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Pleasure and porn

November 19, 2011
Saturday, November 13, 2010
By Tim Dobson & Jess Moore

“When I was 15, I remember going to parties and being really uncomfortable when someone put on porn. Porn told me how, as a woman, I needed to look, act and experience sex; and that people found women being treated this way funny or arousing rather than frightening.” — Anonymous.

Porn reflects ideas about what is considered explicit and arousing. But the meaning of “porn” is altered by historic, cultural and economic contexts.

In 19th century England, any depiction of any sexual scene, in all forms of art, was defined as “pornographic”. Repressive Victorian morality meant it was likely to be banned.

Today society is more open about sex; holds expectations that we act a particular way based on our gender; and accepts the commodification of arousal at the hands of a multi-billion dollar porn industry.

Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked Our Sexuality, describes porn today as “a never-ending universe of ravaged anuses, distended vaginas, and semen-smeared faces”. It is sex that is hard and fast, and punishes women’s bodies and shuns intimacy. And the narrative says: “she loves it.”

Anti-porn writing often says porn is bad because it sexualises violence, domination, injury and degradation. Some porn is violent and involves non-consensual sex, but some does not. But the vast majority of porn today reduces women to objects, prioritises male demands and pleasure (either in content or of the viewer), and implies female pleasure is about pleasing men.

Even queer porn — while challenging heterosexism — often adopts stereotypes about femininity and masculinity, and is overwhelmingly about male pleasure.

Porn is not simply fantasy. It has the power to shape and limit the kind of sex we have, want or enjoy. As a form of expression in the context of a sexist society, this means particular, distinct roles for men and women.

This places limits and expectations on all people based on their gender. It’s worse for women because it equates female worth and pleasure with the pleasure they give men.

Viewing porn can distort and limit men’s sexuality, but men as a sex are not oppressed by sexist porn. It is women’s bodies, women’s consciousness and women’s sexuality that are exploited by sexist imagery — whether in porn or in other cultural expressions.

Moreover, there is a profit-making incentive for the porn industry to define what is arousing as something impossible to find elsewhere: if it can’t be found for free it will have to be bought.

The impact is huge. Porn is a key source of information about sex for young people. A 2007 Swedish study found 92% of men and 57% of women aged 15-18 had watched a “porno film”. But porn informs people much more broadly than just the young: the most common consumer of internet pornography is 35-49 years old.

Bringing sex and women’s sexual pleasure out into the open was an important “sex-positive” victory for the women’s rights movement. But this is not the same as porn. Most porn does not reflect that women can play an active role in sex, one that is pleasurable for women.

A 2009 British survey, for instance, found that “four out of ten [women] have ‘always’ been a bit tipsy when they have slept with a partner for the first time. But … 48.5 per cent said they preferred sex while under the influence. The study also found that 75 per cent of women said they liked to drink before getting into bed with their husband or boyfriend. Some 6 per cent of women have never had sex while sober.”

Sexism, and the gender roles shown in most porn, mean women feel they need to be more “adventurous” and “lose their inhibitions” — in other words, perform sexual acts they otherwise would not be comfortable with.

In fact, a woman quoted in the November 9 Sydney Morning Herald said: “Our boyfriends take it for granted that we want to participate in a range of sexual acts, including ‘back-door’ sex. Some of us don’t really enjoy this, but we don’t know how to tell our partners without seeming uncool, prudish or uptight. Instead, we say nothing and go along with it.”

The SMH said the mainstreaming of porn and raunch culture was the cause.

But porn isn’t the cause of sexism. It can certainly reflect and reinforce sexist ideas, but women’s oppression has an economic basis that emerged with private property and the division of society into classes. The oppression of women is good for profits because, within the family unit, women look after the workforce and care for unproductive members of society, at no cost to business.

The women’s rights movement allowed women to enter into the workforce, but women’s main social role under capitalism is still to do unpaid domestic labour and raise children.

Sexist social norms justify the economic role of women and this will inevitably be reflected in porn and other in cultural expressions as long as women are unequal in society.

Challenging sexist imagery, including in porn, is an important part of the struggle for women’s equality. But to win women’s liberation, we must oppose sexism and the economic system that fosters it.

Porn has the potential to reflect a diversity of women’s desires and pleasures. It can help challenge sexist norms, describe sexual possibilities and pleasure free from limiting categories. It has the potential to help change society but society will also have to change to win sexual liberation.

From GLW issue 861

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