Re­lax, it’s only sex

The Porn Re­port By Al­lan McKee, Kather­ine Al­bury and Catharine Lumby Melbourne Univer­sity Press, 272pp, $ 34.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kate Holden

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

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