On a closer look Porntopia turns out to be a gender dystopia.
If I were to tell you the world’s largest scientific experiment has just been completed what would you guess it took as its subject matter? The human genome? The cosmos? The unbounded inanity of schlock jocks? None of the above.
This limitless enterprise necessarily drew on a vast archive, a database of infinite yet accessible data. Indeed, it successfully surveyed a control group of one hundred million and they were all human. What could be keeping us humans so busy? Our genitals it seems.
The experiment by neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gassmam analyzed the sexual behavior of a good swathe of humanity by surveying our most private, yet electronically footprinted, activity – our online porn encounters. They took in ‘a billion web searches, a million web sites, a million erotic videos, a million erotic stories, millions of personal ads, and tens of thousands of digitized romance novels’.
The findings are heartening for those of us who have no problem with explicit material, but have a very big problem with violent and misogynistic porn. This exhaustive study found violent porn is 'truly rare', both in terms of number of searches, and percentage of productions. They also refute that such material has any causal relation to rape. In fact they found an inverse relation between the two.
However, as neuroscientists their report may suffer from a lack of nuance. They found that ‘youth’ was by a large margin the most popular category of porn - as in the teen, 'barely legal' and cheerleader variety. And they noted that dominance and submission was a prevalent theme split down the gender divide predictably.
Nevertheless their findings do not confirm those of radical anti-porn feminists such as Gail Dines, and here in Australia Meagan Tyler, who have in their own research found that violence and misogyny so pervade pornography that it is inherently anti-woman. Anti-porn feminists have for decades drawn upon utterly horrific instances of explicit representations of sexual violence to characterize all pornography as misogynist. Yet larger samples such as this most recent, and to date most definitive study, have not supported their contention.
In fact studies diverge in their methodology, such as McKee’s Porn Report, which did not count physical aggression against women as violent porn unless the woman reacted negatively. In a wide ranging survey of recent studies Michael Flood found that ‘Consumption of pornography is exacerbating some male’s tolerance for sexual violence, intensifying their investments in narratives of female nymphomania and male sexual prowess, and shifting their sexual practices and relations.’
Flood also found that consumers of porn are overwhelmingly young men, with ‘close to half of males aged between sixteen and twenty-nine using pornography’. Meta-analysis of studies over recent years found an ‘association between men’s everyday pornography consumption and their attitudes supporting violence against women’, particularly with violent material, but also present in non-violent material. All this on top of truly appalling production values poses a challenge to the industry claims that porn is harmless fun. Even if you put aside the findings of Flood and others, porn’s status as a marginal representational gene means that the creators, producers and participants are hardly taking up their roles fresh out of Gender Studies and while this may be a gross generalization, my guess is they are in general uncritical about the uses and abuses of power and conservatively oriented. I’m implying you might as well give cameras to the lowest orders of the US military and ask them to become filmmakers. A work of pure genius might emerge, sure, but mostly you might expect all the nuance, complexity and reflection of mainstream porn. It is almost entirely woeful and to add insult to industry the interventions into the bodies and faces of the participants makes most of them look weird, even ugly. But as the Flood study shows, that is the least of porns’ problems.
The crusade of anti-porn feminists has achieved nothing in over 40 years because the association of explicitness with inherent misogyny is easily refuted. If it is a matter of explicitness why aren’t men denigrated? Clearly there is more to it, such as the wider context of power inequity, or a backlash against feminism. In fact, why men hate women and want to do violence to them has to be more of a perennial inscrutability than what women want.
Anti-porn feminists should be credited for the violent material they have unearthed, because once you have been exposed, it never leaves you.
Take the novella Insatiable Masochist, in which a child is raped by her father, who delights in bursting her cervix. She thereafter cannot control her urge for aggravated rape, which is detailed in a battering of both graphic and explicit scenarios. Or take the DVD Fuck Slaves which, as Meagan Tyler reports, sports a woman strung upside down as a punching bag on the dust cover and is reviewed in the industry rag, Adult Video News, as a ‘misogynist gem’. Tyler’s and number of other studies have documented the new practice ATM or arse-to-mouth, which the women participants of course have an insatiable desire for. Nothing could better illustrate that the line between representation and actual activity is blurred and that porn sex acts can be light years from anything any woman would enjoy. But that is the point.
Once you have repressed the violent urges such material does indeed cause you to feel – towards the producers and distributors of such material – the question remains: is the problem here explicitness? If the problem is violence and misogyny then surely we can also draw upon a vast archive of material that is not explicit. Obviously rape is by its nature explicit, but so much misogynistic material falls under the radar simply because bits are covered. The tactical error of anti-porn feminists was to claim that all explicit material is as unconscionable as Insatiable Masochist, and to assume that the more explicit its content the more graphic its violence. However, there is now clear and irrefutable evidence that even if we establish that explicitness is not inherently violent, the porn industry, probably overwhelming produced my morons, has become a representational realm in which callousness and misogyny are rife. Something about women’s desireability and sexuality invokes deep hatred in an awful lot of young men, the majority of the consumers of porn. It is as though they toggle through three stages: desire, inaccessibility, assassination.
The debate has been hamstrung between polarized positions, the libertarian/industry position that minimizes violent material as a negligible percentage, and the radical feminist/Christian right position that says all explicit material is inherently degrading.
Violent porn should be likened to the Indonesian end of the meat market. I can assure you the community response would be no less resounding if ordinary Australians were exposed to it. I am not talking about spanking or bondage or hair pulling or even name calling – though a discussion about why these things have become entrenched in the sexual repertoire is long overdue. I am talking about material that would make people turn away. Whether or not an image or DVD goes so far as to actually uncover a lurking nipple or leave in focus bits, there is still no justification, ever, for the portrayal of violence against women that endorses, or celebrates, or eroticizes it. If men, or even women, are getting off on rape that is self-evidently a social ill, and certainly not an expression of sexual liberation.
Adult entertainment industry bodies, such as the Eros Foundation, and their political arm, the Sex Party, need to dissociate themselves from violent porn if they want to have any credibility, and condemn it rather than defend it as cathartic fantasy. If there is a section of the industry that produces and deliberately profits from violent porn, and the premise of porn is that the activity is not simulated but actual, that is cause enough to shut these production companies down. Either that or have Chris Lilley demolish them through a new series lampooning the industry. A strong community sentiment needs to be developed against companies involved in violent porn. Naming and shaming would be far more effective than censorship which has only ever acted as another dead end in the debate.
In fact each polarity in this debate has a case to argue. Explicit material that is non-violent and produced within workplace constraints has the potential to be harmless. Likewise violent porn, regardless of its incidence, volume or percentage of production is a very big concern, for what justification can there ever be for any amount of representation that sanctions violence against women and markets it as a masturbatory tool?
Perhaps in the world’s biggest social experiment, we could try moving away from a preoccupation with the explicit and focus on violence. Only then can we finally come to some resolution in the dejavu of the porn debate. And we might find even stranger bedfellows.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in The Sunday Age, 26 June 2011