Monday, January 24, 2011

The Price of Pleasure: Talking with a vocal critic of the porn industry

Posted By on Mon, Jan 24, 2011 at 9:30 AM

click to enlarge Price of Pleasure

The Price of Pleasure raises a number of strong objections to the porn industry and its potentially negative impact on sexuality and relationships. In this unedited interview, I question one of the film's creators,  Dr. Chyng Sun, on the possible functions and benefits of porn in modern society.

As a clinical associate professor of media studies at New York University, where do you draw the line between the first amendment rights of porn makers to produce erotica and the need to protect the public from potentially derogatory material that may warp viewers’ ideas about sex and relationships?

One has a right to make certain statements, but it does not mean that one should overlook the potential for harm or hurt. I don’t know how to “protect” the public from extreme political rhetoric, disturbing entertainment media, or derogatory advertisements. We need a cultural shift so that we can view certain representations and rhetoric (such as pornography) as unacceptable, not because we want to repress them but because they contribute negatively to the goal of establishing a just and healthy society. This can happen if we look around the world and see how other societies organize and regulate media. For instance, before I went to Sweden for a conference, I imagined (admittedly very superficially) that because Sweden is a sexually open society, there would be naked bodies or sexy images everywhere. I was surprised when I did not see any such advertising billboards around Linköping University, where the conference took place, or in Stockholm; and the advertisements I saw in stores or in newspapers or on TV were nothing like the Calvin Klein ads that we see here. On TV, the worst programs were all from the U.S. I had no time to do further research on this matter, but according to the few local people I talked to, Swedes consider certain pornographic images insulting to women and harmful for gender relationships and so should not be displayed. In the U.S., when you talk about regulation, an alarm goes off, and people cry “censorship” or “sexual repression.” In my view, pornographic images are repressive.

American censorship boards seem to be much more concerned with graphic sexual content as opposed to depictions of extreme violence. However, this relationship is reversed in countries like France. Why do you think this disparity exists in the U.S.? Do you think depictions of extreme violence or extreme erotica pose a greater threat to our culture?

I used to think, cynically, that addressing “sexual repression” was mostly an outdated excuse used by pornographers to justify what they do, and that it did not really exist among young people. I was wrong. When I was doing my audience research, interviewing mostly college students, I saw some young men and women who grew up in very religious homes and had a lot of conflict and confusion about sexuality. One young man said that he wished one day he could tell his parents that he is a sexual being: he masturbates and has already had sex with women and is not thinking about marriage. He explained that it could be the equivalent of a “coming-out” story. In this society so much hypocrisy exists around sexuality. On another note, I don’t understand what is “extreme” erotica, and I don’t see a clear line separating erotica and pornography: it is subjective, and there is some truth to the saying, “What you like is pornography and what I like is erotica.”

Hugh Hefner has said that at first feminists were his biggest supports, but then they eventually turned on him for objectifying women. Do you see any connection between the decline of a more male dominated, misogynistic society, and the rise of porn that is increasingly degrading toward women?

click to enlarge Price of Pleasure Chyng Sun
Can any woman be a feminist just by calling herself one? Some subscribe to the definition “I am a woman and I do what I want to do without inhibition, so I am a feminist.” So I am not sure who the feminists were who supported Hugh Hefner. I doubt that feminists believe in dismantling male supremacy, and the commodification of female bodies would support Playboy.

Regarding your question “Do you see any connection between the decline of a more male dominated, misogynistic society, and the rise of porn that is increasingly degrading toward women?” Do you mean that men, in losing material power, can find comfort in the documentation of degrading women? There are scholars and writers who make that connection. In my interviews of some male consumers of pornography, I was told that watching women being degraded or manhandled did give them the pleasure of a feeling of control and power. (I also read and interviewed male pornographers, who said the same thing.) One man said that he liked to see women being gagged. He also liked to do that in the bedroom because it made him feel that his penis was so large that it made the women gag.

In The Price of Pleasure, a few images of virtual or animated child porn are shown for shock value. I recently read about a study by Dr. Milton Diamond out of the University of Hawaii that linked the decriminalization of child porn in such countries as the Czech Republic, Japan, and Denmark, with lower rates of sexual abuse toward children. There are also various studies that suggest that there is more violence and sexual abuse toward women in countries like Afghanistan where porn is illegal. How do you respond to the argument that porn serves as a release for sexual frustration and desires that may not be appropriate in a modern context as opposed to an instigator of sexual aggression?

First, to clarify: Showing images of virtual or animated child porn is not done for shock value, as you suggest. It is to demonstrate the Free Speech Coalition’s political and economic power to legitimate producing these types of images. The question I’ve always asked psychologists and therapists touches on the catharsis theory you mention above. They all said—including Dr. Neil Malamuth, who has done research on porn for more than 25 years—that the theory was not proven and that in fact the opposite, the effect of reinforcement, is true. Even if a person who has the desire to abuse children watches child porn to “let off steam,” does that desire dissipate forever? Or will the person come back to watch more child porn? Would that actually lead to more children being abused, even if not directly by him? And what happens when that kind of desire is reinforced again and again in his mind, even if he does not act on it? Does it make having sexual encounters with children more appealing or less appealing? How does that affect their sexualities? I’ve interviewed women prostitutes who have role-played as little girls with their clients, including one who pretended to be 5 years old. The clients had very clear scripts they wanted them to follow, and they were common porn scripts, such as a neighbor watching a 12-year-old girl coming from her cheerleading practice, all sweaty, etc.

Your film raises some very interesting points about how porn is impacting our relationships and sexual desires, but the analysis was almost exclusively reserved for heterosexual porn. Do you see the same type of objectification in gay porn where viewers may potentially envision themselves in either the dominant or submissive roles?

The film focuses only on mainstream heterosexual pornography because I am interested in the type of porn that has the widest viewership and potential effects. My audience research also focuses only on heterosexual people at this moment. This is purely because of time and energy constraints.

click to enlarge Price of Pleasure 3
When the U.S. government banned alcohol in 1920, a huge black-market erupted to fill American’s thirst for it. If porn was banned, the same thing would likely happen. Do you think porn fills a basic human need, or has it become a drug that we rely on?

We live in a society that deals poorly with sexuality and relationships. Look at the rates of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and divorces. I point to Dr. Richard Wolff’s insight that in a capitalist society, when certain needs and wants—such as sexual ones—are unfulfilled, then private entities come in to meet those needs. In the process, they also shape these needs and wants… often in perverted ways, I should add. So in the bigger scheme, pornography works the same way as sugary breakfast cereals. Do we need a hundred kinds of sugary cereals in a local supermarket?

Is it possible to make heterosexual porn that doesn’t objectify women, and if so, what would that look like?

Many pornographers I talked to started out by trying to make different porn, but they eventually became resigned to “making a buck” and fell back on established routines and formulas. Pornography is not about creativity. One former porn performer, who has become very critical about porn, asked, “Why do we need so many pictures of women wearing high heels and getting fucked? That hasn’t been done before?

The recent bestselling book on evolutionary psychology, Sex at Dawn, suggests that primitive humans lived in small hunter gatherer groups that were non-monogamous. Do you think our culture’s emphasis on lifelong monogamy as the normative relationship has created a need for unsatisfied partners to seek sexual satisfaction through porn?

In a society where half of marriages fail, I don’t think most people really take “lifelong monogamy” that seriously. I also don’t think most people find “sexual satisfaction” through pornography. Pornography is very much like McDonald’s: it’s everywhere, it’s cheap, the taste is predictable, and it does the job quickly but also temporarily. For some people, there is no risk involved in watching porn and masturbating, because they think they don’t know how to get better sex, or they can’t afford it (insecurity, lack of opportunity, lack of social and communicative skills, etc.). Or it has become a routine, a habit, or even a compulsion—particularly if the watchers started doing it when they were young.

We need more discussion about and understanding of sexuality, intimacy, and relationships. And I don’t think that merely watching images of people having sex, regardless of whether the images are violent or degrading, can help advance too much of that discussion. When I discuss with female friends their love/sex lives, the complaints are mostly about the difficulty of finding someone to connect with intellectually and emotionally, but not about the lack of good porn to masturbate to. Is sex really so hard if the involved people are open, secure, communicative, creative, playful, and kind? Is it so hard that we have to look at on-screen menus in order to know what to do, or even how to get aroused? So the issues are more fundamental. How do we become open, secure, communicative, creative, playful, and kind individuals? What could impair our ability to do so?

The Price of Pleasure points out that porn is a $13 billion dollar industry. However every actress and studio owner I’ve spoken with has seriously had to reconsider their business plan to compete with the rise of free adult tube sites that pirate and show pornographic content for free. The major studios also have to deal with increasing numbers of amateur performs uploading their own videos. How do you think this change in the adult industry, most notably the decline of major porn studios, will impact the type of content that is produced?

Pornography will become even more diverse in its formats, content, delivery, funding source, and distribution. How do you make money in a time of crisis? Cut costs and diversify your products and markets. Pornographers will try to sell more to old buyers and recruit new ones—such as women and children. Regarding content, pornographers themselves have said that they have done such extreme stuff that they don’t know where to go next. Will gentle, loving, intimate sexual depictions become a trend? I doubt it. If a 12-year-old boy grows up watching a woman being penetrated by five men, what kind of sexual images will be appealing to him when he is 25? That is the issue we should be concerned about.

What is the solution to the problems with porn that The Price of Pleasure raises?

click to enlarge Dr. Chyng Sun The Price of Pleasure
More public discussion about sexuality and relationship issues. Comprehensive sex and gender equality education in schools (from elementary to college)- not just about sexual heath, how to prevent STD or pregnancy- but about respect for self and others. In my audience research, I’ve learned that consuming pornography is not just about pornography. It is not even just about sex. It is about identity, family dynamic, sexual history, assumptions about gender roles and dynamic, and a toxic popular culture that promotes unhealthy gender identities and relationships. Most of my respondents enjoyed our talks and had wonderful insights that they themselves had not been aware of. I also attended a few group discussions with women, and the participants found the discussions with others fun and beneficial. The 70’s feminist consciousness-raising model can be very effective. I think small group discussions among boys and men about sex (open and honest but not competitive or trivial about their conquests) are particularly needed.

I am currently designing and conducting an international survey on pornography use, sexuality, and relationships. It is an on-line, anonymous survey. Anyone who is interested in participating, please contact me at pornresearch@gmail.com.


Get more information on The Price of Pleasure and Dr. Chyng Sun at chyngsun.com.

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