Relax, it’s only sex
The Porn Report By Allan McKee, Katherine Albury and Catharine Lumby Melbourne University Press, 272pp, $ 34.95
AMONG readers of this newspaper are members of a community often considered pariahs, perverts and pedophiles. Out of a sample of 1000 people taken from the shadowy clique of Australians who consume pornography, 8 per cent admitted to reading The Australian .
That’s according to Alan McKee, Katherine Albury and Catharine Lumby, authors of the government- funded Understanding Pornography in Australia Project, and this engaging ( and startling) distillation of it. What this minor statistic illustrates, as does much of the research performed by these academics and media critics, is that pornography as a phenomenon in modern Australia is very far from the fringes of culture.
It is, it seems, far more diffuse and domestic than many people imagine. It’s all around us. It is us. In fact, this survey suggests that up to one in three adults is or has been a consumer of porn.
Yet what is it exactly? The Porn Report astutely debates its definition, examines its long history, investigates its consumers and consumer patterns, analyses the content of mainstream and niche material, interviews producers and performers and tries to get under the skin of the industry and its users. What they find is confronting and confounding, making for illuminating reading about some realities of our culture.
Media headlines about the association between sex offenders and pornography, debates about how to keep children safe from exposure to it, laments about its omnipresence on the internet, analyses of the sexualisation of modern culture, the legacy of feminist polemics and persistent social discomfort about sex have all kept pornography a dirty idea. It won’t come as a shock to most of us that pornography flourishes, but often the word still makes us recoil. Misogynist, exploitative and immoral are some of the adjectives often applied. But are these attitudes — and guilty secrecy — the only possible responses? Especially when so many among us apparently enjoy it?
‘‘ What I saw tired me,’’ said an overwhelmed tourist in 18th- century Europe. ‘‘ What I didn’t see worried me.’’ The same sentiment might apply to the landscape of pornography: while the best known features provoke one set of anxieties ( or admiration, or tedium), it is the supposedly vast and hidden terrain of wicked perversity that gives most pause for thought. We might imagine wildly idealised, doll- like women being ruthlessly manipulated by gross men for the gratification of sad, lonely freaks, teenage boys getting entirely the wrong idea about girls and the damp indulgence of horrible fantasies leading to crime.
Certainly pornography has had its history of misogyny and exploitation. Feminist critics of the 1970s and ’ 80s denounced the phenomenon as a form of hate speech against women; religious attitudes have unfailingly condemned it; politicians have tutted over it; academics have argued about it: porn has been banned, regulated, ridiculed, feared and blamed for years.
Things in porn world seem to have changed, however. While, surprisingly, most consumers still rely on videos ( even more than DVDs) despite the proliferation of online material, pornography has evolved since the old days of stag movies and high- gloss professional productions featuring actors waxed to within an inch of their lives.
Professional fantasy pornography still thrives but has been overtaken in popularity by its amateur cousin, the footage, photos and stories offered up by thousands of enthusiasts simply for the pleasure of it, showing the full range of body types, sexual habits and attitudes. Niche and marginal groups have transformed the landscape — the book looks at the influence of gay and lesbian media — and feminism has influenced the development of less sexist product.
Pornography is so immense a geography that there is room for everything.
What about all this horribleness, though? Is pornography really about rape and bestiality and violence? The authors conducted an exhaustive evaluative survey of the 50 best- selling films. ‘‘ Would you like to see some numbers?’’ they ask. ‘‘ We’ve got numbers.’’ They found that it was impossible to find footage of real rapes, though there were some sites that presented simulations; that 67 per cent of actors appeared to be aged between 17 and 30 ( and that under- age actors were extremely rare); that vaginal penetration was overwhelmingly the act most depicted, while men still enjoyed more oral sex and orgasms than women; that 2 per cent of the scenes viewed contained an act the researchers considered violent; that females in fantasy ( as opposed to amateur) pornography usually had more ideal bodies than the males; and that child pornography, rigorously secluded, is effectively invisible: pretty much in line with mainstream media in general.
The authors also surveyed a range of consumers. The general cliche is that they are workingclass, outsiders and misogynists. Instead, they are mostly men, but an increasing number of women are enjoying the genre. They live in cities, suburbs, towns and in the country in every state and territory. They vote for all of the mainstream political parties and subscribe to many religions, though few follow Islam. They are of all ages, although they are mainly young, and of all income levels. They have relationships, hobbies and ideas.
And what they say about their pornography consumption is reassuring on the whole. Fiftynine per cent said that it has a positive effect on their attitudes towards sexuality, while only 7 per cent declared a negative effect ( the rest claimed no effect at all). In fact, out of the 10 effects most commonly cited, nine were positive ( for example, in becoming less repressed and more at ease with sexuality, and more tolerant of other sexualities).
This book is written by academics and commentators who have an established interest in media and sexuality. They describe and validate the evaluation criteria applied to their project and acknowledge pornography- hostile experience, arguments and research. They examine objectification of women and include a chapter on children and pornography and how to keep them separate. Nevertheless, partly because of the candour with which the book is written, there is a feeling they have responded personally to their research and are happy to report on the apparent general healthiness of attitudes within and towards pornography consumption.
There is an impression in their conclusions that pornography is, for the main part, something to be celebrated as much as critiqued. Not everyone will agree, but the argument is powerful and backed by some persuasive statistics.
The Porn Report briefly alludes to 18th and 19th- century attitudes to novels. Fiction was supposed to be addictive, have a degenerative effect on its readers’ moral fibre, portray wickedness and lead to physical debility. It seems that pornography as a form, just like fiction, may be seen as the vessel for some very good and some very bad material, while itself remaining simply a word, dirty or not. Kate Holden is the author of In My Skin: A Memoir.
The amateurs are coming too: While buffed, hard- core professionals still flourish, homemade porn is on the rise, largely due to the internet