Should Rape Porn Be Banned?

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Last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to make it a criminal offense to own or view pornography that simulates rape. It’s already illegal to produce such “extreme” pornography in the United Kingdom; the proposed law will make it illegal to possess it, too. Some American groups, such as the interfaith non-profit Morality in Media, have been fighting for the United States to pass similar legislation for a long time. Morality in Media’s “War on Illegal Pornography” campaign holds violent porn responsible for a host of social ills, including domestic abuse and increased crime. These activists have an important goal: to protect women from real-life sexual violence.

The crux of the argument against this genre of pornography is that it promotes violence against women in real life, but research on the topic does not bear out this premise. In a study of four countries, Danish criminologist Berl Kutchinsky found that the availability of pornography, including “aggressive” varieties, did not correlate with increased rates of sexual violence. Another study that tracked the massive growth of the porn industry between 1975 and 1995 found that the United States experienced a significant decrease in the number of sexual assaults during that time. Today, rapes and other sex crimes are at their lowest level since the mid-1970s, despite the fact that the Internet has made violent pornography more easily accessible than ever before. In fact, rates of rape dropped by a massive 58 percent during the Internet’s boom period between 1995 and 2010.

But whether or not rape porn and other forms of violent erotica lead to real-world violence, broader questions remain. Does violent pornography reinforce problematic gender dynamics? Or simply reflect them? Is it a safe outlet for healthy (if sometimes hard-to-understand) sexual urges? Or are some consensual expressions of adult sexuality simply not okay? 

Many second-wave feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin have argued that pornography reduces women to sex objects, and point out that the porn industry, and rape porn in particular, exploits its actors and pressures them into physically dangerous work. They’re not wrong. But there is a strange double standard for lines of work that involve sex and sexuality, particularly when women are involved. Crab fishing, for example, is far more physically dangerous than acting in violent pornography, and that industry is plagued by many of the same problems as sex work, including exploitation of workers and human trafficking. But when men work in a risky field, we applaud their bravery and immortalize them on reality TV (where no one seems to worry whether they’re being reduced into distorted stereotypes of masculine physicality). When adult women choose to work in pornography, prostitution, or other forms of sex work, meanwhile, we turn them into pet political projects and coo with sympathy that they didn’t really choose their work. The hypocrisy underlines our profound social discomfort with female sexual agency, and our constant impulse to automatically paint women as passive victims of circumstances beyond their control. Men are always “brave,” and congratulated for their physical choices; women are always “victims,” and told that their physical choices didn’t count. 

That’s why radical sexual liberation, a key component of the third-wave, sex-positive feminist movement, is such a necessary element of gender equality. As long as women (and men) continue to be told to select their sexual expressions from a menu of socially approved choices—and to hide any deviation from those norms—we're not going to have important conversations about gender dynamics and the complexity of the human sexual spectrum. By fixating on the colorful distraction of rape porn, well-intentioned activists ignore the fact that most forms of pop culture reinforce some aspects of patriarchy. It is, as feminist Susie Bright pointed out in a 1993 article, like tasting several glasses of salt water and insisting only one of them is salty.” We need to treat the underlying causes of social ills, and rape porn is, at worst, merely one minor symptom of challenging and often problematic gender dynamics—not the disease itself.

It’s easy to imagine the users of violent pornography as exclusively male deviants, lurking in the shadows. But in reality, many of the people who enjoy that kind of material are perfectly healthy, normal women. According to Psychology Today, nine surveys published between 1973 and 2008 found that between 31 and 57 percent of women reported having sexual fantasies of rape, and the actual numbers are probably even higher than that given that some women feel uncomfortable admitting to taboo fantasies. Some women who enjoy rape porn might be sexualizing their own oppression, but others are taking control of it. On a broader level, individual women are under no obligation to combat widespread problematic gender roles in their private sex lives and fantasies—that responsibility belongs in our public and political lives. People who campaign to ban rape pornography send women and men who enjoy it the message that their fantasies are uniquely dangerous, damaging, or even criminal. They're telling 31 to 57 percent of women, and probably many more, that her sexuality is something about which she should feel afraid and ashamed. It is exactly the same wolf we’ve been fighting for decades, just dressed in different clothing.

It’s hypocritical and logically inconsistent to single out rape fantasists this way. Under a microscope, many of our common sexual fantasies involve situations that we would find abhorrent in real life. What's more, just because a woman likes to imagine herself being dramatically rescued from a burning building by a handsome firefighter, for example, it doesn’t mean she actually wants to be in a situation where her life is in danger. Ultimately, what sets rape fantasists apart from other sexual subcultures is a problem of semantics. Some categories of BDSM porn could reasonably have been called “abuse porn,” after all, but the acronym is less loaded and far more accurate. When people enjoy rape in pornography, fantasies, or consensual sex play, it’s not really “rape” any more than consensual BDSM is “abuse.” Perhaps pornographers who simulate characters being violated, “taken,” or overpowered should introduce an acronym of their own—one that better reflects the complex psychological and socio-sexual dynamics behind those fantasies. 

Rape pornography is a tricky medium to defend. But when we confront the challenging questions it raises head-on, rather than try to censor or ignore them, we push ourselves into necessary conversations about gender dynamics, consent, and the aspects of human sexuality that aren’t so easy to swallow. Until the NSA finds a way to access pillow talk, the government can never legislate the fantasy lives of its citizens.  Sexual crime has been around for a long time. But if we focus our energies and attentions on the causes of violence against women, rather than on the red herring of violent pornography, then maybe we can hope for a future where rape only exists in the one place where it is perfectly okay: consensual sex play and fantasy.

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