Sexual Violence and the Porn Industry
Issue   |   Tue, 10/18/2016 - 21:57

Trigger warning: This content deals with accounts of misogyny, harrassment and sexual violence, and may be triggering to some readers.

For all the energy devoted to fighting sexual assault on this campus, from the bystander training during Orientation to the numerous SHE workshops discussing safe sex to the posters explaining Title IX that adorn the walls of our dorms, I am troubled that porn — sexual violence filmed and repackaged for male pleasure — is so seldom discussed. Just this Monday the Peer Advocates asked the Amherst community to sign the “It’s On Us” pledge, a recognition of our personal responsibility to end sexual violence. They didn’t ask that signatories do anything but fill out a postcard before getting their free t-shirt. However, we can’t change cultural norms without changing our behavior, which is why I’m asking all Amherst students who claim to be committed to ending sexual violence to stop watching porn.

Porn may be consumed in secret, with the door locked and the lights off, but its influence taints our daily lives. No cultural phenomenon shapes our sexual expectations as dominantly as porn. A study conducted by author Michael Leahy of 29,000 North American university students found that the majority of men first viewed pornography at the age of 12 or younger, right as they were beginning to discover their sexualities. Nearly two-thirds of male college students admitted to using porn at least weekly, meaning that they will be continually re-exposed to porn’s depiction of sex. Every time porn is used to achieve orgasm, the association between what is shown in the video and what is sexually pleasurable is reinforced.

PornHub’s categories provide a disturbing glimpse into how porn users are conditioned. Women are scrutinized for their features, divided into categories based on their hair color, their body type, the size of their breasts. Nonwhite races are fetishized, placed into convenient categories such as “Arab,” Ebony” and “Latina.” If Latina porn is not politically relevant enough, fear not. Pornhub.com has a category called “Crossing the Border,” where women attempting to immigrate from Mexico are raped by American men — because what isn’t sexy about a human rights crisis?

But maybe some porn users are above such blatant displays of racism. What they really care about is violence. It’s really important to them that the woman you are masturbating to is brutalized in a very specific way. Well, they’re in luck, because Pornhub.com features categories such as “double penetration,” “gangbang,” “bukkake” and “pissing.” That’s not to disregard the nearly eight thousand videos labeled “bondage,” where women are restrained, tied up, gagged and beat while they are penetrated.

I don’t mean to stereotype porn users. Some of them prefer purer sex. In fact, they like their sex to be so pure, they exclusively seek out actresses who are powerless and innocent. That’s why there are categories like “teen” and “school” and “old/young.” But what if the girls in these videos still too mature? Unfortunately, those seeking the purest of sex objects will probably have to leave PornHub, but a couple minutes on Google will open their eyes to the multibillion dollar child porn industry.

No matter what video is picked, chances are it will show a male body dominate a female body. Chances are it will depict verbal or physical violence. Chances are the scene will be filmed entirely from the male gaze.

Men who watch porn will learn to expect complete control of a woman’s body and demand that she comply with their every fantasy. They will link violence against women with sexual pleasure. Depending on their kink, they may link violence against children, minorities or trans people with sexual pleasure. To everyone who took the “It’s On Us” pledge, would you agree these sound like features of a rape culture?

The trend of women removing their pubic hair did not occur out of nowhere — men demanded hairless, childlike vulvas after seeing them in porn. If porn culture is pervasive enough to convince an entire generation of women to hate their pubic hair, is it possible that these women should try to emulate porn actresses in other ways? Women who watch porn will learn that they are a collection of body parts available for male taking. They will learn that it’s okay for sex to be uncomfortable and violent for them. They will learn that their primary worth is to please a man.

I find it very disturbing that in our culture, violence is regularly dismissed as long as it is associated with sexual pleasure. Would you be concerned that a friend of yours was regularly choked, beat and spat on by her boyfriend? Would you suddenly dismiss his actions if she claimed to get immense sexual pleasure from it? After all, she did consent, and she said she enjoyed it! If the same friend was self-harming — starving herself, slashing her wrists, burning her skin — would it be okay because she wanted to do it? Would it be okay if her boyfriend was the one burning her skin (only at her request, of course)? Or would it be an indicator of mental illness and a toxic, abusive relationship?

But what if you know real sex isn’t like what you see in porn, and you would never hurt anyone in real life. Social conditioning does not apply to you. Congratulations! Unfortunately, the violence you witness in porn is completely real. You are watching real violence inflicted against real women. The women you see tied up, gagged, anally penetrated and drenched in semen are as alive as the women you see on your walk to class every day. By supporting the porn industry, you are supporting rape.

The guiding rule of porn is that if trauma can be sexualized and sold, it will be. It’s not uncommon for porn actresses who have been repeatedly anally penetrated to experience rectal prolapse, where the walls of the rectum collapse and slip out the anus. As a result, even rectal prolapse has been sexualized. There is a genre of porn called “rosebud,” named for the flowerlike appearance of the red tissue sticking out a woman’s butt. Porn users become desensitized to one form of degradation and crave increasingly brutal content. Defenders of porn say it’s a natural way for people to explore their sexuality — would they agree it’s a natural part of human sexuality to masturbate to exposed GI tract?

The porn industry has not been rigorously studied; however, prostitution, broadly defined as selling sex, has. Pornography is prostitution that has been filmed, and numerous studies of prostitutes reveal the ugly reality of life for women working in the sex industry. Researcher Melissa Farley, founder of the organization Prostitution Research and Education, reports that 89 percent of prostitutes wish to leave the industry but are unable. If these women are selling their bodies out of economic or social necessity, they are not having consensual sex. 68 percent of sex workers meet the criteria for PTSD, meaning they are on average twice as likely to develop PTSD than a Vietnam veteran. What does that say about the level of violence that exists in the sex industry? What does that say about our societal disregard for sex workers?

It’s true that existing in a capitalist society means supporting exploitative industries — the phone I use almost constantly was made in a sweatshop. The difference is that I derive no pleasure from the suffering of the workers who made it. If I could buy a phone at similar quality and price made with ethical labor, I would. With porn, there is no separating the suffering from the product. The purpose of porn, as it exists today, is to show women being degraded by men. Prolific pornographer Bill Margold put it neatly when he said, “I’d like to really show what I believe the men want to see: violence against women.”

The violence that occurs at Amherst is not isolated from the violence depicted in porn. With the way that internet porn glorifies male sexual aggression, it is no wonder that the epidemic of college sexual assaults coincided with its rise. If you are disgusted that women who go to parties can expect to be groped and grabbed, that women are routinely pressured into uncomfortable sex acts, that a handful of your classmates are sexual predators who will never suffer any punishment, then you must give up porn. Is supporting a massive industry fueled by rape and abuse necessary so that you can more easily orgasm? Remember that no matter what pornographic video you pick, the chances it was made with true consent are extremely slim. It is hypocritical for students to say that they are committed to ending sexual violence on campus only to return to their dorm rooms to watch porn.

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