The thin veneer of consent: Violence masquerading as sex

On the basis of the idea that American Muslims should participate in the cultural and political debates of wider society, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, along with Christian collaborator Robert P. George, co-wrote a piece on pornography in early July. Yusuf and George published an open letter to members of the hotel industry asking them to consider not offering pornography in their hotels.

The letter did not receive wide distribution in Muslim circles, and those who did read it asked, “Of all the gender inequality issues – why this one?” This, in many cases, was not asked out of genuine curiosity about the two religious scholars’ motivation. Instead it was an implicit assertion that the issue of curtailing the consumption and production of pornography, as a matter of ethics and gender politics, should not be considered a priority. This assertion, I seek to rebut.

One of the basic complaints registered by feminist thought is that men have generally been far too preoccupied with controlling women’s sexuality. The evidence in support of this claim is both abundant and convincing, but, on the flip side, commentators sometimes overreach, attributing this desire to dictate women’s sexuality to any conservative leaning male pronouncement on an issue that touches upon sexuality. I suspect that this assumption colors some of the less than accepting reactions to Yusuf and George’s plea. If anything, the opposition to pornography put forth by these scholars is an attempt by men at controlling men’s sexuality, not women’s, particularly when it is unleashed in the form of violence against women.

The first counter argument made against Yusuf and George’s appeal to hotel industries asking them to stop offering pornographic films to their customers might be that pornography is a fringe element of violence against women, or a fringe element of sexual life. This argument quickly falls apart once we see the astounding statistical dominance of pornography. According to the Internet Filter Review, worldwide pornography revenues, including in-room movies at hotels, exceeded $97 billion dollars in 2006. That was more than the revenues of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Apple, Yahoo!, Netflix, and EarthLink combined. While the stereotypical caricature of pornography brings to mind corny music and over-the-top acting, this is only one of its forms, and a milder one at that. Pornography has not proven itself to be an industry prone to moderation. Robert Jensen, author of “Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity,” is quoted in Chris Hedges’ disturbingly prophetic book “Empire of Illusion,” describing the evolution of the pornography industry:

Once there were thousands of porn films on the market, the porn industry had to expand that script to expand profits. It had to find new emotional thrills. It could have explored intimacy, love, the connection between two people, but this was not what appealed to the largely male audience. Instead, the industry focused on greater male control and cruelty.

Jenson is a writer who made the astute observation that pornography is largely about sadism mixed with sex, but he is not alone. Industry insiders have also confessed that violence against women is inherent in their films. In 1993, Dr. Robert J. Stoller, an expert in human sexual behavior, and I.S. Levin wrote a book “Coming Attractions: The Making of an X-Rated Video,” in which they quote longtime producer, performer and Adult Video News Hall of Fame member, Bill Margold, describing some of the disturbing psychology behind pornography:

My whole reason for being in the industry is to satisfy the desire of men in the world who basically don’t care much for women and want to see the men in my industry getting even with the women they couldn’t have when they were growing up… I strongly believe this, and the industry hates me for saying it… So we … somewhat brutalize her sexually. We’re getting even for their lost dreams. I believe this. I’ve heard audiences cheer me when I do something foul onscreen.

These I remind you are not the words of a convicted criminal, but of an “artist.” Proof of Stroller’s claim might be seen in the popularity of what is known as “gonzo” pornography. According to the magazine “Adult Video News,” gonzo, which is known for physical abuse and large numbers of partners in succession, “is the overwhelmingly dominant porn genre… the fare of choice for the …consumer… who merely wants to cut to the chase.”

It is widely reported that the largest users of internet pornography are between the ages of 12 and 17, which should inspire urgency to combat the trend of our youth being introduced to intimacy in the form of violence masquerading as sex. Muhamad Ghilan, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at the University of Victoria, explains the effects of pornography from a neuroscience perspective:

The design of the act in a pornographic scene is to link one or two normally arousing and familiar elements with others that are not. This is how the viewer acquires new tastes in sexual practice… The newly formed connections in the brain … become greatly reinforced by the massive amounts of dopamine being released. Rather than going into the short term memory, … the dopamine reinforcement ensures they are moved into the long term memory stores.

Even without such advanced explanations, common sense dictates that early exposure goes a great deal towards making such imagery normal and desirable. Many have argued that stricter controls on youth access are the proper solution, but the prospects for limiting access to online material for a generation whose first cribs seem to come equipped with iPads appears largely futile. Although it might be difficult to limit an individual’s access to pornography in the privacy of his home, we should at least make an effort to cut off exposure in public spaces, like hotels.

The worth of society can be judged in how much compassion it shows to its most vulnerable. Is there a more vulnerable member of society than the woman who agrees to entertain 70 male partners in a 10-hour marathon on film? The Sundance Film Festival screened a documentary about just such a woman: “Sex: The Annabel Chong Story.” Such examples are of course extreme, but why should the thin veneer of consent so blind us that we do not recognize such legal acts as among the most violent occurrences to escape prosecution? The ethical soul is stirred to public protest when a purported felon is thrashed by policemen on camera – what if the policemen then went and made a DVD of the assault, and proceeded to gross thousands or millions of dollars in revenue? Surely their behavior would inspire protest and indignation? The ugly reality of pornography should inspire a similar ache in our souls, and a good place to begin this protest would be to publically support Yusuf and George’s letter to the hotel industry.
Abrar Qadir is a recent graduate from Georgetown University Law Center. Abrar maintains a regular blog at


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