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Congressional Briefing on the Harms of Pornography

Saturday Jun 26, 2010

On June 15, 2010 I took part in a Congressional Briefing on the harms of pornography. The goal was to educate policy makers on the nature and effects of the contemporary porn industry, and the room was filled with more than 150 staff, aides, and people from other interested organizations. I agreed to participate because I wanted to make sure that there was a feminist voice included in the presentations because too often, we are left out of the discussion.  There were excellent presentations by Dr. Sharon Cooper, Dr. Mary Anne Laden, Shelley Lubbin, Donna Rice Hughes and Laura Lederer. Here is a video of my testimony, and here’s the text:

Howard Stern regularly features pornography on his show, and for this he was the second highest paid celebrity in the world in 2007; Hugh Hefner’s life with his blonde, young and embarrassingly naïve “girlfriends” is the topic of the hugely successful show, The Girls Next Door on E! Entertainment; retired mega-porn star Jenna Jameson has written a best-selling book; Miley Cyrus, the former Disney star who is a role model to young girls everywhere is photographed for Elle magazine, sprawled on a table wearing S/M gear; and students at Yale university invite pornographers to give talks on campus. I could go on, but these examples illustrate how porn has seeped into our everyday world and is fast becoming such a normal part of our lives that it barely warrants a mention.

A key sign that pornography is now deeply embedded in our culture is the way it has become synonymous with sex to such a point that to criticize pornography is to get slapped with the label “anti-sex”. But sex in pornography is a carefully documented and orchestrated set of images, not a mere reflection of reality. Porn sex is a  sex that is debased, dehumanized, formulaic and generic, a sex based not on individual fantasy, play or intimacy, but one that is the result of an industrial product created by men who get excited not by bodily contact but by profits.

Understanding that porn is an industry means that it needs to be needs to be seen as a business, whose product evolves with a specifically economic logic. This is a business with considerable political clout, with the capacity to lobby politicians, engage in expensive legal battles, and use public relations to influence public debate. Like the tobacco industry, this is not a simple matter of consumer choice; rather the business is increasingly able to deploy a sophisticated and well-resourced marketing machine, not just to push its wares but also to cast the industry’s image in a positive light.

When I talk about pornography, I am often asked why I am getting so upset about pictures of naked women. Well, traditional Playboy-style images were bad enough in their sexism but anyone who is familiar with contemporary pornography knows that the days of naked women wearing coy smiles and not much else have long gone. Internet pornography today is filled with body-punishing sex where a woman is penetrated in every orifice by any number of men at the same time. As they pound away at her body, they call her vile, hateful names such as filthy whore, dirty slut, cumdumspter  and worse, as a way to compound the degradation. Nothing is too painful or debasing for these women since, according to porn, they love it.

In the porn world, women are never concerned about pregnancy, STDs, or damage to the body. They seem comfortable with the idea that their sex partner(s) view their sexuality as something dirty (as in “dirty slut,” or “filthy little whore). This is an uncomplicated world where women don’t need equal pay, health care, day care, retirement plans, good schools for their children or safe housing;  It is a world filled with one-dimensional women who are nothing more than a collection of holes.

The titles of movies and websites say it all: Anally Ripped Whores, Gag Me then Fuck Me, Fuck the Babysitter, Cum Swapping Cheerleader, Gag on My Gag, First Time with Daddy, Brutal Blow Jobs and so on.  If you go on you see a 20 second clip of a scene with a young woman they call Scarlett. To give you a sense of the content of today’s porn, I will describe the clip.  “Scarlett” is blonde, dressed in Victoria Secret’s type underwear and looks resigned to having a vise-like contraption digging into her neck and head. The 20-second clip opens with Scarlett sitting on a toilet having a penis thrust down her throat while the man attached to the penis pulls her head back and forward using the handles on the vise. He drags her off the toilet onto her knees where he continues to thrust his penis. You watch Scarlett from above begin to gag, eyes bulging, and as she tries to pull away to breath, the man pulls the vise toward his penis with greater force so she can’t move.  As all this is going on he is screaming obscenities at her.  On one site advertising the movie Anally Ripped Whores, the text reads:

We at Pure Filth know exactly what you want and we’re giving it to you. Chicks being ass fucked till their sphincters are pink, puffy and totally blown out. Adult diapers just might be in store for these whores when their work is done.[i]

It is important to stress that the issue is not artistic expression versus sexual repression. Porn is the commercial documentation of assault played out on real women’s bodies who, like you and me, have real physical limits. Even the industry has said that shooting hardcore today is “difficult and demanding.” The Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation, a non-profit organization that serves the sex industry, states that women in pornography are at risk for Chlamydia and gonorrhea of the throat and/or eye/and or anus, hepatitis B, and vaginal and anal tears.

Pornography, like all media forms, tells stories about the world, but the stories it tells are of the most intimate in nature. It tells men that women exist solely for male use and abuse, that they like to be debased and are willing at any time and any place to submit to men’s sexual demands. It tells men that they have a right of total and complete access to women’s bodies, that they as men lack empathy and humanity and that they have no sexual integrity. To be a real man in pornography is to violate sexual boundaries and borders, and to see sex as making hate to a woman’s body. Bled dry of intimacy, connection and emotion, porn sex is reduced to a technical, plasticized, formulaic generic act that men do to women as a way to demonstrate the power that they have over them.

To argue, as the pornographers do, that pornography has no effect on its consumers is to ignore decades of research that explores how media images shape our cognition and behavior. To suggest that a man or boy can walk away from pornography unchanged is to ignore how we, as social beings, build our sexual identities, norms and values from the images and messages that pervade our culture. Media images help construct our mental map of the world and the way we make sense of our place in it.[ii] Today, pornography is the major form of sex education for boys, and as it seeps into mainstream media, for girls as well.

One of area of controversy is the question of whether pornography causes rape.  After reviewing the major studies in the area, Neil Malamuth, one of the most well-known psychologists studying the effects of porn, concluded that “experimental research shows that exposure to non-violent or violent pornography results in increases in both attitudes supporting sexual aggression and in actual aggression.”[iii] In addition, in his own study Malamuth found that:

When we considered men who were previously determined to be at high risk for sexual aggression … we found that those who are additionally very frequent users of pornography were much more likely to have engaged in sexual aggression than their counterparts who consume pornography less frequently. [iv]

Taken together, over forty years of research into pornography has demonstrated a link between pornography and sexual aggression against women.  But it would be a mistake to see the effects of porn just in terms of rape, since studies show that many of the effects are subtle and cumulative. I have interviewed hundreds of men about their porn use and found that porn affects men in the following ways:

  • It makes them want to emulate the sex they see in porn
  • It makes them think that women in general enjoy porn sex
  • It makes them feel like sexual losers because they can’t perform like the men in porn
  • It makes them angry at the women in their lives who refuse to perform porn sex
  • It makes them less interested in real human beings and more interested in using porn
  • It gets in the way of connection when they are having sex with their partners
  • It cultivates a taste for harder and harder porn since they become desensitized and bored[v]

Indeed, it is this last finding that is most alarming since it speaks to the need to keep increasing the level of cruelty against women as a way to keep consumers interested. As one porn producer told Adult video News, the trade journal of the pornography industry, “People want more…. Make it more hard, make it more nasty, make it more relentless.”[vi]

In one of the only studies on the content of contemporary pornography,[vii] it was found that the majority of scenes from 50 of the top-rented porn movies contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted against the female performers. Physical aggression, which included spanking, open-hand slapping and gagging, occurred in over 88% of scenes while expressions of verbal aggression, calling the woman names such as bitch or slut, were found in 48% of the scenes. The researchers concluded that “if we combine both physical and verbal aggression, our findings indicate that nearly 90% of scenes contained at least one aggressive act .…”[viii]

While pornography is, without question, a form of violence against women in its production and consumption, we also need to see it as a form of violence against boys. To expose boys to images of sexual cruelty is to rob them of their right to develop sexually in ways that are authentic and developmentally appropriate.

I want to say that as someone who has studied the pornography industry for over 20 years, I am still surprised that it has become so brutal this quickly.  We are now in the midst of a massive social experiment, as no other generation has been so bombarded with pornographic images.  We have had our sexuality and indeed our culture hijacked by a predatory industry that does not promote our sexual freedom but rather limits and constrains our imaginations and desires. As pornography increasingly becomes part of our sexual landscape, we limit our capacity for sexual intimacy and love. If we believe that, as a culture, we deserve more than what the pornographers offer, then we must begin to roll up our sleeves and get to work to wrestle back that which is rightfully ours.

[i] Accessed June 12, 2007

[ii] See for example the research of George Gernber and Larry Gross. For an overview of their work see, Gerbner George, et al. 1994. Growing up with Television: Cultivation Process. In Media Effects” Advances in Theory and Research, edited by J. Bryant and D. Zillman. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[iii] Malamuth, Neil, Tamara Addison, and Mary Koss. (2000). Annual Pornography and Sexual Aggression: Are There Reliable Effects and Can We Understand Them. Review of Sex Research, 11, 26-91. P. 45

[iv] Ibid, P. 81

[v] Dines, Gail (2010). Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality. Boston: Beacon Press.

[vi] Quoted in Robert Jensen, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Boston: South End Press, 2007, p. 70.

[vii] Wosnitzer, Robert .J, & Ana J. Bridges. 2007.  Aggression and sexual  behavior in best-selling pornography: A content analysis update.   Paper presented at the 57th Annual Meeting of the International
Communication Association, San Francisco, CA

[viii] Ibid.

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