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21st-century pornography: A key site of women’s oppression?

PornBy challenging the gendered stereotypes inherent in mainstream porn, women, not the capitalist porn industry, will define what really turns us on, writes Margarita Windisch.

11 June 2011

Does all this sexual imagery in the air mean that sex has been liberated—or is it the case that the relationship between the multi-billion-dollar porn industry, compulsiveness, and sexual appetite has become like the relationship between agribusiness, processed foods, supersize portions, and obesity?” - Naomi Wolf, The Porn Myth

Just to make things clear from the outset: I am not religiously inspired, nor am I anti-sex, or anti-sex-worker. I am not pro-censorship, nor am I an expert on the issue and I will pretty much only talk about straight pornography. And from now on I will call it simply porn.

Even since I got involved in feminist politics, porn has been a controversial issue of discussion, with some feminists wanting to impose censorship to rid society of this evil scorn while others wanted to see a more women-centred way of showing sexually explicit material.

Porn in 2011 is a lot more public and prevalent than it was in 1992, my ‘Year One’ of feminist activism. Strangely enough there is little public discussion on the phenomena of ‘mainstreaming porn’ and its effects on people and younger generations especially.

In a recent Youthwork class I held at Victoria University we discussed the role sexism plays in today’s society and the broader economy. We analysed the various forms of oppressions women experience, from unequal wages, unpaid work in the home, to sexist advertising and misogynist pornography. It was the most interactive class to date, with a very lively discussion and a lot of input from the overwhelmingly young female students.

This experience highlighted the need to create open and safe spaces to discuss sexuality and personal experiences people have with porn. How does it really make women feel when they or their partners watch mainstream porn? What pressures do they experience to imitate the video screen action in this highly, but very narrowly defined sexualised world we live in?

The reality is that sexually explicit images and porn is everywhere and seen as ‘normal’. At the same time there is real silence around porn; a kind of new taboo – one that says you should not criticise porn because it is liberating and it’s an individual choice to watch it or participate in the making of it.

And as we have witnessed with anti -porn activist Gail Dines’ recent tour to Australia, anybody challenging the dominance and potential negative consequences associated with the proliferation of mainstream porn invites a stream of abuse; from being a nutcase, to anti men and anti sex.

One might agree or disagree with Dines’ findings and conclusions; the point, however, is that she is courageous enough to challenge the screaming silence on the issue of mainstream porn and, with that, the power of the sex industry and all its lucrative offshoots.

Since when shall we as leftists, small liberals and feminists not criticise a highly profitable capitalist enterprise, which inevitably perpetuates oppression?

I want us to break this taboo and open up the discussion on what role mainstream porn plays today, in the 21st century, in perpetuating women’s oppression.

What is porn?

Any debate on porn must start with a definition. For the purpose of this discussion, my definition of porn is simply ‘sexually explicit material’, designed to ‘get your rocks off’ without having to meet particular artistic standards.

We could have a lengthy discussion about what constitutes porn and what is called ‘erotica’. I've never really seen a satisfactory definition that distinguishes between the two so I tend to use the term porn.

The reality of sexually explicit material is simple: what turns me on may leave you cold, and what turns one woman on will make another puke.

If we want to make the porn debate work for us women – it must be open and inclusive. It’s about accepting the fact that there can be pain, suffering but also a lot of pleasure associated with any individual’s experience with porn.

Analysing porn means analysing power dynamics at play; it means looking at the process of production and consumption and the broader context this occurs in.

Narrowing the debate on porn to simple ‘censorship’ or ‘freedom of speech’ actually misses out on the main point of sexuality explicit material: the role it plays in our constructs of sexuality, our personal sexual identity and desires and more generally gender relations.

Liz Connor proposes on her blog Comment and Critique that if we want to include the freedom of women and sexual representation into our definitions of liberty and democracy we must also be prepared to challenge the misogyny existing in porn.

My argument is that mainstream porn, with its increasingly degrading and humiliating sex acts, where women are shown to enjoy the pain and degradation, is playing a bigger role than ever as an instrument in perpetuating women’s oppression.

Current society is defined by the concept of the free market, where everything is a commodity to be bought and sold and women’s representation is increasingly sexualised. Women are also supposed to have embraced this highly sexualised existence as positive and empowering phenomena.

Pornography is an important vehicle to transmit gendered behaviours, as it helps shape people’s sexuality. From many youngsters porn is the first sex education they receive; it can be very confusing as it is also intensely personal. Our identity, sexuality and self worth are intrinsically tied up together and are a critical part of who we are and how we define ourselves as human beings.

Capitalism thrives on sexism and women’s oppression

The production and consumption of porn is situated in a capitalist, neo-liberal context that pushes particular gender roles and images of women onto the public. Predominantly women are portrayed as objects for the male gaze and as servants to the household and the broader economy.

Sexist pornography is a reflection of power dynamics in a very sexist world. Some of the images of a non-sexual nature in mainstream films, books and videos are no less disturbing or offensive than some images in pornography. Women get degraded in many ways on the TV screen, in magazines and so on.

Looking at women’s current status, it’s far from satisfactory. Women make up 70% of the world’s poor, earn about 83% of a male wage in Australia earn about and make up over 70% of primary carers for young, disabled, sick or aged. One in three women will experience a sexual assault in her life time. On average women spend close to 34 hours a week on house work and according to the Health and Social Life Survey only 29% of women orgasm during intercourse compared to 79% of blokes.

With this kind of reality why should we expect any different from mainstream porn when it comes to the representation of women?

Sex and sexuality have become commodities in rapacious market place at the same time when religious influence is growing in the body politics. Even Julia Gillard, who is a supposed self -declared atheist talks about ‘our prayers are with you’ at a recent media conference on the death of a soldier in Afghanistan.

In schools funding for religious chaplains has been increased and there is no comprehensive sex education syllabus; in fact sex education is being challenged.

More young people are looking at porn. It becomes their training ground for sex and how one behaves whilst doing it. This, however, doesn’t mean it actually increases their knowledge about sex, desire and/or healthy relationships based on consent or mutual respect.

Porn for everybody

There are some developments that have occurred which, I would argue, have increased the reach and hence impact of porn, compared to the past. There is no doubt that pornography in our internet age has been catapulted from a mainly adult and private affair into the public arena – for all to consume.

Mainstream heterosexual porn is easily accessible everywhere. In the old days you chased it; today it chases you! There is a lot of money in porn.

In her book Pornland Gail Dines claims that the global porn industry was worth about 96 billion dollars in 2006; 13,000 films are released each year in the US alone and there are about 420 million porn websites. 68 million search engine requests are made for porn daily and annual profits from hotel porn is estimated to be over $500m per year. A study reported in the online magazine DailyTech found that around 37 per cent of online pages contain pornographic content, and that porn sites increased 17 per cent from 2009 to 2010.

Technology revolution

The affordability of digital cameras has opened up a large space for home-made porn videos, shared on the internet, which in itself has revolutionised how porn is being bought and consumed.

These technologies also made it possible to watch porn now anywhere, anytime – including your mobile phone. The prevalence of porn in society also creates highly profitable spin off for other industries, such as the plastic surgery, beauty and cosmetics industry which we will explore a bit later.

Pornography has been mainstreamed to such an extent that even Playboy and the infamous symbol is now ‘normal’; there are pencils and cases, erasers, little purses and socks for young girls (and I mean girls, not women). And even those eight-year-olds know that the Playboy symbol is a bit naughty and even sexual, whatever that is supposed to mean.

So, who watches porn?

Market research conducted by internet providers found that the average age a boy first sees porn today is 11 and a study from the University of Alberta found that one third of 13-year-old boys admitted viewing porn.

A UK survey published by the Psychologies magazine found that a third of 14-16-year olds had first seen sexual images online when they were 10 or younger. 81% of those polled looked at porn online at home, while 63% could easily access it on their mobile phones.

In Australia, it is estimated that 70% of men and 30 % of women view pornography online.

What kind of porn is being watched? There is no doubt it is a real mix, no doubt. The absolute hegemony of heterosexual porn images and production is being undermined increasingly through the proliferation of feminist, gay and lesbian porn.

Effects of porn

According to Adult Video News, the trade paper of the porn industry the most profitable porn today is what is called "Gonzo" by the industry; it’s hardcore and demeaning for women.

Once upon a time an exposed ‘vagina’ alone had, as Naomi Wolf ponders, quite a high ‘exchange value’ in Marxist terms when it came to porn; this, however, has changed with the onset of the internet. This is especially true in “Gonzo” porn where every female orifice has to be filled to literally ripping point (anuses) and gagging and vomiting reflexes (throat).

Critics suggest that the fierce competitive market in the industry has increased the prevalence of depiction of abuse of women in movies made for straight men.

"They need to always put out something new, something enticing, to attract people," Chyng Sun, a professor of media studies at New York University told LiveScience.

"The degradation, the aggression levels, that is something you can create, something a little bit new to offer to the audience."

Sun’s analysis of best-selling porn has revealed that “physical and verbal aggression is present in 90 percent of mainstream porn scenes”.

Michael Kimmel Pro –feminist author of Guyland explains the term ‘Pornotopia’ to the Guardian newspaper as “the place where [young men] can get even, …where women get what they 'deserve' and the guys never have to be tested, or face rejection”.

''And so the pornographic universe becomes a place of homosocial solace, a refuge from the harsh reality of a more gender-equitable world than has ever existed. It's about anger at the loss of privilege – and an effort to restore men's unchallenged authority. And, it turns out, that anger is worse among younger men, '' he continues.

In her article The Porn Myth Naomi Wolf suggests that in today’s over-pornified society real naked women are just bad porn. In mainstream porn we rarely see real naked women, with warts and all – their bodies instead are gym taut and trim, surgically enhanced and of course shiny and completely waxed.

Myth versus reality?

Even though there is more and more mainstream hetero porn, there is less variety and choice; women perform their ascribed gendered role, she is an object made to give pleasure to the extent that she reaches orgasm even at the most degrading acts. The images women are supposed to live up to in these increasingly straight-jacketed roles are becoming further and further removed from reality.

To live up to these distorted images makes a lot of men, but especially women, feel inferior; never quite satisfied, never quite good enough; so there is this urge to buy products, shop, nip, tuck and wax. The biggest increase in vaginal rejuvenation and labioplasty, which I call voluntary female genital mutilation, has been among teenagers and those in their early 20s.

This trend has been linked to the increase of pornography that shows mainly shaved, airbrushed or surgically altered female genitalia. Women who don’t fit the bill feel embarrassed and self-conscious. The main clientele in beauty salons going for the full Brazilian are young teenage women, as boyfriends demand they look like porn stars which obviously excludes pubic hair!

I would argue trends (including going to strip clubs and wearing the whole Playboy paraphanalia) that re-enforce the stereotype of a hot lusty women ready to perform sex anytime have nothing to do with real sexually liberating rebellion, but are a reflection of a blunt and stifling conformity to outdated gender roles.

To talk about most mainstream porn, as “empowerment” is highly misguided. Women still are second-class people. Many are not even the ‘object of desire’ anymore in porn but simply functional vessels to be used and abused.

This situation is bad enough for women, but the cost for men is sufficiently high as well to warrant a warning sign.

British Dr Andrew Durham who works with children with sexual behaviour problems claims in the article ‘Men who hate porn’ that ''pornography reinforces the wider media-led messages about the roles of men and women.'' He also asserts that  it ''… can also reinforce a particular attitude towards sex, an attitude that is devoid of trust, caring and, in the worst cases, consent … They're learning that sex is what men and boys do to, rather than with, their partners.''

Michael Flood, a University of Wollongong sociologist and researcher of young people's exposure to pornography, suggests in the same article that some young men find their real life experiences frustrating because “…the sex they end up having doesn't look anything like porn”.

Flood also thinks that pornography can undermine intimacy between men and women because porn movies care nothing about negotiating desire, feelings, love and care.

Feminism and porn

The increased proliferation of porn is not the root cause of sexism and sex itself is not the problem either. It’s our economic system and society that is built on inequality of genders and sexuality.

To fight sexism we must challenge all sexist and racist representations of women, not only explicitly sexual. In the context of rampant female objectification it is not surprising, however, that many women are troubled by and have ambivalent feelings towards sexual imagery ... many women also react against the flood of sexist imagery that confronts us everywhere, of which porn is a part.

There is nothing to learn or in fact improve on if we reject porn solely based on projection and denial of our own anxieties and confusion about sex. Instead we need to critically analysis current imagery and create our own alternative forms of representation and media production.

Even if it were true that most porn promoted violence against women, it wouldn't follow that we should not be exposed to it. "Ignorance can never make us safer."

In Sex Exposed British feminist writer Lynn Segal proposes that in order to really challenge women’s oppression in today’s society feminist campaigns must go beyond narrowly focusing on increased legal restrictions on pornography.  She warns that it would “distort and undermine such objectives, strengthening the moral right which would seek to ban feminist, lesbian and gay erotica."

Creating alternatives

I agree with Gail Dines and Robert Jensen when they argue in their paper Pornography is a Left Issue that ideology is also reinforced and powerfully expressed in porn. Life is a power struggle where the dominant ideas of particular classes are in constant confrontation and ‘hegemony’ articulates the way in which the dominant class attempts to secure control over the construction of meaning.

But this is not enough –contesting meaning involves creating alternative definitions, representations and images as Jess Moore argues in the article Raunch culture, sex and sexuality.

And it is precisely because we don’t have freedom of speech that the dominant images are still going to be stereotypical and degrading to women.

Moore claims that the LGBTI movement has posed a real challenge to queer-phobic ideas about sex and acceptability and has taken the talk about sex into the public arena. So campaigns for sexual liberation bring sex and sexuality out of the bedroom and into the streets.

For some people in the LGBTI movement queer porn is an important part of putting themselves ‘on the agenda’ in a meaningful, educational and authentic way.

Some of us in the feminist movement continue to encourage women to be a lot more open about imagery and sexuality, to produce more of their own material where possible and to generally promote a deeper, richer discussion about women's role in society, including their sexuality.

It is only with this sort of discussion that we are actually going to change minds and put pressure on those who want to continue with the stereotypical imagery we find degrading.

When we critique sexist porn we start an important journey. One that opens up the space to explore our needs and desires, not their ever expanding profit margins in ever more restrictive mechanical scripts.

By challenging the gendered stereotypes inherent in mainstream porn, we, not the capitalist porn industry, will define what really turns us on.

Margarita Windisch caught the ‘feminist bug’ in the early ’90s. She teaches at Victoria University in Australia and works at the Sexual Assault Crisis Line. She is a founding member of Socialist Alliance and contributes to the alternative newspaper Green Left Weekly. She is still infected. This article is based on her workshop presentation at the Feminist Futures conference in Melbourne, Australia on 28 May 2011.


0 #4 margarita windisch 2011-09-10 03:24
Hi Nick
Thanks for the response. It would have been useful for readers to add a link to your research with your post.
If, as you say, Dines has got her figures wrong on the size of the porn industry, that’s fine with me and I am happy to include new research in any future writings.
Which other ‘dubious assumptions and out dated stereotypes’ are you referring too?
You state that ‘We fundamentally take issue with you that watching porn does not increase women's sexual satisfaction’.
This is a rather general statement, an assumption on your behalf. I am sure there is plenty of porn out there that CAN (but not automatically WILL) increase sexual satisfaction for women, as there is plenty that will have the opposite effect (which I also said early on in my article).
You also say –“ We think that anyone with an interest in women's sexuality should be asking what good porn might look like and where it might come from. Out dated arguments are not helpful.” I agree, that’s precisely why I included a section discussing ‘alternatives’ to mainstream and often sexist porn.
I am all for increasing desire and sexual satisfaction for women, that’s why I wrote this piece. And it’s for free. I am curious why your report at 900 Pounds a pop (Women sex and Shopping) is so exclusively expensive? You should offer it for free, especially if your research will benefit women.
0 #3 margarita windisch 2011-09-10 01:14
in response to Nick: You should have put a link to your research along with your post, that would have been helpful.
If the size of the porn industry is well below that of what Gail Dines quotes - I have no issue with that what so ever; that's good in fact! What other research or quotations I mentioned do you disagree with?
You claim that " We fundamentally take issue with you that watching porn does not increase women's sexual satisfaction." I never said that in my article, nor suggested that. You also say: "We think that anyone with an interest in women's sexuality should be asking what good porn might look like and where it might come from. Out dated arguments are not helpful." Maybe you should re-read the article Nick because i also touched on this issue when I speak about 'creating alternatives' and I am not sure what you mean with outdated arguments?
Being a woman myself I am all for pleasure and increased sexual satisfaction; that is precisely why I wrote this article. And it is free. If your motive is similar - you should make our report free as well and not charge 900 Pounds:-)
0 #2 Michael Flood 2011-06-13 17:30
I'm quoted briefly in the above piece. I provide a much more detailed summary of the research on porn, including on its effects e.g. among young heterosexual men, in the following book chapters and journal articles, available online in full text:
Young Men Using Pornography (2010):
The harms of pornography exposure among children and young people:
The extent of exposure to pornography among children and young people:
Best wishes,
Michael Flood.
0 #1 Nick Hewson 2011-06-11 09:34
This is quite an interesting piece but ultimately marred by reliance on entirely false stats, dubious assumptions by 'experts' and by attributing outdated stereotypes to the use of porn.

As the only mainstream market analyst in the world to assess the sex industry in general I feel that the only way to make considered judgements on pornography and its impacts on women are to start with some accurate data. Part of the proposition that underlies your article and the views of Gail Dines is that this is some form of capitalist oppression '...there is a lot of money in porn..." etc. We are aware of Gail Dines claim that porn was worth $96 billion in 2006. This is based on an estimate in something called the Internet Review. The claim is utterly ridiculous. We think that porn might struggle into low single digit billions - it's hard to be precise. The order of magnitude error by Dines - probably more than a factor of 20 disqualifies any credence in her view - or that of anybody who can't get their facts straight.

As it can longer be thought to be money driven we are left with uncomfortable fact (for hardline feminists) that women watch 'free' porn because they like it. This seems to us very interesting from a number of points of view. We publish Women Sex and Shopping which is a report about the future market for women's pleasure goods which certainly includes Toys, lubes and porn. Our main contention is that the adult industry needs to change its sleazy aesthetic if it is to appeal to women consumers. Female use of porn is slightly contradictory in this respect. We know that women like the content and our research is fairly clear that women like much the same things as men but prima facie the aesthetic should be offputting. But to under 30s women it doesn't seem to matter too much. We suspect that this is because the current supplyside is the only show in town and if you want the content thats what you get. We fundamentally take issue with you that watching porn does not increase women's sexual satisfaction. Our research suggests that it clearly does - perhaps in ways and with implications that we don't fully understand yet. We think that anyone with an interest in women's sexuality should be asking what good porn might look like and where it might come from. Out dated arguments are not helpful.

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