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Gail Dines writes on www.abc.net.au – I thought I was coming to Australia for a mix of work and sightseeing. Well, I was correct about the work part, but missed seeing your beautiful country since I spent much of my time holed up in the studios of ABC.
My book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, was, thanks to the efforts of Spinifex Press, selected to be part of the Sydney Writer’s Festival, so I assumed I would have a work-packed four days and then some down time.
What I didn’t plan for was that the book would ignite a firestorm and I would have to battle it out with a small but very vocal pro-porn lobby that was spearheaded by academics, public intellectuals and plain old pornographers.
I have debated pro-porn advocates for many years and usually have an interesting if somewhat predictable discussion. Their agenda is to sanitize porn as a bit of harmless fun, and my job is to speak for those women and men whose life stories are disparaged as “anecdotes.” While we disagree, it rarely gets personal and nasty.
So imagine my surprise when, at a Sydney Writers Festival panel, the moderator, self-titled ethicist Leslie Cannold, opened by asking me about my “odd bedfellows” on the right, and then proceeded to dismiss the comments coming from young women in the audience who spoke about dating men who use porn.
As on cue, these women’s experiences were denigrated as “anecdotes,” even though a coherent story was beginning to emerge about the problems these women were having with men who got their major form of sex education from hardcore porn.
Cannold ignored the fact that for over forty years, feminist social scientists have been arguing that to dismiss women’s experiences as non-scientific is to fall into the “Eurocentric masculinist paradigm,” to use the term of sociologist Patricia Hill Collins.
Cannold’s insistence that these women’s experiences were mere anecdotes and not evidence requiring analysis and exploration upheld the outmoded conservative notion that women can’t be trusted to speak the truth of their lives. No; for this it seems we need credentialed academics who have access to large government funds so they can do “scientific research” that privileges the stories of porn users and porn producers.
During my two weeks in Australia I heard lots of “anecdotes” that formed a coherent story about the way Australian men and women are harmed by porn. I heard from women who were married to men who had been habitually using porn for years; from men who felt their porn use was out of control; from women who had been shown porn from a young age by their fathers/brothers/babysitters/teachers who then went on to harass, molest, or rape them; from mothers who didn’t want their husband’s porn around their children; and so on.
The stories of people in Australia are much the same as the stories I hear from people all over the world, and yet you will not find them anywhere in the ideologically laden and methodologically flawed Porn Report that was published in Australia in 2008.
Three years on, this report continues to dominate conversations in Australia on the nature of porn and porn users. In her chapter in Big Porn Inc, Helen Pringle does an excellent job of highlighting the ways in which the researchers’ lack of intellectual and methodological integrity informed the report.
It was clear to me after my visit that the authors of the Porn Report seem willfully detached from the realities of how porn functions as a global industry and as a storytelling device. This was evident when the authors, together with the rest of the lobby (and here I include Cannold and Eros, Australia’s national pornography industry organisation), kept repeating that the problem with my argument was that I was cherry picking the worst of porn by focusing on the hard-core end of the market.
Probably the most bizarre comment made during my trip was Leslie Cannold’s claim that my work was flawed because she had, along the lines of what I had done in the introduction to my book, typed “porn” into Google, and rather than seeing the sexual brutality I document, she had found porn that was “sweet” and “gentle,” between pregnant lesbians no less.
Thus my twenty years of research – which includes interviews with pornographers, users and performers, combing through industry charts, reading published studies and all the major porn business websites, and more hours than I can stand watching porn – was suddenly rendered unscientific because Cannold had seen “sweet” and “gentle” porn.
And when I pointed to the most recent charts from the leading porn trade magazine, Adult Video News (AVN), to show that the industry itself produces data showing that the majority of the top fifty purchased DVDs and traveled websites are hardcore, Cannold moved on to her next point.
Alan McKee and the head of Eros made similar arguments: the consensus from the lobby is that porn is so diversified and such a large industry that it is impossible to know what everyone is watching. Certainly there are multiple niche markets, and not every user who types “porn” into Google is heading for the hardcore porn. Also, many people are watching free porn.
But porn is still a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry, so someone is buying lots of it. And according to the industry, they are not watching anything remotely “sweet.” If you click on the most-traveled porn sites listed in the AVN charts you will see, in mind-numbing repetition, gagging, slapping, verbal abuse, hair-pulling, pounding anal sex, women smeared in semen, sore anuses and vaginas, distended mouths – and exhausted, depleted, and shell-shocked women who have been treated with anything but “sweetness” and “gentleness.”
And you don’t even have to take the industry’s word for this. One of the few studies of the content of contemporary porn is an article by Ana Bridges and her team in the journal Violence Against Women entitled, “Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography: A content analysis update.”
The study found that the majority of scenes from 50 of the top-rented porn movies contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted at the female performers. Physical aggression, which included spanking, open-hand slapping and gagging, occurred in over 88% of scenes, while expressions of verbal aggression – calling the woman names such as “bitch” or “slut” – were found in 48% of the scenes. The researchers concluded:
“if we combine both physical and verbal aggression, our findings indicate that nearly 90% of scenes contained at least one aggressive act, with an average of nearly 12 acts of aggression per scene.”
For all the free porn that McKee and Cannold et al. talked about, Internet video sales rose from $2.8 billion in 2006 to $4.9 billion in 2009, and like all good capitalists, pornographers are on the lookout for new revenue streams and distribution channels.
One of the most popular seminars at the 2011 XBIZ Summit in Chicago was entitled “Adult Mobile: Markets, Metrics and Mechanics.” According to Juniper Research, global porn revenues for hand-held devices could reach $49.9 billion by 2013, an increase of 75% over 2008. In keeping with the need to build new markets, one of the panelists at the Summit was quoted as saying:
“The opportunity is massive outside of the U.S. … [A]s great as the U.S. is, there is a wide world beyond its east and west coasts.”
It is intellectually and ethically disingenuous on the part of the pro-porn lobby to refuse to engage with the realities of the porn industry by arguing that since there is lots of free porn, we don’t have to worry about woman-hating images produced by the industry.
Rather than deal with this reality, Alan McKee, in his adherence to the “Eurocentric masculinist paradigm,” walks the well-worn path of pathologizing women who speak out against gender inequality.
According to McKee, my arguments are not the product of twenty years of scholarly research, but the result of some personal pain that renders me incapable of intellectual theorizing and research.
This kind of sexism is as old as porn itself, and while it is silly and adolescent, it is still shocking that it comes from a man who is a tenured professor at a respected academic institution and the lead researcher of a report that has had a profound if misleading impact on the Australian public.