On a conscious level, I don’t know that heterosexual pornography has many demonstrable effects on men’s attitudes toward women and, in truth, these are not the things that I worry much about. Instead, I wonder about the ways in which pornography serves to create a new normal for heterosexual sexual interactions and the ways in which men and women are positioned relative to one another. For example, it seems unlikely that many men would ever consciously condone rape or necessarily believe in the rape myth, but I wonder about how the myth’s very existence and continued portrayal in pornography then allows for the appearance of violent acts like choking and tearing of clothing in films that are not part of the BDSM genre. Does the existence of simulated rape allow us to create a space where telling a woman to “gag on it” is acceptable? Of course we must be careful not to suggest that the appearance of simulated rape causes a rise in these other forms of violence but I would suggest that the resulting change in viewers’ attitudes toward pornography might allow for violence against women in pornography to become increasingly acceptable.
And I think that these sorts of extremes are reflective of changing cultural norms, giving us one way to mark the changing attitudes of Americans, but also work in conjunction with other types of media to desensitize us to ways in which violence in routinely inscribed on the bodies of women (typically by men, although I think there is much more to say about the ways in which American culture promotes a form of infighting by women in order to get them to enact violence on themselves and other women).
We have, for example, long heard the adage that “sex sells” and, for me, advertisements represent a form of media that that is adjacent to pornography and also not only reflects the way that we see the world but also help to shape the way that we relate to it. We can talk about the Abercrombie and Fitch ads that border on pornography (although here I should note that the interpretation of this type of advertising is centered on the United States as European ads seem to operate in an entirely different context) but I am much more interested in the subtler ways in which advertising forwards the idea that women’s bodies are open to violence.
We’ve all heard of the objectification of women throughout human history and I think that most of us are aware that this tendency still occurs in spaces that are “out there.” Perhaps modern males would like to think that we are enlightened and sophisticated? That we respect our mothers and colleagues? But how many males still use misogynistic language like “bitch” in order to demean other males? Do we combine the ideas of females (and/or female sexuality) with meat and consumption? From “chick” to “prime cut of beef” to “lamb,” we have various associations engrained in our heads from the time that we are children. (This is, of course, in addition to language like “doll,” and “baby,” that serves to infantilize women and language that links women to other forms of consumables like “sugar,” and “honey.”)
The danger in all of this lies in our tendency, then, to view women as consumable objects in pornography and in advertising. While most people would be hard-pressed to support the idea that women are nothing more than a piece of meat out loud, might there be some hidden aspect to our relationship that informs our lives? If we are already a consumer culture and we then come to see women as consumable items, how does this affect the way that we relate to (other) females? How does this affect the way that women see themselves? We rarely think about the animal from whence a piece of meat came—the slab of meat on our plate becomes familiar and we are desensitized—and so why should it be any different with women? If we, on some level, see women as meat, then do we care where those pieces came from?
And, of course, it is not just women who are subject to this process: increasingly, male bodies have become objects of consumption as we have become more permissible of women’s sexuality (not to mention gay pornography). Although one might debate if this is in fact “progress,” we see men being referred to as “eye candy” and the visual language of the gaze being reversed as in this Diet Coke ad.
I assume that this ad is targeting working women who drink Diet Coke with physiological arousal tied to a brand/product but a secondary reading might be aimed at men who wish to be the object of the female gaze (through the drinking of Diet Coke which was not seen as “manly”), thus getting men to internalize a system in which they are objects of consumption!
Ultimately, I would argue that pornography’s increased visibility—thanks to the distribution power of the Internet and lower production costs—is not necessarily immoral but does contain a serious potential to affect the way our culture understands gender and sexuality. There is something to be said for bringing sexuality back into the public sphere and removing the aura of shame that surrounds it but I am also cautious as mainstream pornography often showcases a particular type of idealized sexuality that can have unwanted consequences as society attempts to realize that particular dream.
The big brouhaha this week seemed to be over a new paper published by Benjamin Edlemen called “Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?” While I think that the paper is somewhat interesting, I think that a lot of media outlets have put it somewhat out of context in an effort to go after Conservatives.
Never in my life did I think I would be defending Red States, but there you go.
I do feel as though the paper is worth reading if you’re into that sort of stuff–it is a research paper first and foremost, however, so be prepared to wade through a bunch of dense data. I still have my doubts about how the information is being used and construed, but that’s another rant for another day.
As I sat in bed reading the paper over, however, I couldn’t help but marvel at how difficult it was to make sense of the words that were in front of me. In college, I was trained how to quickly digest papers and reports (and luckily still retain some of that knowledge), but it became readily apparent that this was just another example of how statistics can be used to suit one’s ends—the numbers are malleable and it seems all too easy to twist them into the right context with barely a flick of a wrist.
And herein lies the trouble. The text on the page represents facts but their implied meaning of the print does not.
I could spend hours talking about how and why statistics are used to fool people but the most important thing is that statistics can mislead people (normal, smart people!) awry. Lawyers use numbers and situations to fool juries, advertisements make slanted claims, and health education will often use the set of measures that suits their particular stance or goal—it’s all the same really, groups are trying to elicit a desired response out of a set of consumers.
Now, I’m not a total cynic or conspiracy theorist, but I do believe that the public should possess a healthy amount of skepticism about the things that they read. Don’t be afraid to challenge information and to get the facts in order to make up your own minds. One of my goals through these entries is to get young people to not only think critically about the choices that they make, but also ensure that they have the ability to make informed decisions. Reading things like the Edlemen publication can be tough at times, but stick with them, because the choices that you make regarding sexual health will have an impact on others but also undoubtedly on your own. While my editor might disagree with this, I would say that you shouldn’t hesitate to check out the website’s citations and sources—I’m confident that we’ll stand up to the scrutiny. I think that at the end of the day, we all want you to get the best information that you can so that you can feel confident about making choices that are right for you.
“It’s all about common sense” I droned on.
I was giving a presentation—one that I had delivered enough times that I was able to say the right words while mentally picturing myself outside relaxing in the sun. It was starting to become a bit stuffy and weather like this simply couldn’t be enjoyed properly without a pool, some alcohol, and some friends.
“I mean, you really wouldn’t walk around by yourself at 3 o’clock in the morning in your hometown, so why would you here?” I shifted focus briefly as I wrapped up in order to make eye contact with the inquirer.
With a sigh, I let go of my brief reverie. It was probably for the best—after all, my immediate instinct would have been to don clothes that would have included at least one of the following items: a wood necklace, a visor, an A&F t-shirt, or cargo shorts. I think that we all agree that it would have been a tragic sight, one best suited for those times in college when I could actually pull that getup off.
As I went back to my desk, I continued to think about cases where the movie in our minds is always much grander and more romantic than reality. Weddings, surprise birthday parties, a successful first date—these are all things that inevitably play out better in our mental pictures than in reality (which is not to say that the actual events are ever any less than the imagined version, they’re just different).
Pornography, by its nature, aims to glorify, glamorize, and heighten the act of sex. I mean, if a film did not do that, it would mean three things: the movie would be in black and white, I would be in the 50s, and I would be in Health class learning that Good Girls Don’t. I’m completely fine with all of this; I know that the piece in front of me is just a fantasy and I’m okay with that.
But the fantasies are getting weirder.
One of the trends that I’ve noticed in the past years is the incorporation of behavior that would never happen in most typical sexual relationships but is the highlight of the porn. Right now, we have anything from girls/guys getting picked up in a van and having sex with a “stranger,” to having sex in front of your friends in a public setting, to the rather disturbing images of men placing their hands around a woman’s throat and pretending to strangle her while they have sex. There are even sites out there that feature women and men gagging so hard during oral sex that they cry.
Now, I’m not saying that you’re bad if you enjoy this sort of stuff (I do question if the last two examples of porn show respect toward all participants but I’m a party pooper like that). I would definitely say, though, that we are entering an era where we are craving stimulation that is so extreme that we would probably not engage in any of these acts in person. What does it say about us that we enjoy watching a woman (or a man) get gang raped by fifteen people to the point where the subject can’t stop drooling? Anything? Nothing?
I think that porn’s ability to reflect back our own desires is one of the reasons that we revile it so much (well, that and our general Puritanical aversion to sex)—we’d like to think that we’re all Good Girls/Boys and that we don’t do that sort of stuff. There’s something to be said for restraint, as any religion will tell you, but I also think that there’s something to be said for recognizing, and becoming comfortable with, your sexual wishes.
I don’t get it. What was I missing?
I stared at the ad in front of me on the computer screen. In my mind I knew that it was trying to tell me (or sell me) something—isn’t that the purpose of advertising?—but what I could not understand was how or why it was connecting to some part of me.
A little while ago my editor, Julie, mentioned something about subliminal advertising and I found myself intrigued by the notion. Although not a marketing/advertising major in college, I’ve always been interested by both the design aspects of ads and the psychology of how they compel the target audience to do something. In America, I’ve realized that the messages we see in media often play into our consumer culture (and, truth be told, this phenomenon probably exists worldwide). You’d like to think that everybody plays fair and that companies are on the side of the buyer, informing him or her of all of the relevant details so that he or she can make a smart choice.
I think that we all know that this is very rarely the case.
I have grown up in a world where I have constantly been bombarded with commercials on television, flyers in the mail, jingles on the radio, etc. The result of all of this is that consumer culture just seems so natural to me and I buy things to get a sense of feeling back after being desensitized from all of the information assaulting me. No matter how I want to feel—I want to feel sexy, I want to feel good, I want to feel powerful, I want to be somebody—I can find something to buy that promises to make that dream a reality.
So why is all of this important?
For me, advertisements not only reflect the way that we see the world but also help to shape the way that we relate to it. Subliminal advertisements are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but what they often do is to help people to formulate assumptions.
We’ve all heard of the objectification of women throughout human history, and while I don’t want to belittle that, I also think that it’s important to see where all of this is going. In the coming weeks, be on the lookout for the various ways in which we combine the ideas of females (and/or female sexuality) with meat and consumption. From “chick” to “prime cut of beef” to “lamb,” we have various associations engrained in our heads from the time that we are children.
The danger in all of this lies in our tendency, then, to view women as consumable objects. While most people would be hard-pressed to support the idea that women are nothing more than a piece of meat out loud, might there be some hidden aspect to our relationship that informs our lives? If we are already a consumer culture and we then come to see women as consumable items, how does this affect the way that we relate to (other) females? How does this affect the way that women see themselves? We rarely think about the animal from whence a piece of meat came—the slab of meat on our plate becomes familiar and we are desensitized—and so why should it be any different with women? If we, on some level, see women as meat, then do we care where those pieces came from?
I don’t think that all men are bad or that all women are so horribly oppressed in our country (and I am certainly not trying to say that you are wrong for the way that you see things), but I am trying to say that you should think about how you think about things.
Finally, to drive it home fromAmerica’s Next Top Model:
Yeah. She’s wearing meat.