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Feminspire | April 16, 2014

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Is Pornography Hijacking the Bedroom?

Is Pornography Hijacking the Bedroom?

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 

  • beez

    “Many of these depictions are very forced and coercive, mirroring instances of sexual assault or rape. Studies have shown an incredibly highprevalence 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 these acts are “bad”, or that they should be shunned. ”

    So this brings up a question for me: What makes porn sacred? Why are we allowed to criticize or shun ads, movies, TV, games, comedy, politicians, etc. but not porn, where there is presumably a sexual-arousal-orgasm-reward-feedback-loop, for misogyny? I am genuinely asking because I don’t get it.

    • Katie

      I think what it comes down to is a critique of the industry as a whole, for depicting these types of acts as the norm and as what every women wants and can get off to. We have no right to judge the (consensual) sexual acts that an individual finds arousing and, all things being equal, there’s no reason those acts shouldn’t be displayed in a pornographic way; its those desires or acts that we should avoid labeling as deviant or shunning.

      However, the issue that we can criticize and shun is the entire industry that will take something like a ‘cum shot’ and depict it as something that every man and women love to do together, and that it’s just the best thing in the world and that everyone should be doing it… it’s the normalization and subsequent pressure to want and do these things that we criticize, as well as all of the other stereotypes or the implication that that’s what real women (and men) are like. There should be a place for porn that you or I might find misogynistic (and lets face it, we probably wouldn’t label all things the same way), but there should be equal number of places for other types of porn, free of the use of the word ‘cunt’ or ‘cum shots’ or or any number of other things you could point out. Because it all comes down to the fact that we all have different desires, and different definitions of sexy or what we find to be misogynistic.

      I think there’s also a divide between porn and other media because other media is out there for everyone to see pretty much all the time, whereas porn has to usually be sought out specifically, so people probably get a lot more tense about those other media because its just everywhere. That isn’t to say that, because porn is as prominent in our daily interactions it shouldn’t be scrutinized or criticized, because we should look as all things critically. I think it just comes down to the fact that we can’t legislate what people find arousing , and I think it’s rather un-feminist to try.

      And to be honest, there is a lot of porn that I personally do shun! There are a ton of things i would never watch, find misogynistic and would never find arousing, but that doesn’t mean I have the right to say everyone needs to think like me.

      Does that help at all?

      • beez

        No, it doesn’t really help me. You basically just said “because some people like it” which is the same argument people use for comedy, ads, movies, TV, etc. Comedy is very personal to people, very subjective and yet people have a “right” to upset when something like the Tosh gang-rape joke happened, right? Is misogyny misogyny or are there times when it is not misogyny or a kind of magical, special, not-real misogyny? Is it OK for people to get off on Matthew Shepard being beaten to death? Is hate an acceptable sexuality? I think these are philosophical and moral questions we should be allowed to ask. And porn just barely out of the mainstream media — they can’t do studies on young men who haven’t watched it because there are none — and it’s a couple of clicks away with constant jokes and allusions to it in our everyday lives.

        You may feel comfortable respecting others’ right to misogyny or other forms of hate in their porn, but I’m still unclear why it should be a general rule that everyone must follow. It just looks like a big “Porn is sacred” sign over the question to me. Is porn different? Is the sex industry different? Sometimes yes, sometimes no seems to be the answer and I find it highly confusing. BTW, I didn’t mention legislation at all nor did I demand anyone else think like me. I simply asked why.

        • lola

          I really have to thank you! you put this so right and on point! I dont know, I myself, know that Im into some sexual things that are problematic. and I can aknowledge that. and I dont feel ashamed of the things I get off on but I just know that they are problematic. and that the reason why I probably like those things come from a society that is very misogynystic.

          I really wonder why no one ever seems to questions why so many rather misogyn sexual practices are so popular?
          why is anal sex so popular if the women is reciving it? why dont you see so much anal penetration when the man is the one who recives it?

          why dont you ever see the guy getting spanked?

          why is it that when you google search bdsm all you see is submissive women for i dont know how many pages?
          why does no one aks the question of WHY?

          why does everyone just say “yes its just the way that we enjoy it and thats allright”
          we are the product of our society. and that society is very mysogyn. we learn early on that a submissive women is a sexy women. a women that suffers is sexy. and we see sexual assault being glamourised and sexualised so often. so yeah, I really think we should start to ask the question why do we like the things we like? because those things are somewhere problematic. thats just the way it is. we have to face that fact.

    • Gyro

      Criticizing porn for causing sexual assaults is problematic simply because while porn has skyrocketed, sexual assaults have plummetted.

      This by no way means porn prevents sexual assault, but it does mean that something is going on which is making sexual assault much rarer (less than a 1/4 now than it was 20 years ago), Either porn is causing it, or something else is causing it and porn is not having an effect. As a result, attacking the industry for its depictions of sexual assault is tricky as these depictions are accompanying a precipitous drop in actual sexual assault.

      • beez

        Hi, Gyro, your comment seems to be in reply to mine but it is not addressing what I said? I did not mention sexual assault, nor did I say porn caused it. I said misogyny and talked about when it is and is not OK to criticize it. Someone can have misogynistic beliefs and attitudes and yet not commit sexual assault. I do not believe misogynistic beliefs and attitudes are OK even if they do not lead every person who has them to commit sexual assault, but YMMV.