New Internationalist

Understanding Porn

Issue 158

new internationalist
issue 158 - April 1986

[image, unknown]

The pornography debate will run and run. On one side are the abolitionists: feminists, who believe it degrades women and encourages men to rape, keeping uneasy company with cleanup campaigners. On the other side are the libertarians: feminists - and others - who see censorship as the tip of an iceberg that will crush freedom of expression and push sex back into Its Victorian closet of shame.

The NI argues that neither side is right - or, rather, that both are. The feminists who oppose porn are right in the sense that porn is, indeed, part of a general sexual atmosphere that pervades all the media - advertising, newspapers, magazines, television, cinema - as well as the porn industry itself. This atmosphere glorifies male power - particularly male sexual power - and justifies the use of that power against women.

But the libertarians are right, too, in pointing out the dangers of censorship. They argue that something as pervasive as porn could never be rooted out completely without radical changes in the very real physical, economic, and social control that men have over women. And they fear that any censorship would be applied selectively: not against the great porn giants, who are able to marshal enormous resources to protect their interests, but against minority gay publications, feminist self-help groups and radical school teachers trying to introduce children to humane, responsible and joyful attitudes to sex.

Pornographic images, and the attitudes underlying these images, are all-pervasive. And that makes us all consumers - whether we want to be or not. While the debates continue, we have to become aware of how the porn-brokers are colouring our lives.

Mayfair - a 'soft porn' magazine. [image, unknown] Elle - an international women's magazine.

Messages from the medium

1. THE PERFECT BODY

She's young, slim, curvy in the right places, smooth and airbrushed to perfection. Old, fat, skinny, pregnant, hairy women are just not sexy. This message is echoed in every other part of the media. And it makes many women obsessed with improving their appearance. The man's body, on the other hand, is very rarely exposed in this way.

 

2. INVITATION TO RAPE

She's a tease; shy but provocative. She may stalk by with her nose in the air, or shrink in fear from the approaches of a stranger, but deep inside she wants him as much as he wants her. Tricky one this, because many women really do hesitate to express their desires for fear of being thought 'too forward'. But unless a woman's 'no' is accepted, believed and respected, men will always have an excuse for rape. The answer is to give women the space to explore their sexuality, not to force sex - on men's terms - upon them.

 

3. ALWAYS ON DISPLAY

There she is: pouting lips on the subway poster, lace-encased breasts on the motorway billboard, bikini-clad bottom on the bonnet of a racing car, silken thighs crossed and uncrossed on the TV Screen. Her body is displayed in bits, each one offered to him for consumption and judgement. Displaying women's bodies like this makes men think that every woman is available, accessible - another object offered for his delectation. They feel they have the right to stare at her legs, pass comments on her breasts, pat her behind as she walks past. This kind of attention is called 'sexual harassment'. Many women experience it as a mild kind of rape, a threat to their autonomy that makes them feel vulnerable just walking down the street.

 

4. SHE LIKES WHAT HE LIKES

He likes quick, rough, impulsive, thrusting: straight to the nitty-gritty, with preliminaries kept to a minimum. And penetration is the ultimate aim. This is how she likes it too; ever impatient for the mind-blowing experience of her biggest orgasm ever which is released the moment he enters her. But fewer than one in three women orgasm from penetration alone and this portrayal of 'normal' sex prevents many couples from exploring the kind of sex that gives women pleasure.

 

5. SEX WITHOUT CONTEXT

Everything occurs in an endless utopian present. They have no money worries, no deadlines to meet, no anxiety, no jealousy, no children to interrupt them. No-one gets hurt and there are no moral principles to debate. It's all just a question of fun. But sex does have consequences: he may have a venereal disease like herpes; she may have forgotten to take her pill or be exhausted from a long day at work.

 

6. FOOD FOR HIS FANTASY

Her personality is left as bland as possible, but her surroundings and clothing are carefully chosen to suggest a variety of themes around which he can construct the fantasy that suits him best. She's an actress waiting for him to write her script. But who are these women? In real life, the women who open their legs for the camera often have to open their legs for the photographer too. Badly paid and exploited, these women inhabit a world that is far from glamorous. More often it's dangerous and degrading.

 

7. SHE'S IN HIS POWER

There are four main images of porn. And all make him feel powerful and in control. In the first she stares out of the page at him, inviting him to make love to her. In the second she's oblivious to his presence, making love to another woman, or touching herself for her own pleasure. He sees her but she can't see him. In the third she's voracious and dominant but what she really wants is for him to subdue her. In the fourth she's degraded and in pain from his dildos, whips and chains. These images encourage men to escape from the responsibilities of real sexual intimacy.

 

8. HE'S A SUPERSTUD

A one-dimensional man, he has sex on the brain. He can never get enough, has endless, enormous erections and multiple, explosive ejaculations. He's a magical mystery lover, who can make her come with a touch of his fingertips or a few thrusts of his magnificent magic wand. A sure-fire way of making men feel inadequate, it also makes him obsessed with the technical and anatomical aspects of sex, rather than on his relationship with his lover.

 

We had planned to print some samples of written pornography in this space, to show how it, too, conforms to the eight principles outlines on this page. But we found the material so offensive we did not want to be associated with it. Similarly we have printed one of the few pornographic photographs we could find that does not show a woman's vagina - out of respect for the woman in the photo. However, if you are not already familiar with it, we believe that it is important to be aware of the kind of material that 18 million men in the US alone - and many women too - are reading every month. So, though it will probably arouse you as well as disgust you, go down to your local newsagent or drugstore and flick through a copy of Penthouse, Fiesta, Men Only, or one of the many other mass-market men's magazines on sale there. Needless to say, if we found even this mass-market stuff too offensive to print, the horrors of specialist hard-core publications and films - and the nightmare lives of the people (including children) involved in producing them - can only be guessed at.

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