No One is Blaming the Web

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So, it’s "just" pornography, according to Jessica Friedmann. And we – the authors of an article published in The Age on 3 January on internet pornography – should "calm down." Our article, Friedmann told readers of newmatilda.com, was "particularly alarmist".

Both articles are part of an ongoing debate in Australia sparked by community unease over the growth of pornography, and by the Federal Government’s intention to curb access to online pornography through "internet filtering".

Friedmann disputes our claim that the consumption of pornography is linked to violent attitudes and behaviors towards women. In the first instance, she attempts to dismiss our argument through the use of a literary device. By placing the word "research" in inverted commas, she seeks to indicate to her readers that the research upon which we based our article is illegitimate.

We cited one piece of research in our article. It was a report by Clive Hamilton and Michael Flood, the latter being one of Australia’s pre-eminent scholars in this field. For reasons of style and space – our article appeared on the opinion page of a daily newspaper and was only 800 words long – we did not cite other works.

One important piece of research we had in mind when making our claims was an article by Neil Malamuth, Tamara Addison and Mary Koss published in the peer-reviewed Annual Review of Sex Research. The article, ‘Pornography and Sexual Aggression: Are There Reliable Effects and Can We Understand Them?’ provides a comprehensive analysis of the research investigating the links between pornography and sexual aggression, as well as an exploration of the authors’ own research. Malamuth, Addison and Koss’s analysis supports the "existence of reliable associations between frequent pornography use and sexually aggressive behaviours, particularly for violent pornography and/or for men at high risk of sexual aggression."

In contrast to this scholarly research, Friedmann tells us that "a quick search brings up hundreds of articles debating" the link between pornography and violence. That presumably means an internet search using a search engine such as Google. Such a search hardly qualifies as "research".

The second "major flaw" that Friedmann finds in our argument is that we "seriously and fundamentally misunderstand the way in which people use the internet, and to a lesser extent, pornography". The internet, unlike old media, is interactive. Users of the internet, unlike consumers of old media, are more savvy, more critical, more engaged with the medium. Indeed, according to Friedmann, because the internet is interactive, people are "as likely to be uploading their own homemade porn to the internet as downloading it." Friedmann produces no evidence to support this assertion.

Friedmann’s celebration of user-generated internet pornography also demonstrates a lack of understanding of what drives the pornography industry. This is not an industry that is concerned with assisting people with disabilities or non-heteronormative sexualities to explore their sexuality. It is not philanthropy. It is an industry in which people like John Stagliano are the creative forces. According to Stagliano, a porn actor, director, producer, and distributor, "pussies are bullshit". Rather than vaginal sex, anal sex is, according to this logic, preferable, because the female actor can’t fake it; it brings out more of her personality, it is more guttural, more animal, more real.

Indeed, painful and humiliating sex acts are an all too common expectation of female porn actors. Robert Zicari, aka Rob Black, co-owner of Extreme Associates, says that his work is about challenging taboos. His work includes, among other things that are not worth describing, having a woman do a "fellatio line, where the girl’s giving fellatio, and she’s gagging so much she vomits".

Or there is porn director, Mitchell Spinelli, who is quoted as saying, "People want more. They want to know how many dicks you can shove up an a** … It’s like Fear Factor meets Jackass. Make it more hard, make it more nasty, make it more relentless. The guys make the difference. You need a good guy, who’s been around and can give a good scene."

These are not the most extreme examples of the attitudes of those controlling the porn industry. But to describe others is probably unnecessary to convey the nature of the industry; it is an industry that turns women into objects and eroticises their violation and degradation. And while Friedmann tells us that young people are "canny" enough to understand that many of the images they may come across are "ludicrously clichéd", a clear delineation between the "fantasy" of pornography and the reality of violence against women cannot be assumed.

In the real world violence against women is widespread and its effects are devastating. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said last year, "Violence against women and girls continues unabated in every continent, country and culture. It takes a devastating toll on women’s lives, on their families, and on society as a whole. Most societies prohibit such violence – yet the reality is that, too often it is covered up or tacitly condoned."

Not that this would be of concern to the porn industry. It is driven by profit. It is a massive, global, profit-making industry. And, with the facilitation of new technology, it is growing. The United States’ porn industry’s revenue went from US$7 million in 1972, to US$8 billion – yes, billion! – in 1996 and US$12 billion in 2000. Forbes magazine estimated that the legal pornography business across the globe in the early part of this decade was worth $56 billion annually.

Friedmann concludes her article with yet more hyperbole. The world didn’t collapse because of bikinis, she tells us. And it won’t because of the internet. But who is arguing that it did or will? This is another debating device: exaggerate your interlocuters’ position, make it look extreme and ridiculous, then tear it down. It may seem clever and convincing, but it fails to address the real issues.

Our concern, and the reason we wrote The Age article, is not with swimwear or to play the "let’s-blame-the-internet" game. Rather, we are interested in thinking about and discussing what is healthy for individuals, their communities and society more generally. We are interested in engaging in a discussion about whether images of the sort that are now available with unprecedented ease and anonymity assist in promoting healthy and mutual ways of engaging with each other. In a world in which violence against women – and in particular, sexual violence – is so pervasive, debating such issues demands a certain urgency and seriousness.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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