Revisiting the Obscenity Debate


In his confirmation hearing earlier this month in Washington, attorney-general-to-be Alberto Gonzales told senators he intended to make obscenity prosecutions a focus of his tenure as the nation’s chief prosecutor.

On the same day in Las Vegas, the nation’s pornographers were gathering for the kickoff of the annual Adult Entertainment Expo, where they show off the material that might well make them the target of Gonzales’ efforts.

Although the pornographers were a bit nervous about a conservative administration, they knew they had little to worry about; their $10 billion industry has become ever more mainstream and normalized in the past couple of decades. And when any critique does surface, the pornography industry has made effective free-speech arguments (it’s not accidental that pornographers created a lobbying group called the Free Speech Coalition).

Unfortunately for the culture, both sides in this debate are off target.

The conservative forces typically want to control sexuality and are willing to use antiquated and potentially repressive obscenity statues to do it. The pornographers want to derail any criticism of the often blatant misogyny of their product and are willing to wrap themselves in political principles to do that.

But after spending three days at the pornography convention to film interviews for a documentary, it’s clearer than ever to me that we have to go beyond that tired framework. Gonzales’ potential legal action will only polarize debates and limit the discussion of the crucial questions about pornography and about our culture.

It is typical that liberal-minded people, when facing censorship, would rush to defend pornographers’ right to produce whatever they want, even if the products objectify, humiliate and violate women. But shouldn’t we ponder what we are defending and what kind of value system supports that defense?

One of the most popular booths at the expo was for the BangBus, which consistently drew large crowds of almost entirely male fans. What’s the BangBus concept? One of the producers explained that the videos show men in a large van, picking up what appear to be women on the streets, talking them into having sex, and then degrading them in some way dropping them off in desolate places, not giving them money promised, or throwing their belongings out the door.

BangBus was hardly the most shocking, cruel or brutal pornography being offered on the exhibition floor in Las Vegas. Much of it can’t be described for a general audience. There are few boundaries that haven’t been pushed, as pornographers race to the shocking, ridiculous and humiliating, connecting visceral reactions to sexual pleasure. As an Asian woman, I found the racist stereotypes used in certain genres of pornography particularly oppressive.

Pornography encourages people to disregard others’ pain for one’s own pleasure. Many people I interviewed acknowledged that, based on their own experience and knowledge of the human body, certain sex acts they’ve watched in films likely would have been painful for the female performers. However, they argued that since the performers were paid, it was not the viewers’ concern, and they acknowledged that they get aroused watching it. That mentality helps create a world in which a producer can brag about having originated a popular video series that shows women gagging during forceful oral sex.

Although pornography is often rationalized as a celebration of women’s sexuality and liberation, some gonzo pornographers were direct about their anger and contempt (or their imagined customers’) for women. When asked why he used certain brutal sex acts in his films, one producer replied that when a man gets angry at his wife, he can imagine she is the one being violated.

Pornography has been primarily made by men and used by men. Men watch these videos for their own sexual stimulation. Men also told me that they tried acts they learned from pornography with or on their sexual partners. However, as pornography becomes increasingly mainstream, it is not surprising that women’s use of pornography is rising. Pornographers are eager to explore the female market, with some claiming to make women-centered pornography. However, looking at the repetitive content, whether male-centered or female-centered, the essential message is the same: All women want sex all the time, in whatever fashion men want them.

Most of the women and men I interviewed first watched pornography in their early teens or even younger. In other words, pornography is sex education. In an already male-dominant society with epidemic levels of sexual and intimate violence, pornographic messages help further solidify and normalize male supremacy in the bedrooms and elsewhere.

Three decades ago, radical feminists began to raise concerns about pornography’s link to sexual aggression and violence, and despite the ways in which the culture avoids the issue, it is still crucial. But pornography and a pornographic culture also affect “consensual sex,” sexual identities and relationships.

In my interviews, it was painful to hear how both teenage boys and girls feel pressured to have lots of sex, often emotionally detached, at a younger and younger age; and how so many young women feel obligated to please men sexually because they believed that it was their role as a woman. A 20-year-old female college student thought back to her teen years and said that often she felt that her body was not hers but was for others to look at and gain pleasure from.

It is also alarming that many young men and boys have watched a lot of pornography before they have opportunities for sexual intimacy. Some developed a fear of women when they found that real women’s bodies were not as smooth and shaven and that real sex was nothing like the sex depicted in pornography. It is clear that pornography not only hurts women but also hurts men on many different levels.

We should be afraid of government forces interested in repressing sexual expression. But we also should be afraid of the influence of misogynist pornography. These two fears are not mutually exclusive and can co-exist. Our fear of the former shouldn’t stop us from critiquing the latter.

Dr. CHYNG SUN is a professor of media studies New York University and the producer of the forthcoming documentary “Fantasies Matter: Pornography, Sexualities and Relationships.” Please send comments to chyngsun@hotmail.com.

November 24, 2015
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