Having spent the last three days of my life in Japan, I can’t help but to feel overwhelmed. A society that on the surface seems both socially orderly and culturally conservative is in fact very liberating when it comes to sex.
In the area in Tokyo called Akihabara, where shops for toys and knickknacks and electronic stuff stand side by side with each other, there are many “underground shops” (both literally, as in located in the basement, and metaphorically, as in seeking to be an alternative way of doing things). These shops sell DVDs, graphic novels, souvenirs, toys — all related to sex. And when I say sex in Akihabara, it’s more than just a matter of sexual activity, specifically sexual intercourse, but every thing one can possibly imagine to be relating the sexual organs, of all sexes, of all ages, and of all possible walks of life. In one popular DVD shops, there are literally more than 50,000 pornographic DVDs featuring men, women, gay men, gay women, and transgender; both young and old-looking actors and actresses; both between human beings, between human beings and dolls, and human beings and animals; both consensual and non-consensual; both ordinary and over-weighted; and, so on. So, whatever one has in terms of sexual fantasy, one can always find a DVD (or DVDs) that suit one’s desire. Period.
It’s an interesting, at the same time sort of disgusting, to be at a place like that DVD shop. I had to take a look because I had never been to one and I was curious to learn about how liberating sexual sphere in Japan can be. In Japan, pornography is a $20 billion industry. On the one hand, there are many men who are too socially awkward to want to engage in a conversation with a woman, let alone to be able to engage in other forms of intimacy that would satisfy the woman in a respectful way. On the other hand, there are many women who are lonely. Apart from the obvious fact that quality men are difficult to find in a society that seems conservative on the surface as such, these working women are also direct beneficiaries of the pressure from the society above them to find a man to whom to get married, be a wife, bare a baby, and eventually recognize their conservatively subordinate role from the cradle to the grave — while being fed the information from various media about the possibility of them having the potential to do something else more ambitious which doesn’t necessary have to be the above. Therefore, many of them choose to be alone.
I was already blown away by the first section, which featured only “light” pornography such as a normal couple having sex — because these normal couple were “exaggerating everything,” from the unusually and systematically loud noise that they made to the unusual positions that looked as though they were performing them for a camera since they weren’t natural, which made it easy for me to tell that they may be pretending to be happy. I asked myself: Who would want to see these “fake” things? At least, to be convincing, a pornography has to be based on reality. That said, it’s precisely the point that there is nothing “based on reality” about pornography, in fact, that makes it appealing. By definition, pornography is visual materials containing the explicit display of sexual organs or activity, intended to “stimulate eroticism” rather than aesthetic feeling (otherwise it would be called “art form” perhaps?). So, in order to do so, it has to do away with the mechanical stuff that sex involves, and take it to another level by incorporating a series of cinematic probes to take the viewers on the journey to the place where they will never get to go by themselves.
The second-wave feminists, in fact, have brought up the issue like these in their writings — that pornography is a form of human trafficking. These second-wave feminists are members of a radical feminism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their agenda is to shed light on what was now termed “women’s oppression.” The idea that a pornography could be seen a form of human trafficking has been spearheaded by the legal scholar and a member of this movement Catherine McKinnon who is now teaching at University of Michigan Law School (which is one of the best law schools in the US). To Professor McKinnon, pornography does not have the same effect of trading in something illegal in a direct way as in abducting someone and carrying her over the boarder, but these exaggerated “pornographic” scenes give the ordinary people (both men and women) who happen to watch them a false impression that women would love it when the intercourse is painful, when the penetration involves force, and when the woman says “no” she actually means yes. So, morally, it’s pornography provides a false impression of what a woman needs, which could lead to the demand for prostitution since many of the things seen in pornography are not the kinds of things that can be easily replicated at home by a loving wife or a partner, but only by an experienced professional sex worker. To Professor Catherine McKinnon, not only does pornography, argues the second-wave feminists, posits violence as a form of masculinistic expression, but it also creates “delusion of sexual polarity” that there is the men who are the active doers and there are the women who are the passive receivers of violence. One of the ardent voices of this second wave feminist movement John Stolternberg has provided these following advice:
Don’t let your sexuality be manipulated by the pornographic industry;
Don’t let drugs and alcohol numb through your “sex life”; and,
Don’t fixate on fucking.
So, what should I make of these customers of this DVD shop? At the time when I was there (late afternoon of a Saturday) there’re around 10-20 people in a tiny space in the basement of a building that sold graphic novels (AKA Japanese manga) and other cute souvenirs on the ground floor. While I often do not judge people (because I only have very little knowledge that I have about anyone at all) there’s something in my gut feeling which tells me that it “ain’t right” for anyone at all to have a desire for a graphic rape scene, or a scene in which a man is having sex with an obviously under-aged girl(s) although one knows that it’s just a show and therefore isn’t real. I do judge people sometimes — like, “when they have bad faith, they are dead to me” kind of judgement, so the thing I absolute hate is bad faith.
Can I say that these people, most of whom look normal, just like you and me, have bad faith when they want to see a man, and a woman who looks as though she is under-aged, performing a sex scene in action in a staged and themed cinematic setting? I can’t think of a reason to think that they have bad faith. This afternoon I saw a man in his 50s, whom I could easily mistake as a professor if I see him on the street. He looked very neat; with his suit and tie. And his slightly curry and messy hair with a pair of thick yet stylish professorial eyeglasses made him look just like any normal middle-aged man with whom you could go out for lunch. He’s the one I saw in the “short girls” section of this DVD shop. He was browsing latest DVDs featuring girls who “looked young” (in the adult videos, AKA “AV” world these girls are those who aren’t actually that young; they are just shorter than 150 centimeters and therefore when putting them in “cute girl uniforms” one could mistake them for being the real children).
I observed him for a good 30 minutes — ethnographic style — while walking through a series of very tiny low of DVDs, encountering other browsers who, like this professor-looking guys, could be anyone that we know. They weren’t creepy looking people that you’d like to avoid — they looked like us, normal people. After those 20 minutes, this professor-looking guy was holding about five DVDs in his hand, and all of them were the latest in the “girls being raped” section of that DVD shop. And then he left the shop, looking very very happy. I don’t know anything about this guy. I don’t know whether he has a family, whether or not he has a daughter, whether or not he has ever slept with a real woman, and so on. So, say, he might be interested in watching an actress playing a role of a young girl getting raped by an adult male, but he’s only watching it to satisfy his fantasy without any intention to take it to the next level (in the sense that he has no interest in actually raping a woman) hence he will never hurt anyone, would that be okay?
Many people would say it is not okay. To be a pedophile, or a person who has a sexual interest in children, is never okay in any developed countries, societies, and communities; the idea of which comes from our modern society’s collective and unanimous interest in the well-being of the youngs, as we do believe that they do not possess the full knowledge of the world to make a informed judgement by which they will not be regretting afterwards. We want to protect the children; thus, we keep them off the hands of the older people who want to take advantage of these young people’s lack of capacity to act rationally because of their lack of knowledge about the world — that there are people in the world who only want to take your body as a means to an end. So, even though I am an open-minded person (I believe I am), there’s something in my gut feeling that was telling me this ain’t right, which, an experimental psychologist would call it “intuitive ethics.” This idea of intuitive ethics has to do, precisely, with the idea that most of time something seems wrong and we don’t have an immediate rationale reason to justify it, mainly because the “feeling” itself is based on one of the six domains that are commonly used to judge whether an action is right or wrong, which are:
Care/harm; Fairness/cheating; Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion; Sanctity/degradation; and, Liberty/oppression
In this sense, what my gut feeling tells me is that the action of this guy has a tendency violates at least three of these six spheres. His act of wanting to watch someone being hurt violates the care/harm domain. If he has a wife or is in a committed relationship, his action might also considered as being a betrayal to that vow. Lastly, it’s degrading, as in impure, defiled, and immoral. His intention in watching these DVDs, although he has no intention to reenact the scenes in real life, is considered a practice. Who knows whether or not one day his action would be influenced (and, worse, driven) by his uncontrollable desire to reenact the gruesome rape scene he holds dear? So, in a society that bases its societal premise on the idea that everyone should owe his or her society at least some sense of civility, his action would be considered immoral, and therefore he should be condemned, convicted, and paying for his wrong doing in whichever way his society believes to give him a lesson for being a bad citizen. That said, in the liberal consequentialistic world, his action would be alright.
The master, and one of the founding fathers, of consequentialism Jeremy Bentham himself once makes it really clear that it does not matter when it comes to casual sex: One could have uncommitted sex for fun, with a member of one’s own gender (i.e., homosexuality), with one own’s family member, with an animal, with oneself, and so on — it’s all alright as long as one keeps his sex within his private sphere, and, by that, hurts nobody. Whatever one chooses to do, as long as one doesn’t cause other people discomfort and harm, it’s within one’s domain of natural right, said Bentham (not these exact words but it’s a decent paraphrasing of his).
I am getting into the habit of writing a long post again. Well, but this time I’d like to end it here. The point that I am trying to make here is something that recently (as in today’s afternoon) I had a pleasure of engaging in quite an interesting set of conversations with my colleague Matt who is not working here in Japan. We started off by talking about the kind of love that is considered “non-possessive” and whether or not that is possible (the Sartre and de Beauvoir example came up as the most vivid and obvious of all), and then we went on to debate whether or not it’s possible to have a non-possessive love, in the sense that two people could love each other unconditionally and wholeheartedly, but would also want sleep with someone else from time to tome. In other words, does sex and love are naturally tied to each other? Can one love someone and have sex with someone else? I argue that the concept of love and sex as being one is culturally constructed, mainly by religions and the powerful as they see the idea of monogamy to be more suitable for a society in which stable “married” citizens are the essential element. I don’t think that which is the case before we have social order in the west, and before the modern revolution after WWII in the east that the two concepts are no longer a dichotomy but a part of each other under the banner of “romantic relationship.” I don’t know how to got to this point where I decided to see how far a conservative society such as Japan could go in terms of letting the Pandora’s Box permanently open, but it seems to be the case that in any society that seems on the surface to be conservative about sex there are a lot going on underneath which are detrimental to the psyche of the overall population, such as the underground pornography in Akihabara.