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Response to / reflections on Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography

As a member of the research team for Pornography in the Public Eye, I know my way around contemporary pornography research: the issues, the important figures and the often heated disagreements. As my response to the film ‘Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography’, I thought I would lay out what I think makes directors Maree Crabbe and David Corlett’s work on mainstream pornography really stand out.

1. Taking the Questions to the Key Players
If you’ve read a bit in this area, you’ll know that heaps of research addressing pornography involves a researcher looking at a sample of magazines, videos or clips and analysing them according to their particular criteria. Unsurprisingly, disagreements over what constitutes a ‘representative’ sample and how to distinguish violence and assault from rough and tumble sex plague the field and often degenerate into an antagonistic “my data is more accurate” or “my reading is better/more sophisticated than yours” impasse.

In their documentary, Maree and David take the questions to the key players – porn industry moguls, professional porn actors and young consumers. In doing so, they get compelling and authoritative answers to questions about production and consumption. Young people’s analysis of what porn sex is about is depressingly gendered: young men do it and young women take it. Interviews with industry performers and producers support their analysis: mainstream pornography is about pushing women’s bodies to the limit: female performers are praised for ‘taking everything’ thrown at them – except, arguably, the big bucks. While some claim that mainstream pornography can be empowering for women, you don’t need to look far for the misogyny in this industry, with mogul John Stagliano declaring that ‘pussies are bullshit’.

Without reducing the complexity of their interviewees’ stories to a simple didactic message, this documentary demonstrates the lessons young people are learning from mainstream pornography: gendered lessons about what sex is, who it is for and what they are expected to do to / for others sexually. As one young man candidly tell us, he thought ‘all chicks dig this, all chicks like it there, all chicks want it there…it went bad’.

2. Porn Sex is a Job – and it’s Hard Work
Secondly and refreshingly, Maree and David’s film is not invested in portraying mainstream pornography performers as either victimised or gloriously empowered. Their interviews with a range of male and female performers make it clear that for these people, having sex on camera is a job. It’s about money not pleasure, and it’s hard work. Porn sex is not what these people do at home for fun, and it is made possible by body-altering practices: men take Viagra for physical endurance, and women ‘prepare’ their bodies so that they can accommodate sex practices which would otherwise be painful and uncomfortable.

These narratives from performers remind us that mainstream pornography is a choreographed product, not an unmediated recording of the sexual proclivities of performers. This message has the potential to disrupt what I think is one of the most disturbing messages mainstream pornography puts across – that whatever’s being done sexually to a woman, she likes it and deserves it.

These are just two reasons why ‘Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography’ is of considerable public and scholarly value. We need to face up to what it is we’re consuming and the gendered lessons we’re learning from it, and Maree and David’s documentary provides an ideal springboard for these difficult conversations.

Octavia Calder-Dawe

Pornography: Driving Consumption and Shaping Appetites

‘Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography’ sensitively broaches the subject of misogyny and its infusion within mainstream pornographic material. Within a social context where a ‘male sexual drive discourse’ perpetuates a ‘need’ for male gratification, pornography appears to ‘sate’ these appetites. However, as pornography producers working from a business driven model that continually ‘pushes (a submissive partner’s) boundaries (and bodily integrity)’ in an effort to create a film that stands out in a competitive environment, it also shapes and reinscribes what is acceptable, normative and culturally permissible for those who engage with it. These were the main messages I gleaned from the film.

As a young woman who grew up through an increasingly digital age, where the cultural meanings attached to internet pornography shifted from being ‘edgy and sexually deviant’ to ‘mainstream’, this cultural analysis gave a language to my increasing and unarticulated discomfort about the some of the content that appears in pornographic film. The film drew on a range of sources, canvassing broad perspectives on pornography, from those who produce it, those who appear in it, those who watch it, to those whose lives are impacted by it. Young people’s accounts emphasised how pornography consumption influenced their understandings of sex, and mislead them about what to expect in sexual contexts. Film directors spoke without any sense of personal or social responsibility for the impact of increasingly normalised misogynist pornographic material. Accounts from pornography performers emphasised an upbeat and positive view of their work while discussion about managing the physical demands of the job, and distinguishing between ‘sex with a partner’ and ‘sex for work’, belied some of the inherent difficulties and challenges. Overall, the range of perspectives challenged a suggestion that mainstream pornography, which is informed by and creates broader gendered inequality, is ‘just sex’ and innocuous in its delivery and people’s consumption of it.

It is often difficult to broach a critical perspective on pornography without being shot down for being a ‘prude’ or being perceived to ‘have personal issues’ that are irrelevant to pornography. By outlining the social issues through a range of sources, and not over-stating the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ aspects of pornography, ‘Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography’ achieves a gentle and thought provoking critique of the industry and its effects. Through articulating and mobilising a critique of a shifting social phenomenon, this film has wide spread applicability to those who think pornography is ‘just sex’, those whose lives have been influenced by it, and those who are unaware of its pervasiveness and social impact.

Guest post by
Jade Le Grice, Maori feminist researcher

Feminism this week

What an interesting week for feminism.

On the stage of national politics, one of the contenders for the Labour Party leadership has been touting himself as inclusive and popular yet dismissively stating “I’ve never been at the top of the hit parade with feminists”. Oblivious, it would seem, to how exclusionary this sounds.

It might be a misjudgement to dismiss feminism so thoughtlessly. Any reports of its death have certainly been greatly exaggerated. You don’t need to hang around for long in the blogosphere to find a whole community of witty and incisive feminism.

We might not need feminism anymore to espouse the ideal of women’s equality. Everyone is supposed to agree with that – right? But we do need it to shatter the illusion that we have achieved it.

Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project powerfully – and painfully – does just that. Started in April 2012, it has already amassed over 35,000 women’s experiences of mundane everyday sexism. The project has over 92,000 followers on Twitter.

Speaking of Twitter, a lot of people are concerned at the moment about the virulent misogyny, which includes rape, death, and bomb threats, levered against women in the media. From Anita Sarkeesian, who has been addressing the sexism in video games, to Caroline Criado-Perez for lobbying for a woman to be on the British ten pound note, to Mary Beard for having the audacity to appear on TV not conforming to the usual beauty uniform, many women speaking out or bucking the status quo in 2012 and 2013 continue to face misogynist abuse. After several hours of searching I can’t find anything resembling this gender-based abuse towards cisgender men.

As the brilliant feminist writer Laurie Penny said a few years ago (herself having received rape and death threats for daring to criticize neoliberal economic policy):

An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you.

But back to this week – and to end on a high note. The phenomenal global response to Auckland’s own Law Revue Girls feminist parody of Robin Thicke’s charming Blurred Lines! Their version, Defined Lines, called out the sexism in his lyrics and visual portrayal of gendered sexuality. Around two million views in a week…

Maybe there is a message here for blokey politicians and their fan club – feminism is not so uncool anymore. Retrosexism might not be the thing to flaunt right now.

Nicola Gavey

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

Pornography in the Public Eye comes to fruition

It’s been a busy week. Pornography in the Public Eye finally comes to fruition!

We are excited to be launching this new website, Sexual Politics Now. On Friday our exhibition A Different View: Artists address pornography opens, and on Saturday we kick off 8 weeks of public events. And as if that’s not enough The Porn Project, which is an independent fringe art campaign that we have links to, just closed this week after an intense ten days of art, activism, spoken word, performance, and panel discussions about pornography, misogyny and racism.

The whole point of Pornography in the Public Eye is to put the issue of pornography in the spotlight – to create spaces for thinking critically about what is going on in and around it. And spaces for figuring out creative collective responses to it.

The idea for the project was seeded 3 or 4 years ago. Students in my gender and psychology course were picking pornography as a topic to research, and their presentations pointed to the persistence of misogyny and sexism within everyday porn. Denise Ritchie, founder of local NGO Stop Demand, was starting to talk about pornography and draw people’s attention to new norms in what it depicted. She argued that those of us interested in sexual violence prevention couldn’t afford to turn a blind eye to this whole slice of contemporary sexual culture. But at the same time, the topic was getting no traction in the media and other arena for public discussion. A local pornographer’s flimsy claim that pornography was linked to a reduction in sexual violence could go pretty much unchallenged. And when there was a mini-scandal involving pornography and a prominent public figure the issue quickly got wrapped up as one to do with mishaps around money. Any opportunity to probe into questions of sexual ethics and gender politics was steadfastly averted. The whole issue was dropped like a hot potato.

In picking up the issue of pornography and putting it on the table for discussion, we know it is complicated and delicate. We know there are risks of offending and embarrassing people. We know there are risks of missteps and oversteps. But when the sexual humiliation of women runs through everyday mainstream pornography, and it houses racist stereotypes of women and men, it seems precious to ignore this for the sake of politeness or out of fear of putting a foot wrong.

We are trying to tackle these issues in a way that keeps the critical focus on sexism, misogyny and racism – while trying to remain noncommittal about pornography more generally. We are doing this because we want to talk with anyone who values equality and respect for all, whether they love, hate, or are indifferent to porn. We are working with words, with images, and with performance – seeking to spark conversations and possibilities for new ways of seeing the issues within and beyond pornography. We are working with people who have different views on and relationships to the genre – trying to balance inclusiveness and open-mindedness with care not to end up reiterating the very things we are trying to unsettle. This creates spaces that can be uncomfortable and challenging – probably touching all of us at times, from one angle or another. But we do know already that people are ready to talk about these issues. Over 600 people directly engaged with The Porn Project events over the past couple of weeks. People are starting to talk. Let’s keep the conversations going and expand the spaces for constructive dialogue around pornography, sexism, racism, and misogyny.

Nicola Gavey