Public First Program


Shane Elson


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April 2008 # 2

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Back to Editorials 2008

Porn, Footy and 9-11

What do pornography, 9-11 and Sydney Swans footballer, Barry Hall, have in common? On the surface not much but I reckon it’s worth a look. 

Last weekend Barry Hall punched and concussed an opposition player in an off ball “incident” that was, fortunately for the TV networks, captured on film. The “incident” was repeatedly played on news broadcasts over the next few nights. After I’d seen it a few times I started to notice the reactions of the crowd who witnessed the punch that “would make Rocky Balboa proud”. 

In the background of the focus of the media attention we see quite a few of the punters cheer, clap, punch the air or all three, as Hall knocks his unsuspecting opponent to the ground. While there may have been a gasp or two of anguish or surprise, the overwhelming response from those who saw the punch was euphoric support and encouragement. It reminded me of the scenes in those old Roman Epic movies in which the crowd is booing the poor Christians and hooraying the lions. In more recent times it reminded me of the “we got him” response when Saddam was captured.

I recently produced a program for the radio series I’m involved in. It featured American writer Susan Faludi who has just published her latest book, “The Terror Dream: What 9/11 Revealed About America”. 

Faludi argues that in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, American media resurrected the “wild west” myths of the American male. She argues that many men in the US felt totally helpless and that in turning to archetypes of what men ‘are supposed to be’ the media helped perpetuate those myths. She notes that a growing anxiety among men over sexuality, potency, power and the ability to ‘protect’ what is close to them, was reflected in the stories that emerged from the media construction of 9-11. 

She makes the observation that while men were being encouraged to take on a ‘wild west’ persona, American women were also being influenced by media representations of what a “real” women should be. According to Faludi the media constructed a new woman, the “security mum”. This woman was reminiscent of the pioneer woman. She was obedient to her husband, made sure his children were well groomed and obedient, cooked well and above all, stayed home to ensure the fires were kept burning while her “man” went out to battle the “evildoers”.

While the evidence is clear that neither of these media constructions dominate the way men and women perceive themselves, Faludi argues, in a Saturday Age interview, that they “ripped the bandage off, so we could see the underlying machinery that makes the culture go”. Part of this machinery is our cultural representations of sexuality. 

In another Saturday Age feature, Dr Norman Doidge talks of the way pornography can “rewire the brain”. He uses the term “neuroplasticity” to describe the way the brain can change its structure and the way it functions according to the dominant signals it processes. At the root of these signals are those that respond to pleasure and the greatest of the pleasure causing signals are those involved in sexual activity.

Doidge writes that we have two pleasure systems in our brains. The first has to do with “exciting pleasure”, which he terms “appetitive pleasure” and the other responds to “satisfying pleasure” or “consummatory pleasure”. He argues that as we imagine the response we will get from something, such as sex or a good meal, our brains release pleasure inducing chemicals. These chemicals heighten tension. The second system kicks in when we have satisfied our desire. At this time endorphins kick in and give us a “peaceful, euphoric bliss”. 

Dr. Doidge goes on to argue that “pornography, by offering an endless harem of sexual objects, hyperactivates the appetitive pleasure” and the brains of porn addicts rewire themselves so that they seek out the “exciting pleasure” all the time. He also notes that while the porn addict is engaging his (or her) fantasies, they often experience a sense of shame or even sexual dysfunction with their real life partners. 

The good doctor says, “Pornographers promise healthy pleasure and release from sexual tension, but what they often deliver is an addiction, tolerance and an eventual decrease in pleasure. …an addict goes back for more of his (sic) fix because he (sic) likes the pleasure it gives and doesn’t like the pain of withdrawal”.  

So what do pornography, 9-11 and Barry Hall, have in common? 

I want to argue that they hold up to us a mirror of what we sometimes tolerate and at other times actively cheer on. We have to ask, why, after a round of football in which there were hundreds of displays of strength, agility, courage and determination did the media choose to focus on an isolated act of brutality? Also worth considering is why, in the aftermath of 9-11, did our media never challenge the lies and distortions that were churned out by the cheerleaders of war? Finally, why is it that our media focuses on violence and disaster, which might be described as ‘death porn’, at the expense of actually explaining the reasons why violence occurs? 

I think the reason so many in the crowd cheered when Hall knock Brent Staker out was because they went to the game not to see two teams compete but to hopefully see exactly what they did see. That rush of adrenalin and the brief moment of euphoria that accompanies seeing something dangerous but surviving it is something all of us are familiar with. Just like the porn addict, isn’t it true we seek out experiences that excite and hopefully satisfy us? 

There is nothing wrong in this. It’s basic human nature to seek thrills, even vicarious ones in which proxies, such as Hall and Staker, stand in for us and deliver and take the blows. However, as Dr. Doidge points out, each time we experience something like this it take a little more the next time to get us to the same state of arousal and response. 

Perhaps the danger of not exploring the underlying issues of why violence is allowed to dominate our politics, society and culture is that we are becoming more and more desensitised to it at the expense of the dangers it presents. 

Perhaps the greatest danger is that we will forget the lessons of history. Those lessons in which whole communities did not speak out when atrocious and violent acts were committed in their midst and often by those who claimed to act in their best interests. Maybe one day we will find ourselves on the receiving end of a left hook and wonder where the hell it came from.

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