Is It Really Just a Fantasy?: Why We Need to Start Thinking Critically about Porn

photo illustration by Zell Thomas

Over the past decades, pornography has transformed from a clandestine, niche industry to a booming online market that, according to sociologist Dr. Gail Dines, collectively receives more daily users than Netflix, Facebook, and Twitter combined. Sex really does sell. This fact isn’t exactly shocking, as the personal use of hardcore pornography has become a (mostly) acceptable aspect of our culture; this is due in large part to both the easy accessibility of porn through the internet and the idea that porn is inherently harmless—so long as we recognize that the images we see in porn are only a fantasy. But what exactly do we mean by “fantasy”? As hardcore pornography becomes less taboo, the term “fantasy” increasingly becomes a scapegoat word, behind which one can find depictions of abuse, the sexualization of minors, and blatant racism. When we buy into the idea that porn is fantasy (in other words, not real), we dismiss what porn is saying about the real world. This dismissal of pornographic images and videos as “only fantasy” discourages us as a society and as individuals to critically examine the real influences mainstream pornography has on how we perceive our world.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the fantasy concept is its ability to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable content in both pornography and sexuality outside of the porn industry. The recognition that porn capitalizes on the degradation of women has been a strong argument against porn within the feminist movement since the 1970s. However, pornographic content featuring the degradation of women, especially through verbally demeaning or violent acts, is actually on the rise. An analysis of hundreds of randomly chosen, popular, pay-to-view adult videos conducted by psychologist Ana Bridges found that just under 90 percent of the videos contained aggressive physical or verbal acts toward the female performer. While Bridges definition of “aggressive” includes all potentially painful acts, it shows that face slapping, intentional choking, and derogatory language are common. Far from being just a fantasy, other studies, like the one conducted by sociologist Dr. Michael Kimmel, have shown a stark increase over the years of heterosexual men asking their girlfriends/wives to incorporate degrading or aggressive acts into their sexual relationships. Even veteran adult film director Joe Gallant, in an interview for the documentary The Price of Pleasure, admitted, “I fear the future of American porn, might be violence.”

Alongside sexual aggression against women is an increase in the infantilization of women. The sexually curious yet sexually ignorant woman is not an uncommon character in adult entertainment, but the depiction of a woman’s sexual ignorance in mainstream pornography is heading into disturbing territory. Burning Angel Films, an adult film company run by a woman, features a video in which the female character admits to being sexually assaulted by her own father at the age of five; not only is the character portrayed as having no conception of what happened to her, but this admission acts as the impetus for the man in the video to see the woman as a sexual object. While this example might seem extreme, adult films in which men treat women like less than adults are common place; even the ubiquitous use of terms such as “girl” for women and “daddy” or “sir” for men in adult films speaks to the prevalence of this problem. Even if the aforementioned video from Burning Angel Films was not commonplace, the fact that such a video was produced in the 21st century, in the United States, despite a decades-long fight against the infantilization of women in other aspects of our culture, should call into question the kinds of ideas that penetrate our psyche through porn’s concept of fantasy.

The infantilization of women in pornography should not only raise concerns about the portrayal of women in porn, but also raise concerns about the portrayal of minors and children. A 2013 article from The Huffington Post reported that child pornography is one of the fastest growing online businesses. Furthermore, there is an unsettling trend in the normalization of child pornography in mainstream adult films. Laws have been established banning the use of minors in pornographic videos; however, these laws don’t extend as far as one might suspect. The court decision in Ashcroft v. The Free Speech Coalition ruled that fully animated or fully CGI videos featuring sex acts of any kind are also allowed to depict minors of any age participating in those sex acts. This ruling led to further arguments stipulating that the portrayal of victimization is not actual victimization. In 2002, these discussions, spearheaded by The Free Speech Coalition, successfully repealed the law mandating that adult film actors could not depict underage characters. In other words, it is legal for an adult film performer who looks 12 to play a 12-year-old character, so long as the performer is a least 18 in real life. The legality of this seems to suggest that there is a level of legitimacy, even acceptability, toward what is widely considered one of the most reprehensible crimes. Do we, as a society, really want this to be a part of our collective sexual fantasy? Porn’s troubling depictions don’t stop with women and children. As the fight against racism in the United States approaches its 200th year, extreme racial stereotypes remain prevalent in mainstream porn.

The commodification of ethnicity within mainstream porn is unapologetically racist; when videos that feature non-white performers are not depicting racial stereotypes, they are likely using the non-white ethnicity of that performer as a selling point of the video. This statement might sound like an overgeneralization, but it is a fact many adult entertainers are candid about. While conducting interviews with African American women working in the porn industry, Mireille Miller-Young reported that many of these women struggle their whole careers to find work outside of racially exploitive porn, or “ghetto porn,” a common type of fetish pornography that purposefully features modern racial stereotypes of black people. Miller-Young sums up the experience of these women by stating, “Black women are devalued as hyper-accessible and super-disposable in an industry that simultaneously invests in and marginalizes fantasies about black sexuality.” Miller-Young does not come to this conclusion lightly; it comes after seven years of interviews with black adult-film performers and in-person observance of these women’s lives in the industry. Despite this assertion, there is surprisingly little being done to solve the problem of racism in pornography. Once again, the concept of fantasy successfully makes society numb to depictions and practices that would cause social outrage if they existed as blatantly in any other part of our culture as they do in pornography.

It’s worth stating that the intention of this article is not to be anti-pornography, nor is it a call to travel down the slippery slope of censorship; nonetheless, we need more prevalent and critical conversations about the current state of the porn industry. Just as slasher movies do not create serial killers, pornography does not create sexual deviants—but porn does desensitize. Take a moment to think about the fact that we live in a society where sexism, the sexualization of children, and blatant racism are all okay, just so long as they are labeled as “sexual fantasy.” Doesn’t this contradict everything we say we want our society to be? How, in light of recent movements such as Black Lives Matter and MeToo, can we collectively be okay with an aspect of our culture where the very antitheses of these movements are not only prevalently displayed, but sold to us with the implication that this is the way we like it? If sex is the one commodity that always sells, then it is time to start considering what this commodity is actually costing us.


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