The cruel boredom of pornography
on Last Exit Magazine, September 24, 2008.
The dirty secret of the porn industry is that, with a finite number of ways that human bodies can fit together, their product is repetitive and dull by definition. So they must resort to sexualizing degradation itself.
by Robert Jensen
There is a finite number of ways that human bodies can be placed together sexually, and as one pornography industry veteran lamented to me at the annual trade show, “they’ve all been shot.” He sighed, pondering the challenge of creating a sexually explicit film that is unique, and mused, “After all, how many dicks can you stick in a girl at one time?”
His question was offered rhetorically, but I asked: How many?
Probably four, he said; simultaneous oral, vaginal, and double-anal penetration was realistic. Another producer later in the day told me he had once worked on a film that included a double-anal/double-vag scene -- a woman being penetrated by four men at once. He said the director had a special harness made to hold the woman for that scene. In contemporary mass-marketed heterosexual pornography, it’s unexceptional to see a standard DP (industry slang for “double penetration,” with two men entering a woman vaginally and anally at the same time) with oral penetration.
Whatever the number, theoretical or routine, the discussion reminds us that pornography is relentlessly intense, pushing our sexual boundaries both physically and psychically. And, pornography also is incredibly repetitive and boring.
Pornographers know all this, of course, and it keeps them on edge.
These days there are about 13,000 pornographic films released each year, compared with about 600 from Hollywood. Not surprisingly, a common concern at the Adult Entertainment Expo each time I attended (in 2005, 2006, and 2008) was that the desperate struggle by directors to distinguish their films from all the others was leading to a kind of “sexual gymnastics.” Lexington Steele, one of the most successful contemporary pornography performers and producers, put it bluntly: “A lot of gonzo is becoming circus acts.”
“Gonzo” is the pornographic genre that rejects plot, character, or dialogue, offering straightforward explicit sex. Gonzo films are distinguished from “features,” which to some degree mimic the structure of a traditional Hollywood film. According to the top trade magazine: “Gonzo, non-feature fare is the overwhelmingly dominant porn genre since it’s less expensive to produce than plot-oriented features, but just as importantly, is the fare of choice for the solo stroking consumer who merely wants to cut to the chase, get off on the good stuff, then, if they really wanna catch some acting, plot and dialog, pop in the latest Netflix disc.”
In that description is considerable insight into why pornography (1) has always been boring and (2) will continue to become more brutal.
The industry works from the assumption that the men who consume the vast majority of commercial heterosexual pornography are not really human beings with hearts, minds and souls. In the porn world, a man is a kind of sexual robot in search of nothing more than the stimulation of pleasure circuits. In that world, the goal is to reduce human sexuality to the production of an erection and orgasm as quickly as possible -- get it up and get it off, efficiently. Pornography assumes not that a man has a penis but that a man is nothing more than a penis.
The pornographer faces one serious obstacle in all this: Men are human beings. No matter how emotionally deformed by the toxic conception of masculinity that is dominant in a patriarchal culture such as the United States, we are human beings with hearts, minds and souls.
No matter how much men try to cut themselves off from the emotional component of sex, that component never withers completely, and therein lies the potential problem for pornographers. When all emotion is drained from sex it becomes repetitive and uninteresting -- in a word, boring, even to men who are watching solely to facilitate masturbation. Because the novelty of seeing sex on the screen eventually wears off, pornographers who want to expand (or even just maintain) market share and profit need to give their products an emotional edge of some kind.
But pornography doesn’t draw on the emotions most commonly connected with sex -- love and affection -- because men typically consume pornography specifically to avoid love and affection. So, the pornographers offer men sexual gymnastics and circus acts that are saturated with cruelty toward women; they sexualize the degradation of women. While most of us would agree those are negative emotions, they are powerful emotions. And in a patriarchal society in which men are conditioned to see themselves as dominant over women, such cruelty and degradation fit easily into men’s notions about sex and gender.
When I offer this critique to men who are avid consumers of pornography, they often tell me that I’m wrong, that they watch gonzo and don’t see the kind of cruelty and degradation that I am describing. They tell me that that there’s no cruelty in a woman is being penetrated in aggressive fashion by three men who call her a whore throughout the sex. They tell me that when five men thrust into a woman’s mouth to the point she gags, slap a woman in the face with their penises, and ejaculate into her mouth and demand that she swallow it all, there’s no degradation.
In some sense, they are telling the truth -- they aren’t seeing the cruelty and degradation because they are too caught up in the sexual arousal, and in such a state their critical faculties are derailed. They don’t see it because they are men in a patriarchal culture focused on their own pleasure. To see the woman as a person deserving of respect -- to see her as fully human -- would interfere with getting it up and getting it off.
When I was a young adult who used pornography, I didn’t see it either, because I had a stake in not seeing it. That’s why after an orgasm I would quickly leave the theater or adult bookstore. That dates me, I know; my pornography use came before the VCR brought pornographic films into the home. But the pattern endures; many men I talk to today tell me that after masturbating they quickly take out the DVD or shut off the computer to avoid really seeing what is taking place on the screen. To slightly revise a cultural cliché, when the little head’s work is done, the big head re-engages. When the sexual experience is over, men can think, and when men can see the reality of pornography’s contempt for women most don’t want to watch.
These are general observations, an attempt to identify patterns in pornography. But the world is, of course, complex. There is considerable individual variation in the human species; not all men watch pornography for the same reason or have the same experience. And among those 13,000 films each year, there is variety. But there is a pattern to men’s consumption of pornography and the industry’s strategy to keep men consuming:
* Heterosexual men tend to consume pornography to achieve sexual satisfaction without the complications of dealing with a real woman.
* Pornographers deliver graphic sexually explicit material that does the job, but to do so they must continuously increase the cruelty and degradation to maintain profits.
Gonzo producers test the limits with new practices that eroticize men’s domination of women. Less intense forms of those sexual practices migrate into the tamer feature pornography, and from there in muted form into mainstream pop culture. Pornography gets more openly misogynist, and pop culture becomes more pornographic -- many Hollywood movies and cable TV shows today look much like soft-core pornography of a few decades ago, and the common objectification of women in advertising has become more overtly sexualized.
Where will all this lead? How far will pornographers go to ensure their profits, especially as the proliferation of free pornography on the internet adds a new competition? How much eroticized misogyny will the culture be willing to tolerate?
When I ask that question of pornography producers, most say they don’t know. An industry leader such as Lexington Steele acknowledged he has no crystal ball: “Gonzo really always pushes the envelope. The thing about it is, there’s only but so many holes, only but so many different types of penetration that can be executed upon a woman. So it’s really hard to say what’s next within gonzo.”
What’s next? What comes after DPs and double anals? What is beyond a “10 Man Cum Slam” and “50 Guy Cream Pie”? I can’t claim to know either. But after 20 years of researching the pornography industry as a scholar and critiquing it as part of the feminist anti-pornography movement, I know that we should be concerned. We should be afraid that there may be no limit on men’s cruelty toward women. In a patriarchal society driven by the predatory values of capitalism, we should be very afraid.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake, will be published in 2009 by Soft Skull Press. He also is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.