The Black Mirror of Internet Desire

‘Give me the decadent any day. Purists shit me.’

So reads the prompt I wrote for myself some time back and stuck to a sticky note on the side of my computer, which is where I tend to post sticky notes with ideas I’d like to pursue later.

But this one puzzles me. I can’t remember what prompted it. Maybe an encounter with someone or other who plunged me into that abyss of inadequacy that makes me want to rail against perfection.

Last Saturday, I took myself off to the fortieth anniversary of the Freud conference, which was held at the Cunningham Dax Centre in Carlton on the topic: ‘The Black Mirror: psychoanalysis in the techno-culture age’, a conference that explored how technology can influence our lives in unhelpful ways, particularly when it comes to some folks’ addiction to pornography.

The issues with the Internet relate to its speed and availability.

In earlier days people found their porn in newsagents, on the top shelf and more often than not, they needed to buy furtively, given its unacceptability in public.

Or their pornographic images might have come in the mail in brown envelopes ‘For adults only’.

Children might have found pornography under their father’s bed, his Playboys and Penthouse magazines, but it took time and effort to find these images and gratification was not instant.

In the case of the Internet, every sexual fantasy can find its equivalent in some way or another.

The second of the two speakers, Alessandra Lemma, and Heather Wood from the Portman clinic in London, talked about this as rule 34, namely there is always an image on the Internet for every single fantasy, if only we’re prepared to search for it.

Both Lemma and Wood spoke of the rise in numbers of people accessing porn and likewise some downloading illicit images.

They wondered about the extent to which the Internet is cause or effect.

Certainly, its ready availability increases the likelihood of people gratifying their desire to see images of underage pornographic images that are illegal.

Notwithstanding the dreadful effects on those children who have been exploited in the way – in so far as their images on the Internet can be pored over endlessly to gratify the unspoken desires of troubled men – there is a need to reflect upon these people who seek such comfort: the paedophiles or would-be paedophiles of this world with some compassion.

Some of these men addicted to porn (and women) present for treatment at the Portland Clinic, sometimes after they’ve been found guilty of downloading illegal images, and when they explore their life stories with one of the clinic therapists, there is a great deal of meaning behind their voyeuristic decisions, including their choice of images, their sexual desires, childhood experience and behaviour.

For this is what the Internet is about in large part: voyeurism and exhibitionism, defensive manoeuvres we all employ from time to time and part of being human.

The trouble with the Internet, notwithstanding its wonderful aspects, it often comes in the form of graphic images and sounds that leave less to the imagination than in the past, and these images, Lemma argues, are forced into the viewer.

There is our initial curiosity, but sometimes our curiosity only goes so far and we would stop it at a point, but the Internet drags us further and takes us into places we sometimes wish we’d never been.

The images get pushed into us and we cannot un-see them.

For children, this is particularly problematic. Children might be curious about what goes on in their parent’s bedroom but they also find it troubling.

The Internet can expose them to the primal scene, their parents in intercourse and so much more that is deeply disturbing before they are of an age to process there experience.

The problem becomes increasingly explicit and for some vulnerable people more and more addictive so that there are those who spend entire nights awake watching porn and they stop being able to function in their normal lives at school or work.

As well, these persistent exposures to online porn drain those addicted to Internet porn of energy and of imagination. They lose the ability to relate to real people.

During discussion, we talked of the 2D nature of Internet relationships, which preclude imagination to some extent, as against the 3D nature of real relationships.

Wood spoke about desire, delay and delivery as the three dimensions of experience that can be reduced to two dimensions on the Internet, whereby desire is met with delivery without the benefits of delay. Hence the 2D nature of the Internet.

Usually to help us deal with our desires we need to be able to work at seeking their gratification to help overcome the frustration of not actually getting exactly what we want but with the Internet our desires are met seemingly at the click of a button and this causes what Wood described as triumph over the object, over the desire.

The image is powerful. More so than we sometimes realise. It lodges itself in our head and forces itself onto us.

As much as young women can suffer the feeling that their bodies must be hairless and pre pubescent, young men can also experience erectile dysfunction because they imagine they can never perform well enough, not nearly so well as the exaggerated and enhanced characters on the pornographic stage.

In this regard, Wood pointed out the strange juxtaposition of society’s zero tolerance of child abuse alongside this pressure for adult bodies to be seen as pre pubescent.

There was also talk on the fluidity of gender and the degree to which images online can fuel this confusion for young people in adolescence who are trying to work out who they are, whether more masculine than feminine and all degrees in between.

One woman in the audience talked of the images of gloves as related to her career in nursing, when to do an internal examination, as a midwife, requires the wearing of latex gloves. If such an examination is performed without gloves it becomes an assault. Hence she argued the need for boundaries.

The speakers described the Internet screen as the Black Mirror, in contrast to the maternal mirror of infancy, one which reflects back the baby through the mother’s eyes and gestures.

The Black Mirror does not reflect back. Rather it projects into and gives an illusion of control none of us have. It can interfere with relationships.

During the final discussion, I worried that this audience of people whose average age would have most likely been somewhere between 40 and 50, were becoming too gloomy indeed.

What would the generation below us and below them again make of these things?

One member of the audience reminded us of how panicked people became at Claxton’s invention of the printing press, as a result of which people were then able to read their bibles by themselves instead of having the bible read to them.

And another talked of the days in which the legs on the piano needed to be concealed given that their comely shape and might remind men of the sight of a woman’s ankle when women needed to be covered from top to toe to help them circumvent male desire.

What a history it is to the human race.

From the inhibited and anxious to the extreme and in your face and all of us, all the time struggling to deal with our sexual desire.


When I was young, my skinny boy-like body felt light and easy, and although it took me a few tries to get onto and balance a bike, once I’d mastered those handlebars and the brakes, I could fly.

In the playground I sat on the thick plank of a swing and spun higher and higher above the tree line stretching out my toes to gather momentum.

At the swimming pool I taught myself to swim and although I could never quite master the technique, in my imagination, I saw myself as one of those Olympians streaking through the water.

It did not last.

By the time I was fourteen, I was more uncomfortable in my body than I had ever been before. Not only did hair appear in secret places and my breasts swelled, the rest of my body began to swell too.

I now sat on the swing and for the first time in my life felt a type of nausea that was to dog me thereafter whenever I tried any of the playground equipment.

One September school holiday, when my sister and I were locked behind our uniforms at boarding school, my oldest brother invited us over to Canberra to visit him, to stay with him in his small house at the foot of Mount Ainslie.

We could stay a week and help by cooking his evening meal and during the day we could do our homework or go for walks.

My brother was in love with a young woman who had so enthralled him at the university that he decided to leave his plans for the life of a priest behind and they were preparing to get married in some months time.

One evening during our stay my brother took us out to dinner. I sat in the back seat alongside my sister while my brother took the wheel beside his wife to be.

We travelled to her mother’s house for a special dinner in honour of my sister and I and our brief stay in Canberra.

It was still cold. The lag of the seasons hid the fact of spring. Rain pattered down onto the roof of the car. The wipers swished and I looked through the beads of water at my window onto the blur of lights and the outside dark of Canberra streets.

A pang of sadness hit me in a way I did not expect. Stuck in the back seat with my sister, behind those two grown ups in love.

It was as if I had swallowed a poison tablet that dissolved into a sense of hopelessness so great I could not imagine that my life was worth anything anymore.

I had no sense of the future, only this sodden sense of emptiness, as if everything of value had been spoiled by the rain.

The tears behind my eyes refused to flow because I could not pinpoint any reason for those tears other than a pervasive sense that I was a failure.

A person who had lost sight of herself.

A person who would turn into more of a nobody than she already felt on this day when others around me seemed filled with the richness of their lives, and the promise of bright futures.

My future looked as empty as the block of land at the corner of the street near my brother’s house where they had long ago pulled down the petrol station and left in its place some  rusting metal poles alongside a deep hole in the ground.