A new light on the harms of porn

A few months ago I read a book called Living Dolls by Natasha Walter, who argued that the “new feminism” she thought was emerging in the 1990s had given way to a culture in which girls were being pressurised to be sexualised at younger and younger ages, with anyone resisting being seen as a prude, and that this culture is seen as liberating when it’s actually degrading. A new book is released this month entitled Pornland, by long-standing anti-porn activist Gail Dines, which argues that people’s sexuality is being changed forever by a culture of commercial porn in which acts which are extreme and unusual are promoted as normal, and which ruins intimacy and people’s relationships.

Dines was interviewed in the Guardian by Julie Bindel last Thursday; there is another interview with her here and you can find excerpts from it here.

I’m kind of lucky in that porn has never really interested me. I took one look at the pictures in a top-shelf magazine in the UK when I was a teenager, I think, and I found it so revolting that I just put it back and put it out of my mind. But it seems that what I saw was probably tame by today’s standards, with boys getting access to the stuff younger and younger, and expecting real women to replicate the sexual acts they find in it, and being shocked that they do not want to. The material depicts stuff which is not only degrading but stressful and painful for women’s bodies, and the video (rather than still) stuff often shows the man showering the woman with insults as he carries out his bizarre acts (really, I’m not describing them — you can follow any of the links above if you want to know).

The two biggest problems with it is that it removes elements such as tenderness and intimacy from sexual relationships, and that it forms an addiction that causes men to lie and to neglect their duties to their families so as to pursue their addiction. As with so many chemical addictions, they often find that what they start out on loses its thrill, so they move onto harder stuff, often involving children. Mary Ann Layden of the University of Pennsylvania related, in a speech at Capitol Hill last month, that she had known a man who had worked for years to build a career in a given field, and then secured an interview for a “dream job”, but in the even didn’t attend because he was too busy surfing porn sites on the Internet. Another was a police officer who was jailed for viewing child porn on his work computer; he lost his marriage and could no longer see his children.

A few years ago Muslim Matters had some posts on Muslim men’s addiction to this stuff. Of course, viewing this stuff is completely against Islam, but one supposes that these same men married their wives on the basis that they were chaste and not the sort of women they’d find in these videos. As is so often the case, the brothers expect the women to be utterly pure and devoted while they are anything but. I don’t want to imply that all Muslim women are super-pure and other women are sluts, and most non-Muslim women wouldn’t want to be seen dead in these productions either, but when an ostensibly religious Muslim man, married to a woman of a similar stripe, expects her to perform similarly to the females he sees in porn videos, there is likely to be conflict, to say the least.

Dines herself is not anti-sex or, I suspect, against erotic material being available — Bindel compares her to Andrea Dworkin, commonly accused of being a militant man-hating prude when she was in fact married to a man and, in her writings on porn, distinguished between genuinely erotic and “thanatic”, or destructive, pornography which depicted the degradation of women. After all, porn depicting children is already illegal in most places, and many men have been prosecuted for downloading the material, which is footage of child abuse. The material discussed here depicts adults, but it is often readily available to younger and younger boys, who themselves learn about sex through it and end up thinking what they see there is normal when it isn’t. The things depicted are acted out and the females are being paid, but the acts are meant to look like assaults.

There are a couple of aspects of Dines’s critique of porn culture I don’t agree with. One is her emphasis on hair removal as a product of this culture; she claims that none of the female students she meets keep their pubic hair, as its removal is now the norm, thanks to porn culture. That all of them remove their hair I don’t quite believe anyway, but they were introduced to America through a salon run by several Brazilian sisters and were known of in Brazil before that on account of the skimpy bikinis worn on beaches there. Even so, it’s a fashion and surely not all the women who do it are directly influenced by porn. It was the norm in the Muslim world long before it became popular here. There is quite a generational difference here, with the older generation considering that hair is what distinguishes women from little girls, while a lot of younger women disagree.

A second issue is the use of the term “patriarchy” as a lazy synonym for male domination, as in:

“To think that so many men hate women to the degree that they can get aroused by such vile images is quite profound,” says Dines. “Pornography is the perfect propaganda piece for patriarchy. In nothing else is their hatred of us quite as clear.”

Patriarchy actually connotes a society in which men protect women, not simply allow any Tom, Dick or Harry to exploit them. Most fathers would be outraged, or at least profoundly sad, at the thought of their daughters performing in this way, even if they were getting paid for it and when the family and parental authority in this country was stronger, pornography was less readily available and much less extreme than it is now. A society in which men are free to abuse and exploit women and girls may be many things, but this does not make it patriarchal.

I had heard of the problems with widely-available porn before, but reading these interviews with Dines really shocked me in terms of what these things consisted of and the fact that people who view it come to consider the things depicted as normal. Unfortunately, attempts to curb this material in the USA have been struck down under the First Amendment, and there is only so much we can do when such a big population has decided that it cannot control such material, but we can pass legislation against such material here and should not be afraid to. Of course, education is an important tool here as well — for young people, so that boys know that this is harmful and unreal, and that parents know that they should keep tabs on what their children are seeing online, and know how to. Dines’ is a welcome voice on this issue, calm and measured and less influenced by personal trauma than Dworkin was, and one hopes that her book opens people’s eyes to how damaging this trend is.

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