By Liz Walker, Director of Health Education, Culture Reframed
Trigger Warning: Please be aware that this article contains rough language as well as mentions of sexual abuse, incest, sex with minors, and violence against women.
Here is a question I’ve been asked many times:
“I find it hard to challenge porn when we now see so much self-created porn (where there is obviously consent, no coercion, etc). Also with “ethical” porn sites such as ManyVids gaining popularity and porn-makers using the hashtag #sexpositivity and anti slut-shaming movements to promote their content, I find it difficult to know how to respond. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to discuss these things.”
Below are five ways to challenge this narrative and create meaningful dialogue that critiques porn culture.
There will always be a percentage of people who engage in the self-creation of porn. And if they genuinely want an unknown number of strangers to masturbate to their private activities, so be it. That said, a significant number of women feel pressured by their partners to film their sexual encounters, even though the content may appear to be loving and consensual. Others are victims of non-consensual filming and/or sharing of intimate moments, with their private encounters distributed as revenge porn.
Sometimes these videos are sold to the highest bidder, to porn sites, or other predatory groups. Actor Mischa Barton’s story of being a victim of revenge porn is well worth watching to understand this issue.
We need to create a conversation about the porn industry’s role in normalizing porn, voyeurism, predatory behaviors, sexual entitlement. We need to ask who is driving at-home self-creation of porn (hint: mostly men). While at first glance, consent in self-created porn may appear to be obvious, this isn’t always the case. For the viewers of this content (or any porn), a comment observed on social media aptly sums it up and is an excellent point of discussion:
“Porn is turning us into voyeurs of others’ lives, instead of masters of our own.”
The next time someone argues for “ethical porn,” ask them to explain what ethical porn means, because in the porn industry, the only difference between ethical porn and hardcore mainstream porn is that consumers pay for it and it’s therefore “ethical.” In the example of ManyVids, according to their Twitter account, their desire is to transform the adult industry into a safe haven that promotes sex positivity and the fair treatment of adult entertainers. Breaking that down, what is a “safe haven”? What is “fair treatment”? Their video titles make it pretty clear that there’s no safe haven or fair treatment unless you define that in terms of monetary gain. The following are examples of videos they sell:
- “Sucking cock with cum shot on face & tits” – Wholly and solely focused on male pleasure but somehow this is “fair treatment.”
- “Mavis’ First Time and SURPRISE Creampie” – “First Time” is taking a porn-virgin as if she’s a prize trophy to conquer; “surprise” is another way of saying she didn’t expect it, ask for it, or consent to it.
- “Secretary gets first BBC from boss” – The promotional text says that she’s at work and wants a promotion, but she gets caught masturbating to BBC (big black cock) on her work laptop. She says, “I really REALLY don’t want to get fired 🙁 … So instead of an interview…you decide to do me a huge favor by giving me your first big black cock! You tell me if I do a good job f’ing you then I get the job!!!!” The whole #MeToo movement is riddled with stories about men blackmailing women sexually, and threats that if they don’t, they won’t keep their job/get a promotion/“earn” a raise, etc. There’s nothing “ethical” about this.
- “School girl twerk,” “Teen Schoolgirl takes BBC doggy style,” and “Sexy teen school girl f’s big cock” are titles of videos promoting sex with minors. “Mommy will fix it,” “Stepmom’s Genuine Dick Rating,” and “Horny Step Sisters” are just some of the examples of incest promoted for sale. And then, of course, there’s sex with minors and incest combined in videos such as “STEPDAD CRUSH do I f’ better than mom?,” “Bend me over daddy,” and “Slobbering on daddy’s juicy cock.”
- “Annoying bitches get diapered,” “Submissive Slut Gets F’ed Hard,” and “Cute corpse” are clear examples of how abhorrent the content is on this so-called “ethical” site.
It’s important to know that sites such as ManyVids are just as profit driven and abusive as any other hardcore porn sites. While they may encourage at-home porn creators to upload their content, “ethical” means people pay for porn. “Safe haven” or “fair treatment” holds zero meaning other than monetary reimbursement for the creators, and profit for the owner of the website.
And it would be impossible to discuss the concept of ethics as it relates to porn, without asking if the demand for porn as a whole contributes to the demand for sex trafficking worldwide. According to Stop Trafficking Demand, many professional performers in pornography are sex trafficked into a hostile environment of sexual exploitation, forced labour, and physical abuse; trafficking victims are made to produce porn; and porn is used as a tool to train victims. In addition, porn increases demand, with users often seeking to act out out what they have viewed.
It is irresponsible to claim that “ethical” porn neutralizes or is exempt from contributing to the demand for trafficked humans.
Sex-positivity is a term that essentially means “don’t yuck someone else’s yum…ever.” It’s a no-shame approach that says as long as it’s consensual and pleasurable, it’s okay. Seems completely reasonable, but ultimately this term is rarely critiqued with an understanding of how the porn industry has normalized fetishes, rough sex, abuse, degradation, etc. To question anything about porn is frequently dismissed as sex-negative, despite the levels of abuse, trauma, and exploitation the industry fuels.
When “sex-positive” is bandied about, rarely is there margin to critique how porn culture has indoctrinated people, particularly relating to pressures to perform, or when women feel they have to say “yes” because they’ve been conditioned to accept abusive content.
Perhaps we could engage in a conversation about the difference between sex-positive and a positive approach to sexual health and wellbeing. Teasing it apart, these are two frameworks that have come to mean very different things.
“Porn is now so deeply embedded in our culture that it has become synonymous with sex to such a point that to criticize porn is to get slapped with the label anti-sex.…But what if you are a feminist who is pro-sex in the real sense of the word, pro that wonderful, fun, and deliciously creative force that bathes the body in delight and pleasure, and what you are actually against is porn sex? A kind of sex that is debased, dehumanized, formulaic, and generic, a kind of sex not based on individual fantasy, play, or imagination, but one that is the result of an industrial product created by those who get excited not by bodily contact but by market penetration and profits? Where, then, do you fit in the pro-sex, anti-sex dichotomy when pro-porn equals pro-sex?”
~ Dr. Gail Dines, “Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality”
Although feminist porn wasn’t part of the question, it’s bound to come into conversations and therefore worth adding. “Feminist porn” is supposedly power balanced and created by women for women. A broader understanding is needed about the difference between radical feminism and liberal feminism, best understood by watching Dr. Gail Dines lecture on Neo-Liberalism and the Defanging of Feminism. In the simplest of terms, radical feminism fights against the oppression of all women and argues that to view women as sex objects is dehumanizing and dismisses their value as human beings; and liberal feminism argues that “as long as I’m okay with my choice, it doesn’t matter about others, because my choices are ’empowering’ and therefore, I’m a feminist.”
Here are three things that can be said about “feminist porn”:
- Many of the industry practices employed by “feminist” producers adopt very similar practices to the mainstream industry, including profit-driven motives. Joanna Angel, a self-described feminist pornographer, has been reported as saying, “You could do a porn where a girl is getting choked and hit and spit on, the guy’s calling her a dirty slut and stuff and . . . that can still be feminist as long as everybody there is in control of what they’re doing.”
- Then there’s the question of who wants feminist porn. Neuroscientist, researcher and author of “A Billion Wicked Thoughts, Ogi Ogas argues: “What is fascinating is that women commonly promote the idea of feminist porn and socially want to believe in it. Activists argue that there needs to be more of it, women support it in public and I see women start erotic websites all the time. But when it comes down to it, that is just not what they are interested in looking at.” The article this quote was taken from presents the alternative and supportive argument from feminist producers – in which case, refer to point 1 above. And closely related to what sort of porn women watch, it’s important to understand how major online porn purveyor Pornhub skews the data to imply that women are somehow ‘driving the demand’ for brutal sex acts.
- “Feminist porn” is not going to stop anyone from watching hardcore porn. The brain has a tendency to want more. Countless people have reported that they start out with benign images, have their curiosity spiked, look for more, become normalized and conditioned to harder content, and wind up hooked on extreme, fetishized and, sometimes, illegal content. Yes, there are those who don’t want more, but the trajectory to crave harder and more extreme porn is all too common.
It seems as though feminist porn is the “go to” argument when nobody really wants to actually talk about how degrading mainstream porn is, even though hardcore abusive porn makes up the vast majority of what is available. The idea is that somehow, if more feminist porn were available, people would diligently search for and pay for “good stuff” rather than all that free “bad stuff.”
The question that arises is how much “feminist porn” will it take to counter the “hardcore porn”? Where does the line stop with one, before it feeds into the other as a never-ending cycle of industry-driven exploitation? Feminist porn is a fallacious argument.
And, finally, although it may come as a surprise, millennial men who DON’T enjoy porn DO EXIST and cite reasons such as, “I’m just more interested in people than pixels.” Imagine that! Authentic human connections without relying on someone else’s experiences to get aroused. Now this is a conversation well worth having.
Yes, people watch porn and justify their porn use, and make a thousand different arguments as to why it’s all okay. Some people argue that if we point out the obvious, then we are shaming people’s porn use. On the flip side, how much humiliation can women endure at the expense of an orgasm? “It’s personal” is now a very public health issue that negatively impacts millions – and disproportionately, women and children. That fact alone is all the reason we need to refuse to accept “porn as the norm” and educate to create a cultural revolution that values women as equals, places kids safety and wellbeing at the fore, and makes porn uncool.
Robert Jensen’s words provide an eerie warning:
“Pornography is what the end of the world looks like.”
Research shows that young women who consume porn are at a significantly greater likelihood of being victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault, and over 80% of young men who consume porn engage in one or more rough sex behaviors (hair pulling, spanking, scratching, biting, bondage, fisting, and double penetration). If porn remains the dominant voice shaping our younger generation, Jensen may be right. Keep the conversations going until we see change.