Prurience, pornography and the tabloid press have a long tradition and a strong relationship. In fact, they could be construed as (pardon the pun!) bedfellows. The Oval Office sex scandal involving President Clinton and his sexual escapades with Monica Lewinsky, a 21-year-old intern, serves to illustrate their interdependence. The widespread public interest resulting from the media's aggressive reporting of events, and the intrigue generated by Kenneth Starr's Report in particular, was simply sensational (and unprecedented?). Even the genre into which the Report fits best would be described as 'pornography.'
With so much at stake, who could resist being drawn into the unfolding drama of this celebrated liaison and Machiavellian goings-on. But was it the matter of national security or the prospect of impeachment that got us all stirred up, or was it the peccadillos and infidelities of a very public figure that captured our imagination? Probably, the latter. Certainly, Starr's lengthy investigations flushed out several key issues such as privacy rights vs democratic accountability and, most of all, what is and is not sex. It is also noteworthy of the role played by the world wide web in bringing to light serious allegations about the president's misconduct.
Of course, the UK has had its share of sex scandals including the notorious Profumo Affair of 19631, leading to the resignation of the then Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan.
The perverse style of reporting sex scandals, the 'scratching for dirt' behind the face of public office, and the voyeuristic pleasure derived from the ensuing revelations are not new phenomena. Already in Victorian times such instincts were alive and kicking. Alongside regimented lifestyles and moral censorship there existed a deep fascination in things erotic and the macabre. Jack the Ripper, for example, became almost a cause celebre despite the depraved savagery of his attacks on prostitutes. However, the fact that he has passed into mythology is largely due to the prurient2 reporting of the times. In fact, it's believed that the Whitechapel killings led directly to the birth of the tabloid press.
So what is prurience, and how does it manifest in everyday life? Is it morally acceptable or, indeed, healthy to be prurient? Given its pervasiveness, what need does it satisfy or function does it serve in the human psyche? Prurience is commonly considered a furtive business, a sneaking 'behind the scenes' despite our best intentions in order to satisfy desire or curiosity. As the product of the interplay between the external world and private fantasy, it is a naturally occuring phenomenon. From saucy Victorian 'peep shows', the proliferation of 'adult' magazines, the popularity of Ann Summers 3 parties and the burgeoning interest in Internet porn testify to its appeal and high prevalence.
Despite the institutional drive to outlaw pornography (including Internet porn), puritanical campaigns to banish all things erotic, and liberalism's pious obsession with political correctness, the multi-billion dollar 'porn' industry continues to flourish. Porn is pervasive, with pathological sexual fantasies having colonised our minds. James Hillman4, the founder of Archetypal Psychology, asserts that in closing the door to porn, the only opening is through the key-hole. For the puritanically-minded, the only access to the 'other side' is prurience.
Often associated with clandestine or illicit pursuits, prurience can evoke fear and desire, the individual both repelled and attracted by the experience of sensual pleasures. In the extreme, we are scandalised by acts of sexual depravity and yet morbidly fascinated by them. This duplicity implies a struggle between resisting and being carried along by instinctual drives. The prohibitions associated with peddling explicit sex goods and services, whether in red light districts or blue movies, strengthen their mystique, with the moral antagonists unwittingly creating what they seek to prevent. Through systematic repression of overt erotic behaviour, they can return, manifesting as displaced and re-awakened fantasies that work their way autonomously into conscious life as odd, perverted compulsions and fascinations. Perhaps the liberal pagan gods have indeed returned to infect our Christian sensibilities and puritanical minds.
There is arguably no adequate single definition of prurience. Its characteristics of murky slipperiness, elusiveness, and shady 'goings-on' impart an ambiguity that both engages the imagination and allows for endless transmutations. In the spirit of homeopathy, to understand prurience more fully means proceeding in its likeness.
Prurience is a fiery, desirousness, an 'itching' to know something, a curiosity to pry into what is concealed. Itching carries a sense of acute necessity, of something that is 'burning' or 'inflamed'. The element fire, 'fires us up' and gives an impetus to find something out, to gain insight. This implies that we can only know it by what it does, rather than by what it is: pornography being instrumental in 'stoking up' and inflaming desires and passions. Interestingly, Freudian psychoanalysts would likely regard itching as the expression of sexual desires and interpret dreams of 'creepy-crawlies' and boring, burrowing or scratching creatures as masturbatory equivalents. To support this theory, psychoanalysts cite the fact that various languages use the same word for tickling and sexual intercourse, that games and rhymes that 'tickle' the sense of humour have an aphrodisiac effect5.
Alfred Ziegler6, a practitioner of archetypal medicine or 'morbism'7, tells us that according to legend, when fire is cursed or insulted (which psychologically corresponds to 'repression'), it avenges itself by visiting upon the offender a wide range of afflictions, mainly scabs and sores, being either gangrenous or feverish in nature.
Ziegler also traced the etymological roots of pruritus and finds it has connections with the German graben meaning 'to dig' (something up) or to 'sort through.' The English word grave is similarly connected. Originating from the Latin word prurient, its meaning widely carries, along with its derivatives, connotations of impurity, a moral transgression. After all, to 'dig up' graves in most cultures is taboo and outlawed. However, that would be a literal translation of the term; to gain a psychological understanding of it one needs to read its effects metaphorically. This avoids any concrete interpretations, but also ensures the imagination is engaged. In fact, prurience is inseparable from imagination, being inextricably image-bound.
Prurience has been defined pejoratively by the OED as 'having an unhealthy obsession with sexual matters', the person having 'lewd thoughts,' or engaging in promiscuous, licentious, or lecherous behaviour. This points to prurience being a 'pathologised' activity, a form of perversion or sickness. Prurience, and its strong associations with pornography, obscenity, 'peep' shows, libidinal gratification, and the like, can be seen as anti-social, offensive to common decency, or anathema to 'civilised' Christian sensibilities. In the context of Christianity's polemic against pagan sexuality, to be 'exposed' indulging in or perpetrating 'prurient acts' in modern western societies can engender feelings of shame and guilt. Introjected, an individuals' own moral conscience, with its checks and balances, may serve similar ends without the intervention of outer moral guidance.
Prurience enters our lives through 'the back door' or 'shadow side' of consciousness. On such occasions we may observe those secret and furtive impulses, those libidinal 'unclean' thoughts that challenge 'normal' moral standards. This means indiscretions and peccadillos in the public arena being 'hushed up' and 'swept under the carpet'. The moral conscience of a society that ideologically condemns and denigrates 'pornography' outright, and the media's hunger for sensationalism, exacerbate and drive sex problems underground. We have become a culture intolerant of human frailties, of generating victims and perpetrators, of 'blaming, naming and shaming' those responsible for breaking acceptable standards of behaviour. Let's remember, no act is immoral in itself, but only in relation to a particular ideology.
Successive governments seem hell-bent on imposing standards of common decency. This extends to paternalistic behaviours through censorship and protection against potentially corrupting and subversive influences. These so-called 'corrupting influences' are detected, either overtly or covertly, in all walks of life, most notably where people gather together, act spontaneously, and are not subject to the usually prescribed rules and regulations of society. Regulating exposure to such influences is aimed at exerting control and discipline, whether on the streets, in the classroom, the media, the arts, the entertainment industry or public life generally. The puritanical drives to temper or eradicate basic rights and liberties, seem nothing less than attempts to maintain the illusion of a world populated by 'clean, decent living' citizens. Mary Whitehouse's stand against permissiveness from the 1960s onwards and her moral crusade to clean up TV is a prime example.
Though moral choices reflect preferred tastes or lifestyles, it is often at the expense of debunking alternatives perceived to be of lesser value and inferior. In striving for cultural refinement, to be in the service of 'higher ends' is a moral problem. It seems that as we try to bring to light and do good, the opposite side grows with the same intensity8. It is a psychological maxim that what is repressed returns in distorted, anti-social, and destructive ways. Ideologically abandoned and rejected, any split-off aspects of life considered 'unclean' and contaminating will insidiously find their way back from the shadows in pathological ways. Prurience is one such behavioural manifestation. Recognising prurient activity in oneself is therefore an opportunity to explore self-motives, and the dichotomy or 'reality gap' between our 'virtual identity' (our desired presentation or public persona) and 'actual identity'.
Once repressed, prurience might arise as a compulsive unearthing, an 'itchiness' to look underneath or behind for substance, for substantiality. This is more than mere inquisitiveness. The Swiss psychologist CG Jung makes reference to the shadow side of life in the context of repressed material that, once integrated, has the capacity to ground us in life.
Without a proper grounding there is a burning desire to scratch below the surface of things. This urge to explore the rich, invisible, underbelly of life, can manifest in multiple ways. 'Cheque-book' journalism and the propaganda of the unscrupulous 'gutter press' illustrate that impulse to get the 'low down' 'the bottom-line', to 'snoop and pry' and 'dig up the dirt.'
From the reader's perspective, there is a fascination in leafing through 'revealing' or 'titillating' stories in the tabloid press of the rich and famous, to become acquainted with the minutiae of their seemingly illustrious, show-biz lives. What are we hoping to 'unearth' about our own lives? What comparisons, if any, can we draw? Perhaps escaping the reality of our mundane existence is what matters. It is what we invest in the fantasy of others' lives that prevails. But you say, though grossly edifying, to middle-class sensibilities these rags are an opiate of the masses, a comic book for adults, read only by the less educated. Far from being serious journalism, the contents merely entertain, to engage our need for voyeuristic pleasure and amusement.
Despite our conscious will, there is a secret wish for intrigue, revelation and drama; an urge to know what the underbelly of life contains. What lies in the murky shadows of other people's lives? What am I missing? Why did the local vicar elope with a known prostitute? We hanker after full frontal exposure and revelation. The brash, intrusive, glaring savagery of the piece. Hyper-gossip, One doesn't need to know what happened, but tell me just in case. Fill me in. But why? This is mere sensationalism. Like TV soaps, a parody of the way life really is.
How rationally we explain the impulsive desire to read and gloat over the misfortunes and intrigues of others. There is a dark Eros fascination for the unwary reader. We are bound in some hermetic glue. This 'gluing' to the page is ambivalence. We tut-tut, criticise, condemn, stay afloat of the material presented. The thought police, as collective moral conscience, informs that you should remain distant from it, that it's 'unhygienic' to move in too close to the 'seamier' side of life, to idealise or compare one's own lifestyle with that of another.