The sticky question of pornography – March 5, 2013

About 40 years ago, feminists were making a distinction between pornography and erotic films. Of course no one was able to quite put their finger on the difference, although it was easy to hate pornography after Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace revealed her abuse during the 1972 filming; or Bonnie Sherr Klein’s Not a Love Story showed us the shockingly exploitative side of adult entertainment. For some of us, all pornography is exploitative, demeaning and violent.

Enter women who began to make erotica for women, followed by women who started making porn for women. Today there are plenty of women who consider themselves feminist and who love their porn.

So what’s a girl to do?

As a sex educator, I believe that a big downside of pornography is the role it has played in the sex education of boys. I winced during a sexual health workshop with adolescents when a male student said, “it’s not like that in porn, miss.” I could just picture him playing out some of the common sexual acts in contemporary pornography without asking for consent. Pornography creates a script for adolescent sexuality as do music videos and reality shows. Not being a consumer, I had to do a lot of reading to familiarize myself with the current norms in pornography, such as “facials” and “double penetration.”

With the increase in availability, a kind of hunger for bigger and bigger shocks seems to drive the industry to a continual pushing of boundaries. The resulting outrage from feminists isn’t so much moral outrage as anger—and fear. A long-standing debate continues about whether or not pornography is directly linked with violence against women and children. According to some, research has never made a clear causal connection between pornography and sexual assault. Writer Debbie Nathan, in an interview by Dr. Joy Davidson says, “Research has shown that legalization and mass consumption of porn is correlated with declines in rape rates, not increases.” Yet, when we hear about someone convicted of sexual assault with a cache of violent pornography on their computer, it echoes other research that indicates a link between porn and attitudes that support violence against women.

I am reminded of another workshop, this time in a battered woman’s shelter, when a participant told the group about her husband who, after watching porn, would insist that she repeat the acts. When she refused, he would beat and rape her.

There are other issues. Some women who do not watch porn find it upsetting that their partners do and consider it a form of cheating. Sex columnist Dan Savage insists that all men watch pornography and the rest are lying. Some people are so used to getting off watching porn that they find it difficult to be intimate in flesh and blood.

Is there an upside?

There are couples who revel in watching porn together—and there is something for every gender, orientation and taste. People who may feel guilty about their sexual predilections may find comfort in the availability of their kinks online. They may find similar communities of people and even partners.

Nathan paints a positive picture:

“… to keep porn in the mix, we’d have to demystify it, to stop condemning it as immoral. If we could do that, we might not have pornography anymore. Instead, we’d have a gorgeous carnival of sexual imagery and sexual aids which would speak to everyone’s fantasies, desires and yearnings. … I think the solution [to stereotyping] is not making less of it but more. More, that is, if it’s produced by all kinds of people, and not just by big businesses catering to the mass market and trying to make mega-profits.”

Perhaps informed consumers of pornography can treat it like chocolate. They can seek out the equivalent of organic, fair trade porn (made by companies that pay their actors well, give them options about scenes and insist on their using protection) and get that good dopamine high—not as a guilty pleasure—but as a treat. If people patronized the ethical porn companies, it might start the process of shifting mainstream pornography to something more palatable … for more of us.


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