Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Porn as Ideology

While we're on the subject ... can porn be considered an ideology? I ask because I've become aware of this site, Make Love, Not Porn (it is safe(ish) for work). It's still at the early build stage, but the idea is simple. Visitors are invited to leave comments juxtaposing 'porn world' sex to real world sex. So for example, in porn world "men love coming on women's faces, and women love having men come on their faces", whereas in the real world "some women like this, some don't. Some guys like to do this, some guys don't. It's entirely up to personal choice". Sounds like a useful project that might tackle some of the myths propagated by porn.

But seeing as it promises an idealised sexual experience (of sorts), is there a case for considering porn as an ideology? In Marxism, ideology is typically thought of in two ways. Firstly as a set of ideas that offer a partial and distorted view of reality, glossing over the power relations and processes that underpin capitalism (this is why you should take any self-described socialist who talks about 'Marxist ideology' for a pseud). Secondly, ideology is a lived relation denoting all the ideas and discourses that mediate our relationships to the wider social world - an understanding elaborated on (but not without its own problems) in Louis Althusser's Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. These two functions or forms of ideology are not mutually exclusive. For example, the world view of seriously religious folk rejects scientific and other secular means of interpreting social life in favour of the theologies of whatever doctrine they subscribe to. But nevertheless, they live this ideology - it guides their relationships with the wider world.

Therefore in the Marxist sense, is porn an ideology? On immediate appearances it would seem not to be. After all, it's just people doing sex acts in front of a camera. And that's all there is to it, innit? True, while some performers and commentators such as Ovidie, Nina Hartley, and Susannah Breslin have written extensively on porn and have provided valuable insights into the commodification of sex, their ideas do not structure the mass production and consumption of porn. Very few people settle down with a copy of the Porn Manifesto before catching up with Ron Jeremy's latest adventures. What goes into product and how it is shot is the preserve of the studios who churn it out.

If we grant that porn in and of itself is not an ideology, it definitely has ideological effects. You don't have to be a conservative or feminist opponent to realise sex in porn is profoundly reductive and objectifying, reducing women to their orifices and breasts and men to their cocks. Sex is entirely mechanical and genital-centric and is focused around the climax of the male performer, which usually entails coming on his partner's face or another part of her body. And this is the norm. Now, I do not subscribe to the discredited hypodermic model of media influence in which an audience passively watches something and then acts it out in real life. But it is clear the staged, "artificial" sex in porn is impacting on contemporary heterosexual masculinities and femininities in significant ways.

In the case of masculinity, the ubiquity of porn has centered the economy of desire around male pleasure. For instance, back in my pre-internet school days me and a mixed group of my mates had a stash of magazines we kept in the ruins of a half-demolished local pottery (we found most of these magazines - the route home from school was a dumping ground for discarded copies of Electric Blue, Men Only, Fiesta etc. for some reason). And, if memory serves, alongside gynaecological spreads of Mary from Barnstaple, the smutty stories they carried celebrated a masculinity that was affirmed in not only screwing as many women as possible, but making sure they climaxed too. Perhaps top shelf publications are still the same today, but the easy availability of porn on the internet has effectively rendered them a niche pursuit. Chances are for adolescent and young men, for whom porn is likely to be their first experience of sex and in the absence of other information about sexual behaviour, the porn "model" can condition and influence their approaches to and expectations of sex.

This is to say nothing about how porn frames women for men. While female porn stars can hardly be said to be passive, their performance is organised around bringing their male co-star(s) to climax and/or by extension, do so for the pleasure of the viewer. They are constructed as objects of heterosexual male desire and serve only to satisfy that - a point reinforced by the titles the studios give their output. This positioning of women has radiated out from porn, informing the aesthetics and preoccupations of low-brow lads' mags like Zoo and Nuts to music videos, to driving the new acceptability of so-called gentlemen's clubs (of course, the objectification of women beyond porn is nothing new but there is more of an overt sexual component to it than was the case 10-20 years ago).

The messages porn sends out for women aren't the most progressive either. Quite apart from extending its particular take on the hegemonic feminine ideal to every nook and cranny of women's bodies (see here and here), it prescribes a particular performance of female sexuality. This suggests that a real woman should not only be happy to accommodate her sexual partner in every way, but would find pleasure in doing so too. Furthermore, this is a sexuality that is always up for it, that can be lit up like a beacon at any time. And ultimately, if she is not satisfied she is at least gratified in pleasuring her man. Her own sexual pleasure is secondary and irrelevant.

Therefore, at least where the Marxist approach to ideology is concerned, porn can legitimately be considered an ideology. It offers a simplistic and distorted view of sex and sexual acts that celebrates and reinforces an arbitrary inequality between male and female performers. And because porn is everywhere, feeding and in turn feeding off mainstream publishing, fashion, music and film, it has colonised contemporary masculinity and femininity in subtle and non-too-subtle ways, colouring and conditioning views of what sex is and how it should be done. In other words, porn is both a distortion of and a "lived relation" to the world, drawing from, plugging into and reinforcing existing gendered relations. But what, if anything, can be done?

25 comments:

Joe said...

An ideology? It's a form of pointless amusement, that, like anything else can either offer pleasure or mislead one's view of oneself and others.

An ideological state apparatus, as we have seen with no defuct entities, would simply ban it for the good of man. It's what makes ideological state apparatii vile - while they 'protect' the individual, he or she discovers nothing and mopes along in their servile existence.
Having lived in the DDR, I can state firmly that other than an isolated few, that was nearly a universal fact.

Remember - there can be a variety of choices without their existence, but only a monoculture when the state construct a cultural aparatus. This is to some degree also true of states that have "ministries of culture' which is a waypoint to the funeral of a culture that would be otherwise permitted to lead its' own invention.

Chris said...

At last a subject I know really know something about!

The first point to make is that there is no natural human sexuality.

I don’t think porn films try to represent the ’real’ woman in any way, porn is obviously a male fantasy, a form of escapism, no sane man believes women really behave like they do in these films.

It is a tautology to say that porn represents wider society, how could it not?

And we should recognise current trends in porn as a result of the internet, Hollywood influence on porn is declining and do it yourself porn is increasing.

Basically I think socialists need to think of what a progressive trend in porn actually equals and then look to other struggles to find answers to achieve it.

Darren said...

I don't understand. What's the point of having a picture of George Galloway to accompany this post?

He has let himself go a bit, mind.

Tychy said...

i think that the only difference between porn and human love is that the latter involves a bit more compromise and inhibition. unless you're lucky.

Dave Semple said...

An ideological state apparatus Joe? All states are 'ideological'; even complete non-intervention is part of an 'ideology'. Perhaps you simply mean an "illiberal" state apparatus?

As for porn being a pointless form of amusement, how does it follow that something that millions indulge in - simply because it amuses and has no point (that you can divine) - is not part of, or motivated by, ideology?

This is not the same thing as some mogul sitting back and thinking, "I wonder what I can force the servile masses to do next", it's much less obvious or conspiratorial. People exist in a certain material context and think certain ways because they are influenced by that context and thus they act. Just so for directors, porn stars, porn voyeurs and so on.

As Phil has outlined, that material context is influenced by the capitalist relations of production and all their by-products, including "common sense" attitudes of men to women, men to sex, women to men, women to sex and so on. So porn is undertaken with these things in mind, often explicitly, as porn is designed to cater to whatever market there is for it. Mainstream porn aims to cater to mainstream tastes.

As Phil said, however, it's not a case of monkey see, monkey do. This stuff is poured out to make money and if it does so, more of the same is poured out. This in turn has an impact upon attitudes and we create a negative feedback loop. Stereotypes are reinforced and become worse (Phil: I'm always tempted to see this in terms of the dialectic; quantitative into qualitative change - thoughts?).

This is not of course the only factor motivating ideological change in wider society. People's attitudes become more or less progressive or prejudiced depending upon their material context and that takes in changes (or not) to the whole lived environment, including whether or not there is an organised political movement prepared to challenge prejudice and organise against it.

Thus, as Phil points out implicitly, with the decline of feminism, porn has got progressively 'worse' in its attitude to women. All of this is simply by way of saying, how porn fits into our picture of the processes at work in society is very complex - it can't simply be dismissed as "pointless amusement" and thereafter forgotten about.

Phil, coming back to you:

"the smutty stories they carried celebrated a masculinity that was affirmed in not only screwing as many women as possible, but making sure they [the women?] climaxed too."

Sounds relatively progressive, no, given the attitudes to female orgasm you subsequently describe?

As for what can be done, it seems like ownership of the means of production by a union of performers is probably the best way. Work would be shared out equally among workers, and each set of performers required for a particular production could collectively write the script, determining between them what acts to show, how to show women etc.

From that point on, it's simply a case of fighting the battle to convince people that porn can be a sophisticated medium that can challenge, rather than reinforce, cultural prejudices and stereotypes.

Don't ask me if that means that there will be porn come the revolution; ask the actors themselves.

Jim Jay said...

What a brilliant post Phil. This idea of porn as ideology is very, very strong - is this your invention? Good stuff either way.

"this is a sexuality that is always up for it,"

To be fair if half of porn videos had someone in them saying "oh, I'd rather just read a book tonight" there may be some dissatisfied customers. I think porn falls under the genre porn in order that people know this is a magazine or video of people fucking, I'm not sure implicit in that relationhip is the idea that porn actors don't go to ASDA or send their Mums flowers on Mother's Day.

Are stand up comedians portraying a humour that is always up for a laugh? No... we watch them performing to get our kicks - in both situations.

Secondly: I do think porn has changed people's sexual habits by making more extreme practices more acceptible.

For example heterosexual anal sex is much more common now than it was twenty years ago.

Chris said...

"As for what can be done, it seems like ownership of the means of production by a union of performers is probably the best way. Work would be shared out equally among workers......Don't ask me if that means that there will be porn come the revolution; ask the actors themselves."


This seems to restrict porn or the future socilaist society to the sphere of work.(It seems a view restricted by bourgeois thought) Many performers post videos for free, file sharing should be seen as a new development I think.

And there is therefore a seperation of ownership between performers and the medium where their performance is viewed. So to say the actors will decide if porn survives the revolution is not strictly true.

"For example heterosexual anal sex is much more common now than it was twenty years ago."

Is this guess work or was there a poll? Seems like a fair point though.

HarpyMarx said...

I think that porn represents part of an ideology, a cultural form, in a shifting way, that represents sexual activity and it carries ideological ideas that reflects a commodified sexuality and patriarchal noms that objectify women.

Also, how do you define ideology? I am unsure whether you can place porn as an ideology, like I said it can de defined as a cultural form, it is not a world view. Porn is part of the dominant ideology but it is not a complete ideology in itself.

Jim Jay said...

"Is this guess work or was there a poll? Seems like a fair point though."

I'd be astonished if it wasn't true, but yes, it is an, cough, educated guess based on the fact that social attitudes towards anal sex have demonstrably changed.

For reasons of taste I shall leave it there though.

One problem I have with debates like this though is the idea that porn is one, homogenous thing. I'm not sure that holds water.

Anonymous said...

"Her own sexual pleasure is secondary and irrelevant."


Really?

This post seems to be a mixture of an interesting perspective backed up by stereotypical generalisation.

splinteredsunrise said...

Nice footwork bringing in Althusser, cos according to old Louis just about everything was ideology.

There is this complicated way in which porn is both shaped by and also shapes broader cultural mores. It's like the obligatory facials you mention - in 70s porn it's not uncommon to miss the come shot altogether.

That whole transition from the old-school porn to what we have now is very interesting in terms of fashions. Of course it's mostly driven by economics and technology. So there's the collapsing cost of production, the saturation of the market, the hiving off into tiny niche markets, these very often ratcheting up the shock value for jaded palates. Even high production values a la Vivid are just another niche. I kinda miss Kay Parker.

If you haven't gone there already, Linda Williams' criticism is really excellent.

Anonymous said...

The only distinguishing characteristic of pornography is that it makes money for the owner of the image.
It is not an "ideology", but relies on manipulating impulses that everyone has.

Nothing that happens in Pornography doesn't also happen in "real life".
Porn imitates life. But with the growth of the internet, life also imitates porn.
The ideas and activities that it depicts would continue to exist whether pornography was available or not.
The fact they're out in the open at least means they can be discussed and channeled into acceptable forms.

Trying to define pornography as "objectification" is a blind alley that inevitably leads to reactionary and anti-human conclusions.
Which is why it sits so well with repressive religious ideologies that deny the human body and repress sexuality.
People who are comfortable about their bodies and their sexuality don't really need pornography.
The fact that it's so widespread on TV and the internet has actually made it as boring as watching Emmerdale.

prianikoff

Alan said...

You know what some people said that socialism is for wankers

Phil BC said...

Cheers comrades for all your comments.

Joe, you miss the meaning of ideological state apparatuses entirely. In his essay on ideology, Althusser set about trying to theorise institutions and practices that weren't the state in terms of how they buttressed the rule of capital in advanced capitalist societies. Therefore religion, the family, etc. in his argument reinforced and reproduced existing class relations.

Now, you might disagree completely with that argument (and given your barely-concealed anti-communism, I suspect you will), but that is what the man said. The deployment of some of Althusser's ideas here have nothing to do with a socialist wish to regulate and proscribe peoples' bedroom activities. Rather, it's about analysing and understanding how porn has affected and conditioned them. Quite where life in East Germany comes into this is beyond me!

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Anonymous at 00:07 here. There is plenty of excellent porn out there that does not necessarily objectify women or even men, if you know where to look.
For example, online cartoonists into "porn with plot" launched a paysite for adult webcomics called Slipshine, which offers free sample chapters to entice the casual visitor. I myself have been a fan for ages, though I have yet to take the plunge and subscribe. Their ever-growing portfolio of artists is most impressive, and several of my favourite non-adult online cartoonists are syndicated there. I am very grateful for the social changes brought about by the growth of the worldwide web that made Slipshine's existence possible.
And no, they do not pay me to advertise them either.

Phil BC said...

Chris, obviously you're right, no one thinks porn is real - at least the stuff that's churned out by the big studios. But what about the amateur stuff that litters the internet? Of course it is staged, but the relationship between the participants is less likely to be a "professional" one and the main themes of studio porn are replicated. If I was a young lad now with little or no sexual experience but who regularly viewed porn, I might see Vivid, Hustler et al as patently false, but what about the young couple determined to re-enact Ginger Lynn's sexual gymnastics? In the absence of other information and influence, I might conclude that porn reflects existing popular bedroom habits than the other way round.

It seems, anecdotally at least from the numbers of young women writing to problem pages in teen magazines about their boyfriends who give them "facials" that it is impacting on young men's sexual behaviour.

Phil BC said...

Dave, I think you're dead right about the decline of feminism. At the peak of feminism's influence on popular culture in the late 80s and most of the 90s, I think there was something of a reversal in the sexual portrayal of women. In music videos, for example, women were more covered up and were positioned as performers and dancers, rather than softcore actors who happened to be performers and dancers. Just compare the majority of dance music videos of recent years with their predecessors in the 1990s. The contrast is very striking.

But enough of that particular hobby horse, I would agree with you on quantity passing over into quality. I don't care who you are, but if you're regularly spending a portion of your free time viewing porn it will affect you in some way. How obviously depends on who you are.

There's also an implicit assumption that I'm assuming the audience of mainstream porn is men. But again, there's anecdotal evidence large numbers of women view porn too for their own pleasure. It would be interesting to learn how this is affecting women's sexual expectations, particularly young women, and whether this fact will move porn away from chauvinistic portrayals of sex.

Re: female pleasure in porn mags, I suppose this could be read in the context of the feminist influence in popular culture. Remember, the time I'm talking about was when Cosmo was de rigeur and Madonna was the symbol of assertive female sexuality. I don't want to overstate it, but it appears to me at least there has been a sea change in sexual popular culture, and he ubiquity of internet porn is a major driver of it.

HarpyMarx said...

Splintered Sunrise: "If you haven't gone there already, Linda Williams' criticism is really excellent."

Which ones are you referring to the excellent 'Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible' Or later works? She has written further books on porn latest being Porn Studies which is also interesting.

Actually Phil, read anything written by Linda Williams if you haven't already!

Phil BC said...

Thanks for your kind words, Jim. Fiver's in the post.

Yes, as far as I know no one has theorised porn as an ideology in and of itself, though as Louise notes it certainly hasn't been theorised apart from ideology.

Louise, porn is quite fuzzy, but I still think there's a case for it to be viewed as an ideology, albeit a (gulp) postmodernist one. By this I mean there are no codified ideas around which porn is organised, in this sense it is decentered and unfixed unlike liberalism and conservatism. But nevertheless it ticks the boxes of offering a distorted picture of sex and helps structure contemporary attitudes to it. In both these senses if porn isn't an ideology, it is at least ideological.

For example, if we think of patriarchy as an ideology, I would say it and porn are very similar in form. Like porn, patriarchy distorts the world and structures our lived relations to it. But it too is similarly decentered - it is everywhere but cannot be pinned down. Obviously there are differences in scale as well as being a dialectical relationship between porn and patriarchy, but nevertheless I think their forms closely mirror one another and have very similar effects.

Phil BC said...

Yes, first anonymous, of course there are exceptions to the rule that [women's] "sexual pleasure is secondary and irrelevant". But we're talking the overwhelming bulk of pornography here. Women's pleasure in the majority of porn is a part of the package, and is subordinate to the man's. Go knock yourself out with a random selection on a free skin flick site and you'll see what I mean.

Phil BC said...

Of course Splinty, Althusser was naughty for a whole host of reasons and had a Marx quote for every occasion. Generally I think the arguments in his essay on ideology are important, but a touch simplistic. I think his account of interpellation, for example, has been way surpassed by Bourdieu's account of habitus and fields. In fact, one of my mates was doing a PhD looking at men's porn viewing habits and was going to be using Bourdieu to interpret the data. But unfortunately he's jacked it in.

And thanks for the Linda Williams tips Louise, I'll give her a go. I must admit whenever I write about this subject I do some from a position of ignorance re: the wider literature.

Phil BC said...

Just rejected a spam comment plugging a UK escorts' agency!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, sparks lots of imaginative contributions.

I do not think for a moment that the vast majority of people viewing porn, or for that matter any "ideological" text - like violent computer games - are passive viewers, soaking up establishment social codes without any resistance or contextualisation.

I know of a remarkable blog from a woman called Laura Agustin -

http://www.nodo50.org/Laura_Agustin/

Dealing with the issue of political and social conditions for sex work that shows the issue of sex work and porn, and sex trafficking, in a very in-depth way.

The book "Sex On The Margins" I've heard an awful lot about but haven't really been able to read it as yet. The recommendation came from a sex worker activist and socialist here in Australia called Elana Jeffries, formerly a Greens MP as well as being in the now defunct Left Alliance.

In case you're interested, the International Whores Day has been held every year since 1975 to push for sexual equality without exploitation.

With Thanks,

Matthew Davis

aberfoyle said...

Pointless form of amusement.I wonder what the children and teenagers who are forced into and trafficed for the purpose of pornography would think of that.

As all capitalsit means of employment are exploitive, those unfortunate youths forced into pornographic slavery are at the mercy of capitalism, in its most pernicious form.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love this article. There are so few articles that are written on porn nowadays that are so astute. What I often wonder is if porn is focused solely on male pleasure, why doesn't it involve female pleasure and orgasm? Why don't men in general become sexually stimulated from causing a woman to orgasm with pleasure? You would think men would be drooling over that, hoping to be a part of that before they orgasm themselves. It makes me wonder if the phallocentric obsession does not hide a deeper issue, specifically an undercurrent of repulsion toward the female gender.