Pornography: Ethics and the Industry – Part 1

The Free Hetherington was a wonderful place.  Over the seven month occupation as it emerged as a hub for activists of all stripes to congregate and share ideas.  In amongst the activism, probably due to the student influence, there was a very good if a little impromptu programme of political education.  Nothing formal, although there was a popular (and continuing) Radical Reading Group, but quite often sessions would be arranged to discuss theory or ideas that had arisen.

…and it was at the Hetherington that I first saw porn.

Well, thats not strictly true.  Of course I had seen the soft porn of tabloid page 3; in the early 90s, I did see a subtitled German gay porn film and at the turn of the century my computer got a virus which made rather gynocological images pop up on screen unbidden, but I had never seen the kind of “classic” straight image or film which I had spend much of my feminist activism criticising.  Dwarkin and McKinnon’s descriptions I figured were sufficient, and when I participated in Campaign Against Pornography activity – removing porn mags from shelves and dumping them on Newsagent counters – it never occurred to me to look inside.   In my feminist naivity, I assumed that this was the norm: that most people had not seen anything more explicit than page three and indeed that my gay German porn viewing put me at the more worldly end of the spectrum.  Reading the discussion following a post on pornography on the SSY blog however made me question that assumption.

I grew up and spent my young adult life in a world with no internet, and where the arrival of a fourth channel was a major event.  Access to media was restricted in a way which seems almost inconceivable in today’s youtube world.  Porn was only available in magazines on shelves too high to reach, to be purchased from shopkeepers too disapproving to brave; or in video format from small run down shops with blacked out windows.  These days its available with a few clicks of a mouse.

A few weeks after reading that post, in a discussion at the Heth about women’s representation in advertising and media generally, the subject of porn arose.  Out of approximately 25 people there, I was one of only two who had never seen straight porn.  In the course of the discussion, I began to feel slightly ashamed of never having viewed porn (yes, yes, the irony of that statement is not lost on me) yet judging it so harshly.  I was consequently grateful when another activist offered to show “The Price of Pleasure” which demonstrates, analyses and critiques the porn industry.  The film is quite shocking – including not only of scenes from porn films, but also scenes of the aftermath of filming. In the discussion afterwards, I found myself musing whether porn could ever be ethical and whether it was just the context, production and distribution methods of the industry which made it so abusive.  There is after all the concept of erotica and distinctions are made, but then is erotica just posh people’s porn and it is sheer snobbery which classes one acceptable and the other not, abusive industry practices not withstanding.

There are a number of different angles from which porn is criticised: that it has a corruptive influence on the viewer , that the conditions of production are abusive and that the effect of semi/public images of intimate activity being available has a psychologically damaging effect on the performer.

The first of these, I have to confess, I gave little credence to – thinking it more in the domain of those who would keep Lady Chatterly away from wives and servants.  The film however opened my eyes to how the assumptions played out in porn influence and affect the viewer.  To enter the world of porn is to find a universe where women are always desirous of sexual activity, that their primary aim in that activity is pleasing their partner and that their own pleasure is irrelevant; a world where abusive, unhealthy and dangerous sexual practises are normalised – presented to the viewer as both acceptable and also secretly desired by women.  To consume porn frequently, as it would appear that many do, means to regularly see images constructed and produced purely for viewer appeal, rather than for the pleasure of the participants.  The ongoing inter-personal negotiations over activity, boundaries and the minutiae of interaction which characterise and shape real sex and form the basis of healthy sexual activity do not translate well to screen, and are entirely absent.

Prior to the internet becoming commonplace, Dworkin warned that we were about to see an explosion in pornography, that men would see women as sexual objects and treat them accordingly.  To some extent that has become true – the rise of “raunch culture”, the expansion and normalisation of the sex industry and the seeping of pornographic images into mainstream advertising is all testimony to this, however it would appear that there is another facet.  Wolf notes that rather than the increased consumption of porn making men more libidinous, it has deadened sexual responses.  In Black Mirror, one of the characters discusses how he watches past sexual experiences rather than having actual experiences with his girlfriend, and online forums resonate with female partners complaining that their partners prefer passive viewing of the sexual imagery of others to active participation.

The poor working conditions of porn production are well documented.  From the testimony of some of the industries highest profile performers, such as Linda Boreman and Jenna Jameson of rapes, domestic violence, coercion and beatings, to stories of the horrifically high level of drug misuse in the industry, estimated to be as high at 90%, rampant sexually transmitted diseases and ongoing abuse.  Out-takes from filming (trigger warning) shows women in considerable distress during filming.  The average life expectancy of a porn performer in the US is 37.5 years old.

To take one example, Paul Little, aka Max Hardcore (trigger warning) who has made a career of performing and directing films depicting child-like performers in “extreme” sex scenes, has a history of rape and sexual abuse on set (trigger warning), including a case where a woman was hospitalised for vaginal hemorrhaging and multiple on-screen rapes.   These videos are still being viewed.  This is not a performance of rape, but actual rape on camera being done to young women who are duped or drugged.  These are snuff movies – while ostensibly the women may have initially voluntarily have consented to the “performance”, it is clear that in a number of cases this “consent” is either coerced or acts performed which pass the boundaries agreed.   Indeed in one case a documentary film production crew stepped in to a set after the young performer they were following was choked, although controversy abounds about whether they did enough to prevent the abuse that she suffered in their presence.

Beyond the actual experiences suffered on set, the production of a filmed artifact compounds the exploitative nature of porn.  Even where consent is given to the acts perpetrated, once a scene is filmed, the performer has little to no control over the distribution of the images.

Speaking personally, I really dislike being photographed or filmed.  That is in part because cameras always depict me as short, plump and ugly, whereas in reality I am tall, slim and beautiful, but at a deeper level there is something which unsettles me about my image being separated from me, without any knowledge of the context of viewing or inferences which may be made from the picture.  The Native Americans disliked being photographed as they believed that it stole a part of your soul, while this may be dismissed as primitive superstition, there is something fundamental about the image of a person on film.

…photography, more than any other art form, has the ability to capture a living element of life, a flashpoint of the soul if you will.”

“Of course, most recognize that the process of photographing a moment in time captures something in a fixated way that would normally be lost to history. I also believe that photographic images capture an aspect of that lived moment, a reflection of reality if you will, and that the photograph literally captures an element of the life force that presented itself in that moment that was captured.

James W. Bailey

Even once someone has exited the industry images of intimate activity circulate.  Given the high level of drug use and abuse, many of these images will have been taken under conditions of dubious consent, and there is a permanent record of their experiences which can neither be destroyed or controlled.  Linda Boreman famously stated that “Every time someone watches [Deep Throat], they’re watching me being raped”.    Even where the acts filmed have been consensual, it is questionable whether that consent is lifelong.  Viewing sex acts is a sex act in itself, and the ongoing viewing of such assumes ongoing consent from the participants, an assumption which is probably untrue in the majority of cases, but which is disregarded.

Is there then any space for ethical porn?   Graphic depictions of sexual acts have been known in very early civilisations and its widespread consumption suggests that such depictions are sought by a large number of people.  Could it simply be the industry and commercial aspect which is debasing such depictions and could conditions be met in which porn could be ethically viewed, produced and distributed? Here there is a sharp divide between sex-positive feminists, who seek to reclaim porn as an empowering experience if such conditions are met and radical feminists who believe it is inherently abusive.

The “Price of Pleasure” ends with some very disturbing depictions of violent sexual activity, it is hard to imagine that these images were produced without physical harm being caused to the participants.  It also notes that as porn has become more ubiquitous and available, the acts have become more extreme, more harmful and more violent and it predicts the future of porn as continuing down that trajectory.

Porn is however diverse.  The “classic” porn that I have primarily been discussing above is massively abusive, however there is a wide range of alternative formats, including amateur porn, hentai, cartoon porn, furry porn, fantasy porn and photo realistic computer generated porn.  Could any of these build a bridge between those who see restrictions on porn as unnecessary curtailment of liberty and those who see porn as necessarily abusive and track an alternative course to the ever more violent and extreme images which are rapidly becoming mainstreamed?

Part 2

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