Report from the Challenging Porn Culture conference 3rd December

Here is a report from Julian who attended the Challenging Porn Culture Conference in London last Saturday:

Challenging Porn Culture

This conference took place at London Metropolitan University on Saturday, 3rd December. There were around 140 attendees, including around 15 men. About 80% of attendees appeared to be under 30 years old, and about 95% were white. A brief survey carried out during the introduction revealed that some people had come from Norway, Germany, Israel, Canada, USA, Uruguay and Australia, and about a third of the remainder had travelled from outside the London area.

In the introduction, Dr Julia Long of London South Bank University explained that the conference was organised by British delegates who had attended a Stop Porn Culture conference in Boston last year. The event was made possible by CWASU (Child and Women Abuse Studies Unit, http://www.cwasu.org) at the London Metropolitan University, without any budget or requesting any payment in advance. A donation of £7 was requested, or £3 for student/unwaged. The presentations were videotaped, but the Q&A sections will not be included when the video is made available online. When I have the link for the video I will post it on the Facebook page. In the meantime, here is an outline of the day.

“Aren’t you just a bunch of prudes?” – fighting porn in a porn culture (Prof Gail Dines, Wheelock College, Boston, USA – gaildines.com)

The initial surprise for me was that Gail Dines is British. She explained that she grew up in Manchester and has lived in the US for the last 25 years. She is a charismatic and compelling speaker. She covered a wide range of issues: the “f*ck me” look prevalent among women in the mainstream media; famous men are usually shown clothed while famous women are usually shown almost unclothed; a model’s body type is possessed by only around 1 in 10,000 people, yet the media depict models’ bodies as “normal” and by implication makes the rest of us “abnormal”; and big money-making areas such as clothing/fashion, cosmetics, plastic surgery, food, dieting and exercise all benefit from this culture. She showed photos of Miley Cyrus having “sexed up” in her later teens to stay marketable post-Hannah Montana, followed by a disturbing image of a French Vogue magazine cover showing a young girl made up and dressed provocatively and well beyond her age. Girls and young women may believe it is “empowering” to dress provocatively, but how much choice are they offered in today’s culture? A man convicted of raping a child in 2008 has been quoted as saying, “The culture did a lot of the grooming for me.” The relentless message is that the most important thing for females is to look “hot” or “sexy”, rather than focusing on any of their other attributes. Part of the problem is that most women refuse to understand their oppressor (common male attitudes and masculinity), unlike, for example, ethnic minorities who have successfully understood common attitudes among whites and whiteness.

Dines then described the continuing trend for pornography to become increasingly hardcore and violent. This is shown in financial and marketing data openly shared by the industry, and by other indicators such as the shift in popularity of the man who calls himself Max Hardcore. For years Max Hardcore was on the fringe of pornography, but today he is the most popular attraction at the centre stage of pornography conventions. A typical quote from “gonzo” (hardcore) pornography websites is: “We take gorgeous young bitches and do what every man would REALLY like to do.” This serves as a challenge to boys who (studies have shown) start using porn at an average age of 11. A Google search for porn leads in seconds to the most popular gonzo porn websites. In such pornography, the more debasing the sex, the “hotter” it is. There is a built-in escalation and boredom factor, with increasingly extreme demands made of female performers: more pain, more degradation, and more medical problems, such as throat infections from “ass to mouth” sex and anal prolapse requiring surgery, which are common in the industry. The women involved are depicted as inhuman objects, with no feelings or desires of their own. The pro-sex (pro-intimacy) position is naturally anti-porn (opposed to the destruction of intimacy). Some defenders of hardcore porn argue that the widespread existence of free/amateur porn confirms that money/profit is not a driving force, but this is an illusion as such porn is usually owned by major money-making companies that have calculated the length of the free porn clips (3-5 mins) to maximise frustration among men and hence their desire to pursue the numerous links and popups to paid porn sites. The “amateurs” are usually unrecognisable paid performers. Most disturbing is the development of pseudo-child pornography, where the performers are all at least 18 years old, though they look younger and are dressed and behave to appear childlike. Evidence has emerged of men convicted of using child pornography or having sex with a child who had no previous history of paedophilia; they said they “got bored” of ordinary pornography before moving to pseudo-child pornography, with an average time interval of 6 months from that stage to committing crimes against minors.

During the Q&A section, Dines emphasised that successful resistance requires two key components: first, deconstructing the shaping ideology, and second, offering an attractive alternative. With her son, she cautioned him that he would probably be encountering pornography via friends, and she encouraged him to develop his thoughts and feelings about sex in his own time, without letting other people into his mind and imposing their views on him before he was ready. Thus refusing to engage with pornography was presented as a positive choice. In response to another question, Dines emphasised the need to open up feminism to women of colour and make it a multicultural movement.

Anti-porn perspectives in academia

Dr Jennifer Johnson (Virginia Commonwealth University, USA) presented some social network analysis of pornography, showing that what appears to be a diverse and chaotic experience from the consumer viewpoint actually has a tightly controlled core from the producer viewpoint. Behind the scenes, all emphasis is on how to “convert traffic” to money, and has nothing to do with sex, nor empowerment or freedom of expression.

Dr Meagan Tyler (Victoria University, Australia) presented an analysis of the mainstreaming of pornography. “Adult Video News” magazine is a valuable source of information. If nothing else, it shows how the porn industry sees itself, but as Suzanne Keppeler observed in “The Pornography of Representation”: “The pornographer himself is more honest and astute about pornography than are the cultural experts engaged in defending it.” Violence has become mainstream in the industry and is used as a marketing strategy. About a quarter of video reviews analysed from 2005 highlight violent acts. The only video that year to carry a marketing caution (“stock carefully”) included “merciless beatings” of women trussed upside down like slaughtered cattle. The video was legal, and grossed $50 million. The ten bestselling videos each month since then have consistently mentioned violence in their promotional material. Tyler has published a book called “Selling Sex Short”.

Dana Bialer (Wheelock College, Boston, USA) presented an analysis of lesbian/queer porn. Despite its claims of subverting capitalism, representing diverse bodies (sizes, shapes and ethnicities), and making a political stand by its existence, Bialer sees lesbian/queer porn as exploiting an already marginalised population. It encourages mainstream media coverage of lesbians as highly sexualised and the visual discourse is the same, with increased power and violence being exerted by one group of performers on another.

Living in a porn culture: young women speak out

Jennifer Danns (co-author of “Stripped: The Bare Reality of Lap Dancing”) gave her perspective as a former lapdancer. At the time, she was adamant that she was making an informed choice, and that it did not seem like such a leap from using her sexuality to maximise tips when tending bar, to using her sexuality to maximise tips as a lapdancer. She had no problem with nudity and believed that sexiness was empowering. However, after working as a lapdancer for some time, she was unhealthy due to not eating properly, was forever dissatisfied with one or more parts of her body because nothing seemed to be good enough for some customers, had some plastic surgery done, and did not feel empowered at all. When she fell in love, suddenly the job felt sexual in a way that it had not done before, and she quit. She took a huge risk in writing the book (as she says she is clearly identifiable in it) to highlight these issues.

Lia Latchford and Jashmin Patel (Imkaan, http://www.imkaan.org.uk) highlighted the online abuse of women in vulnerable situations via social sites such as Facebook. An example was given of a boyfriend who posted pictures online of his girlfriend, drunk and lying on the floor with her skirt up. There was no criticism of the boyfriend, but a great deal of criticism and abuse was directed at the woman.

Nell Beecham (York University SU Women’s Officer) described the impact of pornography on lesbian and bisexual women. Beecham strongly opposes the assumption that satisfying sex must involve a penis, or a substitute penis in lesbian sex, and she opposes the twin forces of pornography and the sex toy industry for perpetuating this assumption. Also, the nature of lesbian pornography, as highlighted by Bialer in the previous session, pushes an agenda of power struggles as a norm in lesbian sex rather than equality. Dines commented that the model of equality for her and many other women of her generation choosing to be with men, was older radical feminist lesbians, because equality was not seen in heterosexual relationships!

Question: What is the way forward in resisting porn culture?

Answers: Jashmin Patel and Lia Latchford stressed the need for boys and girls to be educated in as many schools as possible, from as early an age as possible, about healthy relationships and equality. Young people must also be given the confidence to challenge things in society with which they disagree. Jennifer Danns agreed completely with this, but said she expected it would take a generation for attitudes to shift. She hoped this would occur before a catastrophe occurred, noting that often things get very dark and bleak before change, as happened with the civil rights movement.

Focus on activism

In this section, there were too many presenters to fit on stage at the same time, and space prevents me from trying to cover them all.

Linda Thompson of SWAP (Scottish Women Against Pornography) summarised her work as consisting of raising awareness, sharing information, campaigning, consulting, and engaging partners. She is currently involved with schools on a project called Porcupine, because pornography is a prickly issue. The focus is on supporting children in resisting porn and speaking out against it.

Marai Larasi of Imkaan (www.imkaan.org.uk) described the huge impact pornography and social networking sites have had in shaping attitudes and perpetuating racist stereotypes. She emphasised the need to engage with what young people are watching and listening to and talking about, e.g. Katy Perry, Skepta, Kanye West.

Anna van Heeswijk of OBJECT (www.object.org.uk) described her group’s strategy of looking for the pressure points in a situation, the hooks to pull and thereby shine a spotlight on what is happening and bring about change. For example, the campaign against lapdancing initially focused purely on licensing, by highlighting that licensing requirements for lapdancing clubs were the same as for cafes and karaoke bars. Later OBJECT hosted their own mock awards outside a Lapdancing Association Awards evening, with awards for promoting poor body image, promoting sexist attitudes, and so on. Key questions to consider when planning such events are: How can we raise awareness as much as possible? How can we take up as much space as possible? Creativity is key, and never underestimate the power of catchy tunes accompanied by a tambourine! In another campaign, printed testimonials from lapdancers and ex-lapdancers were placed in men’s toilets, and a film was made with the same testimonials narrated by actors. The Demand Change campaign focuses on anti-trafficking, and a breakthrough came when the single peer who had seen the film of testimonials of trafficked women related them in the House of Lords. Page 3 topless photos in tabloid newspapers are seen as another pressure point, as tabloids are currently at their weakest.

Annie, an intern of RASASC (Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre, rasasc.bizview.co.uk) described the group’s campaign to shut down rape porn websites. The material is illegal in printed form but not online, and the murder of Jane Longhurst in 2003 highlighted this extraordinary gap in the legislation. Unfortunately the gap persists due to confusion during a consultation, when the phrases “serious violence in a sexual context” and “serious sexual violence” were confused and the latter was removed as it was believed to be covered by the former. The campaign continues.

Bjorn Sutger of the Anti Porn Men Project (www.antipornmen.org, “an online space for (mainly) men to write about and discuss anti-porn issues”) invited anyone interested to follow theblog and share their experiences.

Gail Dines of Stop Porn Culture described some of the resources available on the stoppornculture.org website: 1) a slideshow with around 120 slides and a 50 minute script for consciousness raising, that people are welcome to download and adapt for their use; 2) advice and suggestions for anti-porn discussion in schools; 3) a discussion board for women to discuss the effect of pornography on the men they are dating or married to. Also training is available to help presenters cope with challenging Q&A sessions.

Several questions and points were raised at the end of the conference. A key point raised was that the most progressive governments on these issues seem to be those with the most women in government, so a crucial question is how to help more women be elected in countries such as the UK.

It was a very interesting and stimulating conference, with a positive atmosphere despite the unpleasantness of the subject matter, and the presenters were very approachable during breaks and lunchtime.

Julian

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2 Responses to Report from the Challenging Porn Culture conference 3rd December

  1. If you are attending an event or conference and would like to write a report, or if you have a campaign you’d like to write about and raise awareness of Feminist Brighton would like to have it on the blog. Email brightonfeminist [at] gmail.com

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