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What do people like about porn? Everyone knows the answer to that

By Alan McKee - posted Monday, 12 May 2003

Ignorance is bliss, yes? When considering the introduction of laws, or setting up government bodies to implement them, it's important that the people involved in public debate, in legislation, and in enforcement, should know nothing about the area in question. Anybody who has even the slightest knowledge of it should be pilloried, insulted and excluded from the process. Obviously.

I don't know how convincing you find that argument. Personally, it doesn't work for me (perhaps I should have appended a Wayne's World-style "Not!" at the end just to make the sarcasm clear). But you might recognise it as the argument that's applied to the discussion of pornography in Australia.

It's the argument Robert Manne uses in an article for The Age in 1993, when he notes that: "anti-censorship liberals" keep asking "where is the evidence that pornography actually does any harm?" - a question he answers by claiming "It is actually difficult, at the deepest level, to take such a question seriously, if we allow common sense to be our guide". It's John Laws' position when he states with pride in his radio program that: "I have to confess to not having looked at any pornographic movies" - and takes that as his credential for talking long and loudly about precisely what he thinks is in them.


I work as an academic - which means I'm paid to be interested in finding things out. I like to research the answers to questions, and I like to see what evidence is available about how culture works. Watching the recurring debates about adult material in Australia, I was interested to find out some basic facts. What's actually in the pornography that Australians are buying? Who's making it? Why? Who's buying it? And what do they think about it?

Of course, I could answer all of these questions simply by drawing on the stock of common sense that Manne, Laws and many other public figures employ. The answers would be, in order: slim blonde large-breasted women being objectified; criminals and prostitutes; probably because they're drug users with no self esteem who are desperate for the money; dirty old men in macs who can't sustain relationships; and, they believe it's reality and it leads them to be violent against women. Easy.

But are any of those answers correct? As we continue our public debates about the need for censorship and the nature of adult materials, wouldn't it be useful to gather some evidence?

That's certainly my position - although I know that even saying that I want to find out the facts about such an issue marks me immediately as a bleeding-heart leftie liberal do-gooder so-called expert member of the intellectual elite chattering classes. To even ask for evidence is, as Robert Manne says, a sin. But despite this, it's the reason that I and two of my colleagues - Kath Albury and Catharine Lumby from the University of Sydney - started the Understanding Pornography in Australia research project last year. The aim of the project is to provide information that is so obvious that nobody would even think of asking for it. And what we are finding is that our simple common sense about these issues might not be as sensible as we think.

The results of our research aren't finalised, and we can't make any grand censorious claims at this point. But based on the data that's coming in, some interesting trends are emerging. The answer to the question of what is actually in pornography has surprised us. We set up a content analysis of 50 of the best-selling porn videos in Australia, measuring the body shapes of the people shown, the kinds of sexual acts presented, who was involved in them, and how they related to each other.

It quickly became apparent that pornography is one of the more open-minded forms of culture when it comes to sexual attractiveness. Compared to women's magazines, fashion shows or advertising, pornography finds all kinds of people attractive - skinny people and normal-sized people and generously proportioned people. In the range of videos we have seen, "big racks" are popular - but so are smaller-breasted women. Interestingly, fake breasts are not hugely popular - pornography shows natural breasts as the most attractive.


Unsurprisingly, there is no sexual violence against women in mainstream Australian porn videos - unsurprising because this is a legal requirement. What is more surprising is that women in these videos are not objects in any recognisable sense. We have measured how much they talk, how often they are in control of a situation, and how much attention is paid to their pleasure. On every count it seems that porn videos place women in the driving seat.

In terms of production, interviews with the women and men who are involved in the production of explicit materials in Australia are painting a picture of people who enjoy what they do. There's no single reason for making or appearing in porn. Some people do it purely for the money - not necessarily because they're desperate or can't get it any other way but because it's relatively safe work that pays well.

One issue that keeps recurring - and doesn't feature in our common sense view of pornography for some reason - is the importance of exhibitionism. Many of the people appearing in pornography do it because they enjoy it; they actually get turned on by it. Much of Australia's adult material is imported from America; the material made here is often cottage-industry stuff by people who feel that their particular interests and pleasures aren't being catered for.

We've only just begun a pilot survey of the consumers of pornography available online for any readers who themselves purchase adult materials). Again we can't make any grand claims on the basis of an incomplete survey process but the results we're receiving make interesting reading. The consumers of pornography are men and women; they are married, single or in other relationships. They live in cities and in the country. They vote for Labour, the Greens, the Liberal or National parties. They are atheists, Buddhists and Anglicans.

About the only thing they have in common is that the gender politics of these consumers is overwhelmingly pro-feminist. Only a single respondent to this stage has stated that he doesn't think women should be allowed abortion on demand; every other respondent says yes to this, as well as to women being encouraged to remain in the workplace after having children should they wish. Not a single respondent believes that women ever deserve to be raped. Most think that pornography has either had no effect on them, or improved their lives slightly - most often by making them realise that they're not perverse for wanting sexual pleasure.

The project is still in process and the data isn't final yet. But in a way the final results are less important than the fact that we're asking the questions. Common sense isn't always so sensible - particularly when it comes to matters of public policy. Of course pornography is bad for you - but what if it isn't? Of course it objectifies women - but what if it doesn't? And of course pornography makes people treat other human beings with less respect - but what if that isn't the case? How will our public debate and our public policy about adult materials in Australia change if the facts don't match the common sense?

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About the Author

Dr Alan McKee is Chief Investigator of the 'Understanding pornography in Australia' research project and Consulting Editor of Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies. He is based at Queensland University of Technology.

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Alan McKee's home page
Understanding Pornography in Australia
University of Queensland
University of Sydney
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