Wednesday, 16 June 2010

What's wrong with watching porn?

NB: This post is my own view, not a Hand Mirror view.

Cross posted

Now that the Labour party caucus has castigated the people concerned, and some MPs have been sin-binned, and it might be possible to be heard above the rapidly subsiding roar, I'm going to add my tuppence worth.

For people reading in Australia and further afield, New Zealand has been having its very own little ministerial and MPs expenses scandal. But being New Zealand, it's all very small beer. No moat cleaning or duck houses or pricey toasters as there were in the UK. In NZ, it's been a matter of ministers having a few drinks on the taxpayers' tab, or getting a massage, or putting some purchases on the Crown plastic instead of a personal one (notably some golf clubs and a bike). Even then, the money was refunded almost before the bill came due, but the minister in question nevertheless thought that the taxpayer was a jolly good source of short term credit.

The biggest offence seems to have been one minister who spent his lonely nights in hotels watching pay-per-view porn, and putting it on the Crown tab. Again, it was all repaid, well before the minister left office, and several years before the press got wind of it. He tried in the first instance to pretend that he was just a movie buff, but when a little bit of press digging revealed that his movies cost $19.95 each (the standard price for porn) and regular movies cost $14.95 each, he had to change his tune. To his credit, when his cover was blown he fronted the press, admitted his misdeeds, made his apologies, and asked for forgiveness.

The issue in the NZ press and the NZ blogosphere has been whether or not it is appropriate to put private expenditure on taxpayer funded credit cards, even if the private expenditure is subsequently repaid. The answer is no. I agree with that answer.

Everyone has very very carefully said that watching porn is not an issue. Oh no, what a person does in the privacy of their own room is their business and its private and there's no public interest in poking our noses in there and people's sexuality is their own affair.

Hmmm....


In general, New Zealanders aren't really concerned with what consenting adults do. Some politicians have been pilloried for hypocrisy - for example, Don Brash, who allowed himself to be portrayed as supporting traditional family values, but had an affair on the side - but usually, the New Zealand press gallery don't report on pollies' private affairs, unless they begin to think that those private affairs are having a public effect. Even then, they err on the side of caution. New Zealanders have happily elected gay and lesbian and transgender MPs. Sex and sexuality is very much regarded as a politician's own business, thank the FSM.

However, I think that watching porn could be an issue.

I see two potential problems with porn. The first is to do with the extent to which it involves consenting adults, and the second is to do with the narrative about women that it may contain. Because porn may not involve consenting adults, and because porn may portray demeaning ideas about women, it is ethically risky. Not necessarily ethically wrong, but ethically risky.

Please be very clear about the distinctions I'm making here. I am not saying that porn infringes against morality. If morality consists in precepts about who is permitted to have sex, and in what position, and with whom, then I'm just not interested. Take your tired shibboleths, do what you will with them, in the privacy of your own bedroom, and stay away from mine. And anyone else's. Really, just f*ck off.

I'm also not saying that watching porn is necessarily wrong. Rather, I'm saying that it is risky. It may be that the porn that you are watching does not involve consenting adults. And that's a problem.

Remember that the gold standard in sexual activity is consenting adults. It's not just the gold standard - it's the minimum standard. If the porn you are watching is not made by consenting adults, then you are watching rape. You may not be getting your rocks off by watching rape, that is, by participating vicariously in scenes depicting rape, but your jollies come at the expense of the actors in the scene. Because that's what they are. Actors. Those big smiles, the sounds and words of consent and delight: they're an act. Just because the actors look like they want to be doing what they're doing, doesn't mean that their consent is real.

Equally, it doesn't mean that the actors haven't consented either. Just as plenty of sex workers say that they enjoy sex work, and it's something they freely choose to do (see for example, this great post from Hexy: Accessories, Australian sex workers, and Sheila Jeffreys and Claire Finch's story in The Guardian: I ran a brothel in a country village), plenty of actors in porn are happy to do the work. But just as plenty of sex workers are cruelly exploited, trapped into sex slavery, plenty of performers in porn movies are forced into it. And if you think Linda Lovelace was the only person ever forced into performing in porn, then I've got a very nice bridge that crosses Sydney Harbour that I'd like to sell to you. As a viewer, you just don't know whether the actors you are watching have consented, and are continuing to consent, to perform in the movie, or whether they never consented, or consented initially, and then withdrew their consent. If they have not consented, if they have withdrawn their consent, then what you are watching is rape. That's why porn is ethically risky.

Even if all the actors participating in the movie consented, and you're sure about that, then there's still the problem with the narratives contained in porn. Porn contains narratives that suggest that underage girls want sex ("barely legal" movies, using actors of legal age, but made up and dressed to look adolescent), that women like being raped, that the only way sex should end is with a money shot all over a woman's face. They are narratives of aggression and derision towards woman. Domestic and Laboratory Goddess Dr Isis has a great post about the aggression towards women in porn, complete with edited photos. Go take look, unless you're my mum or Ms Eleven, in which case do yourself a favour, and don't look. Those narratives disturb me. Sure, it's only fantasy, but they are fantasies which involve the degradation of human beings.* That makes them, to my mind, ethically risky.

There is at least some porn that is made ethically. Fair trade porn, if you will. No, I'm not going to include links to it in this blog, but if you google say, "feminist porn", and do a little research and exercise a little judgement, you should be able to come up with some porn that doesn't involve exploitation of women, and doesn't contain nasty narratives about women. In other words, take some responsibility for what you're viewing. Mutatis mutandis, for gay or lesbian or bi or trans or wev, really.

I suppose that given that the minister in question purchased his movies through a hotel, they probably weren't too extreme. Perhaps that might give us some reassurance, because the business retailing the porn might have taken some care about what it was offering to its customers. However, given what Motella (who'd have thought you could write a blog about motels?) tells us:

Most major hotels seem to offer adult pay movies. Why do they do this? Simply, because their guests demand it AND it generates huge profits! It has been reported that up to 50% of the hotel guests purchase the material and it is estimated that between 70 -80% of the hotel's in-room profit come from adult movie viewing.


...I wouldn't be counting on that.**

I think we ought to be worried about pollies purchasing porn on the Crown tab. The reason that we ought to be worried is not because porn is necessarily immoral - it isn't. If it passes that gold standard consenting adults criterion, then it's probably okay. Maybe not great, given the concerns about nasty narratives, but almost certainly there are worse transgressions. But it's ethically risky.

We make ethically risky purchases all the time. I eat chocolate, drink coffee, wear clothes, use a computer and a mobile phone and watch TV. All of these products may be made with child or sweated labour, and I haven't made the effort to find out. Where I do find out about ethically dubious practices, I sometimes stop buying the product, but even then, it's not necessarily the best thing to do: "fair trade" is rife with anomalies.

More than that, who manages to live an ethically perfect life all the time? I don't, even though I do try to get it right. But I am no moral saint. Nor do I expect ministers and other parliamentarians to be moral saints. However, I do expect them to demonstrate a reasonable degree of judgement. They are, after all, in the business of making judgements about how to run the country.

I suppose that I think that porn is more likely to come closer to the point of being ethically wrong, because people may have been harmed in the making of it, because the making of it may be a crime, because it may contain narratives that demean people (I really do recommend reading Dr Isis' post in respect of this last point). We need to be cautious about porn, to consume it, if that's your thing, with care and with discretion. And that's why it may be reasonable to be rather more concerned about ministers who consume porn than we are about ministers who simply consume.

* And those fantasies are pretty minor. I came across some sites while I was researching this post that made me feel nauseously ill. I don't even want to begin to describe them.
** I've not linked directly to the post where Motella makes this claim, but you can go find it for yourself if you like. It's just not something that I really want to link to from this blog.

21 comments:

Tui said...

I suppose that I think that porn is more likely to come closer to the point of being ethically wrong, because people may have been harmed in the making of it, because the making of it may be a crime, because it may contain narratives that demean people (I really do recommend reading Dr Isis' post in respect of this last point). We need to be cautious about porn, to consume it, if that's your thing, with care and with discretion. And that's why it may be reasonable to be rather more concerned about ministers who consume porn than we are about ministers who simply consume.

Of these objections, the only one that doesn't also apply to coffee and sneakers is it having the potential to carry narratives that demean women. But this is just a maybe, like all the other maybes. What is it about this particular maybe - the maybe that it contains demeaning content or content that promotes hatred - that gives it extra significance? What is it about content in porn that demeans women that is different from content in 'ordinary' movies and television that demeans women? Although some porn does contain disturbing narratives about rape, sex, and consent, so do just about every TV show I watch (unfortunately).

I don't know. I just don't think I can make the distinction between the harm done by x porn flick and the harm done by x Hollywood flick - or, wait, I can: I think the damage done to women's self-esteem by the Hollywood-promoted beauty myth is actually *more* significant than the damage of the latter, because it is widely accepted, whereas while some porn films may - reprehensibly - promote the idea that women want to be raped, at least this idea is just as widely dismissed. (Not that that idea isn't a huge social problem, because it is, BUT...)

I guess my roundabout point is that discussions about the harm done by pornography are so fraught that if we want to say 'porn is better or worse than a movie' we have to know which porn and which movie, and the degree of small-minded busybodying involved in that kind of debate sickens me.

Deborah said...

I don't want to put the links here myself, but if you want to get an idea about what some pron is about, try googling forced sex. Even the google links make me feel ill, let alone what's there on the front pages of those sites if you click through.

Please, please, be careful about clicking on the links. The images are horrible, and they will be TRIGGERING. And they are most definitely Not Safe For Work.

Even if it's all very, very clever acting, what those sites say about women may well make you throw up. So do be careful about actually taking a look.

Tui said...

I'm not ignorant of the fact that there is terrible stuff out there. But Deborah, I'm sorry, that is like googling "child porn" or "snuff" or "pro-ana" and being shocked and horrified at what you get. You're specifically searching out the worst, most horrible examples of a medium and using it to tar the entire medium with that brush. "Porn is different to any other medium because some people make extremely harmful porn." I just don't think you can do that. I think we respond to porn as different from any other commodity just because it has sex in it, whereas in reality - as your post itself pointed out - the production and dissemination of any commodity can be harmful. Every individual has to examine their own conscience in this regard, applying it to everything they purchase - basically, conscientious consumerism must be applied. And, yes, some products - porn, coffee, sneakers, Roman Polanski movies - ought to be scrutinised more carefully than others because of their production. But that's it.

Deborah said...

That's exactly the point I'm making i.e. that we need to be cautious about porn. So it's not just a matter of chanting the "privacy of their own bedrooms" mantra, and thinking that's all that is to be said about it.

Jaya said...

Surely the difference between a Hollywood movie and a porn movie is that someone is being raped in a porn movie and someone is acting as if they're being raped in a Hollywood movie. There's not a chance in Hell that I would watch a movie where I'm not entirely sure whether I'm watching a rape or not. Especially when it could feel like someone is being hurt for my sexual gratification. And there's NO Hollywood movie I can think of that might show someone actually being raped. There is just so much rape in porn - you can't get away from it. That's why it's different to a movie that sexist. If I want to get turned on I'd watch a sexy scene in a Hollywood movie - I wouldn't watch a porn where I don't know if that woman is being abused or raped for an audience that is predominantly men.

Danyl said...

Surely the difference between a Hollywood movie and a porn movie is that someone is being raped in a porn movie and someone is acting as if they're being raped in a Hollywood movie

Except people aren't being raped in the porn movies shown in hotels, because rape is a serious crime and the corporations that manufacture porn and the hotels that screen it don't have that kind of risk profile.

ms p said...

RE: ethically risky purchases

The thing I find quite hard to understand is how people manage to disconnect from the consent issue when watching porn.

I mean, people can buy sweatshop produced sneakers and technology and chocolate and not think about who made it because the product they're consuming is quite removed from the people who made it.

Whereas, consuming porn is watching the people who made it. I don't watch porn and one of the reasons is that concern that the people involved have given informed and meaningful consent.

Jaya said...

Linda Lovelace said she was raped in Deep Throat and that movie is shown in cinemas (so I wouldn't be surprised if it was shown in hotels). Do you think hotels are checking which porn movies don't involve rape? Are they actively checking consent?

Danyl said...

Linda Lovelace said she was raped in Deep Throat and that movie is shown in cinemas.

But Deep Throat was the first mainstream porn movie of all time, financed and distibuted by the mafia. The modern porn industry is a multi-billion dollar corporate business. And corporations are not in the habit of raping people, filming the crime and then distributing the evidence all over the world.

Do you think hotels are checking which porn movies don't involve rape?

As many comedians have observed, hotel porn is the least explicit, least revealing kind of pornography you can imagine. Think billowing curtains and waves crashing on beaches. The average Sex and the City episode is far more graphic. So yeah, I think they check which movies show people being raped.

I mean, people can buy sweatshop produced sneakers and technology and chocolate and not think about who made it because the product they're consuming is quite removed from the people who made it.

Whereas, consuming porn is watching the people who made it.


Try looking at it from this perspective: the chances of watching a porno movie in which people are being raped is approximately zero (for reasons discussed above) unless you go to some effort to obtain such a movie (I guess you could somehow find a copy of Deep Throat), while the chances of buying shoes or coffee made by sweatshop workers is close to 100% unless you go out of your way to avoid doing so. Now how's your conscience?

Jaya said...

Rape isn't just someone screaming saying no. Check out Sex: Annabel Chong story. It's a documentary that says a lot about the industry. It may not be the kind of rape most people imagine but it's still rape. But I don't know what kind of porn they show in hotels. I'm making assumptions so I would obviously concede that point. But "using" women who are desperately damaged and are being plied with drugs and possibly unsure of what they're doing - is just another form of rape. And the "use" of women who are seriously unwell - another form of exploitation/rape. In the Annabel Chong story a lot of it is about a very "mainstream" porn movie*. And she's in pain while filming it and obviously under emotional duress. It's a different kind of rape. So you can't possibly say there's no rape in porn. There just isn't the rape most people think of - a stranger attacking and a woman screaming no.

*The movie is "The World's Biggest Gangbang" and was one of the highest grossing porn films in history. Of course Annabel Chong didn't recieve any money from it. And was just 22 when she made it and had previously been gang-raped. I mean that's a mainstream porn movie right there. A woman who doesn't get paid after "having sex" for 10 hours. Who is visibly destressed and in pain for the entire film. A woman who has been brutally abused in the past. A woman who self-harms directly after the filming. That's what a mainstream porn is.

Danyl said...

Rape isn't just someone screaming saying no. Check out Sex: Annabel Chong story. It's a documentary that says a lot about the industry. It may not be the kind of rape most people imagine but it's still rape.

I have seen that movie - it's a really good documentary! You're simply wrong when you say that Chong was raped because she agreed to have sex on film for money and then wasn't paid. That's an issue of torts or contractual law, not rape. If we agree that I'll mow your lawns in exchange for $50 and you then don't pay me it doesn't mean you've enslaved me or kidnapped me, it means you're in breach of our contract.
There's a scene in the Annabel Chong film in which she negotiates with her movie producer about what sex acts she'll perform and how much money she'll get in return: it's hard to imagine a more explicit form of consent. You might remember Chong also went to an award ceremony and accepted an award for her film.

You argue that they're making these movies because they've been abused or emotionally vulnerable and are being exploited because of that - certainly true in Chong's case, which is one single data point - but how is that different from the fact that your shoes are made by people being exploited because of the poverty of the country they happened to be born in?

But "using" women who are desperately damaged and are being plied with drugs and possibly unsure of what they're doing - is just another form of rape.

Check out the Wikipedia page for Jenna Jameson. She's a lot more representitive of the modern porn industry than Chong (who made her movies almost twenty years ago). It's hard to believe she's being exploited or raped or otherwise 'unsure' of what she's doing.

Julie said...

Deborah this is a fantastic post, thank you for sharing it and being so eager to continue discussion in comments too.

You've explained really well my own feelings of ambivalence about porn. I'd like to think it could be made in a way that doesn't abuse, exploit or demean, but I'm not convinced that's happening now as the industry norm.

That Motella post was awful and I'm glad you didn't link it. If I was in the motel industry I'd be pretty concerned about people getting the idea that that blog was somehow representative (although to be fair they make it clear they are not representatives or anything like that).

Sandra - too heavy to stand on a soapbox, but undeterred said...

I am just so relieved that you have made this post. I've had a lot of unease about the acceptability of the porn usage portrayal in the media coverage of the credit card drama. The sense of not being alone in my concerns is helpful.

ms p said...

Danyl,

I'm not saying consuming porn is ethically worse than buying sweat-shop produced goods or that I'm so ethical for not watching porn.

It's that I understand how people can buy shoes and just think about how pretty the shoes are, not how the person who made them was exploited. However, I personally find it harder to understand that disconnect that people have when it comes to porn.

Cos' while you may be confident that the chances of porn containing rape are zero, I am not.

AnneE said...

What I found most objectionable was the way in which Mr Jones played up the "I am a red-blooded male" angle. Sub-text: therefore of course the first thing that occurs to me when on my own in a hotel room is to watch porn, and any "normal" male would do the same - and I wasn't impressed by Tom Scott's message that Labour should be pleased to have such chaps around, to offset the women and "abnormal" men. The demeaning narrative is, I would think, pretty much endemic in porn. Given the vast market, it serves as a constant reinforcer of the idea that what women are really for is sexual use by men.

Maia said...

Here's how I formulate a similar point to Deborah's point about rape and porn.

My standard for not-rape is meaningful consent. I don't think you can give meaningful consent unless you can say no.

In Romeo and Juliet right near the end there's an apothecory who says "My poverty, but not my will consents." That's true of a lot of the things people do for money. Sometimes both our poverty and our will is consenting, but sometimes it's just one of them. Economic conercion and meaningful consent are incompatible.

That doesn't mean no one can ever give meaningful consent to something that they're paid to do. Just that two people doing exactly the same thing - one may only be consenting because of their poverty - and the other may also be consenting because of their will.

I am not arguing that all (or even a particularly large percentage - I'm truly ignorant of that) material with actual sex acts made to be bought and sold (rule number 1 of porn arguments is define your terms) exist because of coercion, economic or otherwise. However, I do think it's very difficult to impossible for someone buying media with actual sex acts in it to know whether or not a performer is giving meaningful consent, or whether it is just their poverty consenting.

So I think that, unless you really do your homework, buying media that contains actual sex acts is inconsistent with what Deborah described as the gold standard of consenting adults (and I'd add the word 'meaningful' to that).

Where I think that's different from sneakers is not in the production itself, but that there is a widespread problem with people ignoring meaningful consent when it comes to sex. Whereas the only people who ignore meaningful consent in clothes production are employers.

(The rest of my analysis of sexually explicit material that is made to be bought and sold is where I sound as much like a Marxist as anyone who has never read any Marx can - and talk about use value and exchange value, but that'll have to wait for another time).

Hugh said...

Anne, you've said that the demeaning narrative is 'endemic' in porn. I presume you're choosing to discount the vast ammount of gay male pornography, which by some estimates accounts for nearly 40% of all porn produced? Or do you feel that it also promotes a narrative of female subservience to men?

Hugh said...

Having thought about this a teensy bit more I think something that would probably address everybody's concerns re: porn would be some kind of 'pornwatch' group that investigated the working conditions of pornographic actors and actresses and certified productions that met standards of non-coercion, workplace safety and so on, allowing porn consumers to make the choice to consume ethically that, as Maia points out, they are not ideally placed to make right now.

Those of us who feel that there is benevolent porn out there would be able to only consume that. And those of us who are sceptical about performer's rights within the porn industry would see their concerns validated and would be able to make a stronger case.

Of course there are massive problems with methology, funding etc etc. And there'd probably be some dispute as to what is considered 'OK' (the Annabel Choong example is illustrative). But so much of the disagreement here seems to arise from disagreements over actual conditions in the porn industry, which it's very difficult to find more than isolated incidents of information about. If you want anecdotes that illustrate the porn industry as exploitative and predatory, you can find them, but if you want anecdotes that depict the industry as hospitable, you can find them too. What's needed is information about specific pornographic products, and I think this hypothetical 'pornwatch' could provide that.

Danyl said...

The problem with the poverty precludes meaningful consent argument is that you logically have to extend it to all products you buy, not just porn - at which point it becomes meaningless. Would the staff at The Warehouse or the local supermarket be working there if they weren't poor and needed the money? Of course not - so they haven't giving 'meaningful consent' and by that argument are therefore slaves.

If your solution to this problem is that someone should invent a superiour alternative to capitalism and then we should all live in it - well that's not a very practical answer to the question of ethics and pornography.

Anonymous said...

For people who are looking for porn that most probably doesn't exploit anyone:

A few years back, when single for a spell, I found a great website that contained sex stories. Anyone could send one in. The stories were organised by category or you could search by author (some authors were very good writers so they were worth following regardless of category). The categories went from no-sex romance, to the more extreme forms of DBSM, and everything inbetween.

What I liked about this site was that I could use it as a trigger to explore my own sexuality, but because there were no pictures, it was likely that no one was harmed in their production.

Of course, I couldn't be sure of this, perhaps some of the stories may have been based on real events. There was a rape fantasy category, for example. But it was quite likely that many of the stories were fictional.

It struck me as a more ethical approach to porn. As a heterosexual woman, it was also one of my few porn options, because most porn is created for the male gaze (straight or gay).

Anonymous said...

Read a while ago a very good book of which a third was devoted to discussing the moral aspects of pornography (unfortunately I can't remember the name). It detailed - as others have done in the comments - that much of the pornography is done without the actors' informed consent. That many of the women had been abused etc while young... And it tracked the rise in violence. Now it is not unheard of for one women to "service" 50 men in one day - do people have any idea idea what that does to womens' bodies? Not being able to walk properly after that is the least of a woman's problems.
The book also explored more ethical porn and in particular porn made for women by women. The problem was that for one producer wanting to produce such material, ie consenting women who weren't being brutalised, using condoms etc was that the big porn companies with the money just weren't interested. Their response was that men (their main market) wanted violent porn.