Tuesday, 8 October 2013

On Pornography and Sexual Culture


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       Until recently, I’ve pretty much held a live and let live policy on porn. I figured out it wasn’t for me, and absorbed it into my general philosophy of not getting upset about things other people do for pleasure as long as they don’t involve hurting other people. I was aware of course of the problems of misogynistic and violent and racist content in mainstream porn (not to mention the issues involved in its production), but it wasn’t really something I thought about a lot. I think the fact that I didn’t watch porn myself combined with how much other instances of sexism in popular culture demand my attention made it possible for me to ignore one of the most significant places it takes form and flourishes.
            The fact is that the content of porn is a very significant factor in the ways we think about sex, and the ways we try to have sexual relationships, and it should be criticized. It should be included in conversations we have about sexism and rape culture, and not just by extremists on opposite sides of the topic. Yesterday I attended a panel discussion about these ideas, and it was really wonderful to see a room full of people – young people, older people, parents, teachers – willing to think and talk about what people see in pornography and why it matters. As long as there are a significant number of people (especially very young people) watching and learning from porn, the content will continue to permeate our sexual and social culture. Bringing the issue out into the open and stripping it of some of its taboo is the first step in doing something about that.
The panel was a part of Auckland University’s project ‘Pornography in the Public Eye’[1], which aims to explore the place of pornography in contemporary New Zealand society. It featured Ema Lyon, the owner and director of D-Vice (a sex-positive adult store and website) and George Parker, a doctorate student at Auckland University and a policy analyst at Women’s Health Action, and addressed questions about pornography, women’s representation, and sexual culture. One of the first things George asserted was that we need to be careful about defining what we mean by pornography, because it’s not a singular phenomenon that only takes offensive and ugly forms. There are people making porn for women, porn for the queer community, even self-proclaimed feminist porn. What most people take issue to is mainstream pornography. It’s also important to clarify our positions on the issue with something more informative than a label like ‘pro-porn’ or ‘anti-porn’, because when these terms are opened and explored there is usually more agreement between them than disagreement – none of which is visible at first. Just because someone supports women’s rights does not mean you can safely assume they’ll be anti-pornography, and just because someone calls him or herself anti-pornography doesn’t mean s/he is socially conservative in general.
On the contrary, the general reasons that people get upset about pornography are the same: the representation of porn actors (especially women) as objects of sexual gratification, without much or any attention given to their sexual pleasure, the prevalence of racist and sexist putdowns, the violence and disregard for consent, and the frequent depiction of unrealistic bodies and sex-acts. This is pornography that tends to be consumed by straight men, and it has been created to meet the demands of that market. As a part of the Pornography in the Public Eye project, Auckland psychology researcher Alex Antevska asked a series of young New Zealand men what they see in pornography and why they find it appealing.[2] In the (mainstream) porn they were familiar with, sex acts such as ‘ass-to-mouth’ (where a man takes his penis directly from a woman’s anus to her or another woman’s mouth) and the infamous ‘money shot’ (in which a man ejaculates on the face or body of a woman) were nothing unusual. Violence was also acknowledged as commonplace, although not a primary reason they were watching.[3] Other worrisome tropes discussed at the panel included the depiction of fellatio so forceful it causes the woman performing it to gag and anal sex performed without any inclusion of the extensive preparation that necessarily precedes it (frequently including, apparently, the use of numbing spray on female actors).
All of this is problematic for a range of reasons. In the first place, the inclusion of rough and violent acts in mainstream porn normalizes these activities – that is to say, it encourages the idea that these are a normal part of everyday sex, and teaches inexperienced viewers that this is what they should anticipate in their future sexual encounters. It is made more dangerous by the absence of contextualization and visible consent. Besides all of this, the exclusion of the incredibly important processes of involved in making sexual acts comfortable, hygienic and safe from the risks of injury, STIs and pregnancy naturalizes an image of sex that is dangerously far from reality.
The people threatened most by this are of course the young men who grow up with the images in porn as one of their primary sources of sexual education, and the people they end up having sex with. On Saturday Ema told several stories about the young men and women who come into her store or her workshops, and the remedial sex education she’s had to employ to unstick the ideas they’ve picked up from porn. She has young male customers concerned about their penis size, because their porn consumption had imposed the actors’ inflated organs as the norm. She works with couples who, because of porn, have the idea that anal sex is something exclusively performed on a female for a male’s pleasure. Young women shamefully confess to her their experiences of being throat-fucked and told that’s how oral sex works. She deals on a regular basis with customers – especially female customers – who have spent many unhappy years having sex they didn’t enjoy because they didn’t know it could happen other ways.
As George pointed out at one point, all of this might not be such a big deal if our youth were getting comprehensive, informative sex education from other places. I feel it very important to note that most of the sex acts routinely depicted in mainstream porn can take place a part of a normal, healthy sexual relationship between consenting adults. The roughness we see so frequently in porn is not inherently disrespectful to women, but without contextualization (which could be done by showing the woman requesting the acts, for example) it can only be reduced to that. With porn more easily distributed and accessed now than ever before, it’s increasingly critical that its messages are interspersed with messages of gender equality, mutual pleasure and sexual diversity. Unfortunately, the sex education currently offered to young New Zealanders might not be achieving this at all. I don’t remember much about my own sex education, but according to several teachers who attended the panel, the NZ curriculum needs some work. There are some schools that have managed to leave the clitoris out of anatomical images entirely, and others who did include it have been pressured by parents to take it out. This bizarre denial of the most common source of female sexual pleasure just allows more room for the flourishing of the key idea at the root of porn’s misogyny: that sex is performed by men, for men, on women’s bodies.

In a perfect world, mainstream pornography would look like mainstream sex. Actors would ask and give consent before any sexual activity and use protection when appropriate. The sex would be diverse and would include pleasure for all parties involved. Violence, roughness and verbal insults would only be present after explicit discussion. But in the real world, it’s hard to imagine how that would work without a five minute conversation at the start of every porno that everyone would quickly adjust to skipping past. I think it’s great that there are people making pornography that honors consent and mutual pleasure and contraception, but it doesn’t surprise me that it’s not more popular. Ultimately what we have to remember is that pornographers are interested in only one thing: making money, by whatever means necessary. That makes porn different from any other media we might criticize for its role in perpetuating misogyny, much like I did with Blurred Lines, because unlike these other artists, the people responsible for porn are not interested in the messages they convey or the effects they have on their audience. I would argue that as much as we might like to dictate what porn should look like, our time and resources are better spent on talking about how we want our sexual culture to look. Because that is exactly what our porn reflects and reinforces.
Perhaps instead of decrying pornography for showcasing misogynistic, male-centric, unrealistic sex as the norm and ideal, we should consider how this has come to be the sex men want on their screens, and how we can progress from this point. The history of male privilege and female disempowerment, the deplorable gaps in our sex education and the silence shrouding our sex lives all have a part in this conversation. By drawing porn (and sex, for that matter) out into the open, to be investigated and discussed honestly, we can ensure that our youth understand the differences between porn and sex, and begin to make sense of why they’re not more similar. It also opens us to all sorts of other interesting questions, like why so many people seem to be turned on by things they think (or know) they should be ashamed of (how do we account for the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and the growing visibility of BDSM and other kinks?).
The University of Auckland is playing a huge part in creating these kinds of conversations through their project. For anyone interested in these questions, I recommend checking out their website in the footnotes. You can also take a look at this great post by Coley at Tangerina a couple of days ago on how we often conflate elements of BDSM and pure misogyny/gender violence when talking about porn. Please leave your thoughts in the comments if you care to pick up any of these threads, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.





Gavey, Nicola. "De-knowing and re-knowing misogyny through pornography". Sexualpoliticsnow.org. Accessed October 6, 2013. http://www.sexualpoliticsnow.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/De-knowing-and-re-knowing-misogyny-through-pornography.pdf
[3] Ibid

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