Aggressive and debasing: the real issues in porn debates

Industry insiders spoke of how mainstream porn has moved from being ‘lovey dovey’ in the mid-1990s to rough and aggressive. Cher Amio/Flickr

It’s a well-worn political trick that you caricature and call your opponents names when you don’t want to engage with the substance of their claims.

In debates about porn, pornography advocates often seek to dismiss criticism by claiming that, for example, the critics have unresolved personal issues, are offended by sex other than that which fits an extremely narrow, conservative definition, or are engaging in a moral panic.

No doubt there are some people who criticise porn for such reasons, just as there are some who are pro-porn precisely because they want to watch material in which women are objectified and humiliated.

But to seek to dismiss all criticism of porn by inaccurately portraying the position of its critics is both intellectually fraudulent and an attempt to avoid the real issues at stake.

Central to the “porn debates” are two key concerns: the nature of contemporary pornography, and its impact on attitudes and behaviours.

In exploring these issues, our film Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography tells two parallel stories: one of participants in the pornography industry, and the other of young people’s engagement with pornography and its influence on their sexual understandings and experiences.

Industry viewpoints

People in the pornography industry speak surprisingly frankly of the way in which, to quote veteran performer Nina Hartley, “there has been an increase in what I would call the aggression that we see on camera.”

Similarly, aspirationally-named performer, Anthony Hardwood, tells us that when he first started in the industry in 1997, he would be filmed having “lovey dovey sex” on a bed.

But within a few years, producers and directors wanted “more energy, more rough.” They wanted him to “take over and just fuck her, to destroy her.”

The industry perspective on increasing levels of aggression in pornography is supported by credible academic research.

According to a recent content analysis of the most popular porn by US researchers, 88% of scenes contain physical aggression and 48% contain verbal aggression.

Overwhelmingly (in 94% of cases), this aggression is directed towards female performers.

The research found that best-selling pornography commonly shows women gagging, being slapped or choked, and called abusive names – and, significantly, enjoying the experience.

The aggression documented in this research – and in what the porn industry told us and says elsewhere – is in stark contrast to what pornography advocates would have you believe.

Research about porn’s impact

There are competing academic views on the impact of pornography consumption on young people. Media researcher Alan McKee, for instance, claims that pornography consumption does not “harm” young people.

But his conclusion is based on an extrapolation from the statements of a self-selected and unrepresentative group of adult porn consumers, recruited in part from the pornography industry and advocacy networks.

Mainstream porn is full of portrayals of gendered aggression. Joe Abbruscato/Flickr

The research participants’ statements are reflections on when they first encountered pornography and how, looking back at it, they feel the experience affected them.

Other recently published research shows a significant correlation between porn consumption and “adventurous” and “transactional” sex. But, citing the potential influence of other factors, the authors downplay this correlation and signal the need for further research.

This research compares pornography consumers’ practices with those of non-consumers. This is not new methodology, and it is one that may reveal porn’s influence on consumers’ attitudes and behaviours.

But unless such research methods are carefully considered, they may substantially under-represent pornography’s influence; you don’t have to be a consumer to experience porn’s influence.

Indeed, for many people, particularly women, pornography’s influence is encountered through partners and peers who consume porn, shaping individual, relational and, ultimately, cultural sexual understandings, expectations and practices.

Then there are those whose response to concerns about porn’s negative influence is to suggest that young people could learn a range of positive lessons about sexuality from sexually explicit materials.

Those advocating such a position suggest that pornography could teach young people safer sexual practices, for instance, and mutuality between partners, positive body self-image, negotiation and consent. While conceptually possible, in reality these are far from the common messages conveyed through the mainstream pornography most frequently seen by young people.

What young people think

In the parallel story in our film, young people speak candidly about the ways pornography has influenced their sexual imaginations, expectations and experiences.

The young people we interviewed – only a small selection of whom appear in the film - spoke of comparing their bodies and sexual performance unfavourably to what they see in porn. Young men spoke of aspiring to engage in the sort of sex they had seen in porn, and, indeed, of initiating porn-inspired sex with their partners.

For their part, young women regularly described the difficulties they faced repeatedly responding to such initiations, including fellatio-induced gagging, anal sex, and ejaculation on faces and bodies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such acts often were inconsistent with their own desires.

It’s worth noting that while some women enjoy anal sex, which is a prominent element in the mainstream heterosexual porn script, research indicates that most women who have tried it don’t enjoy it and don’t want to do it again.

Young homosexual men told us of the liberation experienced by pornography’s assurance that they were not alone in their attraction to other men. But they also spoke of being disturbed by portrayals of gendered aggression by hyper-masculine “top boys” towards feminised “bottom boys”, and how these stereotypes limited their own experiences.

Speaking out

Our work is far from the only research pointing to such concerns.

A report recently released by the UK Children’s Commissioner, involving a literature review of thousands of papers, is another addition to this growing body of work. The report points to compelling evidence that children and young people’s exposure to pornography is pervasive, influences their attitudes, and is linked to risky behaviour.

But, the voices of those most likely to bear the brunt of porn’s influence are not always easily heard, especially by those whose motivation and research agenda is to de-stigmatise pornography consumption, and explore why consumers enjoy it.

It’s a curious thing to observe people who, in other spaces, would speak out against injustice or discrimination, not heed the voices of young women and gay men speaking of the ways in which contemporary mainstream pornography does not open up their sexual worlds, but represents a dominant sexual script that delegitimises their desire and pleasure and often defines sex as something that occurs at their expense.

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