Saturday, 25 February 2012

A welcome alternative to real women

*Trigger Warning* - this post contains discussion of violent pornography and includes a segment of Kat Banyard's 'The Equality Illusion' where she describes a porn video.

Someone left a comment on my blog this week, on my post about Unilad and rape culture. I deleted the comment, but one sentence really stood out and frightened me:

'it [porn] offers a welcome alternative to real women, in that it never says no'.

I shared the story on Twitter, and one of my followers replied that although s/he was not anti-porn, this attitude was horrific. What causes it, s/he asked. Well, I have three answers. Porn. Patriarchy. Entitlement.

Both Kat Banyard's book 'The Equality Illusion' and Natasha Walter's 'Living Dolls' explore some of the reasons why men use the sex industry, from pornography to lap dancing clubs to prostitution. One motivation that has consistently stood out for me is the idea that by paying for a sexual interaction with a woman, these men are able to escape from the modern world and return to a sexist's paradise where women are submissive, do as their told and sexually gratify them. As one former lap dancer in Kat's book says:

'I truly believe that the reason men pay for lap dances is not because they are titillated visually by the sight of a naked woman, or even because the sexual contact is particularly stimulating. They do it because they get a power rush from paying a woman to take her clothes off. She is vulnerable and he is powerful, and that's the real allure - that's the real reason the clubs are getting so popular. Lap-dancing clubs are places in which you can all pretend that feminism never happened.' (p 139 first ed)

This 'pre-feminist paradise' is part of a continuum that starts at places like Hooters, where women laugh at the men's jokes and aren't allowed to object to being sexually harassed and objectified, to porn where women are degraded and harmed for a presumed-male audience's sexual gratification, to lap dancing clubs and prostitution.

Natasha's book also quotes some research on men's attitudes to women in the so-called sex industry with similar findings. I've lent the book to a friend though so don't have the data on hand.

The comment left on my blog reflects this attitude. It's almost hard to be angry about the comment, as opposed to feel a sort of pathetic pity for a man who feels so much anger and resentment at women that he sees porn as offering a 'welcome alternative...because it never says no' (actually, scrap that, I'm furious). What is this guy saying here? He's saying that the women in porn aren't 'real women'. Instead, they're objects, disembodied objects that perform sexual pleasure, or are even victims of filmed sexual violence, for his own sexual gratification. As Kat says in her book, 'the sex industry requires its consumers to detach mentally from the living, breathing human being stimulating their sexual arousal, as if she were simply a collection of body parts' (p. 142, 1st ed). The fact that he can separate the women in porn from the 'real women' he interacts with in his day-to-day life betrays a very real sexism and misogyny that refuses to see women in the sex industry as anything other than objects. Because, of course, the women in porn, women in the wider sex industry, are real women too. Just like me, just like this commenter's mum or sister or girlfriend. But the sex industry successfully sells its 'product' as just that, an object to buy and use, as opposed to see and understand to be human, to be a woman. How dare these people say that the women in pornography aren't real women, with thoughts and desires and a voice that might want to say no, but can't? Who do they think they are?

The real disturbing part of the comment is of course the 'it never says no'. Unlike those pesky 'real women' outside of porn, to this man the women in porn don't get to say no. Or, when they do get to say no in the films, it's ignored. They don't say no to being hurt, or degraded, they don't have a voice to say stop, or that hurts, or sorry but I just don't fancy that tonight darling. To the porn audience, the woman on the film, whether she is consenting or not, (and, as I always point out, we don't actually know the answer to that question - look at Linda Lovelace) is just a collection of body parts. To put it bluntly, a collection of orifices. Her voice, her pleasure, her desire, her bodily autonomy - none of that matters to the person sat in front of the screen, getting off. As far as I can tell, it doesn't matter to the porn consumer or the john who pays for a woman in a brothel or on the street or in a lap dancing club if the woman is consenting and has a voice to say no if she wants to. If it did, then we wouldn't have this scenario [trigger warning]:

'A man off-camera asks her how she's enjoying America. She doesn't understand and it becomes immediately obvious that the woman speaks very little English. The film then abruptly cuts to a scene of a man repeatedly thrusting his penis down her throat so far that she throws up...she throws up a second time...The film cuts again, this time to show a man having sex with her...she is crying. The sound she makes when she is crying suggests she is also in physical pain...The video...had an average rating by viewers of 7.84.' [The Equality Illusion, p. 156, 1st ed]

The woman in that video was denied a voice to say no in every way. Even if she consented to the filming and the lack of consent is acted (and I question that), the point of the film is that she is denied a voice, and in the film consent is not given. The point of the film is her sexual exploitation. That's what the viewer is being asked to get off on. She wasn't allowed to say no, or stop, or object. And I mean, I'm not here to police people's desires and fantasies, but I can't help but feel there's a problem with people giving a 7+* rating to a video of what pretty clearly appears to be filmed rape. But then again, with comments celebrating porn because it 'doesn't say no', I'm also not surprised.

Why are these men so angry? Why do they resent women's right to say no? Well, I believe it is rooted in a sense of entitlement, that is part patriarchy, part rape culture and part the never-hear-the-word-no-and-even-if-you-do-it's-ignored porn culture. As we've already seen, the men who express these views have successfully managed to compartmentalise 'real women' who aren't in the sex industry and who might say no, with the 'unreal women' in the sex industry who always say yes, or whose mouths are kept shut. I've often observed that men who are misogynists, or men who are violent, have this sense of entitlement over women's bodies. They don't have any respect for women's bodily autonomy. They've learnt or learnt to believe that they can do what they like to women. And if that woman doesn't want to, if she says no, then she's difficult, or a bitch. Unlike the 'welcome alternative to real women' that the sex industry offers, where men can do what they like to women and she doesn't have a say in the matter.

It's like every MRA argument I have ever heard, ever, has its roots in an unshakeable sense of male entitlement to women's bodies.

One comment that often gets made in defence of violent porn or filmed rape (because, as I say, you don't know if that free vid on the internet is real or acted rape. You just DON'T!) is that just like violent video games don't make players shoot people in real life, violent porn doesn't mean you're going to be violent against women and girls. And, of course, this is true in many ways. But there's also plenty of research from Gail Dines and others about how it incresases tolerance of violence against women and girls and in some cases is causal. And I know mentioning Gail Dines is like a red rag to a bull to pro porn people, but she has done the research, as have others. My experience speaking to Rape Crisis Centres is the same - that something like 90% of the cases they hear involve porn as part of the grooming or violence. The other point is that people don't tend to have an orgasm when they're playing Grand Theft Auto. But with violent and rape porn, we're learning to associate sexual pleasure, one of the most intense physiological experiences, with images that degrade and harm women. Young men are growing up learning about sex and satsifying their very normal and natural sexual curiousity via porn (because god knows Gove isn't going to let them learn about it in school). They are then left with the message that their girlfriends want to be hurt, or degraded; and their girlfriends are learning that this is what they're supposed to like, even if it isn't what they actually want to do or want to consent to (this is a great post by TheNatFantastic on why if that is what you want, then it isn't up to others to police your sex life 1 in 3 teen girls have now experienced unwanted sexual contact or sexual violence - this is a huge problem and has something to do with the fact that young girls are losing their voices, losing their right to say no to sex they don't want to have (whilst simultaneously being told they should say no to sex they might want to have).

I'm going to finish this post with a bit about how this links into prostitution. I don't know if you've ever had the misfortune to read the comments on Punternet, but it's an ugly place, and the culture of reviewing women in the sex industry is honestly and movingly portrayed in this stunning blog post by Secret Diary of a Dublin Call Girl A lot of the reviews show an utter contempt and disgust for women (totally undermining the argument that men who buy women 'respect' them and are, in fact, the ones being exploited). And most of all, they show a total lack of concern for consent. They describe how 'she isn't really into it' or 'looked like she was in pain and wasn't enjoying it' (from memory in Living Dolls). Research also quoted in Living Dolls found that men who paid for women weren't put off even if they knew the woman was trafficked and being exploited. The only thing that put them off (and this knowledge was the insight that drove Object's and Demand Change's poster campaign when the law changed to make 'paying for sex' with an exploited person illegal) was the shame or embarrassment of being caught or arrested.

I mention this because I think it starts with Hooters, it starts with porn, it starts with lap dancing clubs. It starts with comments that porn offers 'a welcome alternative to real women because it doesn't say no'. It's that normalisation of the sexual objectfication of women that stops women being seen as full and active citizens of the world, and instead sees us as passive objects, or unreasonable bitches. Of course, not everyone who goes to Hooters or watches porn or pays for a lap dance goes on to 'pay for sex' with an exploited woman or girl. I am categorically not saying that. Instead, my point is that when we don't challenge this idea that women in porn aren't real women who are 'good' because they don't say no, then we're basically refusing to recognise and allow women's bodily autonomy. Every woman is a real woman. Every woman has a right to bodily autonomy. And when we say porn is good because it never says no, then we're saying that women's right to bodily autonomy is a bad thing.

That's patriarchy. That's a sense of entitlement to women's bodies. And it fucking terrifies me.

Useful Links:

Find your local rape crisis:

Women's Aid Domestic Abuse helpline: 0808 2000 247

Poppy Project helpline:

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