Tuesday, January 02, 2007

On Pornography

It is a feminist topic, but one on which I have had no conclusive opinions. This is mostly because I have never really looked at pornography. This is now changing. I have acquired a list of various websites and started studying them. Supposedly this list is of fairly vanilla sites (i.e. sites which don't explicitly deal in woman-hating porn), and I haven't ventured very far into them yet.

But already I have noticed something that makes me cringe, and that is the way the women on these sites are described: whores and sluts, mostly. There is something in this desire that joins with loathing of that which is desired.

The internet has made pornography available in an unprecedented way. Nobody really needs to know that you watch it. There is no need for visits to the local store, visits which someone might witness. No need to subscribe to magazines which the neighbor might see in your post box. This invisibility has changed the way porn consumption is viewed. It is now a mainstream activity for many men and perhaps for some women, too, though I have so far found little that would be intended for women's consumption. Mostly, the women are what is being consumed on these sites. Naked women are available everywhere on the net.

And this is the question I always arrive at when I think of pornography of the supposedly fairly innocent type where nobody gets forced into the acting roles and where everybody is an adult and where there is no violence: Who owns those bodies?

Or rather: Who owns my body? A body which is not unlike those bodies that have various things done to them on the websites, things, which are always supposed to be enjoyable even if they don't always look like it. Can I make the distinction that the women's bodies in pornography are not the same as my body? Are young men able to make the same distinction?

It is hard to be lucid and clear on these questions, because what I'm trying to explain is not a concept which has a name yet. Or so I think, anyway. The concept has to do with the fact that the body which we view on these porn sites is not the body of Ms. X, specifically. It is a generic female body. And the discussions about pornography often focus on the effects of porn on Ms. X, the actress, not on all the rest of us owners of generic female bodies. And what might the generic effects of porn be? I'm not sure, but I can imagine that there might now be young men who believe that women in reality act like the women on porn sites do, and that they, themselves, could act like the men on those sites do. In real life sex and relationships. Or I might imagine that the standards of bodily beauty for women might become those of porn actresses, even if they have been selected for whatever makes them extreme on the sexual arousal scales. And I might imagine even worse effects if I expand the list of porn sites to those which are sadistic.

Economists have a name for something rather similar: an externality. An externality is the effect a trade, say, between two parties can have on the wellbeing of a third and unrelated party. For instance, a factory may make products which people buy, while also polluting the river nearby. Here the two parties making the deal are the factory and its customers and the third party consists of all the neighbors who get their water polluted, without necessarily getting any compensation for that or having any power to stop the pollution.

If we use this concept of an externality in analyzing pornography it is possible that the trade the porn sites and their consumers engage in has a negative effect on a third group: women in general, and that at the present time this third group is not getting in any sense compensated for the damage they might experience or have any power in influencing the trades.

Or perhaps not. I don't know of any research on this topic, and it's possible that consumers of pornography can make the distinction between real life and porn. But something I've spotted in net discussions makes me suspect that this might not always be the case.