For the last year, I've been volunteering at The Grand Illusion Cinema and The Center for Sex-Positive Culture. Most of my volunteer hours at CSPC are in the library, which is a fascinating place. Since the other librarians are more enamoured with the books, the growing collection of video pornography is a bit neglicted, so I've taken on the task of curating the collection. And being just a tiny bit obssessed with cinema, I saw this as a chance to learn about a genre that I am ignorant of.
Like many women, I am not an avid consumerof pornography, but my cinema fixations are a porn-adjacent. I gravitate toward films with explicit sexual content and movies that explore alternative relationship styles. In high school, I enjoyed titilating titles like 9 1/2 Weeks and scanned the cable channels for episides of the Red Shoe Diaries. And in college, I saw nearly every movie that I could find with a GLBT plot-line. Now that I'm no longer using cinema to vicariously explore my sexuality, I still gravitate toward erotic cinema. But this has never led an interest in more hard-core films. Well, until I saw a Bruce LaBruce film.
At a SIFF 2008 screening, Bruce LaBruce introduced his newest movie, Otto: Or, Up with Dead People, billed as zombie gay porn. And it was exactly that. But it was also much more. Otto demonstrated an understanding of the history of cinema, an appreciation of satire and humor, and most dismaying was the outstanding craft that went into this gay porn flick. This is exactly my barrier with pornography is the lack of craft, but with the films of Bruce La Bruce, I discovered that there are pornographers that are creating cinema. And not only can a good film be pornographic, but they can be provacative. And so, I find myself spending hours reading about the movies that are donated to the center, taking home titles that look interesting, and reading about the nuts and bolts of the industry.
So it seemed like time to revisit the ever-enduring battle against porn led by feminists. I personally had made peace with pornography during my freshman year of college with my first persuasive essay on obscenity and the photography of Robert Maplethorpe. Doing the research was when I first encountered the writings of those who hate porn. And now that I'm again looking at the history and making of pornographic movies, I'm still encountering those writing angerly about porn. So I figured I should revisit the controversy, starting with Pornified: How Pornography is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families by Pamela Paul.
First off, there was plenty here to agree with Paul about. For instance, pornography objectifies women and can give viewers unrealistic expectations about sex and what women enjoy. But she takes her findings to the extreme. As she summarizes in the conclusions, "For most people, pornography wrecks a subtle but real emotional, and in some cases, physical devastation." She goes on at great lengths about the evils that porn brings to our culture. Some of these are: impacts women's body image, men's inability to sexually perform in monogamous relationships, intimacy disorders, sex addiction, and that exposure to porn causes one to need more extreme porn to derive the same "rush". But primarily, she finds pornography inherently degrading, humiliating, and disrespectful of men and women. She illustrates these with interviewees' personal stories, citations from popular magazines, and data from a poll cited only as the Harris/Pornified poll.
It wouldn't have been challenging for Pamela Paul to support quite a few of her claims with primary sources as social science research has shown that pornography has some real life effect on consumers. Reading other, more scholarly articles, I now trust that consumption of porn causes some men to view women as sexual objects, viewing porn can cause men to believe that women actually enjoy rape, high consumption of pornography can cause men to be less attracted to their sexual partners, and that for some men, consumption of porn correlates to an increase in sexual aggression. But unlike Pornified, they referenced primary sources and did not conclude that consumption of porn alone always results in negative outcomes. Pamela Paul's book would have been more believable if she had actually cited some of the primary sources that others point to instead of referencing articles in The Independent, The National Post, Washington Times, or Ms. When others discuss these same troubling findings, they admit that porn doesn't negatively impact everyone. In fact, the only conclusion that academics made isn't that porn turns them into rapist monsters, but that it can make men terrible lovers.
Also Pornified draws the wrong conclusions from every example cited. Paul goes to great length to talk about how porn objectifies women and correctly observes that all popular media is similarly objectifying. But then goes back to how porn is the problem, instead of concluding that pornography is simply a symptom of a larger problem. We live in a misogynistic culture that objectifies women. Until that changes, pornography is going to have a POV that women are sexual objects. And the fact that she never addresses the role of this culture-wide sexism is a glaring omission.
And then there's violent porn. Everyone loves to rage about "violent" pornography without defining what meant. I find this infuriating. Only because it is important to know what is meant. Is consensual SM "violent porn"? Is spanking? Is a woman gagging while giving oral an act of violence? Are blow-jobs inherently violent and degrading to women? The tone of Pornified is complete outrage at all porn, the acts depicted, and the consumers. The justification is that, according to Paul, internet pornography is exceedingly violent and even if the viewer is not interested in "violent" porn, just the exposure to regular porn desensitizes causing the viewer to seek out increasingly "violent" and extreme pornography. She also rages about those who consume pornography including the women who defend porn and attempt to create alternatives to mainstream pornography that is more woman-centric. From the tone taken, I suspect that Pamela Paul couldn't bring herself to watch any porn while writing her book skewering the medium. If she had, she would probably find the majority if it is simply boring. I look at the donated DVDs and I'veyet to come across anything that has revolted or horrified me, just bored me. Actually, even the actors in the movies look bored.
So for my first foray into the land of porn is evil and destroying humanity, I've come out relatively unconvinced of porn's evils. What I do believe is harmful is that there are no alternatives to the information provided by pornography. We live in a culture that doesn't educate children about sexuality and then expect them to have healthy, sexual relationships. I've found Cindy Gallop to be more informed on the content of pornography then what I saw on the pages of Paul's book.