When did rape become entertainment?
First published on Znet 23rd April 2018
In a recent essay I argued that by driving gender, race and class divisions, those with power get those without power to subordinate themselves and their peers[i]. While researching that essay I came to realise something that I had previously missed. Specifically, the insidious way in which gender inequality normalises and rationalises itself. I was thinking about this at the same time as the #metoo campaign was at it’s height. And while I was doing my research, I kept finding a disconnect between who the media chose to focus on as representative of the campaign, and how that played into the wider equality narrative. One of the areas I was struggling with, was the media’s insistence on focussing on Hollywood superstars while ignoring how women and girls are represented by the Hollywood studios that employ them. Which in turn led me into the wider cultural environment and the defining and apportioning of value to gender roles within it.
It was then that I really began to struggle. Discussing Patriarchy, within a racist class-based society can, if one is not careful overlook the multiple methods by which agency is apportioned. While certain people can have their livelihood and freedoms taken away from them, based on what people born into money think they are worth or deserving of, then any discussion of equality has to really address all the mechanisms or it will simply act as a cover for the unexamined ones. However, even taking that into consideration, I still believe that there is an aspect of the gender subordination framework that is fundamentally fracturing our societies, and crippling our capacity to organise. But before getting too far into it, it is probably helpful to get a couple of things out of the way first. That way, if you disagree you can stop reading before it ruins your day.
Firstly, although there is some debate around the various legal definitions of ‘rape'[ii], the dictionary is a little less vague, telling us that rape is “unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent because of mental illness, mental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception”[iii]. Interestingly, certain legal definitions of ‘aggravated sexual assault’, are “… an act of sexual penetration with another person [and]… The actor is aided or abetted by one or more other persons and the actor uses physical force or coercion [or] The actor uses physical force or coercion and severe personal injury is sustained by the victim”[iv]. To truly capture the similarities between the legal definition of aggravated sexual assault and the dictionary definition of rape, it needs to be seen in the context of the legal definition of ‘coercion’. Which is to “impose one’s will on another by means of force or threats [to cause physical injury of damage to property and] may be accomplished through physical or psychological means”[v]. With that in mind, for the remainder of this essay I will be referring to the act of imposing, pressurising, coercing or forcing someone in to performing sex or sexual acts when they wouldn’t otherwise; through the use of social, professional, economic, physical, emotional and/or psychological threats, intimidation or actual harm, as rape.
Secondly, one of the things that was bothering me about the media frenzy around Weinstein was the glaring lack of comment about that other part of the film industry. The one that had until very recently been overwhelmingly based just down the road in the San Fernando Valley[vi]. It has been argued by some, that the ‘sex trade’ and specifically ‘pornography’ is a way of rationalising and normalising gender violence. In the 1980s, Andrea Dworkin explained how violent subjugation is, and always was, fundamental to both the word and the practice of pornography. In ancient Greece “Porneia” and “Graphos”, meant to draw, etch or write about the cheapest and most reviled sub-class of sex slave in society[vii]. More recently, Kat Banyard modernised this argument by de-constructing the process of pornography. Explaining how, more often than not, pornography is a man receiving sexual gratification from watching a woman who is being coerced or forced to perform sexual acts. This invariably occurs within the wider context of some sort of commercial or financial transaction[viii]. By that definition, the consumer has agency, the parties recording and distributing the act have agency, however the subject, the women who is forced or coerced, has little or no agency. Based on this alone, I would argue that pornography, the most widely consumed product of the sex trade, is best described as the for-profit depiction of the forced sexual exploitation of one group for the entertainment of another group. And by that rationale, calling it the ‘sex trade’ is a diversion that overlooks the violent subjugation implicit in the power disparity. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it the ‘rape as entertainment trade’.
The most common response from the industry apologists to this accusation is the ‘free choice of the sexually liberated woman to financially exploit her own body’ argument. This is an important point, because it is the deception at the very core of how many men and the exploiter class, rationalise this industry. However, it overlooks one fundamental flaw. Freedom to chose is based on having more than one option to chose from, whether real or perceived. And for everyone to have equal opportunities and life choices, society and the economy would have to be at the very least meritocratic, if not absolutely egalitarian. And that simply isn’t the case. One only need look at those exercising inherited wealth and power to see the gaping hole in this argument. Free Market Capitalist societies are not egalitarian meritocracies where anyone can be or do anything. The idea that class doesn’t exist and inherited financial power doesn’t dictate agency, has been proven time and again to be nothing more than a sham[ix].
And it is this organisational framework, that fundamentally makes any claim to free choice a farce. As this is true for the majority of society, in whatever form of economic exploitation they find themselves, it is doubly true of those within the ‘sexual exploitation trade’. One need only look at the numerous studies into the lifestyles and experiences of many of the women and girls being ‘traded’, to see that there are a multitude of reasons for being involved. They might need money, or be suffering from substance addiction; they might be in a coercive or abusive relationship with their exploiter; the could be a long term abuse victim suffering from PTSD. It may even be something as simple as they might genuinely believe that it is their only value to society[x]. When you compound this with the findings from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, the arguments offered by the ‘industry’ are worse than farcical, they are more akin to deliberately covering up a crime against humanity. The UNODC report found that nearly three quarters of all trafficking victims were women or girls. And just over 72% of the women and girls that were trafficked were done so for the purposes of sexual exploitation. That means over half of all the victims of human trafficking are women and girls being trafficked to be sexually exploited[xi].
And for me, this context is the fundamental problem with the argument of free choice. When the men aren’t forcibly holding women and girls against their will in order to condemn them to sexual servitude, they are using the threat of, or actual withholding of money to coerce them into having sex when they wouldn’t otherwise have done so. To put it in simple terms, the powerful coerce or force the powerless in to performing sexual acts by either threatening to harm or actually harming their income and therefore their health, or directly threatening or harming their health. In normative terms at least, prostitution is rape, whether or not the legal system wants to recognise it as such. But it doesn’t stop there.
To paraphrase Robin Morgan’s 1974 comment that “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice”, I would argue that rape is the rationalisation, and subjugation the goal. By positioning half of the population as willing participants in their own brutal and very public assaults, a subordinated sub-male status becomes the normative framework for women’s existence. For me, Gail Dines put it best in her 2010 analysis Pornland when she wrote, “as long as we have porn, we will never be seen as full human beings deserving of all the rights that men have”. And I would argue that within that sub-male status, all other subordinations exist. Dines goes on to explain “women still face economic, political, and legal discrimination”[xii]. That same year Kat Banyard explained “Women in the UK are paid 22.6 per cent less per hour than men. Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, yet receive 10 percent of the world’s income and own 1 per cent of the means of production”[xiii]. And if we still didn’t get it, Natasha Walter expanded, “… the pay gap is still not only large but actually widening … and with conviction rate in rape cases standing at just 6 per cent, … [women] know that rapists enjoy an effective impunity in our society”[xiv]. Just on that last point, a year earlier, in 2009 the UK Independent Police Complaints Commission reported that a specialist rape investigation team had consistently mishandled cases, with one of the team members suggesting that it appeared that “greater importance was given to motor vehicle crime than victims of serious sexual assault”[xv].
I understand that pornography didn’t create gender inequality and all of it’s various mechanisms of subjugation. But in societies that profess to believe in gender equality, but that allow this ‘rape as entertainment’ to be broadcast directly into our homes, it does beg the question, of whether those in power are colluding or simply unaware. In terms of the institutions of power, unsurprisingly, gender inequality is very apparent. In 2010 only 17% of US Senators and members of the House of Representatives were women. At the same time in the UK, less than 20% of Members of Parliament were women[xvi]. Even after seven years of supposed action from the major UK political parties, still only 32% of MPs elected in the 2017 general election were women[xvii].
But it is not just about how many women are in government, but also what is the cultural attitude within parliament towards women. And, this isn’t as difficult to draw conclusions on as one might suspect. In 2008 in the UK, at the annual conference of the only mainstream political party to have had two female Prime Ministers, it was discovered that delegate packs included discount vouchers for a local lapdancing club[xviii]. A few years later, the Press Association made a Freedom of Information request to the Houses of Parliament to find out how many times, devices on the IT network had attempted to visit pornography websites. Once the information was released, the website statista.com felt able to make that the case that in 2015 people using the Houses of Parliament network attempted to visit pornography websites 213,000 times, or roughly 540 times a day. In 2016 this dropped to 113,000 times, and then between March and October 2017 it dropped further to 30,000 times, or about 200 times a day. The defence that was offered was that the vast majority of attempted visits to pornographic websites were not deliberate[xix]. And let’s not forget the mounting evidence surrounding the current US President, which unsurprisingly is still building[xx]. From both a practical and cultural perspective, I would argue that there is a demonstrably institutionalised acceptance of the sub-male status of women in government.
This in an of itself is bad, but is unlikely to be any worse than any other institution in the impact it has on individual women in direct contact with it. No, the real problem with this example, is that government is not just like any other a passive collection of consumers, it has a very clear indirect role. By defining and implementing legislation it becomes complicit in any and all activities that it approves of. Since 1991 in the US, the Free Speech Coalition has been lobbying Washington on behalf of the owners of the porn industry. One of their bugbears was the 1996 Child Porn Prevention Act which defined child pornography as “any visual depiction that appears to be of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct”. After 6 years of campaigning, in 2002 the Supreme Court declared the 1996 act unconstitutional due to its definition of child pornography being too broad. The law was changed to recognise only images of actual people under eighteen years old, as opposed to people made to look under eighteen[xxi]. The implications of this legislation can’t be underplayed.
As soon as the law was changed the internet began breaking out in websites filled with images and videos of young women presented as girls. The women being used have adolescent body types and all their body hair removed. They are often presented amidst adolescent or pre-adolescent signifiers, such as being dressed in school uniforms, with their hair tied in bunches, and stuffed animals or iced lollies in their hands. And supporting the images are narratives explaining the assaults, in case anyone misses it. Gail Dines’s brief study of one of the websites concluded that “many of the free sample films show the ‘teen’ being initiated by a much older man into what is supposedly her first sexual experience”. And this isn’t an uncommon theme. Across many of these sites the narratives are often adolescent ‘girls’ being forced or coerced into sex with single and multiple adult males playing the roles of “fathers, teachers, employers, coaches, and just plain old anonymous child molesters”[xxii]. And it’s not just adults consuming this. These messages are reaching children as well. A 2001 study claimed that “70% of teens 15–17 years of age had accidentally encountered pornography on the Internet, with 23% saying this happened somewhat or very often”. Again this is not altogether surprising when you consider that as early as 2005, 12% of all web sites and 25% of all search engine requests were pornography[xxiii].
By changing the 1996 US law in 2002, the US Supreme Court, made available to a large percentage of the global population an avalanche of images of what appears to be young girls being sexually assaulted by adult males as a form of entertainment. Arguably, as you read this, hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of men are masturbating to what researchers call pseudo-child (PC) pornography and our ruling class clearly deems a perfectly acceptable way for companies to make money and the general public to behave. Perhaps they would be less quick to approve if the companies were forced to be more explicit about what it is they do; which in simple terms is creating the illusion of children being raped, as a for-profit form of mass entertainment.
The childification of adult women in porn has gone hand in hand with a wider cultural shift in the increasing sexualisation of girls and childhood. Mardia Bishop argues that the trend in girls fashion is increasingly moving towards the PC porn staples, of thongs, mini-skirts, and crop tops[xxiv]. And if you think sexually assaulting children is some sort of aberration by disturbed school caretakers and priests, think again. According to Kat Banyard, between 50-75% of women in prostitution in the UK began selling sex before they were eighteen. And before anyone suggests a free choice being exercised; in the UK women in prostitution are far more likely to have been sexually abused as children than the rest of the population. In one study in Canada, the correlation was 82%. That means that potentially as many as 8 out of every 10 prostitutes could have been sexually abused as children. And by that extrapolation alone, there is a significant number of men that either financially coerced or physically forced between 50-75% of prostitutes into having sex while they were still children[xxv].
But it’s not just about the victims. Studies of the correlation between using child porn and sexually abusing children varies from between 40% to 85%. In one 2007 study undertaken by the US government, 85% of men convicted of downloading child pornography had also sexually abused children. When the study was about to go public, the Federal Bureau of Prisons stopped it[xxvi]. Those statistics alone beg the question, how does the normalisation of child molesting narratives play into the wider social psyche. And, just as importantly, is there a case to be made that the State is complicit in this blurring of the lines between legal exploitation and criminal assault. It appears that in the ‘west’ we have legal systems that allows the re-enactment of child sexual assault for profit, we have penal systems that suppress evidence of the correlation between the consumption of child porn and actual abuse of children, we have police forces that are for whatever reason ineffective when it comes to investigating rape cases, we have legislators trying to watch porn while at work, and we have a fashion industry that is dressing our children for porn. When you step back for a moment, the direction of travel is terrifying.
In the last three decades the porn industry has gone through a process of normalisation, both culturally and economically. So much so, that even when a political body attempts to address the brutality and inhuman treatment of the trade, the mass media finds itself slipping into debates of job losses and impacts on the wider economy. When the state of California passed regulations on condom use in the ‘adult entertainment industry’ the owners of those companies began shifting production to states where they didn’t have to protect the performers. The LA Times covered the fallout, but very much within the wider framework of any other business story; “Although porn production accounts for less than 5% of all film permits, the industry has traditionally been an important contributor to the local economy. A decade ago, local economists estimated that the porn industry in the San Fernando Valley generated 10,000 to 20,000 jobs annually and had $4 billion in annual sales”. Even when getting in to the actual human costs of moving production, it was still very much within the ‘business news’ model. “Industry advocates also have argued there is little market demand for condom porn and that many performers object to wearing condoms … Vivid Entertainment and others sued the county last year to prevent implementation of the condom requirement … A U.S. district judge found that the condom mandate did not violate the 1st Amendment right to free speech …”[xxvii].
Arguably, one of the key impacts of this normalisation process, is a wider cultural metastasis. In 2007 the American Psychological Association convened a taskforce to investigate and report on the sexualisation of girls. The adultification of girls and the childification of women within a wider pseudo-child porn trope has become common currency in everyday culture. In a study in 2004 the advertising industry was called out on the overwhelming amount of images of women dressed to look like girls and girls made to look like women, what Merskin refers to as ‘trickle up and trickle down’. Careful not to overtly sexualise girls, the advertisers often use tricks such as positioning them alongside sexualised adult counterparts. Sometimes it is not that subtle. In the Christina Aguilera Skechers ‘naughty and nice’ ads[xxviii], the adult Aguilera is presented, amongst other things, as a schoolgirl, wearing a miniskirt and a shirt unbuttoned to reveal her bra, her hair tied in pig-tails, and one hand between her legs while the other is holding a pencil to her lips[xxix]. It is these sorts of adverts that allows many to conclude that advertisers and the media are sending out very clear messages to all of us, that girls and women “should always be sexually available, always have sex on their minds, be willing to be dominated and even sexually aggressed against, and … will be gazed on as sexual objects”[xxx]. There is clearly something wrong, and neither the markets nor the politicians seem to be willing to deal with it.
In their 2007 book, Doctors Babiak and Hare studied the prevalence of psychopaths in modern business. According to the two Doctors, Psychopaths are “without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves”, they are “motivated by greed or big egos … [and display] a personality disorder rooted in lying, manipulation, deceit, egocentricity, callousness, and other potentially destructive traits. They go on to explain, “Many psychopaths adopt a parasitic existence, living off the generosity or gullibility of others by taking advantage of and often abusing the trust and support of friends and family. They may move from … one source of support to another”. Babiak and Hare estimate the prevalence in US society of Psychopaths at about 1%, with “Perhaps another 10 percent or so fall[ing] into the gray zone, with sufficient psychopathic features to be of concern to others”. It is also worth keeping in mind their definition of Sociopath, who they describe as people who may well “have a well-developed conscience and a normal capacity for empathy, guilt, and loyalty, but their sense of right and wrong is based on norms and expectations of their subculture or group”, and whose ”attitudes and behaviours … are considered antisocial and criminal by society at large”[xxxi]. I would argue that there is a case to be answered that the architects of the porn industry could well be psychopaths, and the consumers, without knowing it, could be fast becoming sociopaths.
While legislators are happily stuffing notes into the thongs of drug addicted trafficking victims held against their will, expectations of action on gender equality is an illusion. Every time someone has sex with a prostitute there is a reasonably high chance, that she is being forced or coerced against her will, and that she is either a child victim of sexual abuse, or an emotionally damaged adult suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from a life of sexual abuse. I find it difficult to see how this can be called anything but rape. The reality of prostitution is neither Pretty Woman nor Belle de Jour. And further to that, pornography is simply prostitution by proxy. Back in 1981, Dworkin explained this far more succinctly than I ever could, “The photographs also document a rape, a rape first enacted when the women were set up and used; a rape repeated each time the viewer consumes the photographs”[xxxii]. What is true of photographic pornography, is doubly so of filmed pornography. And one may ask themselves, what is one of the main social impacts of this ‘rape as entertainment’ on a global scale? Dworkin argues that one of the key outputs of pornography is to acclimatise and thereby normalise men to cruelty, abuse, degradation and violence towards women and girls[xxxiii].
I would argue that even if we are not actively engaging with porn, by not addressing this fundamental crime against 50% of our entire species, we are colluding with psychopaths to hold down their victims. Every time a woman or girl gets assaulted, or raped, or exploited, or killed, we need to ask ourselves what could I have done to make society a little less acceptant of gender violence, and therein a little less unequal. I do think it is paramount that this is done. I would argue that destroying gender inequality once and for all, is an essential precondition for both race and class equality to be achieved. At the same time, to fight only for gender equality, is to not recognise the various manifestations and transactional nature of the exploiter/exploited relationship. For every man that stands by silently as his friends and colleagues normalise and rationalise such behaviour, we allow the psychopaths to get their claws into one of our sisters. If we are to build a society free from exploitation, we must first stop colluding in the exploitation of half of us. If we are ever going to achieve a better world, then absolute equality must be both the theory and the practice.
viiDworkin, Andrea – Pornography, 1981 – p199
viiiBanyard, Kat – the equality illusion, 2010 – p141
ixClark, Gregory – The Son Also Rises, 2014
xBanyard, Kat – the equality illusion, 2010 – p141, 159
xiUNODC, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – Global Report on Trafficking in Persons -2016, 2016 – p7, 8, 23, 27, 28
xiiDines, Gail – Pornland, 2010 – p165
xiiiBanyard, Kat – the equality illusion, 2010 – p2
xivWalter, Natasha – Living Dolls, 2010 – p119
xvBanyard, Kat – the equality illusion, 2010 – p130
xviBanyard, Kat – the equality illusion, 2010 – p82
xviiiBanyard, Kat – the equality illusion, 2010 – p215
xxiDines, Gail – Pornland, 2010 – p142
xxiiDines, Gail – Pornland, 2010 – pxxi, 143
xxiiiAmerican Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls – Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls, 2007 – p10
xxivDines, Gail – Pornland, 2010 – p162
xxvBanyard, Kat – the equality illusion, 2010 – p146
xxviDines, Gail – Pornland, 2010 – p161
xxviiiAmerican Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls – Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls, 2007 – p12
xxxAmerican Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls – Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls, 2007 – p12
xxxiRobert D. Hare Ph.D., Paul Babiak, Ph.D. & – Snakes in suits, 2007 – px, 19,20, 177
xxxiiDworkin, Andrea – Pornography, 1981 – p137
xxxiiiWalter, Natasha – Living Dolls, 2010 – p104