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What's Wrong With Pix 'n' Flix?

by J.

On my table in front of me I have a photograph. There is nothing special about it, it's just one of a million mass-produced colour prints, the kind you get when you take your holiday snaps to the processor if you don't ask for anything special. It shows a young woman with blond hair. She is wearing a green one-piece bathing costume and she is standing in the doorway leading into the kitchen of an ordinary house. She is a pleasant-looking woman, in her late twenties or early thirties, not outstandingly pretty, nor plain, just a pleasant-looking woman. If you look a bit more carefully you might think that perhaps she was a little heavy round the hips, and the bathing costume fits rather loosely round her bust. She looks like a nice girl, and she has a lovely smile. You can tell by her smile that the person taking her photograph is her boyfriend. Her hair has a glossy look, newly washed, and she is wearing a little eye make-up. You can tell she has taken trouble to make herself look nice. This isn't a spontaneous snapshot: it's something more significant. She's standing with her back half turned towards us, and she is looking towards the camera over her right shoulder. The fingers of her left hand rest lightly on the door jamb. She's wearing a high-heeled sandal on her right foot, and of course she hasn't a left foot: her left leg has been amputated about midway down her thigh. Her pose hides her stump almost completely: you can just make out the rear edge and the curve at the end. To the right of the door, leaning against the wall is a white crutch.

The photograph itself is not particularly well made: it has been shot using the flash built into the camera, and the hard-edged shadows are flung backwards beyond her. The photographer has been lucky to avoid the red-eye effect. The other thing that makes this photograph unusual is that I don't know the girl, and the photograph was sent to me as a sample, one of many that I could collect if I were inclined to do so. The going rate for such photographs seems to be about $2 each. This is one of the dreaded photographs that OverGround high-mindedly refuses to advertize or to have anything else to do with because there is something morally wrong with doing so. I'm not convinced. This raises the question: What's wrong with pix 'n' flix?

To answer this question it is necessary to identify the sorts of people involved in the production of photographs and videos for devotees, and to assess the costs and benefits to each of being involved. I believe that there are no differences in principle between the production of photographs and videos so I shall restrict myself to discussing the production of the former.

The selling of photographs of women who are amputees is a special case of the phenomenon of the selling of images of any women. If it can be shown that the selling of images of women is unacceptable in principle then it follows automatically and with no further argument that the selling of images of women who are amputees is also unacceptable. Indeed I would go further than this and suggest that any other criterion is indefensible. I have argued elsewhere that it is quite wrong for able-bodied people to treat or regard disabled people differently from everybody else except in those areas of life that are directly affected by their disabilities.

The first thing that must therefore be discussed is the general question of the morality or immorality of selling images of women. There is no doubt that many men enjoy looking at pictures of that represent sexually available women, and although a few magazines for women are currently published there seems to be much less interest among women that there is among men. I believe that there are compelling reasons why on average men find such pictures more interesting than women find pictures of sexually available men.

There is a very wide range of magazines for men that publish such images and together they cater for a an enormous variety of tastes. The most noticeable feature is that the different magazines are directed at men of different social classes, or to be more precise, at men who fancy girls who belong to particular social classes. In some the models are depicted as working-class girls, in others middle-class or even upper-class girls. The girls are usually photographed in poses that display their breasts and genitals, and social class is indicated by the paragraphs of text that inevitably accompany the pictures, and by the props and background included in the pictures. For the curious it is worthwhile to buy a sample of these magazines as they provide a window into the id of the British male. The most noticeable pattern is that the girls are all slim and that the higher the social class of the target buyer, the taller and slenderer are the chosen models. (Of course we are above that kind of thing, or if we aren't we keep jolly quiet about it.) So if you fancy Sharon you will buy one sort of magazine, and if Lucinda, a different one. These magazines are freely available and however disreputable it is to publish them it is not illegal. They are condemned by two groups of puritans, the Women's Movement, and the Christians, but most people either ignore them or tolerate them. In coming to a conclusion as to whether or not it is immoral to tolerate them we have to consider the impact of such magazines on a number of groups of people. The groups include the models, the people involved with the process of publication, and the purchasers.

The models are almost exclusively very young women. They are paid to strip off and wear particular sorts of garments, and perhaps to undertake acts that they would not otherwise have done, and to be photographed while doing them. There may be an element of coercion in this, and to that extent the process of photographing might be immoral, a girl being persuaded to undertake actions in front of the camera that she would not perhaps have chosen to do under other circumstances. On the whole nobody directly forces a girl to take her clothes off and allow herself to be photographed. It can be argued that girls are forced into modelling just as they are forced in prostitution. Ill-equipped by society to earn a living by other means, a girl might take advantage of her looks, and make what money she can from them. It can be further argued that it is immoral to make a living out of simply being someone rather than by working for your living as most of us have to. It's not quite the same as being royal because you do, at least, have to have physical beauty to qualify you for the vocation, but otherwise it's much the same. You are paid for being yourself, and not for what you do. It could be argued that it is immoral to accept a living from a lucky chance, but that doesn't stop thousands of people from gambling on the football pools every week in the hope of achieving that very goal. Feminists argue that women should not make their images available to men in this sort of way because a woman who does so is presenting herself, and by association, all other women as well, as a sexual commodity, that by being a model she is emphasising the inescapable physical aspects of sex by laying her image open to men, and feminists wish to emphasise that other aspects of women are important. The most important question is, Are the models harmed? Some have been harmed physically, by undergoing breast augmentation and other procedures of unnecessary cosmetic surgery, but a model who resists such pressure is probably not harmed materially. A model who is not paid enough can seek other kinds of jobs. Morally harmed? Perhaps. A model may become excessively concerned with her appearance and may come to think that being a sexual commodity is a desirable state. In retrospect, years later, she may come to feel ashamed of her indiscretions. The touchstone is 'Would you be proud of being a model yourself?' or 'Would you like your daughter to be a model?' and in my case I think not, but then I wouldn't want her to be a fashion model or an actress either.

The second group to be considered are the customers. Are they harmed? In some magazines the women are carefully prepared: legs are shaven, make- up is applied by experts, the hair is carefully dressed. All the presentational techniques of the advertising photographer are then employed to make the product appetising; and when the photograph has been taken, in the darkroom, moles can be painted out, eyes brightened, teeth whitened. Some of the images are so manipulated that the models look as though they have been sprayed with a thin film of varnish giving an effect that makes a Barbie doll seem like a tomboy. Because they are denied sexual access to girls, many adolescent boys form their expectations of what women are like from such glossy and artificial presentations; for them real women who sweat sometimes, and smell of women - wonderful! - who grow hair in their armpits, on their arms and legs, and sometimes, maybe one or two hairs at the edge of an areola, or a faint moustache, might come as rather a shock. The artificial images are stimulants for fantasy and the fantasy leads in many cases to masturbation. A compulsive reader of such magazines might come to prefer sexual fantasy, and the ensuing release stimulated by the images, to sexual relationships with less-than-perfect other people. I have no moral objection to this, but I think that it is worthwhile to find out for yourself if autosexual behaviour is nicer than allosexual behaviour. The third group, the providers, fall into two sub-categories. There are the commercially motivated, and there are the sexual reformers. There is nothing much to say about the first group. They provide a commodity for which there is a market. The second group is quite small, and not always separable from the first. One publication that combines elements of both is the magazine Forum which publishes advice from experts about sexual problems as well as fiction and articles designed solely for entertainment. It occasionally publishes photographs but they are rather different from the usual photo graphs of women in the other magazines.

The general conclusion one is forced to come to is that the whole enterprise is rather seedy, and people would, on the whole, be morally better off if they did not participate in it, and if the publication of photographs of amputee women were the same kind of activity then the OverGround policy would be the correct one. I shall argue that the policy may be wrong in some circumstances. Let us return to the photograph of the girl in the bathing costume.

There is no commercial artifice in the taking and presentation of this photograph. She is just an ordinary girl, and she has had her photograph taken by her boyfriend. To be sure she probably put on the bathing costume especially for the photograph, and made herself as pretty as she could; but there's no suggestion at all of sexual immodesty, no suggestion at all of stage-setting; in its very lack of sophistication there is integrity. The first question to ask is this: Is this girl being exploited in any way or being harmed by the publication of her photograph? I don't believe that she is. A common feature of the reports of people's experiences of amputation is that their self-esteem is damaged, and they lose their self-confidence in sexual matters. Here is a girl being reassured first of all by her boyfriend that she is attractive, and also by the thought that her photograph might be collected by other people, strangers, because they think she looks attractive, and this can only reassure her that she has no reason to feel disqualified from the admiration of others. Perhaps she was self-conscious about allowing her stump to be seen. The pose leaves it almost completely hidden. Who can tell? Perhaps admiration of the kind she knows she may receive might enable her to feel more confident at the swimming pool or on the beach. I don't believe that she is being harmed, and I wouldn't mind strangers seeing such a picture of my wife, my sister, or my daughter

The purchaser: how is he affected? The purchaser is in much the same position as the buyer of the magazines. He will buy the photograph because he finds it arousing, and because it provides him with material he can include in his fantasies. The buyer of the photograph differs from the typical magazine buyer on two counts. He has probably never had the opportunity to meet and make friends with the kind of woman to whom he is most strongly attracted. I can sympathise with him. I have been searching for a special friend for years and have had no success - and loneliness and awareness of failure to achieve the goal make palliatives acceptable; and the second difference is that many people feel that to be attracted to women who are amputees is in itself either sick or wrong, and would be inhibited in seeking to form a relationship with a potential partner even if it were possible to do so. Such men, though driven by the same desires, will find fantasy the only way to satisfy their yearnings.

Finally, the producer, the boyfriend who took the photograph, is proud of his pretty girlfriend, and the selling of the photograph may make them a bit of pin money, or if the photograph is sold through one or other of the quasi-charitable organisations that distribute them, they will have the satisfaction of knowing that profits obtained from the sale will be used to the benefit of other amputees.

Nobody has been harmed or degraded in the production and publication of this photograph. Nobody has acted immorally, so What's wrong with it? Nothing; and there would be nothing wrong in advertizing such a photograph and nothing wrong with selling it either. So the answer to the question: What's wrong with pix 'n' flix? is Nothing.


Notes and references

... elsewhere ...
Against either-or-ism

... men find such pictures more interesting ...
Questions about the relationship between fetishism, devotion, and the origins of such feelings are discussed in Is devotion a fetish?

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