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Is the Rise of Filthy Gonzo Porn Actually Dangerous, Or Are People Overreacting?

The ubiquity of dirty, violent porn has many people worried. But is it just the same old moral panic?
 
 
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Pornography is ubiquitous in America. Estimates as to its market size are all over the map, but most analysts agree it’s a $10 billion-plus enterprise. More troubling for some is the concern that the new digital technologies, particularly the Internet and mobile devices, have extended access (especially to young people) while expanding the scope of the pornographic "imagination," depicting once-illicit sex practices as acceptable, the new normal. 

These twin tendencies of modern pornography—greater reach and more explicit depiction—distinguish technology’s impact on the erotic imagination since the first porn photographs were introduced in the 1840s. With each new medium of pornographic representation, more people have access to more porn sources and to the depiction of more explicit (especially once-unacceptable) sex practices.

Today, this development is expressed in the growing split between “erotic” and “gonzo” porn. Conventional “erotic” porn seeks to mirror the Hollywood storytelling style, with recognizable plotlines, characters and sex serving a “romantic” end. Conventional porn runs the full gamut, from vanilla to S&M and everything in between, but reinforces conventional patriarchal heterosexuality. 

Something seems to have happened with the introduction of “gonzo” porn. The traditional boundaries of the acceptable depiction were pushed to a new limit. This porn involves sexual performance in which the male actor violates or appears to harm the female performer, depicting sex acts that no actual woman would want to engage in. Some say the genre was launched in 1989 with the release of John Stagliano’s series, The Adventures of Buttman.

For some critics, gonzo porn symbolizes and reinforces the violence women face everyday, whether in their sexual lives or in their real lives. Krystal Fleischman wrote a strong critique of gonzo porn imagery she saw on two websites that drew her attention. The narratives on one site, she wrote, all showed "very rough anal and vaginal sex, and name calling.” At another gonzo site, Fleischman wrote that, "The woman in this film was heavily degraded by her male partner; she was gagged so violently and frequently throughout the film that her eyes were welling up with tears and she almost vomited a few times. The male actor would violently slap the woman in the face whenever she gagged.”

A chorus of academic researchers, journalists and commentators are raising concern about both the ease of porn availability, especially to teenagers, and the apparent increasing appeal of gonzo or extreme porn. Many point to a body of research linking porn viewing to all manner of criminal and other violent behavior, including rape, pedophilia and murder. 

“Research on Pornography,” an unattributed report released by the Aurora Center at the University of Minnesota, provides an overview to dozens of such studies, many dubbed “meta-analysis.” (The Aurora Center provides support for people dealing with “sexual assault, relationship violence, or stalking.”) The report’s analysis confirms the findings of two researchers, Vanessa Vega and Neil Malamuth, “high pornography consumption added significantly to the prediction of sexual aggression.”

The summary report confirms a basic cultural assumption: porn is a likely contributing factor to sexual abuse. While a number of other factors (e.g., alcohol/drug use, unemployment, past abuse) likely contribute to sexual abuse, none are considered in the report. Porn is singled out because it plays a unique role in the development of interpersonal values.

For the researchers cited in the report as well as many others, porn provides the aesthetic vocabulary for sex, a critical personal and social relationship. Sex is a complex interpersonal relation mediated by a web of social factors, including fantasies of power and pleasure. And porn is similarly complex, suggesting a visual vocabulary for sexual behavior. As historian Linda Williams observes, “… pornography is not one thing, but sexual fantasy, genre, culture, and erotic visibility all operating together.” Ever mindful that sex research is not a hard science, the Aurora study is filled with cautionary terms like “research suggests,” “indirect consequence” and “predisposing.”

 
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