‘The Sexualized Body and the Medical Authority of Pornography’, Edited by Heather Brunskell-Evans (Cambridge Scholars), is an incredibly incisive analysis of how the porn industry shapes our culture, our bodies and our brains.
Liberals like myself have been wont to defend the porn industry and its participants, seeing their art as a constitutionally protected form of expression, one that needs defending precisely because it cuts against the grain of mainstream (and historically conservative) ideas about moral decency or ‘public health’. I have defended the porn business not only on legal grounds, but also on principle. I have always taken the standard liberal line that pornography represents liberation from traditional cultural taboos or religious mores around sex, believing that porn allows human sexuality to be appreciated in its raw and uncensored state.
If propagandists of porn claimed that it couldn’t be about the degradation of women because porn is not ‘one thing’ I nodded my little head in agreement. My basic attitude was that anyone who went against porn was probably some kind of sex-negative Victorian-era prude. To my mind porn was liberating because it subverted conventionally sanitized depictions of sexuality as inherently ‘romantic’, heterosexual or marital. Since sexual fantasies have no intrinsic ethical (or unethical) value, any effort to clamp down on them was, in my view, tantamount to ‘thought policing’.
All of these beliefs came tumbling down as I plowed through Heather Brunskell-Evans’s richly rewarding book on the subject. The only difficulties I had in expressing my excitement about her book to other feminists was trying to remember the eye-wateringly complicated title, and deciding which part of this deep and detailed analysis to talk about. The latter task proved difficult because the book (an edited work with ten contributing authors) covers virtually everything about porn: the industry’s economic business model, its lobbying groups and public relations campaigns and their influence on deregulation of the industry, the impact on porn industry employees rights, the normalisation of cosmetic practices that construct women’s bodies according to a culturally demanded “pornified” stereotype while pathologising women’s natural bodies, the internalised ‘self-violation’ of women, the dominant themes and formulaic images of the genre that construct women as things to be acted upon by male agents of power, the impact of porn on young men’s expectations of sex, the excessive importance given to female ejaculation and how it imposes a “visibility” value on female sexuality, fetishising it as something primarily observable that can be studied via exterior signs.
Reading this book was an epiphany. With each new chapter the scales fell from my eyes. I must confess that I – a card-carrying lifelong liberal – have been converted into a porn-critical feminist.
The ‘good book’, as I shall henceforth call it – is divided into three parts. Part One examines the sheer power and economic scope of the porn industry and the ways in which current feminist media scholarship has been complicit with it. Gail Dines points to a paradigm shift in media studies that has completely absolved the pornography industry of any role in shaping culture. Discontent with the simplicity of the ‘hypodermic’ model of media effects, a cluster of academics in the mid-90’s ditched media effects altogether and instead of pointing out particular flaws in the theory, threw out the baby with the bathwater. This effectively put an end to theoretical analysis of how media representations (e.g. of human sexuality, masculinity, femininity, race or age) work within a global economic system that often serves to define the nature of the content produced. Consequently media studies academics now start from the premise that media texts are ‘polysemic’ (open to multiple meanings). As such, there is literally no ‘thing’ to study. If porn means everything then it means nothing. But as Dines points out, this is like saying there is no such thing as a car industry because there are lots of different types of cars on the road. Media scholars merely supplanted cultural determinism with biological determinism, by conceptually transforming cultural products into ‘unmediated reflections’ of intrinsic human sexual desires. This was equivalent to saying that art never shapes life but life only shapes art, as though art were just an objective reflection of our ‘true’ inner nature. Partly as a result of this uncritical approach to how art shapes us, the common belief nowadays is that the porn industry is totally democratic and therefore it is an objective reflection of what human beings are into, sexually at least.
This is to completely ignore the fact that industries create markets for their products. If you feed kids on a steady diet of sugar, advertise sweets all over the place to encourage them to buy more, distribute free samples, open candy stores on every corner, and employ lobbyists who swat down critics’ concerns with claims about children’s ‘rights’ to eat what they like, but then claim that kids ‘naturally’ prefer sweets to healthy nutritious food, you’re insulting my intelligence. And just as the huge variety of sweets all contain very generous helpings of sugar and artificial ingredients and very little nutritional value, likewise the many varieties of porn in the world seem to stick faithfully to remarkably common formulas and conventions. Dines cites one study (Bridges et. al. 2010) which found that the majority of scenes from 50 of the top-rented porn movies contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted at the female performers. Physical aggression occurred in over 88% of scenes, and verbal aggression in 48% of scenes. There’s nothing inherently ‘feminine’ about receiving the kinds of degradation that female actors take in porn films. It is not part of female nature to be a receptacle for abuse in a way that it is not part of the very essence of, say, ethnic minorities or children. These scenarios are learned – largely through repetition.
The sheer scale of the pornography business has important cultural implications. The entertainment industries constitute our hegemonic culture and our norms of acceptable behaviour. It is universally acknowledged by IT experts that the adult entertainment industry has been at the vanguard in terms of building high-performance Web sites with state-of-the-art features and functionality. In turn, evolving technologies and new business models have shaped the content and format of pornography. Porn has grown into a major industry with sophisticated marketing, technologies and public relations companies. Like other major industries that generate harmful social impacts, the porn industry wages legal and lobbying strategies against existing and proposed regulations while simultaneously creating a discourse that links its industry to wider social ambitions like sexual emancipation and free speech.
Gail Dines explains how the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the industry’s chief lobby group, brought a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 to overturn the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act, which prohibited any image that “is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct”. The FSC latched onto the phrase “or appears to be”, arguing that it limited their freedom of speech. Their legal victory cleared the way for the porn industry to use computer-generated images of children or real performers who are over 18 but are “childified” to look much younger. The use of such images has mushroomed, making “teen porn”, which yields over 16 million hits if typed into Google, the largest porn genre of all. A Google Trends analysis indicated that searches for “teen porn” have more than tripled between 2005 and 2013. By March 2013, “teen porn” represented approximately one-third of total daily searches for pornographic websites. The three most popular “porntubes” contain about 18 million teen-related pages.
Media scholars have abandoned critical engagement with these wider political and economic conditions that shape the pornographic media, acting more like fans than researchers and failing to interrogate the porn industry’s role in legitimising and sustaining the economic and social subordination of women.
Part Two of the ‘good book’ is concerned with the pornographic construction of femininity (and masculinity). James Kay begins this section with his interpretation of how pornography might be viewed through the lens of Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary and sovereign powers, respectively. The key to understanding how modes of power fuse together in the porn industry, he argues, is through the recognition that porn is intended as mass entertainment. As such it dispenses with any openly explicit display of power, turning instead to a more subtle and calculated control of the bodies under its eye. However, as with sovereign power, pornography deploys the techniques of discipline (and punishment) in a theatre of excess, in a display of symbolic and real dominance, violence and triumphant power. Disciplinary technique is employed in pursuit of a docile body trained, sculpted and sliced into a perfect vessel for the symbolic renewal of a wide array of power structures, including patriarchy, misogyny and heteronormativity. The audience is invited to identify themselves with, feel themselves affirmed by, and take pleasure in, the roles, narratives and ideals being played out. Despite its myriad forms and constantly replenished supply of new performers, pornographic works fail to surprise us, says Kay. This is because porn applies the same ordering rationality to all of the objects on which it works. The choreography of bodily posture demanded, the servile ‘personality’ to be effected, is always the same. Discipline takes the codes already present in, for example, patriarchal and sexual violence, such as the relations of dominance and submission and the shaping of sexuality around male pleasure and narcissism, and accentuates and standardises them.
Part Three lays bare the inextricable relationship between pornography and sexology. From its beginnings in the 60’s and 70’s when key sexologists were founding modern sex therapy, pornography was intimately bound up with their practice. First, therapists watched porn as part of their training. Second, they made porn into an unproblematic diagnostic tool for sexual ‘health’ and responsiveness in individuals. Third, they deployed porn as a standard ‘cure’ for sexual dysfunction, despite almost no empirical evidence to support its use for this purpose. The result is the absurd situation whereby sex therapy directs female patients to get aroused by images of other women being dominated, degraded and even assaulted. Pornography defines healthy female sexuality as heterosexual and always sex-ready.
Pornography is not just sex stripped of all cultural accretions or judgements. It is sex constructed around the eroticisation of women’s submission and men’s pleasure in this submission. The eroticisation of gender inequality through a mass industry matters both politically and socially. The chapter dismantles the common assumption that medical knowledge stands outside of culture, and is therefore not a product of the cultural context within which medical disciplines have been shaped.
Paula Sequeira-Rivera dissects the absurd situation whereby ordinary women are encouraged to turn to porn stars as authorities on “sexual performance” and not in the acting sense of the word. No, we are supposed to take top sex tips from people who regularly fake orgasms and ask us to realise that the main obstacle we have in achieving sexual fulfilment is within ourselves. A key example is the transformation of porn actress Jenna Jameson into not only a best-selling author but a figure of authority on sex. Self-help books like hers promote pornography as the expression of a free, autonomous, and self-possessed individual, but the little nuggets of advice snowball into quasi-religious commandments until they become demands to behave like a porn star with your male partner or face the dire consequences of “not being able to keep a man” in your life. Self-help books become a part of the bio-political world where normalising discourses make the expectation of having mind-blowing sex into a measurement of human success. The normalising discourses are linked to a heteronormative, reproductive model of human sexuality with notions of instinct and nature constant underlying themes. The orgasmic imperative and the penile-vaginal penetrative imperative are promoted intrinsic to healthy sexuality. Self-help pornography books, argues Sequeira-Rivera, do not liberate sexuality so much as they constrain it within a variety of disciplinary practices (pace Foucault) and bio-political fictions about nature and sexuality.
If you can remember its title long enough to place an Amazon order, then The Sexualized Body and the Medical Authority of Pornography will blow your mind.
Heather Brunskell-Evans will be speaking at FiLiA 2017 in London on 14th – 15th October.