Is Pornography Sexual Violence Against Women?

As an educator in creativity and visual culture, I introduce my students to strategies through which to analyse visual material. We discuss the commodification and sexualisation of women in advertising, the male gaze, beauty culture, and the many ways consumerism attempts to convince women we are somehow inadequate for the world we live in.

We consider that—in the words of photo theorist Allan Sekula—“every photographic image is a sign, above all, of someone’s investment in the sending of a message.” Images, whether moving or still, aren’t neutral or disinterested: they sell us products, ideas and cultural ideologies.

Case in point: plenty of fashion advertising sells the idea that women passively accept male sexual violence. You may be familiar keyboard.jpgwith the Dolce & Gabanna and Calvin Klein ads that were both condemned for visually suggesting gang rape. Or the Duncan Quinn ad which depicts a clothed man standing above the body of a woman. He’s holding a man’s tie, which is around her neck; she’s wearing only her underwear and is bleeding from the head. Apparently, it sells suits.

But it’s not enough to critique misogynist fashion imagery in fashion or pop culture when those violent and hypersexualised images are symptomatic of a larger issue. We need to be brave enough to challenge the mainstream porn industry’s systematic normalisation of the sexual abuse of women.

In 2017, Pornhub alone registered 28.5 billion visits, equivalent to 68 solid years of porn viewing. Popular Pornhub searches include: ‘punished teens’, ‘exploited teens’, ‘painal’, ‘ass to mouth’, ‘crying anal’, ‘crying gangbang’, ‘abused schoolgirl’, ‘facial abuse’, ‘barely legal’. Women are slapped, spat on, strangled, pissed on, ejaculated on; penetrated in multiple orifices simultaneously, ‘deep-throated’ to induce gagging and vomiting. ‘Rose-budding’ (causing anal prolapse) and ‘punch-fisting’ are also a thing.

This is not sex: this is sexual abuse, the sexualisation of domination and pain. In any other context it would be named as such, but when it’s filmed and on the internet, it’s classified as entertainment and protected as free speech. The damage done to women’s bodies becomes just another viewing spectacle.

Robert Jensen, in his 2007 book Getting Off: Pornography and the end of Masculinity, suggests the demand for increasingly violent porn is fuelled by porn’s accessibility, affordability, and the relative anonymity of the internet. The industry solution to keep porn-saturated users interested is to respond with a greater emphasis on women’s humiliation and distress. As recent research by Jensen, Gail Dines, Suzzan Blac, Melinda Tankard Reist and others demonstrate, internet pornography is creating a generation of male porn users who find sexual violence arousing and require increasingly extreme pornography to gain satisfaction. “The thing about it is, there’s only but so many holes, only but so many different types of penetration that can be executed upon a woman,” Jensen notes one frustrated porn producer as lamenting.

Yet there’s still an immense reluctance to challenge pornography, the sexualised violence it depicts, and the gendered roles of domination and passivity it promotes. In the contemporary climate of identifying sexual abuse and naming rape culture, it’s the elephant in the room. But as Rebecca Solnit suggests in The Mother of all Questions, “the position that misogynistic pornography can encourage and model actual misogyny only requires you to accept the reasonable idea that representations have power and influence.”

This reasonable idea is confirmed by multiple academic studies. One recent study found that 88.2% of popular internet pornography contains violence and that 94.4% of that violence is committed against women. A 2013 study found the more a user watches a particular media script, (i.e., pornography) “the more embedded those codes of behavior become in their worldview and the more likely they are to use those scripts to act upon real life experiences.” The writers argue, “pornography creates a sexual script that then guides sexual experiences.” In other words, porn frames sexualized violence as ‘normal’ and consumption of pornography shapes male and female sexual expectations and behaviors. Add these together and the implications for women are horrific.

In contrast, Pornhub’s ‘Sexual Wellness Centre director’ and resident ‘sex therapist’ Dr Laurie Betito recently said data indicating women’s increased porn consumption suggests women are now more empowered in all areas of life. She states, “2017 seems to have been the year where women have come forward to express their desires more openly… From the #metoo movement to prominent females the likes of Hillary Clinton and Nikki Haley on the world stage, women are feeling more empowered and they have found their voice.” 

Co-opting #metoo—a movement about identifying sexual abuse—to promote an industry which promotes sexual abuse is unbelievably cynical. Pornhub employing a woman to espouse their propaganda is disingenuous, and telling women that their pain and humiliation is synonymous with ‘empowerment’ is nothing more than gaslighting.

Women may ‘have found their voice’ in 2017 but there is no meaningful voice for women in pornography. That porn is defended as a freedom of speech is perverse when its premise of inequality is a cultural form of silencing women. Women in porn are silenced, as Rae Langton argues, through intimidation and defeat, through requests and sexual boundaries being ignored, through words being rendered meaningless in a context where acquiescence is the only option. In an interview with Martin Amis, porn performer Regan Starr describes a scene in which “I couldn’t breathe. I was being hit and choked. I was really upset, and they didn’t stop. They kept filming. You can hear me say, ‘turn the fucking camera off’, and they kept going.” 

The reluctance among many women to name pornography as sexual violence is a hesitancy to ‘judge’ other women’s choices. I am increasingly sceptical of that word ‘choice,’ so often employed strategically to obscure the absence of available choices. Choices are always made within a system of what is possible or not. They’re not true choices when you have little control within a system, when there are few choices available, when it’s made in desperation, or without full information, or with coercion.

Stalling the critique of porn at ‘individual choice’ ignores the pressures and contexts that shape choice and the quality of any consent given. It assumes choices are freely made. Choosing to participate in an industry, either as performer or consumer, doesn’t equate to having power or agency in that industry, as any sweatshop worker in Bangladesh will tell you. ‘Choice’ has been sold to women as a tick-box, and does nothing to challenge the dominant power structures of patriarchy. As Meagan Tyler argues, not only does an emphasis on ‘individual choice’ undermine calls for collective action, prioritising it over an analysis of cultural structures of power allows for victim blaming. ‘She chose it!’ is a favourite refrain of those defending abuse of women in porn.

So let’s ask men about their choices: Why is contemporary pornography so cruel? If porn is just a ‘fantasy,’ why this particularly violent fantasy? Why is your sexual satisfaction more important than a woman’s human dignity? Why is your choice to support this industry ok?

Returning to Allan Sekula’s premise that images are (ideological) messages, we need to challenge the message pornography is selling us—that men have power and women submit to it; that men act and women are acted upon; that women are sexually passive and available; that men’s pleasure is important, while women’s is not, and most significantly, that sexual violence toward women is sexually arousing for men and inevitable for women. Don’t believe it, and don't accept it. We can no longer separate the violence committed against women in the sexual exploitation industries from other forms of sexual abuse. In 2018, if we are to gain ground, we need to collectively name the problem and say: Pornography is sexual violence against women.

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