We need to talk … about porn in Australia

Our debates about porn are stuck in the past. x-ray delta one

It seems Australians aren’t ready for a real debate on porn and sex. Yet.

The Australian reported last month that Telstra was offering “soft-core pornography” with titles like “Dirty Housewife and Hot Asian Gets Wet for between $3.50 and $4.95 per viewing” to customers with smartphones. It barely raised an eyebrow.

The mainstreaming of pornography is something it appears we don’t even want to talk about anymore. This is no doubt, at least in part, a result of the tiresome merry-go-round of the porn debates in Australia which are often ill-informed and out-dated.

There are only a handful of academics who research pornography in this country, yet it is a topic most anyone thinks they can weigh-in on.

Former sex-therapist Bettina Arndt, for example, has been busily extolling the virtues of pornography this year without ever having to talk about what modern, mainstream porn actually looks like.

Arndt argues porn is fine, because men who watch it report that they enjoy watching it.

The Porn Report, written by three prominent Australian academics who do actually conduct research in the area, employed a similar leap of logic. But a group of self-selecting porn consumers claiming porn is great does not make it so.

A tough gig

This level of public discussion means criticising the pornography industry in Australia is a tough gig. Indeed, critiquing pornography without being painted as an extreme, ideologically-driven feminist or a religious loon has proved nearly impossible in recent years.

Unfortunately, many of the old stereotypes about feminist critiques of porn continue to persist, despite the existence of new and challenging international academic literature.

One common retort is that the feminist critique (as if there were only one) of pornography is obsolete. Several scholars, both here and in the US, have publicly sought to “move on” from the kind of sexual politics which dominated porn debates in the 1980s and 1990s. But, in practice, they tend to still rely on using old feminist critiques as a starting point for any new discussion.

The Porn Report

The Porn Report, for example, was positioned specifically against the feminist anti-porn stereotype. The official website publicising the book, for instance, offers a set of true or false statements to the reader:

• Most porn users are uneducated, lonely and sad old men

• All porn is violent

• Pornography turns people into rapists or paedophiles

• Pornography portrays women as passive object of men’s sexual urges

The Porn Report unequivocally answers “false” to all of these statements and in the process sets itself up as correcting these misrepresentations.

But what the authors are actually doing is providing a false and overly-simplistic impression of anti-pornography arguments from previous decades. This leads them to assert that The Porn Report is inherently more objective and reasonable than any existing literature without ever justifying the claim.

A reasonable approach?

It must be noted that the objectivity of the Report has been called into question – among other things it was conducted with support from sex-industry lobby group, the Eros Association. But the authors’ point that we need to move on from the seemingly intractable pornography debates of the past is still a prudent one.

The problem is that accounts such as those found in The Porn Report, which are highly sympathetic to the porn industry, have become positioned as a reasonable approach to the study of pornography.

This ignores the increasingly broad and nuanced range of feminist-based research on pornography which is now emerging. Much of it has little, if anything, positive to say about either the porn industry or the content it produces. The Everyday Pornographies collection, edited by Karen Boyle (which I am a contributor to) is a good example of the diversity of these new approaches.

Everyday Pornography contains chapters about a variety of themes with a wide array of methodologies. These range from network analysis of the links between internet porn sites, to the use of participant observation for researching the symbolism of seamen on the amateur porn site X-Tube and the interactive website Nileflirt.com.

What is clear through these often novel approaches is that it is possible to genuinely transcend older debates without leaving issues of sexual politics behind altogether.

Bigger extremes

My own research shows that the porn industry is quite forthright about the content it produces. There is open acknowledgement from within the industry that pornography has become more extreme in last two decades.

In 2003, for example, so-called “porn industry bible” Adult Video News, ran a story titled “Harder, Faster. Can Porn Get Any Nastier?” which included this neat summary:

“There’s no question there’s been a turn for the harder in the XXX in recent years. In the mid-1990s, double penetration seemed to be the bar for nasty. Then came the massive gangbangs, such as the Houston 620 in 1999, bukkake vids (also 1999) and today … ass to mouth, double-vaginal and double-anal penetration is [sic] not uncommon.”

If we are to genuinely move forward and complicate discussions about pornography, then we must engage with the content that consumers are actually watching, as well as the international research which is documenting changes within the industry.

We undoubtedly live in an era where pornography is becoming mainstream. Researchers from all sides can agree on that at least. To shut down debates about porn and sex by painting all “anti-porn” researchers as wowsers is therefore not only disingenuous, it does us all a great disservice.