Having recently ranted against the corrupt and unjust persecution of NSW teacher Lynne Tziolas for daring to discuss her sex life outside of work, and having reviewed Hazel Dooney’s PORNO photographic exhibition, I thought I’d tackle the third mass sexual hysteria of 2008: The Porn Report by Alan McKee, Katherine Albury and Catharine Lumby (thanks to MUP for providing a review copy).

pornreport a review of The Porn Report

The Porn Report discusses the findings of an academic research project into the consumption of pornography by the Australian community. It makes a sustained attempt to explain the research process, to modify its language to make it accessible to a general audience and to speak in a calm voice about what is, for many people, an emotionally confronting topic. This review contains sexually explicit language so stop reading now if this is not to your taste…

Disclaimers

Before I begin the review, some disclaimers. I used to work as an editorial assistant at Melbourne University Publishing in 2003-2004 and a long time before that as a sexuality educator for the Family Planning Association of WA.

I used to be an academic and wrote my Honours dissertation on the topic Post – Porn / Modernism: Sexuality Beyond the Politics of Ecstasy (about sexuality in contemporary popular culture including Madonna’s SEX book).

I have recently discussed the former Howard government’s views on internet censorship (the Rudd government’s views are equally pathetic) and the media controversy surrounding an Australian based online porn production company.

I am a heterosexual white middle class man, I hate moral hypocrisy and I like porn. I identify as a pro-sex feminist and a libertarian opposed to the censoring and political denigration of the lawful private behaviour of consenting adults.

Introduction

I thought I would enjoy the book, but unfortunately I found it extremely disappointing (which is a shame as I have generally found Lumby’s previous work thoughtful and engaging). It can’t even offer a straightforward definition of pornography, and it features a only a very limited discussion of the current debate about the sexualisation of society and the controversial representation of real sex in cinematic films (such Intimacy, Baise-Moi, Anatomy of Hell and others of the new French extremity).

I think its best parts are not about porn, but about other discoveries made during the course of the research, such as the high correlation between religious belief or voting for conservative political parties and having negative opinions about the place of women in society (p82).

It provides valid suggestions about age appropriate sex education for children (p155) and lucid discussions about the growing popularity of amateur produced and starred porn, the ethics of porn consumption and industrial relations in porn production.

Different demographics

There is a fundamental flaw in the book. It compares an unusually highly educated sample group (p46), self selected because of their comfort in responding to a complex written survey instrument, with the purchasers of the 50 most popular porn movies sold in Australia (VCR and DVD). Nothing connects these two groups of people; these videos may not be popular with the sample group.

There is no evidence that the porn preferences of an atypical sample group are typical of the general population. I would argue that just as their general media preferences differ from the general population (p31), so too may their tastes in porn. We simply don’t know.

The widespread pirating of porn movies through online peer to peer file sharing networks (such as the bittorrent protocol) is not considered in relation to the sales figures for purchased products. For educated middle class urban consumers with broadband internet access, there is no need to ever pay for porn unless your preferred fetish is so rare or your desire for porn is so strong that the enormous amounts of legal free content and pirated content cannot satisfy your desires.

The people who pay for legal X rated videos in Australia will increasingly be those people without the knowledge or skill to get the equivalent content for free (such as lesser educated people with less skill in using the internet or people in remote areas with less access to the internet).

Changing consumption patterns

In terms of online porn, the book is already out of date. Internet use has become more common since 2003 (when the survey was conducted). The book focuses more on amateur produced print porn zines (the past) than on amateur produced online porn (the present and the future).

We learn a little about what individual porn users spend on porn and collectively they may spend $230 million per year (p48), but we don’t know if less is being spent on print and more on hard copy video and online content over time. The book does not adequately address the topic of changing porn consumption from magazines to VCR tapes and DVDs to still images and movies obtained via the internet.

I was curious about this issue so I contacted the Eros Association (the Australian adult industry association) and its CEO Fiona Patton for further information and comment. The Eros Association estimated in 2004 that the sale of pornographic magazines in Australia was worth about $74 million.

Patton believes that this will have declined since (supporting my hypothesis that consumption is trending away from print towards hardcopy video and online) but that the variety of titles has increased (perhaps a necessary response to the variety of content available online). More recent data is forthcoming.

Double standards

The book contains errors of definition and categorisation. For example, it confuses sexual orientation (gay, bi, straight, asexual – based on the bodies people are attracted to – male, female, both, neither) with degrees of sexual activity (promiscuous, monogamous, celibate) and with sexual acts or behaviours (p27). It inaccurately conflates fetishes like pissing (golden showers) and fisting with sadomasochism (p141).

The book is heterocentralist. We are informed that in the face to face interviews conducted with some of the 1023 survey participants that men interviewed men and women interviewed women (p38), apparently to make them feel safe and comfortable. This is an arrangement that is designed by and for heterosexuals.

Of the three authors, only the gay male one (McKee) has his sexual preference stated in the book (p183). I find this rather odd – it is a gender issue (the other two authors are women) or a preference / identity issue? We are told that Kath Albury dressed in a nurse’s uniform and played a character called Nurse Nancy when working in gay, lesbian and bisexual communities (p189). This sounds patronising. Why was different behaviour required for gay subjects?

Aesthetics

The beauty aesthetics in porn are poorly critiqued. The authors identify two major aesthetics: “fantasy” and “naturalistic” (p62). The term “stereotypical” is repeatedly used to refer to a standard of physical beauty associated with the fantasy aesthetic. This standard appears to be culturally determined and again it is not clear who gets to determine the values considered typical.

What they mean are current western popular culture standards of beauty (women with straight hair, fake tans, often fake breasts, lots of makeup, slim waists and hairless below the neck; and men with big muscles, little body fat, tall, big shoulders and similarly hairless below the neck (courtesy of the back, sack and crack wax). This is mentioned (p62) but not well explained.

In contrast, the amateur stars of naturalistic porn are described as “flabby” and “hairy” (p62) by the authors, who also declare that porn featuring amateur performers with natural bodies is the most popular kind currently consumed on the internet (p69). This form is particularly popular with the largest porn audience, heterosexual men, some of whom actively dislike fake breasts (p42).

The book attributes popularity of the fantasy aesthetic to women and couples and the naturalistic aesthetic to men, and implying that what couples and women like is good, clean and of high quality, and what men like is dirty cheap and nasty (p62). The evidence for this correlation is not clear.

The different aesthetics in production values between professional and amateur producers are confused with the aesthetic values of fantasy and naturalistic bodies. They are not necessarily connected. The authors fail to recognise trends such as amateur women having breast enlargements and men removing most of their body hair (to look more like their professional role models) and amateur women performing for professional producers (an enormously popular and profitable genre online, see sites like Abby Winters – an Australian producer the authors seem unaware of).

Genres

The top 50 movies are too quickly and easily assumed to represent the breadth of porn consumed in Australia, yet the diversity of their content (oral, anal, age play, pregnant, interracial) is not explored. The content of these videos is analysed statistically but not thematically. There’s far too much what and not enough why.

We learn how many orgasms are acheived by men and women, and in which positions, but there’s no explanation of the increasing popularity of heterosexual anal sex (men anally penetrating women). No analysis is given to a passing reference of the emergence of heterosexual porn featuring men being anally penetrated by women using dildos (pp113-114).

The focus on feminist theory leads to discussions of female produced and lesbian porn, such that gay male porn is the least discussed genre. Mature porn (featuring performers in their 30s, 40s and 50s) is barely mentioned despite one of the topselling videos being titled “Sex with older women” (p50).

Another title is “Ready to drop 16”, which features pregnant women, and the authors make no mention of this. I get the impression that, as all the cataloguing and statistical analysis seems to have been undertaken by research assistants, this left the authors fundamentally removed from the primary source material of their research.

Moral judgements

The authors cannot escape from language patterns that contain implicit moral judgements. Some porn is described as “nastier” (p117), and amateur porn is “dirty”, “cheap” and “nasty” (p62). When discussing the depiction of non-consensual sex in gonzo porn, the authors become explicitly judgemental, declaring it “offensive and abhorrent” (p173).

Throughout the book the term “alternative” (p170, p189) is used to describe sexual practices that are not “mainstream”. Who decides that anal sex, group sex (p170) and other practices are not mainstream? And on what grounds? The authors do not refer to studies of real sexual behaviour and compare it to the sexual behaviour depicted in porn.

Having defined child porn as “child abuse material” (p151) to help distinguish between porn featuring consenting adults and that made by abusing children, the authors then trip over their apparent unease with their topic. This is one example: a “concern about the internet and children is that children might be exposed to online adult pornography” (p159). They’re not talking about children seeing images of children being sexually abused; the words “online” and “adult” are unnecessary in this sentence.

Gender roles

The authors spend considerable time discussing the place of women in porn and society (p4), but are blind to the roles of men. As an undergraduate gender studies student I was warned about not being blind to the changing values of masculinity, and to critique male roles and masculine behaviour with as much thought as female roles and feminine behaviour.

It is becoming more common in online heterosexual porn to see men playing submissive roles once only played by women, who are increasingly being shown in dominant roles. This diversity of roles and acts reflects the diversity of sexual fantasies that consumers want to see performed in porn, but the book makes hardly any mention of sexual fantasy (apart from the books of Nancy Friday) and does not acknowledge the complex relationship between fantasy and reality. The idea that people do not necessarily want to enact all their sexual fantasies, but only seem them enacted in fantasy scenarios, does not occur to them.

The gaze

The authors acknowledge that previous porn researchers have commonly asked the wrong questions about the use of porn (p96) but ironically fail to better them. One particular area where their analysis is lacking is in reference to the idea of the gaze, and how the camera (as the representative of the viewer) is an active participant in every porn scene.

In heterosexual porn aimed at men, when women appear alone, undressing or masturbating, they are performing for the camera, which is the extension of the viewer. When a heterosexual couple appear together, it is always a threesome between the two of them and the camera.

The authors marvel at the “innovative and exciting sexual positions that pornography seems to be so good at, and that would break your back if you tried them in real life” (p66). They express no idea as to why these positions exist, even when they also note that the missionary position is one of the least popular positions depicted in porn (p66).

The reason for this is that the missionary position obscures the genitals and hides the penetration, which is what the viewer wants to see. The innovative and exciting positions exist to enable the camera, and thus the viewer, to clearly see the penetration. The positions are not authentic, and are not meant to be pleasurable in real life.

The authors quote Karen Jackson as saying:

so many photos in porn are all from the man’s point of view and the man’s pleasure and the man’s fantasy so you can get entire sets of photos where you don’t even see the man’s face and the woman’s constantly looking at the camera… (p124)

The authors have no explanation for why female performers look directly at the camera in still images and speak directly to the camera in movies far more than male performers (p64). This is because they are making eye contact with and speaking to the presumed male viewer through the camera.

Heterosexual male porn consumers are not interested in seeing too much of the male performer (hence him often being half cut out of the image) other than to confirm that he has a cock that the woman in the scene can worship. He is a placeholder for the viewer. Straight men often feel threatened by the idea that they may be gay if they observe other naked men, especially if they are also aroused by the sexual acts depicted.

The camera in heterosexual porn made for men does not capture an objective documentary style view of the world. It provides a fantasy vision that accommodates the psychology of the viewer. It is staggering that the book provides no understanding or analysis of this.

Conclusion

The book has attracted widespread comment. Negative reviews make some valid points: Antonella Gambotto-Burke and Helena Adeloju. Some are carefully qualified: Angie Knaggs and Rachel Hills. Positive commentary on the book is rare: Stilgherrian and Audacia Ray. There’s lots of media to consume in relation to the book: interviews with Lumby and McKee on ABC radio and McKee on ABC’s Hack. Most of it is superfluous.

In the end, so is the book. It is extremely nervous in tone. The Porn Report is typical of the myopic academic view of the real world. It is too distant, and its authors are too detached, from its subject. It is unnecessarily judgemental about different sexual acts and is narrow in what it defines as mainstream or normal sexual behaviour.

As a history of changing porn conventions between 1970-2000 it argues that porn has become less violent, less misogynistic, more diverse and more representative of various sexualities. It provides a reasonable introduction to the topic for the naive and uninformed, but it does not seem capable of initiating a broader conversation about sex as a form of recreation and entertainment, its fantasy representation in porn and its value to the Australian community.

a review of The Porn Report

3 thoughts on “a review of The Porn Report

  • 21 December 2008 at 10:26 pm
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    You will be horrified to learn that:

    http://www.netsweeper.com/Support/Test%20A%20Site

    classifies this page as “Pornography”

    So, is thepornreportbook.com classed as pornography (a site _about_ a book _about_ pornography), a site containing a _review_ of a book _about_ pornography is also classed as porngraphy.

    The dangers here are manifold.

    People unfortunate enough to be subjected to NetSweeper will be denied the opportunity to read about books about pornography. Not only that, they will be denied the changed to read reviews of books about pornography.

    If 80% of the population is subjected to a filter of this kind and they are unable to read about the book or read reviews of the book, one might reasonably expect that sales of the book itself will be affected.

    This a restraint of trade issue. Pure and simple.

    The remedy is not simply removing the classification of the site (which can be easily enumerated). The just remedy must be to remove blocks on all reviews of the book, whose locations will not be easy to enumerate.

    If I was an author of such a book I would be extremely pissed off.

    Filter vendors make their millions. Authors lose.

    Reply
    • 21 December 2008 at 11:11 pm
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      In one way I’m pleased to know I will be banned by the Rudd thought police – if not I would be insulted and disappointed. It won’t matter in the end because we are smarter than Conroy et al and will hack crack and blow their firewall into oblivion. Or we’ll leave en masse to somewhere where intellectual freedom is not so persecuted. When one academic can’t review the work of a peer for an educated literate audience we have a fundamental problem.

      Reply

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