Pornography is a touchy subject. Beyond superficial innuendo New Zealanders don’t seem to talk about it much. Maybe we tiptoe around the subject because it is embarrassing. Or because we consider it personal and private business, and want to avoid causing upset or offence. Or because the social politics of it are complicated, and we don’t know where we stand. As a result, there has been a virtual public silence around pornography.
The trouble with keeping the subject of pornography behind closed doors is that we don’t get a chance to collectively examine it. We don’t get a chance to consider what it is like, and to question links between the way it portrays women and men and the ways that women and men are treated in wider society. We don’t get a chance think together about people’s relationship to it, and the way it might affect their sense of themselves and their relationships. We don’t get a chance, as a society, to think carefully about these things and wrangle with the ethical questions they pose.
This means that views about pornography aren’t always informed by a realistic appraisal of everyday pornographic content, and might not take into account wider considerations about its social meanings and implications.
As part of our project, we have been talking with people about mainstream pornography and its place within New Zealand society, and the role it might play in our sexual cultures. These are some of the questions we have been grappling with and our current responses.
What’s the problem?
But pornography is not just about sex. It also conveys values around gender and power. This is part of what we mean by ‘sexual politics’. The trouble with a lot of mainstream heterosexual pornography is that it portrays a sexist picture of women’s and men’s roles in sex, and their value as human beings. At best, it seems to offer a tired and limiting script for heterosexual desire driven by what is supposedly a male ‘point of view’. It promotes a narrow erotic norm where men are sexually in control and women are sexually submissive. At worst, mainstream pornography is thoroughly misogynist. It shows an aggressive contempt for women. This kind of pornography – which is not rare or extreme by today’s standards – treats women as if they are there purely for the pleasure of men.
Some pornography also contains racially stereotyped and derogatory depictions of people. The racism and misogyny within some mainstream pornography is made very clear in the promotional blurbs that accompany it, and in some of the kinds of comments that consumers make about it (for example, in online fora). The way the mainstream industry talks about some of their own videos implies that men should delight in seeing women being hurt and humiliated.
Within mainstream pornography there is a repetition of male dominance and female submission. If pornography and the wider ‘pornographication’ of society was really simply about ‘democratizing desire’ as some academics have claimed, wouldn’t it be equally as likely to show women dominating and demeaning men for their sexual enjoyment? And what would be the likely reaction to this?
The problem is that mainstream pornography is rife with sexism and misogyny, and some of it also contains racist put downs – and yet these aspects of pornography are not publicly discussed or even widely known by people who don’t watch it. Pornography consumption is normalized. And there is a vacuum where public discussion and social critique should be. Young men are expected to watch porn. Women are expected to accept this. So what are they to make of the sexism, misogyny, and sometimes racism within it, when they find no critical public commentary on it?
Why are we doing this project?
The issues are not black and white. And they also have to be looked at in the context of a particular society, with its different social, cultural, religious and political influences. Some feminists and other advocates for acceptance of gender and sexual diversity have staunchly defended pornography. They have been concerned that critiquing it becomes associated with censorship and state regulation. And that in turn becomes associated with restrictions and controls that disproportionately affect sexual minorities, such as people in LBGTQ communities.
These are important concerns that play out differently in different countries. Laws around censorship vary. So too does the acceptance of sexual diversity and the influence of conservative religious forces.
It should be possible to explicitly reject sexist and racist pornography without taking a position that opposes the idea of pornography in its broadest form. However, some of the anxiety that stops people tackling sexism, misogyny and racism within pornography seems out of touch with the day to day realities of mainstream pornography and its place in contemporary culture – particularly much of its content, and the ways its consumption is arguably tied to wider misogynist and racist cultural trends. It is important to be able to ask how these discriminatory aspects of our wider culture are connected to social issues and problems like sexual violence; and what sort of stance should we take in relation to the discriminatory and humiliating aspects of porn if we are interested in living in a society that strives for ‘big values’ like social equality and respect for all people irrespective of their gender, ethnicity or sexuality. It is also worth asking how the ways that performers are portrayed in porn might relate to the ways people feel about their bodies, their sexuality, their relationships, and so on. How might these portrayals convey ideas that go against the grain of ethical and equal sexual relationships? How might the business drivers of mainstream pornography work against more democratic forms of sexuality? How might they contribute to a commodification of bodies, intimacy, and sexuality that is ultimately exploitative?
Are we ‘anti pornography’?
Acrimonious debates have been raging overseas for years, on and off, about pornography. Some people describe themselves as ‘pro’ pornography and others call themselves ‘anti’ pornography. These positions tend to get tied up with views on censorship and freedom of expression. It must be possible to avoid getting bogged down in this debate … arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ pornography too easily set the scene for people to talk past each other. Each ‘side’ can end up talking only to the converted (on their side of a polarised debate).
In our research talking to New Zealand experts, we found there is far more agreement than there is disagreement about what’s ok and what’s not ok in porn. Some of the people we talked to had a more positive orientation towards pornography and others were strongly critical of most pornography. But they mostly tended to agree that pornography that depicts exploitation and aggression towards women deserves critical attention. We hope it is possible to unite in raising critical concerns about these aspects of standard pornographic fare without needing to argue a position on pornography in general.
Is the problem within pornography or is it within wider society?
Sexist, heterosexist, and racist portrayals of women and men in other popular media and culture, beyond pornography, are also a problem. There is a level of raw and sometimes violent misogyny* that has been popping up with uncomfortable regularity lately. And everyday sexism is alive and well. These destructive pockets of our cultures deserve to be critically examined, at the same time as we cast the spotlight on pornography.
Given how quickly communication technology has been moving, the whole landscape for pornography consumption has changed dramatically over the past 5-10 years. It has become hyper-accessible in a society like ours where young people in particular have the technological means and know how to find what they want quickly, and for free. Even when porn is not what they are searching for, pornographic pop-ups are ubiquitous on the internet streams that young (and old) people use to access other kinds of material.
Some say that porn is where young people are looking to find out about sex and sexuality. If a case has to be made for universal access to more comprehensive positive sexuality education at school, this is it. Excellent teaching resources and teachers exist, but New Zealand kids still can’t rely on getting the kind of solid education that gives them a framework for thinking broadly about sexuality and gender and ethical relations. If they could, this would vividly show up what the matter is with a lot of mainstream porn.
1 See for example, gender based hate speech on Facebook at the Women, Action, and the Media site or read what Anita Sarkeesian has to say about the onlline harassment she received when she tried to address the issue of how women are represented in video games.
Shouldn’t it all just be about individual choice?
With contentious issues like pornography, it’s common to hear that it should just be left up to the individual. As long as it’s not hurting anyone else, let it be their private business. We all want the freedom to choose how to live our lives according to our own preferences and values. While this makes sense at face value it is a bit over simplified for two reasons.
Firstly, popular and widely consumed pornography contributes to our cultural landscape in ways that potentially affect everyone. It provides images and ‘registers of meaning’ that become familiar to quite large groups of people. Some research suggests that the norms and values pornography offers start to shape the way people approach sex. If that is true, it will obviously have implications for people who don’t choose to watch pornography – they might be on the receiving end! So it’s not as simple as saying to someone ‘if you don’t like it, don’t watch it’. If popular pornography circulates norms and values that are sexist or racist then everybody who wants to live in an egalitarian ethical society has a stake in the issue.
Secondly, raising questions and offering critiques is not the same thing as telling people what to do and what not to do. If the adage ‘leave it up to the individual’ means ‘be quiet and don’t ask any questions’ then it is not consistent with a vibrant democratic society capable of examining itself. People’s choices around pornography can be more informed choices. And they can take into account the ethics and the politics of pleasure. But for this to be possible we have to be able to put the issues on the table, and have the conversations.
Are we for or against censorship?
We do have censorship. Any pornographic publication, film or video that is available for sale or rental on the local market (or downloaded onto a computer in New Zealand or distributed from an NZ website) is subject to New Zealand classification and censorship laws.
With a few notable exceptions, these laws only hit the media when they are breached in relation to child pornography. The production and consumption of child pornography seems to be widely disapproved of in New Zealand society, where it is seen in the same vein as child sexual exploitation and abuse. Breaches of this law are actively pursued and prosecuted through the courts.
Beyond child pornography, however, the censorship laws – which in principle restrict any material that promotes or supports sexual coercion or violence – are applied in ways that are responsive to what appears to be a growing public appetite for pornography that arguably pushes these boundaries. In short, censorship of pornography has not in recent times been subject to much visible social or political tension. This is quite a different political context to the United Kingdom for instance, where recent changes in laws around pornography have been very controversial.
Our project does not speak directly to the pros and cons of censorship. The focus of our interest is on social and cultural responses to pornography, rather than legal responses. Censorship can never be the answer to problems of sexism, misogyny and racism. For a start, it is technically impossible. But even if it were possible, expanding censorship would be an artificial solution because sexist and racist portrayals of women and men are found more widely in popular media and culture. This is why more attention to social ethics and sexual politics is so vital.
Does pornography cause rape?
There is quite a bit of talk these days about ‘rape culture’. This term is used to describe a culture that tolerates the sexual mistreatment of women. It does this through promoting stereotyped ideas about male and female sexuality. And through sexist ideas about the ways men are entitled to act towards women. And through restrictive ideas about how women should act, and what they ‘deserve’ if they dare to act too sexual, not sexual enough, drink too much, or act in some other way that annoys a man who believes he is entitled to make such judgements. When these things come together they can create the ‘cultural conditions of possibility’ for rape.
We saw this happen in the much publicized rapes in Steubenville, Ohio. In August 2012, two young men raped a 16 year old girl, as she was being dragged from party to party over the course of several hours one night, in an inebriated and unconscious state. Incredibly, there were many onlookers who did nothing to stop what was going on. Instead, over 900 photographs and videos were taken by those involved and by onlookers, and were posted online.
Laurie Penny, writing in the New Statesman (March 2013), calls this case “rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment ”. She asks, “What type of culture could possibly produce such pictures?” It is a culture, she says:
“… in which women’s autonomy and right to safety counts for so little that these rapists, and those who held the cameras, felt themselves ‘perfectly justified’. [A culture] in which rape and sexual humiliation of women and girls is so normalised that it does not register as a crime in the minds of the assailants.”
This is rape culture. It supports rape happening through downplaying the inhibitions and prohibitions against rape, which makes it easier for some men to cross the line. It supports rape by denigrating women and blaming victims of sexual violence, so that they are silenced or harassed and socially punished if they do speak out. It supports rape by making light of it, making it possible for onlookers to turn a blind eye while it is happening, and for those in the know to protect men who have raped after it has happened.
The Steubenville case is not the only example recently where the hurt and humiliation of sexual violence has been intensified through people putting images of it on the internet. Pornography is presumably not powerful enough to cause men who are committed to equal and ethical relationships to rape. But as an increasingly pervasive influence in the education of young men it perhaps is powerful enough to shape the cultural milieu that encourages or discourages those kinds of commitments.
Pornography that depicts women as creatures existing purely for the pleasure of men is part of an already existing cultural fabric that is patterned with misogyny. If a young man is told by his society that it is normal to masturbate to videos of women being sexually humiliated, then perhaps posting videos of real sexual humiliation of real woman crosses an ethical line that has been too faintly drawn by that society. Maybe the same can be said in relation to rape. If pornography shows women as people that exist ‘to be f*cked’ by men, often in aggressive ways, what would repeated exposure to this message, and the pairing of it with sexual arousal, do to men’s expectations of sex and of women? Even if it didn’t conjure ‘rape prone’ desires and behaviours out of the blue, it seems naive to reject the possibility that this kind of porn might shape the sexual imagination in ways that lean towards rather than away from coercive sexuality.
So, while it wouldn’t make sense to isolate a particular cultural product like pornography and say that it alone causes rape, it does make sense to consider how sexist features of mainstream pornography might be one element of a wider ‘rape culture’.