What's the problem with porn? Collective Shout respond to common pro-porn arguments

When it comes to pornography, there is no shortage of opinions. We've compiled responses to some of the more common arguments from defenders of the porn industry.

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"Porn is just fantasy, it isn’t real"

Porn is not merely a fantasy. Fantasy occurs in the mind. A scene featuring a woman being choked could not have been produced without an actual woman being choked in front of the camera, for the enjoyment of male viewers. When acts of sexual violence and cruelty are carried out on the bodies of real life women, this ceases to be fantasy and instead becomes reality.

It is worth noting also that many common sexual acts in pornography are violent in nature, acts that women report as painful or degrading and that they do not enjoy- and further, acts that men do not expect them to enjoy. Surely this must lead us to question why it is that cruelty, humiliation and sexualised aggression by men against women is a fantasy? Why is this dehumanising treatment of women sexually exciting for male consumers?

As Robert Jensen wrote,"Men get something very concrete from pornography: they get orgasms...But it comes at a cost, and the cost is our own humanity."

"Sure, some porn is bad, but don’t demonise the whole industry"

Sometimes supporters of the pornography industry will argue that its critics are merely cherry-picking the worst and most extreme content. However, our focus is on mainstream porn, which in recent years has become more violent than ever before. Researcher Rebecca Whisnant noted, “In today’s mainstream pornography, aggression against women is the rule rather than the exception…[it is] so prevalent it would be hard for a regular consumer to avoid it.”

Some of the staple sex acts in mainstream pornography, as recounted by researcher Maree Crabbe, include fellatio inducing gagging, heterosexual anal sex, ejaculating on women’s faces and breasts, and double penetrations in which one woman is penetrated anally and vaginally at the same time. Mainstream pornography promotes male dominance and female subordination, with women frequently being referred to as bitches, whores, sluts and 'cumdumpsters'. It is strikingly sexist and racist. In any other medium, similar racist stereotypes would be met with outrage, but in porn, it is accepted.

A 2010 content analysis of the best-selling and best-renting pornographic videos available in the USA found that verbal and physical aggression against women was rampant, with physical aggression occurring in 88 per cent of scenes, with 94 per cent of physical and verbal aggression directed towards women.

One need look no further than the pornography industry’s own statistics at Adult Video News to see the best-selling pornographic films including sexualised violence against women, misogyny, incest, racism and pseudo-child pornography titles like the following:(Warning, graphic)

Deep Ass f*cking with young girls, Gape Me 2, I wanna buttf*ck your daughter 16, She wasn't ready, My new black stepdaddy 21

"Women use porn, too"

While research indicates that males are more likely to view pornography for sexual excitement and masturbation than females, and while the vast majority of porn is made for a heterosexual male market, some women view pornography also.

On ABC, psychologist Laura McNally pointed out, “Indeed, some women enjoy porn. Most people take pleasure in habits that are ultimately harmful, like alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. Women don't have a special moral imperative to only support industries that serve a purpose for feminism.”

Some women participate in activities and industries that are sexist or harmful to women as a whole. That some women participate does not change the reality that sexualised violence against women in pornography impacts the status of women in general, both in its production and consumption by men. 

Many more women, however, speak about the damaging impacts of pornography, from the negative impacts on their intimate relationships and marriages and pressure to appear and act in accordance with a certain pornified aesthetic. Indeed, pornography has been named as a factor in the rise of practices such as brazilian waxing and cosmetic surgery, including labiaplasties, as women and girls compare their vulvas to those of women in pornography. Doctors report treating girls as young as twelve with sex related injuries, inspired by porn, and women and girls report pressure to submit to unwanted and degrading sex acts that pornography has normalised.

Read the experiences of young women reporting coercion and pressure to submit to porn-inspired sex acts by male partners.

Women are harmed in both the production and consumption of pornography. The porn industry harms men and boys in different ways. As the pornography industry aggressively targets potential viewers, including children, men and boys are increasingly struggling to control their pornography consumption.

Mainstream pornography provides distorted messages about men, women, relationships and sexuality, undermining healthy sexual development and a sense of connection in relationships. Male porn performers are often muscular with large penises, leaving men and boys feeling inadequate. Pornography use can lead to shame and self-loathing for many men and boys, more of which are beginning to speak openly about the impact on both their mental health and their perception of women (see here and here).  

Men and boys who use pornography often report experiencing difficulty in intimate relations. After habitually masturbating to pornography on a screen, some men have trouble becoming aroused while engaging in real life sexual encounters and may report a lack of sexual attraction to female partners. This may include participating in sex acts with their partner but needing to think about scenes from pornography in order to maintain arousal and function sexually. 

"You are policing/shaming/dictating what consenting adults can do" 

We are engaging in critical analysis of an industry that exploits and dehumanises women and girls for profit. This can include asking questions about why male porn users find pleasure in the consumption of violence or the subordination and humiliation of another person.

It is worth addressing the notion of 'consenting adults', keeping in mind that many of the staple sex acts in mainstream pornography are violent, degrading and acts that most women do not find pleasurable.

Many common acts in porn are designed to inflict maximum physical damage to the woman. Indeed, based on promotional material for popular pornographic movies on the AVN website, it would appear that the damage done to women’s bodies can be a significant draw card for male consumers (warning, graphic language):

“red, glistening anal prolapse”
“gaping buttholes”
“prolapsing rectum”
“with her ass impaled on his boner”

"We at Pure Filth know exactly what you want, and we're giving it to you. Chicks being ass-fucked till their sphincters are pink, puffy and totally blown out. Adult diapers just might be in store for these whores when their work is done." (Promotional copy for "Anally Ripped Whores")

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"It is up to parents to prevent their children accessing porn"

While parents certainly need to take an active role, having age appropriate conversations with their children and learning about online safety, it has become near impossible for parents to prevent their children being exposed to pornographic imagery and messages due to advances in technology and the increasingly pornified public space.

Young people are faced with pornographic magazines in supermarkets, petrol stations and newsagencies, hyper-sexualised music videos, soft porn outdoor advertising and mainstream popular culture in general. The advertising industry in Australia regulates itself, frequently dismissing complaints about porn-inspired advertising including strip clubs and Sexpo outside schools, ruling such content is not inappropriate for children.

Many children stumble across porn online even by accident, others are exposed to hardcore porn at friends’ houses, or even at school. Some experts believe the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11. Gone are the days when porn was difficult to access- now it is impossible to avoid. Unfortunately, not all parents are willing or able to take appropriate measures to prevent their children from being exposed to pornography. We believe all children have the right to a childhood free from pornography, and that the Government and regulatory bodies must implement strategies to uphold the interests of all children.

"You're just anti-sex"

Proponents of the porn industry often frame criticism of the porn industry as an opposition to sex. This is a disingenuous tactic,  conflating the sexualised abuse of women in pornography with sex as if they were the same thing. Porn industry defenders argue those critical of exploitation in the industry are just repressed, closed minded and uptight about sex, as if participating in or profiting from the sexual exploitation of women is progressive. If porn is supposed to represent freedom, then whose freedom does it represent? Freedom for the women reduced to a series of holes for men to brutalise? For people of colour, who are subjected to racist stereotypes and fetishised? It would appear that this 'freedom' is limited to men who profit from or consume porn, men who find sexual gratification in seeing women demeaned and abused. This is the freedom supporters of the porn industry are fighting for.

Anti-porn campaigners recognise that pornography is the commodification of human sexuality. It is produced by an industry concerned not with liberation or authentic sexuality, but maximising profits. As Professor of Sociology and author Gail Dines argued, "Pornography is to sex what McDonalds is to food. A plasticised, generic version of the real thing." Campaigners against pornography acknowledge the industry harms women, children and men, that is has negative impacts on sexuality, sexual performance, relationships and mental health, and that it hinders healthy sexual relationships, intimacy and human connection. As Dr Dines said, "You can't be pro-porn and pro-sex. You have to pick one."

Some people mistakenly believe that pornography is simply imagery of naked bodies, or consenting adults having sex. The reality is quite different, with mainstream porn routinely communicating messages about power between men and women, sexualising male dominance and aggression and the subjugation of women. Instead of making love, Dr Gail Dines suggested mainstream pornography is about men 'making hate' to women. This is not sex, it is sexual exploitation. As our friend One Angry Girl says, "Comparing porn to sex is like hitting someone in the head with a frying pan and calling it cooking."

Statements made by pornographers make it clear that female pleasure is not their goal, rather, female punishment. Read what pornographers really think of women here. 

"Female porn performers choose to work in the sex industry" 

As sex trade survivor Rachel Moran said, “The concept of choice is rooted in the privilege of a genuine alternative. When I think of my choices, they were simply these: have men on and inside you, or continue to suffer homelessness and hunger. Take your pick. Make your ‘choice’.”

Some women enter the industry willingly. In Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, anti-porn activist Robert Jensen argued, “Their choice is free, in the sense that no one is threatening them with direct harm if they choose differently, but it is not made under conditions of complete freedom, given their limited power in the system.”

Many industry survivors, however, argue that rather than being a choice, it was a lack of choices that lead to their entering the sex industry, with economic hardship being a significant underlying factor for many of them. Other women described histories of childhood sexual abuse, and how such abuse groomed and prepared them for the sex trade- having taught them their bodies were not their own, but for men to use and enjoy- and to dissociate during the abuse, which was a useful skill in enduring ongoing paid abuse by sex buyers.

Other women believe they chose to enter the industry, but did so without a full understanding of what they had agreed to, or agreed to certain conditions which were violated and felt powerless to object- such as performers for torture porn site Kink:
'...Models became afraid that voicing concerns meant risking their jobs. "You're in a position where if you don't follow along, you're going to lose shoots," [Alexander] explains.

'Bottoms agrees that the fear of losing work is legitimate. "Blacklisting happens," she says. "It can be unsafe to be a whistleblower."

'Aaliyah Avatari, who formerly performed under the name Nikki Blue and famously lost her virginity during a live Kink broadcast in January 2011, says she was blacklisted after the controversial performance. "They're very picky and choosy," she claims. "If a model whines too much, they won't work with her anymore.

"It took me months to heal after I lost my virginity," she claims. "I had to have vaginal reconstructive surgery. There was no compensation for that. Honestly, I was lucky I had insurance at the time."'

Proponents of the sex industry often claim that women choose to work in pornography and prostitution, that rather than exploitation, this is an issue of women's bodily autonomy. Not surprisingly, they are reluctant to discuss the choices of men who create a demand for the abuse of women in the industry. 

"Porn can play a positive role in sex education"

Given the easy accessibility of online pornography and a lack of other suitable sexual education alternatives, porn has come to function as one of the primary form of sex education for young people. However, porn is a very poor educational tool- “a distortion of respect- based sexuality” according to Dr Abigail Bray and Melinda Tankard Reist, co-editors of Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry.

Mainstream porn fails to promote safe sex, consent, respect or mutual pleasure. Rather, it presents males as dominant and sexually aggressive, who are entitled to use women’s bodies in any way they wish. Women are portrayed as sexual objects who never say no and enjoy painful, degrading and cruel sexual practices.

Porn gives young men unrealistic expectations in relating sexually to women. A fifteen year old boy described how porn set him up for failure in 2014 resource In The Picture:

“The first time I had sex, because I’d watched so much porn, I thought all chicks want this, all chicks dig this done to them, all chicks want it up here, love it there, so I tried all this stuff and it ended up bad.

“After having sex for about 20 minutes or so I decided to go anal…[she] didn’t like that! Pulled out. Decided I wanted head, so I tried to get her to suck…[she] didn’t like it. Blew all over her. [She] didn’t like it.” (In the Picture 2014)

Dr Michael Flood argued that porn is ‘sexist education’, with pornography influencing young people's acceptance of both "sexist and stereotypical constructions of gender and sexuality" and "sexually objectifying understandings of and behaviours towards girls and women."

"If pornography made us healthy, we'd be healthy by now." - Dr Mary Anne Layden.

"The problem is kids accessing material that is intended for adults"

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This cartoon by Jacky Fleming makes a valid point...

"Women in porn like it"

It can be uncomfortable for regular consumers of porn to acknowledge their role in perpetuating the exploitation of women in pornography. It is therefore not surprising that it may be preferable to believe women in the industry enjoy painful, degrading and humiliating sex acts, rather than to recognize they are finding sexual enjoyment in the abusive treatment of women. 

Bridges’ 2010 study found that when aggressed against, 95 per cent of targets responded either with expressions of pleasure or neutrally. This doesn’t mean that acts of violence such as choking or slapping are pleasurable, but it does reinforce what women in the sex industry know- that their jobs rely on giving the impression they enjoy acts of aggression enacted against them.

There is certainly no shortage of accounts from current and former porn performers as to the violence, STIs and trauma they endured in the sex industry. Is there any other industry in which such treatment of workers would be permitted?  

Read accounts of violence, abuse and trauma from porn performers here. 

"'Feminist porn' or 'ethical porn' is the solution"

We reject the notion that women can be objectified, their bodies and sexuality commodified in a good way, a way that is ethical. The porn industry is built on sexual violence, cruelty, humiliation and brutalisation of women, in short, human suffering. The answer is not then to improve the conditions of such an industry, but to abolish it.

The vast majority of porn eroticises inequality and men’s violence against women. So-called ethical or feminist porn is statistically irrelevant- for all the discussion around the need for ethical porn, it is not ethical porn that people are watching, not feminist porn that keeps the nearly $200b industry turning. 

Neuroscientist Ogi Olgas said on feminist pornography:

“What is fascinating is that women commonly promote the idea of feminist porn and socially want to believe in it. Activists argue that there needs to be more of it, women support it in public... But when it comes down to it, that is just not what they are interested in looking at.”

Even if we were to accept that ethical or feminist pornography exists, the content is often indistinguishable from mainstream porn. In a critique of the work of Tristan Taormino, a so-called ‘feminist pornographer’, it was noted that depictions of violence against women, such as gagging, choking, slapping or misogynist name-calling were still prevalent. “Either it is ethical and honorable to ‘play with’ and promote dynamics of humiliation and violence that terrorise, maim and kill women daily, or it is not”, concluded the report.

Australian researcher Dr Meagan Tyler told ABC the notion of ethical porn was nothing more than a selling point from the industry:

"The claims about ethical porn, at this point in time, are more industry propaganda than anything else, and are — what would elsewhere be rightly recognised as — corporate whitewashing.

"It's for a small segment of consumers who would like to think that their pornography consumption is unproblematic and they would like to think that what they are doing is totally different from what others are doing when, in reality, it all feeds the same commercial sex industry.

"If there are consumers out there really concerned about the conditions of performers, I'd suggest not using pornography."


 

Further reading

Growing Up in Pornland: Girls Have Had It with Porn-Conditioned Boys- Melinda Tankard Reist

Collective Shout submission Harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the internet

Porn stars speak out- Collective Shout

WATCH: Porn Harms Kids 2016 Symposium Presentations

Read more stories from former porn performers at Shelley Lubben's website

"Mindy's story: Creating Porn Stars and Destroying Lives": A letter to FTND from an Ex-Porn Producer

They Shoot Porn Stars Don't They- Susannah Breslin (Warning- contains distressing content and pornographic imagery)


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