Tuesday 17 October 2017

Katie Byrne: What does 'Playboy's' decision to cover up really say about society?

Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne
Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne
Playboy founder Hugh Hefner
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Playboy recently announced that it would no longer be publishing nude photos in its flagship magazine.

The dramatic change of direction was the brainchild of chief content officer Corey Jones, who says women will still feature in provocative poses, just "more PG13".

While the US edition of Playboy has become more avant garde in recent years, the concept has long been dated. "It's just passé at this juncture," said Scott Flanders, Playboy's CEO, who seems to understand that the magazine has as much cultural relevance as a postcard of three G-string-wearing women sitting along a white-sand shoreline.

Playboy's decision must also be largely due to the proliferation of leaked nude photos that hackers have extracted from the phones of A-listers. Miley Cyrus's aversion to clothing and Kim Kardashian's bottom can't have helped either; Kardashian has knocked the bottom out of the market, so to speak.

ALL AMERICAN SMILE: Dani Mathers, the 2015 Playmate of the Year, holds a plaque with the cover of the June 2015 ‘Playboy’ issue at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, California
ALL AMERICAN SMILE: Dani Mathers, the 2015 Playmate of the Year, holds a plaque with the cover of the June 2015 ‘Playboy’ issue at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, California

Actually, we all have. Thousands of 'belfies' taken in bathroom mirrors are probably passing through the WhatsApp server as you read this sentence. We're all erotic photographers these days...

At first glance, Playboy's announcement might suggest a victory for feminism or a harbinger of Neo-Puritanism. On the contrary, it is no longer publishing nude photographs because it can no longer compete with the pornucopia - from softcore to hardcore - that is available online.

"You're now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free," noted Flanders.

It could be said that Playboy, a self-proclaimed catalyst in the Sexual Revolution, has been hoist by its own petard. It could also be said that the decline of 'gateway' men's magazines like Playboy means that teenagers are being introduced to hardcore pornography earlier. Studies bear this out. One-tenth of 12- to 13-year-olds interviewed in an NSPCC ChildLine survey said they fear they are addicted to pornography. Research by the Authority for Television on Demand (Atvod) in the UK says children as young as six are downloading hardcore pornography. Meanwhile, pornographic depictions of violent and dehumanising sexual scenarios are increasingly common online.

The crux of this debate is whether teenagers are compelled to mimic what they see on screen. Some point to the moral panic over horror films and computer games, which turned out to be much ado about nothing.

However, there is no suspension of disbelief when viewing porn, therefore it's not unreasonable to think that many young people are constructing at least some of their sexual repertoire from what they are watching when their bedroom door is locked.

Shelf life: Playboy has been on the Irish top shelves for 20 years
Shelf life: Playboy has been on the Irish top shelves for 20 years

It should be noted that there is no established link between pornography and increased sexual violence. On the other hand, recent research found that some young men rely on pornographic images that they conjure up during sex to maintain arousal. Other documented effects include body-image issues relating to anatomy, as well as a pressure to take part in excessive grooming rituals - again, this relates to both young men and women.

Crucially, the distinct line between domination and degradation is blurring, and that's a concern. Of course, maybe I'm not being "sex-positive" enough. In case you missed the memo, "sex-positive" is the libertarian's new go-to word, and not a medical diagnosis. The term describes a person who doesn't judge the sexual preferences of others, so long as they are safe and consensual.

In short, sex-positivity says that there is no right way to have sex.

Playboy, I hasten to add, is hiring a "sex-positive female" columnist for its new-look magazine. It all sounds terribly open-minded but, ironically, the sex-positive movement is built upon political correctness. The suggestion that the desire to degrade or be degraded does not come from a healthy, positive state of mind would not be considered very sex-positive. Likewise, it is not sex-positive to question sexual desires that have clearly been inculcated by a pornified society or partner.

At the risk of sounding sex-negative, I believe that there is a better way to have sex: and that is to make love.

Bizarrely, both the pseudo-liberalism of the sex-positive movement and the omnipresence of the porn industry have made any discussion on the spiritual and sacred aspects of sex taboo. Sure enough, those words have probably just made you think of virtue, holiness and meandering biblical verses. Why is it that we can't talk about real intimacy, connection and transcendence without sounding like a Joe Duffy caller or a tantric-sex practitioner banging away on her native American hand drum?

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner
Playboy founder Hugh Hefner

Porn isn't going anywhere. There are progressive counter-currents such as an emerging 'ethical' porn industry, but maybe the most groundbreaking approach of all would be to inform teenagers of the many other dimensions to sex. Or at least tell them that it's not all about conquering orifices.

Sex can be carnal just as it can be celestial. It's important that teenagers brought up in the porn age know the difference.

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