The New York magazine film critic David Edelstein, after watching Saw, Hostel, Wolf Creek and The Devils’ Rejects, coined the term torture porn. A genre of films which go far beyond the old Nightmare on Elm Street horror fare, which revel, in an almost erotic fashion, the torture and degradation of characters in the most brutal ways. Just like its sexual cousin, torture pornography’s error is the sin of distance. The audience delights in the violence whilst maintaining a distance from what is happening on the screen. The actual consequences and horror of violence are mediated through a film, thus there is no consequence for the audience. This is violence and debasement as a consumer experience. And just as women are objectified in so much sexual pornography, in torture porn, it is the victims which are objectified, reduced to mere conduits of our sadistic hunger.
Torture porn is not the only realm in which our appetite for sadism has grown, just look across the spectrum of popular culture. Witness the rise of television shows such as dexter in which a serial killer becomes the hero, or here in Australia the Underbelly series in which actual brutal underworld killings become sunday night mini series entertainment. Look at the rise of MMA as spectator sport. Or the millions of hours clocked up by millions of users on single shooter and other violent video games. It seems that our appetite for violence, degradation and torture seems endless at the beginning of the twenty first century. Even reality television, which may not show actual violence, still is built upon a sold foundation of humiliation, shame and exposure.
Even sexual pornography now reflects our culture’s fixation on violence and degradation. Hugh Hefner made pornography mainstream in the fifties when he launched Playboy magazine. Hefner’s business model was based on the idea that men wanted to see attractive women naked. A concept which now seems quaint and passe. Just take a listen to Rihanna’s recent single S and M, or Wynter Gordon’s chart topper Dirty Talk, songs primarily bought by tween girls.
Journalist Christ Hedges in his book Empire of Illusion explores the way in which spectacle and entertainment have overtaken contemporary culture. Hedges notes the massive growth of pornography in contemporary life, something most of us are aware of. But what is particularly disturbing in Hedges’ findings, is the way in which pornography is no longer really about sex, but rather degradation and violence. Hedges observes that
‘The most successful porn films keep pushing the physical and emotional boundaries of the women onscreen and incorporate an expanding array of physically and verbally abusive acts.”
As Hedges was writing his stomach churning expose of the contemporary adult entertainment industry, the Abu Gharib images were released, showing the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners of war by guards at the prison facility. The images to Hedges looked almost indistinguishable from the content of hardcore pornography. In some of the photos the guards had deliberately recreated scenes from pornographic films, shockingly many of the images featured female guards, forcing male prisoners to simulate the most humiliating sexual acts. The cultural effect of porn had moved beyond just the objectification of women, to the objectification of all. Hedges writes,
The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy…It is the language of absolute control, total domination..and humiliating submission. It is a world without pity. It is about reducing other human beings to commodities, to objects.
In such a culture pedophillia runs rampant, domestic violence is a plague. The poor are reduced to mere statistics, the victims of war become collateral damage, the mentally ill public nuisances. In such a culture, devoid of empathy, gossip and scandal replace public discourse, screens becomes distancing objects, giving us the illusion that they remove our culpability. We become filled with lust, not just a lust for the flesh, but to see others dominated, crushed, and humiliated. Others become tools of our will.
Fourteen hundred years ago, a culture existed which matched our appetite for violence, and our lack of empathy. The Roman circus was the pinnacle of this appetite for violence. One day as the crowd bayed for blood, a lone clear voice screamed ‘stop!’. A Christian monk from the east, named Telemachus implored the crowd to turn away from it’s blood worship and towards the one true God. Telemachus was inspired by a different vision of humanity’s worth, an dangerous belief, that we were created in the image of a loving God, and that therefore every human life was sacred, reflecting back to us the handiwork of God. Telemachus was promptly killed by the enraged crowd, but his death so moved the watching Emperor, that he ordered the end of the Gladiatorial battles.
How we need another Telemachus today. A strong clear voice, to scream ‘stop’.