The theater behind #Metoo

“Today people grow up with laptops and smartphones and free access to 24/7 hardcore pornography.”

November 6, 2017 02:04
3 minute read.
National Organization fo Women protest in New York, calling for prosecution of Harvey Weinstein

Sonia Ossorio, President of the National Organization for Women of New York, speaks during a rally to call upon Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to reopen a criminal investigation against Harvey Weinstein, New York, October 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/BRENDAN MCDERMID)


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In The Republic, Socrates discusses the role that theater should have in an ideal society. He suggests to a number of Athenian youth the idea of censoring theaters. Socrates warns that theater is dangerous for society (even though he says that he likes it a lot).

Theater, he says, “appeals equally to the nondescript mob... and to the best among us.” It pushes citizens further away from ideas in their pure form and into a world of fantasy. Socrates went as far as to suggest barring playwrights from the city.

It is easy to discard Socrates’ fears about the theater. Yet the concerns that underly it are clearly relevant for today’s society, and to a different sort of entertainment, one more popular now than ever before: sex – and in particular, online pornography.

On the one hand, we are living in an era in which women’s rights and public awareness of sexual violence is probably greater than it’s ever been. This is evident in the #Metoo campaign, which recently began following allegations of rape made against film producer Harvey Weinstein. It has since spread to more than 80 countries.

The #Metoo campaign is an testament to how socially accepted it has become for hundreds of millions (if not billions) of women and young girls to come out boldly against the objectification, harassment and assault they endure.

Our modern agora – the Greek market where ideas were exchanged along with other goods – is in the virtual sphere. Social media is full of opposition to sexual violence, and yet at the same time, online “theaters” are full of it.

If Socrates was worried that the mimesis in Homer’s tragedies is too remote from the truth and that it would confuse the citizens of Athens, one has to acknowledge the same about the 21st century theater of porn.

Just like Socrates’ theater, pornography is a theater show too many of the viewers of which are likely to confuse with reality. And never in human history has the amphitheater been so crowded as popular porn websites are.

According to a study published on Huffington Post in 2013, monthly visits to porn websites are higher than those to Twitter, Amazon and Netflix combined.

Young Harvey Weinstein probably grew up with a couple of rare peeks into his father’s hidden stash of Playboy or Hustler, but the young Weinsteins of today grow up with laptops and smartphones that provide free 24/7 access to hardcore pornography.

A widely shared study by Dr. Gail Dines on today’s hypersexualized society reveals that 88% of porn includes physical and verbal violence toward women.

It is true that a lot of the violence in porn videos is consensual and part of a fantasy that many women have, too. Psychologists Bivona and Critelli of North Texas University asked 355 college women in 2009: “How often have you fantasized being overpowered/ forced/raped by a man/woman to have oral/vaginal/ anal sex against your will?” and 62% said they’d had at least one such fantasy. Nevertheless, the extremity of the contents of a lot of online porn is surely far from what most women would fantasize about, and very few would really want to have their darkest of fantasies fulfilled.

Socrates’ wish to ban all plays was clearly never realized. It is even less likely to be realized today. Neither is censorship truly desirable, even if were possible. There are certainly virtues in traditional theater, and pornography too has its place in a free and liberal society (albeit a very different one from that of the Iliad and the Odyssey).

So if censorship is discarded, what might be a solution? After Socrates and Plato came Aristotle. Instead of censorship, he offered a theory and a critique of drama. In the same way, it’s important not to rely on ephemeral campaigns like #Metoo, effective as they may be, but to institutionalize and modernize education about sex and about wo/men’s rights more generally. Having ongoing conversations about these matters – especially with men and young boys – will not keep them away from the theater of porn. They can, however, become more critical viewers. If it worked for Aristotle in ancient Greece, it can also work for us.

The author is a member of the Labor Party and a sociology PhD candidate.

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