Alain de Botton announced recently that he wants to start a website, titled "Better Porn", based on values more ennobling than the exploitative and clichéd guff that sprays out from the internet and paid-for TV channels. De Botton's philosophical foundation, School of Life, asks "How could we make sure that there is less of a division between the values within porn and the values we revere outside of porn?" The website will – according to the blurb – be expertly designed and curated. Curated! To hear of a porn site being talked about in aesthetics terms makes it sound like a gallery space.
De Botton's idea is certainly topical, given the current debate on how best to police the web, but does the answer to pornography's bad rep lie in this makeover? De Botton's concept comes up against all sorts of potential contradictions: can pornography be exciting if it is joined up with an intellectual and aesthetic endeavour? Can it still be as joyfully mucky, visceral and unfettered if it is "revolutionised for the better"? Doesn't better really mean sanitised?
De Botton says: "Ideally, porn would excite our lust in contexts which also presented other, elevated sides of human nature – in which people were being witty, for instance, or showing kindness, or working hard or being clever – so that our sexual excitement could bleed into, and enhance our respect for these other elements of a good life. No longer would sexuality have to be lumped together with stupidity, brutishness, earnestness and exploitation..." This reads well but wouldn't it be highly contrived in reality, to create such elevating sexual scenarios? It seems as if he is inviting us to feel the same kind of thrill watching smut as we would've felt in front of a nude at the National Gallery's Leonardo da Vinci show.
Better Porn also has a touch of the smug and self-congratulatory about it. The idea that people can switch on to watch "good filth", knowing they're not really doing anything too demeaning or animalistic because its values have been thought-out by a celebrated philosopher. The School of Life wants the site to become one that parents would feel comfortable with their sons or daughters accessing at a certain age without particular shame but I wonder whether these young people could even stomach watching porn that has been vetted and approved of by their parents.
I suspect that sex desire and appetite can't be as easily re-conditioned to be "better" in the way that this idea pre-supposes. Of course, the more a teenage boy watches sites that have hairless, surgically enhanced women being treated like meat, the more he internalises this as the norm, but Better Porn only works if you believe that sexual appetites can – and should – be subject to this level of self-surveillance. We are being asked to watch Better Porn and by extension, have Better Sex. What about politically incorrect fantasies? What about the exhilaration of the illicit and the thrill of guilt? Will De Botton's holier-than-thou naughtiness satisfy or end up being a pale reflection of what presses people's buttons?
Our appetites for sexual simulation seem to be growing as internet porn continues as an infinitely expanding industry, and as we increasingly seek out erotic reading material, with books like the S&M saga, Fifty Shades of Grey, hitting the bestseller lists. A cynic might be forgiven for thinking that De Botton's site will ride on the back of society's addiction to pornography, that he is not challenging this bad addiction, only rearranging its aesthetics to make it high-end.
On paper, De Botton's Better Porn has great integrity. In reality, I fear it might end up at best, being prettified, anodyne stuff, and at worse, confining our desires.