Rape porn, rape fantasies and knowing what’s real

The Friday’s Guardian announced the UK publication of a book 45 years after it was written. Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art of Joy “follows the sexual adventures of a woman who sleeps with both men and women, commits incest and murders a nun, and […] was considered at the time too shocking for readers”. Of course, it’s all different now, not shocking at all. Hard to imagine how repressive things were back when murdering nuns was illegal.

I don’t think much – or in fact any – of the porn I’ve seen is realistic, morally edifying and/or an appropriate template for long-term human interactions. I’m not sure whether this is particularly problematic. All the same, very recently, and particularly in light of the campaign to ban the ownership of rape porn, I’m starting to realise I have greater issues with some types of porn than I thought. I’m still cool with gratuitous nun slaughter, obviously, but it’s the other stuff that’s getting to me.

I hate feeling like this. It makes me feel a failure of a feminist, as though I’m aligning myself with arguments I don’t really support.  I don’t hate all porn, I don’t claim to speak on behalf of those who work in the industry and I have no desire to police other people’s fantasies. To be honest, it’s not as though all my fantasies are particularly PC. Even so, the availability of porn depicting images of rape – which I always assumed were illegal up till now – terrifies me.

According to Nick Cohen’s in today’s Observer, it’s incredibly difficult to demonstrate with any certainty that seeing images of staged rape prompts men to rape:

Sex offenders are more than eager to tell researchers that pornography turned them into criminals. They can shift the blame and refuse to accept responsibility. Psychological tests on the effects of sexual images on male aggressiveness are little better. Put crudely […] if a psychologist shows young men pornographic videos and then makes them answer questions instead of allowing them to go home to masturbate, those young men are likely to turn aggressive.

To be fair, it’s not as though this disproves a link. I’m not sure how much more proof we can expect to get if we’ve already decided not to believe sex offenders on the very basis that they’re sex offenders. Many of the comments that follow Cohen’s article make fatuous points about how viewers of violent films don’t generally go on shooting sprees immediately afterwards. That may be true, but I think porn is different. I for one have never “just” watched a porn film without going on to do something bearing some vague similarity to what the rude people on screen have just been up to. Isn’t that what it’s there for? It prompts an active physical response. Of course, you don’t literally copy what you’ve just been watching (thank god, otherwise I’d be banned from several offices and car repair shops) but it’s not a passive experience.

Within this, rape porn seem to me an especially dangerous area. Rape fantasies can be experienced by men and women, even rape survivors, and I think it’s important to stress that this shouldn’t become a focus of criticism. Why make people ashamed of their own imaginations? A couple of the Black Lace books I own contain rape fantasies, told from the perspective of the victim (with perhaps an odd kind of repositioning – and re-empowerment – provided through the narrative perspective and later responses). However, I don’t think rape fantasies excuse the proliferation of uncontextualised rape photographs that can be found online.  There – confronted with real bodies in real positions – I don’t see how it’s possible to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much if we lived in a world in which committing rape was always believed to be wrong, but we don’t. We excuse it all the time. Commentators always follow lines such as “of course, rape is an abhorrent/terrible/evil crime …” with a “but”. Some men rape in packs, recording the evidence, celebrating it. In such a world photographs of apparently “staged” rape can’t claim to be representing some outlandish fantasy or playacting that no one would ever dream of bringing into real life. The status of women is not so elevated as to make images of degradation and abuse shockingly distant from the truth. We’re just not there yet. Why shouldn’t young people see these images as merely another thing on the rape culture continuum? After all, it’s not as though they get a day off from it. It’s not as though for one wank session only, rape is allowed to be definitely wrong in real life but especially arousing because it’s just a weird forbidden thing. Rape is constantly normalised and half-excused.   

Of course, I also worry that the pictures are not staged. How can we be sure they’re not? What does it mean to a young person who finds them and responds to them – is it the crossing of a particular barrier, the start of complicity? And if there is the slightest chance that some are not staged, isn’t failing to criminalise possession of the images effectively protecting abusers and allowing them to profit from abuse? That said, I am unsure how criminalisation would work in practice. I imagine rape images would be renamed and if anyone were to start deciding what was and was not worthy of prosecution, he or she would err on the side of caution, hence creating a situation in which something only counted as a rape image if it “looked like rape” – something as meaningless as it is dangerous.

It seems to me, therefore, that as long as this type of porn exists  – and I think whatever happens, it always will – we need to work especially hard at obliterating the everyday rape culture that persists. Regardless of what my children see online, I want them to have grown up in an environment that supports the belief that women are complete human beings and that sexual assault is always wrong. Irrespective of their own private fantasies, I want them to live in a world in which this is firmly the reality.

7 thoughts on “Rape porn, rape fantasies and knowing what’s real

  1. Thank you for writing this and for writing it so clearly and coherently. I have been unfollowed by more feminists for feeling the same way you do than … well, I can’t remember having been unfollowed by feminists before. But apparently not wanting images of women who might genuinely be being abused to be available online means I am “throwing sex/porn workers under a bus” and “kink shaming”.

    I have no beef with people’s fantasies or what they do with people they personally know are consenting. I think that kind of negotiation is healthy. But you put rape porn public domain then it is no longer about X consenting parties who know each other getting their thing awn. It’s possibly consenting, possibly not, abuse porn out there in a world where 1 in 5 women has been raped. Nobody’s wank is more important than sending the message that rape is not a fun game, or YET ANOTHER thing men feel they can pressure women into role playing in real life which actually puts a woman at increased risk of real assault.

  2. Porn is “normal”. “Normal” people use and enjoy it every day, including couples who spice up their sex lives by watching it together, or separately.
    All very “normal”, very commonplace. As a consequence, so are the acts and attitudes depicted on screen.
    As teenagers, most of us were encouraged by peers or media to de-fuzz our legs and armpits – maybe our moustaches as well.
    That’s no longer enough. Today, teenage girls are pressured to remove all their pubic hair as well.
    Why? Because porn actresses are usually hair-free. And porn is “normal”, after all. So much is instantly available online (as opposed to the odd mucky video doing the rounds back in the dark ages of the 1980s), that it’s “normal” for most teenagers to have seen some.
    Studies now suggest that young women are routinely expected to perform the acts seen in porn. Anal sex, threesomes, outdoor sex, sex in public places. Why not? It’s “normal”; a million porn movies say so. These aren’t fetishes, they’re ordinary sex. Normal. Only an abnormal prude would object.
    The abundance of rape porn is “normal” by virtue of its ubiquity. Hence, it’s “normal” for young women out in public to be pinched, groped harassed, sexually assaulted, raped. “Lad” websites call rape chat “banter”. Lad mag readers’ comments about women (and what they want, sexually) are indistinguishable from those of convicted sex offenders.
    It’s all “normal”. Don’t repress others’ sexuality, don’t “kink shame”. Meanwhile, who’s speaking for those feeling pressurised into conforming to this new “normal”?
    The Pill wasn’t the great sexual liberator of the 1960s. In reality, it was often a tool used to coerce reluctant women and girls into having sex. You won’t get pregnant, so where’s the problem? Don’t be a drag, everyone’s doing it. It’s normal!
    In 2013, porn is the new standard. Come on, everyone does that. It’s normal. What’s wrong with you?

  3. It’s interesting also that Cohen points out that bestiality in porn is taken more seriously than rape -‘The authorities punish those who find pleasure in the abuse of sheep but not in the abuse of women’ – I guess this is a consent issue, but it’s also telling of the state of our so-called progressive nation.

    I agree, porn is so much more insidious than just having to prove these images can provoke direct violence. If our children have easy access to images of women being abused what message does it give them? What message does it give our daughters? In my opinion, in some sick subtle way, a lot of violent porn continues to put women in their place as inferior to men when we struggle day to day to give ourselves a stronger voice in the home, in the workplace. If kids have such easy access to images of degradation of women what subtle effects does it have on their psyche? Particularly, as you say, in a world that struggles with equality.

  4. Very thoughtful post. I once wrote an article about fantasy and fantasy research. Of course a lot of people have rape fantasties. So then you have acted out rape fantasies (but not actual rape) in porn. Thinking along those lines, one can consider responsibly sourced “rape porn” something that consenting adults would use to tap into their own fantasies. But then there are all the issues of producing porn, the actors and real world situations involved that can mean it goes beyond playacting and, yes, normalises activities that as a society we don’t want normalised (rape, bestiality, sexual coercion or torture) that in our minds are for our own stimulation and benefit.

    A lot of this discussion focusses on teens. Is the reason this has become a problem because we’re so squeamish about upfront and honest discussion of the regular-people sexuality that we allow media and artificial versions of sex to populate their understanding. Can’t we make it OK for someone to explore the boundaries of their fantasy world while drawing hard lines on what is and isn’t acceptable? After all, there are many many adults of both genders who fantasize about forced sex while still maintaining a disgust and revulsion at the real thing.

  5. I came across this article after finding a porn video that I’m pretty sure a dude filmed of himself raping someone. I found it disturbing and I started thinking about if there’s anything I can do to try to help this woman.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure there is much I can do, for obvious reasons.

    But I wanted to post here, partly to feel better, but also in the vague hope of joining a conversation about real action on the issue.

    It’s tough. As I’m thinking about solutions I am quickly poking holes in them. We live in such an alienated and fragmented social world, there are just too many cracks for people to exploit or fall through. *Sigh*

    I do have hope that we can stitch together true community, even on a global scale, but living like this is painful.

    1. Dear Irawoodward,

      I hope this is not a naive suggestion but could you not contact the police regarding the porn video?
      I share your pain!

      1. Naïve? I don’t know. But probably ineffective I’d say, though impossible to know with a high level of certainty.

        I was hoping to start a conversation about what concerned people like us might do. Not vigilante justice, certainly. But maybe we could start with something fairly benign, say just informal listing of links to such videos. Trying to notice patterns, gather evidence, but mostly develop and strengthen relationships among the, I would guess, mostly male, mostly concerned, but also mostly silent and cynical/hopeless porn watchers.

        Well, hmm, I see no reason to exclude women, not sure why I wrote it that way. And sorry this reply is six months late, but hopefully I should get an email if you reply again (gotta love technological sophistication…)

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