Thursday, May 04, 2006

F-Words on Porn

Since it's come up several times since my first half-assed attempt to clarify my feelings on porn, not to mention its general controversial status amongst feminist bloggers in general, I've decided to say what I think about porn. I'm going to try and say all of what I think, and see what happens.

First of all, I like it. I think it's a fun intersection of exhibitionistic and voyeuristic tendencies, and as far as I can tell it's a pretty integral part of a lot of peoples' sexuality.

Second of all, I know there are lots of problems with the sex industry, the way porn is produced, and the kinds of porn that are consumed. Amongst the things that creep me out are porn that purports to injure or frighten participants, sex-for-necessities porn where women are supposedly trading sex for housing or food or a job, and of course anything involving children, animals, or force.

Since that first porn post, I've had a reader emailing me some news articles about the sex industry, and I think this might be a good place to address them. I'll start with some of the quotes that I thought were interesting.

First, from an article about public screenings of pornography at MIT.

MIT's mass screenings of pornography produced plenty of home grown data on its effects on women. After each registration day movie let out, women were accosted by bands of leering men. Female victims of child sexual abuse had flashbacks. Widely acknowledged forms of sexism at MIT, in which male professors,
students and research colleagues tend to ignore women, stare at them, or fail to treat them as serious scientists, seemed to worsen after the showings.
Women also raised important qualitative arguments against pornography. First, the depiction of sex in pornographic films is hardly neutral: most films are designed for heterosexual male viewers who like watching women serve men. Men in the films have lifelike characters, while women are shown as dependent and compliant, often learning to "enjoy" abuse. In the worst of these
films, the abuse takes the form of violence that serves as "entertainment" for men. Given the level of violence against women in our society, the violent films may actually be quite realistic.
This article raises the same question I posed in my original porn post - why is this the fault of pornography? Why can we say that men should be responsible enough to keep it in their pants when they see someone in a short skirt or a low-cut shirt, but then give them a free pass when it comes to watching porn? This seems more like a problem amongst these men and their behavior, rather than one that is intrinsic to seeing people having sex on-screen. And, I also have to question the relevance of this sort of porn-viewing experience in condemning all of porn and all of the people who watch it. I would wager that a significant part of these effects have to do with homosocial competition to dehumanize women, rather than some sort of blind rampage that's spurred by seeing a 10-foot-tall money shot. That's a problem, but I doubt that ridding the world of pornography would rid the world of homosociality.

Another current of thought here is that when men think of women in sexual situations - or see them in sexual situations - they're going to not think of these women as people. How is that a necessary consequence of pornography and not actual sexual encounters? Even if pornography can take male fantasies over the top, it does depict a lot of normal sexual activities. Female "characters" in pornographic films aren't very complex, but neither are the male ones, and the films aren't about characters anyway - otherwise, they wouldn't bother with the sex. My feelings are that if men think of women as sexual objects, it's not a problem that taking pornography away will fix. If you can watch porn and think that the actual actresses are not people, even while living in a world full of three-dimensional female characters, taking away pornography is not going to take away your capacity to dehumanize women. This is a much bigger problem than pornography.

And here, from "You are what you eat: The pervasive porn industry and what it says about you and your desires" by Robert Jensen.
Which is the most accurate description of what contemporary men in the United States want sexually, Armageddon or Vivid? The question assumes a significant difference between the two; the answer is that both express the same sexual norm. “Blow Bang #4” begins and ends with the assumption that women live for male pleasure and want men to ejaculate on them. “Delusional” begins with the idea that women want something more caring in a man, but ends with her begging for anal penetration and ejaculation. One is cruder, the other slicker. Both represent a single pornographic mindset, in which male pleasure defines sex and female pleasure is a derivate of male pleasure. In pornography, women just happen to love exactly what men love to do to them, and what men love to do in pornography is to control and use, which allows the men who watch pornography to control and use as well.

When I do public talks on pornography and the feminist critique of the commercial sex industry, I describe -- but do not show -- these kinds of videos. I explain the other conventions of the industry, such as “double penetration,” the common practice in which a woman is penetrated by two men’s penises, vaginally and anally, at the same time, and in some of those scenes the woman also performs oral sex on a third man at the same time. I explain that virtually every sex scene ends with a man or men ejaculating onto a woman, most often in the face, what the industry calls a “facial.”
This I find to be rather presumptuous, dismissive of healthy male sexuality, and also slightly erotophobic. First of all, I think Tristan Taormino would object to the assumption being made here that women don't like anal sex, and for that matter, I don't see why we can assume here that there aren't women turned on by these spoogey sex acts. It's like the assumption made in this critique is that women aren't enjoying a sex act if it's not going to lead directly to their having an orgasm. If that's the case, with anal sex or enthusiasm for jism, we would also have to throw out erotic massage or fondling breasts, or spanking or lap dances.

What I also cannot understand is what exactly is wrong with making pornography that reflects the simple, quick-turn-on fantasies of men. Yes, most porn is produced for the enjoyment of men, and it involves actors who are not likely having as good a time as they profess, but so what? It's meant to convey the mood of good sex, or of what men might like good sex to be - it's not meant to be a stand-in for an actual person's actual sex life. I think of being turned on by pornography like laughing at a sitcom - no, these funny things aren't really happening, and they're not happening to you, but wouldn't it be funny if they did? Wouldn't it be sexy if these things in pornography really did happen, and happen to you?

And, finally, I can't think of any other reason for there to be such a hangup about the "facial" phenomenon except for a lingering, puritanical distaste for sex and the things involved in it. Feminists don't stand for men telling them that their vaginas are yucky and smelly - why is it okay to be grossed out by semen? While I agree that ejaculate-centered porn flicks are often set up in such a way aejaculationjaclation to humiliate a woman, I also think that the idea that being touched by semen is unacceptable a basically sex-phobic one. I should be clear: it's not okay to orchestrate this kind of thing with unwilling participants. What I am saying is that it's the attitude, not the specific act, that gives it so much weight.

Even with the present yuckiness in the porn industry that I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I think it's quite possible to be reasonably sure that you're consuming cruelty-free porn. Lots of production companies have imposed regulations on themselves, and there are unions and other organizations that exist to monitor the industry. There's also amateur porn that brings together the lechers of the world through the perverse magic of the internet. And if you want to be completely sure that no animals, people, etc. were harmed in the making of this film, you can turn to animated or illustrated pornography. If we haven't always had photos, then we haven't always had dirty photos - even if erotica has been around for quite a long time.

I haven't really touched on the objectification problem, but with all the writing I've already done, I'm thinking that will have to wait until next time. Feel free to leave a comment if you have the energy to get into another porn-related discussion.

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