Documentary Highlights Violence in Porn Videos

A new documentary being shown on college campuses takes aim at violence against women depicted in the $10 billion U.S. sexually-oriented video industry.

The film "The Price of Pleasure," was screened at the University of Texas last week, kicking off a five-month nationwide tour at 13 college campuses and community centers.

Filmmakers Chyng Sun, Miguel Picker and Robert Wosnitzer teamed up with University of Texas professor Robert Jensen and researcher Gail Dines in 2004 to document the Adult Video News annual pornography convention and to juxtapose it with trends of sexual violence. Sun invested $60,000 into the movie for research and resource access. The remaining $20,000 to produce the film was funded by a few donors and the NYU Research Challenge Fund.

Jensen has researched the pornography industry for more than 20 years.

"I had used pornography like most men do in this culture and had a pretty normal experience with it," said Jensen. "When I went back to graduate school, I started reading feminist literature, and it opened a whole new way of seeing the issue."

Graphic Violence

Last week, the film was shown to a packed lecture hall where UT students overflowed into the aisles. Some of the material presented in the film focuses on the subset of porn that includes scenes of graphic violence, mainly directed against women. The graphic scenes prompted some viewers to cover their faces during the movie. When the lights went up, Jensen appeared at the podium to address the silent audience.

Rachel Willis, a senior at the college, wiped tears from her eyes as she spoke about what she saw.

"I have never watched porn consistently but I never minded it until now," Willis said. "I think the quote that resonates with me most is that 'When violence is sexualized, it becomes invisible.'"

Senior Amena Sengal, who works for UT's Gender and Sexuality Center as a research assistant studying pornography, said what she saw made her "more cautious" about watching porn."

"Actually, during the film, I was trying to analyze whether or not the films we were showing the participants [at the center] are in any way degrading," Sengal said. "Then I remembered that the films we show are the ones geared to women -- the 'femme' production ones. So, I feel a little better, but still not that much better about porn in general."

'I Think I Will Change'

Junior Buddy Schultz said after seeing the film he would re-evaluate his own views as a porn user.

"It [the movie] made me think about myself," said Schultz. "I'm definitely going to think about it a lot more in the next few days. There are a lot of concepts that I never thought about, and I think I will change the things I do."

Porn videos do serve a legitimate purpose, said journalism senior Albert Alvarado.

"If someone wants to go home and get online and watch porn, then what business do I have telling them him or her what to do?" he said.

Jensen said he is preparing to screen the documentary at Augsburg College in Minneapolis on Friday.

Jensen said he was inspired by feminist theory that originated in the late 1980s by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. His interest led him into a dual role as researcher and activist.

Porn has become more normalized in the U.S., said Jensen, who hopes that the release of "The Price of Pleasure" will promote reflection and discussion of porn's place in society.

Sun said the documentary is aimed at promoting "an open discussion about the topic...I have no plan of shutting down the industry. But looking into it is a great way to see how racism and sexism interlock and can stir up the core of sexuality."

Researching Porn

Sun met Jensen when she was making her second film, "Beyond Good and Evil," and met Dines, a professor at Wheelock College who has researched pornography for more than a decade, while making her first film, "Mickey Mouse Monopoly." Sun said she was impressed with both scholars and looked into their own specific research.

"They had both worked on pornography, so we talked about the possibility of making a film on the topic," Sun said. "I came into the film with no agenda because there are so many conflicting and complex issues that I had to think through. This one medium [pornography] has so many outcomes, it just depends on how people use it."

Sex and Violence

Theories about the affects of sexually explicit films on society abound. Some say that porn, which is largely protected by the First Amendment, sexually liberates women, while others argue that porn has indirectly increased sexual violence toward women and eroded relationships.

Though there's no definitive study on porn and violence, most research, including a 2002 article in the Journal of Sex Research, found no connection between those committing rape and the viewing of pornography.

Sun decided to take a deeper look at the porn/violence connection by organizing a team of researchers to analyze the amount and type of aggression used in popular porn films. Sun compiled a list of the most-rented and best-selling porn videos during a seven-month period, as reported by AVN. She then randomly selected 50.

"Porn is very diverse," Sun said. "We decided to look into popular pornography to make our study reliable."

Her team then recorded each instance of aggression (including spanking, gagging and verbal abuse). Their definition of aggression included "any action causing physical or psychological harm to oneself or another person, verbally or physically."

"Overall 94.4 percent of the aggressive acts were targeted at women," she said, and "95.5 percent of the female characters who were the targets of aggression actually expressed enjoyment or had no response at all."

"Violence is met with acceptance or pleasure. So what does that mean for the viewer?" Sun said.

In the course of her research, Sun noted a much higher frequency of aggression than reported in an earlier group of content analysis studies that also evaluated porn, conducted in the early '90s. This may be partly due to the way the researchers choose to define aggression in the films studied.

Says Jensen, "The question is often asked, 'Does pornography cause rape,' and the answer is obviously 'No.' I think the question is better framed, 'Does pornography contribute to a culture in which rapes happen at the epidemic levels it does?'"