Why Generalizing About Porn Doesn’t Help

by Cara on September 25, 2007

in homophobia, misogyny, objectification, patriarchy, pornography, sex and sexuality, sex work, sexism, violence against women and girls

Perhaps in response to the Don Hazen review of Robert Jensen’s book Getting Off, AlterNet today has another article on the topic. This time it’s by Riane Eisler, and she argues that pornography and war are intricately linked.

I want to start off by saying that Eisler’s writing is not particularly academic. She also repeatedly and gratingly uses the word “porno” (seriously, when was the last time you heard someone say “porno” in a non-facetious context? Unless you’re in 4th grade or living ten years ago, it’s either “porn” or “pornography.”). But I’m going to work past all of that and ask you to do the same, because I think that what she has to say is interesting– even though I disagree with her.

I find her initial link between war and pornography to be compelling:

Liberals often defend images of men chaining, whipping, torturing, and even killing women in the name of sexual pleasure as harmless exercises of free speech. At the same time, they strenuously object to war propaganda.

But if war propaganda is effective in dehumanizing members of “enemy” nations to make it possible for men to hurt, kill, and degrade other human beings — as it clearly is — why would images of women as merely body parts for male sexual use and abuse not have similar effects? Why, like other propaganda, would stories and images that dehumanize women not blind people to the reality of women’s suffering? If linking sex with violence had no effect on behavior, why would savvy media professionals link sex with whatever they are trying to sell — from cars to Coca-Cola — to influence peoples’ behavior?

. . . Many studies show that images linking sexual arousal with cruelty and violence desensitize men to rape and other gender violence. Even beyond this, porno dehumanizes women and perpetuates the notion that half our species is put on earth to be used, and abused, by the other half.

I find this to be a valid argument, and I mostly agree with Eisler here. But then she starts taking it a little too far:

Now what we’re talking about here is pornography, not erotica. Erotica is about giving and receiving sexual pleasure. Pornography is about linking sexual arousal with the infliction or suffering of pain — be it psychological or physical. Erotica (from Eros, the Greek god of love) is about sexual love. Pornography is about male control over women — and even beyond this, about domination and violence as normal and fun.

Images that link sexual arousal with causing physical or psychological pain perpetuate repression and injustice across the board. They condition people to accept, and even want, relations of domination and submission enforced by violence.

I think that my last post made my feelings on modern porn pretty damn clear, and it’s not a positive view. But what Eisler has to say is all wrong.

First of all, let me say that the constant “erotica” vs “pornography” debate bores me to no end. Here’s why: claiming that erotica is okay is really just a way to say “see! I’m not a prude!” An important argument to make, I think, when talking seriously about porn. But this is not the way to make it. Here is the definition of “erotica”: porn that you find personally appealing. That’s it. It’s like how the definition of the word “slut” (a word I abhor and never use) is “a woman who I think has had more sexual partners than me.” It’s meaningless because what I would classify as “erotica” is different from what you would classify as “erotica” and what my grandmother would classify as “erotica,” etc., etc., etc.

So please, can we get over this superior attitude and admit that it’s all just porn? We may find some hot and some abhorrent or just be bored by all of it, but it’s still all porn. I think that it’s perfectly possible to set boundaries for what we find acceptable in porn without ceasing to call it porn.

Secondly, Eisler simply doesn’t have her facts straight. Despite the examples that I gave yesterday, all porn is not about violence and suffering, and I never claimed that it was. (In case you’re wondering where my knowledge in this post originates, I read a hell of a lot of Savage Love).

BDSM, for example, is not about violence and suffering, it is about power and control, and gender has nothing to do with it. In a true BDSM relationship, the “dom” acts as though he/she is in control, but anyone in the BDSM community admits that the “sub” is actually the one with the power, no matter how powerless he/she acts. That is because once a sub calls for a stop to the action (usually through a code word), the dom stops. If a dom ignores a sub’s request, he or she will be completely ostracized from the BDSM community. BDSM, whatever else you think of it, whether it turns you on or grosses you out or does a little of both, is not about violence, because BDSM is entirely about consent.

And that is precisely the difference between true BDSM porn and the porn that I discussed yesterday. BDSM is claimed to be freeing, erotic and enjoyable precisely because of the trust inherent in the performance. The porn that I described yesterday is about violence, real or simulated. The situations are designed specifically to make it seem as though the women are not willing participants and that they cannot control the violence taking place against them (i.e. the dick in her throat that is making her vomit). With BDSM, you know that you’re watching something consensual. With “choke-fucking,” you don’t. And you’re not supposed to. The turn on is supposed to be the woman’s true powerlessness, not the pleasure that she receives from willingly, temporarily and quite artificially relinquishing power.

None of this, of course, means that we have to like BDSM porn. But we do ourselves a disservice in lying about it.

I use BDSM as an example because it’s easy. There are, of course, more “extreme” versions of BDSM that involve blood and other bodily harm. Whether or not they could be considered “true” BDSM is up for debate, but again, whatever else we may think of it, the basic premise is that it’s consensual. Once consent is no longer implied (say, a sub using the code word and the dom refusing to stop), it ceases to be BDSM, and it does indeed become about violence and suffering.

I also use BDSM not only because of its highly simulated “violence,” but because it throws a giant wrench in Eisler’s claim that “pornography is about male control over women.” Quite frequently, the female is the dom and the male is the sub. And also quite frequently (*gasp*), the sub and dom might be of the same sex.

The point is that we’re not dealing with clear-cut lines. Do I think that non-violent porn is the majority of popular pornography? I don’t know for sure, and I’d probably be willing to bet that it’s not. But that’s precisely why generalizations and heteronormativity are a problem. In fact, though most violent porn involves male violence towards women, there is also a lot of violent gay male porn. It’s still porn, it’s still violence, and unless there is some serious role-playing involved, it has nothing to do with male control over women, but with violence generally being equated with sex.

So here is Eisler’s problem: she’s mostly right, but refuses to examine nuance. Just like it’s offensive to not specify when talking about how violent “rap music” that you mean mainstream rap music, it’s offensive to to say that certain porn represents the whole, when it doesn’t. Perhaps she would classify BDSM as I have described it as “erotica.” But I think that you and I both know that that’s a bunch of crap. It’s fucking porn.

Refusing to examine nuance, I think, is an easy way to undo any well-intentioned cause. We need to fight pornography that portrays and promotes violence against women. We need to fight pornography that is about the objectification of female bodies, and about male control of women. But dismissing all porn with the stroke of the same brush doesn’t do anyone any good. It creates divisiveness, and as I think I’ve just demonstrated, it’s pretty damn easy target in which to poke big giant holes.

So here’s what we need to do: we need to say what we mean. We need to stick to the demands against the objectification of and violence towards women. We need to stop treating people who watch non-violent porn like criminals, whether we approve of their habit or not. And we need to stop this holier-than-thou “you like porn and I like erotica” bullshit. That’s precisely how we come off as a bunch of prats who only want to spoil people’s fun. It’s precisely how we should behave if we don’t want to be taken seriously, if we actually want our credibility shredded to pieces.

And like all movements, we need credibility to succeed.

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{ 13 comments }

1 misscripchick September 26, 2007 at 12:11 am

thanks for posting this, i never would have made the porn and war propaganda connection on my own.

2 Jender September 26, 2007 at 8:29 am

Really interesting post and useful distinctions. Since reading your previous post and the articles linked to, I’ve felt puzzled– I have accepted the same defenses of BDSM as you (which I got from Pat Califia), but was struggling to do so with the scenes described. You’ve put your finger on the difference, I think. It’s hard to see how the choking to the point of vomiting could be consensual. (Though undoubtedly some have this kink, so maybe it’s a failure of imagination on my part.)

3 Cara September 26, 2007 at 8:37 am

I think, Jender, that if you look hard enough, you will be able to find someone with a kink for just about anything. So somewhere, there probably are a few women who are into that. But I highly doubt that they come anywhere near the number of men (tens of thousands? millions?) who are watching this type of porn and have created such a large market for it. Whether or not the female actors in the films are actually consenting to what is happening, the idea of it appearing non-consensual is still there. Admittedly, I have not personally seen the porn myself. And I really don’t intend to. But all the descriptions I have come across include a description of the “shock” and pain on the women’s faces and her apparent desire to break free. And the idea of the bangbus (though I think that the encounters are actually staged) is the same– to present the idea of using and taking advantage of women, of fucking them outside of their terms of agreement.

4 Jender September 26, 2007 at 9:48 am

Yes, that seems right. Though the depiction of consensuality is a tricky issue. I doubt that much BDSM porn depicts the negotiation or use of safewords, though I could be wrong. If we think that much of this is still OK, then we don’t require actual depiction of consent in order to think the porn’s OK. So what do we require? I think your suggestion is something tough to pinpoint– that the porn not be eroticising non-consent. Although it’s hard to pin that down, it really does seem reasonable. And it really does seem like these scenes are eroticising non-consent.

5 Cara September 26, 2007 at 11:02 am

I agree that perceived consent in porn is not easy to pinpoint. I think that there is mostly implied consent in BDSM porn, because those in the BDSM community have a strict set of rules. But admittedly, not everyone watching that porn is aware of the rules, and I do not know if verbal consent is a regular part of BDSM porn.

I think that affirmative consent should be what we’re pushing for, and yes, I think that it is a standard that we should apply across all genres. Even with sub/dom role playing where the idea of power/powerlessness is the idea, I think that consent can and should take place prior to the beginning of any sex act. And of course, there are still erotic ways to give consent or to even work it into such role playing. It only need “kill the mood” if what you’re getting off on is the idea of actual rape.

6 jeffliveshere September 26, 2007 at 11:23 am

“With BDSM, you know that you’re watching something consensual. With “choke-fucking,” you don’t. And you’re not supposed to. The turn on is supposed to be the woman’s true powerlessness, not the pleasure that she receives from willingly, temporarily and quite artificially relinquishing power.
On the surface, I like the distinction you make, using obviously-consensual-BDSM as an example of something that might look both violent and nonconsensual on one level, but is recognized (by those who understand the ways in which BDSMers conduct themselves) as consensual and not-violent (in a bad way). (As an aside: I have met enough so-called BDSMers who didn’t do enough negotiating ahead of time to make their play consensual in my book to want to question even the most basic part of your statement, above, that you know what you’re getting watching BDSM porn.)

However, I would want more evidence that the turn on in the types of ‘choke-fucking’ porn is actual powerlessness. I suspect that most men (and women) who enjoy watching such porn don’t understand fully the nature of the industry, and the degrees to which women-who-consent do so under (at times) tremendous financial and social pressure (social within the industry, that is), and if they did–that is, if they realized the ways in which agreeing to participate in this type of porn isn’t as consensual as one would like it to be, they wouldn’t get off on it.

7 Cara September 26, 2007 at 11:34 am

I really do doubt that Jeff. Just like knowing that women are trafficked doesn’t deter Johns. I think that there are an awful lot of people who know that the porn industry is exploitative and still get off on it. And even if they are naive enough to think that all porn is consensual, they are still getting off on the idea of rape and other violence against women.

I also don’t think that I argued that you definitely know what you’re getting when you watch BDSM porn. I specified “true” BDSM because there are surely a lot of people out there saying that’s what they’re doing when it’s not. Just like there are a lot of people out there saying that they’re feminists when really they want to outlaw abortion. You still have to do your research.

8 Roy September 26, 2007 at 5:10 pm

I wonder how much of the difference is in the nature of the communities themselves. Not being a member of the BDSM community, I have to rely on what I’ve read and heard- but isn’t everyone involved in the BDSM community aware of the different ways that subs and doms get off, and of the consent required, and the ways that each enjoy those aspects? That is, when people go to BDSM clubs and participate, they know that the people who are subbing are getting off on that aspect- you don’t bottom if you don’t enjoy it, do you?

So, while an outsider might look and not understand what they’re seeing, the people involved understand that there’s a trust involved in the performance, and that both parties are getting and seeking pleasure (even pleasure from pain) from each other, yeah?

I know that starts to get into motivation and intention, though. Is a person who is bottoming acting in the same pursuit as a woman who involved in, say, pornography that depicts a simulated rape? Or does there seem to be a difference there- does it matter?

I don’t know… my gut feeling is that there’s a difference most of the time. And I wonder if the audiences for those things isn’t different, too.

9 Cara September 26, 2007 at 5:29 pm

Interesting thoughts, Roy.

Here is what I’d like to add: not only does violent rape normalize violence against women, it very well has the possibility of creating the view that forced sex is what women want. Some women like BDSM, some like just being submissive during sex or role-playing similar to BDSM but without the chains and whips that are usually associated with it. All of the women who participate in this behavior, though, make every effort to do it in trusted relationships and would not agree if they thought that actual forced sex was going to occur. So do some women want to role-play submissiveness or even forced sex? Yes. But they don’t want to actually be raped.

Seeing as how men historically have a pretty shitty track record of understanding that “no means no,” I am genuinely concerned about the message that porn without clear expressions of consent sends to men (and really, to women, too) about what women “really” want. And I don’t buy that people necessarily understand the difference between life and “art”– just look at the effect that porn has had on the prevalence of anal sex in straight relationships. But unlike anal sex, there is something innately bad in rape. And hence the concern.

10 jeffliveshere September 27, 2007 at 12:57 pm

“I really do doubt that Jeff. Just like knowing that women are trafficked doesn’t deter Johns.–Cara

It may be that I’m being intensely naive about what most men would do if they were made to see the realities of various types of sex work. That said, I think we should be careful in making comparisons between Johns–men who regularly see prostitutes–and men who use pornography. Not that any such comparisons can’t hold up, just that comparing the motives and actions of men who consume porn to the motives and actions of men who see Johns is problematic.

First of all, it looks like ‘only’ about 5% to 15% of men see prostitutes in the UK and the US–while almost all men use some sort of pornography. That doesn’t mean that the only reason fewer men see prostitutes is because they are aware of the hardships of sex workers, of course–it likely is the result of many factors, including the legality of porn, the easy access of it and the like. But I would also submit that it’s a lot easier for men to be ignorant around porn and the hardships for sex workers making porn than it is for men to be ignorant about the hardships of prostitution; I’m claiming that said ignorance is part of the reason why many fewer men see prostitutes than use porn. So, for me, the huge difference in the numbers of men who are Johns and who consume porn make me think that your point that it won’t make a difference if men know more about the hardships of sex workers who make porn because it doesn’t make a difference to Johns needs more backing up.

“And even if they are naive enough to think that all porn is consensual, they are still getting off on the idea of rape and other violence against women.”–Cara
You may think I’m hairsplitting here, but I think there is an important distinction that you’re not acknowledging: It may be that most men (and women) who get off on the types of porn we’re talking about get off on the fantasy of rape and other violence against women, but are appalled by the idea of actual rape and other violence against women.

(I don’t pretend that this isn’t a controversial point–some would of course argue that you can’t get into the fantasy of it without buying into the reality of it. I happen to think this needs more investigation. Some would claim that the fantasy of violent sex, including rape, is inherently wrong. I’ve met enough women who disagree with that point of view to disagree with it myself, or to at least suggest that the jury is out.)

Which is why I say that if more men understood that the production of porn isn’t egalitarian, that it sometimes (oftentimes?) is violence (not just the fantasy of violence), then they’d be less likely to consume such porn.

I appreciate this discussion, by the way, and I hope you don’t find that I’m hijacking the thread with such long comments.

11 Cara September 27, 2007 at 1:35 pm

You may think I’m hairsplitting here, but I think there is an important distinction that you’re not acknowledging: It may be that most men (and women) who get off on the types of porn we’re talking about get off on the fantasy of rape and other violence against women, but are appalled by the idea of actual rape and other violence against women.

I think that there is a misunderstanding, because I believe that I have acknowledged that distinction. Let me try to explain myself a little bit better.

In later comments (after the one you remarked on), I have tried to make that distinction by talking about consent. I’d prefer to not delve into the ethical dilemmas regarding the idea of rape fantasy, but I do think that there is a way to differentiate between getting off on rape fantasies and getting off on actual rape.

What I have suggested is the need for clear consent in porn. Prior to the role-playing sex act that implies a lack of control, we need to see all of the actors consent to the role-playing. And I stand by my assessment that if you don’t get off on actual rape, you wouldn’t be against such a proposal. As I have previously said, there are erotic ways to give consent. And it will not only allow us to make that distinction, but also force the porn industry to to take a stance against sexual violence. The porn industry changed and started requiring actors to use condoms. Some thought that would never be accepted and that it would kill porn. But it has worked and changed attitudes. I think that we can, and need to, do the same thing with consent.

I agree with you that you cannot make a perfect comparison of Johns and porn consumers due to demographic differences. The point I was trying to make was that ethical concerns do not necessarily change ones actions, especially when it comes to the sex industry. Would more men reject porn if they knew the truth about it? Yes, you’re right, they would. But would all, or even most? I am very, very skeptical about that. Again, I think that many men do know the ethical issues with porn. And as you freely admit, almost all men use porn in one form or another. How to account for the discrepancy? We can probably argue that some men who know about the ethical issues purposely seek out “alternative” porn. But that is a very small market compared to the mainstream, and I have to imagine that the numbers of men who know about sexual exploitation in the porn industry and the numbers of men who actively try to avoid sexually exploitative porn are fairly disparate.

And I think that this is a good discussion to have, too.

12 jeffliveshere September 27, 2007 at 5:23 pm

Cara–
I appreciate you taking the time to clarify further–I think that it would be great if there were a system put in place wherein one could be certain of consent by all parties–somehow, when and if you want to watch porn, if you could be certain that everybody consents to everything you’re about to watch, that would be great. In some ways something like that is happening in some porn now–there are more and more ‘behind the scenes’ DVD extras which are part-titillation, part exposition–and you get to see the actors out of role. In particular, when you’re watching something like BDSM porn, seeing these extras help solidify the consent, I think.

I think, however, how great it would be to see all of the actors consenting before anything starts. Only problem is I think that really only masks the problem — because who knows how coerced they’ve been to do *that*? What we really need are strongly enforced laws, sex worker unions, things like that, so that the industry could be made to be trusted around issues of consent, and around other issues.

Thanks again for the discussion, and thank you especially for taking the time to further explain things to me.

13 Ann September 28, 2007 at 4:45 pm

Frankly, I never got past this ridiculous statement:
“Liberals often defend images of men chaining, whipping, torturing, and even killing women in the name of sexual pleasure as harmless exercises of free speech.”

Harmless free speech? I don’t remember reading that in my Liberalism Monthly.

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