Some men getting worried about porn

Interesting article from the Guardian about a group of men who have set up a website “grounded in feminist principles” to press the case that there is something wrong with pornography, something about which men should be concerned. The article mentions or discusses a wide range of arguments against pornography — that it degrades women, that it leads to sexual violence, that it shapes how men think about women, that the industry is abusive, and so on. As a self-contained summary of the issues and arguments, it’s very neatly done. Some of the discussion below the line is also worth wading through (some of it, naturally, is bilge).

The website itself, The AntiPornMenProject, seems thus far to consist in a mixture of porn-related news, anecdotal articles about the adverse effects of porn on men and their behaviour, and useful summaries of links to further discussions on the subject. I should think that, as it grows, it will become quite a useful resource for people teaching the topic, particularly to classes with a high proportion of men. It’s also, of course, something that seems worthwhile in its own right, and I’m glad it’s getting press attention.

On the subject of teaching about pornography, and going back to the Guardian article, I found two things particularly interesting. First, there was this quotation from Michael Kimmel:

What also strikes me is that young men seem utterly unapologetic about their porn use. It’s like it’s so ubiquitous – what’s the problem? And they expect a similarly casual approach from their female friends.

Second, there was this passage concerning the pseudonymous subject of an interview by Gail Dines for her book “Pornland“:

Dan… is worried about his sexual performance with women, and tells [Dines]: “I can’t get the pictures of anal sex out of my head when having sex, and I am not really focusing on the girl but on the last anal scene I watched”.

I recently covered pornography in a second-year class on feminist philosophy. The class has a healthy proportion of men. The Kimmel quotation sums up the attitude of not just the men, but the entire class, to the issue, and hence to most of the arguments we discussed. Both men and women were unimpressed with Mckinnon-style arguments (“silly”), empirical arguments about links to sexual violence (“exaggerated”), and arguments about the industry (“circumstantial”).

The one suggestion that really seemed to engage them was the idea that pornography could be bad for their own sex lives. Now on this, there was a gender divide in the class. The women were very ready to agree with the idea that pornography normalises a range of sexual behaviour which should perhaps be the subject of explicit negotiation rather than of assumed consent. But the men were less willing to accept this, on the basis that they (if not other men) were too enlightened to assume consent to slapping and facial ejaculation and all that. The second quotation above provides a slightly different tack on this argument. OK boys, perhaps you’re too smart to actually do these things; but the more porn you watch, the more they’ll be on your mind; the more they’ll be on your mind, the worse your sex life will be; so the more porn you watch, the worse your sex life will become. QED.

I don’t mean to suggest that the other arguments against pornography aren’t good, or worth discussing; but this is certainly a tactical move I’ll bear in mind for when I next teach the issue to a class of sceptics about the other arguments.

17 thoughts on “Some men getting worried about porn

  1. You lost me in the middle of the second to last paragraph. How is it proven that watching more porn will make your sex life worse? I understand that is POSSIBLE that watching more porn can make your sex life worse, but I see no proof of the “always” implied in your statements. I admit, it is possible that I simply didn’t follow that argument. Care to explain further?

  2. I’m never quite sure why some feminist arguments which raise concerns about pornography are cast as arguments against porn, rather than as arguments against bad porn. As a feminist surely I can grant that there is a lot of bad porn out there, just as there are bad movies in general, without wanting to throw out an entire genre, in this case sexually explicit material that intends to arouse.

    We might reject specific instances of porn for a variety of reasons. Here is one example. Greta Christina, a sex positive, pro-feminist blogger urges that we boycott Girls Gone Wild because of their lack of concern for consent, see http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2010/10/when-porn-goes-bad-girls-gone-wild.html.

    We might also want to champion feminist porn. See for example The Feminist Porn Awards. See http://www.goodforher.com/feminist_porn_awards.

    But I don’t understand the claim that all porn is bad. All porn isn’t the same. See http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2009/06/is-all-porn-the-same.html

    I’m a feminist but I’m not anti-pornography.

  3. Hello both, thanks for the comments.

    Nick: I’m sorry if I phrased it a little sloppily. Certainly, it would be daft to suggest a necessary link between watching porn and a bad sex life. Rather, the argument is meant to be that anecdotal evidence (of the sort mentioned in the Guardian article and on the website) suggests that this does happen sometimes (often?), and that it might be worth worrying about. The argument is not conclusive; I would expect it to lead to a discussion of whether this is a pervasive problem, and the extent to which the possible consequence is related to the kind of pornography one is watching. Which brings me to…

    Anon: the question why some feminist arguments are cast as against all porn rather than against some porn depends on the particular argument, I think. If you consider a McKinnon-style argument to the effect that pornography constitutes the oppression of women, then the conclusion is going to be about all porn (bear in mind that McKinnon has a quite different conception of what pornography is than the one you offer). On the other hand, an argument premised on the practices of the porn industry is perhaps an argument against the way in which porn is produced currently, rather than an argument against porn itself (unless you add a premiss to the effect that porn will inevitably be produced in bad ways).

    So you’re quite right that it’s possible to be a feminist and also pro-porn, indeed to think that porn is sometimes good for women, while at the same time arguing that particular sorts of porn or ways of producing it are bad. It really depends on what you take to be problematic about porn in the first place.

  4. I am hesitant to put that much weight on anecdotes without accompanying empirical evidence. It’s an intriguing hypothesis that watching porn leads to bad sex life. Are there other data on it? Moreover, I am surprised that the students who find the empirical link to violence “exaggerated” (when I think the data there is quite decent) were not similarly skeptical about the empirical claim about the link between watching porn and bad sex life. That’s interesting.

    To Anonymous,
    You might find sympathies with A.W. Eaton’s “A Sensible Anti-porn Feminism” in Ethics. I think it’s a really illuminating article, though I have minor disagreements with it. The discussions of the article in SGRP might be of interest too: http://web.mac.com/shaslang/SGRP/2008.html

  5. I don’t see that the quotation from Pornland need imply that the speaker (or his sex-partners) is having a bad sex life, nor do I find the second premise of the argument at the end of the post–“the more they’ll be on your mind, the worse your sex life will be”–at all obvious so long as we are talking about reasonable levels of porn use. (I find the opposite of that premise to be true in my own experience but, again, I am talking about what I consider to be very reasonable amounts of porn use.)

    I can see why, though, if the class seems to refuse to question their own views or find anything plausible in any anti-porn argument, you might be searching for a novel sort of argument that they find somewhat intuitively plausible.

    I haven’t yet had the chance to teach the pornography issue, but I wonder (along the lines of comments #2&3) for those that have–how do you approach defining what you mean by “pornography” in class? Eaton’s article (which I haven’t read but just skimmed the first few pages of) is concerned only with “inegalitarian” pornography and I’ve always taken MacKinnon to have something similar in mind. So I am wondering if the students in your class universally having no objection to porn is a matter of their not restricting their use only to the inegalitarian sort of porn?

    For instance, the Kimmel quote comes across very differently to me depending on whether he is talking pornography in general or specifically pornography that endorses or eroticizes women’s subordination. Within my circle of close friends (mostly lesbian/bisexual women’s studies type academics) pornography of the first sort is also ubiquitous and approached unapologetically so it strikes me as not at all strange that men would have similar attitudes toward pornography of the first sort. Or is Kimmel saying that men unapologetically use the sort of porn that endorses the subordination of women and can’t understand why women would object to *that* sort of pornography? (The paragraph above is talking about a site called “slut bus” so quite possibly he is talking about the latter.)

    Objecting to inegalitarian pornography (rather than all pornography) strikes me as a quite plausible on the face of it. But often when hearing and reading about the porn debate the objections do not always appear so narrowly aimed. So I wonder if you described two types of porn to your students–one with a “slutbus” sort of set-up and one that is just hardcore sex without a set-up showing women being humiliated–would they still say there was nothing worriesome about the “slutbus” sort?

  6. I’m skeptical. The question is really like the one of whether one should object to violence–in movies, video games or whatever. Does the availability of this material cause more real life violence? And if it does, is the increment in violence so great that it outweighs the negatives of making objectors look like killjoys and prudes.

  7. I’m surprised the argument that pornography normalises extreme sexual behaviours didn’t have more resonance. As a teenager I sought out and watched a reasonable amount of pornography, as I think is normal for most teenage males nowadays. Even then I was aware of various concerns about the morality of watching pornography, but I thought that, since I was aware of the issues, watching pornography wouldn’t have any effect on me. I felt bad about watching it, but I didn’t think it was bad for me.

    It was only when I got a bit older and entered a sexual relationship of my own that I realised how much watching pornography had warped my view of sex. I’d always identified certain elements of pornography as extreme, but there were many abnormal aspects of pornography that hadn’t appeared extreme to my inexperienced mind.

    Fortunately, when I did begin to have sex I was extremely timid so I didn’t act out any of what I’d seen on screen, but I was surprised at first to learn the things my partner liked and disliked, because pornography had given me a completely false picture about every element of sex.

    It was this that really shocked me. I would have thought this argument would be particularly powerful for men, because it very clearly shows the effect pornography has on us as men. While I always could and obviously still can appreciate the intellectual force of McKinnon-style arguments, as a man I’ll never be on the receiving end of the sort of oppression she describes, so the force of those arguments tends to remain intellectual – at most I “experience” that sort of oppression vicariously when women I’m close to experience it themselves in particular identifiable instances, but it’s an extremely weak sense of “experience” that captures almost nothing of what it’s like.

    I suppose the argument about pornography warping one’s own sense of what sex is like is a very personal one, and the force of the argument only hits home in the context of one’s sexual relationships. I’m not sure I would be comfortable talking about my own experience of the force of that argument in an undergraduate discussion group. So maybe there were men in the group who just didn’t want to speak up? Hopefully that might be true for some at least.

  8. Further to what I said above, and in response to the discussions of inegalitarian vs. egalitarian pornography, I’d say that even cases that are apparently ‘egalitarian’, pornography normalises unusual aspects of sex simply because the vast majority of women in this world aren’t porn actors, so have a very different relationship to sex. I found that even scenarios in ‘egalitarian’ pornography didn’t fit my experience once I entered into actual sexual relationships. That was why I was so hit by how warped my view of things was.

  9. The idea, I take it, is at root not so much ‘pornography leads to a bad sex life’ as ‘extensive use of pornography has cognitive and behavioral effects and some of these effects can be bad in various ways’ (the ones most likely to impress students being those that suggest that it could worsen one’s sex life).

    There seem to be quite a few studies that show that prolonged consumption of pornography has behavioral effects, even when we control for other major variables: it’s associated with an increase in the view that people can’t be faithful to each other, for instance, and with a decrease in satisfaction with one’s regular partners, especially in men; it is associated with an increase (in men) in a tendency to say that women are partly responsible if they are raped (the reverse seems to be the case for women, except where the porn in question actually shows a rape in a positive light), and in an increase in men to accept the claim that rape is under some circumstances acceptable, and this seems to be part of a general tendency to assume that women are always willing to have sex. Or, at least, there were studies that did associate it with these things when last I looked, which was a few years ago (these things can change, of course); Dolf Zillman had done quite a few studies on the subject; he’s the only name I can remember off the top of my head. One of the things that was big then (I don’t know if it is now, or if it is even still accepted now) was that a lot of the studies at the time were finding that violent porn and nonviolent porn actually had some very similar effects, especially on men. It might be good to see if more recent work has been done that confirms or disconfirms this sort of thing; unfortunately, I’m not quite sure where one would begin to do so. Anyone have any recommendations?

  10. Just curious: when people talk about porn, is it assumed to be *hetero* porn? Do the same considerations apply to the case of e.g. lesbian porn actually made for lesbian consumption? (And thus not the pseudo-lesbian stuff made for men.) What about gay porn? Are these distinctions relevant for the discussion? I would think they are, but I remain open to arguments to the effect that ‘porn’ can be treated as one big homogeneous class.
    Also, even for people who are not anti-porn, it’s clear that the picture of sexuality pictured in mainstream porn is quite off the mark. In itself, not so surprising (it’s not like Hollywood films offer a faithful picture of everyday ‘normal’ life), but there is the danger of younger men taking most of their sexual education from porn, as described by one of the anonymous comments above. In this context, I would like to mention the following website:

    http://www.makelovenotporn.com/

    There’s also a great TED talk by Cindy Gallop (who made the website above), in case anybody is curious.

  11. One of the concerns I have is this: If, as it seems to me, successful porn is that which viewers can inscribe their own fantasies in/on, then those performing the porn must empty themselves of “who” they are as persons so that the inscription can occur. It wouldn’t work, would it, if a porn star says, “in real life I am an addict and do these shots to keep myself supplied with the drugs I desire,” or “I’ve left my children alone in a motel so I could come here for this performance so I can pay the rent.” Is it not the case that the performers must be “emptied” of who they are in order to become a thing so that the porn works for the quite wide range of viewers?

  12. Of course those who have a warped view of sex and sexual relationships – whether or not caused by early and/or extended exposure to porn – do not necessarily know they have a warped view. They may think that their view is the right, or the ‘natural’, or the ‘liberated’ or the only possible view of sex (other than the religious/repressed/straightlaced view). But that may be simply because they are unable to understand and appreciate a deep, meaningful, loving, emotional, communicative non-warped view of sex.

    As such they are baffled by those who object to porn as generating a warped view of sex, because they do not understand what other view of sex is possible (other than the religious/repressed/straightlaced view). Hence they cannot understand the harm porn does, so cannot understand why porn production & consumption should be discouraged.

  13. As for practicalities, simple banning of porn would be too unpopular for any politician to attempt. But taxing it is surely a possibility – and increasing revenue is something politicians usually favour! This could be an X$ + Y% tax, so that even porn which is currently offered for free would have to pay the basic X$ charge. The level of taxation could be increased according to how explicit/hardcore/degrading etc it is. Cigarettes and alcohol are punitively taxed in this way, so why not porn?

    In countries other than America there should be no problem. In America there is the issue of the constitution. However as I understand it (which may not be well enough) there is a right to private property enshrined in the constitution, yet it can still be taxed. So just becuase there is a right to freedom of speech in the constitution surely does not mean that pornographic materials cannot be taxed…?.

  14. Sophia –

    Wouldn’t that argument apply to any form of performance art? Depending on what exactly you have in mind, it might also apply to any sort of care work as well — the care worker has to place the needs and desires of the person who’s being cared for above her own needs and desires, at least temporarily.

  15. The women were very ready to agree with the idea that pornography normalises a range of sexual behaviour which should perhaps be the subject of explicit negotiation rather than of assumed consent.

    Shouldn’t all sexual behaviour be the subject of explicit negotiation rather than assumed consent? Granted, a lot of the activity shown in (male/female) porn is designed to look good to the average straight man, not to feel good to the average straight woman, which makes it less likely that a particular straight women will enjoy doing it. But even if something is designed to feel good to the average straight woman, that’s not an adequate reason to presume that any individual woman has consented to it (even if she has consented to have a sexual relationship with you in some general sense).

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