‘The Science of Porn’ – Mansplained

Posted on 24 September 2011 by

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Earlier this month myself and a few other feminist types decided to pop along to a presentation hosted by the Merseyside Skeptics Society entitled ‘The Science of Porn’ presented by Stuart J Ritchie of Edinburgh university psychology department. Admittedly we did not expect it to be a feminist friendly space but the scope for debate and the various ways in which I felt silenced pretty much for being a woman and the pleasure of having things ‘mansplained’ to me were disappointing. Mainsplaining is very well described by Karen Healy as:

“Mansplaining: when dudes explain to women subjects that the women in question know more about, but assume that they know better by virtue of being the man in the conversation. Bonus points if the man is explaining to you, little lady, how something you think is sexist is not really sexist.”

Here comes the science bit; concentrate!

The presentation entitled ‘The Science of Porn’ seemed to contain little science (or indeed porn). The title did not reflect the narrow focus which was based on studies proving porn does not turn people into violent sex offenders; which is a teeny tiny little peep into the issue and not at all what the majority of feminist anti porn campaigners highlight as the dangers of porn, despite the obligatory scary feminist out of context quotes from Dworkin used to reinforce the stereo type of ‘crazy feminists overreacting’. It  seemed geared towards easing the consciences of a room containing a sizeable proportion of self confessed porn users (including a counsellor for Wallassey who was happily making jokes about porn and violence against women in public, lovely). Bafflingly the discussion of what exactly constitutes ‘porn’ was avoided for being ‘boring’, leaving the problem of how on earth one can convincingly argue in either direction without being sure of exactly what it is you’re supposed to be arguing about.

Bra Burners and Moralists

One particular sore spot was the way Gail Dines’s research on such subjects was brushed aside as ‘moral’ and ‘un-academic’. One of my companions has read Dines, a lot of Dines, in fact pretty much everything she has ever written and was wincing pretty soon after her work was mentioned. Stuart had only read  ‘Pornland’ (Dine’s non-academic polemic on the subject) and a few Guardian articles. Crucially, he had not read her academic work and failed to acknowledge this fact in his presentation and only admitted it rather sheepishly afterwards when challenged. To my mind this greatly undermines the credibility of his interpretation. To accuse Dines of being ‘un-academic’ based on a small selection of her work for a non academic audience reveals there may be a slight bias which is not acknowledged and at the very least it’s bad research, which can’t quite be adequately countered with “but she didn’t reference all her other work in the book!” (which is as verbatim as my memory allows).

Another issue that really got my nanny-goat was the absence of women from the studies (which is not Ritchie’s fault, although the selection of what studies to include is another issue). All the studies he referenced focused on male users of porn; hardly anything was mentioned about female users of porn (except how they were omitted from one study) or how women feel about porn in general and certainly no studies on how women and porn were quoted. They do exist; a quick search of google scholar tells me that there is at least one qualitative research study on women and pornography (Ciclitira, 2004).

Some sexism is bigger than others

Ritchie then admitted research had shown ‘benevolent sexism’ increased after viewing porn but this was effectively brushed of and not seen as problematic. In fact the answer to my question as to why he brushed it off was “I didn’t think I brushed it off” and nothing more was said on the issue. Ritchie states “There was, however, an association with positive (or ‘benevolent’) sexism (e.g. ‘women need to be protected’) and porn use. This type of sexism can, of course, be very damaging (imagine failing to get a job because the interviewer thinks you aren’t up to it as you’re a woman), but it’s not the same kind of hatred that activists like Dines predict porn would engender.”

This seems to me like a classic belittling of the every day sexism faced by women that feminists come across ad nauseum; the typical quotes along the lines of “yeh but women in the UK don’t have it as bad as in other countries so what are you complaining about?”, which only serve to derail and diminish genuine concerns as not ‘worthy’ enough for discussion, and this ‘worthiness’ for discussion is usually seen through a primarily male prism. One could summise that porn may increase sexist behaviour but  as it’s not the apocalyptic violence Dines (allegedly) says will result form porn it’s OK.  I was going to say how this might be that because porn and sexually objectifying imagery encourages men to view women ‘possessively’ and objectifies women that so called ‘benevolent sexism’ arises as a result of men feeling some sort of ownership or need to ‘protect’ women which has little, or no, bearing on what women themselves want. These issues expose a lack of knowledge on both feminism in general and academic feminist discourse; particularly on how benevolent sexism and what he terms ‘negative sexism’ (i.e. violence against women and other ‘obviosuly’ harmful behaviour) come from the same root. They both presume women to be ‘other’ and less than human, that we need the ‘protection’ (which often spills into ‘ownership’ and/or ‘control’) of a man and cannot function adequately as an independent human beings in our own right. As a feminist I would suggest a man who displays such ‘benevolent’ sexism shows as little respect for women as a man who displays ‘negative sexism’. Yes the end result may be subtle and not outwardly violent; but it is still sexism and it is still harmful to women and a failure to see this as important set all my feminist bells ablaze.  Not to mention that this attitude of male ‘protection’  and ownership can be found in the ideologies behind such wonderful feminist ideas such as requiring women to have a male escort to go outside the home and, if we are being brutally honest here, such extreme acts of misogyny as honour killings, FGM and rape. It is exactly those sorts of attitudes; that a woman ‘owes it’ to her spouse or partner for ‘protecting’ her or ‘providing’ for her that lead to attitudes that men are ‘entitled’ to sex or that ‘he knows best’ what is good for her. Holding a door open for a woman or paying for her on dates purely because she is a woman may not be ‘the same’ as sexual violence but they all stem from the same attitudes and ideas. In fact the whole ‘positive’ vs. ‘negative’ sexism debate reminds me of the whole ‘well it’s not RAPE rape’ bullshit. At the end of the day, it’s all sexism.

It is stated that ‘moral’ objections to porn (including presumably the lived experience of being a female in a ‘pornified’ culture ) cannot possibly be considered in a debate such as this as ” there will always be those who are too disgusted (and it’s very clear from recent psychology experiments that disgust influences morals) by the whole idea of pornography to have a science-based argument about it.” No mention that there are people who like using porn and so are less receptive, and possibly even hostile, to any suggestion that it may be harmful and the likely bias this viewpoint may have on thier opinions and research on the subject.

 Additionally referring to people such as Dines as ‘activists’ could be seen as a deliberate attempt to single out and highlight the anti porn brigade as ‘reactionary’ and politically motivated; whereas the other academics whose research is quoted are never given such a label and the motivations behind their research are not examined.

This has proved to me that to talk about porn and it’s effects on society (or male users as they seem to be the only ones who are worth talking about or studying) falls down when feminist analysis is not included or is brushed aside. It is an issue that affects women in their every day lives whether they use porn or not and to analyse a medium based so much on gender stereotypes without reference to feminism or gender studies can only ever address a small section of the problem. To address this purely though the supposedly unbiased lens of science and to discount other avenues of exploration is, to my mind, short-sighted, especially when the science is , as Ritchie imself admits, under-researched and the presentation has biases of it’s own. The assumption that science (still a predominantly male field it should be noted) should be privileged as ‘neutral’ whereas women’s experiences and feelings on the issue as well as academic feminist discourse on the subject in areas such as sociology and gender studies,  are apparenlty inherently biased or ‘soft’ comapred to ‘hard’ subjects such as ‘science’.

An ignorance of your own bias on the subject and how that may affect your interpretation, which is what this study is. It is NOT hard, unbiased, objective fact; it is interpretation of other’s research with all the bias that can entail. Discrediting the work of others whose research you have not actually read for being ‘moral’ , politically motivated and not scientifically rigourous enough is not good science.

 

Quotes are taken from Ritchie’s blog post on the presentation.