The Politics of Sexual Representation

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As I look back over more than forty years of writing on the politics – always the politics – of the major themes that have preoccupied me, and for which I have created dedicated pages on this website, one thing stands out starkly: the world was profoundly different when I began writing than it is today. In the late 1970s, we still took for granted a web of social safety supports won just before and after World War 2, and we based our public discourse on the values that undergirded them. In Canada, in addition to our social democratic party (NDP), and we had a pretty robust independent left as well – I participated in both. So, we also had a public discourse that used a vocabulary that reflected this larger political spectrum and admitted of many more social possibilities than the one we use today.


But not for long. In 1980, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan launched what would come to be called neo-liberalism. This was an economic program (“free trade,” “globalization”) and its accompanying politics that would eventually nearly do away with the power of the labour movement. At the same time, it would dissolve so many of the pro-social acquisitions of previous decades that even by the turn of the millennium, this would fundamentally change the way we collectively imagined our actual and potential world, and how we spoke about it. One of the trends I addressed during these fateful 1980s was the galloping commodification of sex – both the packaging of sexual activity for profit (pornography) and the parallel sexualization of commodities – a trend I predicted would undermine many of the gains women had made in the struggles of second wave feminism, but that would hurt both men and women.


And then, on top of that, the digital revolution ate everything.


I can plot the massive socio-political changes of the neo-liberal era in the changing idiom and even the contours of the issues I’ve engaged with over forty plus years. But looking back, notwithstanding these changes, I still feel basically okay about the writing – including radio and film work – that I have posted on this website, and I know that a lot of it is still being read and cited in academic and other venues, for which I am grateful. At least the values I expressed in those older pieces are still mine today and clearly, many of the consequences of the trends I called out have unfolded as predicted.


But there is one exception, or, perhaps partial exception to feeling at peace with what I have produced, and this is relative to the body of work on the politics of sexual representation, some examples of which you’ll find on this page. 


It’s not that I find myself in essential disagreement with what I wrote about sexual imagery in the context of the 1980s. In 1981 I became involved in what turned into a major social and feminist mobilization around pornography because I was teaching film studies. I found myself on the board of a film festival that was busted by the Ontario Film Censorship Board for showing an art movie critique of advertising that contained a few minutes of explicit heterosexual intercourse. So, I began writing about censorship to defend that festival from a serious prosecution. For several years thereafter, I found myself also defending a whole series of other such victims – gay bookstores, art galleries, feminist films – that were censored because of explicit sexual imagery while commercial pornography, even the ugliest of it, was never prosecuted. This contrast provided a stunning object lesson which I consistently pointed to: how the power of state censorship could be, and was, used in the most political of ways against communities that the then Catholic-and- conservative censor abhorred, and why it seemed essential to defend the right of sexual speech as well as other kinds of speech against that power.


But I did not see, nor did anyone else for that matter, the arrival and then the total overtake of sexual imagery by internet pornography, nor all the damage this has done over the last 25 years, both to the sexual lives of so many consumers and to ever greater pressures on sex work, including often involuntary, violent and coerced performance. No one foresaw previously unimagined practices such as revenge porn and other forms of social media blackmail and extreme shaming. No one foresaw the incredible role that some of the most distorted pornography, too often inadvertently found by children, too often addiction- forming, would take in the sexual (a)socialization of people, especially, but not only young people. 


As I discussed at length in my book on the politics of sport culture, an ideology that is inculcated in the body through repeated, high-intensity physical practice is more powerful and more affecting than the transmission of free-floating ideas through mental communication only. Tragically, therefore, the messages and uses of much internet pornography, only one click away, 24/7, are very powerful, and hence, very damaging. For far too many people, interaction with this type of imagery has really become a barrier to satisfactory interaction with other humans and to their ability to experience sex with another as an unfolding unique interaction that includes both mystery and ecstasy. On a personal level, for far too many people, this has contributed to withdrawal from sexual life altogether; for too many others, to  impoverishment in relationships because of ingrained habits and expectations. On a social scale therefore, it has contributed to dehumanization and even to a weaponizing of sexual insanity – is it even possible to imagine an “incel” movement without it? Now with the advent of AI sex, this can only get much, much worse.

As I have written with respect to other powerful new technologies – and this is hardly my own idea – their capacity for ill is often as great or greater than their capacity for good. Consider nuclear technologies, chemical technologies and bio/genetic technologies, for example. Our experience with these has shown that if and when there is no pro-social regulation, such that their proliferation is driven without limit by a will to profit or power, they end up harming much more than helping. This applies, in my view, to the internet and social media in general – which have increased the efficacy of communication, true, but have also wreaked absolute havoc in almost every area of life, from increasing the vulnerability of essential services and utilities to undermining healthy childhood development in so many ways to unbelievable degradation and dumbing down of public information and political discourse. And, of course, to digital sex too. 

Yes, some internet pornography and social media sex may be harmless. But far too much of it is not. Therefore, while I have nothing against sexual imagery as a category of expression as such – any reading of my older work will demonstrate that in an instant – I do not want my work against state censorship of the type of sexual representation, within a context of fairly limited accessibility, that we were dealing with in the 1980s to be used to defend either the value or the legitimacy of the internet universe of pornography and social media today. This universe now requires a whole new approach, within the larger challenge of minimizing the anti-social impacts of the digital world, one that lags, alas, far, far behind the technological trends that are so fundamentally affecting us today.  In all spheres, our technological prowess is outstripping our ability to control its development – to govern ourselves, in other words - for the benefit of many rather than the few, and this sphere very much one is one of those.    - VB Dec. 25, 2023

Book: Women Against Censorship (ed.) Douglas and MacIntyre. Toronto 1985.

Nominated for H.L. Mencken Award for excellence in writing related to civil liberties (USA).

Anthology: Art and Censorship.  Sightlines: Reading Contemporary Canadian Art. Jessica Bradley and Lesley Johnstone, eds. 1994.  Artextes editions. Montreal.

Anthology: Who Are ‘We’?. Good Girls, Bad Girls: Sex Trade Workers and Feminists Face to Face. Laurie Bell, ed. 1987. Women’s Press. Toronto. 

Magazine: Porn Again: Feeling the Heat of Censorship. Fuse Magazine. Spring 1987, No. 45. 

Magazine: The Heat is On! Canadian Art Magazine. Spring 1986.

Television: Doing the Bunny Hop the American Way: Varda Burstyn Reads Playboy. Writer and presenter. 1984. Paper Tiger Television Media Literacy Series. New York.

Journal: State Censorship, Pornography and Sexuality. Atkinson Review of Canadian Studies, Vol.1, No. 2. Spring 1984.York University. Toronto.

Magazine: The Wrong Sex.  Canadian Forum Magazine. V.LX1V #741 Aug/Sept. 1984.

Magazine: Censoring Who? Our Times Magazine. November, 1984. Vol.3 No.9

Magazine: Censorship: Problems and Alternatives.  Parallelogramme Magazine. February/March 1984.  Vol.9 No.3 

Magazine: Art and Censorship. Fuse. Fall 1983.

Radio documentary: Public Sex. IDEAS. CBC Radio, 1983.

Four hour-long documentaries on the politics of the pornography debates, the sexualization of advertising and commodities, the censorship of sexually explicit art and the wider spread of sexual issues in public discourse, including thorny issues of representation and censorship.