Sex & Relationships

Liberal Denial: The Link Between Porno and War

It's time to admit that the subordination of women perpetuates the very conditions of repression and violence liberals abhor.
Liberals often defend images of men chaining, whipping, torturing, and even killing women in the name of sexual pleasure as harmless exercises of free speech. At the same time, they strenuously object to war propaganda.

But if war propaganda is effective in dehumanizing members of "enemy" nations to make it possible for men to hurt, kill, and degrade other human beings -- as it clearly is -- why would images of women as merely body parts for male sexual use and abuse not have similar effects? Why, like other propaganda, would stories and images that dehumanize women not blind people to the reality of women's suffering? If linking sex with violence had no effect on behavior, why would savvy media professionals link sex with whatever they are trying to sell -- from cars to Coca-Cola -- to influence peoples' behavior?

Books such as Robert Jensen's recent Getting Off show that porno is really propaganda in an undeclared war against women. Many studies show that images linking sexual arousal with cruelty and violence desensitize men to rape and other gender violence. Even beyond this, porno dehumanizes women and perpetuates the notion that half our species is put on earth to be used, and abused, by the other half.

But the damage done by porno goes further. As Jensen points out, porno reflects cultural acceptance of cruelty. But porno itself makes cruelty acceptable.

Now what we're talking about here is pornography, not erotica. Erotica is about giving and receiving sexual pleasure. Pornography is about linking sexual arousal with the infliction or suffering of pain -- be it psychological or physical. Erotica (from Eros, the Greek god of love) is about sexual love. Pornography is about male control over women -- and even beyond this, about domination and violence as normal and fun.

Images that link sexual arousal with causing physical or psychological pain perpetuate repression and injustice across the board. They condition people to accept, and even want, relations of domination and submission enforced by violence.

It's time liberals come out of denial about pornography. It's time to stop kidding ourselves that linking sex with cruelty and violence has no real effect.

Chaining, whipping and even killing people in the name of sexual pleasure is sadism. But liberal groups like the ACLU still go to court to protect violent and degrading porno on the grounds of free speech. Of course, we want free speech. But there have always been legal limits to speech. The basis of libel and slander suits, for example, is that you can't use speech to vilify and harm others. Porno vilifies and harms women. And it harms us all. It's not accidental that the period leading up to the Iraq war coincided with the proliferation of degrading and violent porno. Social scientists have shown that a rise in images of sexual conquest and domination historically presage periods of repression and war.

What we're dealing with are old patterns. The fact is that the view that women are put on earth to service men is our inheritance from times when the "natural order" was the ranking of man over woman, man over man, race over race, religion over religion, and nation over nation.

Let's not fall for the fundamentalist Christian charge that pornography is part of the modern drift away from religion. We can see in Christian religious art the almost identical images of sexual sadism as in modern pornography. For example, we find these same images in the Church-commissioned religious art showing women accused of being witches sadistically tormented by Christian inquisitors.

It's high time to stand up against images sexualizing the degradation, humiliation, domination, torture, and even killing of women. It's time to ask why liberals who would run to court to ban images degrading members of a different race still think degrading members of a different sex is OK. It's time to admit that the subordination of women perpetuates the very conditions of repression and violence liberals abhor.
Riane Eisler is author of Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body. She is best known for her international bestseller The Chalice and The Blade and her just published The Real Wealth of Nations. For more information, see
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