explore their inner works. . . . it helps make sense of things.
He maintains that pornography helps people think in abstractions, that since the nature of social norms, cultural taboos, and sexual practices are constantly shifting, thinking about them and discussing them helps us think in terms of ambiguities. Moreover, reading historical pornography, according to Darnton, also offers us a chance to exercise our intellect because it puts us in a position to take an “ethnographic journey” through the customs of the past.
We live in a culture where pornography has lost its philosophical “edge,” and where so much as discussing pornography or sex is viewed quite negatively. Feminists attack pornographers (often correctly) for propagating images of women as powerless, unthinking sex objects, and modern pornography may very well be “antithetical to thinking,” but it wasn’t always that way, and it doesn’t have to be so now. Instead of closing off pornography in some hidden room in our cultural libraries, viewed as illicit and taboo with no socially or culturally redeeming qualities, I think we would find that an open discussion about it can render it useful. Maybe as a way of understanding the shifting nature of our sexuality, or as a means of adding to our arguments and understanding about gender and power, or maybe as a way to deepen our understanding of our culture. By understanding what attracts, what repulses, what excites, and what disgusts us, we can gain a better understanding of both our selves and our times.
In short, sex was, and can still be, good for thought.