Free-range porn: Shades of grey in the sex-on-film debate

sex1-380x505Recently, two articles regarding the by-now popularised debate over pornography and its social effects, particularly in the Internet and smart phone age, gave me some hope that a measure of complexity is beginning to replace the previously black-and-white, sensationalised and often misleading treatment of this discussion by some anti-porn activists.

 

The first was a piece in The Age entitled The problem with porn

It prompted me to write a one thousand word Facebook comment, which I’ve included below – largely because I feel that such a long essay rant, composed spur of the moment when I should have been doing more constructive things, deserves at least a blog airing.

Now, this piece features observations from Marree Crabbe, “an expert on young people and sexuality.” In many ways, it continues some of the more simplistic approaches to discussing and critiquing porn’s role in society. For example, as I discuss below, it repeats the oft-cited reference to statistically prevalent violence in today’s pornography, without discussing what is actually defined as violent or degrading behaviour when compiling such data.

Nevertheless, it does at least gesture toward the idea that pornography itself – the depiction of sexually explicit activities for pleasure and entertainment – is not inherently bad. Rather, as Crabbe says:

The point is not whether anal sex is good or bad, or that it’s no good to get ejaculate on your face or parts of your body. It’s that the script of pornography is normalising and misrepresenting the experiences of pleasure of lots of people, particularly women, and shaping a sense of what is expected as part of the sexual experience for many young people when that is not actually what a lot of people want to engage in.”

The second piece, refreshingly, makes this gesture more explicit. Heh.

While Gloria Gazmi points out that porn isn’t reality, lamenting the rise in unimaginative, predictably ‘scripted’ and frequently unwanted advances from male partners whose porn habits leave them obsessed with anal sex, facial cum shots and other adventurous sexual activities, she also makes clear that “some women probably do writhe in pleasure when being penetrated from all holes and bukkake’d,” but “this is the exception, not the rule.”

She also quotes approvingly from Caitlan Moran who has, as Gazmi says, a compelling argument on the real “problem with porn” – not that it exists, but that we have abandoned it to such unimaginative producers, who create a narrow range of material catering to such a boring and, often, harmfully defined version of male sexual desire:

But when [young men] do come of an age where they want to start viewing sexual imagery, I want [them] to have a chance of finding some, for the want of a better word, free-range porn out there. Something that shows sex as something that two people do together, rather than a thing that just happens to a woman when she has to make rent. Something in which—to put it simply—everyone cums.”

We aren’t going to fix the real problems with porn – exploitation, violence where it exists, the warping of young people’s sexual identities – by waging holy war against sexual expression itself. Read my rant below, Reddit can wait. Gail Dines, I hope you’re listening.

*** Excessively long Facebook comment. Le sigh.

Clarifying what is actually meant by “pornography” is the single biggest issue I have with “anti-porn” arguments.

If we’re going to discuss the increasing commodification and de-humanisation in our culture generally, via technological developments (as is always mentioned re: porn) and changing attitudes toward individual rights, social responsibilities and the marketplace … then I’m all for it. Much of the porn industry, I’m sure, is horrendously exploitative (just like much of the retail and service industries, casualization in the academic workforce, decreasing job security in almost every area of the economy … and so on) and we shouldn’t avoid talking about that exploitation – or the instances of genuinely disturbing cultural displays (of violence, misogyny, etc) where they actually occur – simply in order to better-fit a pro-free-speech or pro-sexual-freedom agenda.

That is the problem of, perhaps, some “hard-core” porn advocates. (Another term I really wish people would use correctly, “hard” and “soft” core meaning the display of penetration as opposed to simulated acts, not generic “rough stuff” versus “vanilla sex”).

However, the anti-porn activists seem to exclusively swing their pendulum (heh) too far the other way. Gail Dines rails against the culturally degrading effects of “porn culture” by referring exclusively to anecdotal evidence from her female students who apparently feel social pressure to get Brazilian waxes now (gosh) and statistical evidence taken from the porn industry’s trade publication that gives DVD-sales data.

DVD sales. DEE-V-DEE. The medium that only families with kids use for watching regular movies, and only aging Nazi war criminals hiding in South America, the outer suburbs of Adelaide or, I assume, Antarctica – where a reliable broadband connection is harder to come by (heh) – use to watch porn. As Leslie Cannold pointed out in the face of Dines ear-bashing argumentative style on Q&A, the vast majority of porn consumed today is done so not just on the Internet, but FOR FREE. Data for DVD or even online sales of “mainstream porn” mean essentially nothing if what we’re interested in is what kind of porn adults (or kids) are watching online.

Also, The Age article echoes a point also repeated often by Dines and others, that of violence:

“A fundamental concern is the predominance of violence, the overwhelming majority of which is against women. Crabbe cites a 2010 analysis by US academic psychologist Ana Bridges that found 88 per cent of scenes in pornographic videos portrayed physical aggression, while nearly half contained verbal aggression. The aggression is not random – 94 per cent of it was perpetrated against women. And more than nine in 10 of those acts of aggression were met with a neutral or a positive response by the targets – the female performers following the scripts.”

Now as I said, actual violence in porn does occur, there is a lot of weird, brutal shit out there (but that’s an issue with the net more generally) and, if there is evidence that an increasing number of people are being drawn to such material, particularly if exposure actually changes their existing sexual tastes (going from “normal” sex to rough stuff, to child porn, as some have implied – Christ, no comment) then we should certainly address that. It may be so … but it’s certainly not so in the way that most campaigners imply, because…

…because there’s never an open discussion about what is meant by “violence” in the same way as there isn’t a clear or shared definition of “pornography” itself. Most of the studies cited in this way (I don’t know about the specific one above) usually count as “physical or verbal aggression” acts which many people consider a normal part of consensual, non-degrading sex … talking dirty, spanking, hair pulling … these are specifically mentioned by Dines as examples of “violence” along with things like facial “money” shots, anal sex, and so on. Now obviously the context of these acts is important, but to suggest they are prima facie (heh) degrading, either within a relationship or depicted on screen, is naive and condescending at best.

Now Crabbe is somewhat more responsible, in that she says “the point is not whether anal sex is good or bad, or that it’s no good to get ejaculate on your face or parts of your body. It’s that the script of pornography is normalising and misrepresenting the experiences of pleasure of lots of people, particularly women, and shaping a sense of what is expected as part of the sexual experience for many young people when that is not actually what a lot of people want to engage in.”

But again, that’s an issue of young people being taught the difference between fantasy and reality more generally, isn’t it? Being taught that what one person likes doesn’t have to be what they like? No one depiction in film or other media, whether porn or not, can ever show the entire range of possible human inclinations or varieties.

It also continues to conflate “the porn industry” with pornography itself, that is, the visual depiction of sex – and the vast array of different pornographic material available. If someone, whether adult or teenager, is looking up certain pornographic material online, surely that says more about their existing tastes, however those are formed. Yes, material they come across (heh) online may help shape those curiosities, but what search terms are they using to begin with? This also seems to suggest a lack of true understanding or acknowledgement of porn in the Internet age from anti-porn activists, despite the shift from Playboy magazines to online porn being their big moral panic card to play. Kids don’t have to get teir porn on particular tapes or DVDs from “the industry”. They aren’t stuck with this or that badly titled, mainstream porno from the video store’s top shelf when they feel like watching sex on film. They can look up literally anything. They can look up rough anal sex and facial cum sluts if they want … or they can look up something by commercially active but self-declared “ethical slut & feminist pornographer” Aeryn Walker, or they can look up completely amateur sex videos and nude photos on tube sites or Reddit. Rule 34. Literally. Anything.

Which certainly raises a lot of potentially troubling social issues, particularly around youth. But they can’t be simplified as merely a “problem with porn” alone.

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