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The Bondage of Gender Roles

As the 21st century carries on, technology continues on its resolute path towards further advancement in parallel with the changing of the times. Less than forty years ago, personal computers took center stage as the highlight of the upcoming Digital Age. Within those four decades, a monumental amount of change swept across American society. Considering the death of the nuclear family and the blooming of various social justice movements, technology is obviously not alone in its rapid evolution, however, it is a key factor in the evolution of practically everything during this time period through today. Technology has acted as a catalyst to progression, whether it be scientific, social, or even sexual. It has created a web between these matters as well as others, connecting them in ways that were nonexistent previous to its inception. In response, it has dramatically impacted the way that people view and react towards these subjects. The shift to fast gratification through a newly available and overwhelming amount of information has particularly affected human sexuality in the form of internet pornography.

With both positive and negative reception, pornography has sparked heated controversy, especially among feminists. One of the most important aspects of this issue is the questionable nature in which adult films depict men and women in respect to gender roles. The debate over whether pornography supports typical, gendered dominant/submissive roles or disregards cultural norms is intensely polar. The audience, participants, and intended purpose of adult films must all be taken into account when examining this argument, causing it to be a topic of high dispute due to the various opinions and perspectives that can be offered or taken. Some people claim that the adult industry does away with gender roles as it provides an outlet for females to embrace their sexuality in contrast to the sex-negative outlook of culture. Inversely, others would still say that it enforces the patriarchy as it exploits and objectifies women, instilling traditional values within the viewers as a result. Cutting through the cloud of opinions and looking purely at data, psychological research reveals that contrasting genres have a different effect on people’s views, particularly in the case of the mainstream hardcore genre in comparison to more atypical fetish films. While vanilla heterosexual pornography supports traditional gender roles, kink pornography endorses breaking the gender binary, resulting in more positive beliefs about equality among consumers and porn stars. 

The worlds of kink and vanilla sex films rarely touch. They bare almost no resemblance beyond their foundational aspects. The latter contains very basic, straightforward heterosexual sex acts, entirely lacking any fetish behavior. These scenes typically run on the raw formula of oral sex preformed on the male and vaginal intercourse. Although minor variation is present in every video such as cunnilingus and anal intercourse, the norm is that of the very plain. Simply to note, vanilla pornography is synonymous with both mainstream and basic pornography. In contrast, kink films place the main focus on fetish activities. As a study on sexuality at San Francisco State University defined, “a kink behavior refers to unconventional sensual, erotic, and sexual behavior including BDSM-related behaviors (physical and psychological stimuli including bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism), exhibitionistic behaviors (arousal by being observed by others), voyeuristic behaviors (arousal by observing others), fetishistic behaviors (arousal by objects), and others” (Rehor, 2015, para. 10). There is much more variety in this genre concerning the acts that are shown, leading to a greater number of subgenres. Kink pornography is synonymous with fetish pornography. Vanilla pornography videos tend to converge to the simple structure described above whereas kink pornography is a practically unlimited plethora of sexual deviancies. For clarification, kink pornography is synonymous with fetish pornography. The definitions of these genres are central to this discussion, however, understanding what exactly gender roles are and how they developed is equally as essential.

The interpretation of the concept of gender has been revised over and over again within the scientific community. Even today, psychologists still dither between theories, engendering in disagreement on the subject. For the purposes of this examination, the two most prominent theories of the past century will be evaluated as the current definitions of gender. The first conjecture is that of Talcott Parsons’ work in studying how gender roles and gender are in a sense synonymous with one another. In an essay presented by Professor M. Beres of the University of Presov, Beres explains that Parsons believed in and expanded upon structural role theory which “is based on [the] assumption that shared expectations serve as cultural script or blueprint that ensures conformity because it is either obtrusive in the social context, has been internalized by actors before they enter into it, or both” (2011, p. 177). Structural role theory states that traits humanity has assigned to a gender are perpetuated due to mass acceptance and out of the instinctive fear of being rejected from society. Therefore, the gender binary system, and resulting roles, are the product of the cultural sustenance of characteristic schemas based upon biological differences between males and females.

Sandra Ruth Bem, an American psychologist, built upon this perspective with the invention of the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI) which attempted to separate masculine and feminine traits to help explain gender. As a study on the BSRI done by psychologists Hoffman and Borders puts it, “Sandra Bem… theorized that the constructs of masculinity and femininity are conceptually and empirically distinct” and the resulting “sex-typing is derived, in part, from a readiness on the part of the individual to encode and to organize information–including information about the self–in terms of the cultural definitions of maleness and femaleness that constitute the society’s gender schema” (2001, p. 40). In light of the work of these two psychologists, their theories in combination are perhaps the most reasonable and acceptable explanation of gender at the present time. Simply put, this current leading theory suggests that gender arises from biology, but is defined by the traits society associates with the genders respectively, producing the idea of roles that must be followed in order to maintain gender and social normativity. As a multibillion dollar industry, pornography maintains a large influence over people, thus it has the power to regulate the concepts surrounding gender that society will adopt and perpetuate in response.

In the case of vanilla pornography, this influence has detrimental consequences for both the participants creating the content and those observing it. The most obvious, yet still compelling, argument for this is how the industry depicts male and female actors according to rigid gender roles. In a national study of pornography consumption, researchers Wright and Bae found that “content analytic studies consistently find that entertainment media depicting nudity and explicit sexual acts designed to sexually arouse the consumer tend to portray women in general and women in male–female interactions in particular in gender-stereotypic ways” (2015, para. 2). By consistently placing male actors in dominant roles over their female partners, studies have shown that viewers’ opinions on gender tend to be greatly affected after watching this genre over a period of time. This phenomenon has been shown repeatedly in various studies such as “in a cross-sectional US survey, Garcia (1986) found that collegiate men who consumed sexually explicit media with themes of dominance… expressed less progressive attitudes toward women in a variety of domains” as well as an experiment performed by “Zillmann and Bryant (1982, 1988) found that exposing American men and women to ‘standard fare’ pornography (i.e., pornography with typical scripts for oral, vaginal, or anal sex) decreased their support for the women’s liberation movement and increased their perception that wives should acquiesce to the wishes of their husbands” (Wright & Bae, 2015, para. 12). After being exposed to mainstream pornography for an extended duration of time, it is unsurprising that it eventually affects the spectators in this way, consciously or unconsciously, as when viewing any type of material repeatedly there is a very high chance that it will heavily impact the observer. The films are not simply releasing subject matter that endorses strict gender roles though. The watchers determine the leading style of content by placing great demand on the industry which then produces the requested pornography in return.

With the predominant number of consumers being male, this style of adult films attempts to cater to the popular male fantasy that is sustained by the media, the mouthpiece of society. The target standard of displaying a masculine personality, e.g. being in control and acting aggressively, is a goal identified both within the average male himself and in the world around him. Negatively gendered beliefs cannot exist with any authority as a school of thought without the cyclical system that runs on the counterparts of individual and population. Specifically in vanilla pornography, consumers that were part of a study done by Professor A. McKee on the aesthetics of erotic films stated that there is a “male perspective” and a “female perspective” in pornography scenes (2006, p. 530). The test subjects testified that “‘pornography is very focused on men and men’s desire’” (p. 530). By focusing primarily on the male actor and his actions, it places him in control of the situation and allows for sexual acts that cater to male sexuality (male perspective), reinforcing the gendered belief that females are naturally submissive, have little sexual desire, and are supposed to display fantastically romanticized physical features (female perspective). At the same time, it exhibits the culturally labeled ideal man who displays these gendered attitudes and behaviors, which is just as unhealthy. Clearly, mainstream adult films are nondiscriminatory against either gender when it comes to supporting the related roles; both genders are equally as negatively impacted. However, not everyone agrees, even within these supporting studies.

Opposers to the argument claim that the content of vanilla pornography is not a gender role promoter, but that the individuals watching it maintain preexisting traditional beliefs and seek out a style of sex films that reassure their opinions. Researchers Wright and Bae exemplify this criticism by discussing how “media theorists in general and sexual media theorists in particular have argued that overall exposure-attitude associations are attenuated by individual differences” (2015, para. 13). These media theorists uphold the selective exposure perspective which states that “associations between exposure to pornography and content-congruent attitudes are due to intentional pornography consumption and avoidance, not socialization due to consuming pornography” (para. 17). Expert opinion cannot be ignored, but it can be explained. Longitudinal studies on mainstream pornography exposure combat this theory, showing that it is not entirely up to the viewer to hold these beliefs, but that they are strongly influenced by their consumption. For a longitudinal study that Wright and Bae address, “Brown and L’Engle (2009) found correlations between American boys and girls earlier exposure to pornographic movies, magazines, or websites and later gendered attitudes” (para. 12). Vanilla pornography is not entirely responsible for the spread of gender roles. Likewise, users are not entirely responsible either. They work in an interplay in that the films provide a source of affirmation and entertainment catered to those with strong gender role beliefs, and the consumers in turn request more of it, demanding for more to flood the market which will influence future consumers in turn; thus, gender roles are perpetuated in the mainstream vanilla pornography industry. This does not stain all forms of cyber sexual entertainment though. Niche kink pornography has been changing the scene of the industry dramatically as it grows in popularity.

The wild, typically more amateur side of the business differs greatly from its counterpart in that it breaks down traditional gender roles, both for participants and consumers. The actors themselves, both in their presentation and personal experience, are vital to pornography’s influence because they are the faces of the erotic film world. Unlike vanilla pornography, these porn stars exhibit a high amount of enthusiasm for their work and their focus is not primarily on income. This passion is exemplified in J. E. Rehor’s study at San Francisco State University on kink behaviors in women in that “the majority of the women from this sample indicated that they participated in… activities for their own sensual or erotic pleasure” and “many professionals in the sex industry… receive sensual or erotic pleasure from their professional activities. Many of the participants who indicated that they had been paid money for erotic services also indicated they enjoyed their work, that their work satisfied their erotic desires, and that they still participated in these activities on a personal level” (2015, para. 6, 38). With kink films being primarily produced by amateurs that carry their activities into their personal sex life, it implies that these participants care more about their work and have more control in what exactly they perform. The industry is not in control on this side, there are no expectations as to what either the females or males should look like or do; it is anything the participants wish it is. There are no roles to fill. For the viewers, the results were the same in that there is higher female enthusiasm for kink pornography, suggesting that the negative element of the differing gender perspectives is removed. In the same study that examined female participants, consumer statistics revealed that “some of the more extreme activities… while participated in by fewer people, tended to have a higher proportion of women observing these activities for sensual or erotic pleasure” (para. 24). When compared to the study done on mainstream pornography consumers by McKee discussed above, it is clear that this style appeals far more female viewers because of the cessation of rigid perspectives, or gender roles. There is no set male perspective or female perspective, thus it is more arousing to women because of the lack of disconnect between them and the female actress. In summation, the diversity in what is shown, both in activities and roles, has a positive effect on the viewers.

The number of sex acts and roles that can be performed within the kink community is practically unlimited. No matter a person’s sexual orientation, gender, and strange, specific preferences, there is something for everyone. The plain script of intercourse and the focus on the male genitalia is not the standard fare for this genre. Of course, these acts can be found in the videos, but they are not the majority or the rule. It is important to note that basic heterosexual sex is not the issue; the problem is the domination that it has over internet sexuality in that there are apparently no other options during sex. Vanilla pornography exemplifies and instills that following traditional gender roles are the only way to express sexuality in a normal society. Conversely, the sheer variance in what is shown in kink pornography is educational and realistic. In J. E. Rehor’s study on kink behaviors alone, “the preferences and diversity of more than 126 sensual, erotic, and sexual behaviors found among these participants” were explored (2015, para. 1). In comparison to the basic formula of three acts in vanilla pornography as discussed above, this study exemplifies how far kink activities outnumber basic activities. In terms of observation and not participation, out of the 126 activities, 84.46% of the 1,580 women confirmed that they had watched 96 of them being performed at least once (para. 29).On both ends, the production of and the consumption of kink pornography is widely assorted. These inexhaustible options break down gender roles because there are no set rules or norm in this genre. No observer of these films can reasonably claim that there is a “right” way and there is a “wrong” way to have sex. Without boundaries as to what both men and women can do sexually, there is no shaming and guilt associated with what society labels as normal for sex.

Despite the apparent positivity surrounding kink pornography, it is still rebuffed by certain feminists and traditional gender role supporters. Although the second group may be unsurprising, the first may be shocking to an extent. Feminists, who promote gender equality and oppose the patriarchy, stand for people rejecting negatively gendered attitudes. However, some do not feel this way about kink films and believe that they do the exact opposite. According to psychologists Barker and Gill in a study on female domination and gender, “some [feminists] have continued to argue that kink… eroticizes the crude power difference of gender which fuels heterosexual desire, reinforcing rather than ending it’” (2011, p. 29). This is exemplified in research noted by Barker and Gill in “Linden, Pagano, Russell and Star’s (1982) collection Against sadomasochism included pieces by many women arguing that kink was inherently anti-feminist, rooted in patriarchal ideology” (p. 28). This research points to the opinions certain feminists have on the sadomasochistic (S/M) side of kink pornography, which is a combination of sadistic and masochistic behaviors. A study at the University of Texas at Austin performed by C. Shortes defines S/M “as the dynamics of dominance and submission [between individuals] often including… whips, chains,… torture devices, and dark, Gothic-style dungeons” (1998, p. 72). These feminists argue that acting in a master-slave-type fantasy could only further support traditional gender roles rather than reversing them, and possibly even more so than mainstream pornography does. In order for this to be true though, they are relying upon the assumption that when a female is tied up and submitting to her male partner, then gender roles must be in place to an extreme. However, other women disagree with this thought process strongly. Barker and Gill discuss how another experiment on kink argues that “willing submission” is required between the individuals, thus there is “agency to consent and the submissive is an active partner in the exchange of power” (p. 35). When the dominant role is in the hands of the male and the submissive role in the female’s, there is not an enforcement of gender roles at play. Within the kink community, sadomasochism not only allows for but requires the consent and desire of both parties to act out the fantasy. By willingly submitting to a male, the female is taking control of her own sexuality and expressing it in a way she pleases, both of which undermine the gendered ideas that women are not inherently sexual and do not possess significant authority over their sexuality. Therefore, the foundational aspect to certain feminists’ opposing argument is plain wrong. Furthermore, sadomasochism pornography does not entirely consist of males in the dominant role, but instead has a great number of dominant female (domme) films. If it is slightly hard to picture, these popular films feature activities such as males being tied up or a strap-on is used to penetrate the male by the female. However odd both types of films may sound, they are representative of an equal exchange of control, consent, and pleasure, all of which destroy the gendered ideals upheld by stereotypical vanilla pornography.

After the research has been considered thoroughly, it is clear that vanilla pornography negatively instills and exhibits traditional gender roles while kink pornography does the exact opposite by providing an outlet and a source for sexual equality and freedom. It must be stressed that the importance of this issue lies not within the “good” and “bad” styles of pornography however. Widespread issues like this are necessary to explore because of the underlying problem of gender role enforcement. Displaying feminine or masculine traits that match one’s biological sex is not unhealthy. Making stereotypical, personal decisions about what one desires in life, such as a woman desiring a dominant male partner or a male who is only looking for sex in a relationship, are not wrong. Following traditional gender roles as one pleases is not bad. The ugly side of the issue is the constant negativity that a gender role saturated society perpetuates. When gender roles are presented as the only correct or normal option for one to act accordingly, people are immensely limited and outsiders are shamed. As pornography is such an enormous part of society’s way of presenting sexuality to the individual, it has the power to show either diversity or singularity. As the majority of pornography focuses on vanilla sex acts, the industry sides with singularity. With the contents of mainstream pornography following strict and even overblown gender roles, a consumer can be lead to believe that this is the way most people have sex, and this is the way people are supposed to have sex. If the consumer accepts this idea, to their knowledge or not, it will affect their behavior. As a member of society, their behavior will have an effect on society. Enforced sexual gender roles will stain other areas of the culture, taking control in people’s personal sex lives and appearing consistently in movies among other things. With millions of people regularly observing pornography, the resulting effect is massive. Gender roles remain the norm to an extreme. Obviously, this cycle of perpetuation is terrible for those who deviate in any manner, and that is unacceptable. Everyone deserves the freedom of choice, whether it is to be stereotypical or divergent. The vitality of the argument of kink versus vanilla films lies within the fact that in order for positive change to be made, one has to go to the most popular source: pornography.

 

References

Barker, M., & Gill, R. (2011). Sexual subjectification and Bitchy Jones’s Diary.                Psychology & Sexuality, 3(1), 26-40. doi:10.1080/19419899.2011.627693

McKee, A. (2006). The Aesthetics of Pornography: the Insights of Consumers.                Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 20(4), 523-539.                      doi:10.1080/10304310600988310

[Photograph] Retrieved from http://hi-status.tumblr.com/

Rehor, J. E. (2015). Sensual, Erotic, and Sexual Behaviors of Women from the “Kink”        Community. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(4), 825-836.                            doi:10.1007/s10508-015-0524-2

Shortes, C. (1998). “Cleaning up a Sewer”: The Containment of S/M Pornography.           Journal of Popular Film in Television, 26(2), 72-79.                                     doi:10.1080/01956059809602776

Wright, P. J., & Bae, S. (2015). A national prospective study of pornography                   consumption and gendered attitudes toward women. Sexuality                       & Culture, 19(3), 444-463. doi:10.1007/s12119-014-9264-z

Beres, M. (2011, Oct. 2-3). Role theory in the social work – in the context of gender           stereotypes. Paper presented at Challenges for Social                                 Professions in Modern Society, Presov, Slovakia. Retrieved                           from http://www.pulib.sk/web/kniznica/strana/nazov/uvodna-strana

Hoffman, R. M., & Borders, L. D. (2001). Twenty-five years after the Bem Sex-Role           Inventory: A reassessment and new issues regarding                                 classification variability. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and             Development, 34, 39-55. Retrieved from http://mec.sagepub.com/

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