Pornography & Violence: Busting the 88% Myth

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Anyone who has had any interest in sex-positive politics has likely been confronted with the proposition by anti-pornography activists that 88% of pornography depicts violence against women.

Before we begin to breakdown the statistic, let’s be clear: this is an absolutely false statement.

The origin of the 88% statistic appears to be a study published in the Journal of Violence Against Women in 2010, which performed a ‘content analysis’ of 304 scenes in pornographic films. The study concluded that ‘88 percent [of pornography]depicts physical aggression such as gagging and choking, and 48 per cent include verbal aggression’.

This conclusion has been reproduced throughout anti-pornography networks and is featured prominently in Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, by radical feminist Gail Dines.

The problem? No other peer-reviewed study using the same methodology has come even the slightest bit close to matching the 88 per cent statistic.  Other studies have put the depiction of violence in pornography as high as 36% and as low as 2%, with most studies measuring the rate at around 14% – 20%.

Even then, there are still major issues with a ‘content analysis’ approach. As academics such as Professor Alan McKee have noted, there are major flaws in the sampling and interpretation of pornographic media.

Some takes on pornographic content can be rather eyebrow raising in their interpretation. Cheerleader outfits are interpreted as “mock paedophilia” and facial ejaculations as “a tactic of degradation and ownership”. Clearly the method is susceptible to prejudice in interpretation by researchers.

The biggest scapegoat of anti-porn advocates is to oversample scenes containing sadomasochistic acts. As feminist Gayle Rubin pointed out in Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality”:

A great deal of anti-porn propaganda implies sadomasochism is the underlying and essential ‘truth’ towards which all pornography tends. Porn is thought to lead to S/M porn, which in turn is alleged to lead to rape. This is a just-so story that revitalizes the notion that sex perverts commit sex crimes, not normal people. There is no evidence that the readers of S/M erotica or practising sadomasochists commit a disproportionate number of sex crimes. Anti-porn literature scapegoats an unpopular sexual minority and its reading material for social problems they do not create.

A disproportionate focus and misunderstanding of S&M practice is common within the anti-porn literature, with many theorists failing to distinguish depictions of consensual S&M – where participants appear freely committed to assuming roles of domination and submission – and content which valorises violence against women.  Consensual S&M practice is not violence, and should not be falsely depicted as such.

It should also be noted that flaws in content found in US porn producers do not necessarily translate well to criticisms of the Australian adult entertainment industry. As Zarah Stardust, Australian porn performer and researcher, has noted the emergence of ‘performer-producer’ models in the Australian adult industry have provided sex workers with greater autonomy, independence, and control over their working conditions and representation.

Although critical engagement with media can sometimes be a progressive and helpful way to explore social attitudes that need changing. There is nothing insightful about activism based off false statistics and the marginalising of sexual minorities.

Written by guest writer: Jarryd Bartle
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