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Porn Again: The Issue that Won't Go Away  by Lisa Tremblay
Porn Again: The Issue that Won't Go Away

In light of a new documentary celebrating Hugh Hefner as the grandfather of the sexual revolution, feminists might be wondering how mainstream heterosexual pornography has evolved since Playboy was launched in 1953.

In the definitive new book Pornland:How Pornography Has Hijacked Our Sexuality (Beacon Press), Dr. Gail Dines takes readers on a journey from Playboy’s first issue to the porn culture we live in today. Dines begins with Hefner’s efforts to liberate American men from the emasculating domesticity of family life.According to Dines, Playboy’s literary articles legitimized soft-core pornography with the middle class paving the way for more explicit and hard-core magazines to emerge. Pornographic images escalated from simple nudity to include depictions and cartoons of sexual violence, torture and sado-masochism.

In the 1980s and ’90s the home videocassette recorder inspired the growth of a vast porn video market, and the Internet provided consumers with porn that was even more easily accessible, widely available and safely anonymous. According to Dines, by 2006 the global porn industry was worth about $96 billion US. Statistics from 2009 indicate that on the Internet alone there were “420 million porn pages, 4.2 million porn websites and 68 million search engine requests for porn daily.”

Dines describes the two porn streams consumers can now choose from: features and gonzo. Features, although still hard-core, have storylines and are not as rough as gonzo, making them more attractive to men who want to view porn with their female partners. Gonzo (also known as “wall to wall” because it depicts one sex scene after another) is “body punishing hard core porn” and is, according to Dines, what many users prefer.

Cheap to make and one of the biggest money-makers for the industry, gonzo is known for inventing new sex acts like multiple men penetrating all three female orifices at the same time; double anal penetration; double vaginal penetration; throat fucking that makes women gag and vomit; bukkake, where many men ejaculate on a woman’s face or in her mouth; and ATM—which, in porn parlance, is ass to mouth.

According to Dines, these acts take a significant toll on women’s bodies. Women in porn have walked away with prolapsed anuses, torn vaginas, STDs, chlamydia in their eyes and bacterial infections, which are of particular concern in ATM because the penis is withdrawn from a woman’s anus and immediately shoved in her mouth.

Like many other porn researchers, Dines describes the desensitization process that leads porn consumers to habituate to sex acts, crave increasingly more extreme images to get off and become immune to the degradation of women. Several industry strategies are employed to facilitate this process. One tactic is to call the female actors “cumbuckets,” “bitches” and “whores” during penetration and ejaculation while assuring viewers that women like being degraded.

The result is that, as men ejaculate to porn, Dines believes they are being groomed to rationalize and distance themselves from the brutality.

The problem is that in the highly competitive porn market, producers have to find ways to hook and keep customers.

And the solo stroking male consumer is not interested in intimacy—so brutality stands in its place.

In his book Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press), Robert Jensen, who has also studied mainstream heterosexual pornography, points out that “the more pornography becomes normalized and mainstreamed, the more [it] has to search for that edge. And that edge most commonly [employed] is cruelty, which emotionally is the easiest place to go for men, given that the dynamic of male domination and female submission is already in place in patriarchy.”

Dr. Jennifer Johnson, who reported results of her analysis of the online porn industry at a Stop Porn Culture conference in Boston last June, believes men who use porn do so to resolve their loss of control over women in the economic sphere. According to Johnson, women’s movement gains result in “a masculinity gap.” It’s a gap, she says, that’s “mediated through porn.” Robert Jensen agrees. “As women encroach on traditional all-male space, where do men push back for a sense of power and authority? They do that in the intimate sphere.”

The impact of porn that is degrading remains a hotly debated topic. On one side are the pornography producers who say that porn is fun and harmless fantasy. But for researchers like Dines, the evidence says something else.

Increasingly, men who have used porn disclose troubling truths about “how porn affects their sexuality, relationships and interactions with women.” They feel inadequate because their heterosexual experiences don’t emulate the mind-blowing sex they see in porn, and many are unable to reach orgasm without conjuring up porn images.

Dines believes that “porn is probably the most visible, accessible and articulate teller of sexual stories to men.” She contends that men who use it “come away with a lot more than just an ejaculation, because the stories seep into the very core of their sexual identity… strengthening and normalizing the ideology that condones oppression.”

To many feminists who have studied the effects of pornography, the claim that porn is “a gateway to better sex” is a lie. In her video release The Pornography of Everyday Life, Jane Caputi argues that porn is not about sexual freedom but rather about keeping women in their place. Jensen points out that it keeps men in their place, too: “Pornography claims to take us … into a garden of sexual delight…. But … it leads us into a prison cell…. It constrains [our imaginations], handing us a sexual script that keeps us locked up and locked down.”

In her entertaining memoir Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire (Seal Press), feminist Sarah Katherine Lewis, who spent more than a decade in the sex industry, including working in pornography, sums up her main problem with the industry: “When we take part in it, we increase our alienation from each other…. We take something asbeautiful and communicative as sexual ecstasy and we commodify it, and in doing so we destroy everything that it stands for…. The more we become accustomed to buying and selling sexual service, the less space we permit in our lives for the real thing.”

Dines argues that at this point in history “porn is so deeply embedded in our culture that it has become synonymous with sex.” All of us, regardless of our porn use, are “bombarded with images (in magazines, fashion ads, TV, music videos and box office movies) that would have, a decade ago, been defined as soft-core porn.”

The impact of this hyper-sexualized pornography culture is particularly felt and expressed by young people. The common practice of removing pubic hair is rooted in the porn industry, which has no qualms about sexualizing pre-pubescence. On the other hand, more than 90 percent of 8- to 16-year-old boys have viewed pornography online. While 30 years ago boys had to rifle through their fathers’ closets to find a copy of Playboy, today they can just open up their laptops to access porn that is—in quality and quantity—vastly different from what was available to their fathers. Dines, who speaks at colleges and universities across North America, has heard innumerable stories from young women about the pressures they experience from male sex partners to have anal sex, accept ejaculate on their faces and use pornography as a sex aid.

Given pornography’s widespread acceptance, resistance is a marginal exercise. It’s not that feminists haven’t tried. In the late 1970s, feminist anti-violence activists made the links between violence against women and pornography. But arguments about the value and impact of porn erupted. Many women equated porn with empowerment, and they called those who were against it anti-sex. According to Dines, the nastiness of the feminist porn wars scared a lot of women away from anti-porn activism.

The result? According to Jensen, who documents this history in his book, “by the mid-1990s, the feminist critique of pornography mostly had been pushed out of the public discussion and a new economic framework emerged. Journalists began writing routinely about pornography as an ordinary business that raised no particular moral or political concerns.”

This, he says, is “the normalization or mainstreaming of pornography.” He adds, “The pornographers had won.”

Dines acknowledges that without a robust feminist movement it’s difficult to organize a campaign against pornography. This time, she contends, feminists would need to partner with parents, health professionals, men, schools and community groups to mount a successful fight.

In the meantime, the porn industry will keep looking for that new edge. Dines predicts children are it. Although mainstream pornographers—including Hefner—have always incorporated images and cartoons making light of incest and child sexual abuse, the number of Internet sites dedicated to teen porn and searches for teen porn has exploded in recent years. Because it’s still illegal to use anyone under the age of 18 in the production of pornography, producers dress 18- and 19- year-olds in little-girl clothes and borrow “symbols, codes, conventions and narratives that are found in actual child pornography” to make what is known as pseudo child porn (PCP). Dines believes that when men get bored of standard porn fare some will turn to PCP, which may be the “first step into the world of child pornography.”

And that means more children will be used in the production of child pornography and more children will be sexually assaulted by men acting out their porn-fed fantasizes. As Dines reminds us, “the research on the relationship between consuming pornography and actual contact sex with a child suggests that there are a percentage of men who will act out their desires on real children after viewing child porn.”

As survivors of child sexual abuse already know, children have never been sexually off-limits to men. What’s taboo is public acknowledgement of the extent of this abuse. At the same time as the adult entertainment industry is youthifying its adult women, popular culture is adultifying little girls.

Take a look at high heels for preschoolers, padded bras for seven-year-olds and pole dancing classes for twelve-year-olds. Are we promoting fun and harmless entertainment for little girls or publicly advertising their sexual availability?

Whatever the case, we have pornographers to thank for helping us get here.

This article first appeared in Herizons Winter 2011 issue.