men, masculinities and gender politics

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Man-centric media impairs our ability to see the sexism in porn

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Nearly all mainstream pornography is depicted from a man’s perspective. This may be obvious, as in Point of View (POV) type scenes which are shot as if through the eyes of the male porn performer, or made evident through the fact that the woman (or women) take up most of the picture or screen (they are the ones to be looked at), or even apparent through the kind of sex and sex acts being depicted; Ass To Mouth (the only purpose of which is to grant the male performer and viewers additional pleasure through the degradation of the women involved) is a good example. These are just a few ways in which porn reveals the fact that it is almost exclusively a particular kind of man-orientated vision of sex and sexuality.

Perhaps, like many men, this is not something that immediately struck me about porn when I first started to use it. This may be explained by the fact that I was relatively young when I first came into contact with pornographic images, so when I started using porn films it just wasn’t something that particularly occurred to me. But one might ask why I would not have noticed when I was older and able to conceptualise and understand the perspective through which porn is made.

The answer to this lies with a phenomenon far wider in reach than even the porn industry. In fact, the prioritisation of the male perspective is the norm in pretty much all moving image media. In film, for example, the story is often told via the narrative followed by a central character, often someone who we as viewers are supposed to empathise with. But if you’re a man, when was the last time you watched a film and found yourself empathising with or following the narrative of a female character? And even when you do, how easily do they fit some boring and well-trodden stereotype?

The lack of strong female characters in cinema was noticed and drawn attention to by the illustrator and author, Allison Bechdel, in 1985 in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. One of the characters in the comic asserts that she will only watch a film if it satisfies three basic requirements. These were:

1. There has to be at least two women in it

2. Who talk to each other

3. About something other than a man

This has become known as the Bechdel Test and it’s used to roughly evaluate the active presence of female characters in Hollywood films and also how well rounded (non-stereotypical) those roles are. It seems simple enough, but an incredible amount of films don’t pass. There’s a Bechdel Test movie database containing just shy of 3,000 movies at the time of writing, and only 10.8% of them pass the test. It’s not a question of quality; even the most highly regarded films can be expected to fail. Out of all nine of the Best Film nominees at last week’s OSCARs only two pass the test.

The fact is that we are so used to viewing things from a man-centric perspective that when in front of porn we fail to see the inordinate prioritisation of male sexual demands and pleasure and the fact that women’s sexual pleasure is so routinely implied to be found in pleasing men.

So, we’re used to our media being man-centric, but what about the violence and aggression found in porn, would that not be noticeably out of the ordinary? Well, no. Violence against women is not uncommon on our prime-time television screens and it’s actually on the increase. In 2009 the American group The Parents Television Council conducted a report looking at violence depicted on prime-time US television. It found that between 2004 and 2009 all violence on TV rose by only 2%, while violence against women rose by a staggering 120%.

With so much of our media dominated by man-centric perspectives and with violence against women increasingly common on prime-time TV, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that many of us don’t recognise the sexism in porn and seem content to buy the line that porn is merely pictures of sex. Even if we can learn to see things like pornography for what they are, the fact that tests like the Bechdel are needed to demonstrate the man-centric nature of our media lives shows that there’s a much bigger issue of awareness and relearning to see things that needs addressing.