On the future of sex (& Emily Witt’s ‘Future Sex’).

On the future of sex (& Emily Witt’s ‘Future Sex’).

During our freshman year of college, I was in a long-distance relationship with a young woman who accompanied her self-pleasure by looking at pictures of Rodin’s sculpture.  Our own physical intimacy had progressed no farther than kissing whilst stripped to our skivvies, so Rodin’s art was appropriately titillating.  He depicted situations more intense than anything she’d experienced, but not so explicitly as to make the mystery seem gross or threatening.  There is no softer focus than smooth swells of marble.

Paris - Musée Rodin: L'Eternelle Idole

Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses has significantly more sexual experience than did my collegiate romantic partner, but he lived in a different world, less saturated by erotically-charged imagery than our own.  Feeling frisky at the sight of a young lady’s full-coverage undergarments, he decides to masturbate in a public park.  Which seems shockingly bold & innocent, simultaneously, that he would do such a thing then and there, but also that underthings far less risque than modern outerwear would compel him to such behavior:

And [Gerty, the young lady whose frillies have Bloom feeling all hot and bothered] saw a long Roman candle going up over the trees up, up, and, in the tense hush, they were all breathless with excitement as it went higher and higher and she had to lean back more and more to look up after it, high, high, almost out of sight, and her face was suffused with a divine, an entrancing blush from straining back and he could see her other things too, nainsook knickers, the fabric that caresses the skin, better than those other pettiwidth, the green, four and eleven, on account of being white and she let him and she saw that he saw and then it went so high it went out of sight a moment and she was trembling in every limb from being bent so far back he had a full view high up above her knee no-one ever not even on the swing or wading and she wasn’t ashamed and he wasn’t either to look in that immodest way like that because he couldn’t resist the sight of the wondrous revealment half offered like those skirt-dancers behaving so immodest before gentlemen looking and he kept on looking, looking.  She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages.  And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively!  O so soft, sweet, soft!

Ulysses was published in the early 1900s, and passages like this one seemed shockingly pornographic.  But by 1973, when Kurt Vonnegut published Breakfast of Champions, the idea that a man would be inspired to masturbate to pictures of women in lingerie, as opposed to fully unclothed, seemed somehow suspect.  Kilgore Trout, a mostly-unheralded writer who was unexpectedly invited to an arts festival, purchases a soft-core men’s magazine that one of his own stories was printed in:

When he bought the magazine, the cashier supposed Trout was drunk or feeble-minded.  All he was getting, the cashier thought, was pictures of women in their underpants.

. . .

I hope you enjoy it,” said the cashier to Trout.  He meant that he hoped Trout would find some pictures he could masturbate to, since that was the only point of all the books and magazines.

Now, however, even the purchase of men’s magazines featuring full nudity or explicit displays of sexuality might seem old-fashioned.  The editors of Playboy, having realized that they could never compete with the plentiful imagery of nude women available instantaneously – and seemingly gratis, since consumers are paying by subjecting their eyeballs to advertisements & their search histories to statistical scrutiny – decided that their magazine would print only racy images of clothed women.

And the sort of pornography that contemporary viewers are enticed by?

In Future Sex, Emily Witt describes her experience attending contemporary pornographic film shoots, but these filmings were sufficiently violent that I won’t describe them, felt queasy reading about them, and strongly wish that they did not exist.  This despite perceiving myself to be a pro-pornography feminist and agreeing with Elen Willis, whose views Witt pithily summarizes by writing that:

Willis criticized the attempts of anti-porn feminists to distinguish between “pornography” (bad for women) and “erotica” (good for women).  She wrote that the binary tended to devolve into “What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.”

I accept that different people consider different sorts of pictures, literature, and film to be titillating, but I dislike the existence of art that blends violence and sexuality.  Many of the men in our poetry classes in the jail have difficulty separating various strong emotions – which I am sympathetic to, since the trauma they’ve experienced give them very good reasons to feel as though these neural wires are crossed – but also means that they have to work hard to separate loving and violent impulses.  They can do it, I’m sure.  Our brains are plastic, and people of any age can learn.  But our world’s saturation with violence makes it harder.

Consider this: by analyzing internet search terms (that data so many of us blithely give away), researchers can predict epidemiological outbreaks in real-time.  I believe this works with flu symptoms, domestic violence, even potential clusters of suicide.  But the search term “rape” is useless for this sort of epidemiological analysis, since so many people typing this word into their browsers are searching for pornography.

It hurts the world to convey that this is reasonable to find titillating.

Or there’s the fact – elided almost entirely by Witt, who mentions only that she eschewed “chaturbate” channels that seemed to originate from a brothel in Colombia – that violent pornography is still filmed using kidnapped women, described by Lydia Cacho in her book Slavery, Inc. (and which description has subsequently led to numerous attempts to murder her).

Thankfully, the company that Witt observed includes brief interviews after each shoot to demonstrate that participation was consensual, but the violence still squiggs me out.  I’m totally fine with pornographic films depicting adult-looking adults engaged in a wide variety of consensual activity, but I hate the normalization of violence.

Although the progression, over time, toward the most extreme depictions of sexuality allowable by a nation’s laws is totally expected.  Despite their plethora of nerve endings, human genitalia aren’t very complicated – even if you include nerve endings throughout a person’s body, there are only so many signals that could be conveyed during sex.  And if all you wanted was to optimally stimulate the physical nerve endings, interpersonal contact could never compete with the pleasures afforded by a vibrator or electrode-lined bodysuit.

(Some goofy trivia, offered up as an apology that this essay has been so bleak so far: human males lack a penis bone, likely because they evolved to be bad at sex.  Males belonging to related species – particularly those in which females have more control over whom they copulate with – have these bones, allowing tumescence and sexual activity to go on longer.  By offering a better ride, males increase their chance of propagation.  Whereas the evolutionary precursors to human males were lazy lovers: if you’re an optimist, you might think that this is explained by their traditional face-to-face mating style, ensuring that women form emotional bonds with specific partners, or if you’re a pessimist / realist, you might think that human males, gorilla-like, employ brutal oppression rather than sexual prowess to keep their partners faithful.)

(Actually, was that any less bleak than what came earlier?  Ooops!  Back to your regularly scheduled essay!)

Most of the pleasure of sexuality occurs in the mind, by stimulating our emotions and imagination.  That’s why we’ve failed to proceed to a future of satiation by Woody Allen’s Sleeper-style machines.  The thought that another human is willing to share certain experiences with you excites the mind.

In a world where Leopold Bloom so rarely espied women’s thighs, Gerty’s undergarments could push him over the edge.  In a world of Playboy and Penthouse, Kilgore Trout could be thought feeble-minded for a similar interest in scoping women’s skivvies.  And in our world, young men must want to see pre-pubescent-looking women degraded and abused, else why would so many companies go to such expense to produce that content?

I found the other chapters of Witt’s Future Sex to be far easier to read.  She is writing about the contemporary sexual mores of the wealthy Bay-Area employees of Facebook and Google.  She sets the tone of the book early, describing an older man in line with her at the airport:

He seemed like the sort of man who would pronounce himself a minimalist and say that everything he bought was selected for its extraordinary craftmanship and beautiful design.  But [his] computer bag was a cheap thing with netting and buckles that said GOOGLE on it.  The person in front of him in line wore a Google doodle T-shirt with Bert and Ernie where the Os would be.  In front of him was a Google backpack.

Until I left San Francisco, it never went away.  It was embroidered on breast pockets, illustrated with themes of America’s cities, emblazoned on stainless-steel water bottles, on fleece jackets, on baseball caps, but not on the private buses that transported workers to their campus in Mountain View, where they ate raw goji-berry discs from their snack room and walked around swathed, priestlike, in Google mantles, with Google wimples and Google mitres, seeking orientation on Google Maps, googling strangers and Google-chatting with friends, as I did with mine, dozens of times a day, which made the recurrence of the logo feel like a monopolist taunt.

This extreme focus on the sexuality of tech company employees is humorous, especially to somebody who recently moved away from Menlo Park.  Her characters are clever, and used that cleverness to become rich, but mistake cleverness for being intelligent or wise.  Their collective mindset is so insular that they remain blithely ignorant of most human experience.

For instance, Witt devotes a chapter titled “Polyamory” to a long description of one pair of her friends’ non-monogamous relationships, including this musing from one of the males involved:

He saw [“hyperbolic optimism”] in the “nontrivial” number of his co-workers who genuinely believed there was a reasonable chance they would live forever, who read the works of Ray Kurzweil and made plans for the singularity.  He saw it in his friends, who saw no reason not to try going beyond sexual traditions that had governed societal behavior for thousands of years.  Few people, he noticed, bothered with the question of whether one would really want to live forever.

Sometimes mocking Bay Area people feels a little cheap, since they often are simply naive, having been totally sheltered from reality throughout their rubber-stamped lives, but many act so outrageously entitled (& indeed are often extremely wealthy) that I don’t feel bad about a little ribbing.  I personally would not want to share a world with a cadre of such internally-motivated people granted eternal life.  And the idea that a single set of sexual traditions have “governed societal behavior for thousands of years” is misguided.

In Sanskrit mythology, an elderly king might ask his favorite traveling monk to spend the night frolicking with his (the king’s) wife in order to produce an heir – since the pair will have copulated with the king’s consent, he accepts the child as his own.  In the BBC documentary Human Planet, we see footage of a Wodaabe “Gerewol,” a fertility ritual during which both married men and women are permitted remorseless flings.  One of the most forlorn shots in the documentary depicts a woman consoling her husband, braiding his hair, after he failed to lure a sexual conquest during his decorated bird-like Gerewol dance.  And despite their kapu system of stringent social control, pre-Christian Hawaiians generally approved of non-monogamous sexuality as long as none of the relations were conducted in secret.

More tellingly, Witt includes a chapter describing a trip she and several friends took to Burning Man.  An artist friend of mine, a writer who composed a much-loved guide to creating beauty despite depression, attended Burning Man in the 1990s and said it was the first time in her life she felt at home.  The people there had the same interests as her: DIY culture, extreme frugality to allow plenty of time for art, environmentalism, and social advocacy.

Witt also thinks that the people attending Burning Man have the same interests as her, but these interests differ slightly from my friend’s:

I wanted to go to Burning Man because I saw the great festival in the desert as the epicenter of the three things that interested me most in 2013: sexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs, and futurism.  But everyone said Burning Man was over, that it was spoiled.  It was inundated with rich tech people who defied the festival’s precious tenet of radical self-reliance by their overreliance on paid staff.

. . .

I would decide for myself.  I rented an RV with six other people, a group organized by a friend in San Francisco.  I think if someone were to draw a portrait of the people who were “ruining Burning Man,” it would have looked like us.

Do-it-yourself, artistic, activist, maker culture … or sexual experimentation and psychedelic drugs?  I mean, don’t get me wrong, sex & drugs are fun and all… but I know which world I’d choose.

On ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and whether or not it’s sci-fi.

On ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and whether or not it’s sci-fi.

The bookshelves at the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project are chaotic.  Not everyone who volunteers there is a big reader, so sometimes people don’t know where a book might belong.  But the bigger problem is with books themselves.  Most — especially the good ones — are about more than one thing.

The shelves have vague categories to make it easier to find a book that’ll be enjoyed by, say, a prisoner who wants to read about Norse mythology, or about classic cars, or about gardening, etc.  But many books could reasonably fit in several different places.  I always use the rule of thumb, “Where would I look for this if I was filling a package for somebody who’d love it?”, but, even then, somebody else’s brain might leap to different ideas after reading the exact same inmate’s letter.

Last week, for instance, a few of us spent a minute arguing about Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.  Not a real argument, mind you, just the kind of friendly debate that people use to distract themselves from feeling sad about the fact that they’re filling a package for a 32-year-old dude who’s been in jail since he turned 19 for possession of small amounts of cocaine.  A little levity helps sometimes.

Image by wplynn on Flickr.

So, Cat’s Cradle?  I say “literary fiction.”  Second choice, “classics.”  But another well-read volunteer said, “sci fi.”  She forwarded the evidence of “ice-9,” a special type of water crystal that could destroy the world.

The book is definitely speculative.  You don’t need to worry that someone will drop a small seed crystal of ice-9 into the ocean and cause everyone to freeze.  But it’s very mildly speculative, I’d say.  Less so that the imaginary drugs in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for instance, or the elevators in Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, or even the packing density of folded paper in Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age.  All of those, to my knowledge, are very rarely considered to be science fiction.

Not only does Cat’s Cradle seem to be less speculative than any of those, but it also features some of my favorite writing about how the general populace interacts with scientific findings.  Consider this passage from early in the book, where the narrator has gone to investigate a famous recently-deceased scientist.

“He was supposed to be our commencement speaker,” said Sandra.

          “Who was?” I asked.

          “Dr. Hoenikker–the old man.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He didn’t show up.”

          “So you didn’t get a commencement address?”

          “Oh, we got one.  Dr. Breed, the one you’re gonna see tomorrow, he showed up, all out of breath, and he gave some kind of talk.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He said he hoped a lot of us would have careers in science,” she said.  She didn’t see anything funny in that.  She was remembering a lesson that had impressed her.  She was repeating it gropingly, dutifully.  “He said, the trouble with the world was…”

          She had to stop and think.

          “The trouble with the world was,” she continued hesitatingly, “that people were still superstitious instead of scientific.  He was if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.”

          “He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday,” the bartender put in.  He scratched his head and frowned.  “Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?”

          “I missed that,” I murmured.

          “I saw that,” said Sandra.  “About two days ago.”

          “That’s right,” said the bartender.

          “What is the secret of life?” I asked.

          “I forget,” said Sandra.

          “Protein,” the bartender declared.  “They found out something about protein.”

          “Yeah,” said Sandra, “that’s it.”

Vonnegut beautifully captures the way science is often treated in the popular press.  Exceedingly important, graced with insight about the secret of life… and yet still the purvey of weirdos.  Other people.  For the masses, it’s enough to read that scientists have discovered something or other, forget the details, and carry on with their lives.

I mean, I do this too.  I read an article that there might be another planet in our solar system — five or so other astronomical objects have peculiar orbits, suggesting that they’ve been influenced by a heavy, perhaps planet-sized, object — nodded, murmured “That’s nice,” but didn’t feel a thing.

Or there was — and this is even closer to the “secret of life” gag in Vonnegut’s passage — the time when I read that astronomers had tallied the Doppler shifts for many distant objects and decided that our universe will not be collapsing in on itself. The current best guess for how the universe will end is that expanding space will push everything apart faster and faster until emptiness abounds. The universe will be dark, every particle lonely and cold.

I read about all that, thought, “Whoa, that’s heavy,” and drew a comic strip. That’s all, though. Unveiled secrets of the universe didn’t change how I live my life.


So, the science behind ice-9?  It’s pretty standard thermodynamics.  When water freezes, there are several different configurations it might solidify into, and each of these has a slightly different stability.  Vonnegut’s ice-9 is a hypothetical configuration that is very stable but difficult to form.

Image by wplynn on Flickr.

Describing this to math and numbers people — to scientists — is pretty easy.  I’d draw a graph that shows a deep valley hidden by a mountain.  I’d say “this is the energy level diagram for ice-9, and even though water would be happiest in its lowest-energy state, it can’t get there because it’d pass through such a high-energy transition state.”  If you were a scientist, you’d nod sagely — “yes yes, we learned all this as undergraduates.”  If you’re not, I can only assume that your eyes would glaze over with boredom.

So here’s an analogy instead: qwerty computer keyboards are ridiculous.  They were designed to make people type slowly.  A world in which everyone used an efficient keyboard layout would be better.  But the process of changing everything would be aggravating.  Having to remember two different layouts — because the computers at the public library would presumably still have qwerty keyboards long after you’d upgraded your rig at home — would make our fingers slow and sloppy.

Or those early white settlers traveling westward through America.  If they could reach California, they’d be living easy.  The weather’s nice, the soil fertile.  But there were dangerous mountains in the way.  While crossing those mountains (my information here comes solely from the Oregon Trail computer game), people were dropping left & right (and having naughty words engraved on their tombstones) from dysentery.

Vonnegut proposed, though, that a seed crystal of ice-9 would lower the energy barrier of that transition state.  This is a pretty common phenomenon, actually.  Ice-9 works the same way as mad cow disease.  Prions are a protein configuration more stable than the functional form but difficult to reach.  Once a small amount of the protein assumes that new configuration, though, it can catalyze the mis-folding of all the rest in your brain.

Just like the suddenly-solid oceans at the end of Cat’s Cradle, prions freeze up the brain.  Then the brain stops working.  Then you’re all done being alive.

A human prion protein.

Just you, though.  Ice-9 killed everybody.  So, sure, Cat’s Cradle is sci-fi-esque.  But quite realistic.  Plus — and I suppose this is the biggest reason why I wouldn’t call it science fiction — Vonnegut wastes little time explaining how his speculations work.  You can believe him or not — yes, his ideas are reasonable, but he feels no imperative to prove that to you.  Instead he introduces the mild speculation as a way to investigate how people behave.

Vonnegut winks at his readers.  At the beginning of the book his character dutifully recites that if everyone studied science more, the world’s troubles would be over.  But Vonnegut himself glosses over the science of his world, instead lavishly describing the philosophies that arose in response to the discovery of ice-9.

I think the dude’s priorities are in the right place.  I mean, look at our society.  We’re spending huge amounts of money investigating rare childhood diseases, or the routine maladies of age… but we spend a pittance on childhood nutrition, which would benefit people far more.  Our society’s biggest problems are philosophical.  We don’t help those children: they earned their fate by choosing to be born poor.

On penis size, Sports Illustrated, and child pornography.

i-was-in-the-pool-gifAnother scientific study was published recently on penis size.  Veale et al. aggregated data from many previous studies to attempt to provide a best current estimate for the full distribution of sizes amongst men worldwide.

And, sure, you might ask yourself “why?”  The authors work in urology, though.  If someone feels that his penis is too small and wants to try augmentation (and is, reasonably, discussing this with a doctor first and not just replying to those spam emails that guarantee enlargement), it could be helpful for the queried doctor to point at a graph and say, “actually, you’re perfectly normal.”

And, of course, there is the fact that many men are dissatisfied with their own penises.  A study from Lever et al. surveyed twenty-six thousand heterosexual men and found penis-size dissatisfaction in a majority of respondents.  This despite an overwhelming majority of heterosexual women being satisfied with their partners’ penis sizes, and, when women do complain, the complaints are more likely to be that a partner is too large than too small, and (to my knowledge) there are no studies indicating more effective orgasm (for women) from penetrative sexual encounters with larger penises; a majority of women don’t experience orgasm from penetrative sex alone.

(Mildly-related interlude: I’ve mentioned Susan Brownmiller’s “Against Our Will” before, and I may have made her work sound bleaker than it really is.  Sure, it’s nearly five hundred pages on violence against women, but Brownmiller is a particularly engaging guide to lead you through an accounting of those horrors.  For instance, here is a charming passage from her book about word usage:

The poet Adrienne Rich wrote the line “This is the oppressor’s language.”  I borrow her phrase now for a small digression into male semantics.  The dictionary definition of “vulnerable” is “susceptible to being wounded or hurt, or open to attack or assault.”  The opposite of vulnerable” would be “impregnable” or “impenetrable.”  The sex act, which can result in pregnancy, has as its modus operandi something men call “penetration.”  “Penetration,” however, describes what the man does.  The feminist Barbara Mehrhof has suggested that if women were in charge of sex and the language, the same act could well be called “enclosure”–a revolutionary concept I’m afraid the world is not yet ready for.  (To further digress, in the Latin of Augustine’s day pudenda, mean “parts of shame,” referred to male and female genitalia alike.  In modern usage the term refers only to female genitalia.)

So, my apologies, to both Brownmiller and to you, if my previous reference to her book scared you off.  It’s well worth reading, and not as arduous as the front cover might lead you to expect.)

Let’s get back to Veale et al.’s study then, shall we?  They looked at both flaccid and erect penis sizes.  Which, sure, that sounds a little strange to me.  The authors report that “there may be greater unreliability in the measure of flaccid stretched length.”  I’m surprised any researcher would spend time measuring a flaccid penis.  Temperature, activity level and more seem like they’d have a dramatic influence over this measure: there was a reason men thought it was funny for George Costanza to shout “I was in the pool.”  Personally, there were some cold days last winter where, after volunteer-running with the kids on the local cross country team, I had trouble even getting a fingerhold to accurately use the bathroom.

But, for erect sizes, their main findings were that, unsurprisingly, self-reported measures seemed significantly larger than researcher-measured numbers.  And a compilation of best-practice researcher numbers led to a revision of the average measure downward yet again (about thirteen centimeters, with a standard deviation of over a centimeter and a half).

Kurt Vonnegut by scifo on Deviant Art.
Kurt Vonnegut by scifo on Deviant Art.

And, yes, I am male, obviously I understand the psychological sway of these numbers.  There is a story I used to tell about how I’d stopped reading Vonnegut and had begun recommending Murakami instead to everyone who told me they liked Vonnegut’s writing.  My story was, approximately, “I used to read a bunch of Vonnegut.  But I read ‘Breakfast of Champions’ when I was in middle school, and every male character in that book, he describes their penis size.  Which, sure, maybe he was making an important point by doing that, but he also mentioned the average penis size and said it was eight inches.  And, poor little middle school me, I felt horrified!  Barely half that!  Wasn’t until my best friend in college told me the real average was something like five inches that I stopped worrying.”

And, yes, I really did think he’d written the number “eight” in his book, although clearly I was wrong.  I just looked up the passage to quote it for this essay and apparently the number he included was the, at the time, scientific best guess.  Five point seven inches.  I guess I was a poor reader in middle school?

So, yes, a man thinking his penis is too small can feel very down about himself.  Despite sexual partners not caring.  Despite sexual partners who do care more often wishing a penis was smaller.

Men worry about penis size despite, and I think this is a very important point, zero exposure to images of erect penises while out in public.  If you’re comparing yourself to someone else, you’re probably either in a bedroom with him or else watching pornography.

Both (I hope — and let’s assume this for the sake of simplifying my point here) experiences you specifically sought out for pleasure.  And no one will see yours to know how big it is unless (under those same “the world is a nice safe place” assumptions) they like you enough that you’ve stripped down and are aroused.

And still penis-size anxiety is a big enough deal that researchers are devoting effort to clarifying the numbers, and the results of those studies get trumpeted in headline-grabbing news articles.

Obviously, I think the psychological effects of body-image dissatisfaction are a bigger deal for women.  Because the criticisms levied in popular culture are often about things that are always on display (breast size, for instance, and weight, and a face that’s wrinkle-free and child-like smooth).  You can’t go through the checkout line at the grocery store without passing imagery that the average woman would pale in comparison to; even exceptionally beautiful women can’t live up to the magazine-cover ideal, because those magazines feature exceptionally beautiful women who, apparently, still aren’t beautiful enough and need to be photoshopped into further cartoonish perfection.

Presumably you’ve read an article or two complaining about this practice.

I don’t have anything of merit to add to that discussion.

Picture 4Still, I was pretty surprised, and displeased, to see the most recent Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover.  Not because it’s basically pornographic (I think it is, oddly enough because I’m relatively liberal, so I don’t think genitalia should demarcate a hard and fast line between something being pornographic or not), and not even for the reasons Jennifer Weiner discussed in her New York Times article (quick summary: “Great.  A new part of my body to feel bad about”).

No, the thing that upsets me is the cartoonified lack of hair.  Which I think is dangerous, societally, because it serves to normalize child pornography.

Sure, sure, I realize that many women in pornography have presented smooth, shaven fronts for a few decades now.  But there’s a difference.  Perhaps the biggest issue is that those images weren’t eye-grabbingly present while walking through the grocery store.

Because, look, adults have pubic hair.  Children don’t.  And, yes, there is an increasing trend for women to remove the pubic hair near their genitals, but I’d say that many who do so are being influenced by the same pornography-inspired culture that I believe is harmful to children in the first place.  How many of those women would decide to do so if they didn’t realize that many other women were?  The whole phenomenon can be sourced to male desire.  And in part, I assume the motivation is to make women appear more childlike, akin to the linguistic juvenilization inherent in using the word “girl” to describe grown women (e.g. Flo, the progressive insurance “girl”.  Or the pervasiveness of using “girl” as the default noun for collegiate women, which in my meanders through our local campus seems much more common than the use of “boy” to refer to collegiate men, even though the women are typically both physiologically and psychologically more mature).

And, sure, you could argue that what they’ve done for the Sports Illustrated cover is simply to use photorealistic editing to create an image like women’s smooth fronts as depicted in classical art.  But that style of painting comes from eras when pedophilia was not highly frowned upon: prepubescent girls were often married off and subject to spousal rape.  Even in the United States, explicit pornography featuring children could be purchased openly until the 1970s, and former child pornographers were even called upon to testify on behalf of the defense for several prominent abuse cases (as detailed in Ross Cheit’s “The Witch-Hunt Narrative”).  All of which is to say, just because something was done a certain way in our horrible past, doesn’t mean we should keep doing it.

Child_TraffickingI don’t think I’d be as upset about this (“this” meaning, again, the Sports Illustrated cover, which, yes, look, as a heterosexual male, I’m well aware that it’s titillating, but because of the stylized appearance of the cover model it’s titillating in a way that normalizes and even encourages sexual arousal in response to children.  In my opinion.) if children weren’t actually being harmed.  Like, if actual children were not being preyed upon, then, okay, maybe it’d seem more acceptable for pornographic actresses to be depicted in a childlike manner.  Weird, to me, because I think that by encouraging that sort of visceral response to childlike images you would be directly contributing to a world in which children were more likely to be harmed later, but in absence of any evidence of real-world harm, I could see abandoning my argument.

The problem is, many children are harmed.  If you’re curious about this, or simply worried that you’re in too good a mood right now and are looking for something to really gutpunch you with shame for not doing more to help, you could pick up Holly Smith’s “Walking Prey” or Lydia Cacho’s “Slavery Inc.” (p.s. thank you, Elizabeth Boburg, for translating the latter.  Why is your name not on the cover?  With my library’s edition, the only way I even knew to thank you was from tiny font on the copyright page.  Your name appears nowhere else).

“Walking Prey” is primarily Smith’s story about her own youthful travails.  She was taken advantage of by older boys repeatedly while growing up, sometimes in ways that could reasonably be considered sexual abuse, and eventually tricked by an older gentleman into running away with him, under the auspices of starting a career in music.  Instead, he had her work the streets; due to her own ignorance and destructively low self-esteem, she figured that’s all she’d ever be able to do.  Another sex worker took her to a street known for underage women; the sort of emotionally-deadening experiences you might be able to imagine then ensued.  One pair of buyers, after finding out her age (although she lied and said “seventeen,” not fourteen) wanted to take her back home.  In Smith’s words:

“I have been asked why I wouldn’t accept help from these two “johns,” and I can understand why this might be difficult to conceive.  But I must reiterate here a sentiment from chapter 1: as a society, we must stop blaming children for their actions, or lack of actions.  No child victimized through sexual exploitation or commercial sexual exploitation should be blamed for his or her circumstances.  For those who believe these men really sought to help me, I want to know why then didn’t they call the police?  Why didn’t they ask for my age before paying me for sex?  We need to stop placing responsibility on those children and teenagers who are so obviously broken that they believe prostitution is their only viable option.”

Or, right, there’s “Slavery Inc.”, also a very brave book, but whereas Smith’s bravery is in her unflinching display of her own past mistakes, Cacho is brave in that her words might well get her killed.  She took great risks to research her book, and had already suffered for prior publications (she was imprisoned and tortured for her previous work exposing a child pornography ring), and at least one of her collaborators for this book was murdered while she was writing it.  Cacho is apparently tough as nails, and I’m glad she’s out there doing her work.

But, right, the reason why I mention Cacho’s book is that she documents the thriving network of human traffickers and international sex tourism that often targets children.  And these issues are, apparently, dastardly to attempt to combat.  I’ll quote a passage below that addresses some of the difficulties (although it’s worth noting that Cacho doesn’t even mention certain problems, like the fact that you might be tortured by criminals for drawing attention to these issues):

“It is globalization’s Achilles’ heel: the inequality of cultures, economies, and legal systems, as well as the disparity in intervention capabilities among countries and regions, make it practically impossible to follow cases such as those presented here, no matter how well documented they are.  Political will or its absence is a key factor in understanding why human slavery has remained a horrific issue; focusing on isolated cases makes it seem like a criminal phenomenon, a complex conundrum of disparate, individual stories, exaggerated by the fevered imaginations of NGOs.  Beyond opinions and sociological hypothesis are the facts: these women and girls show us the route like sailors in the middle of the night who point to land and warn of the obstacles that must be faced in order to arrive there alive and on time.  Their stories, with concrete details, such as addresses, names, telephone numbers, travel routes, false passports, photographs, and even telephone recordings, are dismissed, just as the voices of the first domestic-violence victims who fled their homes were ignored as they sought better lives free from subjugation and humiliation.”

Or there’s this passage, where she addresses the fact that child prostitution depends upon clients who want to exploit them, which is, after all, the whole reason I think the Sports Illustrated cover is bad, since it normalizes erotic urges toward child-like objects:

“Few men are working to eliminate trafficking and violence against women; and not many of them express publicly the need for a transformation of masculinity, to make it less focused on the objectification of women.  Meanwhile, the number of clients accessing child pornography and brothels where adolescents are enslaved is increasing.  Clients are seeking ever-younger girls because they usually do not know how to defend themselves and it’s easier to get them to cooperate and to work as prostitutes.  However, as Victor Malarek states: “In the majority of investigations and reports on this tragedy, they, the principal consumers of prostitution, are unknown, and, in the end, they become the lost link.”

And that’s my point: children suffer horrific sexual abuse because of adult male demand.  In which case, why would we want to encourage the sexual objectification of children?  Or of photoshopped women stylized (zero wrinkles, smoother skin, no pubic hair) to resemble children?