Rethinking Porn. Really

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and I’m reconsidering my ideas about porn.

I’ve generally been one of those people who rolls her eyes when the anti-porn folks start talking about how porn is really (really) bad for you. Ok, I don’t roll my eyes, but I do tune out. I don’t want to be lectured to about sex, let alone watching sex.

Last month though at a conference in Texas on sexual violence, I got to attend Robert Jensen’s workshop on porn. Jensen’s the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. He’s also a feminist, a great speaker on how the hetero porn industry works and a featured expert on the documentary The Price of Pleasure, which criticizes the porn industry and includes writers and scholars like Gail Dines and Ariel Levy.

In his workshop, Jensen started off by talking about gonzo porn—those films that skip the pretense of a plot and focus on sexual acts, usually with extreme close ups. Gonzo porn, according to Jensen, is where more extreme sexual acts are first shown including double anal penetration, double vag penetration, and ATM (taking a penis out of a woman’s anus and then putting it in her mouth or another woman’s). Many of these scenes start off in gonzo films but then make their way to feature films (the ones with cheesy plots) that are more likely to be watched by straight couples.

Porn directors and producers are a little worried these days. They’ve told Jensen that they don’t know where to “take it next.” As one producer said, “How many dicks can you stick in a girl at one time?”

Gonzo porn does well in the “racism sells” market. That is, porn films featuring black men having sex with white women are extremely popular—among white male viewers.

This last factoid surprised a lot of the people at the workshop (most of whom were female advocates against sexual violence) and it had also surprised Jensen. His conclusion? Let’s take the premise that porn is the eroticizing of domination. What more effective way to dominate a white woman than to make her have sex with men who are the bottom of the racial hierarchy and are usually portrayed in the media as sexual predators?

The advocates in Jensen’s workshop were full of questions: What can we do about this? How do we talk with young men about sex? Women are usually sexually assaulted by men they personally know; how is porn affecting how men see violence and sex?

Jensen had solid ideas including a real need for building a coherent feminist movement and also for creating spaces where men can talk with each other about porn and their own sexualities.

I was left thinking though about the consequences of extreme sexual acts that start in one area of the porn industry and migrate (so to speak) to other types of porn films. In effect, gonzo porn normalizes certain sexual acts and begins to alter ideas of what women’s bodies and men’s bodies can and should do. With more young people accessing porn on the Internet, how are their (and our) ideas about sexuality and our bodies being shaped by gonzo flicks….even when we’re not watching in that genre?

I also started wondering about an argument put forward by Jensen and others: people have a hard time criticizing porn because it means challenging patriarchy.

On this idea, I’ve reached a conclusion: no.

The reason people don’t criticize porn is that they don’t want to give up what turns them on.

Yes, you can make great arguments about the way that patriarchy and racism shape desires but that only gets us so far. At the end of the day, criticizing the porn industry (without being a hypocrite) requires a person to re-consider what turns them on. And that process brings up uncomfortable feelings—not just about sex and power but also about race and intimacy. I don’t think many of us are willing to go there. And it’s this unwillingness perhaps even more than the desire to get off that keeps the industry in business.

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