Comment on Pornography by Rae Langton
Guest Contributor

30 August 2009

Posted by Rae Langton

John says, first, it's only fantasy, and second, outlawing is always 'a losing strategy'. 

Well yes, it might be fantasy or pretend: someone is being paid to pretend to be bound, and paid to pretend to enjoy it. The viewer is joining in with the pretence. 

But (i) note that even fictions are told and experienced against a backdrop of presupposed claims about the real world. For example, the Sherlock Holmes stories make claims about a fictional detective, against the backdrop of real world London. What does porn say or presuppose about the real world? That many real life women enjoy being bound and gagged, and that women who say no don't mean it. That's why, on the social science evidence, many consumers actually get their beliefs changed (see e.g. Donnerstein et al, the Question of Pornography). 

And (ii) as 'one of many' points out, even if consent is there, the woman's pleasure may not be; and rehearsing even pretend violence can 'stay in that man's mind' to shape how he looks at other women later. There is a lot of psychological literature now about how our 'off-line' imaginings and pretendings can influence our 'on-line' behaviour. This can be a good thing when it means that rehearsing your tennis strokes, just in imagination, can actually help you play better! But bad when it's shaping your responses to real people. 

Furthermore (iii) it's naive to assume that there is always consent, on the part of the actors, in the first place. Sara raises some excellent points about the real life conditions of many in the industry, for example in South East Asia, effectively the conditions of appalling sexual slavery. Consumers using pornography made in this way are effectively sex tourists, using virtual brothels in South East Asia. Possibly they are even the same consumers who would think twice about buying sneakers made with sweat shop labor.

Strategies: Why so pessimistic about the law? Most people think the law can and should be used to restrict or make actionable some sorts of pornography, for example, in the US, child porn; and in the UK now (legislation pending) 'extreme pornography',  that eroticizes life threatening attitudes and behaviours such as necrophilia and asphyxiation. (This follows the porn-inspired murder of a school teacher by Graham Coutts, who was addicted to this sort of porn.) 

 I also agree with Michael that other strategies should be pursued—I would say, 'as well', not 'instead'. Yes, more and better sex education please! Otherwise porn will be the default sex educator of the next generation. But also: education for us all about porn itself: the conditions under which it's made (thanks again Sara!), and what it can do to people—to women, and to men too. It's naive, though, to think it will go away because it will just fail in the marketplace of ideas. People don't have their truth filtering brains switched on when they consume porn: they aim for pleasure, not knowledge. But it changes their minds all the same, just like effective advertising does. 

And then in addition to education, a consumer boycott too. For the same reasons you might boycott sneakers made with sweat shop labour. Or for the same reason you might choose not to own a gun, even if you think you have a 'right to bear arms'. Why exercise that right, if it's more likely to damage you yourself—or those who are, or could be, closest to you?

Comments (14)


Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, August 30, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

I have not been able to access teh PT discussion,

I have not been able to access teh PT discussion, but, judging from your reaction, I think I can guess how it went. As a (pro)feminist and a libertarian (small "l" please), this is a complicated issue for me. Being a man doesn't affect the intellectual argument, of course, but it sure affects the POV and raises the stakes (no, no play on words intended). I had occasion several years ago to participate in an antipornography workshop given at a national conference of NOMAS and led by Jon Stoltenberg (Andrea Dworkin's alter ego). It was simply having the men assume the physical poses of models used in PLAYBOY, PENTHOUSE, etc.(far from the most obnoxious porn) and then having the rest pf the group comment...VERY revealing. It affected me profoundly...Lots more to say on this, but let me just say one more thing: the argument that "those models CHOSE to be in that film" gets me more than anything else: in a capitalist culture, how many people TRULY choose their livelihood, or what they do for a few extra bucks? Only BIG "L" libertarians are dumb enough to fall for that one! (But I forget: prolonged immersion in academia can cause brain damage similar to "L")

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, August 30, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

As a psychotherapist, I see the damage done by men

As a psychotherapist, I see the damage done by men addicted to pornography and to women who have been victimized. However, the 1st Amendment belief is very strong in me, so I feel torn.
We cannot believe that in all pornography, the people involved are necessarily willing, paid actors. I think that recent cases where girls have been kidnapped and forced to be sexual slaves to their captors brings this to current light.
Further, the number of people who are being treated for pornography addiction is growing at an astounding rate. When pornography was relegated to brown papered magazines at truck stops and to seedy porn shops on country highways, it was a different story. But now, porn is so accessible, that many people are using porn to the exclusion of living an otherwise health balanced life. This will continue to be a dominant issue over the next few years. While legislation may not be the answer, it is something that our society will need to address in some fashion.

Michael's picture

Michael

Monday, August 31, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

A number of distinct issues have emerged here, som

A number of distinct issues have emerged here, some of them more difficult to resolve than others:
1. Labor and criminal law violations: coerced participation, physical abuse, virtual slavery and other abominable conditions in the porn industry can be addressed by existing laws if the will exists to enforce them here and elsewhere.
2. Porn addiction and the sociopathic effects of the industry on individuals can be addressed through counseling, which can be ordered by courts if a sexual abuser/addict is on probation or parole.
3. Censorship: government can play a limited role in suppressing extreme abuses like kiddie porn. But beyond that I have serious doubts about any role for government, given the problematic history of attempts by legislators and courts to develop a working definition of obscenity that's not overbroad.
4. Education, including boycotts: While it's certainly true that, as Rae notes, consumers "aim for pleasure, not knowledge," that pleasure can be subverted through education on the insidious effects of pornography for the consumer and society. While progress may be excruciatingly slow, I have yet to hear a workable alternative.
If porn is winning in the marketplace of ideas, it's primarily because the policy debate in the U.S. is at such a rudimentary level (and not just on this particular question, I'm afraid). There seems to be a grudging and unspoken view that porn is a victimless pursuit, and that has to be vigorously challenged.
Finally, I really like Rae's analogy to the "right to bear arms."

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, September 3, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Is there 'good' pornography? Eg, where two real pe

Is there 'good' pornography? Eg, where two real people in a relationship include explicit sexual imagery as a stimulant to their non-exploitative mutual pleasure together. The assumption here is that explicit sexuality publically shared has a socially constructive role to play. If this is the case, the moral issue moves to the 'how' or ethics of a non-exploitative public sharing of explicit sexuality. Can we imagine a fully accepted social space, democratically sanctioned and institutionally supported with full legal protection for willing participants who are regarded as fulfilling a valuable social service? It is interesting to imagine what the 'performances' would be like to fulfil the ethical demands of such a setting. The transparent democratic nature would mean public discussion and critique (just as with other cultural genres such as film or theatre)would be the norm and the performances would explore the full range of sexual imagination with all its issues. Another art form?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, September 7, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

"Most people think the law can and should be used

"Most people think the law can and should be used to restrict or make actionable some sorts of pornography, for example, in the US, child porn; and in the UK now (legislation pending) 'extreme pornography'"
It is very misleading to conflate these two - yes, most people would agree with laws regarding child porn, but there is no evidence for laws on images of consenting adults, such as the "extreme porn" law. Just because the Government could pass the law doesn't mean that most people called for it; on the contrary, there was plenty of criticism on the law. The law was nothing to do with preventing abuse or regluating the commercial porn industry, it was about criminalising private possession of things that were deemed "abhorrent" or "disgusting" to the Government.
"That many real life women enjoy being bound and gagged, and that women who say no don't mean it."
I don't see how the latter is implied. As for the former - yes, many people (men and women) do enjoy being bound and gagged. Not everyone, or even most perhaps, but many exist. To suggest otherwise is itself a fictional "presupposed claims about the real world".
" it's naive to assume that there is always consent, on the part of the actors, in the first place. Sara raises some excellent points about the real life conditions of many in the industry, for example in South East Asia, effectively the conditions of appalling sexual slavery. Consumers using pornography made in this way are effectively sex tourists,"
There is no evidence of a trade in adult porn using non-consenting actors - to claim without evidence is naive. And even if there was - this is not an argument against material where it is clear that it is consensual.
What about non-commercial material - e.g., a photo uploaded to an adult social networking site or forum? What about two consenting adults who take a private photo in the bedroom? The problem is that laws against "porn" often affect all kinds of sexual images, no different to commercial material (as with the "extreme" porn law), no different to commercial material, but it is obviously nothing to do with sex slavery.
I agree with the bearing arms analogy - one can still believe that people have a right to their own private sexual freedom between consenting adults, even if one does not choose to do so themselves (which would generally be my position).

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, October 10, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

I've haven't listened to PT in a few months, but i

I've haven't listened to PT in a few months, but it looks like while I was away, one of my favorite topics came up, so forgive me if I'm responding to it a month and a half late and at length. However, I do want to address some points that need addressing and have not been so far.
While I compliment Langton for addressing this topic clearly and without the kind of emotive, hot-button language used by other anti-pornography feminists (I'm thinking particularly of MacKinnon here), there are so many problems with her argument, its hard to know where to begin. First, like many anti-porn feminists, Langton takes it as a given that social science has clearly established that pornography engenders harmful attitudes toward women and possibly causes violence. The problem is that anti-porn feminists cherry-pick social science and popular literature (such as Pamela Paul's book) for evidence that supports their case, while ignoring studies that contradict their views. Overall, the evidence of such harm is ambiguous at best. For example, a 2000 meta-analysis by Neil Malamuth and others of previously published studies of the effects of porn did suggest that an already-violent subset of men could exhibit increased levels of violence when exposed to the most violent types of porn. However, the authors also conclude, "for the majority of American men, pornography exposure (even at the highest levels assessed here) is not associated with high levels of sexual aggression". (link)
Langton also addresses the issue of the conditions of production of pornography (an issue, in my opinion, of more substance than the specious arguments about pornography's supposed causal effects of a variety of negative attitudes and behaviors). However, she then brings up the red herring of sexual slavery in Southeast Asia. The majority of commercial porn is produced in California and Europe, and does not involve the kind of marginalized sex slaves ritualistically invoked in practically any debate involving sex work. Many porn performers write and blog about their experiences in the industry, both good and bad, but their voices and perspectives are routinely ignored in debates such as this. In fact, I'll note that it took place right here (link) ? Langton responds to several respondents in the previous thread by name, but completely ignores the response by the aptly-named "The Girl Sitting Next To You", a woman working as a performer in the porn industry who speaks positively of her experiences. The fact that such voices are routinely ignored by the very people who profess concern over the conditions of performers speaks volumes about the paternalism of the anti-pornography movement.
Finally, Langton asks "Why so pessimistic about the law?" Well, lets look at what kind of law we're talking about, namely, one which fundamentally restricts a form of expression for fundamentally political reasons and therefore is fundamentally contrary to the First Amendment. In fact, MacKinnon is quite explicit about this ? in her opinion, the Equal Protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment are at cross purposes with and ultimately trump First Amendment protections. Many civil libertarians (and I count myself among them) aren't terribly convinced by this argument and have serious doubts about the nature of an "equality" that is purchased at the cost of scaling back as a basic liberty as free speech.
Modern First Amendment law sets a very high bar for restrictions on speech, and rightly so. And clearly some very weak social science and the ideological/religious protestations of feminist and religious opponents of pornography do not constitute a case to make such an exception. Federal courts in Booksellers v. Hudnut were quite clear about this when they struck down MacKinnon's legislation on the grounds that, in spite of its claims to being a "civil rights" law, it clearly constituted prior restraint and suppressed forms of speech for purely ideological reasons.
And this clearly does come down to ideology ? pornography is the locus of competing ideas about sexuality and sexual morality. A fact that was made quite clear in the often disparaging remarks about BDSM made by both the guest and hosts. And also, lets be clear here ? a critique of pornography on the basis of "equality" is still very much a moral argument, and its rather disingenuous to claim otherwise.
Notably, there's significant disagreement about pornography even within feminism. There are many feminists and sexual minorities who consider pornography as a valid medium for the expression their sexual truths. And yet, if anti-porn feminists had their way, the state would step in and allow anti-porn feminists to use trumped-up "civil rights" lawsuits to shut down any form of pornographic expression they happen to disagree with, often for expressly political and ideological reasons. It is clear to me that this is an authoritarian and fundamentally un-American way to settle a disagreement between competing sexual ideologies.
And I think this speaks to the core contradiction of anti-pornography feminism. This movement claims to be all about promoting the values of equality over domination. Yet its primary strategy in combatting the symbolic domination of pornography has been to come up with legal strategies that suppress contrary ideas in favor of their own ideological perspective ? surely an overarching and concrete act of domination if there ever was one.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, December 3, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

I am an 18 year old girl and I may not be writing

I am an 18 year old girl and I may not be writing a profound essay, although I can because I've been praised for my essay writing skills, I can express my opinion just the same. Demeaning of women in porn enrages me to the point that I was looking for porn producers' emails just to protest and possibly curse at them. I think they are seriously mentally ill and have no empathy, in which case that would be known as "antisocial personality disorder" where one feels no guilt whatsoever. My undergraduate major is psychology and English, and I am really curious as to what motivates these women to sacrifice their integrity for money! I mean, not to be graphic here, but it's the only way. I honestly don't get why women would consent such brutal acts as being gagged and vomitting just for money! It resembles selling one's soul to the devil! There must be some underlying reason, there simply must be! It has got to be more than money and perhaps it is low self-esteem (and I mean low to the point of being emotionally scarred, seeing as I have depression but I would never consent to these kinds of things). I have to admit, I watch porn on occasion and when I see the cruel type of porn, it completely ruins my arousal, seeing as it so cruel! Whoever those porn producers are, and frankly the actors too, since they consent to treating women these way, I hate them all to the very core for taking advantage of these mentally unstable women! Now, I'm not talking about the kind of porn, hardcore or softcore, that features both actors enjoying themselves to the fullest and both getting pleasure out of it. That's really okay with me. If some woman wants a casual encounter and to show off her body, that maybe a form of self-disrespect, but it is commonplace these days. I know I am young but I am very conservative. I am in a committed, monogamous relationship with my loving boyfriend and I am fully against casual sex, but if other women like it, and they are not degraded, then I don't really care because their body, their choice, just like for the abortion law. I learned in my government class in high school that judges can often interpret the constitution in their own way, and I say they need to prevent all forms of degrading porn, including captions calling the women whores or b****es because those words are degrading. If this is indeed consensual, why do these women choose to do it? They must not be in their right mind and therefore it is analogous to having sex with a drunk girl who supposedly gives consent! It is a complete outrage to treat any person this way and it is a complete outrage that men can do porn with no condemnation and with no strings attached. All they get is pleasure and a paycheck, which is having their cake and eating it too! It's plain old no fair and since when are women inferior to men? What happened to courtship and chivalry and honor? I hate to be radical here, and I'm an agnostic/Jew looking for her faith, but if there is a God, I wouldn't be surprised if the apocalypse is soon because I've studied the Torah and the entire world is turning into Sodom and Gamorrah! And this is coming from a nonreligious person! Either these hardcore porn producers who humiliate women get sued and sent straight to prison for at least five years, they get committed to some sort of mental institution, or we flat out have a massive flood and the innocent can build another arc and survive and let these perverts be wiped off the face of the planet. Excuse my radical views but I am a young female and as a young person, I am full of passion and fervor, as we young people tend to be, and as a female I feel empathy for all my sisters being treated atrociously. As I have said, I have seen these videos firsthand, and you probably don't approve of that, but they have revealed to me just how bad it is and it was my call to action, so therefore it was for the best to see them. But anyway, in one trailer, a man gags a woman with his member and she clearly states "no more please" and he continues penetrating her mouth. Now you could tell me that it's all just acting, but I think that was real. The suffering is real. The pain is real. And technically blogging about it is counterproductive but I just had to get it off my chest. Instead, we should go to these porn agency offices and stand outside shouting with picket fences! Again, I know, I'm radical. You'll have to excuse me, but we can't just sit around discussing it because I doubt porn producers will care at all no matter what we say, even if they stumble upon this website and others. They'll continue doing what they do best because they're talentless perverts! That's what they are! And if you ask me, if the actresses are whores, then the actors and producers are also whores seeing as they trade empathy and integrity for a successful business. It is cruel and unusual, and therefore it needs to be banned, and should be a full on exception to the first amendment, and I will do what I can and fight as hard as I can once I get the chance to travel! Thank you for reading. Hopefully you will take me seriously, despite my age.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, December 5, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

I think poetries rather, shall we say passionate,

I think poetries rather, shall we say passionate, speech illuminates the basic emotions and assumptions behind anti-porn feminists ideology. It comes down to a visceral reation to sex and sexuality and in my opinion illuminates very sick assumptions about sex, sexuality and gender dynamics between men and women.
Anti-porn feminists assume that women are always the victims and men are always the oppressors and this opinion carries over to sex. Basic sex acts are treated as an act of subjugation over women despite the fact that the women in most legal porn are shown ENJOYING the sex. Anti-porn feminists then reply that the women are in fact whores(and therefore being oppressed). We then repeat this circular argument ad nauseum.
Perhaps, this would be a non issue if anti-porn feminists stopped projecting their own unhealthy views(that sex is inherently debasing to women and any women who fails to see that is clearly a whore) about sex on others.
This is coming from a gay man who loves being tied up.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, December 5, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

I'd like to mention that the workers who suffer th

I'd like to mention that the workers who suffer the most abuse in porn are in fact GAY MEN. Female porn actresses are typically paid anywhere from 2-4x more per sex act then actors in gay porn and have better advocacy within the industry. Hiv/std discrepancies between female and homosexual porn actors also continue to favor women. Porn is also less of a career killer for female actors and they can often enter the mainstream acting world or get a gig as a reality tv star. Gay porn actors typically have to hide their past or get blacklisted.
I'm sure this fact will either go ignored. Or, anti-porn feminists will portray gay "men" as somehow analogous to women for debate purposes. Maybe, this is because it suggests that inequality can go both ways and that sometimes women get the better deal?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, December 26, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

Perhaps the reason that HIV/STDs are higher among

Perhaps the reason that HIV/STDs are higher among gay men in porn than in women in porn is the simple fact that homosexual activity is generally more risky.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Modern First Amendment law sets a very high bar fo

Modern First Amendment law sets a very high bar for restrictions on speech, and rightly so. And clearly some very weak social science and the ideological/religious protestations of feminist and religious opponents of pornography do not constitute a case to make such an exception.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

this issue is no longer a taboo, and happened to b

this issue is no longer a taboo, and happened to be a reality in society. I would like to share and learn more about this important topic symptoms to identify the disease and stuff like that, thank you very much for the excellent information blog.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, August 7, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

"What does porn say or presuppose about the real w

"What does porn say or presuppose about the real world? That many real life women enjoy being bound and gagged, and that women who say no don't mean it."
I couldn't have said it better. People use some lame excuses to justify pornography, but it is not healthy, especially the hardcore pornography.

katecross's picture

katecross

Saturday, January 23, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

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