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Selling Sexualization

If the National Center on Sexual Exploitation thinks that every entity from HBO to the Department of Justice is guilty of perpetuating evil, perhaps it needs to take a closer look at its core beliefs.

The aughts were weird for sex. They weren't awful: We got better mobile phones at least. But the decade's sexual culture shocks are something we're still being made to justify. Some of that has come down to poor memory, a weak shorthanding of the turn of the millennium as: OMG remember when third-wave feminists slacked off because they got too absorbed in Sex and the City and then Internet porn snuck in and ruined everything. The instrument of our liberation—prestige television? a cable modem?—was also the cause of our "sexualization." Our downfall was, as ever, our fault.

This show terrifies people. (Photo: HBO)

This show terrifies people. (Photo: HBO)

Even at the time, Wendy Shalit cautioned women about the HBO series—in 1999 she wrote, "It is a lament for all the things of inestimable value that the sexual revolution has wrecked, in this city and beyond." Naomi Wolf picked up the thread in 2003, invoking Andrea Dworkin. "The world she had, Cassandra-like, warned us about so passionately was truly here," Wolf cried. "The whole world, post-Internet, did become pornographized." By the time we got to the next decade, conservatives and men's rights activists were appropriating these arguments, shrugging off sexting and revenge porn as something too-liberated feminists brought upon themselves.

In retrospect? It was completely fair for feminist critics to point out, for example, that feminism was mostly adjacent to the sudden availability of rabbit-molded full-motion dicks. Even if it was a trend, people like Shalit and others of less reactionary stripes over-estimated the importance of the idea of buying sexual freedom, especially alongside all the other stuff women are sold. Plus, we likely encountered way more images and articles fluffing certain sexual items, fashions, etc. as politically sound lifestyle aids than such items were actually purchased and deployed. (RIP all those adorable dolphin dildos, though, in landfills and on barges, heading back to sea.)

No new technology has escaped the blame for corrupting women, and they just spawn new words for the process: "pornographized," or "pornified," or the one that seems to have the most traction, "sexualized."

Wolf's fears also don't make a lot of sense once you hold them up to other big leaps in the mass adoption of information technology: the motion picture, maybe, or the printing press? No new technology has escaped the blame for corrupting women, and they just spawn new words for the process: "pornographized," or "pornified," or the one that seems to have the most traction, "sexualized." The terms have become interchangeable in some venues, particularly among those who regard sexualization not as an issue of gender inequality but as a symptom of cultural sexual excess. It's these groups who are much easier to make sense of (and, to be honest, less painful to confront than self-described feminists).

One of those groups is called the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), which was re-named in 2015 after a re-consideration of its original moniker bestowed by clergy: "Morality in Media." The NCOSE re-brand was also a pivot, a move away from straight-up faith-based porn stuff (at least outwardly) and into some feminist-sounding lingo about "violence against women" and "sex trafficking." So, when they issued their annual "Dirty Dozen" list last month, it didn't address immorality in religious terms. "There is clearly a cultural shift taking place," their executive director Dawn Hawkins said, "where corporations and organizations are beginning to get the message that no profit or agenda is worth facilitating sexual exploitation."

Who did NCOSE identify as the worst of the worst? Everyone from HBO and YouTube to Snapchat and Cosmopolitan. You could guess that would appear on this list, but would you expect also to find the Department of Justice (DOJ)? The department's offense is being insufficiently aggressive in attacking obscenity cases. In fact, NCOSE's CEO, Patrick Trueman, once worked in the DOJ as chief of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section.

How did this guy end up fighting porn at the DOJ in the first place? "I made friends with a fellow who was named by the attorney general to head the first strike force office to prosecute illegal pornography," Trueman told the evangelical magazine Prism. "He asked me if I would come be his deputy. They needed to get the public behind their fight against pornography, and since I'd been doing that with respect to the issue of abortion for many years, they thought I could help."

What he'd "been doing" for abortion included being one of the first staff attorneys at Americans United for Life, the anti-abortion bill mill behind such hits as Texas HB2, argued last week at the Supreme Court. Long before Trueman was putting on conferences with NCOSE and holding Washington briefings under his project with feminist attorneys and feminist academics, claiming that pornography "trains" victims of sex trafficking, he was at AUL defending the Hyde amendment, the first major victory for anti-abortion activists trying to chip away at Roe v Wade.

Now NCOSE might seem easy to dismiss. Their latest briefing, which demands the United Nations declare pornography a form of torture, reminded me of those "educational" disclaimers once common on pornographic books and movies (an era well-documented by historian Whitney Strub in his book Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right). So their report to the U.N. starts off respectably enough, with a few pages of references to international law and conventions, before it salaciously detours into litanies of porn movie titles and graphic stories of sex and violence.

We now know there's a whole conservative apparatus in the United States that permits the faithful to consume porn without being tainted by sin. This is what ministers and law enforcement said more than a century ago when they went undercover to investigate saloons and brothels. The guy peeping in the corner is as American as saloons and brothels are. Even the request to distance such prurient activity from "moralism" and to re-define it as in the interest of public health goes back 100 years. Anti-porn activism has thought itself cutting edge and scientific for decades.

There's just no going back to innocence, a time before (someone decided) sex was in peril, because there's no back to go to.

It is still disturbing to see how easily someone so instrumental to attacking legal abortion can harness feminism (or something like it) to their cause, and to see some feminists stand at his side. These kinds of "strange bedfellow" alliances did not go out of favor with Dworkin's death, or the end of the porn wars. But imagine if the feminism NCOSE types read was Nina Power's incendiary One Dimensional Woman, in which she visits some of the usual sites of sexualization protest, and comes to her own conclusions. Women's magazines are absolutely selling us garbage, but, she observes, "Far from whacking you over the head with some specific set of physical ambitions, they create a far more complex set of anxieties and conflicting demands." Even looking at them can disorder the straight line we've been encouraged to draw between woman and object. "Photoshop has turned fashion photography into something you’d want to lick, rather than emulate."

It's like NCOSE hit on something too real in damning the whole world for "sexual exploitation," from the government to media. "What if the self-commodification of individuals is all-encompassing?" Power asks. (NCOSE might have to set their sights on, I don't know, capitalism?) "What if there is no longer a gap between an internal realm of desires, wants, and fantasies and the external presentation of oneself as a sexual being?" This, she says, might seem like a bummer, but it at least relieves of us eternally searching for some unsullied (really, feminine) sexuality, that truth waiting for us if only we can dig it out from underneath all the dirt.

The anti-vice and anti-sexualization groups seek to restore sex from the political, the social, and maybe even from profit. But their fantasies of some lost pure sexuality are part of our sexual politics too. These fantasies matter to them, even if they are only as convincing as the label on any "her first time" clip. There's just no going back to innocence, a time before (someone decided) sex was in peril, because there's no back to go to. Everything already was hardcore.