There are many hard things about sex in public, but talking about it is not one of them. Dr. Emily Russell’s intersession course Public Sexuality—perhaps better named What Have I Gotten Myself Into?—turned this taboo topic into an open dialogue in which students discussed the popular fascination with sex scandals, the modern dating scene, and the intersection of technology and hookup culture. Although this professor of literature did not focus directly on English, her course did address one major literary technique: irony.
Media of all kinds generates demand for celebrity scandal by presenting it as though the public will find it shocking. This is a deliberately ironic choice. In truth, the media knows full well that the general public is no longer abashed by these stories, but it adopts this conservative tone all the same to create an imaginary concern that justifies coverage of scandal.
One might see this shameless attempt to draw attention as desperate and unoriginal. Yet rather than grow tired by this oversaturation of prurience, the public takes delight in every last salacious detail, encouraging the news outlets to fill their headlines with the same story that’s been told a thousand and one times before. Our society treats what it knows to be banal and trite as extraordinary and of cosmic importance.
Irony aside, is this something to worry about? The traction and proliferation of these stories is certainly greater now than in the past. The whole reason newspapers cover them so frequently and indignantly is because people become more eager for stimulation as they grow more desensitized to it.
Often, concern for societal behaviors like these is dismissed as overreaction or conservative fearmongering. Statistics, after all, reassuringly purport the current generation to be having less and safer sex than previous generations, suggesting that the decline of morality is a myth after all. Sex scandals have been around generations, goes the assumption. Why should the current generation be any worse for it than prior generations?
Towards the end of intersession, Dr. Russell’s class watched Hot Girls Wanted, a 2015 documentary directed by Rashida Jones (available on Netflix). The documentary follows the lives of several amateur porn stars, girls typically between 18 and 19 years of age. It gives a rather unfavorable view of pornography, a view that—for the most part—comes from the perspectives of both those disillusioned with the industry and the optimistic rookies just getting started.
The girls who eventually left the industry (usually due to lack of demand in a saturated market) expressed their concern over porn’s unrealistic and occasionally abusive portrayal of sex. They worried that people seeing it might get the wrong idea and try to act out what they saw. They especially worried about how it might lead to the mistreatment of women.
Some take the view that such concerns are unjustified. Is it not better when that abuse is pretend, when people are watching instead of going out and doing it?
The short answer is no. When people watch something acted out in that sort of public realm, they’re more likely to be encouraged, not discouraged, to copy what they see. When people watch inspirational movies they’re not deterred from accomplishing great things, they’re pushed towards it. When ideas and actions are glorified and over-publicized, people will cling to them, not evade them. Porn is not a deterrent from irresponsible sex. We need to be more conscious of how public sexuality is promoting abuse within personal sexuality.