While I’m broadly in sympathy with this, and think it’s a useful description of a particular dynamic of desensitisation, my inner Laurent Berlant is whispering in my ear that there’s something a bit odd about assuming that moral consistency is the normal human state and that inconsistency is a symptom of degradation or incipient sociopathy.
I would suggest that the problem with porn is not so much that it exposes its consumers to things that are ab-normal with respect to their own conscious standards, but that it establishes its own normativity, its own rigid template of roles and behaviours, and that it does so for essentially mercenary reasons.
A lot of human culture involves the enjoyment, more or less clandestine and disavowable, of cruel, violent, obsessive or otherwise socially unacceptable passions: crime fiction, horror movies, fairy tales, paintings of martyred saints and so on. Contemporary explorations of the dangerous and illicit usually conjure the monster from its box, let it romp around on stage for a bit, then put it safely away again. We’re not good at dealing with a morally ambiguous cosmos; we compartmentalise, and this compartmentalisation has become culturally normal for us.
Porn fits perfectly into this world, plays entirely by its rules (for all its fake “outlaw” credentials), but at the same time is relatively unusual in that it tries to make the box seem like an attractive place to live, to make its consumers resent their reality for being larger and more complicated than its reality. Porn doesn’t really tolerate moral inconsistency or ambiguity either; it simply ratifies the “forbidden” flip-side of our rather timid consumerist enjoyments.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Andrea Dworkin is that she never imagined that a sexuality free of patriarchal domination and commercial exploitation would be safe: she felt that sex was big enough and bad enough to call on the full humanity of both men and women, and that the task of constructing sexual integrity was a daunting and thrilling one. She hated porn because it was ugly, deceitful, misogynist and cruelly destructive; but also because it was in the way, because it thwarted our attempts to imagine something stronger, wiser and more courageous.
I wonder, therefore, about the usefulness of attacks on porn that play up its morally dangerous and corrupting qualities, that suggest implicitly that we should cling to safety and purity. Much porn is vicious, and it can be vile, but it offers its own securities, its own consolations and imaginary solutions: it has its own privileged place among the mental fetters of our culture, and only in its own imagination is it a wild and lawless force assailing that culture from without.