We must talk about pornography
CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses multiple forms of trauma, including sexual violence and assault, abuse and harassment, and the effects of that trauma on mental health.
Break the silence was a bugle call of 20th century feminist uprisings to end men’s violence against women, and those voices are now reaching a crescendo as women speak out more and cry out their truth.
Here in Australia, the momentum for change has been building since Reclaim the night gatherings, across the #metoo movement, at 4 MarchJustice demonstration. Even former prime ministers claim that we have reached the hour of accounting for men’s sexual rights to the women of this country.
But when it comes to sexual violence against women, there are still things we find it hard to talk about openly.
One of them is the fact that in many cases the abusers are the people closest to the women – their intimate partner.
Another is the role of pornography.
In new search, we found that pornography featured prominently in the accounts of women who were victims of intimate partner sexual violence (IPSV). This suggests that we need to start talking more seriously about the personal and cultural impact of pornography use in addressing sexual violence against women.
This form of violation encompasses a range of behaviors, including rape and sexual assault, but also includes more subtle behaviors such as using coercion and blackmail to obtain sex.
While ISPV frequently coexists with physical or psychological violence, studies of victims and survivors suggest that the experience of sexual violence perpetrated by an intimate partner is specific and multi-traumatic.
Research suggests that one of the drivers of this form of sexual violence against women is the abuser’s fragile masculinity and a strong sense of sexual entitlement.
In other words, it may seem obvious that there is a link between the misogyny of much of mainstream pornography, male sexual rights, and ISPV – but such links have only been explored in a handful of studies.
Too often, pornography is seen as too difficult or too controversial to be at the heart of contemporary research on violence against women.
But the wide and easy availability of pornography means that it is now almost ubiquitous backdrop to the cultural construction of heterosexuality.
Whatever you think of pornography, it cannot be ignored.
Pornography consumption has proliferated around the world with the rise of internet access and the rise in social acceptance. Today in Australia, 99% of men under 30 say they have access to pornography in the last year.
Many are regular consumers, with 39% saying they view pornography on a daily basis. 46% more say they have access to pornography every week.
This means that 85% of men accessing pornography access it at least once a week.
Pornographic content has also proliferated due to changing business models, including open access video sites. And, as a variety of both popular and academic work has shown, much of this content is abusive, violent – or both.
It should also be noted that at least a study found that a majority of porn consumers in Australia reported having applied something they had seen in pornography to their own sex lives.
This is not to argue for a simplistic notion of cause and effect, or that the consumption of pornography inevitably leads to the commission of ISPV. What our research shows, however, is that there are instances where pornography is clearly and directly involved in the experiences of ISPV survivors.
In the Beyond silence study, women said pornography was used as “manual” to determine the types of abuse to which they would be subjected. They said they were forced to watch pornography to prepare or coerce them into particular sexual acts.
Here are, in their own words, examples of three different women:
âKnowing what I know now, he obviously watched porn. He got it from there and he wanted to try it.
âThat would be saying things verbally, like using pornography to make me think these things are normal, and that’s what everyone does. So like, planting the seeds of ideas for this is what you should want to do.
âHe made me watch pornography with him which I found very, very humiliating and just made me squirm. He actually wanted to have sex while it was on and I just didn’t want toâ¦ I didn’t even want to be there, let alone do anything else.
“But there was still that pressure.”
Some participants also offered reflections on the role of pornography, more generally beyond their own personal experiences. As one woman said in Beyond silence:
âI think pornography is a major problemâ¦ I really feel like it has a huge impact on how women are treated, especially young women who come in and think that’s how you should. be treated in your relationships. “
What is particularly striking about the testimonies of these women is that they themselves raised these questions. At no point in the research process were they specifically asked about pornography.
This was an unexpected find of the project, although we perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised, given the pervasiveness of porn use.
The links we found between IPSV and pornography clearly need to be explored in further research, and pornography should be part of future studies asking women about their IPSV experiences.
Survivors are already reflecting on these connections themselves, and their voices should be included in broader public discussions of how pornography and violence against women overlap and intersect.
It’s not enough to just feel uncomfortable and keep looking away.