Context is king: there’s nothing progressive about ‘fat porn’

Opting out of porn may be the most progressive thing we can do. Colin Brown

It is time we recognised pornography as part of popular culture. Millions of people watch the content the porn industry produces. And make no mistake, it produces a lot of content.

According to prominent film studies scholar Linda Williams, the US porn industry alone produces more than 11,000 films annually. In comparison, Hollywood churns out only a paltry 400 films per year.

Add to that the open references to pornography in mainstream TV and film, and the fragmenting and blurring of pornographic imagery into a variety of other cultural forms, like fashion and music videos, and you have serious social change. Scholars have been documenting and analysing this “pornification” of culture for more than a decade.

Content in context

Yet, despite the increasing recognition of how mainstream porn has become, many academics and commentators persist in peddling the idea that the multi-billion dollar pornography industry makes products that are somehow avant-garde or revolutionary.

The most recent contribution to this revolutionary porn perspective in Australia was a piece from Lauren Rosewarne on how porn breaks taboos, in particular, through the representations of sex found in “fat porn” and “old porn”.

Like many arguments raised about the progressive nature of pornography, it tends to take the content out of context. The discussion becomes narrowly focused only on consumers and their potential interpretations of porn, rather than taking into account the production and marketing of pornography, or the understanding that pornography is a fundamentally capitalist, profit-driven enterprise.

Half the picture

This is indicative of the shift that has taken place in the academic study of pornography over the past 15 years. After more than a decade of domination by the sexual politics of the so-called “sex wars” – between various branches of feminism in the 1980s and 1990s – porn has become a staple of film and cultural studies.

There has been a subsequent shift from researching “pornography” to “pornographies”, often in order to better capture a perceived diversity of content and an even greater diversity of possible consumer reactions and interpretations.

There is undoubtedly merit in studying pornography consumption. In isolation, however, understood outside the context of production, it can never provide the whole picture.

Reaffirming the mainstream

Take, for example, the “fat porn” Rosewarne highlights. She speculates that this may be a reflection of “our desires”; a common theme in revolutionary porn arguments. But we need, at the very least, to be more specific about whose desires the industry believes itself to be reflecting.

The production of pornography is not best understood as a sort of bottom-up social movement where gender-less people demand particular pornographic imagery and this is delivered as requested. What is needed is a more thorough understanding of power, of how certain people’s desires are given preference over others. This requires a recognition that pornography is still made, by and large, for a male audience with a central objective being men’s sexual arousal.

“Fat porn” is no different. It is produced, almost exclusively, for an imagined male consumer. It is also not simply the representation of “fat people having sex” as Rosewarne suggests. It isn’t “fat porn” because all parties shown are overweight, but rather because the women in the pornography are, in industry lingo, “chunks” or “fatties” having sex with ordinary blokes.

Who is “fat porn” for?

The titles and blurbs on the box covers of “fat porn” further illustrate how the industry understands itself to be pitching this content to the consumer. Titles such as “First Time Fatties”, “Thick-N-Chunky Fat Freakz” or “Feed Her, Fuck Her”, all refer to the women shown in the pornography. The tag line for “Fuck a Fatty Funtime 8” is indicative of many others, it reads: “Porkers crave sex and food”.

Rather than breaking taboos, the industry is quite forthright about recycling derogatory slang and playing on broader pop-culture stereotypes. In this instance, of larger women having monstrous sexual appetites related to an uncontrollable need for food.

An excerpt from the box cover of “Fuck a Fatty Funtime 8” is even more revealing: “Fat girls are like mopeds. They’re fun to ride, but you don’t want your friends to see you on them!” This will surely sound all too familiar to anyone who has had to sit through mainstream films like “The Hangover” or “The Inbetweeners”. Or even to those who’ve had the misfortune of hearing men trade misogynist banter about “fat women” at a pub.

In rare instances of role reversal, where overweight men are shown having sex with smaller women, the tone is markedly different. The porn industry magazine Adult Video News explains the appeal of one title - “Fat Boys Need Love Too” - thus: “Fat men will enjoy seeing their mirror image getting laid.”

Opting out

This is why talking about pornography production, and how the industry markets its own content, offers a useful corrective to the seemingly endless theorising about the liberatory potential of porn. As Susanne Kappeler so aptly noted in The Pornography of Representation, “the pornographer himself is more honest and more astute about pornography than are the cultural experts engaged in defending it.”

Yes, pornography tends to push boundaries. But the push isn’t always a progressive one. In order to make a profit, the pornography industry frequently plays on harmful stereotypes of everything from race and gender to obesity.

In an increasingly pornified world, where the porn industry rivals Hollywood for cultural influence, and its profits rival the GDP of several small nations, a truly revolutionary act would be opting out of porn consumption altogether.

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