Elizabeth Smart was recently in the news to speak out against pornography and the role it played in her rape. Lisa Thompson of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation explains why porn and rape go hand-in-hand.
In the summer of 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped in what became one of the most nationally discussed child-abduction cases in America.
For nine months, Elizabeth was held and routinely sexually assaulted before she was finally discovered and returned to her family. Elizabeth has overcome this ordeal, going on to earn a college degree in music, marry, have children, and advocate for victims of sexual violence and predatory crimes.
Recently she revealed a new, troubling detail about her months of captivity. Pornography, she says, played a significant role in worsening her sexual abuse.
‘’He would just sit and look at [pornography], stare at it, and talk about the women,” Elizabeth recently told the group Fight the New Drug. “And then when he was done, he would turn and look at me. It led to him raping me more, more than he already did, which was a lot. Looking at pornography wasn’t enough for him. Having sex with his wife after looking at pornography wasn’t enough for him. And then it led to finally going out and kidnapping me. He just always wanted more. I can’t say that he would not have gone out and kidnapped me had he not looked at pornography. All I know is that pornography made my living hell … worse.”
Her chilling words brought the link between pornography and sexual violence back to the forefront of social consciousness.
‘Detached, mechanical, uninviting, vacuous’
As Elizabeth’s story illustrates, pornography use is linked to sexual violence in very deep ways.
The distribution and availability of pornography has become increasingly normalized over the course of the past 60 years. While it’s hard to imagine such a thing today, in the early 1950s few American men had ever seen a woman’s breasts exposed in color photographs. All that changed with the December 10, 1953 inaugural issue of Playboy, which featured a full color photo of a topless Marilyn Monroe as its so-called “Sweetheart of the Month.”
Even in the magazine’s beginnings, the pictures of the young and lovely “girls next door” that Playboy became so famous for featuring in its monthly centerfolds were not innocuous. As the existential psychologist Rollo May observed in his 1969 book Love and Will:
“You discover the naked girls with silicated breasts side by side with articles by reputable authors, and you conclude on first blush that the magazine is certainly on the side of the new enlightenment. But as you look more closely, you see a strange expression in these photographed girls: detached, mechanical, uninviting, vacuous—the typical schizoid personality in the negative sense of that term. You discover that they are not “sexy” at all but that Playboy has only shifted the fig leaf from the genitals to the face.”
It is this depersonalization—this eradication of identity, relationship, and mutuality—between the pornography viewer and the consumed that is the foundation of sexual violence.
|Men young and old, and young boys too, looked at, traded, joked about, and used these magazines—shaping their attitudes and views about women.|
Nevertheless, the unparalleled success of Playboy inspired a drove of imitators—copycats who, along with Playboy, flooded the country in copious amounts of pornography. Pornography that was stashed under beds, the backs of closets, bathrooms, trunks of cars, and old sheds. Pornography that men young and old, and young boys too, looked at, traded, joked about, and used as fuel for private acts. Pornography that to varying degrees shaped their attitudes and views about women.
As years and decades passed, the pornography got coarser and harder. There were “wars” among pornographers that pushed the boundaries of what was depicted. More and more parts of women’s bodies were exposed, colonized, industrialized. In Bunny, The Real Story of Playboy, Russell Miller explains:
“Slowly, the girls in Playboy lost their innocence. Instead of lounging elegantly, they sprawled, with increasing unchaste abandon … They began to wear kinky lingerie, leather, impossibly high heels, and net stockings, to catch the eye of the fetishists.”
And there were others who had no qualms about pushing the envelope even further, of revealing what they really thought about women. For instance, the June 1978 cover of Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine infamously pictured the body of woman being fed through a meat grinder. Having been fed into the grinder head first, her upper body is depicted as ground meat lying on a paper plate while her bare hips and legs remain above, waiting to make their way through the device. The coverline read: “We will no longer hang up women like piece of meat.”
As pornography’s spread marched onward, activists organized and protested. Powerful women leaders mobilized, marched, gave speeches, wrote books, and analyzed pornography. Their work, too deep and wide to review here, was astute, rigorous, and insightful. In what may be one of the best-ever statements encapsulating pornography’s essence, Robin Morgan once wrote, “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice.”
Researchers joined in the fray, and began investigating the question of whether or not pornography contributed to negative attitudes towards women and sexual violence.
In one such study published in 1994, researchers reported that those who had higher past exposure to violent pornography were six times more likely to report having committed a rape compared to a low past exposure group. In 2004, researchers found that men who used more pornography were more likely to agree to such dangerous and degrading statements such as, “A man should find them, fool them, **** them, and forget them,” and “a woman does not mean ‘no’ unless she slaps you.”
But still the ever-widening pornography industry held the country in its grip.
Subsequent decades brought new technologies that allowed pornography films to be viewed at home via VHS and later Internet streaming. The pornography magazines of the past became largely obsolete in the face of free and easily accessible pornography. And, as has gone on for decades, men and boys continued to seek their sexual gratification from a medium that with every use reinforces their sense of sexual entitlement.
It’s hardly surprising then that pornography—its use, acceptance, and integration into popular culture—has become almost as American as apple pie.
Without a doubt, its use is now pervasive well beyond Hefner’s or Flynt’s wildest dreams: The popular Pornhub site reported that in 2015 people made 21.2 billion visits and watched 4.3 billion hours of pornography on its site alone. Eleven pornography sites are among the world’s top 300 most popular Internet sites. The most popular such site, at number 18, outranks the likes of eBay, MSN, and Netflix.
An endless sea of degrading & violent acts against women
Just what are all these people taking in when visiting these sites? The types of pornography available are beyond description here, but among the most popular genres are pedophiliac in nature, scenarios portraying incest, beastiality, excretory activities, and violence against women, including rape and torture. Indeed, today’s mainstream hardcore pornography is an endless sea of video clips depicting painful, brutal, degrading, and violent acts against women.
Against this backdrop it’s unsurprising a 2016 meta-analysis of 46 studies reported that, among both men and women, viewing pornography increases the viewer’s likelihood of sexually deviant tendencies and committing sexual offenses. It also found that pornography use puts people at increased risk for accepting rape myths (e.g. that the way a woman dresses can mean she is “asking for it” or that women enjoy rape).
|Porn culture is feeding rape culture. Any pornography website that denies it, or that tries to portray itself as a responsible social actor, has no credibility in light of the research.|
Rape-themed pornography is among the staples of Internet porn. In the aftermath of the Stanford rape case, in which convicted rapist Brock Turner received a sentence of only six months in jail and three years of probation, the pornography website xHamster moved to block any videos depicting rape or non-consensual sex, enacting what it dubbed the “Brock Turner rule.” While this may sound progressive, it speaks volumes that such content was ever on its site in the first place.
Porn culture is feeding rape culture. Any pornography website that denies it, or that tries to portray itself as a responsible social actor, has no credibility in light of the research.
Consider the 2011 study published in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, which analyzed the effects of pornography use on sexual attitudes and behaviors of fraternity college men. It found that 83 percent of those surveyed used mainstream pornography within the past 12 months. Those who used “mainstream” pornography expressed greater intent to commit rape, should they be assured they wouldn’t get caught, than those men who had not seen pornography. This change in attitude towards rape remained consistent across the three broad genres of pornography considered: mainstream, sadomasochistic, and rape-themed. Thus all types of pornography use resulted in a greater intent to commit rape. Additionally, the men who used sadomasochistic- and rape-themed pornography were significantly more likely to report belief in rape myths.
All women are victims
Aside from pornography’s impacts on consumers, it’s critically important to remember its savage harms to performers. Even in so-called mainstream pornography, many performers experience coercion. Pornography performers have reported that if they protest against doing something in a scene, they are threatened with physical abuse or other forms of intimidation and manipulation. During filming it is common for performers to be given drugs and alcohol in order to keep the scenes going in spite of the physical trauma the women are experiencing to their bodies. Despite signing contracts restricting which acts they are or are not willing to perform, many performers report the contracts are ignored, or that they are pressured to perform the very acts they specified they don’t want to do. Even when a pornographic scene is not intended to simulate non-consensual acts, it may depict an individual who is being coerced in real life. It’s impossible for pornography users to discern who is “consenting” in the full sense of the term, and who is not.
|Pornography is the orchestrated destruction of women’s bodies and souls.|
Ultimately, pornography does violence to the dignity of all portrayed in it and all who use it. It violates the essential elements of human sexual exchange: love, respect, delight, honor, reciprocity, and knowing. It reduces the human to the animal, and unleashes a ferocious misogyny upon all women. Pornography contributes, as Pope Francis said, to a “throwaway culture” for human beings. The powerful and indefatigable anti-pornography activist Andrea Dworkin summed it up this way:
“Pornography is the orchestrated destruction of women’s bodies and souls; rape, battery, incest, and prostitution animate it; dehumanization and sadism characterize it; it is war on women, serial assaults on dignity, identity and human worth; it is tyranny.”
Pornography is not merely linked to sexual violence, it is sexual violence.
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