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Jones, the Pope, and the Porn

Since Shane Jones stepped up last week to contest the Labour Party leadership, the colours of red (blooded male) and blue (movies) have once again drifted through our media. References to Jones’ use of his ministerial credit card to pay for porn have predictably been fodder for humorous jibes. But just as predictably the subject has had a short half life – as it did in 2010. The sense that it is no-one else’s business and not relevant to big picture politics has largely won out on the public stage. Perhaps this is as it should be for the moment. Jones has a kind of impervious masculine charisma that lets him wear his viewing habits on his sleeve and deflect any questions about ‘that’ as not only irrelevant, but preachy and emasculating.

To be fair, Shane Jones is no oddity for watching pornography. Recent local research suggests he is in wide company. Gareth Terry and Virginia Braun found that 30% of men (average age 28) say they regularly watch pornography. An additional 39% watch it ‘sometimes’. Only 15% don’t look at it at all.

For anyone in that ‘not watching it at all category’ (that is 60% of women, by the way), and not yet desensitized to what it is like, the bread and butter of mainstream porn can be enough to make you wince, if not cry. It is thoroughly saturated with a celebration of male sexual dominance. It portrays women as willing recipients of acts that are unlikely to be on most women’s ‘must do’ lists – e.g., having a penis that has just been in your (or another woman’s) anus thrust into your mouth, having a penis rammed forcefully down your throat so that you get a nice gag reflex, having a couple of men’s penises in your orifices at the same time. Oh, and having ejaculate dumped on your face or body – the planting of the imperial flag?

Our research, talking to young men and to experts around New Zealand, suggests that this sort of stuff is standard fare within the mainstream pornography watched by heterosexual men. It is, perhaps, what you might expect to find in our hotel rooms. Research from the United States on popular blue movies, found that 90% of scenes analysed contained an aggressive act (such as spanking, gagging, slapping, hair pulling) – over 90% of these acts were directed towards women.

Not all research comes up with such high figures. The reason for this is that some researchers don’t count these kinds of acts as ‘aggression’ if the person on the receiving end doesn’t appear to try and avoid them. So if a woman is being slapped and gagged, but just lies (or kneels) there, and doesn’t show her displeasure, it is not considered aggression. Some academics call this consensual BDSM. Or they suggest it doesn’t mean what it seems to mean – it is open to interpretation. But this doesn’t sit well with those of us who’ve had a foot in the sexual or domestic violence sectors. We know that in real life it is more likely than not that this sort of sexual treatment of a woman does not happen with her consent: and when that’s the case it is sexual violence.

Actually, not even all women performing in porn might be as content with their role in an aggressive sexual conquest as it might appear (remember: they are acting). What happens if they do end up shedding a tear, or looking frightened while they are gagging with ‘something’ down their throat? Porn that has been through the New Zealand classification system will mostly likely have had those particularly troubling bits edited out. So what you see is not always the full story.

Jones reminds us that he is “not running to be the Pope”, he is “running to be the leader of the Labour Party”. But this completely misses the point. The moral issue is not to do with sex per se. Uneasiness about mainstream pornography is not unease about sex or masturbation or anything like that. It is about our society’s comfort with fusing sex and aggression. It is to do with the treatment of women – in sexually and racially demeaning ways. Making this point is not about blood-letting masculinity. Not all pornography trots out the idea that women are there to be roughly played  around with. The stuff that doesn’t is harder to find, but probably preferred viewing for those wanting to move beyond old models of masculine sexual entitlement.

I don’t think it is too much to ask that our male leaders think and speak out about the place of gender in their politics. That in promising to hold a torch for ‘inclusivity’ they think about how they are including women in that vision, and on what terms. Jones should not be pilloried for a predilection for porn which, if we go by the statistics, is probably shared by at least some of his colleagues. But if his image is ever to be resurrected in the private minds of many women he needs to find a way to overshadow his association with porn with some real leadership against misogyny and sexual aggression.

Nicola Gavey