When I discuss my opposition to porn with the devotees of the male-dominated Left, I am commonly attacked for either promoting censorship, being anti-sex, or being obsessed with the “worst” porn. I’ve already stated–repeatedly, in fact–that I don’t believe porn should be legally banned; that doesn’t mean I have to support it as a public good any more than I have to support racist speech or anti-Semitic speech as a public good. As for being “anti-sex”, that’s the critics’ hang-up. Fucking and watching other people fuck aren’t the same thing. I guess some people still don’t get that. As Gail Dines has stated, being anti-porn is no more about being anti-sex than criticizing McDonald’s is about being anti-food. As for the “worst” porn charge, the fact is that the gonzo market has become the primary porn market. That’s what the (almost completely) male market is buying and viewing these days. Facts are the facts. The thing that really bothers me, though, is that none of these three criticism of my position on porn has to do with the real issue, anyway. The real issue at the heart of the porn debate is ideology.
The core of the porn debate is how ideologies are communicated and reinforced. Once they are communicated and reinforced, how do those ideologies influence the material realities of people’s lives? In this case, how does the ideology of misogyny so prevalent in the modern porn video influence the realities for women and girls? We are all ready and willing to believe that hateful depictions of minority groups in the media are damaging. We are all ready and willing to publicly condemn those as being part and parcel of a hateful ideology. We are all ready to work to try to eradicate them–not through outright censorship, but by exposing and shaming them. Why, then, is there a refusal to recognize that porn is about ideology, too? That it reinforces a hateful ideology, and should be publicly criticized and condemned as a result? That is the heart of the matter.
This issue returned to the front of my mind after I watched the TV documentary Hardcore. The documentary was produced in 2001 for the U.K.’s Channel 4. Like most British documentaries, it is heavy on pop psychology. If one can get past that minor annoyance, however, it reveals a lot about how women are treated in the porn world. The most important revelation of Hardcore is how the boundaries set by the women of porn are torn down by the male producers and agents. The idea of “choice” that is so often bandied about by the defenders of the industry is as pure fantasy, as revealed by the experiences of this woman and these men within the industry.
The documentary follows Felicity, a 25-year-old single mom from Essex. Felicity has been performing in British porn for a while. At this point in her life, she is being brought to L.A. to see about working in the U.S. porn industry. Her agent, a British man named Richard, seems to specialize in bringing British women to the U.S. to work in the L.A. porn industry. Richard is there to meet Felicity when she arrives at LAX.
When Richard takes Felicity around to a casting call the next day, she is given a sheet to fill out. In includes a list of “will do” and “won’t do” for her to fill out. Richard guides Felicity in how to fill it out. Richard explicitly tells her to circle that she will work without condoms. She says she doesn’t want to do anal sex, but she indicates on the sheet that she will. Later, when she speaks directly to casting agents, she tells them that she doesn’t want to do anal scenes. If she must do one, she needs the man to have a small penis. In other conversations with Richard, she states emphatically that she will not do anal sex scenes, she has never wanted to do them, and that he has pushed her into saying that she would. He tells her that these scenes are “required” if she’s going to be a real professional. In short, this is a boundary that she’s not allowed to have. They also have discussions about him negotiating fees for types of scenes that she has already said she will not do. He states that he’s just talking money with the producers; she points out that there’s no reason to talk about money for a scene she does not want to do. Again and again, Richard pushes her to do things she doesn’t want to do. Again and again, the reason is that he makes more money if she does these things. Her boundaries don’t matter to him. Pure and simple.
At present, the prevalent form of porn consumed is so-called gonzo porn. In concept, this form is similar to the old-fashioned “stag film”, which had no plot or point outside of depicting sex. The content, however, is far more extreme. While there was a period of time when porn attempted to mimic the feature film with things like plots, that has largely been consigned to the realm of the soft-core offerings of premium cable channels (i.e. “Skinemax” movies). The type of porn consumed via DVD rentals/sales, pay-per-view rentals and the Internet is almost exclusively gonzo. These videos consist of simply one sex scene after another. Most of them are heavy on anal sex. The “facial” money shot is the norm. In fact, it’s such the norm that the only reason this shot wouldn’t exist is because the producer thought of an even more demeaning way to show a woman consuming or wearing the semen of one or more men. In Hardcore, every producer Felicity goes to see or performs for is a gonzo producer.
Richard slowly works on Felicity, trying to get her to violate her own boundaries. He takes her to watch others film the types of scenes she has already said she won’t do. One is a “gang bang” of 8-10 men and one woman. Felicity has repeatedly said she won’t do these scenes, but Richard at least wants her to be a fluffer on the set of one. In his grooming, he also takes her to meet with the notorious Max Hardcore. This interaction is the most troubling of the entire documentary for a number of reasons. Many would say it’s because of what Max ends up doing to Felicity. That is certainly awful, but even more awful is the way it serves to groom her to go beyond the boundaries she has repeatedly and explicitly set.
As Felicity waits for Max Hardcore to show up, she is shown preparing for an anal sex scene she says she really doesn’t want to do. She looks so sad, so anxious, so scared. Yet, she says she must do it. Richard talks about how angry he will be if she refuses to perform with Max Hardcore. The pressure being brought to bear on this young woman is difficult to watch. During the scene, Max Hardcore forces his penis so far into her throat that she can’t breathe. When she gets up and runs away, he follows her. To get her to comply with his demands, he psychologically manipulates her. First, he attempts to build her up by talking about how she’s providing for her child. (Felicity is a single mother.) When she still says she won’t do what he demands, he begins berating her, calling her a “loser” and saying that he’s only had one other woman who was less “professional” than she is. After his verbal beat down, she agrees to resume the scene.
The next day, Felicity is a changed woman. She speaks of how she was unable to sleep the night after her encounter with Max Hardcore. How the choking frightened her and kept her up all night. Then, she essentially says she will do whatever Richard and the producers want her to do today. She has been broken. Her boundaries have essentially been nullified by the concerted effort of the pornographers.
While the porn industry tries to portray Max Hardcore as an extreme, someone outside the norm of their everyday world, each and every casting Felicity goes on features some sick fuck talking about how “filthy” his films are. Anal sex is their favorite topic of conversation when it comes to proving their “filth” cred. The day after her encounter with Max Hardcore, Felicity goes to a casting to appear in a film. She is told that her scene will be an anal scene, which she has always said she did not want to do. She does not object. She is told that the movie she will appear in will feature women being hit, having their hair pulled and being called names. The casting directors get off on asking Felicity to verbally degrade herself. She is instructed to repeat the phrase, “I am a piss-drinking tart.” She complies. When she says that she doesn’t want to be beaten so much that she is “marked for days” and that she doesn’t want to be strangled, they say that they’ll have that happen to another woman instead. Apparently, it’s very important that it happen to some woman. If not Felicity, then someone else. Because the degradation of and infliction of pain on a female body are crucial, of course.
The film has taken us down the path of boundary-breaking. A young woman who begins working in the industry, thinking she really would be able to set her own boundaries. Her boundaries are whittled away. She is pressured and berated. She is traumatized by a man who literally chokes her. One pressure after another is brought to bear on her until she eventually gives in. If the industry was truly about women making choices, there would not be so much verbal abuse heaped on those who set their boundaries. True boundaries are set by the person whose body this is; they aren’t negotiated by others. Sexual consent is something given freely. It’s not something demanded or negotiated. Felicity’s “consent” isn’t given freely. It’s something that she is pressured and groomed into giving. That’s not consent to anyone who truly knows the meaning of the word.
So, how does all of this relate to the material realities of women’s lives? As has been discussed, the entitled psyche doesn’t respect “no”. These sacred “boundaries” that the porn defenders talk about mean nothing to the entitled psyche–within the porn world or outside in the world of real life.
For the entitled psyche, the only reason “No” exists is because it’s a sexual thrill to force past it. The real brilliance of patriarchy is right here: it doesn’t just naturalize oppression, it sexualizes acts of oppression. It eroticizes domination and submission. Through the concepts—and lived reality—of masculinity and femininity—patriarchy institutionalizes domination and submission across the culture and deep into our psychologies.
The dominance and submission featured in the average gonzo movie is obvious. That doesn’t even have to be discussed. The unequal balance of power has been eroticized, then called inviolate because it’s all about the “choice” and the orgasm. What of the boundaries, though? We have already seen that the boundaries of the female performers are not respected. What about women outside the industry? We already know that male dominance and female submission is the guiding principle of patriarchal ideology. Porn, in its most popular forms, is the visual representation of that. It is the means of showing that unequal power as erotic. In the male (and liberal feminist) view, anything called “erotic” immediately becomes out-of-bounds to analysis and judgement. So, this visual representation of patriarchal ideology has effectively been removed from the arena of political discussion. Isn’t that convenient?
The fact that the patriarchal ideology is being reinforced by porn has many effects on the real lives of women and girls. The causal link between porn and sexualized violence has never been established, but porn doesn’t have to cause sexualized violence to make the world a more dangerous place for women and girls. The patriarchal ideology of male dominance and female submission definitely plays into rape culture, which justifies and minimizes sexualized violence against women and girls. Ideology is what helps men get away with the violence they commit against women.
Porn is also used as a means of breaking down boundaries in women’s everyday sex lives. Interviews with males who watch porn with their female partners has revealed the way some males use porn to break down the boundaries of the women in their lives. Male subjects talk of watching porn that depicts acts they want to perform, usually anal sex. They see their partners’ resistance and discomfort with these acts, but this does not stop them. They work to break down the boundaries by normalizing the behavior. They repeatedly view scenes of anal sex with their partners over a period of time, making it appear more and more normal. When they see their partner showing less resistance, they broach the subject of doing this is their real sex lives.
A man who respects a woman’s boundaries, who recognizes that consent is only that which is freely given, would see his partner’s resistance and discomfort as a line not to be crossed. The entitled psyche of the patriarchal male doesn’t see it that way, though. This male sees it as something to break down. If he can just convince her, he’ll get to do what he wants with her body. That’s not how real respect for boundaries works. Real respect for boundaries is respect for the natural boundaries of that partner. Rape is the attempt to move beyond the boundaries that have been freely, naturally set by that individual through manipulation, incapacitation, or force.
I’ve debated with some on the Left (mostly males) who ask me whether I believe the filming of people having sex is intrinsically exploitative. They claim that porn doesn’t “have to be” violent and degrading. I would agree that the simple act of putting a sex act on film doesn’t mean that it must be degrading, violent and misogynistic. My response, though, is, “So, what?”
We are living in a patriarchal, capitalist world. The patriarchy means that women are seen as objects meant to satisfy male desires of some sort. The boundaries of women don’t matter; boundaries are there simply to be trespassed, by manipulation, incapacitation, or force. The capitalism means that if money can be made based upon this ideology, the greedy will push to whatever extremes they can get away with to keep that money rolling in. When we get rid of the unholy alliance of patriarchy and capitalism, we can discuss the concepts of so-called “healthy” porn. Until then, I have more important battles than some dude’s jack-off material. I’m concerned about the very lives of women and girls. Anyone who isn’t needs to do some serious soul-searching to figure out why his orgasm is more important than our lives.