In pornworld

Katrina Zaat
September 30, 2014

The porn tsunami is upon us. A multi-billion-dollar global  industry, pornography is everywhere, much of it getting into the hands  of children and threatening to permanently rewire their attitudes toward  sex. So says ‘Perversion for Profit,’  a 1964 film by American group Citizens for Decent Literature that did  the rounds on social media a few weeks ago. News anchor George Putnam  intones dodgy statistics over a representative montage of filth:  lingerie-clad cheesecake girls; be-shorted muscle men; a nude reclining en plein air  while a goat prints its shadow artistically on a barn wall behind her.  This is the porn threat of the 1960s: pictures of grinning naked people  arrayed on newsstand shelves where any kid with a nickel can buy them.  The catalogue of ‘perversions’ to which porn renders young minds  susceptible includes fetishism, bestiality (goat!), homosexuality  (bodybuilding!), and indifference to the Communist conspiracy.

Safe to say porn has come on since 1964, in both ubiquity and explicitness. It’s a quarter century since Linda Boreman,  aka Linda Lovelace, told the US Attorney General’s Commission that  she’d been drugged, beaten and held at gunpoint throughout the making of  Deep Throat. It’s nearly a decade since California pornographer Max Hardcore went to prison  for an extensive videography of very young women in pigtails and school  uniforms being vomited on, urinated on, or commanded to suck semen from  their own colons through a hose. A statistician crunched billions of  Google searches last year and concluded that about one in six was for porn. March of this year saw the launch of Porn Studies,  a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary journal. The San Francisco Armory,  studio of hardcore fetish outfit, issues tourist lanyards and  has 251 reviews on Yelp. In a survey of 500 UK teenagers,  the majority said regular exposure to porn is commonplace by thirteen  or fourteen. One in ten had encountered porn before leaving primary  school. Over 120 000 Redditors  to date, 97% of them men, have taken the ‘NoFap 90-Day Challenge,’  abstaining from porn to recover the sex drive, physical sensitivity,  mental focus and desire for real-live people that they feel have been  killed by their addiction. As a recent report to the Children’s Commissioner for England put it, ‘Basically… Porn is everywhere.’

I remember when I first found myself in a porn scene. In a sharehouse  bedroom in inner-city Sydney, under the gaze of the gig posters I used  to cut down from lamp posts, I betook me to my futon with my new  favourite boy and it happened: the vacancy. The dead eyes. The silly  acrobatics. It took me a while to figure out that there was an invisible  camera hovering beside us: the camera my beau was performing for,  arching and thrusting and gurning, to make sure he was doing a good  fuck.

This was, I guess, 1999—a couple of years into that trend of adding  diamante Playboy bunnies to chain-store knickers and silver-plated  pendants, which eventually progressed to t-shirts that just read  ‘Pornstar.’ Broadband hadn’t happened yet, so porn proper was still  reaching us in dribs and drabs. It was right there, if you wanted it, of  course, in a dedicated section of the video shop. Until recently it had  been the province of sad weirdos and bored marrieds. More and more  often, however, our male friends were watching it in groups in our  lounge rooms ‘as a joke.’ The girls would stay and crack wise, or be  extra nonchalant, just to see if it made them uncomfortable. But with  the advent of high-speed internet no one needed a jokey excuse to get  hold of porn anymore. You didn’t even have to put your outside trousers  on. The same moment you conceived the idle whim to watch some hardcore,  lo, the hardcore would appear. And I have to wonder if the joke wasn’t  on us after all.

Sex in a post-porn world sometimes resembles nothing so much as two  marionettes operated by stressed-out homunculi—pulling levers, causing  backs to arch, throats to moan—convinced that if they just perform their  porn scripts convincingly enough, pleasure will be theirs. Not the  pleasure we normally associate with sex—tension and release, yearning  and fulfillment, sheer animal rowdiness and tenderness; perhaps, even, a  meeting of minds. Porno sex, on screen or in real life, is about the  meagre satisfaction of ‘getting it right.’ Porn wears away at the erotic  imagination, replacing spontaneity with a tick-list. It succeeds by  sheer force of repetition and striking simplicity. Bodies become a  collection of high-contrast shapes and textures – rough and smooth,  slick and dry, convex and concave. The act itself is reduced to bare  mechanics, until the only imperative is to turn all the dials up to  eleven.

Herbert Marcuse described the cultural trajectory of post-industrial society as one of ‘repressive desublimation.’  Obsessed with instant gratification, we bolt toward ever stronger and  blunter stimuli, until the once polymorphous and diverse play of erotic  cathexis is narrowed down to a white-hot, super-localised point of  aggressive pleasure. Consider the laments of the poor, chafed ‘NoFap’  Redditors: they talk of having to ‘death grip’ their cocks to maintain  an erection; of needing to seek out porn of ever-greater ‘extremity and  weirdness’; of addiction-like states of desensitization: ‘I’ve literally  run to the washroom (mid-foreplay) pulled out my iPod and watched a  quick porn video… because it takes me so long to get an erection without  porn.’ According to these men, porn does not evoke or supplement the  pleasures of real-world sex; it forcibly replaces them, because the  pleasure it offers is simply more concentrated. Marcuse tells us a  gratified citizenry is a docile one. Engrossed in the pursuit of  pleasure, we lose sight of all the ways we are not free, until we no  longer even have the language to articulate our alienation. Porn does  the job; there’s no doubt about that. The question is, who or what is it  working for?

To be clear, I’m not claiming that porn is on a one-way trip to  extremeville. Arguably, the most horrible porn was being made about a  decade ago—the glory years of Max Hardcore, and the even nastier Khan  Tusion (real name Ron Sullivan). Sullivan choked Oriana Small on camera until she thought she was going to die; he kept on filming as he punched and slapped  Regan Starr for several minutes after she started weeping and audibly  begging for the shoot to be stopped. Back in 2001, Martin Amis asked  producer John ‘Buttman’ Stagliano why anal is so popular in porn, even  when at least one of the players has a vagina. ‘Pussy is bullshit,’  he explained: the pleasure women show during vaginal penetration can be  faked. The pain of anal sex—roughed up with the insertion of extra  fingers, extra cocks, objects bigger than cocks—is reassuringly  concrete. ‘Extreme porn’ isn’t about shared pleasure; it is a cathartic  display of ordeal and survival.

Tellingly, Stagliano told Amis that women ‘pushed to the limit’ in  traumatic anal sex showed their ‘virility’; their ‘testosterone.’  Woman—operationally, the fragile gender—survives, and is transfigured  into her opposite: enduring man. As Beauvoir  pointed out, women are defined as weak in order that men can be strong.  The culture asks women to contain its vulnerability, as a kind of  damage control. I would argue that displays of women being pushed to the  limit and surviving, as brutal as they are, promise a bizarre kind of  comfort. Porn worker Rain DeGray,  who is regularly hit, kicked and spat on as part of her shoots, put it  thus: ‘We’re told our entire lives how fragile and delicate our bodies  are. “Don’t go out late at night, someone might mug you.” … And there’s a  certain liberation in challenging your body, and getting beaten or  distressed in some way and realizing you’re actually tougher than you  realized.’ I felt a shock of empathy when I first read DeGray’s words.  At one time, I might have wanted to go and watch her perform; to  identify with her abjection and her resilience. I might have believed,  as Angela Carter argues in The Sadeian Woman, that violent pornography is women’s ‘unconscious ally’  because it makes plain the patriarchal violence that underpins our  entire culture. But I don’t have far to seek for evidence of that. And I  no longer believe that having something confirmed means having any kind  of power over it.

The distinction was made clear to me a few years ago when I found  myself in an abusive relationship. I remember it was an odd relief,  after months of him taking me apart psychologically, when he started  smashing crockery and beating me with a belt. ‘Finally,’ I thought,  ‘it’s unequivocal.’ If I’d hoped this would sting him into remorse, I  was wrong. His escalating violence only proved my wickedness: look what I  made him do. And that’s the thing about degrading pornography. To a  liberal ‘pro-sex’ feminist, it’s Gender Studies 101. But to the men who  leave comments like ‘she talks too much’ or ‘next time double fisting  thx,’ it’s bare triumphalism.[1]  The master’s tools built this house and that’s part of its appeal. The  tone of viewer comments on recalls Amazon customer reviews, as  if they believe future ‘product’ will reflect their stated preferences.  In an indirect way, they may be right. Kink recently changed the pay scale for its cam girls—women  who perform sex acts on a web cam, sometimes responding live to viewer  instructions—to make it more commission-based. Kink say it’s the only  way to keep the webcam channels viable, with so many subscribers  defecting to free porn. The cam girls say that, in reality, they are now  under pressure to do more extreme things to attract viewers.

‘You wanted it, so we made it,’ says pornography. ‘Your craving for  this fantasy made it real.’ And that’s the promise of the digital porn  marketplace, the long tail on the rubber catsuit: no worldview too  repugnant to be made flesh. The best thing about it is, the real  pervert is always someone else. Producers claim to be feeding a demand;  the public glory in being scandalised. After being convicted of obscenity for his videos of simulated coprophilia, Ian Isaacs commented, ‘Until I saw 2 Girls 1 Cup,  I wouldn’t have thought so many regular people would watch this stuff.’  Meanwhile, youtube spawned numberless metavideos of people’s reactions  to 2 Girls 1 Cup. Can you believe they made this filth? say the  public. Can you believe they watch this filth? say the producers. People  are sick.

With this dialectic in mind, I’m not sure it makes sense to draw a  sharp distinction between violent or degrading porn and more benign  stuff, as is done in many liberal defences of pornography. I don’t mean  to say that all porn is the same. But surely ‘degrading’ and ‘violent’  are more like continua than absolutes. What are we to make of, for  example, the depressing prevalence of ‘ass to mouth’ in mainstream porn?  Moving a cock or dildo from someone’s colon to her oral cavity without  washing it first lacks the spectacle of paddles and chains. But in its  casual indifference to that person’s wellbeing, it seems to me more  demeaning than an act of theatricalised sadism. If it’s the ‘creative  expression’ of a ‘fantasy,’ I have to wonder: a fantasy of what? A  parallel universe in which e. coli doesn’t exist? Isn’t it, more  plausibly, the fantasy of a world in which you can dose someone with her  own faecal bacteria and she won’t object? Because that isn’t the least  degrading thing I’ve ever heard.

Were I to set out all my criteria for more and less harmful  pornography, which I don’t have space to do here, they would necessarily  be personal and eccentric. I am unreasonably hostile to French  manicures and frosted lipstick, for example. I can see more point in  queer and fetish porn than in vanilla heterosexual banging, since the  latter gets quite enough propaganda as it is. When it comes to seeing  LGBTQ and BDSM practices represented, I’d still prefer a nice, friendly  club night, or a good fiction film (preferably one made by actual queer  folks – Concussion: yes. Warmest Color: nope). But I do  recognise porn’s potential to enrich our fantasy lives. I just think  most porn in fact does the opposite. The philosopher and activist Nina  Power has gestured to silent-era French pornography,  with its sly visual humour and variety of body types, as proof that  porn could have become something warmer and wittier than the dross we’ve  got. But it is dross we’ve got. The good stuff – the slick,  expensive ‘feminist porn’; the responsible bondage videos that show the  participants negotiating the scene before it starts – is still a drop in  the bucket. And that situation is unlikely to change any time soon,  with viewers switching over en masse to free porn, and profits consequently dropping off all over the industry.

At its worst, porn celebrates the boastful, deliberate trampling of a  woman’s right to say no. Thanks to the persistence of advocacy groups  like Rape Crisis South London, a bill is currently before parliament that will ban the possession of ‘rape porn.’  This means footage of actual rape; and also fictional hardcore  scenarios that celebrate rape. Not just depict; celebrate. Because in  order to make it enforceable, and to make sure ‘harmless’ porn is not  caught up in the net, the Ministry of Justice  have made an exception for rape scenes that are presented as obvious  fantasy. I can understand their reasoning. But this means that, from now  on, the only porn in legal circulation will be that in which the  submissive partners agree to everything (no matter how degrading), and ‘fantasy rape’ scenarios in which no obviously means yes.

There is a line of feminist thought, which I find persuasive, that  the yes-to-everything atmosphere of porn shapes a worldview in which  consent is a non-concept. If women always want to do whatever is  proposed to them, why would they need the option to decline? That’s what  we mean when we talk about rape culture: a world in which there is no ‘no.’ It’s commendable that every fresher at Cambridge this year will attend a consent workshop;  but disturbing that, in 2014, this is necessary. The obvious next step,  then, is to make good-quality Relationship and Sex Education mandatory  in every school. Even by Ofsted’s conservative standards, about a third of British schools provide inadequate Relationship and Sex Ed. The best suggestion yet forwarded in Britain is the Sex Education Forum’s porn literacy program. This proceeds from the assumption that children are  accessing porn, and suggests age-appropriate interventions to address  the messages porn sends about pleasure, consent and body image. We also  need proper sexual bullying policies in schools, because young people  report that their first exposure to porn is often involuntary,  with hardcore pictures and videos circulated among peers for a laugh or  a dare. 80% of them also say it is too easy to stumble across porn accidentally.  It comes down to this: if we don’t face the reality that kids are  surrounded by porn, then they’re facing up to it on their own.

Opponents of any restriction on the free flow of porn frequently  suggest that parents just need to talk to kids about it. They don’t make  clear why we should do this instead of reducing their exposure,  rather than trying to do both. But there is also the problem of what,  exactly we would say. If you’ve ever made the ‘just talk about it’  argument at a dinner party, I invite you now to pause for a moment and  mentally rehearse that conversation. Let’s assume the talk needs to  happen at around age ten, since a lot of kids now see porn before they leave primary school.  Let’s be realistic about the fact that most of the easily-accessible  porn in the world is pretty sad and seedy, and some of it is  disturbingly violent. What, then, will we say? We might explain that  porn is not real, that it’s only entertainment. But porn is real  in that somebody really is having that sex, on camera, for money. It’s  real in that it reproduces within our own bodies the same excitement  that is driving the action on screen. The rise of ‘cam girls,’  performing live acts on demand, further blurs the line between watching  and participating. And if porn is entertainment, we need to explain  what’s entertaining about, for example, five men fucking a woman front  and back and then kicking  her in the stomach until she retches. As for consent: it’s important  that the woman snuffling semen from a dog bowl labelled ‘shit-hole’[2] agreed to do so of her own free will. But why  a person would consent to this? Now there’s a question. Picture  broaching these subjects with a ten-year-old you care about. Now imagine  every parent in the computer-owning world doing the same.

Which brings me to the subject of the UK web filters. I submit that  they are not the Orwellian nightmare some pundits would have you  believe. Most ISPs offer several different filters that can be  separately toggled on or off, so if you don’t want your kids browsing  gun shops, for example, but you’re relaxed about online gaming, you can  set it up that way. Some sites should obviously be unbannable—Childline,  the Samaritans and such—and the ISPs are working on a whitelist  now. Parents should refine what is filtered as kids mature, since a  teenager can cope with things an eight-year-old can’t. And slapping a  filter on your home internet or your child’s phone is no replacement for  communication—if she is trawling race hate sites, there’s a problem  there that censorship won’t solve. There is also a great likelihood that  a teenager determined to get around parental control settings will find  a way. Activating web porn filters won’t reduce the amount of porn  children see to zero. It might give them a bit of breathing  space. It seems to me that adults should deal with the omnipresence of  web porn the way we deal with any other moral question – as best we can,  knowing any kids in the vicinity are watching us closely. It’s fine if  some parents refuse on principle to limit access to the web in any way –  but they should make clear that it is a matter of principle. And  they should probably have some kind of alternative plan for dealing  with what their kids encounter online.

It happens very frequently that I’ll mention to a liberal, educated  young man that I write about porn, and he will ask with mild politeness  if there’s any evidence it does harm. This threw me the first few  times, until I googled around and realised pop sci journalism loves  nothing more than a ‘science gives the thumbs-up to sexy stuff!’  article. If you’re a Slate reader, you’ll know that ‘The Web Prevents Rape.’  We know this because reported rapes are down in US states with greater  broadband connectivity. The statisticians say it’s because people are  working off their sexual aggression watching porn. Though the writer  concedes it could be that ‘rape is down because the rapists are all indoors reading Slate or vandalizing Wikipedia, [or] because former rapists have all found their true loves on’ So yeah. Slate’s got you covered for rape myths.

But what about a slightly more sober publication, like, say, Scientific American? Well, according to their coverage of a lit review by sexologist Milton Diamond, ‘There’s absolutely no evidence  that pornography does anything negative.’ The quote is Diamond’s, and I  thought it remarkably categorical, so I went and read his review  for myself. It covers more than a hundred research studies, literature  reviews, judicial rulings and government-commissioned reports on the  possible harmfulness of porn. The scientific studies range across such  disciplines as neuroscience, experimental psychology, sociology and  large-scale statistical analysis. He immediately dispatches all but the  final category as mere ‘paper and pencil attitude studies,’ as opposed  to ‘actual behaviour research.’ This might startle the neuroscientists,  experimental psychologists and sociologists whose clipboard-and-MRI  tomfoolery somehow manages to attract tens of millions of research  dollars around the world each year. Unsurprisingly, Diamond has built  his own career on the kind of large-scale statistical analysis that he  presents here as the only valid approach. Every similar study he cites  agrees with his own research findings: that rates of sex crime reporting  decline in a society as access to porn increases. Yet he immediately  goes on to cite several of the survey-based attitude studies he had  previously dismissed – all of which focus on adult respondents’ opinions  as to whether porn should be freely available. So let’s be clear about  this: a clipboard study is fine when it surveys laypeople’s opinions  about porn’s desirability. But a methodologically-similar study that  measures how attitudes to sex, violence and the status of women actually change after porn exposure? That’s unscientific.

The harm done by porn can’t be demonstrated like the Second Law of  Thermodynamics. It’s messier than that. Any attempt to address the  question scientifically, whether it involves lining up columns of  demographic data or studying smaller groups in depth, is going to have  methodological limitations. What this amounts to, in Diamond’s review,  is that any study that agrees with his research is valid; any that  doesn’t has zero evidentiary weight.

‘The sciences have become hyper-specialized,’ says Stanford professor Helen Longino, author of a cross-disciplinary review  of research on the nature/nurture debate. ‘What differentiated each  approach,’ Longino found, ‘was how it characterized the range of  possible causal factors. Because each approach characterized this range  differently, the measurements of different research approaches were not  congruent.’ In other words, if you can’t agree on the question, you  won’t agree on the answer. Longino’s observations are equally germane to  the ‘science of porn.’ Advocates of testimonial evidence about porn  aren’t opposed to scientific studies. They object to science presenting  itself as more monolithic – in its practices and in its findings – than it really is. They resist the implication that any one scientific approach has a monopoly on knowledge.  But qualifying and quibbling is just so unsexy. Better go with the  tried and true ‘Porn Is A-Okay!’ formula. It doesn’t matter if you’re  reporting a single study as if it were the alpha and omega, or hundreds  of studies as if they weren’t a hill of beans, as long as you hit that  sweet spot between salacious and upbeat.

If you do actually want to confront evidence that porn might be damaging, you could start here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Wish someone else would slog through the data for you? They have. Lit reviews and analysis here, here, here, and here. Or you could listen to the thousands of people who are telling us porn has rewired them, or been used to bully and abuse them, and that they feel helpless and miserable about it. Karen, 20, told the BBC  that when she was sixteen, her boyfriend watched porn online with his  friends ‘like it was a hobby.’ He would also watch it during sex with  her and copy what he saw. ‘I thought there was something wrong with me  for not enjoying it. [It was] very violent… hitting, slapping,  scratching… doing what he wanted at the speed he wanted to do it, and no  consideration… for how it would make me feel.’ In a submission to the  online Everyday Sexism  project, thirteen-year-old Nicola wrote, ‘I am so scared to have sex it  makes me cry nearly every day. We had sex education in year six and I  felt fine about it but now some of the boys at school keep sending us  these videos of sex which are much worse than what we learnt about and  it looks so horrible and like it hurts.’

But anecdote is the poor relation among sources of evidence about  porn. In the eighties, Dworkin and MacKinnon amassed hundreds of  testimonials from women who had been abused by men directly inspired by  hardcore. But their attempts to limit the advance of porn famously and  spectacularly failed: as MacKinnon put it recently, ‘The aggressors have won.’ For Dworkin, the inferior status of anecdote  is part of a long history of the ruling elite suppressing the  experience of women. The marginal status of personal testimony has real  consequences even today: that rape porn bill nearly didn’t make it to  parliament, because the Ministry of Justice weren’t convinced the evidence for harm was ‘any more than anecdotal.’

To step outside the hostile binary of ‘science’ and ‘anecdote,’ if  you want to think through the consequences of porn’s omnipresence, you  could just run the simulation. Take one nasty but perfectly legal bit of  porn. Multiply by several hundred thousand. Leave lying around on the  internet for adults and kids to browse, click, email, text, pass around  on phone screens, learn about sex from (as long as school sex ed is  penis+vagina, that leaves a lot of territory for porn to  colonise), orgasm to, bully people with, and so on. Now picture this  generation, raised with porn as mental wallpaper, reaching  maturity—negotiating sex, personal boundaries, long-term relationships.  Some of them will go on to make porn themselves. They’ll be dogbowl  girl, or stomach-kick guy. They’ll declare that it’s their free choice, and so it is. For many, it will see them through college,  or simply be an attractive alternative to minimum wage. The young are  ‘free’ to do sex work, just as they are ‘free’ to pay any amount for  their education the deregulated market will support; and ‘free’ to jump  from one shitty, precarious job to the next, or more likely hold down  two or three at once, in an attempt to get something more out of life  than bare survival. And most porn workers—particularly the women—are  young. Can you imagine raising the age of consent for porn to  twenty-five? Giving people a few years to work out their relationship to  their sexuality before they sell it? How quaintly utopian! If we’re  happy to consume porn as it is, then I guess we’re happy for sex work to  be the best (or least worst) option for all those young people on the  screen. So let’s just come right out and say so.

If I’m honest, my irritation with porn was at the outset purely  selfish. Before I had considered porn as an object of theory or policy,  it just intuitively bugged me for its blowsy peremptoriness; for  crowding out everything that was not like itself. I’m not sure if that’s  essential to porn or if it’s just the way it happened to go. Sontag’s famous apologia for literary pornography (she invokes Sade, Bataille, Story of O)  argues that such writings crack a window in bourgeois narrow-mindedness  and let in the light of subversion. I can’t think of anything less  subversive—less killing of the very possibility of subversion—than  modern video porn. It is trapped in its own boring promise to make  everything available, tangible, consumable, as starkly and unambiguously  as possible. As I write this, my mind keeps returning to the chorus of a  Tom Vek tune,  a paean to every fashionable Dalston party: ‘You look aroused / You  look awake / You are a light / turned on.’ You’ve been at that party.  You’ve seen that radiant friend sauntering louchely along the knife edge  of the moment. You’re eyeing them, they’re eyeing you, meditating a  mutual pounce. If that’s what ‘aroused’ means, I think we need another  word for the feeling porn wrenches from us like snot from a violent  sneeze.

I suggested earlier that ‘extreme’ porn differs from real-world sex  not in intensity but in kind. It substitutes the uncertain business of  feeling with a reassuringly concrete ordeal. If vanilla porn seems less  alienated from sensual pleasure, that pleasure is still always addressed  to the camera first. The strained, contorted poses; the weirdly  slack-jawed blowjobs; every gesture prioritises an unobstructed view  over erotic motivation. Mainstream and extreme pornography are alike  suspicious of the real-sex pleasures of tactile and emotional presence,  of mutual, spontaneous engagement—because those things are subjective. You can capture the physical act  of real sex on camera and microphone. Hell, there’s a genre of porn for  that, too. But there is always some mysterious remainder. The very fact  that porn has to keep reaching for new extremes of kabuki-like  abstraction and ‘authentic’ violence suggests to me that sex refuses to  be contained by porn. I find that consoling.


[1] See The Comments Left On Kink.Com Videos. Or Don’t.

[2] For A Time, I Lost The Article This Example Is Taken From. I Had To Do Some Very, Very Depressing Googling To Find It Again.

All by
Katrina Zaat