Sex & Relationships

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?

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.”

The issue of gonzo porn has provoked a spirited debate within the feminist left. The New Left Review conducted an online debate between Gail Dines, a leading anti-porn feminist, and Sarah Ditum, a British journalist, about gonzo porn. The debate is interesting as it illustrates how two well-meaning analysts can speak past one another. Both are feminists, pro-sex and reject the tyranny of patriarch; Dines insists that she’s a Marxist. Yet, they can’t agree on a definition of pornography.

Ditum adheres to a definition along the lines advanced by Williams, invoking the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) current listing: “The explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc., in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings; printed or visual material containing this.”

Dines rejects such pedantry, arguing that gonzo porn signifies a new phase of patriarchal tyranny: “You will see, with mind-numbing repetition, gagging, slapping, verbal abuse, hair-pulling, pounding anal sex, women smeared in semen, sore anuses and vaginas, distended mouths, and more exhausted, depleted, and shell-shocked women than you can count.”

A quarter-century ago a not-dissimilar debate took place among feminists. On one side were those like Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon and Susan Brownmiller who warned against the anti-women violence inherent in the porn of the day. In the pre-AIDS days, those known as the “sex-positive feminists,” women like Kathy Acker, Betty Dodson and Gayle Ruben, reminded people that the porn they watched was a form of theater, a consensual business engagement which, amidst all its sexism, encouraged the emergence of a new counter-patriarchal feminist porn aesthetic.   

The break between these two tendencies within the feminist movement came when Dworkin and MacKinnon decided to put analysis into practice. Joining with Christian conservatives and Republican stalwarts, they successfully pushed aggressive anti-porn legislature in the U.S. and Canada. Their actions split the women’s movement.

In 2001, a First Amendment attorney, Paul Cambria, working with the commercial porn industry, recommended a range of unacceptable sexual display that came to be known as the Cambria list. It restricted a host of onscreen practices, including, "No shots with appearance of pain or degradation," "No degrading dialogue," "No wax dripping," "No forced sex, rape themes, etc." and many more.

We’ve come a long way in a decade. The imagery in the Cambria list, once acknowledged as unacceptable, is today easily accessed fetishes. Query Google and you’re likely to fine not only find porn sites catering to these particular indulgences, but illicit local get-togethers of people into them. 

* * *

In the spring of 2011, the Obama administration quietly closed down the Justice Department’s Obscenity Prosecution Task Force (OPTF). According to a DOJ spokesperson, it was no longer necessary to maintain a separate task force but would incorporate “the prosecution of obscenity violations into the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section.” This action, in DOJ-speak, “provides for increased collaboration among experienced attorneys and agents, and gives our prosecutors the most solid foundation possible for pursuing their mission.”

TheOPTF’s closure drew the ire of Republican conservatives. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) lambasted the decision: “As the toxic waste of obscenity continues to spread and harm everyone it touches, it appears the Obama administration is giving up without a fight.” Hatch and 41 other senators urged the DOJ to bring criminal cases against “all major distributors of adult obscenity.” No cases have been brought.

The OPTF was a special unit of the DOJ established in 2005 by the Bush-II administration to stop the alleged flood of “hardcore” pornography spreading throughout society. It was a sop to Christian conservatives for supporting Bush’s election, giving rightwing moralists a platform to wage their censorship wars. They exploited it masterfully. The task force focused on two issues: pornography and sex trafficking, especially involving underage teens and children. Often forgotten, the OPTF was not created by an act of Congress, but established by the DOJ as a moral guardian ofthe nation’s sexual standards.

The task force had nominal results when it came to obscenity prosecutions. In 2006, it won a $1.6 million criminal fine against Mantra Films, a Santa Monica, CA, company operating as Girls Gone Wild, for failing to create and maintain age and identity records. In 2008, it prosecuted Paul Little (who lived and operated his business in Los Angeles) in Tampa, FL, for the illegal distribution of porn “over the Internet and through the mail”; it was a case of jury shopping.

Glenn Greenwald, a civil liberties attorney and commentator, noted: "So, to recap, in the Land of the Free: if you're an adult who produces a film using other consenting adults, for the entertainment of still other consenting adults, which merely depicts fictional acts of humiliation and degradation, the DOJ will prosecute you and send you to prison for years.” Ira Isaacs, a self-proclaimed “shock artist,” seems to be the last OPTF prosecution; he was convicted in 2012 for transporting obscene materials across state lines for sale or distribution.

The culture wars are in retreat, and with them, the federal government’s efforts to enforce “obscenity” standards. Consenting adults are engaging in a greater variety of sexual experience than ever before and incorporating many heretofore-illicit practices. This new sexuality is grounded in a legal and cultural belief that consenting adults have a right to privacy…and to pleasure.

Over the last decade-plus, the Supreme Court has struck down repeated efforts by the FCC to block “obscene” materials from the Internet and the public’s broadcast airways. In Reno v. ACLU (1997), it invalidated provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that criminalized “indecent” and “patently offensive” forms of Internet communication. Since then the Court has been tentative, uncertain with regard to the new sexual culture facilitated by the rapid adoption of the easily accessible digital online media.

Last year, the Court sidestepped the thorny question of what is indecent by voiding FCC fines to two broadcasters. One was Fox for carrying “fleeting expletives” or words like “fuck” and “shit” uttered by Cher, Bono and Nicole Richie at the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards. The other involved ABC’s briefly showing a female actress’ nude buttocks during an episode of "NYPD Blue." The Court also passed on an FCC case involving the 2004 NFL Super Bowl broadcast of Janet Jackson’s “costume malfunction.”

It will be interesting to see if Tom Wheeler, President Obama’s nominee to replace Julius Genachowski as head of the Federal Communications Commission, when questioned by Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s (D-W.VA) Commerce Committee, will be asked about his beliefs regarding the “f” word and limited nudity on ever-shrinking broadcast television.

* * *

During May and June 1955, Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN) conducted hearings at the U.S. Courthouse at Foley Square in Lower Manhattan on juvenile delinquency and pornography. The senator was particularly concerned about comic books which, he claimed, provided pre-pubescent male youths with a “short course in ... rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror.”

Comics were reputed to promote lured sex and, in the mid-‘50s, an estimated 90 million comics were sold each month. Ironically, the most popular comics seemed the most obscene, threatening. In 1954, the Book-of-the-Month Club assailed Batman: “It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together”; Cat-Woman was attacked because she was "vicious and uses a whip”; and Wonder Woman was condemned as “a morbid ideal.… Her followers are the gay girls.” Other popular comics, like The Crypt of Terror and The Vault of Horror, were denounced as “sex horror serials” and “pulp paper nightmares” that created “ethical confusion.”

Most of Kefauver’s venom, however, was directed at pornographers, and in particular, the New York publisher Irving Klaw. One scholar described him as “perhaps the most prolific supplier of girlie photographs to both underground and legitimate magazines.” Klaw’s greatest discovery was the celebrated Bettie Page, often referred to as the “Queen of Bondage.”

Nearly six decades have passed since Kefauver held his hearings that ruined the lives of Klaw and Page. Today, the sexuality they represented, a pornographer and a sex-performance artist, seem so tame, so all-American. Their once-threatening pornographic imagery has become nostalgia, easily accessed on YouTube.

So, from this historic vantage point, how should we look at today’s pornography, especially extreme, gonzo porn?

Pornography is the erotic representation of power, expressed in two complementary ways, as a social relationship (the structure of power) and as aesthetic imagination (the vocabulary of pleasure). A half-century-plus ago, Klaw, John Willie (of Bizarre) and Hugh Hefner (of Playboy), among others, helped change the nation’s erotic aesthetic. Reflecting the radical challenge of the post-WWII consumer revolution, the new erotic aesthetic undercut—while reinforcing—the traditional “patriarchal” sensibility. Notions of both masculinity and femininity were challenged.

Much of today’s pornography, especially extreme porn, continues to embody the masculine tyranny of traditional patriarchal sexual relations. In the half-century since Bettie Page pranced about in an S&M outfit, porn no longer represents the same threat, fear or attraction it once did. Nevertheless, a symbolically threatening tendency persists.

A new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the bible of psychiatry with regard to mental health, is about to be released. Extreme pornography consumption apparently is being marginalized within a category to be named “Hypersexual Disorder,” stripped of the moral rage attributed to it by anti-porn activists. The psycho-medical establishment sees little threat from gonzo porn; it’s a non-issue.

The culture wars are in retreat, a woman’s right to an abortion being the last major issue that still fervently motivates the Christian right.  Gay marriage is legal in a dozen or so states and the District of Columbia; sex paraphernalia (aka “sexual wellness”) is a $15 billion business; swinger get-togethers and “gentlemen’s clubs” are popular throughout the country; and porn proliferates on the web.

The issue of pornography played a relatively minor role in the 2012 election. Today, sexting, the exchange of unacceptable sex images by underage teens, is the major issue with regard to obscene online content. Kids (and some adults) across the country continue to be arrested for exchanging unacceptable images. 

An effort in Iceland may signal a new approach in the porn wars, however. Interior Minister Ogmundur Jonasson is planning to introduce legislation requiring the use of Internet filters to block access to violent or extreme pornography, allegedly reducing harm inflicted on women and children. An opt-in provision will permit adults to access sites so blocked. 

A number of other countries either currently block or are considering blocking XXX porn sites, including Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Indonesia, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia; the UK is seriously considered similar legislation. While the Supreme Court’s 1997 Reno v. ACLU decision may foreclose such an effort in the U.S., one can only wonder whether similar legislation will be proposed in the U.S. Congress in time for the 2014 elections.

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