In The Atlantic a few years ago, Natasha Vargas-Cooper discussed the rise of online pornography and argued that porn exists the way it does because male sexuality is guided, on a kind of primal level, by violence. There is something both immutable and dangerous, she argued, about the male drive when it is unfettered and left to its own devices, uncurbed by the softening forces of social constraint. And what is the Internet, she suggested, if not a kind of morally libertarian free-for-all?
Vargas-Cooper wrote with the kind of sad resignation that is the only logical tone for an argument that the male sex drive is both immutable and, for women, kind of terrible: We are animals, she suggested, and differing attitudes toward sex are a simple matter of biology that neither men nor women can escape.
Playboy, in its way, contradicted that idea. It framed male sexuality not in the manner Vargas did (which is also, really, the manner that so much of human culture has done)—as something animalistic and base and violent. Instead, the magazine treated sexuality itself—the identity aspect of sex—as something that, like food and cars and clothes and other commercial goods, can be bought. And also opted into and opted out of.
Which is another way of saying that Playboy was, in it way, an early adopter of the Buzzfeed listicle. It understood that what it was selling was not actually sex, but a sense of self. It took pornography—one of the longest-standing human art forms—out of the realm of the animalistic and into the realm of the aspirational. Andrew Derkrikorian, a 27-year-old former Playboy reader, told U.S. News and World Report that, as a teenager, he read Playboy—despite the ubiquity of naked women on pretty every other media platform—because, “besides just the nudity, there was a purpose behind every image.” And because, “compared to the girls in the photos today, that was art.”
There is a peculiar paradox at work in this argument, which is that collapsing sexuality into the public sphere allows it to be far more rigorously defined and policed than if it were nobody's business but the two consenting adults. It's the phrase "out of the realm of the animalistic and into the realm of the aspirational" that seems both on the nose and seems, at some level, almost curiously unaware. Was it a good thing that pornography as one of the longest standing human art forms allegedly became aspirational? Couldn't just about anyone propose that it was ALWAYS aspirational?