Bare truths about porn: Pornification of modern society is taking a toll on our sexual morality

RECENTLY, a friend of mine told me over coffee that the man she was seeing had told her he wanted to punch her in the face while they were in bed together.

"I want to do illegal things to you," she recounted him saying in a rather breathless voice.

It was the first time that sexuality and violence had merged together to become one intimidating and bewildering concept to her.

Was this simply a moment of sexual freedom of expression as last century's hangover of conservatism makes way for comfortable discussions about sexual desire?

Or was this moment symptomatic of the quickening pace of the "pornification" of society?

The term "pornification" was coined by US journalist Pamela Paul to describe the way pornographic videos, images and stories can seep into our lives to dictate behaviour between the sheets and beyond.

The overarching question in the 'pornification' debate is this: are there consequences of the pornography industry providing the most prominent form of sexual education for men?

Last year, a University of Sydney study found that more than 70 per cent of Australian men consume pornography online, although some statistics suggest the percentage is as high as 90 per cent.

The average age of first exposure to online pornography in Australia is 11 years old, while 80 per cent of 15 to 17-year-olds have had multiple "hardcore" exposure.

WHEN it comes to modern mainstream pornography, gone are the days of buxom bunnies coyly winking down a Playboy lens with a fluffy ball sitting atop their tailbone.

Diving into the world of online pornography reveals a billion-dollar industry where claims of female exploitation are rampant and producers of pornography are struggling to keep up with the increasing demand for extreme sexual imagery.

Adult Video News , a leading porn trade magazine in the US, conducted a 2010 study which found the majority of scenes from 50 of the top-rented pornography movies contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted at the female performers. Physical aggression, including smacking, open-hand slapping, and gagging, occurred in 88 per cent of scenes, while verbal aggression - calling the woman names such as bitch or slut - were found in half of the scenes.

The researchers concluded that 90 per cent of scenes contained at least one aggressive act where both physical and verbal aggression were combined.

According to the industry however, this aggression is simply a response to audience demand.

American journalist Robert Jensen penned a part-manifesto/part-memoir in 2007 called Getting Off: Pornography And The End Of Masculinity, where he quotes an American pornography director and actor known as Jules Jordan.

"One of the things about today's porn and the extreme market, the gonzo market, so many fans want to see so much more extreme stuff that I'm always trying to figure out ways to do something different," Jordan is quoted as saying. "But it seems everybody wants to see a girl doing a d.p. [double penetration] now or a gang-bang . . . a lot of fans are becoming a lot more demanding about wanting to see the more extreme stuff."

ANTI-PORN campaigner Dr Gail Dines is a professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College in Boston, an internationally acclaimed speaker and author, and a feminist activist. She argues the consequences of pornography consumption is, at best, leaving people "robbed of an authentic, creative, and playful sexuality" and at worst, creating "significant positive associations with attitudes supporting violence against women".

"Today, mainstream porn is what we used to call hardcore before the internet," she says. "The internet made porn accessible, anonymous and affordable and thus increased demand. The majority of porn on the free porn sites (the most trafficked porn sites, and the portal into paid porn sites) contain verbal, physical and sexual abuse against the women.

"This means that the kind of sex found in porn constructs the users' notions about normative sexual behaviour and encourages acts of sexual violence against women."

Dines cites a 2010 study by Hald, Malamuth and Yuen which concluded that there was a "significant overall relationship between pornography consumption and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies".

"This relationship was found to be significantly stronger for violent pornography than for non-violent pornography, although both types of pornography showed significant positive associations with attitudes supporting violence against women," she says.

BUT where some see pornography as being detrimental to broader societal standards about consent and intimacy, others believe it has a positive effect on the exploration of female sexuality.

American porn star Belle Knox recently argued that pornography empowers female workers and consumers.

"We as performers have rights to express ourselves and as long as everything is consensual and legal, then more power to everyone involved," Belle Knox writes.

"Whatever choice a woman is making and she is the one deciding to do - reclaiming the agency behind the decision to do, even if it is a degrading sexual act - is absolutely feminism. To me, feminism is about women not being shamed but rather being empowered.

"My fantasies in the bedroom are ONLY about what arouses me, which is completely unrelated to gender roles, feminism or my value and worth as a woman or human being."

However, Newcastle feminist blogger Shannon West says to exclude sexuality from the pornography debate in the name of feminism is dangerous.

"Sex-positive feminists and/or pro-porn, pro-kink people of all kinds have made this discussion solely about women's choice to engage with porn," she says.

"I would argue that the most important thing we could discuss when it comes to porn is those who consume it, and precisely what they want to consume, and why they consume it.

"Men weren't born wanting to watch women cry as multiple men have sex with them, wanting to hit women during sex and see women be hit during sex, seeking out more and more brutal and body punishing footage the longer they consume porn."

Newcastle sexologist Vanessa Thompson agrees that pornography consumption can become a "vicious cycle" that can create an insatiable sexual appetite in men.

"It can give the man unrealistic expectations of sex as most pornography fails to use foreplay, the men in pornography have bigger penises, which can make him feel bad, and the women tend to have louder, more intense and a greater number of orgasms which can make him feel like either he or his partner is not sexually adequate," she says.

"This in turn makes the pornography addict feel bad which leads him to use more pornography to make himself feel better and the vicious cycle continues."

Thompson sees an rising number of men in the Hunter region who are struggling with an addiction to pornography.

"With a pornography addiction a man typically requires more and more extreme types of pornography to get the same 'thrill' that he got when his addiction started . . . Their boundaries become blurred and they become more and more desensitised to sexual imagery."

NEVERTHELESS, Thompson says the "casual use" of pornography can be enjoyable for couples to stimulate their sex life. "If a couple is able to see pornography for the fantasy it is and not let it impact on their expectations of sex, they may enjoy its use," she says.

Bourke Parsons, a pornography film director and producer based in Melbourne, agrees. He says it's important for users to remember that pornography is not supposed to be reflective of a normal sex life.

"Sex is done for the enjoyment of the people participating whereas porn is done for the enjoyment of the people watching. It is fantasy, whether it is filmed to look as realistic as possible or not, it will always be fantasy.

"Action films are not real life, drama shows are not real life, porn is not real life . . . Why is it some people think we can easily understand fantasy in one context but would struggle to understand it in another?"

Professor Dines argues understanding the distinction between pornography and "real life" is not as straight forward as Parsons says.

"What we do know from over 40 years of empirical research is that the more porn men consume, the more likely they are to believe the messages, ideologies and stories of porn," she says. "This is especially true of the younger consumers because they have no actual experience of sex outside of their viewing of porn."

Dines suggests the way forward is to "go after porn much like you go after other predatory industries such as big tobacco" in introducing mandatory regulation and a better environment for workers while improving sex education for young people.

"You regulate the industry and at the same time you develop a public health approach that educates people and develops consciousness as to the harms porn generates. This entails building coalitions between educators, medical experts, youth leaders, community activists, parents and anti-violence professionals."

"Only by creating a multi-pronged approach, can we begin to take down the porn industry."

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