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Oct 11 2010

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Porn: Not Just a Little Harmless Fun

Edited extract from Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, by Gail Dines (Spinifex Press, $34.95). Dines is a Boston-based professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in the US and an author and media commentator. www.spinifexpress.com.au

Its defenders claim it provides an innocent trip to fantasy land but pornography is having a profound effect on society

OVER the years I have come to understand how and why my lectures to students on pornography stir up extreme emotions in men.

What I do in my presentations is take the very images that users have viewed privately and with pleasure, and I project them on to a screen in a public forum.

In the decidedly nonsexual arena of a US university auditorium, men are asked to think critically about what the images say about women, men and sexuality. Stripped of an erection, men are invited to examine their porn use in a reflective manner while thinking seriously about how images seep into their lives.

In one college, my questioning the real-world implications of such fantasy elicited neither interest nor curiosity but a kind of consuming rage that closed down the possibility of reflection, analysis and reason. The rage was directed at two places, both female — either the women in the industry or me — and it certainly conveyed to all women in the room what happens to those of us who don’t follow the porn party line.

Although not all compulsive users, these men talked about their feelings of inadequacy relating to sex after using porn. Whether it was their inability to bring their girlfriends to a screaming orgasm, their need to conjure up porn images to reach their own orgasm with their girlfriends, their “too small” penis or their tendency to ejaculate “too quickly”, they were using porn sex as their yardstick and they all failed to measure up.

I suspect that the reason many men reject the opportunity to ask reflective questions is they don’t want to end up in pain, despairing about how porn affects their sexuality, relationships and interactions with women.

Moving out of the porn world’s tightly controlled version of reality and into a space where one has to delve inside for an emotional stocktaking of porn’s impact on the body and mind is not easy. For most of their lives, the culture told men that pornography is fun and harmless and all about fantasy.

Many of the men seeking a one-on-one discussion after presentations tell me they became increasingly agitated while listening as they began realising just how their porn use had spilled over into their sex lives, whether with wives, girlfriends or hook-up partners. What they had thought were idiosyncratic problems suddenly looked somewhat different when porn was added to the equation.

Asking how porn affects its users is to open up the proverbial can of worms. Some argue that porn has no effect in the real world, while others, especially anti-porn feminists, view pornography as material that encourages and justifies the oppression of women. Probably the biggest single argument marshalled against porn having an effect on users is the “porn is fantasy” claim, which argues fantasy is in the head and stays there, never to leak into the real world of relationships, sex, love and intimacy.

This argument holds that men are not simply dupes who look at porn in a literal sense, taking the images at face value, but rather sophisticated consumers who enjoy porn for the playful fantasy it is, enjoying its excessive transgressions, silly plotlines, caricatured bodies and sexual shenanigans that always end in screaming orgasms for her and copious amounts of semen for him.

Afterwards, the argument continues, guys go back to the real world, unaffected and unchanged. To argue otherwise, some porn advocates maintain, is to fall into the trap of confusing fantasy with reality.

Indeed, pornography, like most media images, creates a world that, on some level, we know is not true. But it is an enormous leap to say that because porn is not an accurate version of how things are in the world, it then has no real-world effects.

Many women, for example, know the image of the model in the ads is an airbrushed, technologically enhanced version of  the real thing, but that doesn’t stop us buying products in the hope that we can imitate an image of an unreal woman.

No matter how fantastical the images of women are, they do, to varying degrees, affect the lives of most women.

One powerful example of this effect is the growth of the plastic surgery industry.

According to the American Society of Aesthetic and Plastic Surgery, in 10 years there has been a 465 per cent increase in the total number of cosmetic procedures: more than 12 million procedures occur annually (for liposuction, facelifts, the “bionic package”– that is, the tummy tuck, the breast job, the facial rejuvenation). Americans spend just under $US12.5 billion ($13bn) a year on plastic surgery, and that figure is rapidly increasing.

HOW porn is implicated in rape is complex and multilayered. Clearly, not all men who use porn rape, but what porn does is create what some feminists call a “rape culture” by normalising, legitimising and condoning violence against women.

In image after image, violent and abusive sex is presented as hot and deeply satisfying for all parties. These messages in porn chip away at the social norms that define violence against women as deviant and unacceptable, norms that are already constantly under assault in a male-dominated society.

In most mass-produced images a woman has no bodily integrity, boundaries or borders that need to be respected. Combined, these images tell us that violation of these boundaries is what she seeks and enjoys. This is one among many rape myths that porn disseminates to users.

Embedded in porn are numerous other myths, all of which seek to present sexual assault as a consensual act rather than an act of violence.

Not every man who uses porn will accept these rape myths. To argue such a point does not account for the variations that exist among users and would reduce the effects debate to one effect: rape.

But what anti-porn feminists are saying is that such myths promote a culture that will affect men in myriad ways: some will rape but many more will beg, nag and cajole their partners into sex or certain sex acts, and more still will lose interest in sex with other human beings. Some will use women and disregard them when done, some will be critical of their partner’s looks and performance, and many will see women as one-dimensional sex objects who are less deserving of respect and dignity than men, in and out of the bedroom.

PEOPLE not immersed in pop culture tend to assume what we see today is just more of the same stuff that previous generations grew up with. After all, every generation has had its hot and sultry stars who led expensive and wild lives compared with the rest of us.

But what is different about today is not only the hypersexualisation of mass-produced images but also the degree to which such images have overwhelmed and crowded out any alternative images of being female.

Today’s tidal wave of soft-core porn images has normalised the porn star look in everyday culture to such a degree that anything less looks dowdy, prim and downright boring. Today, a girl or young woman looking for an alternative to the Britney, Paris, Lindsay look will soon come to the grim realisation that the only alternative to looking f . . kable is to be invisible.

One show that popularised porn culture was Sex and the City, a show that supposedly celebrated female independence from men. At first glance this series was a bit different from others in its representation of female friendships.

It also seemed to provide a space for women to talk about their own sexual desires, desires that were depicted as edgy, rebellious and fun. However, these women claimed a sexuality that was ultimately traditional rather than resistant.

Getting a man and keeping him were central to the narrative, and week after week we heard about the trials and tribulations of four white, privileged heterosexual women who found men who take their sexual cues from porn.

Porn-type sex is a fixture on the show, which regularly featured plotlines about men who like to watch porn as they have sex, men who are aroused by female urination, men who want group sex, men who can get aroused only by masturbating to porn, men who are into S&M, men who want anal sex, and men who are willing to have only hook-up sex.

In one episode, called Models and Mortals, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) finds out that a male friend of hers is secretly taping his girlfriends as they have sex. Rather than being appalled at this invasion of privacy, Carrie is immediately interested and sits down with him to watch the tapes.

Later in the show, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) shows some interest in the man, and when she finds out that he tapes his girlfriends, she becomes even more determined to have hook-up sex with him. Another one of the story-lines of the show was Charlotte’s (Kristin Davis) first husband’s inability to sustain an erection during sex. One night Charlotte hears noises coming from the bathroom and, thinking her husband is crying, she walks in, only to see him masturbating to porn. Shocked at first, Charlotte later glues pictures of herself in the magazines.

These examples show how the Sex and the City women capitulate to the pornography that invades their sex lives. In their desire to get a man and keep him, they were willing to do anything, even if they felt uncomfortable.

What critics have noted about the show and the movies is the role that consuming products plays in the lives of the women. The Sex and the City women are described as being independent not because they refuse to submit to men’s power but because they can afford to buy their own high-end goods.

AS pop culture begins to look more and more pornographic, the actual porn industry has had to become more hard-core to distinguish its products from those images found on MTV, in Cosmopolitan and on billboards.

The problem for pornographers is that they are quickly running out of new ways to keep users interested. So one of the big questions they have to grapple with today is how to keep maximising their profits in an already glutted market where consumers are becoming increasingly desensitised to their products.

The solutions for them are the same as for all capitalists: find innovative ways to expand market shares and revenues in existing markets, bring in new customers and find new market segments and distribution channels.

Thus the task for the porn industry is to keep looking for new niche markets and consumer bases to open up and exploit while staying within the law or, alternatively, working to change the law, an option that the now-mainstream pornography industry increasingly employs.

Consequently, more users have the opportunity to view pseudo-child pornography, images of “girls” with men masquerading as fathers, teachers, employers, coaches and plain old anonymous child molesters.

Because pornography that uses children (those under 18) is still illegal, PCP sites that use adults (those over 18) to represent children are never called child pornography by the industry.

If, as researchers argue, real child pornography is used by some men to prepare them for actual assault on a child by arousing them and desensitising them to the harm done to children, while offering a blueprint of how to commit the crime, then is it not possible that PCP sites could play a similar role?

Permanent link to this article: http://porninthevalley.com/2010/10/11/porn-not-just-a-little-harmless-fun/

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