Rebecca Whisnant has written this chapter for a new book on pornography entitled ‘Everyday Pornography’.
“in contemporary mainstream pornography marketed to heterosexual men, hostile and humiliating acts against women are commonplace. Consumers of such pornography routinely see women treated in ways that most people would neither choose for themselves nor accept for those they care about. While some of these consumers may be sociopaths or utterly unregenerate misogynists, I assume that the majority are neither. Thus, many consumers must experience ethical qualms about at least some of the pornography they encounter and about themselves in so far as they enjoy such material. These qualms pose a threat to their continued enjoyment of pornography. Thus, if they are to continue . . . they must find ways to silence their ethical concerns. They must, in effect, be groomed to accept sexual dominance and sadism against women.”
In a culture which normalizes male sexual aggression against females in a variety of contexts, the typical consumer is ‘pre-groomed’ to accept such aggression even before he starts to use pornography. Rebecca argues, however, that pornography viewers undergo further and more specific grooming as they acclimate to progressively rougher materials.
She suggests that each pornography consumer embarks upon their porn use with their own boundaries in place – a kind of simple ethic – such as I don’t view ‘anything that involves aggression’ or ‘certainly not children’ and so on. Whatever these initial boundaries are, she says, they are likely to gradually erode over time due to a process of desensitization and escalation. The kinds of pornography viewed initially will start to seem boring and he will look for something with more ‘charge’.
So as pornography use continues, he is likely to be drawn to material that crosses his own initial boundaries. He will encounter portrayals of material that he himself regards as ‘crossing that line’, as unethical or abusive. But if it arouses, that may be disturbing. It reflects back on identify, values and self-image. What kind of person am I if I now look at this?
Whisnant draws on theories which describe psychological processes whereby people can adjust their beliefs and perceptions in order to rationalize behaving in a way that they would otherwise accept as wrong. One mechanism of ‘moral disengagement’ is to minimize behaviour by comparing with men who are thought to be worse. The consumer defines as objectionable or abusive some kinds of pornography that he does not like to use, and what he does use therefore appears to him to be benign in comparison. Her research involved analysis of online discussion rooms. Terms such as ‘misogyny’, ‘abuse’ and ‘brutality’ as used to describe acts that the consumer does not enjoy while what he enjoys are termed, hot, ‘rough sex’ or ‘hard-core’. This may be reinforced suggests Whisnant by the way a range of materials a constantly showers in on websites, with thumbnails and links. The choice to click on something less extreme, can give the user a temporary sense of moral superiority. Whatever he chooses, he’s not so bad as there is worse out there.
She also refers to social-psychological theories that explain how ordinary people acclimatize to wrong-doing. A consistent finding in this body of research is the importance of ‘diminished responsibility’ that is, of not seeing oneself directly connected to the harmful effects of one’s actions. Responsibility is either displaced on to others (my partner isn’t having sex with me, so she makes me have to look elsewhere) or diffused through a larger group or network (everyone does it, it’s just guys’ stuff.) One easy way for a porn viewer to displace responsibility is that whatever the woman experienced, however she was treated in the material he is masturbating to – it was not directly his doing. He did not do it and he is not doing it now. By placing blame on the producers he can ignore his own complicity and ignore any uncomfortable questions about his own arousal to such material. Diffused responsibility allows the consumer to see himself as having almost none, or at most, only the tiniest share of responsibility – ‘it’s not my fault, it’s there anyway, it would happen anyway, with or without my viewing.’
For male consumers of porn the sense of being one of a whole network of users who can be viewed in chat rooms, discussion forums and the like is reassuring suggests Whisnant. And so although the consumption is entirely isolated and private, he is constantly reminded that there are huge numbers of men out there all doing the same thing. He’s just being one of the guys, so there’s nothing wrong. He can remain anonymous and hidden; but they are all in this together.
A key mechanism, however, of moral disengagement is to dehumanize the individuals are being harmed. Pornography’s dehumanization of women is one of feminism’s strongest criticisms. Pornography labels women in degrading and dehumanizing ways. Along with these labels the text seeks to emphasise how women love and are ‘really in to it’ often in direct contradiction to the facial expressions and the visual evidence. Thus men learn to turn off their genuine, feeling, human responses to what the visual evidence tells them and allow the commentator to know better than he does. Pornography’s near constant message is that whatever is being done, the woman wants it and likes it. This serves to deflect the viewer’s attention from asking why he wants to see this; after all it’s what she wants. Whisnant’s analysis of the viewers’ comments shows that most are convinced that the women truly enjoy much of what they are doing and are confident that they can tell which ones. Other comments, however, may express some irritation at acting and the fakeness of some responses. This highlights the obvious contradiction – while men often claim that porn is ‘only a bit of fantasy’, to diminish its possible impact in their lives and to try to convince themselves that they have control over their viewing habits, nevertheless they want it to be real for the women they watch.
Whisnant writes that what underlies this, then, is the consumer’s own identity. The central message is that the consumer can be a ‘real man’. It caters to an anxious masculinity. Enjoying porn, and daring to go further, to enjoy more extreme porn is a marker of masculinity. Often the message is that porn is an antidote to men who see themselves as controlled and emasculated by women. Dominance against women is both a mark and an entitlement of manhood. Vicarious experience of control over women is allowed, as this is merely ‘fantasy’ in which the woman herself revels, so, it’s OK, ‘you are not a monster’.
Any porn viewer who wishes to maintain a tolerable self-image must maintain a clear boundary between himself and those men he considers morally objectionable. So while identifying with the men on screen in order to enter the action and become aroused, the man may need to carefully manage his own identification with these men – and so they are often half viewable, hidden or masked. By identifying with a half hidden man, the male consumer is protected.
So, suggests Rebecca Whisnant, male porn viewers navigate the boundary between man and monster in a variety of ways. But as the porn habits escalate these rationalizations become more difficult to sustain. What happens then, she suggests is a fragmentation of identity in to Jekyll and Hyde, to manage the conflict between trying to maintain a self-identity as decent people and their continued use of material that goes against those standards. The consumer can create a second sense of self – often aided by the titles of porn sites and the texts that accompany them.
The pornography industry thus damages its consumers’ moral personalities at every turn by hooking them on to material that undermines their self-respect and integrity. It’s done knowingly by an industry that recognizes in order to retain its paying customers it must continually ramp up. Ultimately, any kind of moral concern is snuffed out, with texts accompanying porn that urge the viewer to have no empathy for others. This is ruthless exploitation in order to pick his pocket.
Whisnant concludes the chapter, however, by saying ‘consumers are far from passive victims in the process . . . By ignoring his qualms, tuning in to the industry’s legitimizing messages and stifling his capacities for empathy and critical reflection, he has acquiesced and co-operated in his own ethical deterioration’.
And her final sentence – ‘. . . the good news is that what women and girls need from male pornography consumers – that they resist the industry’s grooming and reclaim their own humanity – is also the men’s own best hope for healing, connection and moral regeneration.’
It is a well-researched piece of writing, carefully backed up by psychological theories. I recommend the whole book of which this is just one chapter. There are moving chapters by Robert Jensen, Gail Dines among many others. The editor Karen Boyle in her final epilogue thanks the reader for ‘sticking with it’ as it is indeed a difficult read in places. She wonders sometimes, as I do often, whether it wouldn’t sometimes be easier and less emotionally draining just not to know this stuff.
Karen Boyle (Ed.) (2010) Everyday Pornography. Routledge.
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