After an intense three hours, the workshop on pornography I have been leading is winding down. The 40 women all work at a center that serves battered women and rape survivors. These are the women on the front lines, the ones who answer the 24-hour hotline and work one-on-one with victims. They counsel women who have just been raped, help women who have been beaten, and nurture children who have been abused. These women have heard and seen it all. No matter how brutal a story might be, they have experienced or heard one even more brutal; there is no way to one-up them on stories of men’s violence. But after three hours of information, analysis, and discussion of the commercial heterosexual pornography industry, many of these women are drained. Sadness hangs over the room.
Near the end of the session, one woman who had been quiet starts to speak. Throughout the workshop she had held herself in tightly, her arms wrapped around herself. She talks for some time, and then apologizes for rambling. There is no need to apologize; she is articulating what many feel. She talks about her own life, about what she has learned in the session and about how it has made her feel, about her anger and sadness.
Finally, she says: “This hurts. It just hurts so much.”
Everyone is quiet as the words sink in. Slowly the conversation restarts, and the women talk more about how they feel, how they will use the information, what it will mean to their work and in their lives. The session ends, but her words hang in the air.
It hurts to know that no matter who you are as a woman you can be reduced to a thing to be penetrated, and that men will buy movies about that, and that in many of those movies your humiliation will be the central theme. It hurts to know that so much of the pornography that men are buying fuses sexual desire with cruelty.
It hurts women, and men like it, and it hurts just to know that.
Even these women, who have found ways to cope with the injuries from male violence in other places, struggle with that pornographic reality. It is one thing to deal with acts, even extremely violent acts. It is another to know the thoughts, ideas, and fantasies that lie behind those acts.
People routinely assume that pornography is such a difficult and divisive issue because it’s about sex. In fact, this culture struggles unsuccessfully with pornography because it is about men’s cruelty to women, and the pleasure men sometimes take in that cruelty. And that is much more difficult for people — men and women — to face.
…This doesn’t mean that all men take sexual pleasure in cruelty. It doesn’t mean that all women reject pornography. There is great individual variation in the human species, but there also are patterns in any society. And when those patterns tell us things about ourselves and the world in which we live that are difficult, we often want to look away.
Mirrors can be dangerous, and pornography is a mirror.
Pornography as a mirror shows us how men see women. Not all men, of course — but the ways in which many men who accept the conventional conception of masculinity see women. It is unsettling to look into that mirror.
A story about that: I am out with two heterosexual women friends. Both are feminists in their 30s, and both are successful in their careers. Both are smart and strong, and both have had trouble finding male partners who aren’t scared by their intelligence and strength. We are talking about men and women, about relationships. As is often the case, I am told that I am too hard on men. The implication is that after so many years of working in the radical feminist critique of the sex industry and sexual violence, I have become jaded, too mired in the dark side of male sexuality. I contend that I am simply trying to be honest. We go back and forth, in a friendly discussion.
Finally, I tell my friends that I can settle this with a description of one website. I say to them: “If you want me to, I will tell you about this site. I won’t tell you if you don’t want to hear this. But if you want me to continue, don’t blame me.” They look at each other; they hesitate. They ask me to explain.
Some months before that someone had forwarded to me an email about a pornography site that the person thought I should take a look at — slutbus.com. It’s a website to sell videos of the slutbus. Here’s the slutbus concept:
A few men who appear to be in their 20s drive around in a minivan with a video camera. They ask women if they want a ride. Once in the van, the women are asked if they would be willing to have sex on camera for money. The women do. When the sex is over, the women get out of the van and one of the men hands the women a wad of bills as payment. Just as she reaches for the money, the van drives off, leaving her on the side of the road looking foolish. There are trailers for 10 videos on the website. All appear to use the same “plot” structure.
In the United States there are men who buy videos with that simple message: Women are for sex. Women can be bought for sex. But in the end, women are not even worth paying for sex. They don’t even deserve to be bought. They just deserve to be fucked, and left on the side of the road, with post-adolescent boys laughing as they drive away — while men at home watch, become erect, masturbate, obtain sexual pleasure, and ejaculate, and then turn off the DVD player and go about their lives. There are other companies that produce similar videos. There’s bangbus.com, which leaves women by the side of the road after sex in the bangbus. And on it goes.
I look at my friends and tell them: “You realize what I just described is relatively tame. There are things far more brutal and humiliating than that, you know.”
We sit quietly, until one of them says, “That wasn’t fair.”
I know that it wasn’t fair. What I had told them was true, and they had asked me to tell them. But it wasn’t fair to push it. If I were them, if I were a woman, I wouldn’t want to know that. Life is difficult enough without knowing things like that, without having to face that one lives in a society in which no matter who you are — as an individual, as a person with hopes and dreams, with strengths and weaknesses — you are something to be fucked and laughed at and left on the side of the road by men. Because you are a woman.
"I’m sorry," I said. "But you asked."
In a society in which so many men are watching so much pornography, this is why we can’t bear to see it for what it is: Pornography forces women to face up to how men see them. And pornography forces men to face up to what we have become. The result is that no one wants to talk about what is in the mirror. Although few admit it, lots of people are afraid of pornography. The liberal/libertarian supporters who celebrate pornography are afraid to look honestly at what it says about our culture. The conservative opponents are afraid that pornography undermines their attempts to keep sex boxed into narrow categories.
Feminist critics are afraid, too — but for different reasons. Feminists are afraid because of what they see in the mirror, because of what pornography tells us about the world in which we live. That fear is justified. It’s a sensible fear that leads many to want to change the culture.
Pornography has become normalized, mainstreamed. The values that drive the slutbus also drive the larger culture. As a New York Times story put it, “Pornography isn’t just for dirty old men anymore.” Well, it never really was just for dirty men, or old men, or dirty old men. But now that fact is out in the open. That same story quotes a magazine writer, who also has written a pornography script: “People just take porn in stride these days. There’s nothing dangerous about sex anymore.” The editorial director of Playboy, who says that his company has “an emphasis on party,” tells potential advertisers: “We’re in the mainstream.”
There never was anything dangerous about sex, of course. The danger isn’t in sex, but in a particular conception of sex in patriarchy. And the way sex is done in pornography is becoming more and more cruel and degrading, at the same time that pornography is becoming more normalized than ever. That’s the paradox.