Symposium sex sells

albury.jpgThe Charles Darwin Symposium Series is one of several initiatives suggested by highly-paid consultants to resuscitate the somewhat tattered reputation of the Northern Territory’s only university, which Paddy McGuinness famously dismissed as “a so-called university which has never been much more than a jumped-up hairdressing college“. One of the consultants’ other initiatives was to change the university’s name from “Northern Territory University” to “Charles Darwin University”.

Whether any of these rebadging efforts have had any real positive effect isn’t obvious to this loyal servant of the troppo academy, but the Symposium Series at least occasionally delivers some free entertainment to enliven the otherwise humdrum drudgery of the typical academic day. The next Symposium Series is scheduled for 2 and 3 June, and its unifying title is “Creative Tropical City – Creative People in a Creative Place“. It’s mostly about the yartz and urban design, topics in which I’m fitfully interested, so I’ll probably attend some sessions.

However, one presentation I’ll be sure to catch is a paper by Kath Albury titled Let’s Get Creative: Alternate Creative Industries in the NT. It’s about porn:

Who makes pornography, who uses it, and why? How big is the industry in Darwin, and how does it compare with other states and territories? Is pornography a ‘creative industry’?

As to whether porn is a ‘creative industry’, well I wouldn’t label any of the stuff I’ve seen as creative in any sense. It’s mostly tired, tawdry, unimaginative and frequently laughable rather than erotic. But then I’m anything but an insatiable viewer of pornography. Not that I have any moral objections to it, I just find it tiresome, and I regard sex as a participant sport rather than a spectator one. On the other hand, if you can’t get a root and lack the imagination to dream up your own masturbatory fantasies, then by all means indulge.

Apart from performing as comedy sexologist Nurse Nancy along with drag queen Vanessa Wagner, Albury bills herself as a writer, researcher and broadcaster, specialising in sexuality in media and popular culture, and is a Chief Investigator on the Understanding Pornography in Australia research project. Apparently Albury and her fellow researchers received $172,500 from the Australian Research Council for the project, according to that reliable source Andrew Bolt. Nice work if you can get it, better even than being a beach inspector at Collaroy. Leaving aside whether it’s a gross waste of public money (which I reckon it is), this sort of topic can be relied on to get conservatives like Bolt foaming with apoplectic rage:

DESTROY conventional morality and institutions which promote it, like churches, and of course freedom, reason and self-knowledge will bloom, from the towers of Sydney University to the mattress of some wasted street kid.

Of course we won’t get what we in fact now see — many more sexual assaults, rape gangs, more abused children, an army of hookers and, yes, sports heroes “bonding” through group sex, some using women who claim they were raped.

This alleged Canterbury scandal has flushed out half a dozen experts who tend to share Lumby’s faith in the ability of us all to work out a personal code of ethics that doesn’t hurt anyone, not even a please-please-love-me girl in a gang bang.

Michael Flood, a research fellow of the Australia Institute, has studied how men bond through using women, and last week told one paper he had “no problem” with group sex, as long as the women consented.

But at least he worries that gang bangs can turn to rape, which shows he has some notion that men in a rutting pack aren’t likely to be gentlemen with an academic’s prim regard for obtaining informed consent.

Not so Kath Albury, a research associate in media at Sydney University, who said she thought gang bangs could be good for women, as long as they were treated with respect. As if.

“I wouldn’t put the woman down for doing that,” said Albury, who says she rejects “the old moralising constructions of sex”.

As a self-elected member of the post-moral majority, it’s probably predictable that I’d agree with Albury, although like Bolt I worry about the potential of gang bangs turning into violent rape.

Albury pushes a range of ideas about sex with which I also mostly agree, as she outlines in this somewhat incestuously cross-promoting Bulletin article by her fellow porn researcher Catharine Lumby:

Her views put her at odds with academics and feminists who believe sexuality and gender are topics that the public needs to be “educated” about in a serious, non-titillating tone. Albury, in contrast, believes you can’t talk about the politics of heterosexuality without talking about its pleasures.

Her fundamental starting point is that the planet is full of women who like having sex with men. Quite a few of them call themselves feminists. And lots more manage to combine self-respect and a desire to be treated equally with an enthusiasm for bonking boys. But despite copious evidence that many women like sex with blokes, have un-PC sexual fantasies, consume porn and seek out casual, non-missionary position sex, Albury says all these things remain associated with male desire.

Conservatives tend to think women are “above” the more primitive aspects of male desire, while a vocal section of the feminist movement sees porn, promiscuity, and even penetration as irrevocably bound up with the male domination of women. Both groups, according to Albury, have had a crucial and often destructive impact on public debates and policy.

In Yes Means Yes, she argues that what passes as “common sense” or common knowledge about sexuality ignores what people actually do in bed (or on the kitchen floor, for that matter). Normal, healthy sex, we’re told, happens between a man and a woman and is about reproduction and/or love. Having sex for its own sake particularly if you are a woman is still seen as demeaning, perverse or as a sign that you need therapy.

“Why is there an assumption,” Albury asks, “that a woman who wants sex, particularly ‘bad’ or slutty sex, identifies with men rather than women and is being conned or oppressed?”

And yet, as Albury has discovered in the course of her research, popular culture and everyday life experience shows that heterosexual women are capable of being every bit as “perverse” as anyone else on the sexual spectrum. And, as she points out, who’s to say what’s perverse in the first place since all human sexuality contains a fetishistic element.

“Romance novels fetishise heterosexual romantic love and marriage,” says Albury, “And many heterosexual men obviously fetishise blue-eyed, big-breasted blondes or Pamela Anderson wouldn’t be the woman she is today.” But because these expressions of sexuality are seen as normal, they’re not seen for what they are: the eroticising of a particular look or scenario.

Albury isn’t arguing that there’s anything wrong with wanting married, missionary position sex to the exclusion of anything else. She’s just pointing out that even “normal” sexuality has a fetishistic dimension to it.

Bolt would argue that the Lumby/Albury viewpoint rather ignores the role of marriage and sexual fidelity in promoting social stability and the nurturing of children. He has a point, but given high world population; falling birth rates in the developed world; and the high number of single and divorced adults; it’s difficult to argue sensibly that non-reproductive, non-marital sex ought to be forbidden or even socially deprecated. Girls (and boys) just want to have fun, and fair enough too.

Just to ensure that my tireless research into this subject was complete, I hunted out the Understanding Pornography in Australia website, and noticed that one of Albury and Lumby’s co-researchers is Fiona Giles, whose claims to fame include writing books titled Dick for A Day: What Would You Do if You Had One? and Chick for a Day: What Would You Do If You Were One?. I can see I should have been a sexologist rather than a lawyer. It may be trivial but it’d be a hell of a lot of fun.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Craig G
Craig G
2024 years ago

Pace, the Monthy Python election night coverage skit, may I just say that this is the first time I’ve ever been able to be the first comment-boxer on a blog?

Regrettably I’ve just come back to work from a long lunch and I will take a while to come to grips with what I have just read re Mesdames Lumby and whatsherface.

Kath Albury
Kath Albury
2024 years ago

Hi Ken, Craig, all-

In the interests of fair comment/web democracy etc can I make the point that a) Catharine profiled me & my book *well* before we began the project and b) the porn research is designed in part specifically to feed into the traditionally lawyer-approved fields of state & federal legislation, and public policy on classification guidelines etc.

As to the question of marriage, sexual fidelity & child-raising, my whole argument is that making these commitments shouldn’t exclude men or women from pursuing fun & satisfying sex. I’m yet to be convinced that an interest in ethical, non-coercive sexual pleasure makes anyone intrinsically unfit for marriage and family life.

Look forward to seeing you at the forum. Please ask any questions you’d like answered.

cheers, Kath Whatsername