Fucking Ourselves

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains explicit description of acts of sexual violence.

andrea d
Andrea Dworkin at a anti-porn protest in the mid 1980s

 

Before I am accused of saying otherwise:

The sex positivity movement has done a lot of great things. Led by women, fought for by women, and realized (to the extent that it has been realized) by women, it has pushed back against the narrative of women being the frigid sex, unworthy and unwanting of pleasure. It has returned sexual agency—to masturbate, to vocalize, to consent or not consent, to discern—to an oppressed class. And for that, it should be commended.

However, in the 1980s, Andrea Dworkin and women like her were at the forefront of calling bullshit. The branch of the feminist movement she was a part of pointed out that sex in pornography, its major form of media, had ceased to be sexual in the classic sense. Focus on pleasure ceased; instead, pornography became a locus of power, an emblem and reification of male domination and a not-so-tacit endorsement of sexual violence. In the latter days of her scholarship, sex, especially with men, seemed more and more inherently violent to Dworkin. It was an enaction of female oppression; it was the enemy.

To many this seemed crazy, and that is how she is remembered. Sex-positive third wavers have long since won the title of feminists of the future, and they have an agenda. Dworkin is not in it. Instead, at Brown we have events to learn how to make women orgasm, events about fisting, events about kink. We learn that BDSM has nothing to do with oppression, and can be done consensually, then we hand out handcuffs. As participants, we nod fastidiously at these workshops. After all, these things are inarguable in the sex positivity-dominant climate of modern-day feminism. Personal pleasure is our mantra; “in cumming we trust.”

That focus on the individual, however—where we talk about all the great feminist porn out there that you can feel good watching, and rave about our internships teaching students about sex toys—has become a policing mechanism. The claim that, in lived reality, porn is a bad thing, BDSM is a bad thing, caring chiefly about our own sexual pleasure is terrible advocacy: these have become anathema to even discuss. As a result the Dworkins of the world have become pariahs: antiquated, un-hip, anti-pleasure (though they never were). In their stead, we have pamphlets about dildos, leaving the feminists of our generation completely uneducated about (and uninterested in) the sexual violence the majority of the men (~70%  according to Rebecca Goldin) regularly jack off to.

The porn industry has grown in our absence. Between 1992 and 1997, the profits from pornographic videos literally doubled. That boom has continued. In 2007, GOOD Magazine reported that 12% of all websites were pornographic, as were 25% of all search engine requests and 35% of all Internet downloads. An average of 266 new porn sites appeared on the Internet every day (for a grand total of 372 million), 89% of which were produced in the US. Together, they grossed $10-14 billion a year in the United States alone (depending on one’s definition of the industry’s scope). For reference, that’s greater than professional football, basketball, and baseball combined.

It has also gotten substantially more horrifying. Take Brazzers.com. It’s a kind of umbrella straight porn bonanza, encompassing many different sites, each with its own niche. Their most popular sub-site, however, isn’t about people with big tits being in a particular location (“Big Tits at McDonald’s!” “Big Tits at REI!”). It’s more thematic. It’s called Pornstar Punishment.

The various crimes committed by the women ‘punished’ on the website include not letting men into an office building; not renewing a man’s license; being a “cheating whore”; being too promiscuous; stealing; being a “tattletale”; oppressing men (see “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Anal!”), or just being a “psycho hoe bitch.” Cross a man, and you might be subject to “Anal Armageddon!,” “Slavery,” and/or repeated gang-banging. That includes, but is not limited to: taking a man’s promotion, not calling a man back when you told him you would, taking custody of the kids, or just being “too dirty.” (In that last instance, you will be fucked by a detachable showerhead.) But hey, at least he didn’t “Secre-tear” your “pussy” because you weren’t good enough at maintaining your boss’ calendar of appointments. Though the women in these videos may protest, or beg for mercy, they also kinda like it. It’s pain, but it’s pleasure. They always end up moaning seductively. They really like sex/rape. It’s good for them.

When I mentioned this to an editor of this publication—one of the smartest and most capable women I know, and as “with-it” a feminist of our generation as you’ll meet—she had never even heard of Brazzers. She didn’t know it existed.

Brazzers is just the tip of the iceberg. Rape fantasy (or “punishment”) porn is everywhere, and it isn’t only on themed websites. The majority of today’s porn resembles these kinds of scenarios. Granted, it’s often subtler than straight up rape, but it’s still all over the place. Sex in porn is almost always transactional; when it isn’t taken or coerced, the woman involved has ceased to resemble the timid but lascivious women of yesteryear. These women disappeared around Dworkin’s time. Instead, they are the spitting image of the good sex-positive: assertive, overjoyed, enthusiastic about dick.

This is not without consequences, though what those are is hotly contested. The link between watching pornography and actually committing sexual assault is really hard to prove. Nonetheless, the weight of evidence is beginning to lean towards consensus: that among convicted rapists, hard-core porn leads to a self-reported higher likelihood of rape, as well as a greater enthusiasm for the humiliation and torture of victims; that soft-core porn may have a protective effect against those ills; and that BDSM porn might be dangerous. In one study of a Midwestern sorority, watching BDSM-themed porn regularly and recreationally—the only kind of porn consumption with a serious effect on participants—was associated with a lowered willingness to help other women in cases of sexual assault, increased acceptance of rape myths, and a worse sense of what to do (or a willingness to do it) when witnessing another woman who is in a potentially deeply unsafe social situation.

Even if we dismiss all this as equivocal conjecture, however, there remains something to be said for the epistemic violence done by this kind of porn—about the way women are perceived, and their value structured. There is something to be said about how little we talk about this, about how often men’s fantasies (and their cash flows online) remain uninterrogated, by themselves or by their peers. Only censor-obsessed parents of middle-school-aged children talk about boycotting porn anymore. No one reputable (i.e., outside of 4chan) is writing about what they find on the dredge edges of the internet. It’s considered passé and gross. It’s just also what a huge proportion of your male friends jack off to. It’s also what forces women to choke over and over again on comically proportioned penises so that men all over the world can fantasize that that penis was theirs. It’s just the vanguard of American media, a near-monopoly on the world market which writes the script globally about what women want, setting the tone for race relations in places with far less diversity than the U.S., exporting blacks-as-tops-with-monster-penises and Asians-as-bottoms-with-tiny-ones, sending money back into white men’s pockets a continent away. It’s just that video hiding in your Romeo’s Chrome incognito, that one where they hold her down and strangle her kinda subtlety with her own underwear—that one he watched right before he went to hang out with you at that bar, right before he came over, all smiles, all bright-eyed, carrying a flyer for that female orgasm lecture you told him about, and told you he loved you. When he said it like he meant it. We wouldn’t want to ruin the moment.

We need to start educating ourselves. If we are at all concerned with sexual violence against women, and we have not been traumatized by it so much that investigating it’s lived realities would be triggering, why aren’t we talking about this? To our boyfriends? To our classmates? It is time to change that. In our negligence, men have abdicated themselves of their fiscal responsibilities and funded a global effort to normalize sexual violence. We have let them. If we are serious about advancing feminism, our vision of sexual advocacy needs to be pushed beyond the narrow foresight of sex positivity. We need to start acting like we give a damn. 

 By: Gabe Schwartz, Contributor

Image Credit: New York Magazine

3 Comments
  1. If violent porn is all you see, then you haven’t been looking around the Internet very hard. I don’t seek out violence, I look for the sensual, the passionate, the tender embrace of two or more lovers in a special moment. And ya know what, I find a lot of it.

    Broad brushes are dangerous when talking about sensitive issues. Just as I don’t use vulgar language in my bedroom, so I keep vulgar language out of my books. I don’t get violent in my bedroom, so I don’t go looking for violent porn. However, since the prevailing attitude is that MEN are simply like that, the broad brushes come out, and paint ALL MEN as beasts. I personally am sick to death of the cultural idea that men are violent by nature, rapists by design, and will never change. Thus porn is created to satisfy that side of man.

    I call bullshit. Look around, there is far more tender, passionate porn than there is violent, “rape” porn. The sex positive movement has come a very long way to making that the case. Don’t stop now. The more times men are shown in a tender light, the more men will seek out that form of entertainment, and the more the industry will change.

    Now, if we could just do something about plots and dialog. 😉

  2. Though I love your activism and other work, Gabe, I worry a bit by your overarching sentiments within this piece on how pornography or mediations of sex more broadly falls victim, here, to a queer focus on the pornographic representation of women for the pleasure of men and heterosexual acts. Many anti-pornography views, an extension of the more fundamental anti-sex work bias, often fail to discuss representations of sexuality that may be queer- and trans-inclusive or feminist. How do examples of porn that centers on queer or male-centric sexual desires and pleasures complicate the thesis of your article? Does “hardcore” porn induce or influence the likelihood of queer men’s sexual assault? How do “amateur” or “not-for-profit” instances of porn further challenge your assertions? Is all porn bad? If not, then how can we establish a rubric for the discernment between violent and non-violent or ethical forms of porn in general? I’m not really “pro-porn”, as much as I am pro-decrim and pro-destigmatizing sex workers in all forms, and this article unfortunately retraces many of the problematic footsteps of 2nd-wave feminists blanket statements on the nature, ethics, and practice of sex work in/as porn. -Ragnar

    1. Hey Ragnar –
      ALL OF THOSE ARE THE RIGHT QUESTIONS!!
      To many of which, I don’t have the answers. That being said,
      Most of the reason I focus on straight porn here is two fold:
      1. There is almost no data on how porn interacts with violence against queer people. It is much harder to talk about, as a result. That is also a problem. However:
      2. I have written two papers on queer porn and its implications for racism and violence! Definitely important shit. Unfortunately, dominant queer porn (mostly cisgender MSM if on queer-specific sites) as it exists today reifies gender-determined power hierarchies, deifies straight or straight-acting cisgender men, and enforces racial stereotypes even more vehemently than straight porn. In short, I think ‘the patriarchy’ has been more successful in ‘gay’ porn in achieving its ends than it has been in straight porn. I therefore don’t think it complicates the main points above much in their general theme so much as reinforces them.

      Further, the development of that kind of rubric (Ragnar) is part of what I’m calling for here; I’m not “anti-porn” per se (though that is a whole other discussion that I’m also ambiguous about), either. Rather, I’m against the tendency of porn to be a black box where sex positivity fears to tread, nervous of having the hard conversations that need to be had about porn today and unwilling to discuss the notion of the subjugation of personal pleasure to pursue ends of social justice.

      To both Ragnar and Lark, I guess I’d say I’m being extremely literal when I write about “the majority” of men and “dominant” porn. I do not decry all porn, just its modern, dominant form; I do not decry all men, but rather the wildly disproportionate consumption of or engagement with these kinds of violence men exhibit, and our heretofore tacit approval of it by our silence. If you (Lark) would make a database of the tender porn you are watching, I would (not sarcastic!) love to see it so it can be shared! That is exactly the kind of work that needs to be done, at least heuristically.

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