Recently there’s been a spate of articles about pornography in the popular press. In Porn is not a dirty word, former sex therapist and author of What Men Want – In Bed, Bettina Arndt claimed that women had to put up with pornography because men have ‘relentless’ sexual drives . Although women are now prime ministers, governor generals and high court judges, the acceptance of pornography as part of our popular culture makes it clear that all women aren’t equal and many remain the object of male sexual abuse.
Rather than being art or a form of entertainment produced by the community, pornography is a product of consumer capitalism that is harmful to women and young girls. Defining pornography can be problematic, but for author and feminist Gail Dines, pornography is material produced and used to produce sexual arousal, and in the process furthers the sexual subordination of women. Nineteenth-century art historians were the first to use the word ‘pornography’ to describe erotic paintings and statues buried in the ashes at Pompeii and Herculaneum. These images were assumed to be harmful to children and women and were locked away from the public.
Currently we live in an increasingly pornographic world where images we see resemble the soft porn of a decade ago and concern about such material is dismissed as an overreaction or a ‘moral panic’, by the pornography industry. Pornography depicting a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe and seen on the cover of the first issue of Playboy is not the pornography that is popular today. Instead, brutal and violent images can be instantly downloaded from four hundred and twenty million internet porn pages and four million porn websites and viewed by anyone with a computer.
The five million Australians who are consumers of pornography are able to view scenes that depict women laying on beds, sofas or tables while being anally and vaginally penetrated. This is called ‘gonzo’ porn, where the porn stars have their vaginas or anuses penetrated by more than one penis at a time. Such degrading and painful acts are accompanied by so-called ‘money shots’ where the man ejaculates on the face or the body of the woman. An even more degrading act is where the female porn star gets to drink the collective semen of multiple men.
According to The Porn Report , the Australian audience for pornography consists of everyday adults of all age groups, and backgrounds. Australian pornography consumers are Coalition voters, ALP supporters and Greens party enthusiasts. Interestingly, sixty percent of the viewers said they were religious and although women are fast becoming more interested in pornography, males still represent eighty two per cent of consumers.
But does this form entertainment have a rightful place in popular culture? There is no doubt that the use of pornography is popular and enjoyed by five million regular uses in Australia but rather than originating from the people it is imposed upon them by a burgeoning global industry based on the abuse of women. The growth of pornography has been aided by the digital revolution with the porn industry itself being a driver of major developments in technology from VCRs and DVDs to the creation of millions of web sites.
Pornography began to develop as an industry in the 1950s with Playboy, a magazine which ‘struck a nerve with American men’ (Dines 2010, 2). Playboy was popular with the ‘upwardly mobile’ white male of the 1950s, a time of great cultural and economic change (Dines 2010,2). The marriage rate was on the rise with the media promoting the family as the ideal institution, while demonising the single and homosexual. At the same time men were being warned that they were being made into ‘little men’ who were being robbed of their freedom (Dines 2010, 3). Playboy’s anti-woman ideology ramped up and became the text for those who wanted to be playboys and it set about teaching sexually conservative men who had grown up in the great depression, how to become consumers of goods and women. Pornography continued its growth in the 1970s when rigid gender roles were being challenged and attitudes to sexual behaviours were changing.
That pornography ‘thrives by popular consent’ (Hebditch and Anning cited in McGuigan 1993, 187), and evidenced by the willingness of consumers to pay for it, is an argument made by apologists for the pornography industry. Hebditch and Anning claim consumers are freely choosing to pay for pornography so the material must not be denied them. But such support for pornography as a legitimate form of popular culture lacks an appreciation of ‘the historical and economic conditions of cultural consumption’ and ignores the question of the political economy of culture, argued cultural populist Jim McGuigan (cited in Storey 1993,182).
Failure to connect pornography with its mode of production and the power of advertising is to ‘remain complicit with the prevailing exploitative and oppressive powers in society’ (McGuigan, cited in Storey 1993,182). Or as asserted by political theorist Benjamin Barber: What becomes a popular form of culture or taste these days arises from market research as to what products will make the most money (2001, 52). Barber claims that ‘markets today are what authoritarian states and despotic religions once were’ (2001, 57). ‘It’s money that’s doing the talking’, he says (2001, 58).
How do we judge the worthiness of a particular form of popular culture? Is the entertainment legitimate just because consumers are buying? According to Gail Dines, a mother, a feminist, academic and author of Pornland–How porn has hijacked our sexuality (Dines 2010), the extent and influence of the pornography business has important implications for society. ‘The entertainment industries do not just influence us; they are our culture, constituting our identities, our conceptions of the world, and our norms of acceptable behaviour’, says Dines (Dines 2010, 47). Filmmaker and researcher Chyng Sun (2011, 171-3) found that the popular movies were about sexual excitement mixed with aggression. When Sun’s study into pornography was compared with previous ones done in 1980 and 1990, it showed that pornography had become much more aggressive. Gagging on a penis appeared in twenty eight per cent of the porn scenes; double penetration of a women by two men occurred in twenty percent of the porn, and ass-to-mouth acts were a feature of forty per cent of scenes (Sun 2011, 173). According to pornographer Joe Gallant, the future of American porn is violence with the culture more tolerant of gang rape movies (Sun 2011, 174).
Pornography is also having an adverse effect on the relationships of many young men. Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and the author of The brain that changes itself has worked with a number of men who have acquired such an addiction to pornography that their real life relationships were threatened. These were not men who were immature or withdrawn from the wider world, but rather were pleasant, thoughtful men in reasonable relationships. Their fantasy lives were increasingly dominated by the scenarios that they had downloaded into their brains (Doidge 2010,104). Alarmingly as they view porn images, these addicts are actually making new pathways or maps within their brains due to the muscle’s neuroplasticity.
That the pornography industry, a popular form of entertainment is having a serious effect on the health and well being of society today is not an exaggeration, and should be a topic for a serious public conversation. Feminist analyses that exposed the systems of power under which women are forced to live, are no longer tolerated in a world of rampant capitalism and the commodification of everything (Klein 2011, 95).
Can we look to academia for leadership? Probably not, for as Dines laments, in the world of academia the stories of women who have been gang-raped after their male ‘friends’ watched pornography are merely referred to as ‘anecdotal evidence’ (Dines, Jensen & Russo 1998, 164). According to Dines, the reality of the pornography industry is ‘lost in the maze of postmodern terminology and intellectual games’ (Dines, Jensen & Russo 1998, 164). When Gail Dines appeared on the ABC’s Q&A program in May this year promoting her research and her latest book ‘Pornland’, How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality, neither she nor the subject was given the respect they deserved.
Media commentary on the subject of pornography lacks an appreciation of how and why it has become a form of popular culture. Bettina Arndt claims that men have this ‘relentless lusty drive’ that must be tolerated (Arndt 2011), but rather than just accepting that this absurd practice where some men are spending hours wanking in front of computer screen, while their partners are asleep in another room (Arndt 2011), the imposed normalcy of institutions such as marriage and monogamy might be discussed. However the lure of the pornography industry ensures that any resistance to capitalism and its sacred institutions is nullified.
Pornography as a form of popular culture is ‘hijacking our sexuality’ (Dines 2010), perpetuating inequality between men and women and is a form of male violence and abuse against women. Concerned members of society must be willing to debate the place of pornography as a form of popular culture even at the risk of being branded a sexual conservative or a religious zealot. It’s a human rights issue.
Arndt, B 2011 Porn is not a dirty word, The Age, 16 October, http://www.theage.com.au/technology/technology-news/porn-is-not-a-dirty-word-20111015-1lqqe.html
Barber, B 2001, The culture of the politics of culture, Salmagundi, Spring, 130/131, Research Library p 50. Available Proquest, viewed 20 October
Dines, G, Jensen, R & Russo, A 1998, Pornography, The Production and Consumption of Inequality, Routledge, New York and London.
Dines, G 2010, Pornland, How porn has hijacked our sexuality, Spinifex Press, North Melbourne, Australia.
Doidge, N 2008, The Brain that changes itself, Scribe Publications, Carlton North, Victoria.
Klein, R 2011, ‘Big Porn and Big Pharma’ in Tankard, M & Bray, A (eds) 2011, Big Porn Inc, Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry, Spinifex Press, North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, pp 86-104
McGuigan, J 1992, Cultural Populism, Routledge, USA.
Q&A, 2011 ABC, TV program, 23 May, http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/past-programs-by-date.htm
Sun, C 2011, ‘Investigating Pornography: The Journey of a Filmmaker and Researcher, in Tankard, M & Bray, A (EDS) 2011, Big Porn Inc, Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry, Spinifex Press, North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, pp 171-178.
Storey, J 1993, An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, Harvester Wheatsheaf, London, New York.