Monday, 11 February 2008

Porn: what is it good for?



If you just threw up a little bit in your mouth, you're not the only one. Go and swill out, then keep reading. Images like the one on the left use the conceits of violent pornography - in this case, gang rape - to sell everything from clothes to cars to washing powder. Violent pornography has become part of our cultural language.
But is censorship the answer?A recent article of mine on The F Word in response to the new UK porn laws laid down by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2008 generated a surprising amount of controversy. In brief, the government wants to ban various forms of 'extreme' pornography, including bestiality, necrophilia and some 'snuff' porn. I argued that censorship is not the answer, nor will it do anything to reduce the harm violent and extreme pornography does to some individuals' sexual and personal development; I argued that censorship will drive the industry further underground, making it more racy and enticing and generating an unsafe working environment for those involved in producing 'extreme' pornography. I mentioned that there is little extant evidence to suggest that 'extreme' pornography leads directly to extreme sexual violence. I was declared naive and gullible by 'Radical' feminists and anti-porn sexists alike, claiming that pornography is harmful, hateful and extremely socially damaging. I must protest at this, and not merely because noone who has read the synopsis briefs for SlutBus 4 and A Filthy Little Cocksucking Whore Named Marilyn for research purposes will ever ever be quite so naive again. I never claimed that violent pornography was not damaging. Violent pornography is unquestionably, incontrovertibly damaging, and as a feminist against censorship I am achingly aware of that fact. I merely happen to believe that porn censorship is not the answer, and that the Bill currently on the Commons table will do fat, shiny nothing in a bag for women's liberation.

Do I believe that violent porn directly causes sexual violence? No. Do I believe that banning it and driving it underground will do any good to anyone? Absolutely not. Do I believe that physically and emotionally violent pornography is symptomatic of an endemic social paradigm wherein masculine power and cruelty is eroticised, and that this paradigm leads to sexual violence amongst many, many other atrocities? Hell yes. Yes, I do.

The question of whether pornography directly causes or does not cause sexual violence somewhat evades the real issue. The reason that pornography is such a sticky problem, the reason that many feminists hate and fear pornography, is the same reason that many in the pro-patriarchal sphere are willing to go to the wire to defend it: mainstream, heterosexual pornography as it is mass-produced by western society holds up an accurate mirror to the violently misogynist world in which we are living.

Let me repeat that for the confused or post-orgasmic: the fact of pornography itself, however ‘extreme’, is not socially harmful, but the messages inherent in most western pornography, never mind the ‘extreme’ end, re-enforce social paradigms of sexual inequality, male sexual subjectivity and violence against women. When I say that ‘the quality of most porn is dreadful’, this is what I’m talking about.


You are what you jerk off to.

In this pornographic world, inequality and injustice are eroticised. Power and dominance, for the most part of men over women, are eroticised. The exercise of that dominance in cruel, violent or humiliating ways is eroticised, and when something is eroticised in the mainstream to this extent, it becomes normalised.

What isn't extant in porn is almost as critical as what is - to whit, respect, tenderness, human emotion, sensitivity. I'm with Jensen in conceding that there are economic as well as ideological reasons for this, namely that most pornography is bought by men as aids to masturbation, and on-screen emotion tends, it is posited, to detract from the salient pleasures of self-stroking. Some form of psychological kick has to replace that tenderness or affection as a narrative hook - hence the introduction of cruelty and violence into the remit of Joe Average Mustachioed Porn Director. I’m not yet proposing radical tenderness as a social strategy, not least because it would put paid to my favourite hobby of sitting in smoking rooms, drinking vile coffee and hating things. But I'm behind the radfems in noting that its total erasure from pornography is worrying, to say the least: pornography leached of mature emotional responsiveness is often (indeed, usually) the first illicit means of educating young men about sex. For almost half the population, violent or objectifying pornography is now the cultural blueprint for sexual relations. What does that mean for gender politics, and what are our options other than to lash out at the offending material?

If patriarchal culture, where rape and gender-fascism are facts of life, is the disease, then the many forms of porn are the oozing, blood-crusted pustules that cluster in the tenderest crevices of the diseased body. Like children, we attack the sores with nails and teeth, ignoring the fact that the body itself is sick to death. By scratching at the pustules, we will only drive the rot deeper.


Corpse-fucking and the state...

So what is the government's response? How are our politicians working to root out the infection from our feverish, sickening gender paradigms? Let's let’s look again at that government bill. One of the first types of pornography that’s forbidden is ‘[images of any] act which involves or appears to involve sexual interference with a human corpse’ – that is, necrophilia. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but necrophiliacs are a very small and specialised sect of the fetish community. There will never be enough necrophiliac porn, just as there will never be a large enough necrophiliac culture, to normalise corpse-fucking as a social paradigm. And frankly, if that’s your kink and you can excise it by watching badly made-up zombies shag each other on telly, then fair enough. So why is it that pornography that appears to show necrophilia – a very rare and totally illegal practice that doesn’t really have much of a social discourse – is NOT okay, whereas pornography that shows live women appearing to be raped, humiliated and beaten to within an inch or their lives is totally fine?

Let’s grit our teeth and face this one: it’s fine on television because it’s normalised in society. Maggoty, squelchy grave-diving turns the stomachs of our politicians, and yes, I’m a kink-friendly, accommodating anarcho-buddhist with not much sympathy for the meat of the body, but I can see why that might be. The bill covers necrophilia, bestiality, 'snuff' movies and severe injury to the sexual organs. Rape, all other sexual violence, extreme female submission, double- and triple-penetration, humiliation, sexual cruelty – all of this fails even to make it into the draft bill, because it’s been normalised in western society. Not only that, but in a neo-liberal capitalist system there could be no question of banning this type pornography, because such an action would by now mean outlawing nearly all heterosexual porn. And porn generates more revenue than the entire British film industry, minus many of the overheads. Not only is banning violent porn not the answer – it’s not even the question yet.

Censorship of 'extreme' pornography will not solve the problem of sexual violence and gender fascism eating away at the bones of progressive western culture. Instead, we need the courage to look into that mirror and respond appropriately to what we see there. Whether disgust, direct action or bland acceptance, our reaction to these images determines who we are, and who we will become as a society.

13 comments:

  1. Surely banning violent porn would make such images less acceptable and thus reduce the acceptability of images like the one you include?

    I do believe violent porn leads to violence against women - people are influenced by what they watch. It changes how they expect other people to behave. Look at, for example, the increase in violence and degrading sex acts requested in prostitution as they increased in visability in porn.

    Now I know no-one you and I both know is detached enough from reality to believe the reactions seen in porn are anything like the way real women act. Few women are turned on my having someone cum all over her face. But there are men out there who see such things and believe them - an amusing example being a young man from my hometown. In his first penetrative sexual encounter with a girl, at the point of orgasm he pulled out and came on her face instead. He was shocked that this wasn't what was expected of him, and once cleaned up she was amused.

    Men in our society are repeatedly encouraged not to identify, or empathasize with women. Violent porn is one of the things that really pushes this - that women are things to be used, that women love all sorts of sexual activity, without any discussion of limits or preferences on camara.

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  2. There's an alternative theory - that the increasing ugliness of pornography is a symptom of increasing female power. More here and here.

    And I thought double penetration (mouth + vagina) was a common sexual fantasy among women?

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  3. Miles -
    double penetration (DP) in porn speak means simultaneous anal and vaginal penetration, not oral/vaginal. Yes, this is also a specialist fantasy amongst some women, but it's also incredibly painful.

    I'll look at your links in a sec.

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  4. Laurie- do you have any reccommendations for sources of porn that are not disrespectful to women? Best I can find is Indie Nudes, and even their links tend to include sites that are part of much less pleasant larger companies.

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  5. Okay -'we can safely assume that the consumers who define demand patterns for porn producers generally feel that their sex life is hemmed in by female choices and the female power to refuse. Defining the objects of their desire as “cum-sucking sluts”, to be used but not related to any emotional way, is a kind of equalizing move in the sexual-power game.'
    And this is a good thing? Studies I've read, too, have suggested that increasingly violent porn is a form of men wanting to 'get back' at women - I quote from a porn director in the Robert Jensen book 'Getting Off' -

    'Essentially, it comes from every man who's unhappily married, and he looks at his wife who just nagged him about this or that and he says, 'I'd like to fuck you in the ass'. He's angry at her, right? And he can't, so he would rather watch some girl taking it up the ass...and that is the attraction, because when people watch anal, nobody wants to watch a girl enjoying anal.'

    Yes, you're right - a lot of violent porn can be deemed a result of men's anger at women's increasiing power. That doesn't mean we should accept an entire, extremely damaging, misognyist industry as a natural side effect!

    It just proves the original point - hardcore porn is nothing to do with liking women and everything to do with hating hating them and wanting to take out anger against them as a species. Wanting to reduce them to fuckable 'sluts' who can be controlled.

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  6. I argue that pornography is HATE speech. It is about hating women, their bodies, their sexuality. Period. You even argued that yourself.
    So if banning this explicitely misogynist crap is not the answer, then what is your solution? You don't provide one, and that sadly makes your argument weaker than it could be.
    I am just halfway through a book called "Must We Defend Nazis?: Hate Speech, Pornography, and the New First Amendment" by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. It's an excellent read on the issue and tackles a lot of questions about how to balance the defense of equality and the right to free speech.

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  7. Glad I found this blog - I have one called Another Witch to Burn where I put up articles about men's violence against women.

    Violent pornography that depicts the abuse and humiliation of women must be banned as inciting hatred towards women but it has ecome so common - it's horrible.

    I don't have time to post much but I hope I can get into some decent discussions soon.

    My blog is wwwanotherwitchtoburn.blogspot.com

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  8. Excellent blog and always good to see another Brit-based socfem on the blogging block. I've added you to my blogroll.

    Not long ago I had a look at the issue of the effects of porn, both on wider culture and what it does to *some* men's sexual expectations. And in it's own modest way it helped kick off a small flurry of posts on porn across leftyblogland.

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  9. There is very little evidence to suggest watching violent porn makes people more violent. Similarly, incidences of rape and sexual assault are thought to be at an all time low. The other argument is that violent porn is cathartic and exorcises violent sexual fantasies, so that people can vent them.

    That said, some women also enjoy this kind of porn. Some women enjoy rape fantasies. More importantly, some of these actresses enjoy making the films, so we have to be careful not to speak out for them and ban the films because we presume they are being violated. The original collection of articles on Red Pepper was wonderful, because it showed this argument from all sides.

    I am very much against porn that is violent in nature, but I do not think it should be banned. People's right to watch and make violent fantasies is part of their individual freedom. We shouldn't censor a fantasy just because it doesn't match our own or censor a voice just because it speaks in opposition to our own beliefs.

    What we need to do is look at why people get their kicks from this kind of porn and, more importantly, the wider social concerns that normalise gender inequality.

    B
    x

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  10. I agree with your post. There are genuine issues with portrayals of sexuality and much of pornography, but this law is not the answer. Aside from being against censorship, the problem is that this law targets a very different type of material.

    The type of advertising image you display in the post, along with all the mainstream sexist commercial porn, will all still be llegal. Similarly all the portrayals of violence in non-pornography will be legal. Yet the law will target material such as a great deal of consensual S&M porn. It will target non-commercial porn; whilst commercial porn sites are usually quite tacky and sexist, I'd say this doesn't apply to the wide range of erotic material that people have produced. In my experience, S&M images are less likely to have sexist portrayals - for example, you often have men being submissive whilst women are dominant; the general idea is that people are in a role because they choose it, not because of their sex.

    But this law just labels it "extreme", and people wrongly assume it must be like mainstream porn, only worse. The assumption is that it only depicts acts against women, and that it is always a violent portrayal.

    The law covers depictions of acts that appear to be likely to cause serious injury, or showing a weapon like a knife, even if depicted as openly consensual. The law would also target private photos that consenting couples make in their bedroom, even if they never intend to publish them online. If one wanted to ban all porn, would it make sense to also criminalise a couple privately taking photos of their own acts? One could say it's those who seek to criminalise sexuality on such a level are the ones who hate it.

    This law punishes the viewer, not the producer. This law doesn't care whether an image is promoting hate or violence. These images exist not just on porn sites, but on BDSM forums, people's own websites, and their private computers, and the law will criminalise them all.

    I think this law just targets the unusual material because it's much easier to target laws against a minority, especially one that is demonised as "perverted". In particular, the law resulted from the murder of Jane Longhurst - the murderer Graham Coutts had previously accessed necrophiliac porn. Yet whenever it turns out a murderer has previously viewed mainstream porn, or a violent horror film (or I dunno, they read the Bible) I don't see the Government doing anything in response to that...

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  11. Ok, so here's a thing.

    Just as, obviously, there are some women who enjoy being treated in this way - it's a kink, and harmless if carried out between two (or however many) consenting adults who enjoy it and know what they are doing - there are men who are made sick to their stomachs by the sight of it. Yes, both of these species are as rare as one another.

    But I for one, in earlier days and on occasion in the present have spent hours upon hours trawling through clip sites and so forth, desperately looking for porn in which everybody looks as if they are enjoying themselves. Call me naive, if you like, and tell me that I am underestimating the level of acting common within the industry, but there is an immediate and obvious difference between images where women are getting off on what is happening, fulfilling their own desires and getting paid for it, and images where at least one of the participants is seriously unhappy about what is going on. This latter, I would argue, is what ought to be erased from the face of media, but that is a rule that would be impossible to enforce. In the former, there are emotions present, albeit the emotions of arousal and desire.

    Arousal and desire. Not particularly subtle emotions,and certainly not the only ones likely to be present in a real sexual encounter, within the context of a friendship, acquaintance or relationship, but perhaps the prominent ones within the context of a one night stand. Obviously this is not a hard and fast rule (stop giggling at the back, there,) as I have personally had one night stands with people who I have later become friends with, or where the main activity is not fucking, but giggling and groping, drinking and telling bad jokes to each other.

    But (and this is the biggie) to a certain extent, the idea of porn is to give part of the experience of a sexual encounter to the viewer where a genuine one is not available. I do not think I know anybody who would pass up the opportunity to spend the night in another person's arms in favour of a night whacking off to pornography, unless there are other factors involved. Barring the sort of pornography-viewer relationship where the viewer becomes, and I use this word advisedly, obsessed with the star of the pornography in question, where an emotional bond (albeit an unrequited one) is built up (a scenario with certain immediately discernible problems,) the only parts of the sexual experience which can be broadcast through the one-way-mirror of pornography are arousal, and desire.

    So, in conclusion of this unplanned, unplotted diatribe, the only sexual experience which can be simulated in the industry is the slightly unfeeling kind of one-night-stand, where neither of you really likes the other, but you turn one another on.

    I am not, I must say, arguing that degrading images are damaging, of course not, but I am with Penny when she says that this is a symptom rather than a disease. I find the not-quite-consensual aspect of the seedier end of the industry sickening, and have in the past have done serious damage to my computer in outright fury, having encountered examples of this unexpectedly.

    Media is, largely, a surrogate, I believe. Action films provide surrogate excitement, horror provides surrogate fear and relief, music (very powerfully, to me at least) provides surrogate emotion and pornography provides surrogate sexual gratification.

    Argument welcomed

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  13. In the early '90s I remember walking into a supermarket and seeing a sign advertising dove deoderant. It featured an armpit and a fair amount of breast. I recall that I thought this was a major change in the exposure of flesh since the early '80s. I wondered where this would go in the future. Now we have adverts like this.

    What get me is that this wasn't talked about 15+ years ago. The diversity of porn since then was a pretty obvious conclusion. What do women/men expect of/want from porn? What should be the line on more exposed public works, such as ads? Ideally this should have been asked 15 years ago, but since then men have been fed a steady diet of 'spice girlesque' tit and thigh and show no signs of becoming full.

    Where do women want this to end? And do men's wants enter into any of this?

    Lawtears

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