Justice

Porn and media play part in sexual violence

Warning: This story discusses issues related to rape and sexual violence.

New Zealand has stubbornly high rates of sexual violence, despite feminist movements like #MeToo. Laura Walters looks at the the societal barriers to ending rape.

The advent of online dating and aggressive porn increasingly appear to be a contributing factor to stubbornly high rates of sexual violence, according to new research.

A series of studies out of Victoria University of Wellington show the changing online landscape may be contributing to, and exacerbating, sexual violence, rape and intimate partner violence.

This is taking place in a world where women are increasingly empowered by feminist movements and economic independence but are still overwhelmingly the victims of sexual abuse.

Online dating and blurred lines around consent, coupled with New Zealand's current consent regulations, make it difficult to hold perpetrators to account.

The continued objectification and self-objectification of women in media, along with the perpetuation of rape myths in news media, exacerbate the issue.

And increasingly aggressive pornography and a lack of education and conversation about porn is a potentially dangerous mix in a country where about 20 percent of adult women are subjected to sexual assault in their lives.

The research was presented at a day-long symposium, which explored 21st century barriers to rape reform.

“Mainstream heterosexual porn is still made by men, for men and tells men that women like to receive aggression and tells women that we should like to receive that.”

Criminology professor and lead researcher Jan Jordan spoke of the long legacy of silencing and objectifying women.

Women were taught to be “beautiful and quiet if you want to be safe”, she said.

The feminist movement and the second-wave feminism did a lot to advance women’s rights and moves towards gender equality and pay equity.

However, the objectification and self-objectification of women has not ceased, rather taken on different forms over the past 40 years.

Research comparing sexual violence cases in 1997 and 2015 found there was little change in the amount of cases that met the evidentiary threshold to proceed to prosecution (1997: 30 percent; 2015: 28 percent), and the number of cases where there was a conviction also remained startlingly low (1997: 13 percent; 2015: 15 percent).

Jordan said this lack of progress was an argument for doing away with New Zealand’s adversarial justice system in relation to sexual violence cases, reviewing the evidentiary threshold, and consent laws.

However, policing did not happen in a vacuum, so the other three pieces of research were commissioned in order to give the wider societal context in which sexual violence occurs.

The part porn plays

The porn industry continues to grow, with 33.5 billion visits to PornHub in 2018, and an average of 92 million daily visits.

As porn has moved online it has become increasingly accessible and industry value has continued to climb.

Rental and ad revenue from adult videos in the 1990s grew into the billions. In 2014, the porn industry was worth $US97b ($145b).

Doctoral candidate Samantha Keene found a troubling increase in the rise of aggressive and degrading sex acts found online.

“Mainstream heterosexual porn is still made by men for men, and tells men that women like to receive aggression and tells women that we should like to receive that.”

Keene analysed 40 years of porn, from magazines in the 1970s, through to adult videos, and online porn.

While research on porn was scarce and academics disagreed whether there was a causal link between aggressive porn and sexual violence, there were worrying trends such as choking – something that was prevalent in sexual violence and intimate partner violence cases.

Multiple experts said this type of porn normalised sexual aggression.

Some believed the depiction of male dominance and aggression in pornography was a backlash against feminism, Keene said.

However, aggressive pornography increasingly included women who were willing participants. And more women were searching for, and watching, porn categorised as ‘rough sex’.

Keene said it was not clear whether it was a form of research, or a way to engage in a fantasy in a safe space.

Young New Zealanders are being exposed to increasingly aggressive porn from a young age, meaning education and awareness is vital. Photo: File

Qualitative interviews with 13 men and 11 women, where porn had impacted on the person's sex or relationships, found there was a need for greater discussion about porn.

An increasing number of young people were accessing porn from a young age, and for some it was their first exposure to sex.

The Office of Film and Literature Classification have carried out recent work and research on youth and porn, finding 67 percent of teens have watched porn, and 1 in 4 saw it before the age of 12.

Meanwhile, 69 percent said they had seen violence or aggression in porn, and 72 percent have seen non-consensual activity.

Keene said this raised the issue of including porn in sex education, something that was not currently compulsory, and talking to young people about this depictions of sex and relationships.

Jordan said this type of pornography showed a lack of female agency, and reinforced men’s dominance and entitlement.

While there had been a move towards feminist, ethical porn, most interviewed found it difficult to find, or were not willing to pay.

Online dating and consent

There was also an intersection with the rise in popularity of ‘rough sex’ in porn and online dating.

As part of her study on police sexual violence cases, Jordan and research associate Elaine Mossman spoke to those who worked in sexual violence and rape prevention and support services.

Some said there was a rising demand for aggressive and degrading sex, and there was often confusion over what the different parties considered to be “rough”, and what had been consented to in online messaging.

In one case, the alleged rapist scratched the woman so hard she was bleeding, pulled her hair and choked her. The woman asked him to stop, but he responded: "I thought you liked it rough”. She said she just let him finish, so it would be over.

The woman said there was a difference between rough sex and brutality.

“Movements to advance gender equality are currently undermined by the increased objectification and self-objectification of women’s bodies and its role in society.”

In this case, police considered there was not enough evidence to prosecute, and the alleged rapist was given a warning, told to change his behaviour, and sent on his way.

Jordan’s research found numerous examples where rough sex was part of the case, and sex was more aggressive than expected, or agreed to.

Meanwhile, many women were raped by a partner or ex-partner. In 84 percent of cases, the women were raped by someone they knew.

Current consent laws made it difficult for police to move forward with prosecutions, and the burden of responsibility, placing of blame, and perpetuation of rape myths often worked to silence women.

Self-objectification

Sophie Beaumont’s research analysed the covers of women’s magazines and found the overt sexualisation of women remained largely flat between 1975 and 2015.

However, there were a range of covert messages of objectification and sexualisation.

The overwhelming majority of covers featured solitary white women, which tied in with the beauty industry’s messaging to women about what they should be.

Jordan said it was important to not ignore these more subtle forms of silencing.

While aggressive porn was an obvious example of objectification, there was a continuum through music videos, to advertising and women’s magazines.

In 2017, the beauty industry was estimated to be worth US$532.43b ($790b).

Never before had beauty been more accessible, but also self-punitive and undermining of confidence and self-esteem, Jordan said.

“Movements to advance gender equality are currently undermined by the increased objectification and self-objectification of women’s bodies and its role in society.”

Women often viewed themselves through the lens of what was expected from society, and how others saw them.

In order to end rape, the world needed to end all those aspects of the patriarchal legacy that led to women’s objectification and submission, she said.

Where to get help:

National Rape Crisis helpline: 0800 88 33 00

Safe to Talk national helpline 0800 044 334 or www.safetotalk.nz

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