Melinda Tankard Reist on the Harms of Pornography

Feminist Conversations is a regular feature here at Feminists for Choice. Today we are talking to Melinda Tankard Reist, co-editor of Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry. Melinda is also the co-founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation.

How did you become interested in researching pornography?

There were a few things that came together around the same time. Women started telling me their stories of being hurt and harmed by a partner’s compulsive porn use. In my talks in schools, teen girls shared with me the pressure they felt to provide a porn-style performance, to act, essentially, as a sexual service station for men and boys. They were expected to provide naked images of themselves, to provide sexual services. As well, the sex industry was dominating and colonising every public space and was rarely brought to account. I began to talk to my publishers about what I was hearing. Spinifex had published an earlier book in 2004 titled Not for Sale: feminists resisting prostitution and pornography edited by Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant. It was a powerful book. But so much had happened since then, especially with the internet being used to globalize and spread pornography. We felt that a new book on pornography was needed. It also seemed to be a natural progression from my previous book Getting Real: challenging the sexualization of girls, published by Spinifex in 2009. There seems to be an overall consensus in the book that pornography is the same (or similar to) prostitution. Can you explain the similarities?

Yes, the writers in the book would mostly argue that pornography is filmed (or graphically depicted) prostitution. Melissa Farley uses the term ‘infinite prostitution’. The pornography industry has many of the features of the prostitution industry–it needs to procure women through trafficking, it relies on pimps to mediate transactions with the women who will be used, and the women it procures generally have histories of sexual abuse, poverty and homelessness. Pornography is advertising for prostitution and normalizes the sexual exploitation of women. As well, men often want to act out what they see in porn on ‘live’ women. Pornography is often used as a form of initiation into prostitution. It’s also the case that women in pornography are concurrently being prostituted off-set, or go on to be used in systems of prostitution and stripping.

The overlap between the prostitution and pornography businesses is so great that we might see them as operating in parallel, or perhaps as one larger sex industry. However, I think it’s also important to understand the differences between the pornography and prostitution sectors of the sex industry, and Big Porn Inc highlights these differences for pornography in particular. Firstly, the abuses that women undergo in pornography have a permanent or semi-permanent record made of them in the form of film, etc. This record causes many women great hardship and stress, because they feel they can never escape their past, and suffer anxiety at the prospect that anyone they meet throughout their lives has seen the pornography. They are also vulnerable to blackmail over it. The permanency of pornography causes particular suffering for women whose childhood sexual abuse was filmed as child pornography and shared by their abusers.

Another aspect of the pornography industry that might distinguish it from the rest of the sex industry is the culture of ‘celebrity’ and ‘glamour’ that has developed around the industry in the last ten years. Jenna Jameson and Sascha Grey have been central to the promotion of the idea that pornography is a way for poor girls to escape their lives and become rich and famous, but of course the reality of the industry for the overwhelming majority of women/girls is that they are used up in around three months because of the extremity of the abuse and degradation of contemporary pornography. However, this culture of celebrity is very attractive to poor girls, and unfortunately draws them to the industry in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen for prostitution businesses. It means that the pornography industry is able to attract particularly young women, and in increasingly large numbers. The industry is normalised among younger generations to an extent that prostitution is not, because of widespread consumption of pornography among this generation, and the celebration of pornography by the popular media and culture. A third difference between the pornography and prostitution industries is the diversity of forms pornography takes–it is possible for women/girls to be sold as pornography through being used by their ‘boyfriends’ in front of home-based webcams, for example.

While it is also common that ‘boyfriends’ pimp women through their homes, in the case of pornography this pimping is made difficult to recognize as illegal because of technology and the glamorizing of pornography. There are businesses dedicated to the pimping of women through pay-per-view webcams, as well as pornography made of women being used through brothels. This diversity in the mode of business that pornography takes means that the industry is able to expand with very little scrutiny and opposition, let alone government oversight. The industry essentially operates in uncharted, frontier space in the absence of any controls whatsoever. Governments and societies worldwide are overwhelmed by the diversity of the sex industry, and so far haven’t managed to enact any governance frameworks at all that might curb its expansion and domination over culture and the economy.

What is your overall message about pornography that the book also highlights?

I think a major theme of the book is that the first and most egregious harm of pornography is to the women and girls who are used to make it. While the harm of pornography does extend to women much more widely, when we think about pornography we must think about the women who are harmed in its production first. This is because women/girls used in pornography are perhaps the most vulnerable and exploited population in our society. They are often racially marginalized, as well as victims of childhood sexual abuse, homelessness, and addiction. Their life chances are very poor, and even more so after they have been through the pornography industry. The writing in Big Porn Inc against the pornography industry mostly prioritizes the interests of these women/girls in the way it does not make distinctions between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ pornography, or ‘better’ and ‘worse’ forms of pornography. For the women and girls used in the industry, these distinctions are often meaningless, because the same women are used in both types of pornography production. Often they start out in ‘soft’ production, but then must be used in more violent and degrading productions to be able to make money and stay in the industry. For these women and girls, the chance to lead a life of quality and dignity depends on our efforts to dismantle the sex industry and create social services and facilities that will allow them to recover from childhood sexual abuse, to escape homelessness, and escape pimps or exploitative ‘boyfriends’.

In addition to these women, of course, pornography harms many others, including the children who are sexually abused through perpetrators showing them pornography, as well as wives/girlfriends who are pressured to ‘act’ out scenes in pornography, and girls and boys who grow up seeing pornography as a ‘model’ for sexual relationships and never have a chance at understanding what true physical affection and tenderness looks like. Average age of first exposure to porn is 11. This is distorting and warping young people’s views of their bodies, relationships and sex.  I believe it is an unprecedented assault on the healthy sexuality young people.

The trend in pornography seems for “sex” to be increasingly violent and aggressive. Can you explain why that is?

Yes, as Gail Dines and others show, the pornography industry over time has definitely escalated its violence against women and the level of degradation and humiliation it inflicts. Researchers have gathered empirical evidence that the more popular forms of pornography are the ones that are more violent and overtly degrading of women. Torture porn has become increasingly popular, rape sites, live S&M and bondage in which women are brutalized in whatever way the viewer requests. And it’s all becoming more and more mainstream. For example the documentary film Kink is about to screen at the Sundance Film Festival. The Kink website shows images of women in extreme positions of pain and torture. It seems it’s not even about ‘sex’ anymore – it’s about how much brutality and degradation a woman can cope with. And this is where many young men take their cues for relating sexually to women.

What is your response when people state that there are no victims in porn (just consenting adults)?

Linda Boreman’s (Lovelace) account of her time in the pornography industry where she was brutalised and forced into its production shows this claim to be untrue. Traci Lords’s use in pornography as a sixteen-year-old also shows that the industry does not always use adult women. Even women who glamorize their time in the pornography industry sometimes describe aspects of its brutality, such as Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale in which she describes being incapacitated for six hours after a sex scene in which she was injured internally. The notion of ‘consent’ that proponents of the sex industry use to justify their moneymaking activities is an extremely impoverished one. The idea that young women surviving childhood sexual abuse who are homeless and being pimped by a ‘boyfriend’ are making a ‘choice’ to enter the pornography industry is laughable. The ‘consent’ invoked for women used in pornography is nothing more than a legal ploy to allow the filming of prostitution and sexual abuse (and sometimes overt physical torture) without the threat of arrest and prosecution. These activities are allowed to take place in society only because the cover of ‘sex’ makes them somehow different from what they really are, which is rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and exploitation.

When did you first consider yourself a feminist, and what influenced that decision?

It is difficult to identify one key moment. There was a dawning recognition about the global maltreatment of women. It was, I suppose, recognizing the second-class status of women pretty much everywhere. I have traveled a lot and witnessed the abuse of women in so many parts of the world. You just have to look at the raw statistic on violence, ‘honor’ killings, dowry deaths, female genital mutilation, child brides, forced abortion, forced sterilization, female foeticide, female infanticide, the systematic elimination of women and girls in so many ways. I recall being in a shelter in Hyderabad, India. On the bottom level were the abandoned baby girls; many plucked from rubbish heaps, with bruises and broken bones. On the second level were the abandoned pregnant girls and women. On the top level were the abandoned widows. Three layers of discrimination against women, all in that one home.

What does feminism mean to you?

It means working to change the second-class status of women. To addressing the real, felt needs of women (I was privileged to help set up a supported accommodation and outreach service for women and girls pregnant and without support in Australia.) To advocating for women and girls everywhere and all the time. It means trying to make the world better for my three daughters and the daughters of other women as well. It means engaging in grass roots activism and empowering other women to speak out, through movements like Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation. It also means working in solidarity with the best people I have ever met.

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