A good friend of mine who studies feminist spirituality and matriarchy at the graduate level asked me: “Has all this exposure to porn changed your views on gender relations?”

I blinked at her. It’s amazing that someone like me, who sees and deals with porn and its performers every day, didn’t have a ready answer to that question. But then, that might be like asking a politician what she thinks about renewable energy or health care reform. The answer is so much a part of daily life, so broad and deeply scattered in and around my brain, that it’s not easy to pick a quick answer out of the synapses.

But when she asked me this question we were drinking. So I was game to try to answer it. My response meandered around, but what I kept coming back to was that I really didn’t tend to put porn and gender relations together in my head.

She looked confused.

“What you have to keep in mind,” I said, “is that the way you see men and women behaving in mainstream porn really is just performance. Most of the performers I’ve met are nothing like they are onscreen. The ‘chicks’ are actually hardass businesswomen with no time nor patience for guys treating them badly, but on screen they’re willing to be act as if they are. They’re doing what they’re directed to do, and getting paid for it, and they’re consenting to it. The dynamics you see in porn are fake.”

“But,” she countered, “why fake them? Why degrade women like that at all?”

I shrugged. “That’s what some people want to see.”

She looked upset.

“Sex by its nature can be violent, and there’s nothing wrong with getting into power plays during it. But porn is just the ‘during.’ Not the life or dynamic outside of it. It could be damaging to someone who takes it too seriously, but the idea is just to get off while feeling as awesome as possible. Pretending to be the one in charge, like the borderline abusive, cartoonish men in porn, can be fun. Ego-stroking while you’re stroking. But I don’t know if it goes beyond that in reality.”

Then I stopped talking. Because the next thing that was about to roll off my tongue would have opened up a floodgate of really intense conversation that I wasn’t sure I was ready to have. It was upsetting, and I needed some time to think about it before I opened my big mouth. That was months ago, but now I’m ready to let these ideas out. Here goes.

It occurred to me then that straight male porn consumers who enjoy this “ego-stroking” might enjoy it because watching women being verbally degraded, violently penetrated in every orifice, and treated like so much spongy matter to soak up their bodily fluids feeds into a much darker reality about our culture’s perspective on women’s sexuality. But before I explain what I mean by that, let me preface it with this: It has to be said that the women who appear in films by the likes of JM Productions, Anabolic, and formerly Max Hardcore Entertainment (before Max Hardcore was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison on obscenity charges) all know, generally, what they’re getting themselves into in these scenes. As Susannah Breslin pointed out in a recent article in True Slant1, there are some people who seem to need to push past lines drawn in the sand. They want to break taboos and shove people’s limits back as far as they will go. People with this kind of mindset flock to the porn industry as a way of breaking socially enforced barriers, and many of the sex scenes that have been filmed since the late nineties have given an outlet to these urges. The women who allow themselves to be filmed in hardcore scenes like these (trust me, you probably don’t want to know the details, but if you do, I’m not going to provide them here—that’s what Google is for) may enjoy pushing their limits, shattering taboos, and going as balls-to-the-wall hardcore as they can. They may love the gender dynamic of being treated in this way. I don’t know. But I do know that Max Hardcore was thrown in jail for his “obscene” filmmaking, and that nevertheless this type of filmmaking has continued. Films in which both men and women are abused in virtually every way, with or without sex to round the scenes out, abound, and the gender relations apparent in them are breathtakingly upsetting.

I don’t think that my friend was thinking of these kinds of movies when she asked me about gender relations—she’s seen little porn in her time and is more interested in how the patriarchal hierarchy is being influenced by pornography, anyway. I doubt she’s ever seen a film by Max Hardcore, and I hope she never does. I don’t support the idea that people should be jailed for filming consenting adults doing weird things to each other, but I also have to ask where the desire to do these things comes from for both performers and consumers. It seems, upon watching one, that such blatant power plays are very transparent veils for teeming hatred borne of the same kind of aggression that fueled the less-disturbing degeneracy of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club—some feeling of disaffected masculinity, badly misplaced and being flung onto the world in inappropriate ways. And while truly upsetting films stay mostly in their corner with a very niche audience, there is a bleeding-over going on between them and more mainstream fare: even in big feature films these days, the blowjobs are deep, dirty, and degrading; the dirty talk consists mainly of derogatory terminology; the woman gets mercilessly pounded, then covered with semen or asked/forced to do other, raunchier things with it. What is it in the thinking of those who make and watch porn that tells them these people—and women, particularly—deserve to be treated like this? It is simply because of what they do for a living? Does that make them fair game for punishment?

What I was afraid to tell my friend at the time was that maybe there’s a deeper set of assumptions at play in our collective sex consciousness. Whatever it was that spawned the virgin/whore dichotomy we’re all familiar with has, perhaps, leant itself to a way of thinking that implies that people in porn are “bad” and therefore different and therefore, in a way, worth less than the rest of us. That porn women, particularly because they fall on the “whore” side of the binary, don’t have to be treated with the respect that “regular” women in our society demand. Porn women, the thinking would go, deserve to be treated this way because they are promiscuous, and promiscuous women should be treated badly because women are not supposed to be promiscuous. If they sleep with lots of men and, dear god, if they like it, then really you shouldn’t even be sleeping with them because they are bad people. But, if you are sleeping with them, or jerking off while watching someone else doing it, you can justify your decision because, hey, it’s not like you like this girl! You’re upholding the woman-as-moral-paragon ideal by being a witness her abuse and degradation! She’s a them, not an us!

It may sound extreme, but lest you think I’m going too far with this, I submit Exhibit A: The aforementioned article by Susannah Breslin, which discussed how in Max Hardcore films, everyone seems to suffer, met with this e-mailed response: “Not everyone suffers in a Max Hardcore move, just the piece of shit whore.”2

Let’s allow that to sink in for a moment.

I’m not saying that the reprehensible excuse for a human being who wrote that is representative of all porn consumers, but he/she does prove that the subset of people who see porn performers as a separate, lower class not only exists, but also isn’t afraid to show itself for what it is. The fear that those people were out there washed over me as my friend sat sipping her beer. And all I could think of to put it into words was: “Gross.”

I didn’t want to talk about this. It was too upsetting. I still hold fast to my first reaction; off the camera, porn performers are mostly normal people with above-average sex drives. They don’t spend their time worrying about gender relations or whether their portrayals of male/female power dynamics are reflections of reality. Some do, but the majority of them are just doing a job that the industry asks them to do.

But the industry asks them to do it that way for a reason. It sells. And it’s interesting, because as much as people want to demonize the porn industry, the porn you see is not the way it is because the industry hates women. There isn’t some mad-scientist figure sitting at the helm pushing buttons and dreaming up new ways to degrade females in order to take over the world. No, some porn is degrading because consumers buy it that way. If we overwhelmingly purchased softcore movies with emotional connection between the lovemaking performers, then trust me, that’s what studios would be putting out in droves. If our society, or at least the section of it that spends money on porn, were more open to the idea of women liking, seeking, and enjoying sex—and doing so in an open setting in which they weren’t called names or degraded for it—then the porn we watched would be very, very different.

I think.

I may be wrong. But tell me, besides a truly screwed-up vision of women that feeds on watching acts of violent misogyny perpetrated against promiscuous women, why would the porn-viewing public be so fond of the works of JM Productions, Facial Abuse, and other hardcore outlets? The viewers are watching, paying for, and getting off to images of women literally choking, having their heads yanked back by the hair, their mouths forced down, their orifices stretched wide for camera shots, being called every manner of demeaning name… that’s not the choice, really, of the performers, but of the market they’re performing for. And there’s got to be a reason for it.

The other thing I reminded my friend of, skipping over this disturbing thought process, was that there are lots of kinds of porn being made these days. Not all of it is the hysterically violent depiction of gender relations that I’ve just mentioned here. Porn isn’t a one-way street and in no way should it be treated as such. It’s as varied as the people who watch it, and I take some comfort in that. Lots of queer, alt, and lesbian porn has given me hope since the day this conversation took place. But the fact remains that most of the big-selling mainstream sex we watch these days is derivative of hardcore, woman-degrading smut that belies a very disturbing set of beliefs about women’s sexuality.

“But,” my friend said, finishing her beer, “don’t you think maybe it’s a symptom of a much deeper, much bigger problem?”

I just nodded. I didn’t want to get into it.

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1 http://trueslant.com/susannahbreslin/2010/05/20/imprisoned-pornographer-max-hardcore-gets-a-beat-down/

2 http://susannahbreslin.blogspot.com/2010/05/great-obscenity-debate.html