Women’s groups fought a losing battle against pornography
In the past 30 years, porn industry has grown into a $100-billion business
Few people understood right away that the June 1978 issue of Hustler magazine was an historic moment in the fight for sexual equality in North America.
The cover – showing a woman’s buttocks and legs sticking up from a meat grinder, with ground meat on a plate beneath the machine – was Hustler publisher and self-anointed free-speech champion Larry Flynt’s answer to feminist criticism.
“We will no longer hang women up like pieces of meat,” he quoted himself on the cover. In case anyone missed the sarcasm, the issue was stamped “LAST ALL MEAT ISSUE.”
That cover mobilized the women’s movement to fight against pornography like nothing else, said Richard Poulin in an interview this week. Poulin, a professor of sociology at the University of Ottawa, will speak today in Montreal, part of a conference on Youth, Media, and Sexualization organized by the Women’s Y.
Unfortunately for society, it was a battle the women’s movement lost, Poulin said, in part because feminists themselves were divided, with some arguing that it was a question of free expression and sexual liberation.
“This was a great failure for the women’s movement, for their struggle for equality,” said Poulin. Pornography today permeates society. It is available on television screens and in magazines. It is available to anyone of any age on the Internet.
“What has happened in the last 30 years is nothing less than a transformation of our social environment, of our mores,” said Poulin. “We don’t know yet what the consequences will be.”
It’s already clear, however, that youngsters are becoming sexualized much earlier in life. Worryingly, sexual assaults are now committed by younger assailants against younger victims. A few years ago, said Poulin, the average age among young offenders was 16 or 17. Today, it’s down to 14 or 15.
Young Canadians are also consuming pornography earlier. In a survey Poulin led last year among University of Ottawa students, he found that the average age at which they first looked at pornography was 13. Among those whose parents kept pornography in the home, the age was lower, 101/2.
Research shows that pornography leads to the normalization of what should be abnormal attractions. Poulin cited a survey showing that one in five men aged 22 or 23 admitted being sexually attracted to 13-year-old girls. “This is not a trivial trend,” he said.
Today, pornography is a $100-billion-a-year global industry. Child-pornography, sex tourism and human trafficking are fast-growing companion segments.
If pornography was hard to combat 30 years ago, it’s much harder today. Poulin defines pornography as an industry based on promoting the sexual subordination of one group of people to another. He said the same techniques are used in pornography as in prisons like Abu Ghraib: It is, he explained, a process of “inferiorization,” whereby being stripped naked is part of being made to feel inferior.
Poulin is not optimistic that pornography or its effects can be stopped. He said, however, there have been recent efforts to restart a much-needed social debate.
Rachel Chagnon, professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, who spoke at the YWCA conference “Youth, Media and Sexualization”, will be part of that effort. For the past year, Chagnon has been looking at the question of how to put an end to sexual stereotyping in the mass media.
Although existing regulatory bodies are in theory able to order offensive stereotypes off the airwaves or out of printed media, Chagnon said she was surprised to find out that regulatory bodies generally define “offensive” as pornographic only.
“Yet if we take for granted that sexual equality and non-discrimination is a founding principle of our society, we should be looking at the media to see if they perpetuate discrimination and stereotypes and trying to put a stop to that.”
Chagnon has led a team that studied rulings between 1992 and 2008 by regulatory bodies, covering TV and radio shows and advertising.
Advertisers are much faster than broadcasters to react to complaints about sexist or discriminatory material, Chagnon said.
But in an important way, most people just don’t get the idea that stereotypes are harmful, said Chagnon. “They think if both men and women are shown in stereotypical ways in the same ad, it’s OK.
“But if we as a society want to get rid of discrimination,” said Chagnon, “we have to stop leaning on stereotypes.”