From Pornography to Withdrawal
By Ariadne von Schirach
The more pornographic our society becomes, the more it loses interest in procreation. As a result of the constant onslaught of stimuli, female desire in particular is faced with irreconcilable paradoxes. And men leave the role of the hunter to women.
The first bare bum I ever saw was Patrick Swayze's in the film "Dirty Dancing." It seemed incredible to me. Back then.
I saw the film again recently. It was the night after the great mambo, and the lovers kissed. Fade to the next morning. He gets up, and for a millionth of a second the camera flashes across a tiny fragment of his naked rear end. I rewound the tape. There was nothing more. I rewound it again. Could this be possible? Could this fraction of a second of naked skin have once triggered my desire? Dirty dancing? A rear end? Even the early morning talk shows are more titillating these days.
What happened, I wonder, as I watch Shakira's latest video, "La Tortura," with relatively little enthusiasm? She's been coated in some kind of black substance, and her body undulates endlessly on the floor. The answer, though, is clear. Bodies -- perfectly curved, scantily clad, and expectant -- are everywhere, but we have become increasingly indifferent. All we have left is arousal. Do we live in a pornographic society?
Pornography creates a desire that cannot be satisfied. Frustration becomes the dominant emotion, and depression is merely a sigh away. Rapper Akon may have filled the music charts for weeks with his lamentations over how lonely he is, but his lyrics seem to have hit a nerve. In a society in which the individual is relentlessly confronted with a massive cultural production of unattainable role models, we find ourselves increasingly under pressure to conform.
How beautiful they are! How slim, how supple and how tastefully dressed! And ever since we discovered what happens in bed with Pamela Anderson or Paris Hilton, it became clear that everyone has good reason to be jealous. We are surrounded by tits, asses and washboard abs, and that's just the glittering surface of the TV and advertising world. The professionals have been surfing the Web long before the likes of Pamela or Paris arrived on the scene, and they're abundantly served by an estimated 1.3 million porno websites with a total of 260 million Web pages. All of this begs the question: What is to be done with our arousal?
In a club recently, a young, blonde bartender's T-shirt struck my eye. It was white, tight and sleeveless, and all it said was: PORNO, ADORNO. "Cool T-shirt," I commented and asked a friend to do a little research. I was curious. Is that the kind of T-shirt they sell these days in expensive boutiques? Did she even know who Adorno was? What would Adorno think about the T-shirt? My friend returned from his mission.
"She glared at me when I asked her if she knew who Adorno was. And then she said that she made the T-shirt herself."
When I walked into the back room of my local video store, I was surprised by the kinds of men I saw there. What I had expected to see was this vague image of an unkempt, disheveled type of guy, but what I saw taught me a lesson -- a well-dressed suit type browsing through the various specialties, completely without shame. And then there was this cute boy from trendy Berlin-Mitte, true to form with his Friday shoulder bag, absent-mindedly scanning the shelves of porn videos.
I shouldn't have been too surprised by the fashion update. After all, the overwhelming majority of customers for porn videos are men, and obviously the hippest guys are also men. Nowadays, the hottest bars in Paris are strip clubs offering lap dances.
But the French aren't the only ones to be open-minded about sex. Pornography has since become socially acceptable in Germany. But it's a development that raises some very important questions: Is this how Germany is wasting its potential? Is it the reason for the seemingly unstoppable aging of our society? Is masturbation primarily a male problem? Apparently not.
A masturbatory society
The typical reaction to pornography is masturbation. If we live in a pornographic society, it seems to follow that we also live in a masturbatory society. After all, people who spend so much of their time sitting in front of a computer with their trousers down or their skirts up have little time or interest left for relationships.
The omnipresence of desirable bodies and the knowledge that we will never look like that creates a paradoxical web of frustration and desire. Taking matters into one's hands is often the only way to resolve this conflict. Ninety percent of men and 86 percent of women do it regularly. And, in the last 30 years, masturbation among women has increased by 50 percent. In her film "Romance," French filmmaker Catherine Breillat portrays a woman who, unable to get what she needs from her partner, roams the streets looking for sex. Well, at least she gets out of the house!
In the 1970s, masturbation was more of a personal affair. In his 1972 performance piece titled "Seedbed," New York artist Vito Acconci spent three weeks masturbating constantly -- but hid himself in a wooden crate. Contemporary art draws a more indirect comparison between masturbation and alienation. In a 1999 series, artist Sarah Lucas uses casts of male arms with suggestively positioned hands to make her point. In one piece titled "No Limits!" the arm is placed in the appropriate location inside a car. The message? We are frustrated, and so we have two options: Either we masturbate to the point of developing tennis elbow, or we have to work on our sexiness. But there's more at stake than that. It's really about survival.
Obviously, success makes people sexy, but nowadays we have to be sexy to be successful. And once we're successful, we become even sexier. At some point, we qualify to procreate. Unless we're too old by that point, that is. But then again, age isn't such a big problem these days, since we're all getting younger, right?
Bare skin is old news
The upshot? Everyone has to be sexy. But the important issue is how we go about getting there. Women's magazines and the new men's magazines offer plenty of helpful tips. The biggest seller, of course, is losing weight, preferably by exercising. Selling fashion with bare skin is yesterday's news. When I drove past Berlin's Alexanderplatz recently, I saw an image of a beautiful blonde girl on a huge billboard. She was wearing a short blue skirt and a tight T-shirt with the words: "Still Single."
The T-shirts are probably a big seller. Self-marketing has become increasingly important, and it doesn't seem wrong to draw attention to one's status, that is, one's availability. But how do women really deal with this issue?
When you see them in Berlin's clubs at night, you can't help but feel that they're rather laid-back about it. They have great bodies, trendy hairstyles, good jobs or clearly defined ambitions, a drink in their hands and a glint in their eyes. The eyes of female hunters.
"Sex in the City" has a number of lessons for the new dating game.
Perhaps emancipation has triumphed after all, I think to myself, as I watch a pack of these women standing at the bar. I notice that men approach them from time to time, often in a sort of mating dance, that the women smile at them charmingly, and that a woman occasionally heads away from the bar with a man. But the women always return, usually alone.
As the evening wears on, the self-confident pack gradually begins to break up, and the quality of the men performing their mating rituals slowly declines. But the women clearly feel that these men are sub-standard, despite the late hour and the fact that their feet are sore. So they return to the dance floor, or they leave the bar, leaving behind a whiff of frustration.
Where are our men, the beautiful faces seem to ask? Where are the intelligent, attractive and energetic men we deserve, we with our perfect style?
The writing is clearly on the wall. It's estimated that about a third of Germans regularly find sexual gratification on Internet porn sites. There are sites that offer a complete laundry list of pornography, something for every possible persuasion, artfully arranged in ways that even the Marquis de Sade would have appreciated.
Denial is the new strategy
Some sites advertise a guaranteed orgasm within 30 seconds. Of course, they offer little more than the equivalent of a meat rack. But then there are women like glamorous fetish star Dita von Teese, who understands what drives desire, female desire: production, disguise and seduction. "I'm not the girl who gets drunk at parties and pulls up her sweater," she says, opting for luxurious lingerie and the flawless pinup styling of the 1940s. But the perfectly made-up and obsequious faces of women who seem to be just waiting for an opportunity to moan, and who attach an alarming amount of importance to the perfect manicure, even when contorted in the most absurd of positions, have become universally available. After all, gratification is only a mouse click away, which helps to explain why sales in the worldwide Internet porn industry now reach into the billions.
And the outside world? Women are becoming hunters and men the hunted. Nowadays, a hot guy gets about as many covetous glances as a hot chick did in the past. This has created a completely new form of behavior: esthetic-narcissistic withdrawal. Wrapped up in their desirability, both self-created and produced by others, these men remove themselves from the market, seemingly able to satisfy their need to be touched by being ogled. Some take the opposite approach, becoming cool hunters and takers, radically acting on their genetic predisposition to sleep with as many women as possible.
The narcissistic type goes hand-in-hand with perfect style, a soft demeanor and the need for closeness, talking and cuddling -- and a healthy dose of sympathy. After all, it's not easy being a sex object. The metrosexual wimp is the commercialized form of the man whose price is unaffordable. At least for anyone but himself -- and his hand. Denial becomes the new strategy.
I went out recently with an agenda. I had planned to meet some friends, and I knew that HE would be there. I was determined, in a good mood and full of optimism. After all, I'd suffered through endless episodes of "Sex and the City," had adequately processed the role of the self-confident woman and, of course, had been hit on by this guy.
Everywhere we go, we are confronted by the beautiful people.
When I arrived at the club and saw the guy, the sparks began to fly. I looked around. The place was full of sharp, sexy guys in suits, beautiful girls in short tops. I shook my hair and focused on him. It turned out that he didn't have any money with him. Of course, I went to the bar and ordered a drink. Two drinks. Three. More drinks. I began to worry about my cab fare, but I knew that alcohol is indispensable for what I was planning to do.
Brothels for women
We talked. And talked some more. I tried to at least halfway satisfy tried-and-true conventions, taking care to flash him the occasional obsequious and fascinated glance. He talked some more. I began to despair. Hours passed, and eventually it was time to leave. It was also time to take action. I made sure that we would walk part of the way home, while the others in my group took a taxi. Everything seemed promising again.
But as we strolled along, I began to feel as if I were walking to school with a boy. He mumbled something about his poor sense of the practical. I thought about asking him if he wanted to kiss me. Impossible! How unromantic, how horrible, what fear of rejection! Finally, I chastely said goodnight, all the while fuming inside. Does one have to do everything oneself?
There are more radical approaches to dealing with the refusal to be masculine. Jenny F., a painter, says she has finally discovered a satisfactory solution. "They should have a brothel for women, a place where all the beautiful guys we all desire and can never get would be available for a small fee. The artificial nature of the encounter would benefit both the unsatisfied women and the men, whose role would finally be clearly defined. Besides, it would be the perfect opportunity for all those starving artists to earn a little extra cash."
Yes, it seems that the time has finally come to channel all that wasted virile energy. Indeed, Express in Cologne recently reported that the Pascha Brothel has augmented their staff with two men. Unfortunately, they're the excessively oiled bodybuilder types, the kinds of men that attract only the most frustrated of housewives.
What's wrong with men? Why are they suddenly in crisis, now that the new millennium has begun? A lack of role models? Unattainable roles? Are they too challenged by the perceived need to be alpha males, fathers and sensitive partners, all at once? Whatever the reason, the results are devastating. Insecure men are going to cosmetic surgeons for liposuction and, in some cases, having their supposedly deficient chests augmented.
It's estimated that up to ten percent of men are anorexic, a number that's steadily climbing. German men can now consult a number of men's magazines for beauty tips. It's the kind of pressure to which women are accustomed; after all, they've had to deal with abstruse expectations for centuries. But now women are back at square one, dreaming of Mr. Right and having fun with Mr. Wrong. And, in reacting to the shy coyness of insecure men, they've even adapted the classic masculine line: "What are you making such a fuss about?"
All of this raises the question of whether this is the goal of feminism or its perversion. Successful women, at least visually, correspond to the ideal of the more primitive male instincts. They're sex kittens with advanced degrees. Women know full well that the classic model of the submissive woman is still the most attractive to men. Is their current approach a more subtle form of submissiveness? And don't we have a better answer than to claim that we have now turned men into sex objects, thereby displaying precisely those behavioral patterns we have denounced for decades, all in the name of emancipation?
A pornographic society is an alienating society
Men, degraded to sex objects, are fighting back, even giving us some of our own medicine. Their new motto is "mancipation." Mancipation means that good-looking young bucks with gleaming white teeth, fully mindful of their market value, are enjoying all the female attention. And they're also screwing for all it's worth. Mancipation also means not letting all those supergirls get them down, holding their own and yet smelling good -- essentially distancing themselves from the metrosexual narcissists.
One thing is clear: A pornographic society is an alienating society, but at least some of the pressures have become egalitarian. We all dance around the golden calf of sexiness and the right look, and gone are the days when rich old men could have their pick of beautiful women. After all, a true princess deserves a true prince charming!
In the past, women were supposed to be pretty and men successful. Nowadays, everyone has to be able to do everything, and the pressure to satisfy that goal, along with the insecurity it brings, has doubled. Expectations rise while birth rates fall. Women have become a more horrific version of men, readily expressing their displeasure over lack of sexual compliance. Men have become insecure and have fled to the Internet. Both are approaching a state of narcissistic lunacy, and solidarity is something that seems attainable only among friends.
In his new book, "The Possibility of an Island," French writer Michel Houellebecq writes that the consistent pursuit of individuality must inevitably lead to the death of love, to a state in which we will be so in love with ourselves that we will no longer be capable of loving anyone else.
Is this true? Have we become the hardened hedonists our grandparents, the pope and the Frankfurt School of social theorists warned us against? Is there any hope left for the visually less-than-perfect players?
What can we do about it? Rediscover Christian values? Get excited about the multimedia pope? Not have sex before marriage, and hope that we find the right person? What about cuddle parties? Turning asexual? Multisexual?
We'll probably just have to take a chance on love, again and again until we get it right, because it's the only thing that is capable of liberating us from our hedonistic reference systems. Now that would be a true revolution.
Ariadne von Schirach, 27, studies philosophy at Humboldt University in Berlin
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
DER SPIEGEL 42/2005 - October 28, 2005