How the hardcore porn industry is ruining young men's lives

AFEW years ago at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, the biggest porn convention in the United States, Abbywinters.com, an Australian porn company, had one of the largest booths. It bills itself as offering "real, passionate, unscripted" sexual activity by "happy, healthy, regular girls in their normal environments". The company markets its female masturbation and girl/girl videos as featuring women with "no make-up, no fake boobs, no airbrushing".

The Abbywinters.com women did stand out from the other porn performers in the room, but their girl/girl action (the industry's term for lesbian sex tailored to a male audience) didn't look much different from the industry norm.

With all varieties of cameras, men surrounded the booth, vying for the best angles to record images of women being sexual.

That moment provides an important reminder: pornography, at its core, is a market transaction in which women's bodies and sexuality are offered to male consumers in the interests of maximising profit. In the end, it's about attracting the most "wankers" possible.

Though reliable numbers are hard to come by, the global industry was estimated to be worth a staggering $96 billion in 2006, with the US market worth about $13 billion. Each year more than 13,000 porn films are released and their revenues rival those of all the major Hollywood studio films combined. DailyTech, an online magazine, reports that a recent study found about 37 per cent of online pages contain pornographic content, and porn sites increased 17 per cent from 2009 to 2010.

Adult Video News, the trade paper of the porn industry, says the most profitable porn today is that which depicts hardcore, body-punishing sex - called "Gonzo" by the industry. In this type of porn, sex is not about making love. The feelings and emotions we normally associate with such an act - connection, empathy, tenderness, caring, affection - are missing, and in their place are those we normally associate with hate: fear, disgust, anger, loathing and contempt.

The man "makes hate" to the woman, as each sex act is designed to deliver the maximum amount of degradation. Whether it be aggressive fellatio or violent sodomy, the goal of porn sex is to illustrate how much power he has over her. Yet the women are still portrayed as enjoying these scenes. Images like these are commonplace on the internet and shape the way men think about sex, relationships and intimacy.

A key factor driving the growth of the porn market has been the development of technologies allowing users to buy and consume porn in private, without embarrassing trips to seedy stores or video rental shops. These technologies also enable pornography to be viewed anywhere, any time: even the global mobile phone market for porn is expected to reach $3.5 billion this year, according to British-based Juniper Research.

This is a business with considerable political clout, with the capacity to lobby politicians, engage in expensive legal battles and use public relations to influence public debate. The business is increasingly able to deploy a sophisticated and well-resourced marketing machine, not just to push its wares but to cast the industry's image in a positive light - promoting myths that porn is harmless fun, that it is all about fantasy and we should not take it seriously.

We should be taking porn very seriously. Studies show that the more porn men watch, the more they want to play out porn sex in the real world. They become bored with their sex partners because they don't look or act like the women in porn. What troubles many of these men most is that they need to pull up the porn images in their head in order to have an orgasm with their partner. They replay porn scenes in their minds, or think about having sex with their favourite porn star when they are with their partners.

What is new over the past five years or so is young men admitting their addiction to pornography. I had been somewhat sceptical of the addiction model, thinking that it was a way for men to avoid taking responsibility for their porn use. But sex and relationship therapists Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz discuss in their book The Porn Trap how therapists are seeing a wave of porn addicts looking for help. They find that "what used to be a small problem for relatively few people had grown to a societal issue that was spilling over and causing problems in the lives of countless everyday people".

The addicted young men I speak to do indeed end up in serious trouble. They neglect their school work, spend huge amounts of money they don't have, become isolated from others, and often suffer depression. They know something is wrong, feel out of control, and don't know how to stop. Some of the most troubling stories I hear are from men who have become so desensitised that they have started using harder porn and end up masturbating to images that had previously disgusted them. Many of these men are deeply ashamed and frightened, as they don't know where all this will end.

As someone who has studied porn for more than 20 years, I also don't know where all this is going to end. If we have any hope of stemming the tide, we need to build a movement that includes grassroots education programs and media strategies that lead to cultural change.

It also needs to offer an enticing, positive vision of sexuality based on equality and respect. As long as we have porn, women will never be seen as full human beings deserving of all the rights that men have. We need to build a vibrant movement that fights for a world in which women have power in and over their lives, because there is no room for porn in a just society.

Gail Dines is professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College, Boston, and the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality.

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