Porn doesn't liberate women, it teaches them to smile at their abuse

Young women deserve the truth

PHD student Jessica Masterson writes about the impact of porn culture on a generation of young women and the need to speak out against a powerful industry that profits from misogyny and violence against women.

This article was originally published on Medium and is republished here with permission. 

The Third Wave “Dream Girl” Begs To Be Broken

Where the patriarchy once demanded silence from suffering women, it now demands groans of ecstasy. How did patriarchal society manage to pull off this most violent sleight of hand?

If you Google the words ‘Choke me’, you’ll be inundated with cutesy images of this phrase blown up in pink bubble writing, surrounded by hearts or tiaras. Some of the images will go one step further, with ‘Choke me daddy’ posted alongside girlish cartoon characters. One particularly telling meme on the first page states ‘I choked that bitch and she started smiling — that’s when I knew I was in luv (sic)’. Google ‘slap me’, ‘bite me’, or ‘hit me’, and you will find many similar results.

We have long known that our society is becoming increasingly porn-saturated, however the nature of the everyday pornographic content that is being accessed is changing rapidly. As discussed by Gail Dines in Pornland, the last fifty years have seen a move from the dominance of soft-core pornography to the mainstreaming of violent hard-core porn. The soft-focus topless images of old have been replaced by a seemingly infinite number of free video clips of women being tied up, spat on, smacked, punched, kicked, stood on, bitten, and urinated on. What was once niche and taboo is now integral to what we would consider ‘everyday pornography’. This kind of dominant, everyday pornography can usually be seen to have a common theme or thread running through it; certainly, the argument can be made that the thread interwoven through everyday pornography today is that of sexual sadism and masochism. The dominant, hegemonic pornography genre today is that of ‘gonzo porn’. ‘Gonzo porn’ as defined by Dines is porn that is characterised by ‘hardcore, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debased’.

Prior to the birth of the internet, the pornography accessed by most people was that of the soft-core, Playboy-style variety; today, the soft-core everyday porn of the past has been replaced with pornography overwhelmed with brutality, violence, and humiliation.When we consider the ways in which the pornification of culture has influenced the female beauty ideal, it seems inevitable that this dramatic shift in the nature of hegemonic pornography would bring about changes in the female ideal. In our pornified culture, what does the ideal woman look like?

Over the last number of years, there have been many accounts of the ways in which pornography has influenced the beauty ideal. Dines discusses the concept of the ‘Stepford Slut’, the new dream woman who, rather than being characterised by her exceptional homemaking skills, is characterised by her explicit sexuality and her limitless sexual availability. In Perfect Me, Heather Widdows argues that the ideal woman is no longer mere sexual object, but simultaneously sexual object and subject in that her desire and sexual forwardness is a crucial element of her appeal. When we take into account the dominance of sadomasochistic pornography today, the ideal woman as dictated by porn is characterised by pain tolerance and masochism.

A 2010 study found that most of the scenes from fifty of the most-watched porn movies contained elements of both physical and verbal abuse of women. Acts of physical aggression such as slapping and choking could be seen in more than 88% of the aforementioned scenes, and 48% of them showed verbal aggression towards female performers. With both physical and verbal aggression taken into account, the researchers concluded that just under 90% of all the scenes in their study contained elements of aggression toward women. It quickly becomes clear that everyday porn is sadomasochistic; the porn that most porn-watchers are consuming on a regular basis contains elements of sadomasochism, whether in the form of slapping and hair-pulling, or in a less overtly physical way such as through verbal degradation or humiliation. What has been mentioned largely relates to sadism, but masochism can be also be seen in these videos through the smiling faces and encouraging words of the female performers in the face of physical and verbal aggression. The porn industry relies on the consumer’s belief that the women involved are enjoying themselves, and any evidence that this may not be the case would threaten to disrupt the fantasy. Thus, female performers must necessarily demonstrate their enjoyment at whatever act might be taking place, regardless of how aggressive, painful, or degrading. A masochistic attitude on behalf of the female performers becomes crucial to maintaining the fantasy that porn is selling.

What does this mean for girls and young women? In a culture that encourages girls to idolise female porn performers, what are we telling girls about what is expected of them? Liberal ‘sex positive’ feminism has championed sadomasochism as a manifestation of female sexual liberation, but I can’t help but wonder how liberated these young women feel when they’re being spat on and smacked.

This kind of feminism has operated as the patriarchy’s ideal Trojan horse, managing to squash common sense to the extent that women are smiling while men punch them in the face, and we’re calling it liberation. Since the dawn of time men have violently abused and assaulted women but, for perhaps the first time, this nonsensical misogyny disguised as progressive politics has convinced women to beg for abuse in an effort to conform to a contemporary notion of desirability. Using young women’s vulnerability in the face of the female ideal, patriarchal society has repackaged this ideal, turning her from silent 50s housewife, to blow-up doll, to smiling mascara-streaked masochist. We have created conditions whereby pain tolerance has become a sexually desirable trait in a female partner, and the evidence of this is everywhere, from ‘choke me’ memes to ‘PainHub’ crop tops sold by the online clothing retailer O’Mighty; our culture is awash with young women declaring their masochistic credentials.

I have spoken to many women who, at their lowest points in life, adopted this culturally celebrated masochism, and had no trouble finding men willing to hurt them in the name of sexual liberation — men who, through porn consumption, have been sold the idea that women love nothing more than being physically harmed. The ideal of the female masochist is being marketed by the capitalist porn industry and supported wholeheartedly by a patriarchal society undoubtedly thrilled at the idea of male-on-female abuse being not merely condoned but celebrated. This idolisation of female masochism not only traps women in cycles of abuse, but quietly shames them for not enjoying it. The only liberation that has been achieved through this rhetoric has been the liberation of men from the guilt, shame, or repercussions potentially associated with the abuse of women. Men can now openly discuss the sexual gratification they get from beating their girlfriends, and be lauded as champions of sex positivity.

We need a powerful and loud counter-narrative that seeks to protect girls and reinforce the harms of male-on-female violence. We need a feminism that won’t allow violent misogyny to hide behind the mask of liberation. When young women are showing off sadistically inflicted bruises as badges of honour and desirability, we have failed them.



Jessica Masterson is a Philosophy PhD student and single mother researching in the areas of sexual ethics and feminist philosophy.

See also: Growing Up in Pornland: Girls Have Had It with Porn Conditioned Boys

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