What a country’s porn says about gender equality

By Yuka J. Polovina

Each country has its own unique taste in porn, but a nation’s most popular x-rated images may also tell us about that society’s level of gender equality.

Dana Arakawa, a U. Hawai‘i at Mānoa Ph.D. student in psychology, led a group of 12 undergraduate research assistants to study whether cross-cultural differences in gender equality are reflected in porn.

Arakawa used the United Nation’s Gender Empowerment Measure (which rates 93 nations on gender equality) to look at three countries spanning the spectrum: Norway (1), the U.S. (15) and Japan (54).

About 300 popular, frequently consumed pornographic images were selected from each country. Of these, 60 per country were randomly selected for investigation, totaling 180 pornographic images.

The original angle of the study was to look at the disempowering aspect of porn across cultures. However, Arakawa said, “because of my positive psychology interest, my take on it was that we should also look at empowering parts of this research question.”

U.S. cultural dialogue around sex tends to focus on the negatives, such as censorship, abuse and violence, but Arakawa hoped to approach the sensitive topic in a different way.

“There was a sex-positive movement in the 1960s where people did start to look at this issue more positively. But it was more from a philosophical point of view and not from a research-based perspective,” Arakawa said.

To overcome the lack of empirical work on the empowerment aspects of porn, Arakawa developed her own 21-item scale to assess positive aspects of pornographic images.

The scale looked at the opposite features of disempowerment, such as if the woman is physically unrestrained (in a neutral pose), average or above average weight, or looks natural (with cellulite or wrinkles). But, Arakawa warns, “Opposite of negative isn’t always positive.”

And her research found just that. Norway had more porn depicting female empowerment compared to the U.S. and Japan, but at the same time, all three countries had equally demeaning images. In these countries, more gender equality did not necessarily translate into less degrading porn.

Arakawa speculated that “in countries where it is more balanced and equitable, we think that both types of porn [empowering and disempowering] will flourish. Pornography will always include material that is degrading to women in some way. But in Norway, it did include more examples that would show an empowerment side [of porn] too.”

The study found that mainstream x-rated images in Norway represented a greater spectrum of body types. The standardized ideal was not restricted to one that is young, thin and small.

Women in mainstream Norwegian porn were not only varied in body type, but represented more natural features and poses. In the U.S. and Japan however, young women with thin, surgically modified bodies and flawless skin represented societal ideals of perfection.

This study is unique in that while the overwhelming research on explicit images has looked at porn through a negative lens, Arakawa’s research sheds more light on how porn can be analyzed through an anti-censorship and pro-sex perspective.

Traditional anti-porn arguments often attempt to form causal relationships between sexually explicit images and violent behaviors, and focus on how it is produced and consumed in a way that is abusive to women. But Arakawa’s study may lend itself to the argument that not all porn is inherently harmful.

As for future research, Arakawa is not sure if she will continue to explore gender equality, porn and culture, but she acknowledges the importance of the topic.

“You can’t just know the positive by just studying the negative,” she said. “The positive is something to look at in its own right … people rarely talk about how sex is natural. It’s a big part of everyone’s life, but we rarely talk about the positive aspects of it.”

Arakawa’s study is currently being published in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations under the title “Are variations in gender equality evident in pornography? A cross-cultural study.”

Read more here: http://www.kaleo.org/features/what-a-country-s-porn-says-about-gender-equality-1.2650989
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