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staelMadame de Staël, famously exiled from Paris by Napoleon for her menacing wit, put her finger on the difference between male and female passion: “The desire of the man is for the woman”, she says, “but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man”.

Two-hundred years later, nowhere is de Staël’s remark better illustrated, and enacted in greater numbers, than in Internet pornography which seems to specialize, as far as I can see, in choreographing illimitable contortions of heterosexual sex, all the while managing an adroit distance from every female erogenous zone known and unknown to man. But more on porn shortly.

In the meantime, Simon May in his monograph Love: A History argues that desire is really only one of many expressions of love, all of which share the same basic structure: a yearning for what he calls “ontological rootedness”. Love, he says daring a definition, “is the rapture we feel for people and things that inspire in us the hope of an indestructible grounding for our life”. We will love only those people or things or ideas, he says, that can deepen the sensation of our being through the promise of a permanent “home” in the world.

May’s History tells the story of how love has been interpreted over the centuries in the particular collection of cultures we call “Western”. He traces our modern conception of love to the marriage of ideas between Hebrew scripture and Greek philosophy: Plato argued the idea of love as the path to wholeness, while Christianity asserted love as the path to the divine.

Since then love has undergone several seismic transformations. Having discovered an unprecedented power to love and achieve friendship with God, humans soon found themselves worthy of the sort of love formerly reserved for God. As the role of religion declined over the centuries, men and women came to expect their secular love to take over where God’s love left off. In their folly – indeed their hubris, says May – humans now believe that true love is unconditional, eternal, and selfless. In this sense, May’s history of love is a cautionary tale. Love has become overloaded, he argues, and our relationships are lumbering under these dangerous illusions.

May proffers his final conjecture with a trembling hand: even the idea that we love our children unconditionally is delusive. His reasoning is light on evidence – though perhaps a list of the derelictions of paternal duties on the parts of a good many of the philosophers whose works May discusses – yes, they’re all men – might have made his point more fully. Rousseau, to name but one, personally abandoned every one of his five children to a French foundling hospital because, he explained, they interfered with his work.

“It’s always nice to know”, Neal Pollack once sallied, “that no matter how badly you’ve screwed up your love life, someone else has done far, far worse”. Indeed the biographies of these philosophers of love corroborate that a lover of wisdom and a wise lover are two different people. All May’s philosophers, as far as I’m aware, failed at love themselves. And most had no time for women: Aristotle thought they were “monstrosities” of nature and little more than tamed animals. “Women are meretricious schemers who lay snares”, Lucretius wrote. And in Schopenhauer’s masterpiece of misogyny, On Women, he opined: “The most eminent heads of the entire [female] sex have proved incapable of a single truly great, genuine and original achievement in art, or indeed of creating anything at all of lasting value”.

To redress the lack of a single female voice in May’s history of love, I raise the specter of Andrea Dworkin: “Romantic love, in pornography as in life, is the mythic celebration of female negation. The proof of love is that she is willing to be destroyed by the one whom she loves, for his sake. For the woman, love is always self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of identity, will, and bodily integrity, in order to fulfill and redeem the masculinity of her lover.” Love may be universal but its burdens, if we are to take her point, are not equally distributed.

Dworkin also serves as a transition to Gail Dine’s new book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. Dines, a professor of sociology at Wheelock College, has been agitating against porn for twenty years but Pornland makes explicit that her current beef is with “gonzo porn”. The word gonzo is said to be Irish-American slang for the last man standing in a drinking contest. But Hunter S. Thompson brought it to prominence in the 1970s when he used it to describe the manic and gritty style of journalism he pioneered, inserting himself into the story with, he said, “total commitment, total concentration and a mad sort of panache”.

In the 1990s gonzo was applied to an emerging style of “reality porn” that not only acknowledged the presence of the camera in a scene but its operator was often made an active participant in the sex. Gonzo porn dispensed with the corny narratives of bygone porn and headed straight to the orifice action – preferably but not exclusively anal – which it cynically exalts in extreme close-ups and endless montages.

Over time, gonzo porn has come to connote extreme content in porn rather than camera technique. Dines offers a pithy definition: “gonzo porn is hard-core, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debased”.

This new style of porn was the subject of the 2001 documentary, Hardcore, that follows a 25-year-old, British single-mother, “Felicity”, to Los Angeles (porn capital of the world) where she wants to make it as a porn actress. First up her agent takes her to visit Max Hardcore who specializes in getting actresses to dress up as little girls and allow him to spit and urinate in their mouths, choke and gag them with his penis or fist, and insert gynecological instruments into their rectums in order to enlarge them to the utmost degree. “We have a saying around here”, he tells Felicity as he anally rapes her, “we’re not happy until you’re not happy”.

Felicity laughs but later flees the set in tears after a brutal off-camera session in which Max nearly suffocates her in a bout of oral sex. Nevertheless she soldiers on in her mission – I confess sometimes the behaviour of women confounds me – and takes part in a film directed by another gonzo impresario who boasts his movies “make Belsen look like a picnic”.

Gonzo porn is not vile because Dines says it is. It’s vile because Max Hardcore says it is. That’s how he – and his fans – like it. “By the time I’m done with them”, he says of his actresses, “they’re dead inside”. Depravity is Max Hardcore’s guiding aesthetic, or at least it would be were he not currently in jail on pseudo-child-porn (PCP) charges.

Given the clarity with which Dines maps gonzo territory in Pornland, you might be forgiven for thinking feminists would be among her most ardent supporters. But you’d be wrong. Dines conducts feminist ire like water conducts electricity.

I suspect (indeed hope) Dines’s feminist detractors are not acquainted with the gonzo genre. I suspect they’re fans of female-friendly “boutique” porn (to borrow the euphemism for worthy but unbankable literature) directed by female auteurs who are in no danger of drawing attention to themselves by making Forbes’s Richest People list. I suspect they find their porn-of-choice by googling “erotica for women” or “artful nude photography” and other such feeble yielders. Because feminists defending gonzo porn is like Occupational Health and Safety giving Jackass the thumbs up, or the Heart Foundation putting its tick on a bucket of lard.

On a talk show that aired on the ABC last month, an Australian–based ethicist (whom I’ll leave unnamed due mostly to my embarrassment on her behalf) challenged Dines’s attack on gonzo porn by unveiling a truism that most people don’t buy porn these days: “They’re watching things that other people produce and some of it is really quite sweet and quite hilarious. You know, I’ve seen stuff where, you know, there is like a little nightie hanging on the back of a door. It’s quite sweet”.

Was the Valley-Girl cum ethicist trying to outdo Dines with anti-porn imagery? Or did she accidently click on an outtake from Little Whore House on the Prairie?

But gonzo porn, so the apologist argument goes, is fringe. Max Hardcore, Ben Dover (don’t think about it), Seymour Butts and countless other sadistic clowns are extreme in anybody’s reckoning. But the file-sharing porn site Redtube.com isn’t fringe. In fact in 2009 it was ranked in the top 100 websites world-wide.

At the time of writing, the Redtube homepage is streaming, beneath thumbnails of predominantly anal sex videos, images of a man shoving a woman’s head into a toilet with one hand while giving the camera a thumbs up with the other; a prepubescent-looking girl in a headband sitting on a bed and holding a stuffed monkey to her flat and naked chest (I don’t dare click on it for fear of Task Force Argos banging on my door); and the double-anal penetration of a young woman whose contorted face is pinned to the floor by her penetrator’s foot.

Perhaps gonzo is more mainstream than anybody would care to think. Despite apologist claims otherwise, large sections of the porn industry now make no pretence of representing “healthy sexuality” and other such clichés: there’s simply no money in it. The degradation of women is its stock in trade. Porn star Nina Hartley – who in 2010 quipped, “I work with women who are younger than my breast implants” – admits: “You’re seeing more of these videos of women getting dragged on their faces and spat on, and having their heads dunked in the toilet”.

In How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale – which spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 2004 (if you need extra incentive to read it, each chapter is headed with a line from a Shakespearean sonnet) –porn-star extraordinaire Jenna Jameson explains: “Most girls get their first experience in gonzo films – in which they’re taken to a crappy studio apartment in Mission Hills [LA] and penetrated in every hole possible by some abusive asshole who thinks her name is Bitch”. If the girls are doing gonzo for the money, Jameson predicts their disappointment: “she’ll work for two weeks until she’s only getting paid seven hundred dollars a scene and then, finally, no one wants to use her anymore. So she’ll agree to do double penetration or drink the sperm of twelve guys just to stay working”.

“Say what you want about love but don’t say a word against porn”, a friend warned when I told her the books I was reviewing for ALR, “or you’ll be brandished a wowser”.

But there are worse things than that, I decided as I disconnected the Internet, hung my nightie on the back of the door, and exiled myself to bed, alone, perchance to dream of a good ontological root.

Bronwyn Lea’s review of Love: A History by Simon May and Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality by Gail Dines. First published under the title ‘Love Against Max Hardcore’ in Australian Literary Review (July 2011): 19.

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