Writing by Robbie Grieve. Artwork by Lana Kenneth.
Pornography - we’ve all watched it (well, most of us have). In the span of a generation or so it has become entrenched into the mass culture and general consciousness of the tele-connected world. Its success is hardly surprising; it appeals to people’s carnal desires in a way that nothing else digital can. It can seem that we are living in the world of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a world obsessed with sex, violence and consumption1.
This discussion will focus on mainstream, commercialised, heterosexual pornography with a male target demographic. (Of course, other types of pornography do exist, but the majority of it falls under this category.) One major issue with this type of pornography - abuse of workers notwithstanding - is its unprecedented ability to warp social realities for most people, especially women. This is due to what Rae Langton2 refers to as “maker’s knowledge”, wherein the creator of a work has a privileged epistemological position, and in this position they create and control the conditions of the reality of the work. Applying this to pornography, the pornographer determines all aspects of the project. They decide amongst other things, who’s in the work (and in doing so, manipulates the objects of male desire – “object” because the women are entirely objectified), the duration of the work, and the all important sexual acts therein. The power the pornographer wields is more than we give them credit for; their work warps the unconscious beliefs of men, and women.
A recent government study3 showed the effects of violence in pornography in domestic situations. The dream fantasy of the male becomes an aggressive social reality for women. The violence of the digital becomes the desire for violence in the bedroom, which perpetuates the sexist views of male dominated spaces. The majority of pornography users are men, and the majority of pornography is violent4. As my good friend pointed out5, violent pornography depicts sex as something being done to women. It is the active masculine asserting itself (in many cases literally) over the passive feminine. It is not a couple having mutual, consensual pleasure with each other, it is a violent conquest where the man will take what he wants, how he wants, when he wants. The pornographied Woman loses her Kantian dignity because she becomes the means to an end, namely, a man’s orgasm. With enough consumption the message is reinforced and ingrained into the unconscious belief system of the viewer. This, in turn, has a knock-on effect on (some) women; if men react overwhelmingly in favour of violent sex, then (some) women will have their view of sex distorted to see it in the same vein and will have their desires altered too.
But, as Cronenberg understood all too well, even before mainstream video pornography was available for consumption en masse, pornography is something of a pandora’s box. This is because pornography changes and modernises with every advancement in technology. So long as technology advances, there will be new ways to gratify ourselves and, as such, the grip pornography has on society and on male desire grows. Consider the last fifty years of pornography. In the early seventies, videoed pornography was just starting (with most ‘users’ resorting to magazines of half-naked women in swim wear) and the camera quality was low. Jump forward another thirty years and films are becoming higher ‘quality’ (in the sense of the resolution of the camera), due to technological advancements, and more of women’s bodies are exposed, seen and desired. In the noughties, the digital world became a part of our daily existence, due to advancements in wireless and portable technologies, and pornography became ingrained in this digital world, meaning that it can be accessed almost anywhere by almost anyone. Recently, there have been developments of objects like flesh lights, which parallel pornography in objectifying women (arguably more so as it dehumanises women and makes them pure objects of male use), seeing them merely as objects necessary for male sexual satisfaction.
With the growth of pornography, a cycle has been created in which people watch porn, they see women as objects in their violent psychosexual desires, they treat women as such, they have violent sex, they see women as objects, ad nauseum. The cycle also regresses: the gratification of tamer pornography lessens, but the desire still needs to be fulfilled; so more violent pornography is sought after, and so on and so forth.
There is no easy solution to the issues raised here.
One could simply not watch pornography. But some pornography is more harmful than others, and to reject all of it is dismissive. For example, non-violent porn may still alter the subconscious and perpetuate sexist social conditions, but to a far lesser extent. Another option may be using sites like onlyfans which enable sex workers to have more autonomy over what they produce. However, these are individual choices and do not provide systemic solutions. Thus, advocating for pornographic reform is the most apt response. In this however, one must be wary of slipping into Thatcherite moral panic. To conclude, pornography is ubiquitous and the social issues it perpetuates need addressing, and in addressing the issues we must be aware of why those issues are there in the first place.
1: Videodrome, Directed by David Cronenberg, Universal Pictures, 1983.
2: Langton, R. (2009) Sexual solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification. Oxford University Press.
3: How Much of Porn Depicts Violence Against Women? | Psychology Today
4: The relationship between pornography use and harmful sexual behaviours - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
5: Credit to Beth Liddicott for her advice and insight on the topic, as well as providing the Rae Langton source