“We live inside an enormous novel”, wrote J.G. Ballard in the introduction to Crash, his 1973 novel about how sex and technology might interact to create a new pornographic reality. Ballard looked at the 1970s world of mass merchandising, advertising, image politics and easy-to-access technology, and concluded that for the writer “it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there.” In Crash that fiction centres on the obsessions of Dr Robert Vaughan, a stalker-sadist who is sexually aroused by staging and participating in real car-crashes on the concrete motorways and overpasses of West London.
Crash was as ground breaking and prophetic in its exploration of the power of fetishism in human sexuality as Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs a century before. For Vaughan it is the technology of the car rather than the experience of domination and submission that is erotically charged:
“What I noticed about these affairs, which she described in an unembarrassed voice, was the presence in each one of the automobile. All had taken place within a motor-car, either in the multi-storey carpark at the airport, in the lubrication bay of her local garage at night, or in the laybys near the northern circular motorway, as if the presence of the car mediated an element which alone made sense of the sexual act.”
By the 1970s cars were already established as sex objects in consumer advertising. But Ballard’s leap into “auto erotic” sex on wheels was profoundly shocking and the media of the day condemned both Ballard and the book. Outrage also greeted David Cronenberg’s 1996 film of the novel, starring James Spader as Vaughan, and Westminster City Council banned the film from central London cinemas. One year later, however, the online publication of pictures of Princess Diana being cut from a wrecked car in a Paris underpass showed the new power of the internet to stimulate our innate prurience for sex, death and automobiles. Vaughan’s voyeurism for West Way traffic accidents, while unsettling, suddenly seemed less shocking. Twenty years on, dogging in a rural car park is now a staple of tabloid television that titillates under the cover of outrage.
For anyone who knows the book by reputation rather than content, I recommend Zadie Smith’s reflections on the novel in last week’s Guardian. As Smith writes, what is arresting about Crash is not the fact that people have a lot of sex in or near cars, but that “technology has entered into even our most intimate human relations. Not man-as-technology forming but technology-as-man-forming”.
When clients relate to me a problem with online porn, Ballard’s vision often comes to mind. Sexual images are now so available on our laptops and phones that pornography has become the new reality of many people’s sex lives. Rather than experience the complex and unpredictable intimacy of sex with someone else, we reach for our device of choice to experience our particular visual turn-on. A simulation of sex by others, be they actors or amateurs, has become the only sex some people can experience. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called this characteristic of pornography the hyperreal. Pornography purports to show us the sex of our imaginations. Yet once we have immediate access to sexual ecstasy, what is there to want or desire anymore? Real sex disappears among the pixels.
Despite the outrage it often generates, pornography is just another manifestation of the 24/7 consumerism enabled by technology capitalism. Most of us would consider supermarkets to be convenient and useful, but we know they exploit farmers and put local shops out of business. Pornography brings sexual ecstasy, pleasure and the ability to experience our fantasies whenever we want. But it also objectifies women and may exploit the vulnerable. Yet its convenience makes it unstoppable. While claims that it changes our brains in negative ways are unproven, it is nonetheless changing our patterns and customs of sexual interaction in profound ways that Ballard began to explore forty years ago.
One of the most chilling aspects of his vision is how little individuals and personalities matter when sex and technology collide. There is an icy quality to Ballard’s style that is reminiscent of much of contemporary porn. As one of his characters says of Dr Vaughan:
“[His] interest in myself was clearly minimal; what concerned him was not the behaviour of a 40-year-old producer of television commercials but the interaction between an anonymous individual and his car, the transits of his body across the polished cellulose panels and vinyl seating, his face silhouetted against the instrument dials.”
One of the most troubling aspects of pornography is not that it objectifies and uses women, but that it demonstrates, in Zadie Smith’s words, how “everybody uses everything. How everything uses everybody.” Users of porn are as exploited and objectified by the technology as they exploit and objectify the focus of their fantasies.
So what do we do about this? As I tell clients who struggle with pornography use, there is nothing wrong with viewing pornographic material that involves consenting adults and does no harm. However, we need to remind ourselves constantly that what we are observing, no matter how momentarily pleasurable, is a hyperreal illusion, abstracted from real bodies, pleasures and personalities. We can choose to view it if we wish, but we need to be mindful that the technology medium that delivers it is also choosing and targeting us with advertising. Mostly we are too lazy or habituated to say no to its convenience. In handing over our pleasure to porn, we run the risk of losing our sexual creativity in a new mass marketing exercise.
As Ballard wrote in his introduction to Crash, “The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to create reality”. Porn is now part of the artificial, techno commercial world that envelops us. If we can be aware of that, then the opportunity exists to step out of it if we choose and explore our own, unique sexual realities with others.