From the research and data on the prevalence of porn it’s pretty safe to say that a lot of people really like porn. “Sex” is the number one search topic on the internet and there are over 420,000,000 porn sites that contain pretty much everything imaginable. In fact, Rule 34 of the internet states that “if it exists, there is porn of it”. And just as there are a seemingly infinite number of genres or “types” of porn, there seems to be an equally abundant array of opinions – whether they’re moral, legal, political, ethical, or otherwise – on the subject. But beyond the fierce debate of whether porn is good or bad, one thing is clear: pornography’s wide availability is changing how we as a society understand and construct our sexualities.
Much of porn’s recent growth is due to the affordability, accessibility, and anonymity provided by the internet. Before the days of high speed internet connection if one wanted to access pornographic video they would have to go to an “adult theatre”, like the one we used to have in Fort Collins. Mostly utilized by men, viewers risked being seen entering or leaving these theatres so they had to be willing to endure the social stigma that would likely accompany such a visit. Nowadays, literally just about anyone can hop on a computer (or smart phone) and in seconds have free access to porn in totally anonymity.
This is a relatively new phenomenon which has allowed porn to proliferate. The creation of pornographic videos has multiplied by a factor of ten since 1988. 40,000,000 US adults admit to regularly watching internet porn and 66% of men ages 18-24 watch porn at least once a month. Like any market this large, porn generates enormous profits. In the US alone, porn reigns in 10 billion dollars annually. That’s more than the NFL, NBA, and MLB…combined. Companies like News Corporation, Hilton, Marriot, and AT&T are all in on the profits, as well as plenty of other companies that exist solely from the production and distribution of porn.
Culture, Porn and Sexuality
Culture partially determines views on sexuality and what is considered “hot”, making societal standards of beauty fluid and dependent on time and place. Take for instance what was considered attractive for men and women in the 1950’s and compare that to today. Or check out the hairstyles in your parent’s yearbook and you’ll find that standards of beauty do in fact change. Many of the cultural shifts that we’ve seen over the last 60 years were driven by the increased prevalence of visual media such as TV and movies, which simultaneously reflect and construct ideas around sex, desire, and beauty.
Porn is no exception. As a society we tend to have a scarcity of outlets to explore and learn about sexuality. By default, porn becomes a very influential “textbook” in the absence of more intentional forms of sex education. And because it explicitly depicts sex and sexuality, porn is a particularly dense source of cultural influence on the erotic imagination. Not only does it tell us what appearances and body types are “hot” but it also delivers narratives about how sex should be and what it should look like.
Now we’re not saying that vanilla is the only flavor of the day, nor or we saying that consenting adults do not know what’s best for them. Rather, it’s about taking a big picture look at an industry that’s controlled by and targeted at men (70% of consumers are straight men), where the end result is a consistent narrative that centers male pleasure and female submission. In addition, violence and aggression are common themes in mainstream porn. To better understand these dynamics in mainstream porn, a team of researchers examined the content of 304 scenes from the most popular porn videos released in 2005. Here’s what they found:
- 89.8% of the scenes included either verbal or physical aggression.
- 48% contained verbal aggression, mostly name-calling and insults.
- 82.2% contained physical aggression.
- 94.4% of the aggressive acts were targeted at women.
- The research team also found that female performers frequently expressed enjoyment in response to aggressive behavior, and that spanking and gagging were the most frequently depicted acts of aggression.
The point of showing these finding in particular is not to shame people for getting off on dominance or submission. As long as things are consensual that’s all that matters. The point of including this research is to demonstrate the ways that men’s violence directed towards women has become normalized and eroticized by mainstream pornography. With violence and aggression interwoven into the fabric of mainstream porn, it subtly sexualizes violence and being in a position of power (for men).
Some may say that porn doesn’t have an effect on the “real world”, but think of it this way: if a viewer is getting off to a particular script or narrative, it’s not going to take long for that association to become connected to that viewer’s sexuality. So should we be surprised that porn looks the way it does and that gender and sexual violence are common? That’s for you to decide.
So where does this leave us? There’s a whole lot of critical thinking that needs to happen around the role of porn in our society. To get the ball rolling we would be wise to consider (at least) two things:
- Porn just is. If you like it, cool. If you don’t like it then slowly you can work towards changing it. But in the meantime it’s basically everywhere and so we would be wise to develop a critical lens to 1.) situate porn within the larger media landscape, and 2.) be conscious of the images and what affect they may have. Basically, critique porn in the same way that you would a movie or TV show. Even if it’s taboo to do so.
- Understand that actors in porn are mimicking sex and sexuality. That’s why they’re called actors. If people are learning about sex from people on screen who are themselves “acting out” sex, then we’re starting to get pretty removed from one’s authentic expression of sexuality. So if you are looking to understand what sex and sexuality mean to you, mainstream porn may not be the best place to find those answers.
An interesting place to start exploring some of the implications of porn is makelovenotporn.com. Creator Cindy Gallop launched the website to allow users to create the distinction between the “porn world” and the “real world”. You can also check out her TED talk where she explains her impetus for starting the website (link to site):
Take the time to explore some of the resources listed below if you’re interested in learning more about such a fascinating and under-discussed topic. Just make sure you have an open mind and the willingness to consider multiple perspectives!
Resources at WGAC:
The Price of Pleasure DVD
Pornified by Pamela Paul
Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity by Robert Jensen
Further Reading on Porn:
We need to teach college kids about porn literacy (Tarrant)
Interview with Dines by Tarrant (Ms. Magazine)
Porn and Race (Racilicious)
Feminist Porn: Sex, Consent, and Getting Off (Blog post)
Blog post: What’s the deal with feminism and porn: (http://whereisyourline.org/2012/06/whats-the-deal-on-feminism-and-pornography/)