Pornographic Assumptions

Arwan at Pandagon describes herself as pro-sex, anti-porn, opening up a discussion on the boundaries of pornography and how individuals interact with (or choose not to) those boundaries. I left a long comment responding to two of the commentors’ posts, both of which concerned me for their projection of assumptions about the nature of porn onto those who produce and consume it. The comment is in the moderation queue, and I don’t know how that works over there, so I figured I’d post it here (plus, I make some points I want to come back to someday, and this site is for storing ideas I want to come back to someday):

eponymous wrote:”I will agree with you that violent porn, underage porn, exploitative porn, or certain fetish porn are certainly damaging to the women involved in them.”

How do we know that? The women involved in porn are actors performing under pretty highly controlled situations. I’m sure abuses happen in the porn industry — abuses happen at Wal-Mart, which is far more in the public eye, so they’re bound to happen in the porn industry, which almost unexplainably isn’t in the public eye — but the possibility of abuse doesn’t mean we can simply assume abuse across the board.

Lorenzo is right to situate his (?) critique in the consumption of porn imagery, although I have reservations about a critique, even a “structural critique”, that writes the actors and agents involved out of the picture. “The problem with the sex-work industries, from a broader perspective, is that they are premissed on the social construction of women’s sexuality as consisting primarily or solely of performance to satisfy male sexuality.” Again, though, how do we know that? How far can an analysis of the imagery take us? How much is Lorenzo assuming about the women and men involved in making and consuming porn? And how much of that assumption is based on his own consumption of pornographic images, rather than on personal interaction with the people involved? (I don’t mean to single Lorenzo out here; the argument is an ubiquitous one, he just happens to be representing it in this forum.)

What concerns me is that, if porn is supposed to be so empowering to men and so disempowering to women, if porn is supposed to be so reflective of the male gaze and of male power-fantasies, why are men so intimidated, so uncomfortable about porn? In the (very) few accounts I’ve read based on actual interaction with viewers of porn, one of the recurring theme has been the shame and discomfort porn engenders. Buying porn is, in most cases, done secretly or anonymously. Viewing porn alone, the same. Male homosocial bonding experiences like stag parties and the like in wihch porn is viewed collectively are rife with embarassment and homophobic panic. As I mentioned above, the production and distribution of porn is veiled in secrecy (hence the greater potnetial for abuse), despite the fact that the biggest players in the industry are megacorporations like Marriott and News Corp. For something that’s supposedly so imbrecated with male power, male power sure seems to go to great lengths to dissociate itself from porn!

The question that rarely gets raised is “why do some people consume porn?” One of the reasons it’s so rarely raised is because it’s so hard to do the empirical research that would be needed to answer it, precisely for the reasons I just described. It’s hard to get people to sit still for an interview on their porn viewing habits, and harder still to locate all the people who consume it anonymously via the Internet. So we’re left to fall back on assumptions, whch reflect our own personalities and positions far more than they do those of people who watch porn. And while that may be satisfying, somehow, cutting out the actual subjectivities of the people we’re discussing is a far cry from feminist analysis.

8 comments to Pornographic Assumptions

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s pretty safe to say that actors in violent porn or underaged are harmed. Violence is violence, even if there’s a camera pointed at it. Ditto statutory rape.

    I also have to wonder about the accusation that porn makes female sexuality out to be a performance. These are performers, after all, performing sex. There’s a performance going on, but it’s one of sexual pleasure. I think a lot of the enjoyment of porn comes from empathy – it’s a very good reminder of what having sex is like, good enough to help you feel what the performers are supposedly feeling. Otherwise, I have no idea why we the money shot would be what it is.

    Having sex is different than watching pornography, though, or at least it ought to be. You can ask your partner how they’re feeling or what they want. Maybe if all you know about sex you learned from pornograpy, you’ll have trouble actually pleasing or understanding the signs of pleasure from your partner. What happens on the teevee is not real life, and if people can understand that about Buffy, they can understand it about porn.

  • Anonymous

    Sara, as I said, abuse happens, though the porn industry is very, VERY careful about using underage actresses. The recent passage of a law requiring more careful documentation of performers’ ages led to an immediate sweep of many websites and other outlets who could not afford to maintain the new paperwork. This immediate compliance with the law is typical of an industry that, however corporate it has become, still faces arbitrary pressure from the law. (Not that I’m feeling too sorry for them; I’m jsut saying that few but the largest producers can afford a business model based on felony.)

    On the violence… this is a difficult area. Anti-porn activists have long constructed a strawman argument about pornography in which the actions on-screen were equated with real violence. If we’re talking S&M, I think it’s fair to say that almost all porn violence is acted and carefully controlled. But there is a significant amount of amateur and underground pornography that may well involve real rapes, beatings, and other physical and emotional abuse. This is made all the worse by the lack of recourse for women thus mistreated. I have no idea, however, how widespread actual violence is in the industry.

    On performance and the gap between having sex and watching porn, agreed. I’m not sure how many people mistake the two experiences, though, and I’m not sure how many people become less sexually functional due to pornography. I’ve known quite a few women for whom the situation was just the opposite: porn allowed them to accept fantasies and desires which society at large had condemned. I’m not saying this is universal, I’m just saying that there is a range of responses to porn, some negative, sure, but also some positive.

    Finally, on reminders of what sex is really like, I belive it was Andy Warhol who said all sex is merely nostalgia for past sex.

  • Anonymous

    A few disembodied points:

    It’s a widely acknowledged fact that many heterosexual wimmin having sex with “chosen” (a relative term in cultures where relationships under hetero, patriarchal, monogamous rule don’t allow full space for most wimmin to actually consensually choose relationships to men) male partners, perform erotic excitement, pleasure and release in lieu of actually exploring their own desires and needs. Does this make their experiences pornographic transactions?

    Dykes and wimmin who can be understood as sexually radical voluntarily consume all sorts of porn for their own personal pleasure. Yours truly has a open adoration for the very obvious, very raw power relations so prevalent in gay male porn that makes it seem “honest” by comparison to a lot of the romanticized “pretty woman” or “snow white” or “beaver cleaver’s parents” fictions that abound in the heterosexual erotic imagination and various related relationship paradigms.

    To reduce the discussion about porn down to “yes, it’s good” “no, it’s bad” leaves no space for complexity or layeredness. In that narrative all wimmin workers who act in porn are disempowered not by the industry but by a gaze that assumes domination as their only option. That this over simple gaze is predominantly feminist and academic does not bode well for conversations about ALL wimmin’s power and ability to define themselves and their circumstances for themselves.

    A few questions:
    Do wimmin who do sex work or, more specifically, porn really need to be “saved” by a dominating feminist discourse substituting itself for self-determination in the absence of the traditional white knight stereotype?

    Do they really need to have the power of some academic, some christian, some middle-class wimmin all parts of a sanctimonious lily white hearted charitable moral mojority, inflicted on them as they are smacked on the wrist and told over and over again:

    “We know better. We will decide for you what proper jobs and roles and lives look like. We will meddle in your affairs. Even as you say in a multitude of ways: ‘Fuck off, you don’t know what you’re talking about’, we will simply pat you on the heads and remind you that Big Sister knows best. Eventually, after we’ve worn down your resistance, we will save you whether you like it or not.”

    Who is deciding whether the industry oppresses these wimmin?
    Who gets to speak?
    Whose voices are welcome in this discussion?
    Whose opinions are absent?
    What role does power play in this discussion?
    Where is the venue where power among the wimmin discussing this issue can be explored?
    Why are these discussions so unrealistically and unrelentingly polarized?
    Who does this serve?

  • Anonymous

    I don’t have time to give this post the attention it deserves (need to finish packing… i hate packing….), but I will throw out a book recommendation: Pornified. I haven’t had time to read this myself (it’s on the list with Ariel Levy’s book), so I don’t know if it addresses your specific concerns. I do know, however, that it examines pornography from a more scientific stance, looking heavily into statistics surrounding pornography use. My mom (who IDs as anti-porn) says that Paul, while being clear that she is anti-porn, tries to lay out the evidence without too heavily skewing it to her own bias. Even if you completely disagree with her conclusions, it sounds like a worthwhile read. Probably would help if I had had a chance to read it myself, but I trust my mom’s judgement :P

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Tekanji — this is on my list. There was an exchange between her and levy on… Slate? a couple months back, which was interesting. In the near future I’ll (hopefully) post on Danielle Egan, Katherine Frank, and Lisa Johnson’s _Flesh for Fantasy : Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance_. The editors and most of the contributors have worked as exotic dancers and are now social scientists exploring the significance of this cultural space in our society. I’m about 2/3 done, and will report back when I finish. Also, Egan and Frank gave a presentation at the uni I teach at a few weeks back, on which I have copious notes which I’ll also try to write up in some sort of meaningful way.

    The problem I have with _Pornified_ and with Levy’s book (I say this not having read either, but having read a lot *about* both) is that they seem to start with the notion that sex and sexualized work need to be explored first and foremost in the moral domain — they need to be either condemned or defended. I’m not sure this is the place to start, or if it’s even an applicable dimension of this kind of work. The ramifications of that question are basically what I started this site to explore (though naturally I get distracted…). I think the old feminist standby is a good place to start thinking about this: whose voices are being heard in the discourses on sex and sexualized work? Whose voices are absent or silenced?

  • Anonymous

    I look forward to reading your posts on the book/presentation :)

    As for Pornified, one of the things my mom said that she liked about the book was that it wasn’t preachy. Now, she IDs as anti-porn, so maybe her mind glossed over some moral points because she agreed with them. But, like I said, I trust her judgement.

    As for Levy’s book, I’ve only read the intro thus far (my friend had taken it out from the library). If she keeps up the same tone for the rest of the book, it seems like she’ll make a lot of good points and then go completely overboard. Like, she was talking about how women are pressured in our society to be sexually pleasing to men and then she held herself up as some kind of Patriarchy Monkey for wearing thongs. Well, excuse me, but it’s not the thongs that are the problem, but when women feel obligated to wear them to be “sexy”. I wear thongs because I *like* them. But I also wear boy shorts, and bikini bottoms, and granny panties. Hell, I buy lingerie to wear when I’m alone because it’s fun.

    But, whether she meant it or not, Levy condemned me with her statement and made me feel like I was some sort of patriarchy-loving idiot. Fuck that. I’ve fought long and hard for my right to wear whatever the hell I want – and, yes, sometimes that is articles of clothing that are considered “sexy”. But I lived the alternative – where I was forced by an abusive boyfriend to wear oversized men’s shirts and ugly pants and I didn’t like it. It encouraged me to feel bad about myself because that’s not the way I wanted to dress. It took me *years* to get over it, and (as I’m sure you can tell from this novel of a comment) I’m still fucking sore about it. And I don’t appreciate any other person implying that I’m part of raunch culture because I don’t dress to their standards.

    That said, Levy’s book is still on my list. I’ll probably get angry at it and scream at it several times, but from what I can tell – when she’s not implicitly condemning women – she has some good things to say.

  • Anonymous

    What? Why is porn assumed to always have a male/female dynamic? Why are women viewed as powerless in the porn industry? Is someone out there with a gun forcing them to act? If women all hated porn then female porn stars wouldn’t exist. Hello, the market will provide what the market demands.

    Anyway there is solo porn out there, and I don’t hear anyone crying for all the young men out there who have fists rammed up their ass for a few bucks.

    Are men and woman like cats and dogs are in law. That is you can be held responsible for something your dog does but cats can fend for themselves.

    If I was a woman I would be seriously pissed off at being thought of as so stupid and easily manipulated, like you need constant oversight or regulatory care. Basically “a child for life”.

  • HOPE

    Thank you for addressing pornographic assumptions, this subject hits very close to home. As a young woman of 18 years old I became involved in the porn industry. I was a stripper and a “porn star,” from the ages of 18-22 years old. As someone who has had first hand experience, let me tell you a little something about the sex industry; bluntly stated… it kills. I had many acquaintances that committed suicide, unable to live with the shame of their actions. ALL of my porn star friends and “co-workers,” were using some form of recreational drugs. Everyone did drugs before shooting a scene, because lets face it, no matter how screwed up you are, there’s a little part of you that knows what your doing just isn’t right.

    Its been almost 4 years since I escaped from the sex industry. I live a clean and sober life now; I went back to college, and I’m proud to say that I’m an honors student, and a member of the math and science club at school. I’ve tried to forget about my dark past and move on- but the memories are indelible. I have night terrors, flashbacks of the horrible things that I went through. I have a very difficult time trusting people, for the first 2 years I couldn’t look anyone straight in the eye. I have classic symptoms of PTSD.

    I can say this without reservation, because I have been there and done that, PORN IS HARMFUL TO THOSE THAT WATCH IT AND PARTICULARLY HARMFUL TO THOSE WHO MAKE IT.

    Porn values women (and to some extent men) solely for the way that they look naked and the sexual acts that they are willing to perform for the camera. No one valued me for my academic abilities, my kindness, my character or potential. Porn made me a nameless, faceless piece of meat…valued only for my reproductive organs. Porn exemplifies the societal notion that women are sex objects, cum buckets.


    DO YOU WANT YOUR MOM TO HAVE SEX WITH 100’S OF STRANGERS, film it, and then put it on the internet for the entire world to see??

    If you can answer “yes, I want my mom to have sex with 100’s of men and women that she doesn’t know or love, I want my mom to be sexually exploited for profit. I want my mom to feel worthless. I want my mom to feel ashamed and maybe even suicidal. I want my mom to get STD’s. IF YOU CAN HONESTLY ANSWER YES TO MY QUESTION, THEN I WILL CONCEED THAT PORN IS HARMLESS….

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