Free speech aside, porn is pernicious

At coffee this week, a friend described his habit of viewing pornography as “casual. You know, late at night. It’s just quicker. I spend 20 bucks a month. I used to download it for free, but my computer kept on getting viruses. Everybody does it, more at Yale than at my high school.” He defended pornography on the grounds that it was “unrealistic and harmless. It isn’t just for men. Women enjoy watching and starring in it. Pornography doesn’t hurt anyone. I mean, I am not trying to make a political decision when I buy pornography. Besides, it’s free speech.”

But pornography is not recreational. Experience testifies that pornography is educational, that we mimic it, and therefore absorb its values. Men ejaculating on women’s bodies, men’s hands on the back of a woman’s head during fellatio, pathological belief that the size of a man’s penis is in some important way related to the quality of a woman’s sexual experience, heterosexual women engaging in homosexual acts for the pleasure of a heterosexual man, heterosexual couples discussing whether to try anal sex, hand-cuffs and whips and corsets and clothes being ripped off — these phenomena are not naturally occurring, but learned from pornography.

And the difficulty of pornography is not whether it is bad for women. It is terrible for women, for men and for how we have sex. In terms of content, pornography eroticizes the passivity, subjugation and humiliation of women. Its consumers learn that women want to be penetrated, to be dominated, that women’s orgasms are fraudulent. And mainstream pornography encompasses brutal power dynamics. It took me three clicks of the mouse after searching for “porn” on Google to be in a position where I could purchase pornography from an online adult business that advertised itself as “the most violent rape site” on the Web. And the pornography that is designed for women, usually called “literature,” is equally dehumanizing: Female protagonists are feisty, or virginal, until they meet a big, strong, sexually experienced man, after which they begin a sexual dynamic in which the woman is “tamed.”

These images and this message are not realistic. While the sex that most undergraduates at Yale have is sloppy, sometimes loving, often drunk and non-technical and without plastic enhancements, that these images exist, that undergraduates consume them and uncritically accept this misogyny as a part of mainstream culture, is harmful to us. The context of our own sex lives changes: Men expect oral sex more then they offer it. Heterosexual women consider anal sex something potentially requested of them. Young women feel guilty that they want to live out the images of nonconsensual yet exhilarating sex that pornography has provided. Young men think that they have to penetrate women hard, for a long time, or that they don’t measure up to a sexual ideal. Meanwhile, men can’t want to be penetrated anally without being gay, and lesbians have to endure a rhetoric that treats their sexual activities as an extension of male fantasy.

But it is not just that the consumption of pornography is bad for us, or that images of sex are dirty. Its production is exploitative, and exploitation is dirty. The women who star in it are abused, poor, transient and unprotected by a union. Linda Lovelace, the star of “Deep Throat” — a seminal pornographic film that has defined the conventions of the genre and was the most financially successful pornographic film in history — testified before the Meese Commission in 1986 that “every time someone watches that movie, they are watching me being raped.” Her husband, Chuck Traynor, had coerced her to act in it. But coercion is not simply violent. Acting in pornography is few women’s ideal career; it, like other kinds of sex work, is a more appealing option than continued poverty. Not only is the business poorly paid and often cruel, the work is dangerous. Lara Roxx, a Canadian teenager and porn actress, contracted HIV in 2004 while filming a scene with two male actors. This industry makes profits from sexually violent images, but fails to protect its actors from life-threatening diseases.

There should be a government agency that verifies the age, health, consent and fair wage of actors in pornography, and that no abuse happens on set or in casting. While porn isn’t fair to any of us, and affects our expectations of sex and gender at Yale, there should at least be fair-trade porn. Most Yalies, given the non-political decision, would happily pay a few more cents to make sure that their porn isn’t really rape or instances where a teenage actress is contracting a disease that will kill her, or scenes of exploitation. Destitution, to most Yalies, isn’t sexy.

No, not sexy, just “harmless free speech.”

Chase Olivarius-McAllister is a sophomore in Branford College. She is the political action coordinator for the Women’s Center.

Comments

  • Male X

    I would add the acculturation of erotic anonymity to your concerns about the impact of Internet porn and porn consumption in general. As a male who discovered sexuality through the lens of pornographic media, I can attest to the long-term implications for intimacy. For those of us who grew up internalizing porn as didactic theater, anonymity is synonymous with pleasure.

  • Adultswim

    This is a moderately accurate critique of porn today w/ limited utility for those interested in making it less toxic. Studios are already required to verify models' ages and keep their records on file. As for fair wages, are any of the models making less than minimum wage? Many do quite well. It's up to each individual to negotiate what she'll accept for any given scene. Charging a government agency with monitoring models' health and potential abuse is too broad and unrealistic (we have enough trouble keeping up with clergy, teachers, and coaches), especially now that so much of it is decentralized. An agency couldn't go to a dozen studios anymore to track this--there are thousands of purveyors, many of whom are not in the U.S. and wouldn't be subject to our laws anyway.

    Some performers have in fact contracted HIV, but considering the number of annual contacts, infection is remarkably rare, well under what's seen in the general population. Testing is scrupulous, and more big producers are requiring or at least encouraging condom use.

    The increasing perversity of porn in general is disturbing, and it's difficult to know how free the participants were to consent to those acts. But that can also be difficult to discern from the images on screen. People like being dominant and submissive during sex, and assuming one role or the other doesn't prove their consent or objection. The commentary above identifies porn as misogynistic, but one can also find gentle couples porn, porn with women in dominant and/or abusive roles, gay and lesbian porn, transgender porn, and everything in between. It isn't one thing, and any critique needs to both acknowledge that and specify which types it's referring to.

    We all are indeed influenced by what we see, hear, or read about in porn--and in some negative ways--but it's not a one-way street. This is a continuous feedback loop. Depictions of certain acts inherently sell well. I promise you that men wanted to push women's heads down, come on their faces, and have anal sex with them long before Edison invented the moving picture, and also that there were women who enjoyed multiple penetrations and being restrained. Porn, obvious as it is to say, did not create "perverted" sex. In this sense it reflects and helps satisfy our deepest fantasies, which more than likely would otherwise go unfulfilled, in a safe way, with minimal impact.

    Criticizing porn for being unrealistic is entirely beside the point. We don't pay for what we already have. The solution is not to shoot ho-hum missionary sex with average-looking partners, any more than romance novels ought to feature doughy, uncommunicative men who are faithful to their wives and watch a lot of sports. Porn, in its messy, disreputable way, brings our taboo desires out into the open and compels us to react to them--whether that's by discussing, criticizing, masturbating, or laughing at the shocking diversity and intensity of human desire. That, I would equivocally argue, can be a very good thing.

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