I Don’t Really Know What I Think About Pornography

This is a confession. Pornography as an issue confuses me. I’ve been trying over the last few days to write a post on it, after being involved in a public debate over Hustler. But I keep losing track of my point.

One of the things I am sure of is that there’s a problem, that misogyny and objectification are prevalent and arguably becoming ever more prevalent. But to what extent, and in what ways, does misogyny in porn relate to wider social problems? As cause or effect? The empirical evidence is confused and contradictory – but what sorts of effects should we be looking at? Extreme sexual violence, low-level sexual violence, discrimination, or something else?

Similarly, I’m fairly confident that it makes sense and is useful to challenge and draw attention to the misogyny that’s widespread in a lot of porn (not to mention racism), such as that with which Hustler drips. But beyond that, questions of what to do about it confuse me. Is a legal ban really the right sort of measure? Would it do more harm than good? How can the ‘right’ subset of pornography be defined and picked out, without targetting things that don’t need it and leaving legitimate targets untouched?

I’ve been reading various views on the matter from different camps of feminist, but they leave me still roughly in the middle. Anti-porn radfems are persuasive, pro-porn sex-positives are persuasive, so, blah.

So this post doesn’t have a point or an answer. What it does have is some rather disjointed reflections.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is something like this:

On the one hand, in the abstract, pornography is very indefinite. What is pornography? How is it different from erotica, from exhibitionism, etc.? How are homosexual and heterosexual pornography different, if at all (and what about homosexual pornography made for heterosexuals?)? And if some particuarly egregious subset is picked out, ‘degrading’ pornography or ‘violent pornography’, how is it to be defined? Is showing a woman being tied up degrading in all circumstances? What about showing a man tied up? Etc.

Yet on the other hand, in the concrete, pornography as a social phenomenon is much more definite. Though there are many subgenres and ‘fringes’, the dominant centre is consistently degrading to women, consistently misogynistic in many of its aspects. It caters to heterosexual men and it seeks to appeal to them by showing greater and greater dehumanisation of women.

So I think there’s a reasonable desire, based on perceiving that ‘centre of gravity’, to kick it as hard as possible. But there’s also a reasonable desire, based on focusing on the wavier more varied bits around the edge, to want to resist anything at all authoritarian. How to do justice to both seems like the million-dollar question.

I’m not quite happy with the suggestion that we can define a subset of pornography that will be the misogynistic cancer and leave everything else out. My main concern here is about context. What is obected to in misogynistic pornography is that it functions as “hate speech”, in the sense of legitimising violence and aggression by presenting sexualised aggression as normal and healthy. But no image can do that on its own. A picture of a dead Asian man illustrating a news report about his recent murder isn’t hate speech; the same picture, illustrated with a jokey caption in that week’s National Socialist newsletter, is.

Similarly, as long as misogynistic attitudes are widespread, almost any image can be perceived as degrading to women. If sex is understood as the conquest of a woman by a man, then just showing sex can be degrading (same for nudity).

Similarly similarly, the content of any single image, story, or video, will be understood relative to the context provided by every other image, story, and video. If only 1 in a 1000 images of sex contain cues to suggest non-consent (expression, posture, background, or explicit captioning and storylining), then it makes more sense to defend it as ‘a weird fetish’ than if 1 in 10 do, because in the latter case the overall relative frequencies of things, but not any one single image, will send the message that being turned on by rape is normal and unremarkable, a conclusion which is then more likely to influence people’s attitudes towards actual rape. (For comparison: a picture of a woman in her underwear, in absolute isolation? Neutral. 100 pictures of women in underwear for each picture of a man in underwear? Sending a message.)

The area where I see this as being most problematic is around the issue of context for depictions of violence. It is clearly not impossible in principle for a magazine or website, by showing frequent, unremarked on, eroticised violence (whether mild or extreme), to give people the impression that ‘this is what human sexuality looks like – men abuse women, women love it’. But it’s also not impossible in principle for the same images to be presented in a context that gives people the impression that ‘this is a distinctive subset of human sexuality, which appeals to a minority of people, who will probably tell you if it is them.’ (To some extent people will interpret things in different ways, of course, but there can still be a dominant message)

But the difference? Hard to specify. And if context is so important, then it seems misplaced to argue for approaches which have to focus in on the images themselves. Similarly it seems like if there are tricky judgement calls, maybe don’t argue for approaches which will find themselves endlessly wrestling with the grey areas (both of these seem to apply to legal bans, but not to, say, civil society activism).

So final thought is this: activism and legal bans are both approaches that come to porn from the outside. What sort of measures would change it internally, by shifting the dynamics involved?

One idea, which I’ve discussed before, is inalienable image self-ownership: i.e. you cannot sell a video or photo of yourself naked or having sex, because even if you sell it, if you later decide to demand it be withdrawn, people have to comply – just as you cannot sell yourself into slavery because you always have the right to annul that contract. This would adjust the power relations between models/actors and producers – it would make it very economically risky to pay to produce such photos and images, because you have no idea how long you’ll be able to use them for. It strengthens self-produced pornography (images of me, provided by me) at the expense of other-produced.

At the same time, this leaves a lot of things untouched. Structures that involve payment by the minute, like webcamera work, would remain. So would cartoons and other drawn images.

Another, fairly obvious, issue would be the unionisation and empowerment of sex workers. This would make it harder to extract really large profits out of them, but again, wouldn’t undermine the industry itself as a whole, because unions typically don’t want to undermine the industry they work in.

A third possibility would be to undermine profit-seeking pornography by flooding it out. If the means of creating and distributing high-quality sexually explicit material (on the internet I imagine would be easiest) were taken out of the market and provided to everyone, then we would be flooded with a huge quantity of ‘pornography’ (in quotes because the definition may include a monetary incentive) that would reflect actual diversity of people. This would make it harder for capitalists to enter the market, because they would have to charge for a product that everyone else is giving away free and creating with access to the same equipment, the same techniques, the same expertise, etc. as they have.

Why this seems significant to me is that if we weaken or sweep away profit-making as a reason to produce ‘porn’, we remove a lot of the consumer-oriented nature of it – the need to look for what people want to see, and instead focus on what people want to produce. That desire to meet demand is problematic because it in turn reinforces that demand and thus becomes a self-reinforcing system of entrenched ideas.

In conclusion, I have no conclusion. I did however laugh slightly when reading on wikipedia that a period of intense debate and acrimony between sex-positive and anti-pornography feminists during the early 1980s is often referred to as the “Feminist Sex Wars”. They’re supposed to have ended in the 80s?

19 Responses to “I Don’t Really Know What I Think About Pornography”

  1. DOMINO Says:

    Censorship is a snake that bites Feminism in the ass. Easy to incite, then impossible to control.

  2. Kadin Says:

    I also am very confused about my feelings re: porn. I think a large part of the problem, for me at least, is that porn (that is, images intended to be used for sexual gratification) is not (IMO) inherently misogynist, in the same way that the concept of, say, “an educational institution that children attend to learn various basic concepts that will be needed later in life” is not “inherently” misogynist. The problem is that porn as it actually exists is overwhelmingly and undeniably misogynist, just as schools as they actually exist are. I’m therefore kind of hesitant to make blanket statements that encompass all of “porn”, whereas with schools I have an easy out with “the school system” that does not refer to the concept of educational institutions in general.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Right – so maybe that’s a good analogy to run with. In some sense it seems like there’s a ‘pornography system’ that exists as a real phenomenon. But at the same time there are complicating differences: there’s no central institution or law or legal requirement that constitutes this system. There’s no clear dividing line between it and its ‘fringes’.

    Although I think it should be pointed out that many anti-porn activists use a definition that specifies only ‘degrading’ or ‘violent’ pornography:
    http://www.uoregon.edu/~novkov/outjur/porndef.htm

  4. ubuntucat Says:

    Similarly, as long as misogynistic attitudes are widespread, almost any image can be perceived as degrading to women. If sex is understood as the conquest of a woman by a man, then just showing sex can be degrading (same for nudity).

    I think this, along with the school system analogy, gets at the crux of the problem. It isn’t enough to criticize the porn industry as it currently manifests itself. Every supply that thrives has a demand. Simply asking people to stop producing misogynist porn won’t curb the demand or desire for it from the vast majority of heterosexual men.

    What might be more interesting are solutions that target the demand side of things. Is it possible to retrain het men to be more turned on by and seek out egalitarian porn? Can we define some parameters and guidelines for making porn more egalitarian and feminist-friendly? Can we identify some of the factors (exposure to porn may be one) involved in making a large segment of het men turned on by porn that degrades women? And if some porn degrades women, in an ideal world, would that be okay if it were balanced out by an equal amount of porn degrading men?

    Some questions to consider.

  5. The Barefoot Bum Says:

    Here are some interesting facts (factoids?) about pornography: Who is buying all that porn?

  6. DOMINO Says:

    @ Barefoot Bum
    I remember reading about this study elsewhere. As I recall, it had also analyzed the type of pornography being consumed — with the red states favoring kink, and the blue seeking adulterous liaisons.

  7. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    the dominant centre is consistently degrading to women, consistently misogynistic in many of its aspects. It caters to heterosexual men and it seeks to appeal to them by showing greater and greater dehumanisation of women.

    I’ve seen these assertions made a number of times, but I’ve not seen them backed up by evidence.

    In what ways are mainstream porn images and videos “degrading”? In what ways are they “dehumanising”? What about them makes them misogynistic, in your opinion?

    My theory is that people take from pornography exactly what they bring to it: if people start with the idea that sex (or a particular sex act) is degrading to women, then that’s what they see; if they come with a sex-positive approach, then they tend to see a positive exposition of sex. There have been occasions when I have found porn that I felt was genuinely degrading or harmful, but those are the minority.

    What is more, porn is clearly fantasy for the most part (except where it’s shown as “amateur”). Sex, and the ways we get it, generally don’t work the same way in porn as they do in r/l. The suggestion that people draw conclusions about women in real life from the women in porn is absurd – and if people are doing so, then I think that’s a problem with the people, not with the porn (and maybe we should look at, I don’t know, maybe getting proper sex education!)

    Incidentally – general public access to cheap digital cameras and youTube hasn’t led to the demise of Hollywood, and there’s a reason for that. The same will go for porn in your “flood them out” option, I am sure: namely, to produce really good work still takes more time and effort than most people are willing to spend; they’d rather pay others to do it for them.

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “I’ve seen these assertions made a number of times, but I’ve not seen them backed up by evidence.”
    Well, you’re right that a lot of the time, it is quite subjective what power dynamics people see in images. But to pose a few questions: how many times in porn are women referred to as ‘sluts’ or ‘bitches’ compared to men being referred to in similarly negative terms? How much more often is fellatio seen than cunnilingus? How many more times are women shown being held down, or with facial expressions suggesting that they may wish to escape, than men? How much more common is it to see fantastically beautiful women with average or unattractive men than vice versa?

    There’s also the, potentially separate, issue that the centre of gravity of mainstream porn focuses on looking at women, not at men, and it could be argued that to be looked at more than looking at has power-dynamic-related implications.

    “The suggestion that people draw conclusions about women in real life from the women in porn is absurd”

    It may be absurd, but a number of studies have found evidence that it’s also true (a number of other studies have failed to find that evidence, so clearly things are complicated). For example, Check and Guloien, 1989, found that after sustained viewing of pornography, male college students were more likely to answer affirmatively to questions about whether they might under some circumstances rape a woman.

  9. TrinityVA Says:

    As a kinky female that has liked porn for many years… I’m not sure what to say. I’ve fluctuated back and forth from “it’s an OK minor ill” to “it’s all fine with me,” and I have to say I’m toward the latter end today.

    I will say that actually talking to people who make and produce it has been really eye-opening for me and made me think a lot.

    So I will say that one thing it might help you to think about would be “Am I thinking of the people who produce this as regular people? What do I think their opinions are? What do I think they might say to these criticisms, or those, or other ones? What room do they have to change things? Have any been trying? If they do, are they hailed for it or condemned for doing too little?”

    It might not help you much, I don’t know. But it really helped me cut through the mire of theory to talk to real people. As well as got rid, for me, of the notion in my head that The Pornographers are some sort of shadowy, demonic cabal.

  10. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    To answer your questions:

    “how many times in porn are women referred to as ’sluts’ or ‘bitches’ compared to men being referred to in similarly negative terms?”

    Now we’re getting somewhere. While numerically there are certainly more instances of derogatory references to females than males, in the mainstream porn that I’ve watched, it tends to be rare. It is much more common in some of the niche market pornography.

    “How much more often is fellatio seen than cunnilingus?”

    It’s actually about 50-50. The most common sequence is “fellatio-cunnilingus-vaginal-(anal-multiple penetration)-cumshot”, in which both fellatio and cunnilingus play a part in the foreplay section of the sexual encounter.

    Again, in some niche market porn there will be focus only on fellatio (I don’t KNOW of any that focusses only on cunnilingus, but I imagine that there will be some somewhere – probably related to the facesitting fetish)

    “How many more times are women shown being held down, or with facial expressions suggesting that they may wish to escape, than men?”

    Again, not common at all in mainstream porn. In fact, your references to “facial expressions” I find puzzling because while I would say that in some of the more “rough sex” porn I’ve seen (which is also where you’ll see “holding down” most often) there is an expression of desperation, it is not an expression I associate with desperate to escape, but rather exhilaration (talk to Renegade Evolution about that, for example).

    “How much more common is it to see fantastically beautiful women with average or unattractive men than vice versa?”

    That’s probably more to do with the fact that male performers who can actually perform are much rarer than female performers who can actually perform (which is not to say that female performers have it easier, just that the requirements are often not met by men who want to be porn performers). It’s also open to question what you can read from this. I think at the end of the day the question is more about demand than supply: if more women would buy porn, for the male eyecandy in it, then producers would make more of that stuff (simple economics). But society as a whole teaches women that they are not supposed to have their own sexual desires, so buying porn is still a taboo for many women. Thus, not much catering for their eyecandy desires. Again, porn only reflects what we bring to it, and does not itself perpetuate or promote a particular view, except inasmuch as everything else in society does so.

    It may be absurd, but a number of studies have found evidence that it’s also true (a number of other studies have failed to find that evidence, so clearly things are complicated). For example, Check and Guloien, 1989, found that after sustained viewing of pornography, male college students were more likely to answer affirmatively to questions about whether they might under some circumstances rape a woman.

    As you note, the case is far from proven. And as I said, if there is a problem there then it is something that we bring to porn, not something that porn makes itself. If we had proper sex education (which ideally to my mind would involve at least one class of looking at porn and talking about all the bits you don’t see on-screen, like the 3hr preparation by both performers, and explaining why what you see is not how to do sex) then I think such problems would be much lesser.

    I would argue that the results found in that study and others like it show not what porn does, but actually how the rest of society teaches us to look at porn, and at sexuality in general.

  11. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    It seems you and I have received different impressions of ‘mainstream’ pornography. While we could certainly take the opportunity to shout and call each other names, it seems more sensible to note this fact and let it rest.

    “if there is a problem there then it is something that we bring to porn, not something that porn makes itself.”
    Perhaps. Nothing works in isolation, obviously, but the fact that this was seen in more or less controlled circumstances gives me pause for thought.

  12. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    It seems you and I have received different impressions of ‘mainstream’ pornography.

    I’m going on the type of feature porn that sells most heavily and makes up the majority of the top-selling titles. I’m also going on the more generalised scene-based porn that I’ve seen, which is perhaps closer to what you seem to be focussing on, but at the same time I believe that my observations hold. The questions you raise seem to be about specific genres such as gonzo, “rough sex”, and so on.

    “…the fact that this was seen in more or less controlled circumstances…”

    Actually, I question the validity of “controlled circumstances”. I haven’t been able to find any extensive description of the methodology for the study you cited (although many papers have included it in their bibliographies as a reference – some of those papers are directly criticising it), so I can’t respond to it decisively. However, it occurs to me that there may be problems with the way in which the self-reporting was conducted that through into doubt what can reasonably be inferred from the results. Also, the term “sustained”, appears in the paper’s title as “repeated”. My curiosity is raised by this (especially as a similar study by Malamuth that didn’t use self-reporting, found no effects after long term exposure).

    As a scientist, I find the research to be distinctly lacking in validity, because results don’t appear to be repeatable in general.

  13. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Do you have any handy links or lists of those top-selling titles? Googling tends to get me ‘top-selling jewish porn films’ and such like for some reason. I do get the impression however that gonzo is becoming more and more popular, and themes from BDSM are increasinly entering the ‘mainstream’, usually M/f.

    “results don’t appear to be repeatable in general.”

    This is true, and I haven’t tried to suggest that a definite and specific effect can be considered proven. I’m just saying that you can’t say the very possibility is ‘absurd’. If 50 studies find a certain result, and another 50 don’t, it seems to me more likely that there is a complex and conditional effect than that there is no effect.

  14. Renegade Evolution Says:

    Top Selling porn film of all time: Pirates.

    Gonzo is easier to make, which is why it may seem more prolific, especially on the Net. However, features are still very popular and do constitute the majority of top selling/rented porn films.

    This might be helpful as an overview on the typical pro/con arguments: http://renegadeevolution.blogspot.com/2008/09/price-of-pleasure-i-am-skeptical-of.html

  15. usayisay Says:

    1. Children should not watch pornography.
    Yes
    11. Who does porn cater to?
    men
    9. To be looked at more than looking at has power-dynamic-related implications.
    maybe
    5. We can define harmful subsets of pornography.
    Come again. pa use yah I guess.
    7. Misogyny in porn relates to wider social problems.
    Yes
    10. Pornography is different from erotica and exhibitionism.
    Pa use. No.
    2. Staged lesbian pornography made for heterosexual males.
    What. I hav never heard of that.
    12. Pornography. Women are presented as sexual objects that experience sexual pleasure in being raped and humiliated.
    Say that again. Yes.
    8. “Facial expressions.” There is an expression of desperation in porn, it is not an expression I associate with desperation to escape, but rather exhilaration.
    Um. No.
    13. Porn is clearly fantasy.
    Yes.
    6. What is proper sex education?
    In high school?
    14. Every pornographic image, story, or video, will be understood relative to the context provided by every other image, story, and video.
    Yes.
    4. If some porn degrades women, would that be okay if it were balanced out by an equal amount of porn degrading men?
    Haha. Yes.
    1. Can we define some parameters and guidelines for making porn more egalitarian and female-friendly?
    Mahbe. Heheh.
    9. Buying porn is taboo for many women.
    I do not agree.
    10. Society teaches us how to look at porn.
    No.
    3. Misogyny in porn relates to wider social problems.
    Um. Yes.

  16. Performance Art Says:

    User 4
    What do you consider pornography?
    Trying to think of what to say. It’s abusive.

    User 1
    Please identify an instance when children should be allowed to watch pornography.
    Don’t know that I could think of an instance that would seem appropriate.

    User 11
    How is porn gender-oriented? Who does porn cater to?
    Um, I would say porn caters to males of course. And um…gender-oriented, I would say also to males.

    User 5
    What are some harmful aspects of pornography?
    I’m not quite sure of the answer.

    User 7
    How does misogyny in porn relate to wider social problems?
    Um, the objectification of women and how it might translate to other types of cinema.

    User 10
    When is pornography considered different from erotica and exhibitionism?
    There is no difference.

    User 8
    What about stories or drawings that don’t involve real humans? What makes something porn as opposed to art?
    Silence.

    User 2
    Please briefly describe your experience with staged lesbian pornography that is actually made for heterosexual males.
    I don’t have any experience.

    User 3
    How is pornography associated with rape culture, and is rape normalized by porn?
    It makes it ok to see it, and uh, do that to people.

    User 12
    Describe when you last saw or heard of a woman in porno presented as a sexual object experiencing sexual pleasure in being raped and humiliated.
    I have never heard or seen anything about that. I couldn’t comment about that. Sorry.

    User 15
    How does pornography reveal human nature in a media form?
    Um, People are naturally, sex is a natural human….laughs. Skip

    User 5
    Is there an expression of desperation in porn or rather one of exhilaration?
    Silence. Thinking.

    User 9
    Do you agree that “women” as a concept is indistinguishable from “sex?” If so, how?
    Um, I’m not sure how to answer that question. I’m trying to understand it. In our society we tend to do that with women. Women may be seen as sexual objects.

    User 13
    How is porn a fantasy?
    Um, it is a fantasy for people who don’t have sex.

    User 6
    What is proper sex education?
    Probably the birds and the bees

    User 14
    Every pornographic image, story, or video, will be understood relative to the context provided by every other image, story, and video. Do you agree, or is there another context through which porn is viewed?
    I think porn is just viewed for sexual pleasure.

    User 4
    If some porn degrades women, would that be okay if it were balanced out by an equal amount of porn degrading men?
    No. And I wanna try and distinguish porn from erotica. I think that porn intends to victimize people without (providing any benefit…but I think there is benefit to the viewer and….) Let’s stick to victimization.

    User 1
    Please define some parameters and guidelines for making porn more egalitarian and female-friendly? Do they exist?
    Definitely exist. I think the major difference in female targeted porn and erotica specifically…it focuses more on the emotional connection between two people that is skipped over greatly in stereotypical male driven porn…where there is no context for what the people are doing. It becomes animalistic. Love seen in a movie? Wouldn’t say porn necessarily.

    User 10
    How has society taught you to look at porn?
    I don’t think it has taught us to look at porn, but I think sex sells.

    User 11
    How is alternative pornography that is geared towards specific subcultures different than mainstream porno?
    Silence.

    User 3
    How does misogyny in porn relate to wider social problems?
    I’m not sure, but I’d like to find out.

  17. I Do Know What I Think About Pornography « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] August 19, 2009 — Alderson Warm-Fork A while ago I wrote a post entitled “I Don’t Really Know What I Think About Pornography“, in which I explained my uncertain fence-sitting on the issue of whether pornography is a […]

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