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The paradox of pornography

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Pornography’s business has always been the exposure of women’s bodies for the pleasure of men, and that was readily evident at the annual Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas last month.

But also exposed at the sex-industry gathering was the paradox of the pornography business at this particular moment: At the same time that the pornography industry and its products are more normalized than ever in the United States, the images they produce are more brutal and degrading toward women than ever. How can it be that a once-underground industry that lived at the margins of society has become mainstream, at precisely the same time that its sexual cruelty toward women is most pronounced?

The resolution of the paradox offers disturbing insights not just into the sexual ethics and gender politics of the United States, but into the underlying values of the entire society.

The AEE -- which attracted 350 exhibitors to the Sands Expo Center, one of Las Vegas’ major convention facilities -- is part industry-insider gathering and part public spectacle. About 18,000 fans, the vast majority of them men, paid $40 a day to wait in long lines to pick up autographs from their favorite women in pornography and be photographed next to them. While fans indulged their fantasies, pornography producers focused on deal-making, often sounding as if their business were no different than selling shoes. In seminars, industry experts talked about improving marketing and retailing practices to expand market share and increase profits

On the convention floor, most everyone would have agreed with Paul Fishbein, president of Adult Video News, the trade magazine that sponsors the event: “[T]he industry is ready to serve the needs of adult retailers, as well as consumers that seek to celebrate their sexuality.”

And “celebrate” they do, with no questions asked. In Las Vegas, no one was discussing the social implications of the commodification of sexuality and intimacy in the 13,000 new pornographic videos and DVDs released in 2005. Questions about the effects of sexualizing male dominance in a $12-billion a year business were not on the table. This was a venue for self-indulgence, not self-reflection.

Pornography -- though still resisted by some, from either a conservative/religious position or, on very different grounds, from a feminist point of view -- has become just one more form of mass entertainment in a culture obsessively dedicated to the pleasure-without-thought-about-the-consequences principle. Not everyone likes it, but few see it as worth debating.

But the paradox remains: At the same time that it is more accepted, pornography’s content is becoming steadily more extreme. In the “gonzo” style (those films with no plot or characters, just straightforward sex on tape) that dominates the market, directors continue to push the edge, filming increasingly rougher sexual practices involving multiple penetrations of women by two or three men at a time, or oral sex designed to make a woman gag, while the language used to insult women during sex grows harsher. Since legal controls on pornography began loosening in the 1970s, pornographers have pushed the limits of sexualizing the denigration of women.

Though the pornography industry loves to talk about growing sales to women and the so-called “couples market,” men are still the vast majority of pornography consumers in the United States. Producers and distributors I interviewed at the convention all estimated their clientele was 80 to 90 percent men.

What do these men want to watch? It turns out they like viewing sexual acts that the majority of women do not want to perform in their lives. While there is no survey data about women’s preferences regarding multiple penetrations or gag-inducing sex, informal investigation suggests such things are not common in the day-to-day lives of most people and not sought after by most women.

So, how can we explain the paradox? People typically do not openly endorse cruelty or the degradation of women. Yet just as those features of pornography are more extensive and intense than ever, graphic sexually explicit material is more widely accepted than ever. How can a culture embrace images that violate its stated values? Wouldn’t a society that purports to be civilized reject sexual material that becomes evermore dismissive of the humanity of women? There are two potential explanations.

First, because of the way pornography works, most of the consumers don’t see the material as being saturated with cruelty or degradation; the sexual pleasure that pornography produces tends to derail critical viewing and thinking. When consumers are focused on the pleasure, the politics drop out of view. So, when fans I interviewed said they didn’t think the material they watched embodied male domination and female subordination, they likely were being honest. They don’t see it, because they are too absorbed in feeling the sexual pleasure to be thinking about such issues.

But some men are quite clear about the gender politics in pornography, and they like it. Most of the advertising for the gonzo style highlights the subordination of women -- one company brags it is in the business of “degrading whores for your viewing pleasure” -- which suggests that’s exactly what some men are looking for.

The second explanation is a painful reminder that, in fact, the United States is a nation that has no serious objection to cruelty and degradation. After all, there was no sustained, collective outrage over the revelations of systematic torture by U.S. military forces, epitomized by the photos from Abu Ghraib in Iraq. One prominent right-wing commentator compared it favorably to fraternity hazing rituals, which is not entirely misguided -- fraternity hazing is routinely cruel and degrading, albeit at a much lower level.

The United States is a society that uses brutal levels of military force, including the illegal targeting of civilian infrastructure (such as in the 1991 Gulf War, when power, sewage, and water facilities were targeted) and the routine use of weapons that military officials know kill large numbers of civilians (such as cluster bombs that continue to kill long after the conflict is over, as unexploded bombs detonate for years). The culture celebrates this as evidence of our benevolence as we “liberate” other countries.

The United States is a society that locks up more than 2 million people, a higher percentage of its population than any other country, disproportionately non-white. The everyday conditions under which many of those human beings are kept in this prison-industrial complex are so harsh and degrading that leading human-rights groups condemn U.S. prison practices. The culture celebrates this as evidence of the superiority of our system of “justice.”

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
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