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The more widespread porn becomes, the coarser it gets? - Elf M. Sternberg
The more widespread porn becomes, the coarser it gets?
Normally, the intellectual descendents of Andrea Dworkin and I don't see at all eye to eye. After all, I produce erotica; Dworkin loathed it. I celebrate a sense of masculine sex and role that she found abhorrent, a respect for the difference in the sexes that she found incomprehensible, and an appreciation for physical pleasures that require more vigor than mere cuddling. (Oh, I'm all for cuddling, too. Even as the only thing for some ocassions and the appropriate reaction to some people. It just not the only thing, and writing about it would become dull eventually.)

Robert Jensen is considered one of those intellectual descendents. He has an observation in his book Getting Off that I've made on more than one occassion, and for a while I could point at the misogyny of Japanese porn. (I used to think it was patriarchial-- and perhaps it is. But what I've read of women Japanese writers in the original, I can only conclude that when the tables are turned and women have power, they would mistreat men just as readily. It's not about sex: it's about power, and having it, and showing it. It might just be revenge fantasy for them. I have no idea.) But I'm seeing more of it in the United States.

There are two primary strains of pornography: the traditional kind, in which there's a script, and an intent to follow some thin thread of a storyline from beginning to end. And then there's gonzo, in which two people are put in front of the camera and just told to have sex. There's no justification, no emotional connection. Here's your paycheck: now fuck for it.

Over the past three years, gonzo has gotten mean. I can no longer deny this. The epithets fly: 'tramp', 'bitch', 'whore', 'cunt,' 'slut.' Women are slapped, choked, gagged until they throw up. All kinds of nastiness is thrown at women: comments about the way they look, the way they smell, the sounds of their voice. Gonzo these days starts with the assumption that women are stupid and cheap and exist only to be used by cruel men, and often include the subtle message that you're not a real man unless you can use women and throw them away like that.

The alarming fact is that this cruelty-based gonzo outsells all other kinds of hardcore pornography right about now. Jensen's claim, and it's one I'm having a hard time arguing with, is this: We aren't as civilized as we claim to be. This industry thrives because the vast majority of American men who buy pornography, who sit in darkened rooms and masturbate to this stuff, like the cruelty. It's a passive cruelty: we can claim that it's vicarious, and it's on TV so it's "make believe," and the actresses all say they like it. (I know, I know, I'm supposed to believe what they say and accept their empowerment, but the one time I watched a Hillary Scott film I couldn't even watch to the end; she did not look like she was having fun, and she's Adult Video News's "hottest actress" two years in a row.)

Even if that's true, why do men buy it? Jensen believes it is because we do not, as a society, reject cruelty as much as we would wish. We reject the commission of cruelty, but we're perfectly happy to watch it. Degradation and deliberate cruelty are becoming more commonplace even as pornography becomes more commonplace.

This disturbs me on so many levels. If this is the audience, do I even want to write smut anymore? I've tried to make my characters human; the ones who degrade and demean end up unwanted and unloved by the end, served with cosmic justice of the authorial sort. If people are going to engage in "merely friendly exercise," as Heinlein put it, they should at least like each other and treat one another with the kind of respect that wishes they'd come back and do it again.

I don't like what I'm seeing in porn these days. I'm hoping I'm wrong about this. Are my perceptions off, or is the market, as it widens, as men become saturated with it, now appealing to more coarse, vicious, and base instincts?

Maybe this is why I read romance novels instead these days, and ask my women friends for their favorite one-handed girly reading.

Current Mood: distressed distressed

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slutdiary From: slutdiary Date: September 25th, 2007 03:44 am (UTC) (Link)
I've long felt that what turns our crank the most comes from the deepest darkest corner of our mind, the things which are the furthest thing from what we would actually do.

Porn gives us the opportunity to enjoy it - however that verb may be defined - without the necessity of taking any personal responsibility for it.
zonereyrie From: zonereyrie Date: September 25th, 2007 04:04 am (UTC) (Link)

While my employer was courting the adult industry (the on-again, off-again relationship is off-again) I went to a few Internext tradeshows and I still have subscriptions to adult trade-rags AVN Online and Klixxx at the office. A lot of what I saw from 'gonzo' turned my stomach. I knew there was a really hardcore niche with some intense stuff, but it seems to have spread over the past few years such that what used to be extreme five years ago is just 'edgy' now, and what is extreme today is just vile.

I Do Not Get It.

I mean, I feel fairly vanilla compared to a lot of people I know - present company included. I remember you once posting about a party you attended where you were whipped by two women until you bled, then doused in something flammable, set alight, and pushed into a swimming pool before you had an serious burns - and how *incredible* you thought that was. And I read that thinking "Well, OK, I'm a pyro and being set on fire and pushed into a pool sounds like a rush... but the whips and blood letting just don't do it for me." But I can understand it, comprehend the appeal.

Ramming my dick down a woman's throat until she vomits around it? No, I can't get my head around the appeal. Sex that is so abusive and violent it seems like rape on film - revolts me.

I've seen it in hentai anime too. I mean, there was always good old tentacle porn. And titles like Bible Black have some strong scenes (I recommend Bible Black for hentai), but I've seen more titles in the past few years featuring animated sexual torture. E.L. is one that comes to mind, where a woman is captured by the 'bad guys' and raped with a cattle prod, amongst other nasty events. I FF'd through the rest of the scene and gave it away since I never wanted to see it again.

Things like 'Bang Bus' in the porn industry seem to be getting out of hand.

I like porn, but I'd rather watch some older Asia Carrera or Nina Hartley movies than the 'gonzo' trash.
elfs From: elfs Date: September 25th, 2007 04:25 am (UTC) (Link)
Good point. I think, from a literary standpoint (when you read that old incident when I was set on fire-- by a woman who later became my lawyer, oddly enough), you get the point of view of the participant and you get some sense of the inner life, the complicated urge to take, process, and if not enjoy the immediate pleasure of the event at least enjoy the outcome, the sense of wholeness that comes from facing that kind of challenge.

Film has a hard time conveying that, but sometimes it succeeds. The whole point of gonzo, though, is to not convey it but, instead, to simply show women being used as disposable, interchangeable hunks of meat.

I don't get it either.
gromm From: gromm Date: September 25th, 2007 04:29 am (UTC) (Link)
Honestly, I don't think it's anything new...

"What does one want when one is engaged in the sexual act? That everything around you give you its utter attention, think only of you, care only for you...every man wants to be a tyrant when he fornicates."

- Marquis De Sade
elfs From: elfs Date: September 25th, 2007 04:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
The true tyrant knows he is worshipped for himself, and has no need of brutality to reinforce it. This crap we're seeing today is a sign of insecurity.
rapier From: rapier Date: September 25th, 2007 04:48 am (UTC) (Link)

Witnessing cruelty

You may be on to something there. To dovetail on your thoughts about cruelty in pornography, there are various message boards on which I see rather ... enthusiastic linkages to videos depicting astonishingly violent and cruel action in various war-torn places around the world. Usually these clips are filmed and edited by the soldiers themselves and set to energetic rock music, and depict enemy fighters in Iraq and other places being shot, buildings crumbling under artillery fire, and thermal-enhanced combat film from helicopters showing vaguely humanoid figures withering under a hail of fire. There's footage from the other side as well, showing American soldiers perishing in IED blasts, burned out shells of Humvees, and the like.

I've watched some of these, and I always walk away feeling quite ... disgusting, vile. That initial period of morbid curiosity over, I can't bear to watch them anymore. But it does make me think about the people who enthusiastically consume these sorts of video clips on a regular basis. I wonder if their motivations are the same as the people who consume the cruel pornography you describe. They would quail at committing these acts of violence, but they will endlessly witness the same acts.

These people though? They're not your audience. Your audience takes the time to read, and they like what you're doing with these very human characters and the cosmic justice and everything else you've got going on.
abostick59 From: abostick59 Date: September 25th, 2007 04:49 am (UTC) (Link)
There's no doubt that porn is getting nastier -- that nasty forms of porn are becoming more popular. But is this implicit in the nature of porn, or is something else going on?

I don't think porn is the engine that drives American sexual culture. I think it is one of the gauges on the dashboard that tells us what's going on. There's something really nasty going on in the American collective psyche. It's showing up in our porn, and it's also showing up elsewhere. Abu Ghraib didn't happen in a vacuum.
sierra_nevada From: sierra_nevada Date: September 25th, 2007 05:09 am (UTC) (Link)
I found it disturbing that a lot of the national guard soldiers involved in the Abu Ghraib affair were civilian prison guards in the USA.
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edichka2 From: edichka2 Date: September 25th, 2007 05:02 am (UTC) (Link)
Elf -- you and I have known for years that we differ in our tastes on such matters, at least in terms of personal activities. But I guess I share your concern about this kind of darkness becoming... democratized. (I was gonna say "widespread" or "disseminated," but....) Certainly if the same process can explain yahoos hooting at what amounts to actual military snuff films, as mentioned above, then it's fucking deplorable. Naturally, there's tipping point on the reality scale, shy of which I and some of our mutual acquaintances might find this gonzo porn you describe to be rather hot, rather than revolting.

- Eddie
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drhoz From: drhoz Date: September 25th, 2007 08:04 am (UTC) (Link)
Hunter S. Thompson would probably be sickened by it too...
acelightning From: acelightning Date: September 25th, 2007 10:19 am (UTC) (Link)
I think it comes down to the difference between erotica and pornography. Erotica - what you write - is meant to be erotic; it involves emotions, as well as sexual arousal. It's about people, in love and lust. Even the most extreme fantasies are acted out consensually. (And erotica usually does have at least some attempt at plot.)

Pornography, however, is simply meant to be sexually stimulating. And it seems to be part of the human psyche that we often find something morally and/or personally repugnant, but the thought of it turns us on anyway. That's what pornography caters to - never mind plot, or even personality, just go straight for the lizard brain. The focus seems to be on the abuse and degradation of women, because the audience for porn is overwhelmingly male. (Alas, I think this sets up sort of a feedback loop: man wants cheap, fast arousal; man watches coarse, violent porn and gets aroused; man constantly needs coarser, more violent imagery to get aroused; man also begins to equate coarseness and violence with sex in general; man attempts to behave that way with actual woman... *sigh*)

On the positive side, I do believe there is an audience for erotica, as well as for porn - there's a market for grilled fresh-caught salmon with lemon butter, as well as a market for Big Macs.

From: iamcuriousblue Date: October 13th, 2007 02:12 am (UTC) (Link)

A quote that says it all

"In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably comes down to "What turns me on is erotica; what turns you on is pornographic." – Ellen Willis
maureenlycaon From: maureenlycaon Date: September 25th, 2007 11:03 am (UTC) (Link)
I think the majority of other commenters are on to something. This isn't about the prevalence of pornography, which has been a fact since the 1980s. Something has gone very, very wrong in the American mass psyche, and the porn is simply an indicator, where this wrongness bubbles up ripe and stinking from beneath the layers of denial.

My own pet hypothesis is that it has to do with Americans turning away from the future, and sinking into a sort of mass insanity as a result, but as I can't think of any way to prove that I won't go into detail. I do think that Bob Altemeyer is onto something with The Authoritarians.

(I've posted an entry linking to this in my own LJ, btw; hope you don't mind.)
ysabel From: ysabel Date: September 25th, 2007 12:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
You're (I think) the third person I've seen mention this in as many days.

And I'm also with several of the other commenters, that this is something deeper and the porn is the indicator.
From: siliconshaman Date: September 25th, 2007 03:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hi, came here on a friends recommendation...

I think you and the other commenter's are onto something here, only you're still not seeing the whole picture. Porn is indeed a peek into the collective unconscious... but not just of America. This seems to be a phenomena that can be found throughout most of what we call Western civilisation, to a greater or lesser extent.

I'm not sure what it signifies, but I get the definite feeling that it's nothing good. Rome went this way, towards the end, with the Circus Maximus and various other 'shows'. And we all know how that turned out.
elfs From: elfs Date: September 25th, 2007 03:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I thought about that connection last night as I was writing my post and decided not to go too far in that direction. One of the lessons of the Circus Maximus was that "life is pain." The Romans believed that one's ability to tolerate pain, to dish it out, and to be the victor over it and any who would inflict it, was an edifying lesson that could be learned through watching the blood and sand of the coliseum. Before the invention of medicine and hygiene, it was probably a survival-oriented necessity.

That's not what we're seeing here. There is no survival-oriented lesson being learned here; quite the opposite. We say we're a compassionate culture, but we also seem to have a contingent that enjoys watching "a bit of the ultraviolence" and is powering a disturbing market for this stuff. The rise in this kind of extreme pornography reflects a worldview far uglier than the underlying message of the Circus Maximus. This stuff implies a hateful attitude toward women that I cannot stomach.
aelfie From: aelfie Date: September 25th, 2007 04:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
If this is the audience

Hey, I'm part of your audience and that gonzo shit disturbs the hell out of me. I like your stuff, been reading it for 15 years. I deplore most of the pornography out there. I stopped watching mainstream porn years ago because "the money shot" was always in the girls face. I hate that, its just disrespectful and degrading. (Not that disrespectful and degrading are bad things, but they just have to be in the right scene. If it happened in an S&M video, it wouldn't bother me so much. But just two "normal" people having sex? Bleh!)

I'm constantly disturbed at just the generally acceptable level of violence that our society allows. Heaven Forbid that a naked breast should appear on national TV, but you want to shoot someone in the face and have his brains splatter all over? Well, that's okay. I don't get it. And its getting really hard to shield my kids from it.

One-handed girly reading-I assume you've found the Skye O'Malley series by Bertrice Small yes? Her older books are better, but her more recent novels and short stories have gotten really interesting. Although recently I've been reading Carol Queen and Bill Brents Bi-sexual Erotica compilations. Good Stuff!
elfs From: elfs Date: September 25th, 2007 04:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love Bertrice Small! Although the last one I read, named The Innocent, was a little mindwrenching because the heroine was a timid young woman named Elf!
doodlesthegreat From: doodlesthegreat Date: September 25th, 2007 04:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
I live here in Porn Valley, and I've been noticing the same trends over the course of this decade. It really is a recent thing, as you can quickly check back over material from the 70's and 80's and see that the way actresses were treated has gotten far worse. I don't mind wall-to-wall sometimes, if it's done in the right way. "Hi! We're not after a plot, we just thought you'd like some inspiration!" Mind you, even in those types of films, what I like is that the actors/actresses will talk for a while about themselves. No plots, but at least you know them as persons. The gonzo stuff is just awful. It goes beyond objectification and goes into dehumanizing.

You know far more about the ideas behind BDSM and their power relationships than I. More than 90% of the planet, I'd say. When I hear you state that such things are beyond your comprehension, I get very, very worried.
elfs From: elfs Date: September 25th, 2007 04:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
There is nice gonzo. Blake Andrews' work comes to mind: extraordinarily and artificially beautiful posthumans boinking in exotic locations you can't afford to visit in ecstatic slow motion to extremely expensive soundtracks. But he's the standout, high-end, high-budget exception.

Even your description where the actress gets to talk about herself beforehand doesn't quite ring true most of the time. I don't watch nearly as much porn as I used to; I'm reading a lot more. But what I have seen recently I don't like. "Fat girl" porn used to be intentionally degrading; it would almost always involve smearing the girl with food or humilating her because she was fat. I watched one a few months ago when Omaha was out of town that didn't imply "feedie" on the box art. And up to a point, it was just intro, chit-chat, and wall-to-wall for a while. And then, for no reason whatsoever, it got cruel: he started slapping her, gagging her, and then he left her after tossing a wad of money at her. It went from "We're here to have fun" to "You're a whore to be bought and sold" with no warning.

Hell, even humiliation porn has lost trying to be clever.
xengar From: xengar Date: September 26th, 2007 02:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, most of what I'd want to say has already been said by others here, so I'll just summarize. I too think that porn is acting as an "indicator species" here, and that the changes in it reflect a greater trend. I think it might be an aspect of the flip side of the internets anonymity.

Much has been made about people acting out online because they don't have to own up to their actions, but there is also the fact that everyone has some degree of solipsism and can sometimes have a hard time believing that the person on side of the screen is real. As one of the other posters mentioned, most likely the majority of consumers for gonzo porn wouldn't consider actually doing anything like that, but watching the video is okay because it's no-one they know, it's no-one they might meet, and there's no consequences to not considering them real people.

Wow, sorry, that was kind of long-winded for a summery. Here's an actual summery: Remember what Heinlein called this time period in his future history timeline. For that matter, I Will Fear No Evil, which is set during the Crazy Years, only seems a little bit exaggerated compared to reality, not really wrong in any particular way.

P.S. It does seem to be a mostly American phenomenon. Abbywinters over in Australia seems to be getting good results with the "just film people having sex" idea, but without the degradation. Actually, now that I think about it, there's a major difference right there. In even the most humiliating acts of a d/s relationship there is no loss of self worth because even a slave is valued by their master. Whereas a number of those participating in the videos you're talking about seem to feel that they are worth less than they would be if they were somewhere, anywhere, else.
ewhac From: ewhac Date: September 26th, 2007 02:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Jensen believes it is because we do not, as a society, reject cruelty as much as we would wish. We reject the commission of cruelty, but we're perfectly happy to watch it.

We reject improperly directed cruelty. Cruelty directed "properly," i.e. to people who deserve it, is often welcomed and celebrated. The comeuppance of the villain in any given shoot-em-up action movie is virtually a staple of the cultural narrative. Likewise, the abolition of Capital Punishment in this country has been a hard sell. Professional "wrestling" taps in to this vein by creating a theater of heroes and villains and having them go at each other.

The problem, of course, is that the criteria of who "deserves it" varies widely, with the result that everyone taps in to the visceral surge of energy, but doesn't know where to direct it.

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