Aristotelian Rape Training: Pornography and Rape Culture

Posted on April 8, 2016 by



JianGhomeshiSomeone asked me the other day what I thought about the Jian Ghomeshi case. Jian Ghomeshi, if you aren’t familiar, is a Canadian radio personality who was charged with sexually assaulting women. His accusers described him suddenly turning violent, yanking their hair, slapping them. What was not in dispute in the case was that Ghomeshi liked to hit and choke women in the bedroom. What was in dispute was whether or not he’d done anything illegal, and whether there was adequate proof of wrongdoing. He was found not guilty by the court.

Many people were understandably upset. But should such behaviour be unexpected from men in our culture? Should we be surprised or shocked that Ghomeshi found sexual pleasure in treating women this way?

Slapping, choking—any variety of violence against women, really—is the stock and trade of the porn industry. A certain Duke freshman made headlines across the U.S. last year when it was discovered that she was paying her way through school by participating in just this sort of violent pornography. She claimed to be “empowered” by the form of “sexual expression,” as some might call it, or by what others might call “being subjected to violent, sexual humiliation on camera.”

One might point out that it is her right to do so. She is a consenting adult. Who are we to judge?

Sure. I have no desire to enter into the debate over consent and sexual behaviour. It is a foregone conclusion for many that if adult participants freely consent, anything goes. I am not challenging that notion here.

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My contention is along different, but perhaps equally controversial, lines. I contend that viewing such violent pornography (one could possibly make the case about pornography more generally, but I am limiting the scope of my argument) is a form of rape training. The man who views violent porn and finds sexual fulfillment in such material is training himself to treat women that way, and to enjoy treating them that way.

The core reason for my contention follows from Aristotle’s concept of stock responses. We ought to train the young, Aristotle contended, to react with displeasure and disapproval to that which is bad, and to react with pleasure and approval to that which is good.

The stock response both expected and generated by violent pornography in its users is one of pleasure. Sexual pleasure. Recent studies (though not all) support what was obvious already—this form of pleasure shapes one’s future responses to similar stimulation, and only increases one’s desire for it. (See Your Brain on Porn for claims in support, or this Psychology Today article for claims to the contrary.) Isn’t it naïve to believe that millions of men viewing violent pornography, with the express purpose of enjoying watching women getting sexually abused, would not, at least to some degree, be moulding their sexual desires and behaviour in a more violent, abusive direction?

One might demur that it is silly to conclude that depictions of violence against women encourage men to get violent with women. No one, for instance, is arguing that comic book movies depicting Black Widow or Wonder Woman getting punched are encouraging domestic abuse. There is, however, a huge distinction between, say, comic book violence against women and the sexually violent treatment of women in porn. And that distinction is the stock responses that the creators intend to either evoke or create in the viewer.

BowserToPeach-And now you must marry meVillains in comic books of the past might kidnap women and—sexually assault them?—if anything, try to trick them into marrying them. Those dirty, rotten scoundrels! (American comic books of the mid-20th century, for example, were famously conservative in their mores, thanks in no small part to the “Comics Code“. The censors’ ostensible motives were to guard the stock responses of “young, impressionable minds.”) Even contemporary depictions of violence against female characters in comic book movies are clearly intended to evoke a stock response of disapproval. What would we think of a child who expressed a desire to see Black Widow or Wonder Woman violently abused?

In contrast, the explicit, undisputed purpose of pornography—the intended response, and the expected stock response, in its viewers—is sexual pleasure. And if a man learns to habitually get sexual pleasure from viewing violent, sexual abuse of women (despite the claim that it is only consensual “acting” or a fictional depiction), it seems reasonable to conclude that he will be more likely to get similar pleasure from treating a woman in person the way he sees them treated on the screen. When a Yale fraternity chants “No mean yes” on campus, why should we be surprised when these are the very ideas emphasized in much of the pornography that they are undoubtedly consuming?

If I am right in drawing a causal link between watching violent porn and an increased propensity toward sexual assault, then I believe all those who speak out against “rape culture”, especially on university campuses, should likewise speak out against violent pornography (if not most or all pornography), as it is a powerful educational tool, training men everywhere to be more inclined to sexual assault and rape.

Please feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below.

Posted in: Ethics, In the News