Porn reflects US values?

Robert Jensen’s opinion piece The Paradox of Pornography asks a number of important questions.

Jensen asks why porn’s extremity and focus on degradation has increased with it’s popularity. He is mainly focusing on the nasty, over-the-top stuff like reality sites that I myself find offensive. Jensen suggests that a lot of men focus on the sexual pleasure involved and tune out any negative messages about degredation or gender. But he also says that a lot of men actually enjoy looking at sexual cruelty and humilation.

Most of the advertising for the gonzo style highlights the subordination of women – one company brags it is in the business of ‘degrading whores for your viewing pleasure’ – which suggests that’s exactly what some men are looking for.

He goes on to theorise that Americans are socially conditioned to accept the degradation of others as normal or pleasurable. He says that pornography reflects the ethics of the nation at large. His arguments are political – he is a liberal commentator – and I won’t go into them here, except that he says porn reflects the “mainstream values… of patriarchy, nationalism, racism, and capitalism.”

What I do want to ponder is whether it’s a reasonable generalisation to make. The most important test is to ask whether degrading or cruel porn is unique to American-made porn. I suspect it’s fair to say no, even though my knowledge of European porn is less-than-extensive. Is Dutch or Swedish porn more respectful towards women? I don’t know. Films featuring Rocco Siffredi, the Italian porn star, apparently have a lot of choking and spitting and stuff, although I would say that this is more on the “consensual rough sex” side of things rather than being purely about humiliation.

It is a fact that the vast majority of “humiliate the whore” reality-type sites come out of the US. I have seen numerous Russian sites that are less-than-tasteful, but they seem to copy the style and layout of American sites.

A lot of these sites have been created as part of the “race to the bottom” culture that seems to have developed in US porn, rather than through catering to specific requests from the audience. In a crowded marketplace, more and more porn producers are trying to gain attention for their product by making it as shocking as possible. It’s a chicken-and-egg question, wondering whether men buy reality porn because it’s there, or whether the producers make it because that’s really what men want. Either way, reality sites remain hugely popular and make a lot of money for those who create them.

Of course, many of the new, inclusive, pansexual porn currently being created also comes from the US, so this devalues Jensen’s argument. Still, the idea that the sort of porn one enjoys is a reflection of your society is an intriguing one.

I do think that America’s traditional puritanism does have an effect on their porn. The French or other Europeans have always been more comfortable with the whole idea of sex, and I think their porn reflects that laid-back attitude. Adult material is more accepted in Europe. Many in the US are still horrified at the idea that people even want to look at sexually explicit material. Masturbation is still taboo, and sex is still a sensitive topic.

In a sexually oppressed society, porn has always been dirty, sinful and just plain bad, and that’s part of its appeal for some. In order to stay sexy, it has to remain dirty and bad. With porn becoming more popular and accepted in the US, staying “dirty” has become harder – thus you get more and more unsavoury acts (like ass-to-mouth), and increasing amounts of humiliation – almost always directed at women.

While it’s reasonable to want to enjoy “dirty” sex, the question remains as to how dirty is too dirty? This is one of the fundamental questions of censorship, and causes all sorts of debate, because one person’s “filthy” is another’s “good time.”

Perhaps it’s worth asking from an economical/market persepctive. How far will reality sites and gonzo movies go before the majority of men are turned off? How deep is the appetite for humilation, degredation, cruelty and revulsion? Is there a point at which producers don’t bother catering to a small group of men whose tastes are extremely unsavoury? Or will they put it out there and hope that curiosity will get people in?

My own, personal stance is this: if it’s consensual, pleasurable for both parties, positive and respectful to both sexes, then great. If it encourages hatred, disrespect or other extreme negative emotions, then I think it’s offensive and possibly harmful. (I’m aware that this is actually an awfully conservative opinion in the porn business, but it’s one I stand behind.) Of course, I still don’t advocate censorship of material I find offensive, but I do think it’s reasonable to look at what lies behind it, and to ask questions about it.

After making generalisations about American porn, I find myself, as an Australian, wondering how Australian porn would embody our values. Unfortunately, I can’t really make a comment. Our government has effectively censored our adult business into oblivion. I’ve never seen an Australian porn film, and the only “officially Australian” porn websites are all R-rated. If there are any “reality” type sites, they’re simply copies of the American model.
OK, this turned into quite the rambling, somewhat vague essay. Time to post it, I think.

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