Portable pornography in the public sphere: Convenient, offensive or hazardous?
It’s one thing to experience the pornification of culture through public advertising (billboards, subway adverts), among other mediated formats. But what if someone sitting next to you on the subway is watching pornography on their iPod? In a recent Washington Post article, Staff Writer Monica Hesse questions the acceptability of portable porn, also known as “secondhand porn” to those experiencing forced exposure. Due to technological (portable) advancements, the consumption of digital pornography has moved from the domestic to the public. Instead of being subjected to pornography by your “slobby” college roommate, Hesse reports that exposure has permeated public transportation, among other venues. She writes, “But the increasing popularity of laptops and handheld devices, and the prevalence of wireless Internet success, means there’s a greater chance of becoming a bystander to a complete stranger’s viewing proclivities. Like being exposed to the cigarette smoke of a nicotine addict on the street, people are inhaling secondhand smut.”
In her article, Hesse does not maintain that “secondhand porn” is a plague infecting the public sphere. Instead, she writes that it is a steady phenomenon that has become increasingly prevalent –during flights and professional basketball games. She also does not make this a moral issue. Instead, Hesse frames this phenomenon around the public/private debate and cultural dependence on personal technology. She writes, “Perhaps this is the real problem: the increasingly blurred boundary between public and private. If we are so accustomed to burying our noses in tiny screens, carrying our entertainment in and out of the house, perhaps people are simply getting confused as to where they are.” Lastly, she reports that those experiencing “secondhand porn” are not necessarily against adult entertainment. Instead, the fact that they cannot escape it (in certain situations) and the notion that they know what’s on their neighbor’s mind are what is disturbing these “victims.”
Now, I want to take this one step further. Why do these consumers need to watch pornography in public? Why do they need it with them at all times? While Hess successfully frames this issue as a technology-induced blurring of the public and private, she does not push the notion that technology has developed a new type of pornography consumer, which, on the other hand, is typical if you look at the history of pornography distribution and consumption. The introduction of the VHS and DVD brought pornography into the home and the Internet made the consumption of pornography accessible at any time at the click of a mouse. Now, portable devices, such as the mobile phone and the iPod, allow consumers to weave pornography into their daily activities – walking to work, lunch break, taking the subway, between meetings. Now, if you enter the existence of pornography addiction into this conversation, the tone moves quickly from a technological phenomenon to enabling a disease. Of course, this is not the case for all consumers viewing pornography in public, but is has to make you wonder: What is the motivation behind watching pornography in public? Is it really, as Hesse suggests, the result of someone not knowing where they are? Or do we need to pay closer attention to this behavior? I would agree with the latter.