Feminism, Porn, Sex and Women — January 18, 2010 at 5:46 pm

A Negative Yet Nuanced Article About Porn

Screenshot from the Times PageThis morning I read an opinion piece by Natasha Walter in The Times Online called How Teenage Access To Pornography Is Killing Intimacy In Sex. The headline is pure moral panic but I was surprised to find that this extensive article actually contained a real attempt to be vaguely balanced in its anti-porn argument. Normally these kinds of pieces are all hysteria and generalisations and Dworkin-style feminism. This one went close to that but then tried a bit harder. These paragraphs were what gave me pause:

Now that the classic feminist critique of pornography — that it necessarily involves or encourages abuse of women — has disappeared from view, there are few places that young people are likely to hear much criticism or even discussion about its effects.

Many women who would call themselves feminists have come to accept that they are growing up in a world where pornography is ubiquitous and will be part of almost everyone’s sexual experiences. I can see why some are arguing that the way forward really rests on creating more opportunities for women in pornography, yet I think it is worth looking at why some of us still feel such unease with the situation as it is now.

I do not believe that all pornography inevitably degrades women, and I do see that the classic feminist critique of pornography is too simplistic to embrace the great range of explicit sexual materials and people’s reactions to them. Yet let’s be honest. The overuse of pornography does threaten many erotic relationships, and this is a growing problem. What’s more, too much pornography does still rely on or promote the exploitation or abuse of women. Even if you can find porn for women and couples on the internet, nevertheless a vein of real contempt for women characterises so much pornography.

It’s very rare that writers actually acknowledge the existence of alternative porn such as the stuff I make. And I find that rather pleasing because it means they can’t get away with the “all porn is bad” or “all porn hurts women” nonsense. They also can’t then start arguing for censorship because they’re aware it would harm sex-positive erotic expression.

And the fact is that I too have major concerns about the ongoing misogyny and negative attitudes that pervade mainstream porn. I too wonder what it’s teaching young people and whether it’s reinforcing sexism or making guys into bad sexual partners.

My problem, though, is with the assumption that this is absolutely and definitely happening to a large number of men. And the reason I have a problem with it is because there is no scientific evidence to back up that claim. In the article Natasha writes:

For a long time I was sceptical about the claim that the internet had really changed people’s access and attitudes to pornography. Those who want it have surely always been able to find it, whether they were living in 5th-century Athens or the 1950s. But the evidence (my italics) has convinced me that the internet has driven a real change for many people, especially younger people.

She then goes on to quote statistics about how many teens and men are using porn but she fails to then offer any proof that the use of porn is then causing harm.

And that’s the real problem with these kinds of articles. The writer can come up with numerous individual anecdotes that back up their point (in this case, a lengthy interview with “Jim” who became obsessed with porn as a teen) but there’s no real, proper research offered to back up those individual cases.

I too find it disturbing when I hear of women saying their partners became crap in bed after they’d gotten a little too interested in mainstream porn… but can that be extrapolated into a wider trend within the male population?

Fact is, no huge studies have been done to prove it. And here’s the other problem: you’re gonna need a seriously massive study to see any kind of trend. Because the internet means that everybody looks at porn now and if you then think about whether this ubiquitous thing is having a visible, quantifiable effect on vast numbers of men… well, I just don’t see it. In theory we should be witnessing the wholesale destruction of relationships, increasing sexism in our everyday interactions, major psychological problems becoming commonplace among men but it’s just not there.

Instead you could point to the studies that show incidences of rape and sexual harrassment fell in the last ten years. Or even the recent very small survey in Canada that sought to answer these very questions. The researcher originally made headlines because he was unable to find any men who didn’t use porn for his control group. But he did discover that the men in his study watch porn with a cynical eye and that it doesn’t lead to criminal behaviour.

Thus, I don’t really buy into the argument that mainstream porn is making men into complete bastards even if it does make some kind of logical sense. And yet I do want to continue the discussion about what meanings mainstream porn IS constructing and what it means for teens who are, unfortunately, getting their sex education from porn. I’m all for talking about what’s wrong with the depictions of women and sex and advocating for a more positive portrayal of sexuality.

And I’m certainly keen on bringing men into the conversation and hearing what they think about it. Because too often articles like Natasha’s make generalisations about “what men think” without recourse to actually asking them. I actually like to hope that most guys do take porn with a grain of salt, aware that it often appeals to negative emotions or base impulses. And perhaps if we can get that discussion going, more men’s consciousness can be raised to the point that they’re aware of the problematic nature of mainstream porn.

Education and communication is the solution to this puzzle. It always is.

For another view on this, please read The Thin Line Between Pearl-Clutching And Concern at The Pursuit of Harpyness. A good dissection of the issue AND I just love the term “pearl clutching”.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for another thought-provoking post. I agree with much of what you’ve said here, but I would like to add that it strikes me as short-sighted to isolate porn as being a negative influence on people. If porn is having an effect on people, then we should also be highlighting television, advertising, Hollywood, magazines, etc etc etc – to my mind, porn is an easy and exaggerated focus for such concerns. Meanwhile, the rest of media is encouraging rampant consumerism, projecting unrealistic body image (which ironically is often attributed to porn – I have found that porn portrays a much wider diversity of body types). Furthermore, the mainstream borrows from porn to sell products (much to the delight of audiences) and porn gets the blame. I am eager for discussions such as this to get underway, but I find it extremely frustrating when the focus is always on the “bad” media, while the “good” media is seen as somehow benign.

  2. I recently discovered your blog, and we seem to agree on a lot. I did take me a while to work up the courage to comment, though.

    I am a heterosexual male living in Australia. Pornography takes up relatively little of my attention compared to the advertisements that are thrust at me everywhere. While what I watch may not be for everyone, I am put off if the women is clearly not enjoying herself or in distress.

    I’ve never been particularly convinced that watching something creates a desire to recreate it. I like watching explosions. I have no desire to blow anything up. Really, this is about being able to tell fantasy from reality.

    I do think there are problems if young people are using pornography as their only or primary source of knowledge about sex. Just as there is if children are learning about how to resolve problems from action movies. Communication, as always, seems to be solution. Parents should be discussing these topics with children well before the children encounter it as part of growing up.

    I have found that this can be a very difficult topic to discuss though, especially when encountering a Dworkin style feminist.

    • Thanks for your comment Aj!

      One of the interesting things about these discussions is that you, me and the people writing these articles are perfectly able to tell reality from fantasy and we can watch porn with a somewhat dispassionate, intelligent eye in order to write about it/review it/classify it. But then we all get up in arms about other people. There’s a concern that others don’t have the same level of critical thinking. It’s a stance that is problematic because it’s making assumptions and judgement calls about how other people think. That old saying: “I watch erotica, you watch porn, they watch perversion.”

      It’s one of the things that irks me about the Australian censorship board because there’s the belief that they are somehow immune to the alleged harm caused by the material they ban but Mr Average Truck Driver or whoever is too stupid and easily swayed and must be protected.

      When it comes to teens viewing porn as sex ed… well, that’s another issue, although I sometimes think that we don’t give today’s teenager’s enough credit for being media savvy. And one could also argue that the sex ed that comes from, say, Cosmopolitan causes just as many problems.

      Imagine how interesting sex ed would be in schools if they were allowed to discuss these kinds of ethical issues in class? It’s something I think is desperately needed.

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