As part of research for speech and debate oratory last year, I did a lot of research on the topic of pornography, and before long I felt like an expert. I quickly became known as the “Porn Girl” among my friends and debate community. And yet as willing as people were to tease me about my knowledge, no one ever wanted to actually talk about what I knew. Just mentioning the word makes people uncomfortable. Casually let it slip sometime and see how many people are willing to talk about it. It’s one of the most taboo topics in our society, even as the porn industry continues to rapidly expand. We often want to polarize its role in our lives by creating two nicely contrasting categories. Either pornography is bad because it presents women in sexist and misogynistic ways that infiltrate how many of our sexual interactions occur, or it’s good because it allows people to express and explore their fantasies.
Unfortunately, pornography’s effects on our society are not so easily divided into black and white or good and evil. Pornography does provide a valuable source of sexual exploration for many people. So much of how pornography affects us is rooted in deeper constructs of sexuality and gender, and so many of these effects could be mediated by a few changes.
Even more than isolating the issue into two categories, we want to pretend that we can avoid talking or educating our youth about pornography until they are adults, at which point they are almost de facto brought into the circle that understands porn so we end up avoiding the education aspect all together. But since at least half of high school teens in the United States are sexually active, at least that many are also affected by the inundation of pornography in our general culture. So is pornography effectively hijacking our sexualities? Is it possible to balance freedom of sexual expression, especially for women, while still recognizing the effects of very specific constructs about what constitutes as sexuality on our society?
The challenge comes in the commercialization of sexuality in media and the mainstreaming of pornography. Although there are thousands of porn companies that produce a wide range of products and depictions, most of what is released by the industry is determined by white cis-gender men. This means that the majority of pornography, and subsequently sexual experiences, people are exposed to depicts heteornomative interactions of one cis-man, one cis female engaging in penile-vaginal penetrative sex. These types of interactions have developed a script that includes various acts such as blow jobs and “mind-blowing” orgasms. These expectations affect what people see as “normal” sexual interactions, when in reality the only normal interaction is the one that works for you and whoever else is in your relationship.
On a perhaps more devious note, as the porn industry has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry, it has worked hard to maintain a product that is novel to consumers. As a result, the scripts of sexuality presented have swung towards the kind of sexual acts that are generally defined as “hardcore” (see Robert Jensen’s book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity). These include whipping and spanking, anal play, cumshots and much more. In addition, the baseline for pornography, not just that at the fringes, has become actively violent and degrading towards women. Many of these depictions are very forced and coercive, mirroring instances of sexual assault or rape. Studies have shown an incredibly high prevalence of degrading language towards women in porn, language that is corroborated by the comments of men on porn websites and in interviews of women being “cum sluts”. Blatantly put, pornography has become increasingly extreme and has been presenting this extreme as the norm. This is not to say that all of these acts are “bad”, or that they should be shunned. But when fetishes that only appeal to certain people become the norm because they are the new novelty that sells, the porn industry is creating packaged sexualities that may influence many people’s sexual identities. People should be free to explore their sexual boundaries without influence from a script that says “this is what is included in sex”.
Girls Gone Wild, which claims to spontaneously capture young women undressing and flashing in public, has been deliberately crafted to appear not as a porn product, but as hot, sexy fun. It’s not the scripted pornography that we can write off as just a story: these are, supposedly, “real” girls doing “real” things. It becomes a falsified documentation of reality, rather than a representation of what can occur, suggesting that everyday women hold this same inherent sexual availability. Simultaneously, many women who have appeared in Girls Gone Wild, often having been coerced and pressured by the producers to do so, find themselves being shunned among their friends and family for having been so open with their sexualities. It’s a bizarre double standard that condemns average women for being openly sexual, and even worse having proof of it, and yet glorifies celebrities with sex tapes or seductive pictures.
These double standards exist everywhere in pornography. While queer pornography made by queer people for queer audiences does exist, just as much of it is produced by the same men who run the majority of the industry. This is where we get all of the girl-on-girl scenes, or MFF threesomes that are so clearly targeted at men who have these interactions as fantasies, as opposed to women who are actually sexually attracted to other women. Depictions of people of color in pornography tend to be incredibly based in racist stereotypes such as the innocent Asian barely legal girl, the spicy and promiscuous Latina seductress, and the strapping African-American man. Pornography manages to basically be a fetishization of everything, as opposed to just presenting these groups in sexual acts without sexism, racism, or cisgenderism.
There are women porn directors and lesbian porn directors and porn directors of color. There are also plenty of women who have voluntarily gotten involved in the porn industry. Many of them do a wonderful job of creating pornography that does not reflect the lens of heteronormative, white male desires. The point remains that no pornography represents the majority of people’s desires because everyone is vastly different. The images and situations presented by one pornographer may not be in line with the images and situations that turn another woman on.
But, people argue, adults watch porn because what’s depicted gets them or their partner off! Maybe what porn is presenting is really what people want in their sex lives. Yet, we must consider that the average age at which a child first sees porn online is around eleven years old. The first exposure many young teenagers have to sexual intimacy, often before a first kiss, is in the images of pornography, images intended for adults who have already begun to explore their own sexualities. Even kids who don’t actively watch pornography are finding their sexual experiences influenced by it. What we end up with is people who are not coming to any understandings about their own sexual preferences on their own time and instead have all of these preconceptions of how intimate sexual relationships progress. Their first relationships are being influenced by the fantasy world of pornography that contains a fairly scripted progression of, primarily, heteronormative sexual activities: getting naked leads to blow jobs leads to penile-vaginal penetrative sex and so on. In her book Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality, author Gail Dines quite bluntly emphasizes that this divide between the fantasy and reality often leads young men to feel angry towards their female peers because:
unlike porn women [they] have the world “no” in their vocabulary.
In the fantasy world of pornography, every person is available for every kind of sex all of the time. But when we turn off the TV or the computer screen, we have to enter a real world where this is not the case. This dichotomy presents difficulties as we attempt to determine where our own and other’s boundaries lie.
So no, sexual depictions for entertainment or arousal are not inherently bad. In fact, even as the more detrimental aspects of pornography can hinder people’s ability to come to their own conclusions about their sexualities by influencing what they view as “normal”, the simple existence of these depictions can show others that there is no shame in their own sexual explorations. But ignoring the very prevalent issues that exist in the mainstreaming of pornography is leading to some problematic understandings of our sexualities and our sexual relationships with others. It easily becomes difficult to separate this depictions of fantasy from how we format our own interactions.
Interested in the overlap between pornography, rape culture and the many -isms? Stay tuned next week for part two of this segment, where we’ll discuss the causes behind our societal relationship with pornography.
Written by Ariela Schnyer