Not an Odalisque


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During the Enlightenment the phrase ‘philosophical articles’ referred to pornographic texts. Well, it did among French booksellers, anyway. I sometimes wonder how Western culture had found itself in the position of reviling pornography with such a full-throated roar, while producing and consuming so much of it.

An American court ruling in 1973 decided that pornography is devoid of artistic merit. That’s a very different definition from the one we had been working with for the last few thousand years. If we put the semantics to one side for a minute, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that it may be an empirical observation. Most pornography is lacking in the artistic techniques of filmmaking, from plot and character to lighting and camera angles. Few people really take exception to pornography on the basis of bad lighting, though. The more compelling arguments are about its effects on participants and consumers.

There have been many well-publicised cases of abuse and exploitation during the production of pornography. The story of ‘Linda Lovelace’, who claimed that she was forced to film ‘Deep Throat’ at gunpoint is probably the best known, but you don’t have to look very far to find more. Systemic abuse dates back to Reuben Sturman, the father of contemporary film pornography. Sturman began building his empire in America in the 1950s when the material was illegal. He dominated the global market until 1989. There is significant evidence that his business enjoyed protection and support from the highest levels of the Mafia. It wasn’t pretty. It was just as coercive and violent as drug dealing or sex trafficking is today. What else could we expect?

Vulnerable women suffer disproportionately in the pornography industry, as they do in any other. People vulnerable due to economic disadvantage, socio-cultural norms of femininity and previous abuse are more likely to be exploited in any industry or any relationship. Yet they do seem to form a disproportionate number of workers in sex industries: one study reports that 85% of prostitutes in the UK suffered physical abuse in their family; various studies agree that about 70% of prostitutes suffered sexual abuse as children. Given that roughly 25% of women nationally have suffered sexual abuse, there’s a large concentration of them among sex workers.

What is the correlation? Are these victims trapped in their trauma, constantly recreating painful episodes from their lives? Or do other factors cause the correlation, the economic difficulties of trying to eat after you’ve run away from your abusive step-father, or of trying to fund the drug habit you’ve acquired to suppress the bad memories? As I look at the horrible stereotype I have just painted, I also wonder if I have any right to speculate on the motives of abused people, coming from the picture-perfect childhood that I had. Prostitutes and porn stars may be more survivors than victims, people who have chosen a lifestyle which they find fulfilling and rewarding. After all, entrepreneurs are more likely to have suffered bereavement during childhood, and few commentators extrapolate that their shareholders are exploitative.

There are few industries devoid of exploitation or abuse in some form. I don’t buy Coca Cola because I disapprove of the way they treat their workers, but I don’t condemn soft drinks in general. Clothing is not immoral, despite the fact that some has been produced in sweatshops, and food is not immoral, although some of it is produced by exploited farmers. I don’t have a solution on how to regulate the industry, but I do think that, as sex worker Catherine Stephens suggests, finding it may involve people like me shutting up and people like her being consulted. So I’ll put that to one side and concentrate on the viewers.

Traditionally, pornography has been characterised by a form in which the object is female, the male subject is almost a blank space onto which a viewer may project himself. I think of it as the ‘insert penis here’ genre. This approach is troubling as it arouses desire without agency, the user inhabiting the role without any control over the actions performed. Most contemporary pornography utilises a handful of stereotypes. Women are either sexual predators or sexually voracious under a thin veneer, black women are animalistic, ‘oriental’ women have access to esoteric sexual secrets and are very eager to please, blondes enjoy being dominated and schoolgirls are charming in their ingenuous innocence. I would not argue that pornography should simply depict reality, but its internal relations may be more valuable if they were more nuanced, and reflected a wider range of sexual identities.

With the arrival of the information age the industry which grew under Sturman has exploded. The pornographic film industry is bigger than Hollywood. The internet allows anyone to create, distribute and receive pornography, so the quantity and variety of pornography has grown. You want violent pornography? Pornography involving children? Rape? Degradation?

There’s no reason to get too excited, though. Yes, every bizarre predilection is catered for, and in some cases I wish it wasn’t. Some photographs of flesh hook suspension I came across on Fetlife recently spring to mind. However, this material plays a much larger part in our fantasy of pornography than in the material actually being distributed. Women Against Pornography estimates that only six percent of pornography is violent. That’s a group which surely has an interest in a nice high figure. How many more violent porn films would we have to make each year to match the number made by Hollywood? I can’t tell you. I can tell you that while there is evidence that violent films increase aggression in viewers, violent crime decreases on the release of a violent film. All the aggressive buggers go to the cinema. You can argue this one either way.

The problem goes much deeper than violence or the reduction of sexuality to the physical, into social constructions of, for example, race, gender, and age. I do worry that some young men derive too much of their ‘knowledge’ about sex from this rather unreliable source, but then, they weren’t looking for documentaries, so perhaps I could credit them with the insight to realise that they are buying other people’s fantasies. That is something we are happy for people to do from the moment they hear their first fairy tale, throughout lives filled with films, books and more advertising than you can shake a stick at. So why worry about the influence of this genre in particular?

Fortunately, in this plethora of new material there is a chance to reclaim pornography as an art form.
New forms are emerging to help us re-evaluate. The internet has created a huge forum for amateur pornography in which individuals can portray their sexuality without reference to the roles of the American pornography industry. They are able to choose to represent themselves as they wish, with emotion, their own bodies, transgressions and desires. This gives rise in turn to whole new genres, such as ‘feeder porn’ which celebrates a figure very rarely seen in the industry’s films. More pornography is being made by and for women. Individuals selling through their own websites with low production costs have a greater level of control over the image of themselves which they choose to sell. This gives them the power to refuse to modify their bodies or simulate desires to conform to stereotypes of mainstream pornography. There is plenty of AltPorn out there in which bodies have been modified in the opposite direction.

For too long, pornography has been an industry. People all over the world now have the means to challenge that. We have the opportunity, with new technologies, to make this genre art. Like any art, it can make subtle points, communicate emotion and pathos, and really turn you on. I don’t mean better lighting and more plot, but new roles for men, women and new roles for their bodies. That is the potential, what reason can we have for condemning it?

Just to prove I did my research:

Written by Not an Odalisque

December 1, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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One Response

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  1. Great post. You’ve tried to look at the nuances without condemning either groups – pro porn or anti porn.

    If you’d like to read some great pornography, and you don’t mind comics, I suggest ‘The Lost Girls’ by Alan Moore.


    January 12, 2010 at 8:42 am

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