The porn tsunami is upon us. A multi-billion-dollar global industry, pornography is everywhere, much of it getting into the hands of children and threatening to permanently rewire their attitudes toward sex. So says ‘Perversion for Profit,’ a 1964 film by American group Citizens for Decent Literature that did the rounds on social media a few weeks ago. News anchor George Putnam intones dodgy statistics over a representative montage of filth: lingerie-clad cheesecake girls; be-shorted muscle men; a nude reclining en plein air while a goat prints its shadow artistically on a barn wall behind her. This is the porn threat of the 1960s: pictures of grinning naked people arrayed on newsstand shelves where any kid with a nickel can buy them. The catalogue of ‘perversions’ to which porn renders young minds susceptible includes fetishism, bestiality (goat!), homosexuality (bodybuilding!), and indifference to the Communist conspiracy.
Safe to say porn has come on since 1964, in both ubiquity and explicitness. It’s a quarter century since Linda Boreman, aka Linda Lovelace, told the US Attorney General’s Commission that she’d been drugged, beaten and held at gunpoint throughout the making of Deep Throat. It’s nearly a decade since California pornographer Max Hardcore went to prison for an extensive videography of very young women in pigtails and school uniforms being vomited on, urinated on, or commanded to suck semen from their own colons through a hose. A statistician crunched billions of Google searches last year and concluded that about one in six was for porn. March of this year saw the launch of Porn Studies, a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary journal. The San Francisco Armory, studio of hardcore fetish outfit Kink.com, issues tourist lanyards and has 251 reviews on Yelp. In a survey of 500 UK teenagers, the majority said regular exposure to porn is commonplace by thirteen or fourteen. One in ten had encountered porn before leaving primary school. Over 120 000 Redditors to date, 97% of them men, have taken the ‘NoFap 90-Day Challenge,’ abstaining from porn to recover the sex drive, physical sensitivity, mental focus and desire for real-live people that they feel have been killed by their addiction. As a recent report to the Children’s Commissioner for England put it, ‘Basically… Porn is everywhere.’
I remember when I first found myself in a porn scene. In a sharehouse bedroom in inner-city Sydney, under the gaze of the gig posters I used to cut down from lamp posts, I betook me to my futon with my new favourite boy and it happened: the vacancy. The dead eyes. The silly acrobatics. It took me a while to figure out that there was an invisible camera hovering beside us: the camera my beau was performing for, arching and thrusting and gurning, to make sure he was doing a good fuck.
This was, I guess, 1999—a couple of years into that trend of adding diamante Playboy bunnies to chain-store knickers and silver-plated pendants, which eventually progressed to t-shirts that just read ‘Pornstar.’ Broadband hadn’t happened yet, so porn proper was still reaching us in dribs and drabs. It was right there, if you wanted it, of course, in a dedicated section of the video shop. Until recently it had been the province of sad weirdos and bored marrieds. More and more often, however, our male friends were watching it in groups in our lounge rooms ‘as a joke.’ The girls would stay and crack wise, or be extra nonchalant, just to see if it made them uncomfortable. But with the advent of high-speed internet no one needed a jokey excuse to get hold of porn anymore. You didn’t even have to put your outside trousers on. The same moment you conceived the idle whim to watch some hardcore, lo, the hardcore would appear. And I have to wonder if the joke wasn’t on us after all.
Sex in a post-porn world sometimes resembles nothing so much as two marionettes operated by stressed-out homunculi—pulling levers, causing backs to arch, throats to moan—convinced that if they just perform their porn scripts convincingly enough, pleasure will be theirs. Not the pleasure we normally associate with sex—tension and release, yearning and fulfillment, sheer animal rowdiness and tenderness; perhaps, even, a meeting of minds. Porno sex, on screen or in real life, is about the meagre satisfaction of ‘getting it right.’ Porn wears away at the erotic imagination, replacing spontaneity with a tick-list. It succeeds by sheer force of repetition and striking simplicity. Bodies become a collection of high-contrast shapes and textures – rough and smooth, slick and dry, convex and concave. The act itself is reduced to bare mechanics, until the only imperative is to turn all the dials up to eleven.
Herbert Marcuse described the cultural trajectory of post-industrial society as one of ‘repressive desublimation.’ Obsessed with instant gratification, we bolt toward ever stronger and blunter stimuli, until the once polymorphous and diverse play of erotic cathexis is narrowed down to a white-hot, super-localised point of aggressive pleasure. Consider the laments of the poor, chafed ‘NoFap’ Redditors: they talk of having to ‘death grip’ their cocks to maintain an erection; of needing to seek out porn of ever-greater ‘extremity and weirdness’; of addiction-like states of desensitization: ‘I’ve literally run to the washroom (mid-foreplay) pulled out my iPod and watched a quick porn video… because it takes me so long to get an erection without porn.’ According to these men, porn does not evoke or supplement the pleasures of real-world sex; it forcibly replaces them, because the pleasure it offers is simply more concentrated. Marcuse tells us a gratified citizenry is a docile one. Engrossed in the pursuit of pleasure, we lose sight of all the ways we are not free, until we no longer even have the language to articulate our alienation. Porn does the job; there’s no doubt about that. The question is, who or what is it working for?
To be clear, I’m not claiming that porn is on a one-way trip to extremeville. Arguably, the most horrible porn was being made about a decade ago—the glory years of Max Hardcore, and the even nastier Khan Tusion (real name Ron Sullivan). Sullivan choked Oriana Small on camera until she thought she was going to die; he kept on filming as he punched and slapped Regan Starr for several minutes after she started weeping and audibly begging for the shoot to be stopped. Back in 2001, Martin Amis asked producer John ‘Buttman’ Stagliano why anal is so popular in porn, even when at least one of the players has a vagina. ‘Pussy is bullshit,’ he explained: the pleasure women show during vaginal penetration can be faked. The pain of anal sex—roughed up with the insertion of extra fingers, extra cocks, objects bigger than cocks—is reassuringly concrete. ‘Extreme porn’ isn’t about shared pleasure; it is a cathartic display of ordeal and survival.
Tellingly, Stagliano told Amis that women ‘pushed to the limit’ in traumatic anal sex showed their ‘virility’; their ‘testosterone.’ Woman—operationally, the fragile gender—survives, and is transfigured into her opposite: enduring man. As Beauvoir pointed out, women are defined as weak in order that men can be strong. The culture asks women to contain its vulnerability, as a kind of damage control. I would argue that displays of women being pushed to the limit and surviving, as brutal as they are, promise a bizarre kind of comfort. Porn worker Rain DeGray, who is regularly hit, kicked and spat on as part of her shoots, put it thus: ‘We’re told our entire lives how fragile and delicate our bodies are. “Don’t go out late at night, someone might mug you.” … And there’s a certain liberation in challenging your body, and getting beaten or distressed in some way and realizing you’re actually tougher than you realized.’ I felt a shock of empathy when I first read DeGray’s words. At one time, I might have wanted to go and watch her perform; to identify with her abjection and her resilience. I might have believed, as Angela Carter argues in The Sadeian Woman, that violent pornography is women’s ‘unconscious ally’ because it makes plain the patriarchal violence that underpins our entire culture. But I don’t have far to seek for evidence of that. And I no longer believe that having something confirmed means having any kind of power over it.
The distinction was made clear to me a few years ago when I found myself in an abusive relationship. I remember it was an odd relief, after months of him taking me apart psychologically, when he started smashing crockery and beating me with a belt. ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘it’s unequivocal.’ If I’d hoped this would sting him into remorse, I was wrong. His escalating violence only proved my wickedness: look what I made him do. And that’s the thing about degrading pornography. To a liberal ‘pro-sex’ feminist, it’s Gender Studies 101. But to the men who leave comments like ‘she talks too much’ or ‘next time double fisting thx,’ it’s bare triumphalism. The master’s tools built this house and that’s part of its appeal. The tone of viewer comments on Kink.com recalls Amazon customer reviews, as if they believe future ‘product’ will reflect their stated preferences. In an indirect way, they may be right. Kink recently changed the pay scale for its cam girls—women who perform sex acts on a web cam, sometimes responding live to viewer instructions—to make it more commission-based. Kink say it’s the only way to keep the webcam channels viable, with so many subscribers defecting to free porn. The cam girls say that, in reality, they are now under pressure to do more extreme things to attract viewers.
‘You wanted it, so we made it,’ says pornography. ‘Your craving for this fantasy made it real.’ And that’s the promise of the digital porn marketplace, the long tail on the rubber catsuit: no worldview too repugnant to be made flesh. The best thing about it is, the real pervert is always someone else. Producers claim to be feeding a demand; the public glory in being scandalised. After being convicted of obscenity for his videos of simulated coprophilia, Ian Isaacs commented, ‘Until I saw 2 Girls 1 Cup, I wouldn’t have thought so many regular people would watch this stuff.’ Meanwhile, youtube spawned numberless metavideos of people’s reactions to 2 Girls 1 Cup. Can you believe they made this filth? say the public. Can you believe they watch this filth? say the producers. People are sick.
With this dialectic in mind, I’m not sure it makes sense to draw a sharp distinction between violent or degrading porn and more benign stuff, as is done in many liberal defences of pornography. I don’t mean to say that all porn is the same. But surely ‘degrading’ and ‘violent’ are more like continua than absolutes. What are we to make of, for example, the depressing prevalence of ‘ass to mouth’ in mainstream porn? Moving a cock or dildo from someone’s colon to her oral cavity without washing it first lacks the spectacle of paddles and chains. But in its casual indifference to that person’s wellbeing, it seems to me more demeaning than an act of theatricalised sadism. If it’s the ‘creative expression’ of a ‘fantasy,’ I have to wonder: a fantasy of what? A parallel universe in which e. coli doesn’t exist? Isn’t it, more plausibly, the fantasy of a world in which you can dose someone with her own faecal bacteria and she won’t object? Because that isn’t the least degrading thing I’ve ever heard.
Were I to set out all my criteria for more and less harmful pornography, which I don’t have space to do here, they would necessarily be personal and eccentric. I am unreasonably hostile to French manicures and frosted lipstick, for example. I can see more point in queer and fetish porn than in vanilla heterosexual banging, since the latter gets quite enough propaganda as it is. When it comes to seeing LGBTQ and BDSM practices represented, I’d still prefer a nice, friendly club night, or a good fiction film (preferably one made by actual queer folks – Concussion: yes. Warmest Color: nope). But I do recognise porn’s potential to enrich our fantasy lives. I just think most porn in fact does the opposite. The philosopher and activist Nina Power has gestured to silent-era French pornography, with its sly visual humour and variety of body types, as proof that porn could have become something warmer and wittier than the dross we’ve got. But it is dross we’ve got. The good stuff – the slick, expensive ‘feminist porn’; the responsible bondage videos that show the participants negotiating the scene before it starts – is still a drop in the bucket. And that situation is unlikely to change any time soon, with viewers switching over en masse to free porn, and profits consequently dropping off all over the industry.
At its worst, porn celebrates the boastful, deliberate trampling of a woman’s right to say no. Thanks to the persistence of advocacy groups like Rape Crisis South London, a bill is currently before parliament that will ban the possession of ‘rape porn.’ This means footage of actual rape; and also fictional hardcore scenarios that celebrate rape. Not just depict; celebrate. Because in order to make it enforceable, and to make sure ‘harmless’ porn is not caught up in the net, the Ministry of Justice have made an exception for rape scenes that are presented as obvious fantasy. I can understand their reasoning. But this means that, from now on, the only porn in legal circulation will be that in which the submissive partners agree to everything (no matter how degrading), and ‘fantasy rape’ scenarios in which no obviously means yes.
There is a line of feminist thought, which I find persuasive, that the yes-to-everything atmosphere of porn shapes a worldview in which consent is a non-concept. If women always want to do whatever is proposed to them, why would they need the option to decline? That’s what we mean when we talk about rape culture: a world in which there is no ‘no.’ It’s commendable that every fresher at Cambridge this year will attend a consent workshop; but disturbing that, in 2014, this is necessary. The obvious next step, then, is to make good-quality Relationship and Sex Education mandatory in every school. Even by Ofsted’s conservative standards, about a third of British schools provide inadequate Relationship and Sex Ed. The best suggestion yet forwarded in Britain is the Sex Education Forum’s porn literacy program. This proceeds from the assumption that children are accessing porn, and suggests age-appropriate interventions to address the messages porn sends about pleasure, consent and body image. We also need proper sexual bullying policies in schools, because young people report that their first exposure to porn is often involuntary, with hardcore pictures and videos circulated among peers for a laugh or a dare. 80% of them also say it is too easy to stumble across porn accidentally. It comes down to this: if we don’t face the reality that kids are surrounded by porn, then they’re facing up to it on their own.
Opponents of any restriction on the free flow of porn frequently suggest that parents just need to talk to kids about it. They don’t make clear why we should do this instead of reducing their exposure, rather than trying to do both. But there is also the problem of what, exactly we would say. If you’ve ever made the ‘just talk about it’ argument at a dinner party, I invite you now to pause for a moment and mentally rehearse that conversation. Let’s assume the talk needs to happen at around age ten, since a lot of kids now see porn before they leave primary school. Let’s be realistic about the fact that most of the easily-accessible porn in the world is pretty sad and seedy, and some of it is disturbingly violent. What, then, will we say? We might explain that porn is not real, that it’s only entertainment. But porn is real in that somebody really is having that sex, on camera, for money. It’s real in that it reproduces within our own bodies the same excitement that is driving the action on screen. The rise of ‘cam girls,’ performing live acts on demand, further blurs the line between watching and participating. And if porn is entertainment, we need to explain what’s entertaining about, for example, five men fucking a woman front and back and then kicking her in the stomach until she retches. As for consent: it’s important that the woman snuffling semen from a dog bowl labelled ‘shit-hole’ agreed to do so of her own free will. But why a person would consent to this? Now there’s a question. Picture broaching these subjects with a ten-year-old you care about. Now imagine every parent in the computer-owning world doing the same.
Which brings me to the subject of the UK web filters. I submit that they are not the Orwellian nightmare some pundits would have you believe. Most ISPs offer several different filters that can be separately toggled on or off, so if you don’t want your kids browsing gun shops, for example, but you’re relaxed about online gaming, you can set it up that way. Some sites should obviously be unbannable—Childline, the Samaritans and such—and the ISPs are working on a whitelist now. Parents should refine what is filtered as kids mature, since a teenager can cope with things an eight-year-old can’t. And slapping a filter on your home internet or your child’s phone is no replacement for communication—if she is trawling race hate sites, there’s a problem there that censorship won’t solve. There is also a great likelihood that a teenager determined to get around parental control settings will find a way. Activating web porn filters won’t reduce the amount of porn children see to zero. It might give them a bit of breathing space. It seems to me that adults should deal with the omnipresence of web porn the way we deal with any other moral question – as best we can, knowing any kids in the vicinity are watching us closely. It’s fine if some parents refuse on principle to limit access to the web in any way – but they should make clear that it is a matter of principle. And they should probably have some kind of alternative plan for dealing with what their kids encounter online.
It happens very frequently that I’ll mention to a liberal, educated young man that I write about porn, and he will ask with mild politeness if there’s any evidence it does harm. This threw me the first few times, until I googled around and realised pop sci journalism loves nothing more than a ‘science gives the thumbs-up to sexy stuff!’ article. If you’re a Slate reader, you’ll know that ‘The Web Prevents Rape.’ We know this because reported rapes are down in US states with greater broadband connectivity. The statisticians say it’s because people are working off their sexual aggression watching porn. Though the writer concedes it could be that ‘rape is down because the rapists are all indoors reading Slate or vandalizing Wikipedia, [or] because former rapists have all found their true loves on Match.com.’ So yeah. Slate’s got you covered for rape myths.
But what about a slightly more sober publication, like, say, Scientific American? Well, according to their coverage of a lit review by sexologist Milton Diamond, ‘There’s absolutely no evidence that pornography does anything negative.’ The quote is Diamond’s, and I thought it remarkably categorical, so I went and read his review for myself. It covers more than a hundred research studies, literature reviews, judicial rulings and government-commissioned reports on the possible harmfulness of porn. The scientific studies range across such disciplines as neuroscience, experimental psychology, sociology and large-scale statistical analysis. He immediately dispatches all but the final category as mere ‘paper and pencil attitude studies,’ as opposed to ‘actual behaviour research.’ This might startle the neuroscientists, experimental psychologists and sociologists whose clipboard-and-MRI tomfoolery somehow manages to attract tens of millions of research dollars around the world each year. Unsurprisingly, Diamond has built his own career on the kind of large-scale statistical analysis that he presents here as the only valid approach. Every similar study he cites agrees with his own research findings: that rates of sex crime reporting decline in a society as access to porn increases. Yet he immediately goes on to cite several of the survey-based attitude studies he had previously dismissed – all of which focus on adult respondents’ opinions as to whether porn should be freely available. So let’s be clear about this: a clipboard study is fine when it surveys laypeople’s opinions about porn’s desirability. But a methodologically-similar study that measures how attitudes to sex, violence and the status of women actually change after porn exposure? That’s unscientific.
The harm done by porn can’t be demonstrated like the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It’s messier than that. Any attempt to address the question scientifically, whether it involves lining up columns of demographic data or studying smaller groups in depth, is going to have methodological limitations. What this amounts to, in Diamond’s review, is that any study that agrees with his research is valid; any that doesn’t has zero evidentiary weight.
‘The sciences have become hyper-specialized,’ says Stanford professor Helen Longino, author of a cross-disciplinary review of research on the nature/nurture debate. ‘What differentiated each approach,’ Longino found, ‘was how it characterized the range of possible causal factors. Because each approach characterized this range differently, the measurements of different research approaches were not congruent.’ In other words, if you can’t agree on the question, you won’t agree on the answer. Longino’s observations are equally germane to the ‘science of porn.’ Advocates of testimonial evidence about porn aren’t opposed to scientific studies. They object to science presenting itself as more monolithic – in its practices and in its findings – than it really is. They resist the implication that any one scientific approach has a monopoly on knowledge. But qualifying and quibbling is just so unsexy. Better go with the tried and true ‘Porn Is A-Okay!’ formula. It doesn’t matter if you’re reporting a single study as if it were the alpha and omega, or hundreds of studies as if they weren’t a hill of beans, as long as you hit that sweet spot between salacious and upbeat.
If you do actually want to confront evidence that porn might be damaging, you could start here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Wish someone else would slog through the data for you? They have. Lit reviews and analysis here, here, here, and here. Or you could listen to the thousands of people who are telling us porn has rewired them, or been used to bully and abuse them, and that they feel helpless and miserable about it. Karen, 20, told the BBC that when she was sixteen, her boyfriend watched porn online with his friends ‘like it was a hobby.’ He would also watch it during sex with her and copy what he saw. ‘I thought there was something wrong with me for not enjoying it. [It was] very violent… hitting, slapping, scratching… doing what he wanted at the speed he wanted to do it, and no consideration… for how it would make me feel.’ In a submission to the online Everyday Sexism project, thirteen-year-old Nicola wrote, ‘I am so scared to have sex it makes me cry nearly every day. We had sex education in year six and I felt fine about it but now some of the boys at school keep sending us these videos of sex which are much worse than what we learnt about and it looks so horrible and like it hurts.’
But anecdote is the poor relation among sources of evidence about porn. In the eighties, Dworkin and MacKinnon amassed hundreds of testimonials from women who had been abused by men directly inspired by hardcore. But their attempts to limit the advance of porn famously and spectacularly failed: as MacKinnon put it recently, ‘The aggressors have won.’ For Dworkin, the inferior status of anecdote is part of a long history of the ruling elite suppressing the experience of women. The marginal status of personal testimony has real consequences even today: that rape porn bill nearly didn’t make it to parliament, because the Ministry of Justice weren’t convinced the evidence for harm was ‘any more than anecdotal.’
To step outside the hostile binary of ‘science’ and ‘anecdote,’ if you want to think through the consequences of porn’s omnipresence, you could just run the simulation. Take one nasty but perfectly legal bit of porn. Multiply by several hundred thousand. Leave lying around on the internet for adults and kids to browse, click, email, text, pass around on phone screens, learn about sex from (as long as school sex ed is penis+vagina, that leaves a lot of territory for porn to colonise), orgasm to, bully people with, and so on. Now picture this generation, raised with porn as mental wallpaper, reaching maturity—negotiating sex, personal boundaries, long-term relationships. Some of them will go on to make porn themselves. They’ll be dogbowl girl, or stomach-kick guy. They’ll declare that it’s their free choice, and so it is. For many, it will see them through college, or simply be an attractive alternative to minimum wage. The young are ‘free’ to do sex work, just as they are ‘free’ to pay any amount for their education the deregulated market will support; and ‘free’ to jump from one shitty, precarious job to the next, or more likely hold down two or three at once, in an attempt to get something more out of life than bare survival. And most porn workers—particularly the women—are young. Can you imagine raising the age of consent for porn to twenty-five? Giving people a few years to work out their relationship to their sexuality before they sell it? How quaintly utopian! If we’re happy to consume porn as it is, then I guess we’re happy for sex work to be the best (or least worst) option for all those young people on the screen. So let’s just come right out and say so.
If I’m honest, my irritation with porn was at the outset purely selfish. Before I had considered porn as an object of theory or policy, it just intuitively bugged me for its blowsy peremptoriness; for crowding out everything that was not like itself. I’m not sure if that’s essential to porn or if it’s just the way it happened to go. Sontag’s famous apologia for literary pornography (she invokes Sade, Bataille, Story of O) argues that such writings crack a window in bourgeois narrow-mindedness and let in the light of subversion. I can’t think of anything less subversive—less killing of the very possibility of subversion—than modern video porn. It is trapped in its own boring promise to make everything available, tangible, consumable, as starkly and unambiguously as possible. As I write this, my mind keeps returning to the chorus of a Tom Vek tune, a paean to every fashionable Dalston party: ‘You look aroused / You look awake / You are a light / turned on.’ You’ve been at that party. You’ve seen that radiant friend sauntering louchely along the knife edge of the moment. You’re eyeing them, they’re eyeing you, meditating a mutual pounce. If that’s what ‘aroused’ means, I think we need another word for the feeling porn wrenches from us like snot from a violent sneeze.
I suggested earlier that ‘extreme’ porn differs from real-world sex not in intensity but in kind. It substitutes the uncertain business of feeling with a reassuringly concrete ordeal. If vanilla porn seems less alienated from sensual pleasure, that pleasure is still always addressed to the camera first. The strained, contorted poses; the weirdly slack-jawed blowjobs; every gesture prioritises an unobstructed view over erotic motivation. Mainstream and extreme pornography are alike suspicious of the real-sex pleasures of tactile and emotional presence, of mutual, spontaneous engagement—because those things are subjective. You can capture the physical act of real sex on camera and microphone. Hell, there’s a genre of porn for that, too. But there is always some mysterious remainder. The very fact that porn has to keep reaching for new extremes of kabuki-like abstraction and ‘authentic’ violence suggests to me that sex refuses to be contained by porn. I find that consoling.