Prostitution and Pornography: What to do, what to do...
Why they are problems, and what must change for them to be stopped
My thesis is simple and comes in two parts:
Prostitution and Pornography are particularly bad because they demand and rely on the commodification of our very bodies, leading to an alienation from an integral part of our very Selves.
The Autonomy-centered ethos that pervades our society not only provides us no weapons to fight back against these evils, but actively pushes participation in them
To explain my thesis, I will work somewhat backwards: first, we need to be reminded how our obsession with Autonomy demands alienation; second, we need to understand why alienation in general is bad; third, we need to understand why the commodification of the body is particularly heinous; and fourth, we need to understand how this ongoing commodification can only be fought against if we meaningfully cease worshipping autonomy, because even harm/consent is incapable of rescuing it.
Part 1: Autonomy demands Alienation
Autonomy demands atomization because any bond that is not chosen represents a limitation on one's free actions. I have been forced into accepting some situation. We see variants of this belief in calls for family abolition and "collectivizing" the youth: "They don't belong to anyone!!!" Furthermore, in the same way that one doesn't choose what family one is born into or what race one is, these things cannot have meaning if autonomy is our most core value. And if they cannot have meaning, we cannot identify with them, since (as Charles Taylor explains) how we identify/what we identify with, reflects the values we hold and what we perceive is meaningful. Any bonds that are not chosen must be dissolved. To identify with them is to appeal to some value outside of autonomy that must (at least in some case) overrule autonomy. And this cannot stand.
An interesting (and perhaps tragic) association with this is the "catching feelings" crowd. Effectively, "feelings" are seen as external to the Self, who is autonomous and must therefore remain detached from, and disengaged with, the world and the sentiments that arise upon contact with the world. Is it any surprise that the "don't catch feelings" crowd overlaps 100% with this Left/Liberal worship of "autonomy"? It shouldn't be. These two go hand in hand. This is the end result of holding autonomy as your chief good.
When we hear about a focus on "consent" or "choice", what we are referring to is two alienated individuals deciding to establish a bond that may be revoked at any moment by one or the other, and which has no deeper significance than the desire of those two (or more) people. 99.9% of the "self-care" industry (lol) is effectively just a way to placate the inner emptiness of your heart when you lose those deep relationships with others and/or when relationships place demands on you that don't let you "have it all" and you become angry you were sold a lie (or assume your relationships are bad).
It is ironic that it is the marxists themselves who have brought to fruition Marx's famous claim:
All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Part 2: Why Alienation is Evil
Alienation from those around you, commodification of (and alienation from) your self and others: this is a profoundly anti-social way of life. It precludes rich, deep connection, and leaves us in a degenerated state.
our modern ideology of autonomy/market logic leads to an odd paradox in which one is always expected to be a value-maximizer (hence self-care and the narratives of "liberation" or "living your best life") and yet presents such a dizzying array of choices that identity is almost never stable. First, if one is truly autonomous, why would one remain in a suboptimal situation? Get out of there! And if you do remain, it's your own fault, of course. You had the choice, and you chose not to. And second, presented with the immense complexity and dizzying array of superficial identity narratives, individuals are in a constant state of disorientation (think Bauman's "liquid modernity").
And so, according to Verhaeghe, we get the result: a kind of "depressive hedonia". And as Bauman noted, in the face of the superficial, individuals will look for deeper connections to establish more robust identities. Of course, this will fail. Because to worship autonomy is to preclude those identities from existing.
Mark Granovetter lays out a clear distinction between instrumental and consummatory motives in his work Society and Economy: the former being action done to achieve specified ends, while the latter being action "for it's own sake" or "not entailing explicit or implicit calculation of consequences of an action." I agree with Granovetter when he goes further are argues that rich/thick relationships such as close friendship or love demand a consummatory stance towards the Other. To instrumentalize the other is to lose the ability to be truly close to them. Instrumentalization, alienation, and commodification go hand in hand.
It is ironic that our main ethical stance, the background ethos of our age, demands that we strip away the very things that make life worth living in order to satisfy an abstract goal of "freedom." We embark on a broad project of instrumentalizing everything around us, including people, in pursuit of autonomy or pleasure and then wonder why we are so unhappy. Is it any surprise that a world of instruments is so cold?
If we wish to exit this hellscape, we require a new and full embrace of care for those around us. Of genuine empathy. Of course, this can only truly begin at the particular level. How can I love "the world" if I am scarcely able to love those around me?
Part 3: Commodification of the Body is a Heinous Case of alienation
Commodification of the body is so heinous because it demands an individual detach "themselves" from a part of themselves. It is a psychological amputation, a mutilation of your full being. It renders us mere ghosts in a machine. You and I are embodied. We are not machines. We are not spirits temporarily trapped in a decaying piece of meat-clay.
Do you know why this is the most radical message one can preach right now? Because our worship of autonomy instrumentalizes and demeans not only everything around us, but ourselves. It is this profound dehumanization that helps justify the ongoing tyrannies that we suffer under.
Prostitution and pornography are pure commodifications of the body, and it should be obvious why this is the case. Going further, our culture of "casual sex" tends to reduce the Other into a mutual masturbation partner. This profound disenchantment of the world is "justified" by calling others moralizers or maintaining recourse to "it doesn't hurt anyone." Pay no attention to the fact that these individuals in their disenchanted worlds tend to be far less happy than those who accept and embrace the deeply spiritual aspects of our existence and do not deny them for fear they will lay down some obligation.
These actions reduce the Other to mere instruments for our own pleasure instead of making us understand the Other as a full human being. Objectification has always existed, but that doesn't mean that it should be given free reign. Reactions to this state of affairs frequently leads to vulgar and hostile extremism. "All women are whores" or "all men are disgusting pigs" are almost always either expressions of instrumentalization or reactions against it. What must be done is to move beyond instrumentalization. To teach people to respect themselves and not fall for the latest fad of "empowerment" and to be able to judge the characters of others well while taking pride in developing their own moral character and standing up for their own values.
Part 4: Why Autonomy can not save us...and can not be saved
There will be no serious challenge to this ongoing instrumentalization, degradation, and commodification of everything up to and including our very Selves until we have a more substantive ethical framework than "do whatever you like so long as you don't harm anyone and everyone consented." This applies to both the sexual sphere and the rest of life. Ignore for now that the Harm Principle and all of its descendants are nonsense. Understand that our obsession with autonomy demands the instrumentalization of ourselves and Others. It is this instrumentalization that is inseparable from commodification and alienation. And is this commodification and alienation that are inseparable from the functioning of Capital:
All of these identities, these bonds, must be chosen. And if they are chosen in this atomized hellworld, they are chosen according to market logic. In other words, they are consumed. In my all-too-human search and desire for identity, I am compelled to CONSOOM.
What is terrifying about this is that we have gone far beyond a commodification of our labour, of our bodies, perhaps even of our minds. We have commodified our very SELVES. For a Liberal, their identity is a commodity. Something to be picked up and tossed aside according to the logic of how much value it gives them. And yet the Left, in its broad endorsement of the value of autonomy, has embraced this wholeheartedly. They usually don't realize it, and they'll fight you tooth and nail if you tell them this, but our leftist friends hold the same core values as the "neoliberal capitalists" they claim to despise. Yeah, maybe you redistribute the means of production. But that change pales in comparison to what you do to the entirety of our social relationships. Autonomy demands atomization, which forces everything (including your very identity) to be governed by market logic. It is as hypercapitalistic as it comes.
Two sides, each willfully self-deluding because the Right refuses to admit that the economic system it supports undermines all the other social values it supposedly holds (tradition, religion, honor, family) and the Left refuses to admit that the social value it holds most dear (autonomy) demands the broad imposition of market logic and the maintenance of the economic system it claims to despise.
Autonomy mediated by harm/consent is not enough. It never has been and it never will be. It cannot be saved by any appeal to "true" autonomy, or autonomy "free" of "domination" or "exploitation". It is autonomy itself that demands commodification, and domination/exploitation are frequently reducible to autonomy. In other words, they smuggle autonomy in through the back door. Either Autonomy and its Harm/Consent mediation must be acknowledged as being not only insufficient as an ethical base but genuinely anti-social, or whatever remaining frayed social fabric exists in our societies will fray to the point of snapping. And I don't think any of us want to live in a world where that happens.
Part 5: On why people reject being wrong
Inside of our heads, we assimilate (or reject) information into our mental model of the world. Each one of us does this. We construct a mental map of how the World truly is, and we then judge further experiences based on that mental map.
It is impossible to escape these maps. I am fairly confident that none of us can directly experience the territory of the World (and if we could, would we ever know we could?).
The issue of course remains that our maps are frequently wrong, and that acknowledging this, consciously recognizing that our maps is wrong, is extremely disorienting and sometimes painful:
And so, I already have my Truth before I encounter a new event. I may not be consciously aware of this, but there is information that can be assimilated and information that must be rejected. If I fail to properly curate my experience to fit my preexisting map, I will fall into existential crisis.
To have your map proven demonstrably wrong is to lose one’s bearings in the world. Where do you go? What do you do? Who do you trust? Your map is useless. You are Lost.
And every single one of us does this, at least to some extent. We have beliefs that are contradictory, areas where we are willfully blind, and projections of patterns onto the world where none may exist.
Most of us would rather drive off a cliff than admit that our map is leading us astray. Because putting down our maps is hard. It is emotionally and psychically disorienting. Because our map of the World reflects not only what we think the World is like, but also how we perceive ourselves.
Bear in mind: we understand the world we inhabit through narrative, motivation, values, and norms. Our maps of the World are simultaneously maps of Moral Space (which is a dimension of the World). And, our identities are directly tied into our values:
“To know who I am is to know where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose.”
(Taylor, Sources of the Self)
Do you know why so many of us do not wish to abandon "autonomy?"
First, it is because it seems so self-evident. Who could possibly declare that freedom is bad?????? Of course, this supposedly self-evident background begins to breakdown under questioning, until fully giving way.
Second, it is because to reject autonomy is to bring me to look into a mirror where I may not like what I see. I may realize that many of the things I do or like to do are not justified. They may be, in fact, wrong. None of us enjoy such a realization. Some of us may be more able to realize and internalize this than others are, but none of us like it.
When I identified as a "Post-Liberal Leftist," I did so because I understood "post-Liberalism" as being a recognition of the positive Power of the ethos of Autonomy, but I understood there needed to be a more substantive framework or scaffolding to support the particular actions we generally associate with "freedom." Ironically, to rescue any state of affairs we might consider truly or genuinely free, we must reject freedom as a good in and of itself, and instead look to the other values that such a world embodies (and those other values do exist).
To do this is to make it an active project to reorient ourselves and others in the world. It is a difficult and painful process, and that is why I call for understanding and empathy. Far too often those involved in porn and prostitution are not offered a helping hand or reconciliation by their critics: instead, their critics feed and intensify the dehumanization these people already suffer. (A similar thing can be said for critics of the "casual sex" culture broadly as well.) If we wish to change the world, we must first embrace it, including all of its shadows and rot, with love and care. And only then can we move towards making the positive changes that are necessary.