The Politics of Lust - John Ince
Sexual activist John Ince wants to free North America from an erotophobia prison
by PAUL MATWYCHUK
No sex, please; we’re skittish
To the best of his knowledge, John Ince’s The Politics of Lust is the first book with an image of pubic hair on its cover to receive widespread distribution in mainstream bookstores. And to Ince’s mind, that fact only strengthens the argument he makes in its pages—namely, that North America is in the grip of a vast yet completely unacknowledged (and in many cases unconscious) fear of sex. He calls the phenomenon “erotophobia,” and if you believe his arguments, our unease over the subject of sex has had done nothing but create a culture of self-perpetuating shame, censoriousness and political and legal hypocrisy.
Ince admits his claim that our society needs to be more sexualized seems a little counterintuitive; after all, we’re living in a world where you can see Britney Spears kissing Madonna on the front page of every newspaper, where Maxim magazine is the biggest publishing success story of the last 10 years and where any homeowner can access explicit Internet porn at the click of a button. “[Curmudgeonly CBC commentator] Rex Murphy did a piece on me and he said exactly the same thing,” Ince says over the phone from Toronto. “He had this great line: ‘Erotophobia, exclamation mark! Erotophobia, exclamation mark! There are not enough exclamation marks in the known universe to express my recoil from such a reality-impaired concept! Just look around you!’ But my argument is this: the media completely misrepresents sexuality. What paid professionals do to get attention or cash is not representative of what’s going on in the average bedroom—or the average mind. And to conclude from the media that we are sexually liberated, I believe, is false.”
Ince would even argue that Maxim and other “lad” magazines, which specialize in racy but non-explicit photos of nubile starlets, actually represent a step backwards as far as media portrayals of sexuality are concerned. “You will not find images of genitals in most publications,” Ince says. “You will not find images of genitals in the mainstream news.... When erotic art pieces are shown in mainstream newspapers, there are censorship bars across the genital portion. I just did an interview with Antonia Zerbisias, the media reporter for the Toronto Star, and I argued that this was a violation of journalistic ethics—the first principle of journalism is to tell the whole story, even when it’s unpopular. Journalists are supposed to be against censorship, and so I think there’s something preposterous about journalists overtly censoring their own images. But I think something even worse is going on here—that genital censorship is part of the system which imprints a phobia about genitals onto viewers. And it’s completely non-cognitive.”
The evidence Ince uses in his book to back up his arguments is a persuasive synthesis of scientific studies, news stories, legal cases, social observation and the occasional personal anecdote. Like most people, Ince experienced all sorts of negative messages about sex during his childhood—he tells the story, for instance, about the time his mother freaked out when she caught him “playing doctor” with a girl from the neighbourhood, an emotional display that confused Ince more than it enlightened him. He managed to grow up with a fairly healthy attitude toward sexuality, but he didn’t become politicized on the subject until the early ’80s, when he was working as a lawyer in Vancouver.
“I never would have gotten into this,” Ince says, “if a guy hadn’t walked into my law office and said, ‘The government is opening my mail.’ And I thought, ‘Whooo—another one of those paranoid types.’ So I asked him how he knew they were opening his mail, and he produced a letter on government stationery telling him, ‘We are opening your mail.’ And they weren’t looking for heroin, and they weren’t looking for guns—they were looking for images of adults have consensual, loving, non-violent sex, which had been prohibited as a dangerous commodity ever since 1867. My life changed at that point.”
Ince accepted the case and succeeded in getting the law struck down—one of the first laws to be declared unconstitutional under the new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But Ince remained fascinated by the question of why the government would go to such lengths to prevent individuals from having access to sexual images. “The reasons they gave were incoherent,” Ince says. “And I wasn’t used to seeing intelligent prosecutors and judges and senior ministers of the Crown be incoherent about important issues. If you asked them to dissect a mortgage or analyze maritime law, they could be crisp and efficient, yet when sex was an issue, they resorted to absurdly vague terms.”
After his victory, Ince only became more and more immersed in his investigation of what he eventually dubbed the “sexual hush”—society’s extreme discomfort with any open discussion or display of sexuality. The absurdity of that discomfort became even clearer to Ince when he opened The Art of Loving, a Vancouver “erotic arts centre,” a sort of one-stop sexual emporium which hosts erotic art exhibits and “better sex” seminars and sells sexual books and toys. Municipal zoning laws forced him to locate the business in a remote part of town far away from any schools, Citibank refused to give him merchant credit card services because of the nature of his business, and the Bard on the Beach festival refused to allow an ad for his business in their program (even though, as Ince points out, they were performing Pericles, a play about child prostitution).
Ince sees erotophobia as a purely conditioned phenomenon, and he has little patience for the Mrs. Lovejoys of the world who argue that we must regulate sexual images and sexual talk in order to protect the innocent eyes and minds of children. “I think whenever the ‘kid card’ is played, it’s usually a rationalization for adult fear,” Ince says. “But it’s a very powerful rationalization that will always resonate with large segments of society, so it’s always the first one that’s used.... And yet we do little to shield our children from all the negative aspects of life—from killing, from savagery—so why should normal, loving, healthy sexuality be excluded from that? There’s no evidence I’ve ever seen that would rationally suggest that [denying them that exposure] would assist children. I believe the reason we don’t expose children in that way is because we have this idea that children are asexual, and that any exposure to sex would somehow tarnish their childhood. But I think that’s bogus. I wouldn’t advocate exposing kids to hardcore S&M, but if it’s loving and reciprocal, I have no problem with it. In our store, we have no rule that says children can’t come into our store—our position is that anything we show in our store is healthy and natural.
“Teens are denied a whole lot of real information about sex as well,” he continues. “Their main source of information is either the sensational media or their ignorant peers. It’s a very unfortunate situation. There are a lot of women who have very unhappy first-time experiences with sex. They’re rushed, they’re clumsy. Frequently they’re drunk because they have shame about what they’re doing and they’re unprepared, so they numb their feelings. It’s all part of the whole phobogenic cycle: if you deny children the information that would allow them to play with sex intelligently, they play with it in a very dangerous and unpleasurable way.”
A more honest, mature and empowering approach to sex education is only one of the changes Ince prescribes as a way of combating erotophobia. He wants an end to all laws that place limits on private, consensual sex—and that includes “bawdy house” laws and anti-prostitution statutes as well as obscenity laws, customs regulations and laws forbidding public nudity. “And I wish the mainstream media had more reporters covering these issues,” he adds. “There’s not a single daily newspaper in Canada that has a reporter covering the sex beat. You have niche reporters on film, gardening, cars, but no one doing that kind of specialized coverage. I think the more those journalists talk about those issues, the more sex will become normalized and it will go through a process exactly like that of racial desegregation.... I think in 30 years, people will look back at some of the practices that are prevalent today and go, ‘Why was everyone so freaked out?’” V
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Content Copyright © 2001 Vue Weekly