Pornography, the Internet and class

8 Nov

On the Drum today, I’ve got a piece on anti porn activists and the internet filter. Thanks, Jonathan Green for publishing another point of view.

It seems reasonable when faced with strident action against a social more to require those opposing it to put forward their preferred alternative. In the case of anti pornography activists, it’s apparently impossible to persuade them to offer a framework of how they think sexuality ought to be expressed. Like Opposition Leader Tony Abbott they just say no, without proffering any other policies.

Viewed in the best light, anti porn activism is a cri de couer for the protection of women who some activists believe are exploited and degraded by the very existence of pornography; for the protection of children who may access internet content they are emotionally ill-equipped to process, and for the prevention of possible individual psycho-sexual harm that might interpolate itself into the fabric of society.

At its worst anti-porn activism is an attempt to control and shape the culture to fit particular religious, ideological and/or moral agendas. The moral entrepreneurs who are at the vanguard of the anti porn movement are overwhelmingly middle class, and it is from a middle class platform that they launch campaigns that express the horror, disgust and outrage evoked in them by pornography, as well as what they believe to be its ruinous effects on sexual relations.

All pornography is positioned by activists as deviant, regardless of the content. It’s extremely difficult to ascertain just what their range of “normal” sexuality includes. One activist, Professor Clive Hamilton, refuses to use the word “vagina” when attempting to describe close ups of “well, I don’t know what” in early editions of Playboy, for example. Many would find this male squeamishness towards female genitalia offensive. Are we to regress to such euphemisms as “down there?”

Those who produce, create and consume pornography are perceived as deviants who must be rescued, punished when appropriate, and hopefully redeemed to participate in non-pornographic sex. Global eradication of anything other than “normal” is the goal, without ever stating just what that “normal” might be.

Accounts written by activists of what they have seen in their forays into the netherworld of porn are like dispatches from Dante’s second circle of Hell:

The new porn zeitgeist is hard-core sadism. Hard-core porn turns misogyny into sexual fascism and sells it as freedom. There are countless “18 and abused” sites showing young girls being gang-banged while crying, drunk, vomiting, with guns and knives to their heads. Incest porn with girls being bashed about sexually by fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers. There is bestiality porn with dogs, horses, with eels. Torture porn, where young women are tied up and strangled, defecated on. There is Nazi fetish porn, lots of racist porn.

Feminised gay men being beaten and anally raped by hyper-macho gangs. Granny porn where older women are subjected to the now compulsory triple penetration and spat on for being old. There is even “retarded asian porn”, “retarded and horny”, “full on retard porn . . . legless sluts being triple penetrated”, amputee porn, dwarf porn, anorexia porn.” 

In this account of internet porn by academic Dr Abigail Bray the porn world is entirely comprised of victims. Young girls, women, grandmothers, feminised men, and animals are subjected to horrific violence, and all of it done to them by men.

I haven’t viewed any of these sites. Taking Dr Bray’s descriptions at face value and imagining myself part of such a world feels unspeakably awful, but that’s my personal reaction, not a universal absolute. Pornography is an expression of the vast and sometimes very frightening range of human sexuality, whether I like it or not.

It isn’t made clear if the victims (other than children and animals) have been forced to participate in these acts, but it is an assumption with which the reader initially co-operates. The description asserts “countless sites” depicting such pornography, so there must be correspondingly “countless” numbers of adult human beings engaging in its production, either by choice or under severe duress.

Who are these human beings and how did they arrive in the Second Circle? As yet there’s no comprehensive answers to those questions. Women who work in hardcore porn are, unsurprisingly, resistant to inquiries by outsiders

Women who have consented to interviews disassociate themselves from the kind of porn Dr Bray describes. They also express considerable aggravation with anti porn activists, who they feel are insulting and patronizing. They accuse anti porn activists of making life more difficult for them by portraying them as psychologically sick, morally bad, victimized, and in need of rescue. In so doing, the women claim, activists are in fact supporting porn producers in their opinion of the women they hire as disturbed, and highly exploitable. They also feel unfairly lumped in with women who endure more extreme hardcore violations. In the pecking order of the porn world, some women are proud of the choices they make and resentful of those who see them as part of an homogenous victimized mass.

Activists put forward hypotheticals in an effort to explain why women participate in violent and degrading porn. For example, they claim they are frequently women who were sexually abused as children. They are women who have developed high levels of tolerance for abuse, and have “abnormal” attitudes that permit them to accept degradation and violence others would find abhorrent. They are women who can’t or believe they can’t obtain employment in any other field. They are poor women, uneducated women, ignorant women. They are women who have sustained such damage that the question of choice doesn’t even arise: they don’t know that they are suffering because they have lost or never had the ability to recognize abuse.

There is little research available to confirm or deny these assumptions. The hypotheticals originate from middle class sexual morality and values, and/or religious beliefs about women and sexuality. There is often little attention paid to the social and political contexts in which the alleged early life abuses take place, or the economic systems that cause female poverty. This lack of analysis could lead to accusations of attempting to treat the symptoms while ignoring the cause, always an exercise in futility.

Assumptions about women who perform in porn need to be investigated through empirical research before they can be evaluated, rather than accepting classist, moralistic and religious prejudices as a basis for public policy. As things stand, a deviant underclass is constructed by anti porn activists, against which the moral values of middle classes voices raised in protestations of “isn’t it awful” and “what about our children” can be reassuringly measured. This is not helpful.

Very little hardcore porn is currently produced in Australia. There is not much homegrown activists can do to rescue women in sovereign nations that do produce it, and many of those countries already have legislation against some if not all the violence that is acted out.

However, activists are concerned that hardcore porn is easily accessed on the internet and is inserting itself into everyday Australian life. It’s claimed that a degradation of sexual values inevitably occurs, particularly amongst young people, many of whom are allegedly taking their sexual education from sites such as those described by Dr Bray, and enacting loveless, violent and genital-focused sex that uses women as objects for male gratification, and not as equal participants in a mutually satisfying act.

Anti porn activist and academic Gail Dines claims that 11 year-old boys are viewing violent porn that “deforms their minds,” though she offers no research to substantiate this claim. If 11 year-old boys are accessing hardcore internet porn, the responsibility for that must rest with their parents, who also bear the responsibility for offering their children intelligent sex education. Presumably middle class parents are considered more likely to do this, so are Dines and her followers referring to lower status families who apparently can’t be trusted to do the right thing? Where do Dines’ porn-consuming 11 year-olds come from? She doesn’t reveal the demographic.

Many activists such as Clive Hamilton see the problems presented by the internet as a matter for the state. They want internet censorship. In other words, the state must assume the role of disseminator of middle class religious and ideological sexual values, by imposing a ban on anything that class considers deviant and polluting. The activists apparently do not trust parents, or at least parents of a lower socio economic class to monitor their children’s internet adventures, for example with software that will filter content on the home computer. They argue that this responsibility belongs with government, and they seem to be entirely oblivious to the dangers of giving any government control over what its citizens may and may not view in the privacy of their own homes.

An Australian internet filter will do nothing to assist women who are unwillingly enslaved by pornography producers. It quite likely will exclude innocent sites, or be easily bypassed. The proposed list of banned sites is itself banned from public scrutiny, and that restriction alone should give us serious cause for alarm. As the link also reveals, there are already strict if somewhat mysterious classification laws in place in Australia.

But activists need to justify their existence, to show effectiveness, and to win respect from their peers. In this situation, the only possible measure of their “success” will be an internet filter. Their message is: you can have a sexual life like ours if you follow our sexual rules, (though we have yet to be told what they are) and our government will help you do that by forbidding you access to anything else. This places the government’s authority above God’s: at least God apparently permits free will, and the right to go to hell any way one chooses.

As the late Susan Sontag, American author, feminist, literary theorist and political activist, put it in her 1967 essay “The Pornographic Imagination”: If so many are teetering on the verge of murder, dehumanization, sexual deformity and despair, and we were to act on that thought, then censorship much more radical than the indignant foes of pornography ever envisage seems in order. For if that’s the case, not only pornography but all forms of serious art and knowledge–in other words, all forms of truth–are suspect and dangerous.







8 Responses to “Pornography, the Internet and class”

  1. Ben Courtice November 8, 2011 at 10:30 am #

    Great article. I just read a bit more of your blog. Something occurred to me whilst reading about “the godification of children”. I don’t know if you already made this point anywhere, but the patronising attitude towards women “victims” displayed by the anti-porn crusaders seems to mirror the patronising attitude towards women “victims” displayed by the anti-abortion crusaders. Neither seem to have too much concern for what the alleged victims really want, think, feel etc.


    • Jennifer Wilson November 8, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

      Hi Ben, I hadn’t made that connection, but you are right. They are both more concerned with their morality/ideology than with the human beings involved. It’s as if they also exploit the very people they claim are being exploited.


  2. Gruffbutt November 9, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    If the ABC are looking for hits, then I’m sure you’ll be asked back, Jennifer. I wasn’t surprised to see so many comments. And I was pleased to see that most seemed generally supportive of your arguments, or at least that was the trend until I stopped reading them halfway down. I suspect that this issue wouldn’t divide so-called conservatives and progressives as easily as other issues, for example, if this article got an unlikely run in the Hun. (And I don’t follow The Drum generally, but it seems their comments section hasn’t hit the lows of The Age on-line yet.)

    I also wasn’t surprised that someone took you to task over your Abbott comment. I got it. He’s a prime example of the ‘just say no’ crowd. Maybe you should’ve chosen Ron & Nancy Reagan. Oh, hang on, that would look like a conservative beat-up as well. Some will see what they want to, I guess.

    And Ben, with regard to the godification of children, who can forget the Simpsons episode with Rev Lovejoy’s wife continually spouting ‘who’ll protect the children? Won’t someone think of the children?’ in reaction to everything? I reckon they should give her a spot on Q & A.


  3. gerard oosterman November 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

    It’s now on ABC Drum ‘a Hot Topic’. Well done Jennifer.So much of porn in boring, and like cricket, I never watch it during the day.


  4. Abigail Bray November 10, 2011 at 2:23 am #

    Mr Wilson, having skimmed your prolific … blog… I find some of it ……

    I was struck by your recent opinion that opposition to hardcore porn is a tyrannical middle class plot to censor the internet. What are you trying to say here? That working class people dig hardcore because they are working class and that as a champion of the oppressed one should defend the bent lusts of the lower orders ? Try knocking on the doors of a council estate in the UK and ask the women if they agree with you. As someone who grew up in a council house I have to warn you that they might greet your ideas with a short, succinct: ‘eff off you pervy pratt’. On the other hand if you go knocking on the doors of some well-heeled champagne socialists who have done lots and lots of expensive psychotherapy, studied Foucault (but skipped the bit about how the discourse of ‘choice’ operates as a dominant strategy of neoliberal governance) they might greet your ideas with a lot of ‘baaa baaaaa baaaaa’. (Which is the sound someone makes when they are eager to agree with correct displays of upwardly mobile neoliberal tolerance. It is also the noise a sheep makes btw). But of course this is ‘no place for sheep’. Sheep place for no, place no for sheep, for no place sheep, place for sheep no. There, I’ve done a little cut up to give you further proof of my hysteria. Now you can write a whole new blog about how MTR is associating with a cut up artist of dubious sanity. OMG!!!

    Of course I have no scientific data to support my hypothesis that you will be greeting with a eff off or a baaa baaa which might make my hunch seem anti-intellectual or rapid, or even worse, like I am not as sexy as you. But please, do try a door knock and report back. Try Paulsgrove council estate.


    • Matthew November 10, 2011 at 7:13 am #

      This is the problem I find with MTR and her buddies in regard to any well reasoned and well argued criticism against their work is that they either ignore it (as Melinda does), or it’s insult time (and I’ve been on the receiving end of Abigail’s narky little comments before plus a couple of MTR’s other mates). It’s like they have absolutely no idea how to defend their work, so they resort to being childish. They’ve got nothing to back up their claims. No evidence. Nothing.


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