On Torture and Pornography and Torture Pornography

Amanda Marcotte has (as usual) written a really thoughtful, reflective post that's at least partially inspired by this article, which-- if you ask me-- wasn't nearly as nuanced and sophisticated as Marcotte's response. People smarter and more passionate about the subject than I am have been discussing this both on AlterNet and Pandagon, so I'm not going to go into too much detail regarding the debate about pornography and misogyny, except to say that I share the concerns articulated by people on both threads that a lot of the porn to be found on the web is really disturbing, and not the sort of thing I can imagine anybody being aroused by. Much of what passes for erotic imagery seems merely sadistic-- rape simulations, "throat fucking", images of women crying while having sex, really rough S & M stuff, group cum shots... Basically, it seems to me, any degrading act you can imagine is probably represented on a website that offers up free samples.

So, I agree that this is disgusting and potentially destructive-- particularly since so many kids are getting initiated into the world of adult sexuality through the Internet (don't forget-- it was only a month or so ago that a group of young people flooded our comments section with the warped argument that a woman who deprives her son of pornography was guilty of "abuse"). But I have no idea what's to be done about this-- education and outreach? Censorship? Stricter regulations to make sure kids aren't exposed to this stuff? I could definitely get behind this last idea, but I'm afraid it doesn't do much to address the fact that there's apparently a very sizable adult audience with disposable income earmarked for "anal fisting images." And then there's the fact that I'm not exactly sure that-- even with the best of intentions-- I want to try to legislate what other people get off to. I am concerned about a slippery slope effect-- if I work to ban images that I find disgusting and degrading, how can I in good conscience argue against the people who want to ban, say, gay porn, which I don't find inherently disgusting and degrading?

Anyway... all this is to say that I haven't even come close to figuring out the issue for myself, so I'm not inclined to stake out and defend a position on the matter. But I was struck by some of the comments in the Pandagon thread about mainstream "torture porn" horror films, and their relationship to this type of degrading pornography found on the web. Frankly, though I don't like the recent "torture" trend in horror movies, I don't think the connections between these films and exploitive pornography are as clear as some people think-- except that both illustrate that Americans seem to be profoundly interested in (and excited by) images of brutality.

"Torture Porn" is a vague term used to describe a certain type of recent horror movie where the gore is over-the-top, yet biologically and psychologically "realistic" (a movie like Nightmare on Elm Street Part V: The Dream Child-- for all it's over-the-top gore-- doesn't qualify, as the audience doesn't get to hear the bones crunching, the victim weeping and gurgling on his own blood, and stuff like that). According to Wikipedia, the term was first used by critic David Edelstein to describe Eli Roth's Hostel, though it was retroactively applied to the movie Saw and its sequels, as well as Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects and the films of Japanese director Takashi Miike. More recent examples of the form have included Captivity and Turistas. Some also lump the Robert Rodriguez/ Quentin Tarantino double-feature Grindhouse in with these others.

Interestingly enough, the earlier, most commercially successful examples of this sub-genre dealt almost exclusively with men torturing other men-- the original Saw and Hostel were each primarily focused on two men being held captive by sadists. Yes, women died in both movies, but the real on-screen brutality happened to men (also, it should be noted that Miike's utterly gruesome The Audition featured a woman torturing a man-- for what that's worth). This sets the early torture porn movies apart from other types of horror movies, where the victims are typically women. If I had to guess, I would imagine that the filmmakers knew they were pushing the envelope with these more graphic depictions of torture and suffering, but didn't think the audience was quite ready to accept the idea of entertainment based around men torturing women in such ways (earlier, in 1998, Dee Snyder made the torture-based horror movie Strangeland, where a sadist torments young women and men alike, but the relative lack of gory detail makes the film seem positively quaint in a post-Eli Roth world).

I haven't seen the more recent examples of torture porn-- frankly, I felt like the first Hostel and the three Saw films pretty much told me everything I need to know about this form-- but I understand that the films shifted their focus away from men torturing men to men torturing women (what horror movie fan can forget the controversy surrounding the release of Captivity, and the generally tasteless advertising that landed the filmmakers in hot water with the MPAA?)-- presumably, in a further attempt to "push the envelope." "You've seen us sawing through the bones of men, but are you ready to see us do the same thing to women?" these films seem to ask. Frankly... yeah. Once you're chopping off extremities slowly and giving me the sounds of flesh squishing and saws scraping against bone, then it seems to me that-- for normal people-- the gender of the victim is irrelevant.

I don't doubt that there are some men who get some type of thrill out of seeing this type of brutal violence directed against beautiful, "uppity" women, but I think it's worth noting that this genre's decline in popularity began almost simultaneously with this shift towards the victimization of women. It seems to me that this can be explained in a couple of ways: For most of us, the promise of "It's like the last torture movie you saw, only this time with girls!" didn't really seem to promise us anything new-- again, if I've seen one person get an eye gouged out, I'm not really going to be shocked by the same type of violence in the sequel-- even if it's a whole 'nother gender. Also, for many of us, the shift towards victimizing women simply took things too far-- in a world where violence against women is such a serious problem to begin with, the idea of watching a movie that takes a vicarious delight through the depiction of such brutalization is a bit... troubling. Frankly, I suspect that the audience of men who really want to see a woman get tortured isn't nearly as large as the audience that's either disgusted or simply not enthusiastic about the premise.

So... my conclusion? I don't think torture porn is really worth worrying about-- it's dying its own death at the box office as filmmakers are discovering that no one is interested. Brutal pornography is a bigger problem, though I have a feeling that it's not as popular as its presence on the web might make it seem-- someone in the Pandagon thread hypothesized that the average viewer of the really extreme porn is the guy who needs to look at porn on a regular basis-- the causal wanker (i.e., most people who occasionally view pornography) isn't interested in depictions of women being brutalized; I can't quantify it, but that sounds right to me (again, for what that's worth). The bigger concern, for me, is the idea that younger men may view these types of images and come away with the idea that there's something normal about a man trying to gag a woman with his dick. But then again, I'm similarly concerned that people's ideas about sexuality are being warped by Maxim and The Real World, so I'm not sure exactly where to start to rectify this problem. If, indeed, I'm right and this is a "problem" at all.

[EDIT: I was just re-reading what I wrote, and realized that, in the first paragraph, the sentence "People smarter and more passionate about the subject than I am have been discussing this..." had a typo in it; I'd left out the "... I am...", which made it sound like the commenters were smarter than the authors of the original articles. This wasn't what I meant to say; I was trying to be self-deprecating, not insult anyone else. My apologies if I accidentally offended anyone.]

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