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    Why Talking About Violence in Pornography Is Important

    Written by

    Kelly Bourdet

    Though the availability and morality of hardcore pornography has been debated since the internet made it more widely available, it’s traditionally been those on the conservative side of the fence arguing against it. But in the past month, Iceland has seriously put forth the prospect of banning violent internet pornography, though they don’t really specify how violent that "violent" is.

    Icelandic society is hardly a traditional one; Icelanders have an openly gay prime minister, and their politics are nothing if not progressive. Yet they're growing increasingly wary that violent pornography undermines women’s gender equality and augments young children's libidos irrevocably.

    According to Halla Gunnarsdóttir, adviser to the interior minister Ögmundur Jónasson, “We are a progressive, liberal society when it comes to nudity, to sexual relations, so our approach is not anti-sex but anti-violence. This is about children and gender equality, not about limiting free speech."

    Occupying a space between fantasy and reality unlike that portrayed in non-pornographic films or videogames, porn requires performers to actually experience the fantasy they’re selling. In hardcore pornography, porn where the selling point can be rough sex or violence, the appeal is not simply the depiction of a sex act, but the power dynamics between the actors on screen. Though they are actresses, doubtlessly exaggerating for the camera, the women really are gagging. Though it's consensual, they really are being slapped in the face.

    It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with actors gagging or being slapped in the face or doing the slapping, but I do think it's reasonable to be able to have the conversation about whether, over time, watching all that slapping alters either our opinions or our behaviors. 

    Though they are actresses, the women really are gagging. Though it's consensual, they really are being slapped in the face.

    When we think about violence in pornography, we need to reassess the questions we ask ourselves. When we misframe the important question as whether it is "okay" for individuals to find violence sexually exciting, we will inevitably reach a dead-end. An individual’s sexualization of any act or preferences is philosophically valueless. Or rather, no one is here to judge that impulse. 

    The questions we should be asking are whether viewers of violent pornography escalate to more and more violent pornography (in effect, whether they need more violence to achieve similar arousal) and whether the increasing availability of violent pornography attracts viewers who were not initially attracted to violent pornography. But most importantly, does pornography that sexualizes aggression translate to real-life aggression? Does it translate to viewpoints on gender roles that diminish men or women?

    A reasonable person would probably allow for the possibility that repeated exposure to violent imagery of any sort could translate to real world aggression, though confounding factors abound. In mainstream movies, we’re comfortably removed from reality, therefore we can relish all manner of scenarios that would normally horrify. We can be entertained by the idea of someone being shot in the head or slapped in the face while understanding that it’s artifice.

    When we watch hardcore pornography we understand it’s artificial in many ways, but the violence (or forcefulness) itself isn’t faked in the same way it is in traditional films. It looks like violence because it is violence. It seems possible that the diminished degree of removal could have some impact, even subconsciously, on the viewer. 

    If viewing artificial violence – shooting virtual people in video games – can alter behavior and increase aggression, and if we accept that human beings are capable of becoming at least partially desensitized to any extreme behavior that they repeatedly observe, then what happens when that observed behavior is violent pornography? It's a question that should at least be considered.

    Any movie worthy of a kill count supercut is obviously violent. But look at what's portrayed: It's obviously not happening in real life. But porn's violence, however staged, is actually happening between performers.

    It can seem decidedly unhip, for many reasons, to question the role of violent media on our behaviors; it can feel too close to aligning with the views of conservative moralists. Especially in the realm of pornography, the focus on avoiding censorship and remaining non-judgmental on sexual proclivities has been taken very seriously. This is understandable, as the fight to destigmatize sex and sexuality is often conflated with the fight to destigmatize pornography. But although they can be related in many ways, they aren’t equal.

    In the wake of various mass shootings last year, as the cable news networks shifted into gear for discussion around violence in America, gone was much of the scapegoating of violent video games that occurred so often in the 90s. When NRA president Wayne LaPierre blamed games after Sandy Hook, he was fairly roundly criticized. The same goes for movies. The Aurora shooting sparked a discussion about violence in Hollywood, but fewer people than in years past were willing to try to link action movies to real-life violence.

    But as Stephen Marche smartly observed in the New York Times, “A new cliché has taken hold, though, one that insists on an absolute separation between violent art and real violence.” Much like the “video games make children kill” hysteria of the 80s and 90s, this sentiment misses the mark by oversimplifying. No media “makes” human beings do things, but neither are we impervious to the effects of normalized actions. 

    In much the same way, Iceland's actions seek a simple solution for a complex issue. It's reductive to say that violent pornography is simply bad for society, and it's not also not true. Legal pornography doesn't translate into more criminal sexual actions, though there's a host of possible confounding reasons for that too. Pornography proponents would say that legal porn provides an outlet for otherwise criminal sexual impulse; porn critics would say that pornography causes women to be more accepting of sexual violence, therefore they report less.

    I would wager that it's socially progressive societies that typically legalize pornography, and as societies become more progressive, women typically gain more social capital to oppose sexual violence against them. So "violent" porn doesn't translate into violence, but does it change the way we think or view others?

    The fact that violent pornography more frequently features men dominating women mimics the actual gender power imbalance in our culture, and it may be more old-fashioned than many are willing to admit. That finding is highlighted in a study by researchers at the University of Hawaii that examined pornography’s association with gender dynamics in the US, Japan, and Norway.


    The higher the ratio of empowering vs. disempowering images in these countries, the more likely women were to have actual social power.

    Using the United Nations' Gender Empowerment Measure, a standardized measurement of women’s political and economic power in any country – Norway is 1, the United States is 15, and Japan is 54 – researchers evaluated the number of empowering pornographic images (images where women were confident, unbound, and comfortable) as well as the number of “disempowering” images (images where women were bound, contorted, or clearly uncomfortable) in each country.

    Though disempowering images were equally as common across all three countries, the higher the Gender Empowerment Measure of a country, the more common empowering images were. In other words, the higher the ratio of empowering vs. disempowering images in these countries, the more likely women were to have actual social power.

    Though you could argue that the pornography is merely a reflection of common gender roles in a country (i.e. that it isn’t causing them), I think making the distinction is irrelevant in this case. If the countries where men have more actual power enjoy pornography that reflects that power imbalance, then it’s pretty clear that the prevalence of disempowering or violent pornography isn’t meaningless.

    I think what Iceland is trying to get at is that there is something unsettling about the seemingly infinite images of more violent or aggressive pornography that are available. But what they're proposing is actually part of the problem. What we need is acknowledgment, debate, and discussion, not the threats of banning an entire, vaguely defined genre. Many things are better for us in moderation. Perhaps there are types of pornography that fall into that category as well.

    Obviously, banning pornography (or whatever "violent pornography" is) is not the answer, but neither is pretending that media can't influence behavior and beliefs. We need to get at the uncomfortable truths underlying why we love violent pornography -- or just plain violence for that matter -- and what it does or doesn't say about a culture. Additionally, we might keep in mind that pornography has traditionally been made by and for men; it is naturally steeped in a masculine view. As women become more vocal guides of pornography's vision -- producing, directing, and selling porn -- I would argue that porn will become more inclusive of various sexual interests. It's our inability to talk rationally about pornography that harms us the most.