Facing up to the difficult truth about how porn harms women

Porn isn’t harmless. ChrisGoldNY

It would be truly wonderful to live in the world inhabited solely by proponents of porn. In this apparently post-capitalist world, where sexual freedoms abound, there is no need to worry about violence against women. In this world, pornography is simply the representation of a rainbow of sexual desires and using pornography to masturbate to orgasm constitutes a form of blissful political resistance.

The problem is, of course, that this world doesn’t exist. The era of avant-garde porn (if it ever occurred at all) is long gone and the global pornography industry is now an economic powerhouse. While exact figures are often debated, there is a general consensus that the market for porn rivals those for popular music, Hollywood movies, and professional sports.

The vast majority of the mainstream content that feeds this market is live-actor porn: its production requires real people. Pornography is therefore not just a representation but also a practice and there is still precious little recognition of the hazards that performers face. From the significant risk of sexually transmitted infections to the threat of having “the shit kicked out of you” by a colleague on set.

That there is a danger of physical violence for performers should hardly be surprising given the content of modern commercial pornography. Those within the porn industry itself have, for almost a decade, been voicing concerns over the increasingly violent nature of mainstream porn. In Selling Sex Short, for example, I provide a number of insider perspectives from directors and performers worried about the physically and psychologically punishing nature of US-based porn in the early 2000s.

These industry-based concerns are supported by one of the most recent academic content analyses of bestselling pornography which found that almost 90% of scenes “contained physical aggression, principally spanking, gagging and slapping,” and that “perpetrators of aggression were usually male, whereas targets of aggression were overwhelmingly female.”

The message here is hardly subversive. It is the familiar narrative of women enjoying being sexually dominated and abused that feminists have criticised and fought against for decades.

There is also mounting evidence of the broader cultural effects of the proliferation of porn. The School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins recently published research which claims pornography can be linked to increases in sex trafficking. Not to mention the growing reports from psychologists and sex therapists about the damaging nature of pornography use in many relationships. And teachers worried about the changing sexual expectations of a generation who have routinely accessed hard-core imagery before even reaching adolescence.

Reviewing and engaging with these reports need not constitute a “moral panic” or amount to a call for censorship. It simply means that it is time to face up to the fact that there are problems with porn. Claiming pornography has made the world a better place might make for good copy, but it does not make for good scholarship.

To be clear, there are undoubtedly debates to be had about the emerging research on the harms of pornography, but sticking our heads in the sand is no longer an option. The persistent failure of many pro-porn scholars to seriously engage with recent critiques make claims of pornography’s benevolence look like climate change denial. Increasingly, the basic logic of the support for pornography, recently illustrated on The Conversation by Professor Brian McNair, relies on falsehoods and contradictions.

First is the popular argument that porn is harmless because it has no effect on the attitudes or actions of viewers. This is often quickly followed by the suggestion that porn can also be a useful tool for sex education or for introducing liberating ideas about non-normative sex. Both of these propositions cannot be true. We’re essentially left with the inconsistent assertion that pornography can have an effect, but only when the outcome is deemed to be a positive one.

Second, and related to the “no effect” thesis, is the idea that pornography merely represents the culture in which it is created. But, like any other form of media, pornography both represents and creates culture. It is odd that an exclusive focus on representation continues to gain such traction in porn studies when, in other areas of communications theory, a more complex interaction between culture and media is widely recognised.

Third is the argument that porn cannot be implicated in creating or perpetuating cultures of violence against women because in places where porn is most freely accessible, women are most free from sexual violence. It is frequently then implied that porn promotes women’s sexual freedom. Again, this is a basic flaw in logic: correlation does not equal causation.

But this final argument is more insidious than flawed logic; it papers over the appalling rates of violence against women in places like Australia. In any given year, in this country, almost half a million women will experience physical or sexual assault by a current or former partner and less than a third will report it. If the assault is sexual, only about one in ten will access support or legal services.

The reality is we live in a culture where violence against women is still a serious problem. Pornography alone does not, in and of itself, create or cause this problem. But the high rates of violence and aggression in porn certainly reflect the problem and, further, often glamourise and eroticise it.

Facing up to these issues is not pleasant. But it is important. Because we don’t live in a fantasy world.

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