The Business of Degradation: Women and Pornography
Pornography is big business:
*In 1977, the California Department of Justice estimated that "adult businesses" took in over $4 billion (approximately one-third of the amount Americans spent on fast food!)
*Hustler magazine alone has a subscription rate of 7 million and an estimated circulation of 29 million, more than that of Time and Newsweek combined.
*Profits from pornography are immense. For publishers of sex magazines, profit margins run as high as 50 per cent of retail cost.
*Films are even more lucrative. The Supervixens, produced in 1974 for $213,000, has grossed over $14 million. Deep Throat, produced in 1972 for about $40,000, has grossed approximately $600 million from the film and its "sub-industries"--t-shirts, bumper stickers, sequels, and sexual aids.
Why do women object to this huge, and still rapidly growing, industry? Because pornography is not about sex. It is about violence. ..against women. Much pornography explicitly displays violence, and the examples are nauseating:
*A recent cover of Hustler displays a woman being fed into a meat grinder.
*A Chic magazine photo shows a woman stabbing herself in the vagina with a butcher knife and cutting her breasts with scissors.
*A still photo from a "snuff" film (a film in which the actress is actually murdered) reveals a woman being tortured--her nipple being pulled with a pair of pliers.
*Slam magazine advertised its latest "Cure for frigidity"--a woman photographed flat on her back, her legs spread-eagled, with a jack-hammer pointed at her crotch.
To ignore the violence in these hard-core images is impossible, but even soft-core porn is a form of violence. All pornography reduces women to dehumanized objects, available for men's sexual use. It changes sex from an act of love to one of hate and contempt. Women's individuality is defined solely by breast sizes and waist measurements. And finally, not only are women shown as passively acquiescing to male aggression, but they are portrayed as enjoying it. When women are seen as objects and not as thinking, feeling beings, atrocities of all kinds become possible.
Rape is one example of the extension of media violence into real violence. As one feminist says, "Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice." Porn does not necessarily inspire its viewers to go right out and commit a rape--but it provides legitimacy for the psychological attitudes which lead to the act. The prevalence, the profitability, the "chic" of porn--as well as the fact that there it is, 50 times life-size on a Hollywood screen--make it seem a socially acceptable way for men and women to relate. The attitudes of violence within it are legitimized.
Both rape and porn are based on a view of women as sex-machines. Images of women as pieces of meat, ready for the butcher's knife, are common. Women's bodies are shown not whole, but in pieces--chopped up, without heads, brains, personalities.
Both rape and porn are based on a view of men's sexuality as brutal and aggressive. To be a "real man" means being able to "slam it" to a woman. The equation of male sexuality with violence is also carried over into some male homosexual pornography.
Finally, both porn and rape are based on a view that women are there for the taking, available to be possessed, "asking for it." A rapist may claim that he attacked a woman because she "asked for it"...by wearing tight jeans, a halter top, even going braless. Only when women are perceived as purely sexual creatures can their individual will be so ignored, and can the victim be blamed for the acts of the aggressor.
Wife-battering is another example of violence which is legitimized by the prevalence of media violence. Pornography perpetuates the attitude that women enjoy their victimization. Images of women inflicting injuries on themselves reinforce the false idea that women adore pain. And this false idea is often used to justify battering.
The view that women are objects to be controlled is also used to justify wife-beating. If wives are possessions then they must tolerate whatever violence their husbands might choose to inflict. The widespread societal acceptance of this role for women is nowhere more evident than in the case of Kitty Genovese who was murdered several years ago in the streets of New York City. Although 29 people heard her screams, none called the police. Most explained that they thought the attacker was her husband.
Pornography influences the lives of more women than those who actually pay money to see it. Through rape, through wife-beating, through the subtle types of domination and harassment we face every day in our work and in our relationships, the attitudes it legitimizes come through. For this reason, it is not something we can choose to ignore.
Pornography also frequently involves violence against the actresses or models. Although some women enter the pornography industry voluntarily, many are forced or tricked into it. Linda Boreman Marciano, alias Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat, has written an autobiography, Ordeal, in the hope of "purg(ing) forever the idea that she had become 'Linda Lovelace" voluntarily." (Ms., May 1980, p.73) She describes her entrapment into prostitution, repeated beatings and raping: "guns being put to her head, turning tricks while being watched through a peephole to make sure she couldn't escape, and having a garden hose jammed up her rectum and turned on if she refused to offer such amusements as exposing herself in restaurants and to passing drivers on the highway." Like many prostitutes and battered wives, she feared running away would endanger her life and those of her friends.
Even if women enter "the business" of their own free will, one must ask what happens to them after that. Suppose a woman has agreed to pose for a picture in which she will be bound up. Once there, when she has been strapped, spread-eagled to a table or a ladder or a cross, what happens? She certainly has no say in the matter, and no lawyer or contract could help her at that point.
The horrifying extreme of this case comes in the form of snuff films. In these films, the leading woman (inevitably an aspiring young actress) is beaten, raped and murdered--in the film and in reality as well. It is now illegal to make such films in the U.S., yet they are still imported and shown and turn a profit. As Linda Lovelace commented, referring to her period of sexual slavery, "I thank God today that they weren't making snuff movies back then." In this case, as in every other, the huge profits from the pornography go to the people in charge--the pimps, the men.
Why has it taken so long for women's groups to speak out on the issue? One reason is the fine line that exists between soft-core pornography and so-called erotic art. Groups such as Women Against Pornography are careful not to present themselves as puritanical. These women are not against sex; they are not, as they are sometimes called, "prudes." Their objection is not to the sex, but to the sexist and violent attitudes both created and perpetuated by pornography.
For many years the major objections to pornography have come from conservative groups which call for a repression of all sexuality. Advocates of personal sexual freedom, not wanting to censor erotica, could not censor pornography. They feared creating a tool which would be inevitably used against other progressive groups. For example, pornography statutes are quickly extended to nonviolent gay and lesbian publications.
The tool of censorship is not useful for women's groups in a male-dominated legal system. As Pam McAllister, a member of Women Against Pornography, said, "I know damn well the boys aren't going to censor themselves; they'll censor us instead."
Censorship also essentially skirts the problem of attitudes. If people are forbidden from viewing pornography, this does not necessarily mean their attitudes will change. The definition of women as passive, masochistic, and dependent is so pervasive, so ingrained in us on so many levels, that simply eliminating one link in the reinforcing culture will not be effective. Instead, we must work to make porn's portrayal of women--objectified, brutalized, and degraded--as offensive to most people's tastes as would be the portrayal for entertainment of the lynching of Blacks or Hitler's "Final Solution."
Feminists fighting pornography generally do not advocate censorship for the above reasons. Yet that does not mean we have to sit back and let porn be shown in our communities and dormitories without protest. As friends and peers, we can demand of fellow students consideration of the issues involved, and if not total agreement, at least respect for our feelings. There is no excuse--save sexism masquerading as thoughtlessness--for the showing of porno films in dining halls or the acceptance of ads from magazines such as Bang.
There are enough places where such films are available, such as the Combat Zone, that we do not need to smilingly tolerate it in our own backyards. People who wish to watch the degradation of women may do so, but we, personally, do not have an obligation to make such "entertainment" accessible.
We can respond as community members and consumers would respond to any business to which they morally object. We can boycott. Picket. Create enough noise and pressure so that anyone wishing to attend realizes the choice he or she is making is not only one of "what to do Friday night," but a moral and political choice.
Because porn, finally, is a political issue. It hits at the heart of power and abuse of power. In our society, men have power in may forms over women--economic, social, and sexual. Pornography, soft-core as well as hard core, creates a climate in which the use of sex as a tool for power and domination of women by men is acceptable.
Need we accept this? Women Against Pornography--and concerned feminists and humanists--firmly state "No."