Rape Porn and its Malcontents

At the start of the month, London Rape Crisis sent a letter, signed by a number of prominent campaigners around violence against women, to the Prime Minister requesting that he banned “rape porn”, noting a loophole  in the Extreme Pornography legislation which allows the lawful possession of pornographic images depicting rape which promote sexual abuse of women and girls. There are two aspects to this discussion, firstly the industry conditions which mean that viewing an actual rape and viewing a performed rape may look effectively identical to the viewer and secondly the cultural harm that the availability of such rape porn does.  But both of these issues extend well beyond only rape which is shown as such on screen.

While I accept that there can be rational consent in place to exchange the money for the performance,similarly to prostitution, where rational consent may be given to exchange sexual services for financial compensation, however, the presence of a filmed sexual encounter is there for all time, unlike an ephemeral direct exchange of sexual services.  Once your consent for the filming has been given, the distribution is out of your hands, and you cannot withdraw the permission to view should you subsequently decide that you wish others not to continue to see you engaged in sexual activity.

As others have pointed out, porn, rape and consent is a murky area. The highest grossing porn film of all time, “Deep Throat” widely distributed within a relatively mainstream marketplace is the filming of rape.  Linda Boreman has gone on record to talk of the coercion and violence which went into the making of that film, and has stated that “every time someone watches that movie, they’re watching me being raped.”  Consequently on watching any form of pornography, although the depiction may be of consensual sexual activity, you cannot be sure that the person in the film has genuinely consented either to the sexual activity that you are seeing, or that you have current consent for viewing it.

The issues that surround consent and porn go way beyond just “rape porn”. But lets assume that there are films which depict rape scenes but in which the participants have freely and genuinely consented to both the activities and the distribution, how do we know that there is this consent in place.  Stavvers suggests that one way round this might be to have filmed “before/after” scenes which show the negotiation of the boundaries and the subsequent feelings of the participants as they sometimes have within some BDSM pornography.  I can understand where she is coming from.  That by viewing participant negotiations and reactions it frames the scene within a context of consensuality, but never forget porn is a commercial enterprise and a multi billion dollar industry.

This framing is designed to make people feel good about what they have watched, to reassure themselves that what they have seen is desired, rather than abusive.  Where participants have mixed feelings about their participation, that isn’t likely to make good copy, so consequently what will be shown in these debriefing scenes is what the viewer wants to hear.  These negotiation/debriefing scenes themselves become part of the performance and contractual obligations.  A performance of someone negotiating consent and affirming afterwards that everything that you just viewed was perfectly fine, doesn’t actually make it so.

Lets leave aside industry conditions and performer consent for now, and assume that there are ways round this to ensure that everything you see on screen is ethically produced, and that you have current consent from the performers to view.  Does that make everything OK?   The production of rape porn is to feed a market.  That market is “people who become aroused on viewing non-consensual sexual activity“.  For all that there may be a background consent and an understanding that what is being viewed is actually a performance, it is the suspension of this knowledge in the viewing of rape porn which is the turn on.

The question then becomes is such viewing socially desirable and/or healthy or may it lead to social harm. If we disregard that aspect, and consider that it is none of our business so long as there is no actual harm taking place, this leads us into very difficult territory with the new technologies which are now available, including photo-realistic filmed imagery.  It is now possible to produce all manner of material through digital technology depicting scenes which would comprise horrific crimes were they to be enacted for real.  Beastiality, rape of young children, extreme violence (all currently illegal regardless of production method) can all be digitally produced with no physical or sexual harm to any living creature to a level of realism that makes it possible to imagine that these scenes are taking place for real, and that the viewer is seeing a genuine event.

Pornography is a form of media, and all media is propaganda.  It is presented in a particular way with a message behind it:  sometimes these messages are in your face, sometimes they are more subtle, sometimes they aren’t even intended.  The Betchel test for movies, which looks at the roles of women and their interactions with other characters is a good measure of assessing such unintentional propaganda.  The message being given in the majority of mainstream films is that women are bit-players in life’s story, there for romantic distraction.  I doubt if many film makers set out with that message in mind, but they reproduce it constantly, to the extent that any films which do not promote that message stand out as oddities. What then is the message in porn and what is the effects of consuming that message?

In 2006, Wosnitzer and Bridges completed a content analysis of mainstream popular pornography, comparing their findings with a major study done in 1994, and with other similar studies in the interim.  What they found was that in 90% of the scenes, either physical (88%) or verbal (48%) violence was present.  Women were the victims of 95% of violent action, while men were the victims of only 5%; by contrast, men were the perpetrators of violence in 73% of acts, women in 27%, with aggressive acts aimed at women to be more intense than those aimed at men, who displayed responses indicating sexual pleasure at being victimised more often than men. Fellatio was present in 90% of scenes, despite only 45% of men and 16.5% of women expressing desire for this sexual activity, while anal sex was present in 56%, again despite only 4% of men and 1% of women expressing such actual desire.  The degradation and humiliation of women was recorded in two ways, firstly by experiencing a male ejaculate onto her which was present in almost all of the scenes which were analysed and the “ass to mouth” (AtM) sequence, where anal sex is immediately followed by fellatio, which comprised nearly half of all scenes.

So the general messages in the most popular pornography are

  • aggression is intrinsic to sexual pleasure
  • women are victims of sexual aggression; men are perpetrators
  • women enjoy being the victims of sexual violence
  • the degradation and humiliation of women is part of sexual pleasure
  • fellatio and anal sex are desired sexual practices.

Comparison with previous studies showed that both aggression towards women and the derogatory sexual practices of ejaculating onto the body, and the AtM sequence had massively increased.Basic social conditioning theory – a la Bandura – who looked at the effects that exposure to violent imagery had on children, finding that viewing video clips of people being aggressive to a doll was highly correlated with their own aggressiveness would suggest that viewing such material would promote identification and imitation, suggests that viewing such material would increase aggression and violence towards women.  We know that approximately 1 in 20 men are rapists, the majority of rapists are serial offenders committing an average of six rapes, and in surveys approximately half of college age men admit that they would undertake acts which amount to rape were they sure that there would be no consequences, and that only a tiny proportion of rapes committed ever end up in a conviction. Rape and sexual violence is a massive problem in our society.

There have been a few studies looking at the effects of exposure to pornography.  Zillimen collated the results of studies which looked at the effects of long term exposure to non-violent pornography.  Interestingly there was little distinction made between violent and non-violent pornography, however they found that long term pornographic viewing promoted insensitivity towards victims of sexual violence; trivialised rape as a criminal offense; promoted men’s willingness to force particular sexual acts on reluctant female partners; increased men’s propensity to commit rape, particularly men who displayed some degree of psychoticism but who were within the normal range and put consumers at risk of becoming sexually callous and violent.  This meta study was done in 1986, long before pornography was as available and as diverse as it has become 25 years later, with extreme material available at the click of a button.

All of the research referred to in Zilliman’s study are (semi-) formal trials involving the use of questionnaires, interviews, research schedules, etc, and there is some evidence in some of the studies quoted that where participants link the research instruments with the pornography viewing their responses become more muted.    Kubichan took a different approach to measuring the effects of pornography.  Through looking at the comments that had been left on the most popular videos of four free internet porn hubs, she found that 75% of the comments indicated that they were using the video for sex education purposes and 25% contained misogynistic content; with 11% including both misogyny and the use of the material for sex education – only 13% of comments contained neither.

The problems of pornography go well beyond simply rape porn, and making the distinction may well be counter productive.  Although we can and do police images of child abuse, behind those images there are actual suffering children.  Depictions of children being abused are also illegal, and indeed that had led to the gaoling of at least one man, however using a legal distinction of “rape porn” is likely to see not only police and court time tied up in tracking it, but also arguments played out in court and in the media about what exactly constitutes “rape porn” where the performers consented to the actions shown on screen.

Moreover, should such a provision become enacted, there is the possibility of “near rape porn” becoming a thing  - just consensual enough to stay within the law, but with sufficient violence and implications of non-consent to arouse those who get off on the viewing of non-consensual sexual activity.  The dangers of a rape porn scene where at the last moment, the victim consents – particularly if that consent is clearly coerced using violence – muddies a whole lot of waters that has implications not only for the viewer but for the wider ideas and myths that circulate around rape.   We may well see discourses around rape and rape myths being played out over stimulated rape porn, complicated by the background consent of the performers.  When we look at borderline scenes showing coercion or deception, but with superficial consent in place would that still be considered rape porn that can be prosecuted, or is it now into the realms of “not rape porn” and if we decide that it is the latter, and that the depiction on screen is not one of rape, what does that imply for real life cases involving victims who are similarly coerced into giving functional consent for non-consensual acts.

Iceland is currently considering a ban on all pornography within the country.  Although I accept that in theory there may be ethically produced, feminist friendly, sex-positive pornography out there or at the very least that it is possible to produce such a thing, there are massive barriers in the way of that – primarily the porn industry itself – and that is certainly not what the majority of pornography viewers are consuming.

The problem of viewing pornography is far wider than just rape porn, but comprises masses of images viewed by millions.  Pornography is deeply harmful, not just for the participants or the viewers but for all of us who live in this world which increasingly meshes with the online, where pornography is easily available and leaks from specialist sites out into the mainstream social hubs and websites which we all frequent.  Making a distinction between “rape porn” and  other porn is artificial.

A legal ban on rape porn is a diversion, we need to tackle the whole damn thing, not only the images themselves, but the attitudes and culture which leads to a desire for such viewing and the attitudes and culture that such viewing engenders.

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4 comments
mleiser
mleiser

@mhairi_mcalpine Ill be writing a rebuttal to this in the forthcoming days, Hope you take it on board...

mleiser
mleiser

mhairi_mcalpine Ill be writing a rebuttal to this in the forthcoming days, Hope you take it on board...

mhairi_mcalpine
mhairi_mcalpine

mleiser I'll look forward to reading it. Can you tweet it to me once written.

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