Vulvæ in pornography and culture

I was in a discussion recently on the effects of “porn culture” on young boys and girls. I went back and forth a bit with a debater, until she mentioned the rising rates of labiaplasty, prima facie caused by women’s lack of confidence in their own external genitals after watching pornography (which, according to everyone, is a massive, growing, all-pervasive industry).

Labiaplasty, surgery on the vulva to trim or cut away the labia minora (such that they protrude less than the labia majora) or the clitoral hood, is, indeed, on the rise in the West; it can also lead to complications including pain and infection. The number of girls under eighteen that paid for labiaplasty almost doubled between 2014 and 2015, and the number continues to grow.

Insecurity is a leading factor in many women’s decision to pursue the surgery. Patient satisfaction post-op is about 95%. Labiaplasty improves confidence and happiness and can lead to a healthier sex life. Costs are about $4000 – 5000, which is not terribly expensive for a life-altering operation.

However, the logistics alone are deceiving. Plastic surgery is a relatively young field with ever-improving techniques. To attribute the rise in labiaplasty immediately to the effects of an increasingly pornographic culture is disingenuous. There are other factors, and an analysis of labiaplasty patients shows that 32% of women undergoing the surgery did so for functional impairment, 31% for combined functional impairment and aesthetic improvement, and 37% for aesthetic improvement alone. That is a majority of surgeries for achieving or improving upon physical function. Of course, if you’re thinking of getting a surgery to improve a malfunctioning organ and it comes with visually pleasing benefit as well, you might incorporate this a little into your selection process – thus, it is reasonable to assume that many of the patients in the dual percentage were focused primarily on physical function, with visuals as an afterthought. The authors of the study found that “the majority of patients undergoing reduction of the labia minora do so for functional reasons with minimal outside influences affecting their decision for treatment.” This is an inconvenient conclusion if you want to argue that porn culture is causing these surgeries.

There’s also, as always, much more to the story. Female porn stars have what might be called “tidy” mons pubes, in terms of pubic hair and the conspicuousness of labia. These “designer vaginas” don’t accurately represent the general, mammalian populace of people with vaginas. Yet, as noted by Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College, the reason porn actresses in Australia maintain such kept labia is not male, female or porn-producer preference, but rating boards (which are government bodies). Soft-core porn, in Australia, can only show “discreet genital detail,” which rules out fleshy, extrusive labia. The labia minora is considered “too offensive” for soft-core. Similar distinctions apply elsewhere. In Germany, for instance, one must be at least 16 years old to purchase soft-core material and 18 to buy hardcore; the distinction falls along multiple lines some of which dictate how extrusive the labia are. In Australia, often airbrushers at porn mags apply digital labiaplasty to “heal” vulvas to an acceptable “single crease.”

One of the feminist authors I’ve linked makes the point clear by comparison: what if porn classificatory boards determined the testicles were too explicit? What if the scrotum had to be airbrushed out in order for men’s genitals to appear in soft-core?

Daisy Buchanan at the Guardian observes another reason women are seeking aesthetic “improvement” to their natural organs: the seductive exhibitionism of pornography is not confined to hardcore adult films anymore, it’s everywhere – at music awards, during celebrity photoshoots, in casual advertisements, whatever.

This point could be worded in one of two ways: society is hyper-sexualized, or, our culture is sexually liberated. The second, more optimistic one, symbolizes a social maturity into sexual autonomy. Buchanan exaggerates by claiming we’re “as likely” to see a vulva on a music channel as on a pornographic website, but nonetheless, sex has become a more tolerable phenomenon for more and more people. The labiaplasty rate can be disparaged as a coercive instrument for young women to meet societal standards, or, it can be lauded as the growth of opportunity for women with functional problems and their willingness (and increased ability to afford) to shape their body how they want it.

As detailed previously on Notes on Liberty (here and here), the stifling force of 20th and 21st century censorship has been obsessed with pornography and female pleasure. For those who view labiaplasty as a disturbing, sexist phenomenon, one place to start would be rating boards, often managed by the government.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Smuggling Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs out of the USSR
  2. Are memes disrupting American politics? So asks a Leftist
  3. The 4th Amendment, policing, and pedagogy
  4. At least the end of the War on Drugs is nigh
  5. A new (old) strategy for a polycentric world (but why not federation?)
  6. A simple map of Brazil and its states

Pornography, virtual reality and censorship [II]: puritanism and videogames

[Continuing from my last post, noting that feminists have not behaved monolithically toward pornography, and statistics have not provided any justifiable inference from violent pornography to violent crime.]

Most feminists would align, however, in a condemnation of violent pornography, even if they do not attempt to use legal coercion to restrict it. It has been particularly controversial when material becomes first-person, or even playable. And thus pornography, and violent pornography, often makes an intersection with the videogame industry. To name one infamous example, RapeLay, a role-playing game from a company in Yokohama, Japan, allows the player to assault a defenseless mother and her two children. Some critics argued that the videogame breached the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, agreed to by the United Nations.

New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn called RapeLay a “rape simulator.” Commenting on the game and other controversies, an IGN journalist added: “For many, videogames are nothing but simulators. They are literal replications, and, as such, should be cause for the same kind of alarm the real life equivalents would inspire.” Is this the same motive for consumers though – that of, essentially, practice? On the piratebay download link for RapeLay, a top commenter “slask777” writes: “I highly approve of this for two reasons, [sic] the first is that it’s a slap in the face of every prude and alarmist idiot out there and second, it’s a healthy outlet for the rape fantasy, which is more common than most people believe.”

I suspect that much of the appreciation for videogames is due to their simplicity, to be eventually supplemented by mild and mostly innocent addiction. Then – not to put too much faith in slask777’s psychological credentials – I suspect as well that violent videogames serve a “channeling” function, allowing some instinctual energies to exert themselves in a harmless environment and release some psychological tension. Perhaps the “rape fantasy” is not shared by the majority of the populace, but judging by the comments on the torrent site, the audience for this game cannot be confined to stereotypical images of basement N.E.E.Ts. (Studies of the occupations of internet trolls confirm as well the difficulty of pinning down an image for anonymous internet users). There was even an informative, civil discussion of reproductive anatomy on page one of the torrent site. Following this theory of channeling, we might find similar uses for virtual realities: nonreal locations to perform socially unacceptable acts. Locations for people with genuine sexual or sadistic pathologies, to release their desires and blow off steam without harming other people. The entire premise is empathetic.

Of course, throughout history, any activity which has the possibly of harmlessly releasing what could be described as primordial man, the “reptilian” side, the repressed id, or whatnot, has faced violent opposition from culture, religion, criminal law and various romantic-familial-social apparatuses. Here, we can already expect that, fitting into the category of “recreational and individuational,” virtual reality technologies will face a cultural blowback. RapeLay is an extreme example of both violence and sexuality in videogames: the high-profile protest it received could be expected. (Pornography has even been to the Supreme Court a few times (1957, ’64, ’89). In a separate case, Justice Alito, commenting on RapeLay, wrote that it “appears that there is no antisocial theme too base for some in the videogame industry to exploit.”) This moral outrage, however, is not simply content-based, but medium-based, and flows directly from the extant condescension and distrust toward videogames and pornography.

The simple fact that disparate ideological camps agree on, and compatible groups disagree on, the effects and what to do about pornography and videogames could be seen as demonstrative of the issue’s complexity; in fact, this implies that the nature of opinion on this is fundamental and dogmatic. The opinion provides the starting point for selectively filtering research. There are two logical theories concerning these violent media: the desensitization argument, and the cathartic/channeling argument. Puritans and rebels enter the debate with their argumentative powers already assigned, and the evidence becomes less important.

Before evidence that might contradict either primitive position on pornography interferes, many people have already formed their condescension and distrust. The desensitization theory is particularly attractive due on the most publicly-understood thesis of cognitive-behavioral psychology: mental conditioning. Thus when violence or abusive language is used as a male advance in adult videos and games, and women are depicted as acquiescing rather than fighting back, boys must internalize this as reality. Of course, media itself has no interest in depicting legitimate representations of reality; it is inherently irreal, and it would be naïve to expect pornography directors to operate differently. This irreality I think is poorly understood, and thus the “replicator” argument as adopted by the IGN reporter becomes the most common sentiment for people that find pornography affronting to their morals and are also disinterested in research or empirical data. Glenn Beck, commenting on the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, said “there is no distinction between reality and a game anymore.”* He went on to say that promiscuity is at an all-time high, especially with high school students, when the number of sexual partners for young people is at a generational low. The seemingly a priori nature of a negative pornographic effect allows woefully out-of-touch rhetoric to dominate the conversation, appealing also to the emotional repulsion we may experience when considering violent porn. It encourages a simplifying effect to the debate as well. Again, were it simply true that nations with heavy pornography traffic face more frequent sexual violence (as a result of psychological conditioning, etc.), we would expect countries like Japan to be facing an epidemic – especially given the infamous content of Japanese porn (spread across online pornography, role-playing games and manga). Yet, among industrialized nations, Japan has a relatively low rape frequency. The rape ratio of a nation cannot be guessed simply from the size or content of its pornography industry.

Across the board, the verdict is simply still out, as most criminologists, sociologists and psychologists agree. There are innumerable religious and secular institutions committed to proving the evils of pornography, but contrasting them are studies that demonstrate that, alongside the arrival of internet porn, (1) sexual irresponsibility has declined, (2) teen sex has declined (with millennials having less sex than any other group), (3) divorce has declined, and – contrary to all the hysteria, contrary to all the hubbub – (4) violent crime and particularly rape has declined. Even with these statistics, and of course compelling arguments might be made against any and all research projects (one such counterargument is here), violent efforts are made to enforce legal restrictions – that is something that will probably persist indefinitely.

I first became interested in debating pornography with the explosion of “Porn Kills Love” merchandise that became popular half a decade ago. The evidence has never aligned itself with either side; if anything, to this day it points very positively toward a full acquittal. Yet, young and old alike champion the causticity of pornography toward “society,” the family, women, children, and love itself (even as marriage therapists unanimously recommend pornography for marriage problems). Religion has an intrinsic interest in prohibiting pleasurable Earthly activities, but the ostensible puritanism of these opposing opinions is not present in any religiously-identifiable way for a great number of the hooplaers. So an atheistic condemnation of pornography goes unexplained. One might suppose that, lacking the ability to get pleasure (out of disbelief) from a figure-headed faith (which sparks some of the indignation behind New Atheism), people move to destroy others’ opportunities for pleasure out of egalitarianism, and this amounts to similar levels of spiritual zeal. Traces of sexist paternalism are to be found as well, e.g. “it’s immoral to watch a woman sell her body for money,” and through these slogans Willis’ accusation of moral authoritarianism becomes evident. Thus the attitudes which have always striven to tighten the lid on freedom and individual spirituality – puritanism, paternalism, misogyny, envy, etc. – align magnificently with opposing pornography, soft-core or otherwise.

*I try to avoid discussion of GamerGate or anti-GG, but it is almost impossible when discussing videogames and lunatics. Recently, commenting on Deus Ex‘ options for gameplay, which allow the player to make decisions for themselves, Jonathan McIntosh described all games as expressing political statements, and that the option should not even be given to the player to make moral decisions about murder, etc. It’s immoral that there is a choice to kill, was his conclusion. He’s right about all games expressing political statements. But he’s a fucking idiot for his latter statement.

[In my next post I’ll conclude with an investigation into the importance of virtual reality technology and the effect it will have on society.]

Pornography, virtual reality and censorship [I]: presidents and feminism

Oculus Rift, recently purchased by Facebook and partnered with Samsung, and HTC Vive, manufactured by HTC with Valve technology, have lead the 2010 wave in developing virtual reality headsets. These technologies, innovative by today’s standards but primitive by science fiction’s, mark the beginning of a completely differently-structured society. They also mark a starting point for a new debate about privacy, the social affects of videogames, and especially censorship in media.

Virtual reality (in its not-too-distant actuality) offers an opportunity to behave outside of social norms in an environment that is phenomenologically the real world. The only comparable experience for humankind thus far is lucid dreaming, for which the rewards are less intense and the journey less traversible than the quick promises of virtual reality machines. One inevitable development for these machines is violent, sexually explicit experiences, available for cheap and accessible 24/7. To see how VR might be received, the closest industries to analyze are the videogame and pornography industries.

Interestingly, pornography has a very liberal history, in comparison to other “societal ills,” like drugs. (One of my favorite observations, indicative of the fluctuation of moral outlooks on sexuality, is the fact that rimjobs used to be a form of punishment in 17th-century Europe. I move for us to institute this as a contemporary alternative to capital punishment.) Erotica dates back to ancient cultures – notably, the Kama Sutra, hardcore by today’s standards, is still a staple of contemporary sexual experimentation – and today’s perversions were common themes: bestiality, pedophilia, etc., although pornography with an emphasis on violence might be a more modern trend. This isn’t to ignore, however, the roles typically played by women in ancient Western folklore and mythology, which are degrading by today’s feminist standards.

The case could be made that today’s censorial views on pornography come from a far more malevolent or oppressive stance toward women than two millennia ago. The free expression pornographic media once enjoyed was severely impacted over the 20th century. Only two years ago, a plethora of activities were banned from pornography in the United Kingdom. Reacting to the legislation, commentators were quick to criticize what was seen as policy that was specifically anti-female pleasure. Female ejaculation, fisting, face-sitting, and many forms of spanking or role-play were among the restrictions. There are puritanical, “moral outrage” elements to the restriction, but many noticed the absurdity of banning face-sitting: said one producer, “Why ban face-sitting? What’s so dangerous about it? … Its power is symbolic: woman on top, unattainable.” (There has been well-intended censorship as well. Los Angeles county passed Measure B in 2012 to require condom use during any pornographic scene with anal or vaginal contact, to combat the spread of venereal disease.)

Nowadays, there are plenty of porn directors that have learned to focus on both male and female pleasure, and reintroduced artistic merit to their directions. Erika Lust is one example. With the equalizing force gaining momentum in porn, it’s curious what the vehement, persistent condemnation springs from, when its not focused exclusively on abusive sex scenes. In addition, the negative effects of pornography’s presence in society are still being debated. Just the other day, a study which lead to headlines like “Porn doubles the risk of divorce” and “porn signifies a death knell for marriage” was criticized by Reason magazine for failing to address important underlying factors that more plausibly contribute to both pornography consumption and an unhappy marriage leading to divorce. There seems to be an obsession on behalf of the great majority of the public in assigning pornography to some sort of social harm.

Research on photographic pornography’s effect on society began early and aggressively. The Meese Report (1986), commissioned by Reagan and still frequently cited by anti-pornography advocates, determined pornography to be detrimental to society and family relations, and especially for women and children. Arguments built on similar reports attempt to connect sexually explicit material with rapes and domestic violence, alleging that the desensitization to rough sex carries over from the fictional world into the real one. Henry E. Hudson, the Chairman of the Meese Commission, alleged that pornography “appears to impact adversely on the family concept and its value to society.” The Meese Report, however, has been challenged numerous times for bias and irrational jumping to conclusions, and is not taken seriously as a body of research any longer. One criticism by writer, citing the traditionalist narrative embedded in the research, Pat Califia states that the report “holds out the hope that by using draconian measures against pornography we can turn America into a rerun of Leave It to Beaver.

Indeed, Edwin Meese, the Attorney General appointed to conduct the report, earlier withheld a grant of $625,000 to The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1985, after receiving a letter from 24 (mostly Republican) Congress members who claimed the coalition supported “liberal, anti-family activism”; was “pro-lesbian, pro-abortion … radical feminist” … with “different views on marriage and sexuality than those of the traditional Judeo-Christian values.” Ronald Reagan’s daughter Maureen called the Attorney General’s decision to withhold the grant “patently absurd.” The Coalition’s stated mission is to understand the impact of domestic violence and hold abusers accountable.

The United States’ Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, preceding the Meese Report and commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon, was unable to find evidence of any direct harm caused by pornography. (Although Nixon, despite the evidence under his administration, believed porn corrupted civilization.) It is curious that a new federal study was requested only sixteen years after the first extensive one, but maybe not too unusual given the growth of porn with technology (from adult stores and newsstands to unlimited free online access; the internet just celebrated its quarter-centennial birthday); also not too unusual given the absurd and expensive studies already undertaken by the federal government. It is also worth pointing out that pornography, though often connected by Republicans to feminism, is a divisive issue within 20th century and contemporary feminism: some thinkers, like Andrea Dworkin, condemned it as intrinsically anti-women; others feminists like Ellen Willis argued for pornography as liberating and its suppression as moral authoritarianism. The debate along lines of sexuality, online or otherwise, culminated in the feminist “sex wars,” with groups like Feminists Against Censorship and Women Against Pornography popping up. Thus, the debate is open across every ideological camp, and support of pornography is neither necessarily liberal nor necessarily feminist.

[In the next post, I discuss violent pornography’s cross-media transformation into videogames, more sociological research and the general point, and insecurity, of prohibitory measures.]

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The Criminalization of Curiosity
  2. Britain needs Christianity – just ask Alan Partridge
  3. Libertarians have nowhere to turn
  4. In light of ongoing events in Poland, this October piece by Dr Stocker here at NOL is worth reading again
  5. The West in the Arab world, between ennui and ecstasy