Apparently I should have written these next few posts first, since there are people out there who can’t handle discussions of the fact that a lot of women are uncomfortable with porn without getting all Diablo Cody on me and whining about how I’ve ignored the fact that there are different kinds of porn and the fact that there are women who like porn. Don’t get your tattoos in a bunch, I’ll get to both of those issues. But first, I’d like to discuss some of the larger cultural, social, and (to a lesser extent) political issues that revolve around the consumption of porn, which I hope will help clarify my position for those who think I’m just some kind of anti-sex prude who wants to piss on their porn parade (and for those who know that, despite the fact that I do love to piss on a porn parade, I’m not an anti-sex prude).
First, I suppose I need to explain what kind of porn I’m talking about here. I am aware that there are as many kinds of porn as there are novelty t-shirts with Will Ferrell movie quotes on them, but the vast majority of porn depicts men doing things to women, women who aren’t actually gay doing things to each other for the benefit of a presumed male onlooker, and women doing things to men in situations in which it is abundantly clear that the woman doing the things to the man is doing so at his behest. I’m not going to talk about real lesbian porn or gay porn in this post because I’ll most likely touch on that in the sixth one. I’m going to talk about the vast majority of porn in this post, because that’s what most people are doing when they use a general term, referring to the general character of the things that fall under that rubric.
The defense of their porn use that most men half-assedly trot out in arguments amounts to a self-imposed short-sightedness and a self-constructed world of very shaky delusions about the purported “harmlessness” of their actions. I am about to produce some facts and analysis that I expect should ruin the porn experience for any dude who is even remotely thoughtful and honest with himself, so I warn you, if you want to be able to continue half-believing yourself when you tell yourself you aren’t causing anyone any harm when you use porn (free or not), don’t read on.
Robert Jensen, who you should all get down with immediately, once described a porn video in which a young woman dressed as a cheerleader was spat upon, ejaculated upon, and called horrible names while performing oral sex on a group of men standing around her in a circle, all while she pretended to be enthusiastic about the experience because that was her “job.” Jensen noticed something at the end of the scene that most other viewers probably didn’t: the girl was visibly traumatized, to the point that she had to hide her face from the camera, but then raised her head and continued to smile and pretend she enjoyed being treated like a… a what? I’ve been sitting here trying to come up with a simile for several minutes, and I’ve just realized that there is no such thing on Earth that is conceived of in the same way that a woman in porn is. Toilet paper doesn’t work because men don’t lust after toilet paper. Same with garbage. There’s no other object that is both desired and hated in the way women in porn are. The woman in porn is an object that allows her body and spirit to be used and abused by men and pretends to like it, she is an object that men both desire and revile, but whatever she is, she is NOT a human being that has feelings or the right to be treated with dignity, and she certainly isn’t a human being who is equal in any way to a man. I know that not all porn is quite so heinous as this, but this is hardly an unrepresentative example, and there is a lot out there that is much, much worse.
Men often tell me that they can make a distinction between porn and real women, but I find that a little hard to believe. I would like any dude who uses porn who reads this to do me a favor and think about something: what exactly is the difference between the woman you date, or work with, or know from school, and the woman you last jerked off to? What is it that separates these two “kinds” of women? Is it that one will allow herself to be treated like garbage and one won’t? Is it that one likes to “get fucked” and the other doesn’t? Is it that one is nothing but something to be used and tossed away and the other one is worth treating better than that? Do you conceive of either of them as people you can relate to? Can you understand what it’s like to be either of them?
I am of the firm belief that most men, when they think about what goes on in women’s minds, assume that it is vastly different from what goes on in their own, that they conceive of women as an alien species that is impossible to understand. You hear about it in hackneyed jokes about how inscrutable the female mind is and how simple the male mind is, in stupid talk-show discussions of how the sexes relate to each other, basically just about everywhere you turn. Women, according to men like these, are irrational, mysterious, and impossible to deal with, but they paradoxically can be reduced to a few simple and undesirable characteristics: materialistic, fickle, unreasonable, etc. Women are complicated in the sense that they are alien, but they are simple when it comes to human characteristics. The point of all this is, a lot of men do not see women as human beings like themselves. They would classify them as homo sapiens, but they do not seem to see women as similar enough to themselves to relate to on an emotional level. Starting from such a position, all they can do is divide women into classes based on their own desires for female behavior.
Men are just as affected by our bizarre cultural expectations and prescriptions for female sexuality as women are. Two millenniums’ worth of Judeo-Christian bullshit about the dual nature of woman has left some strange legacies behind. We’re stuck in a strange tornado of expectations; we’ve all absorbed the message that a “good” woman is chaste, demure, and pure, but men still want to have sex with women. That leads to some serious cognitive dissonance. Natural desires + repressive expectations = hostility and fear about those desires, which gets misplaced onto the object of those desires. So women who do what they are expected to are prized but also denigrated as prudes, and those who don’t are prized as objects of desire but also reviled and devalued for their transgressions. If men were able to identify with women as human beings with complex desires and motivations like themselves, it wouldn’t be possible for this dichotomy to continue. It wouldn’t be possible for women to be divided into the two rigid categories of whore or wife material.
That wasn’t a digression. It’s this cultural Madonna/whore complex that allows men to assume that they aren’t hurting anyone when they use porn and that they can differentiate between porn and real life. They can assume that some women are “just whores” (shrug). Some will argue that the women they see enthusiastically participating in demeaning sex acts are just into that sort of thing and, while they can’t understand it, they aren’t going to argue with her right to engage in it for money. (Let’s call that attitude opportunistic pornographic libertarian syndrome.) It’s this sort of willful refusal to look beyond appearances and this sort of willful refusal to consider the broader context in which women make the choice to participate in porn that allows men to use porn with a somewhat clear conscience. Men who use porn, if they think about it honestly, MUST admit that they do not see the women in porn as human beings possessing the same measure of humanity that they themselves possess, or else they would not be capable of dismissing the apparent strangeness of someone allowing themselves to be treated like a piece of trash with a shrug and a claim of bewilderment.
There are women who participate in porn willingly. I am not a fool, I know that some women do decide that’s what they want to do and do it. Some of them even think they’re empowering themselves by making such a decision (see the sixth post for more on that one). Despite the few over-publicized women in porn who run around telling people they’re in the business they’re in because they “love sex,” I find it hard to believe that men don’t know that the vast majority of women in porn got there by accident, and that that accident usually takes place at the end of a long road of drug addiction and physical and emotional abuse. There is no way to get at the real numbers on something like this, but a HUGE proportion of women in porn admit to having been sexually abused as children and/or having been raped. An even larger proportion of women in porn, some estimates put it at 75% or more, have serious drug problems that led them to porn in search of money and access to drugs. And then what happens when they get there? Porn producers are legendary for physically, sexually, and emotionally abusing the women that work for them. The culture of the industry is such that the women are seen as disposable; once they’ve been in too many films, once they stop looking “barely legal,” once they get sick or too strung out, they’re tossed out like garbage, which is interesting, considering the fact that it’s often the producers that got them addicted to drugs or got them into a situation that would make them sick in the first place. The porn industry is completely unregulated, as can be seen from the frequent outbreaks of HIV among porn actors that could have been prevented had the industry been required to test its “actors” or (gasp!) have them use condoms. Women are routinely abused and have no recourse to legal protections because they’re in an industry in which rape and sexual abuse are impossible to prove. And because they’ve supposedly “chosen” the whore role in our society, how much credence do you think the authorities attach to their complaints when they do make them? Sure, there is some “choice” involved in these women’s participation in pornography, but the options are pretty fucked up, and the potential for force and coercion is ever-present. Any man who uses porn and claims that he isn’t hurting anyone because the women in porn “choose” to be there is at best deluded and at worst lying outright. In any case, he needs to confront the fact that he’s probably masturbated on several occasions to women in such straits that they would allow themselves to be mistreated and pretend to be enthusiastic about it, or to women who were being forced to do things they didn’t want to do.
I’ve had some commenters tell me that they only like porn in which the woman looks like she’s into what’s being done to her. That’s so easy to counter it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Women in porn (foreign porn or niche American porn notwithstanding) are expected to act like they like what’s being done to them or what they’re being asked to do to someone else. It’s their job (see the example above). Who wants to confront the fact that the woman might be doing anything but having a fucking party? If she wasn’t enthusiastic, the men jerking off to her would have to confront all the issues I’ve just been talking about, and what kills a boner quicker than feeling guilty? If the woman looks like she’s into it, a man can suspend his disbelief in the idea that a woman would enjoy being spat on and slapped and called a whore long enough to jack off to images of just that. Or, to be less extreme (!), he can delude himself into believing that a woman enjoys being used like a set of holes rather than treated like a human being with her own sexuality long enough to get off.
There’s one more thing I must say on this topic that should really bum your party out if you’re into porn. The porn industry is fucking lousy with producers who not only don’t work too hard to make sure their “actors” are of age, but who actively seek underage girls as they know it will increase the revenue they can extract from the kinds of assholes who are obsessed with virgins and young girls. Chances are, if you use a lot of porn, you’ve participated in the rape of a minor by proxy, especially if you’ve ever done a search with the word “young” in it. There are also more than a few producers who don’t think it objectionable to employ women who are “working off” the costs of their transport to the US by engaging in forced sex work. That’s right, sex trafficking victims often end up doing porn. Surprise, surprise. Next time you men who are into porn read a story about women being tricked into a scheme in which they’re told they’ll be coming to the US or to Europe to work in a factory, only to arrive and be told they’ll be working in porn or in a massage parlor brothel, remember that you’ve probably jerked off to images of one of them being raped, especially if you’re into Asian porn (but there are plenty of other women in this situation from Eastern Europe and elsewhere). Choice? These women are in a foreign country with no legal protection and are at the mercy of the people who keep them in captivity and force them to do sex work by threatening their lives and their families. And guess what? They’re told that they won’t be making any money toward paying off what they “owe” if they don’t act like they like it.
I don’t want to ban anything because it doesn’t work. I just want to inform consumers about the impact of their choices (and hope they give a shit — har har), which is the only real way to effect change. You can keep using porn if you want to, but you can’t keep pretending to believe that there’s no harm being done when you create demand in an industry with practices like that. Basically, if a man, knowing all of this, continues to use porn, he’s tacitly admitting that he cares more about his own wanking than he does about the human rights of the women he’s wanking to. Let’s all just be honest.
Mind you, throughout this entire post I’m making the incorrect generalization that all men who use porn want to believe that there is no one being hurt in the making. But I won’t discuss rape and torture porn or snuff films, despite the growth in their popularity, lest I lose my mind.
To be continued…