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The Porn Ultimatum: The Dehumanising Effects of Smut

Five thousand New York women march against porn on 20 October 1979. © Bettmann/Corbis
Five thousand New York women march against porn on 20 October 1979. © Bettmann/Corbis  
Cover: September 2011
September 2011Medium length read
 

In a New York Times article in 1914 William T Sedgwick, a professor of biology and public health at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, warned “the militant suffragettes” that, were they to succeed in their goal of female liberation, they would “find that the knightliness and chivalry of gentlemen have vanished, and in their stead will arise a rough male power that will place women where it chooses”. Towards women only “brutal appetites” would remain: “naked”, “unfettered” and “unashamed”. Sedgwick thought this ugly fate unlikely, however, predicting that men would soon lose patience with the feminist endeavour “and, putting the women back in their homes, say, ‘That is where you belong. Now stay there.’”

Professor Sedgwick would, I think, be surprised – possibly unpleasantly – by the contemporary world. I can think of few more satisfying things to say to him than, “Ah, Professor Sedgwick. Let me introduce you to our prime minister, Julia Gillard.” With just pride, we could invite him to marvel at the wonders of the twenty-first century. Look! Professors of biology just like you, but with vaginas! But if Sedgwick, gazing around at the astonishing changes wrought by feminism, commented that he appeared to have been wrong about rough male power putting women in their place, would we be obliged to correct him?

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Thanks to a confluence of libertarian politics, economic policies and technological advances, the porn industry – the start of which is dated to 1953 with the publication of the first issue of Playboy – is a more than $60 billion global business. In Australia, the sale of pornography has been estimated to generate more than $1.5 billion annually. Search Google for ‘porn’ and you find yourself at the edge of a vast, free banquet of sexual acts catering to all manner of demanding and specific tastes. Want some big tit MILF anal? Coming right up! Porn is huge, and many argue that clever strategising and marketing on the part of the industry to create a shiny, chic and sanitised new image of its products has enabled porn and its stars, brands, poses, bodies and symbolism to spill into mainstream culture as never before. Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality (Spinifex Press, 236pp; $34.95), argues that this unprecedented state of affairs places us all in the position of unconsenting participants “in the midst of a massive social experiment” of the pornographers’ making. Predictably, a great deal of disagreement surrounds how the results of this experiment are working out.

On the one hand are those arguing for “the sunny side of smut”, to quote a recent Scientific American Mind article title (followed by the optimistic tagline: “for most people, pornography use has no negative effects – and it may even deter sexual violence”). The study cites the work of Alan McKee from the Queensland University of Technology. His 2008 book The Porn Report, co-authored with fellow Australian academics Katherine Albury and Catharine Lumby, defends pornography from what they perceive to be an unfairly bad rap.

Drawing on McKee’s analysis of the content of 50 best-selling adult videos and a survey of more than 1000 porn consumers, they acknowledge that – yes – there is some nasty porn out there, and there are more and less ethical ways of producing it. But, they say, McKee’s findings suggest that the content of popular pornography is non-violent, no more objectifying of women than men, and largely neutral or beneficial in its effects on sexuality, relationships and gender relations. Benefits reported by the self-selected consumers surveyed included greater sexual confidence and experimentation and the ‘spicing up’ of long-term sexual relationships. Only a handful (7%) reported negative effects such as a tendency to objectify others, unrealistic expectations about sex or partners’ bodies, relationship problems or addiction. (Of course, being a self-selected sample, many consumers who had experienced problems may have chosen not to participate; those with an addiction may simply have been unable to find time.) The authors also point out that pornography evokes and intensifies sexual arousal, which is, many single case studies show, very nice. In the public debate about how a ‘pornified’ culture might be harming children – the ‘sluttish’ Bratz dolls, the Playboy-branded pencil cases, the newsagents that place softcore porn next to lollies – Albury and Lumby have been among the reassuring voices.

This image of the pornography industry is declared a fantasy in Pornland and the newly published Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry (Spinifex Press, 352pp; $36.95), edited by Melinda Tankard Reist, an Australian writer and activist, and Abigail Bray, a research fellow at Edith Cowan University. While Big Porn Inc also explores the darkest edges of pornography, both books contend that ‘everyday’ pornography has become increasingly brutal even as it has become more acceptable. Dines argues that pornography is now shaping sexuality in harmful ways. At its worst, it teaches men “how to masturbate into a woman”, as one porn user graphically puts it. And, in its seepage, it contributes to a culture that is toxic to females, teaching them that “pleasure is derived not from being a desiring subject but from being a desired object”. Tankard Reist and Bray argue that the pornography industry “has colonised private and public spaces at a rate that presents significant challenges to women’s and children’s rights”.

The depictions of popular pornography in these books – women penetrated by three or more men simultaneously (you do the maths), women gagging on penises, women fellating penises just removed from their own or others’ anuses without washing, women drenched in or drinking the ejaculate of any number of men – would leave Professor Sedgwick, in search of his prophesised rough male power, crying out, “Ah, there it is!” without hesitation. And then, looking around, he might start to notice things he had missed before. Big Porn Inc opens with a list of signs of the shaping of mainstream culture by pornography: from the ejaculate-themed images used in advertising, to a Facebook page celebrating the ‘facial cum shot’ titled “Swallow or it’s going in your eye”. These books paint a bleak picture of the effects of commercial porn that looks like Sedgwick’s vision quietly falling into place on an industrial scale.

It was certainly no simple task trying to make sense of these starkly different pictures of porn and its effects. The most important mystery to solve was how popular pornography can be both non-violent and violent. In her new book Selling Sex Short: The Pornographic and Sexological Construction of Women’s Sexuality in the West, Victoria University academic Meagan Tyler (also a contributor to Big Porn Inc) notes that feminist scholars have sometimes been accused of exaggerating the nastiness of contemporary pornography or simply failing to notice that it’s no longer there. The Porn Report authors, for example, argue that the offensive ‘no means yes’ theme is absent from contemporary popular pornography, and that things have improved since the ‘bad old days’.

McKee’s content analysis of best-selling adult movies found violence, physical or verbal, in less than 2% of scenes.

In striking contrast, when Ana Bridges and colleagues conducted an analysis of the content of 50 popular pornographic movies (according to sales and rental lists) in a similar period in the US, they found that nearly 90% of scenes contained physical aggression. Spanking and gagging with visible obstruction of breathing were the most popular, both featuring in approximately one-third of scenes. One in seven scenes featured open-hand slapping; one in ten hair-pulling; and, in about one scene in 15, in that sexual manoeuvre known as ‘choking’ that forms such an essential part of the erotic repertoire, one character would place “his or her hands around another character’s throat with applied pressure”. Almost half of the scenes showed verbal aggression in the form of name-calling, using words such as ‘bitch’ or ‘slut’. As these labels hint, women were the recipients of almost all (94%) acts of aggression.

The first key to understanding how one study detects 45 times more violence than the other is to know that, in the porn subgenre of ‘gonzo’ (the most lucrative for the industry), the expression of sexual pleasure is highly eccentric. The men’s enthusiasm, even while being stimulated from an advanced yoga position, rarely seems to extend beyond the groin region – which just seems like plain bad manners. By contrast, while many of the sexual acts might be pleasurable for the women, their valiant performances when this seems less than plausible – the young woman who, quickly recovering from being gagged by a penis, barely skips a beat before recommencing her orgasmic moans – are nothing short of heroic.

The second key lies in what is described in The Porn Report as a “common sense” definition of violence. On the grounds that there’s something a bit awry with a definition that classes a mutually enjoyable bout of spanking as ‘violent’, only actions responded to with displeasure were classed as such. On this definition, almost all (95%) of the acts defined as ‘violent’ by Bridges would have been defined as ‘non-violent’ by McKee, because the recipient expressed no displeasure at being, say, gagged by a penis, choked, slapped or called a whore.

While McKee presents his decision to take women’s unreciprocated ecstasy at face value as making “explicit the issue of consent in relation to violence”, Bridges and colleagues describe it as “a rendering of aggressive acts as invisible”. At the very least, it seems strange not to even report acts that would normally be considered aggressive. Suppose a trend ripped through the world for ‘comedy’ videos in which black actors were hired to laugh delightedly while white actors called them ‘nigger’ and slapped them. We’d probably be surprised if a researcher, gathering facts to address public concerns about the possible effects of this genre on racial attitudes and relationships, coded those acts non-violent on the grounds that a good time was being had by all.

What moral difference do the over-egged moans of female porn performers make? It’s a question that also applies to acts Dines describes as the most degrading in gonzo porn: the ‘ass to mouth’ sequence and ejaculation in the facial region. Both were regulars in the movies analysed by Bridges. The ‘ass to mouth’ sequence was in about 40% of scenes. Over 60% of ejaculations were in the mouth or face, while more than 10% of scenes concluded with “multiple ejaculation sites” (more informally known as the ‘sticky bath’), thanks to the combined efforts of a number of men. What should we make of the fact that the recipients appear to lap it up, sometimes literally?

One view is explained by Tyler, who describes observations that, while some men who hire prostitutes are happy to simply use female bodies for sexual relief while she openly endures, most men prefer (or require) the women they hire to feign enjoyment. Some feminists see this preference in a very grim light: namely, as a desire for even greater power and control over the woman. He wants control not just of her body but also of her self. The sexual acts performed by women in commercial pornography are, like those of prostitutes, performed for the sexual pleasure of consumers. In how dark a light should we see the porn performer’s enthusiastic response to every sexual act thrown at her?

I would like to think many men watching this material would simply find it very off-putting if the woman showed how she really felt about being doubly penetrated (a feature of one in five scenes in Bridges’ sample) or having ejaculate shot in her face. However comfortable you are with the idea of sexual act as marketplace exchange, it’s just nicer to think she’s doing it because she enjoys it rather than because she needs to pay the rent.

But some men cross a line, and there’s plenty to watch on the other side. A website called 18 And Abused, prominently advertised among the websites you first come across with a Google search for ‘porn’, scrolls through images designed to tempt: a terrified-looking woman being choked with her mouth spilling over with ejaculate; a close-up of a double anal penetration, a young woman with her vagina being grossly distended. PornHub, a popular website for free porn, isn’t shy about coaxing site users over that line, encouraging them to admit they’re “longing” for “something a little harder, rougher, killer! … You KNOW you want to enjoy a porn clip of some sexy bitch getting nailed so hard it makes her squirm! You KNOW it makes you just want to unload all over her face while she tries to get her shit back together!”

Clearly, whether or not a particular act should be considered degrading can be a tricky call, requiring consideration of such things as intent, interpretation, context. But, given the sentiments being expressed on PornHub, the tentative question posed by Bridges and colleagues – “what exactly does ejaculating on a woman’s face mean?” – can’t help but seem unnecessarily cautious. Is degradation in the eye of the beholder, or is it just in the eye?

Tyler points out that, bizarrely, the pornographers are among the more open to admitting that mainstream porn has become increasingly violent and degrading. Tyler quotes an editor of Adult Video News (the main American trade publication for the industry), who quite freely describes the changes since the mid 1990s as raising the bar for “nasty”. Tyler’s analysis of the publication’s movie reviews in 2005 (reserved for films thought likely to sell well) found that this kind of material was often described in approving terms. One review, for example, included descriptions of double penetration, double anal and a finale in which “Nicki spoons cum from Julie’s ass to her mouth” before cheerfully concluding: “Now, that’s pornography!”

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Yes, that’s pornography! Sorry, ladies, if any of you are feeling a bit – I don’t know – uncared for. Welcome to Sedgwick’s rough male power, available 24-7. Should we be worried?

Answering this question requires honesty about what pornography – not all, but a lot – is actually like. Towards the end of The Porn Report the authors refer to writer Angela Carter’s hope for pornography “as a critique of current relations between the sexes” that might “begin to penetrate to the heart of the contempt for women that distorts our culture”. That’s a really lovely idea but I just don’t spot ‘Feminist Critique’ on the list of options between ‘Facials’ and ‘Gangbangs’. For all the variety, it’s remarkably the same (British academic Simon Hardy calls it the “commercial homogenisation of desire”) and it does not have a feminist feel. The men in porn are little more than scaffolding for their erections but it is the women who are the product, and who endure the discomfort, pain and humiliation.

The work of Dines and Tyler, and Big Porn Inc, all draw our attention to the women who furnish the extraordinary quantity and variety of product choice. Astonishingly little is known about them. Tyler and Big Porn Inc both explore the permeability of the conceptual and practical boundaries between pornography and prostitution – a much less glamorous occupation associated with high levels of dissociative disorders, post traumatic stress disorder and vulnerability to violence. What economic and personal circumstances bring women to end up being filmed with a penis in every orifice, and how do they fare during and after their time in the industry?

When it comes to the effects of pornography on consumers, conflict and uncertainty reign. For example, some are convinced that pornography consumption contributes to sexually coercive behaviour. Others are equally certain that it doesn’t. Lacking in this research, I think, is an appreciation that attitudes and behaviour are not fixed across situations. Social psychologists are finding that when women are sexually objectified (either in display or in the observer’s focus) they are perceived as less human – an effect that in men was found to be triggered by sexual interest. This suggests that how a man might behave in the presence of a real woman in a sexual context may not be reflected very well in his attitudes or behaviour in the non-sexual context of the lab. An obvious question is how pervasive, sexually objectifying imagery, and regular consumption of pornography that degrades and dehumanises sluts and bitches (or ‘women’, if you prefer) might contribute to a dehumanising of real women in potentially sexually charged situations.

And is it spoiling sex lives? Gonzo porn sex is strikingly affectionless. In Bridges’ study, gagging was about three times more frequent than all that quaint old-fashioned stuff such as kissing, laughing, embracing, compliments or caresses put together. Research by sociologist Aleksander Štulhofer has found that variety in sexual experiences contributes to men’s sexual satisfaction – and other work supports McKee’s suggestion that pornography can help that along. But Štulhofer also found that intimacy is at least as, and probably more, important for sexual satisfaction and – contrary to stereotype – as much so for young men as women. But, for men, the more their views on what makes for great porn and what makes for great sex merged, the less intimacy they enjoyed. Is porn to blame? A recent longitudinal survey of nearly 1000 adolescents found that greater use of pornography led to greater endorsement of the idea that porn sex was both realistic and a useful guide. This, in turn, increased the tendency to think of sex as primarily a physical, rather than also an emotional, act.

But porn sexuality is especially bad for females. It encourages women to disengage from their own desires in favour of their partner’s. But don’t just take my word for it – ask the experts! Tyler’s analysis of popular sex advice books, including those recommended by sex therapists, shows women are endlessly encouraged to try out acts from pornography that they’d rather not – sometimes with helpful advice on how to make them more bearable. For example, in the popular “info-tainment sex manual” Urge: Hot Secrets for Great Sex, prominent Australian sexologist Gabrielle Morrissey helpfully explains how to “calm the gag reflex” while ‘deep throating’. She recommends a few throat-numbing lozenges, and perhaps a stiff drink beforehand. These days, apparently, ‘great sex’ requires anaesthetic. So successfully has pornography co-opted female sexuality that porn stars write sex advice books. Not, you understand, for other women who also earn their living performing sexual acts for the pleasure of others – but for all the ladies. And they’re listening. A study of more than 4000 young adults found that women were about four times as likely as men to repeatedly engage in sexual acts they didn’t like (usually fellatio and anal sex). Hands up anyone who sees liberation in this ‘looks disturbingly like prostitution without pay’ model of female sexuality?

Every adult is free to make his or her own decision about whether to enter, and where to go in, this world in which women are paid to use their bodies for the sexual pleasure of men, and in which the sex is often painful, violent and degrading. But the freedom to enter this world in privacy doesn’t come with a licence to bring it into public space.

Yet it’s everywhere. And it has shifted social norms so successfully that porn-inspired T-shirts with semi-naked women blindfolded, bound or gagged are now sold in high-street shops. No one, it seems, at any stage in the process, has thought: “Gosh. That’s really offensive, and if it was on a wall at work someone might get sacked. Maybe not.” It just shouldn’t be necessary for high-profile Australians to have to put their names to a campaign to stop retailers from selling this kind of clothing. One signatory to a petition by Collective Shout, Richard Eckersley, has pointed out the importance of social norms in regulating behaviour without the need for institutional regulation: “Social norms and etiquette define how we should behave; far more pervasively and subtly than the law, they set limits on our behaviour.” Pornography has eroded what Eckersley describes as the “buffer zone” of “civility and decency” needed to make society run smoothly.

Which is why social norms need to be wrested back from the pornographers, as many contributors to Big Porn Inc are attempting to do, and returned to something more closely aligned with the idea of half the population enjoying as much respect and recognition of their full humanity as the other. It isn’t prudishness that explains why there aren’t endless images of headless men’s bulging crotches on billboards, and prepubescent boys in ‘mankinis’ like little sex objects in training. It’s just … civility. Pornland world-order, in which women exist to titillate men, does not belong in everyday life. In the twenty-first century, Zoo magazine belongs on the front counter of a convenience store about as much as a magazine called Best of Black and White Minstrel Shows.

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Even if you agree with the theory of commercial pornography, there are clearly major issues with the practice. Perhaps we first need real gender equality – ungrudgingly accepted – for it to work for everyone. When poverty is female you worry whether the women in porn had other real options. When men have only just been trained not to ask women to ‘get their tits out for the lads’, perhaps it’s just a bit too soon, psychologically, for a cyber world in which every woman indeed does. When Sedgwick-style resentments still linger in men’s minds it just gets nasty, quickly. Dines says there’s no room for porn in a just society, but what if it’s the other way around?

So here’s a draft plan. Until we have that just society, only women are allowed to make porn and watch it. Then, once we’ve got equality, proper equality, men can join in. A ‘No Equality, No Porn’ policy for men would surely move along the idea of quotas to boost the representation of women on boards. And with genuine female power to resist being placed where men choose, who knows what pleasures the eroticisation of equality could bring?

About the author Cordelia Fine