Connecting the dots: Pornography, the VPD, and violence against women

We could feign shock at recent reports that members of the Vancouver Police Department were busted for sharing and watching pornography while at work, but are we really all that surprised? Certainly many feminists are not.

The connections between pornography and violence against women are understood by many feminists, though perhaps not so much so by the general public. In a recent statement from Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter, Summer-Rain Bentham is quoted as saying:

“This attitude within VPD and the actions by these officers reinforces that women’s bodies are nothing more than objects for male sexual gratification…”

Pornography is something that encourages dehumanization. It is much easier to commit violence against or abuse something or someone who we don’t view as a full being. Who, instead, we see as simply a body or as body parts. This is, of course, what feminists describe when they speak of women being objectifed. We fetishize certain body parts and separate them from the individual – the body or the body parts become objects of desire and, in pornography in particular, women become things whose sole value and purpose is male pleasure.

While it is not true that pornography is the only cause for violence against women, or even necessarily a cause at all (i.e. some men watch porn and do not commit violence and some men may well rape and abuse without watching any porn at all), the relationship between the objectification of women and the degradation of women that happens in pornography and our culture’s devaluing of women is undeniable.

Robert Jensen, who has done extensive research and writing on pornography, wrote:

Contemporary pornography will make use of any relationship of domination and subordination — a power differential between people that can be sexualized and exploited. The primary domination/subordination dynamic eroticized in pornography is, of course, gender.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the VPD’s treatment of women. Shown to have consistently ignored reports that women were disappearing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, it has become brutally clear that both the VPD and the RCMP don’t care about women. Particularly women who are poor, racialized, and prostituted. The Vancouver police had been receiving reports of “foul play” since 1998, and yet the department, nor the RCMP took action until it was way too late.

A couple months back we learned about the rampant and unchecked sexual harassment of women in the RCMP by male officers, and though women groups and feminist activists have long known and spoken out against sexism on the parts of the police, on the parts of those who are meant to protect us, it now seems impossible to ignore.

The CTV report on the discovery of porn-use on the parts of the VPD asks the question: “What were they thinking?”

But isn’t it obvious?

Porn culture, a culture of misogyny, of hierarchy, of a deep lack of respect for women is accepted in our society. It isn’t as though it’s only the VPD who think women exist as masturbatory tools or that certain women’s lives are disposable. The culture of male power and dominance is, of course, particularly rife within criminal justice systems, but it also speaks to a wider acceptance of this kind of behaviour.

When we discover that police officers are watching porn on the job, I wonder what the response is from the public, truthfully? “Well, that was stupid?” “They should have been more careful to avoid getting caught?” “Surprise, surprise?”

One of the saddest things to come of of this “discovery” is that we probably aren’t all that surprised. Spaces that are defined by male power and by hierarchy are generally not spaces that include and value respect for women and equality. Pornography doesn’t teach men to care about and value women and, coincidentally, the VPD and the RCMP have, over and over again, shown the public that they don’t care about or value women.

We expect men to watch watch porn. We expect them to hang out at strip clubs. We know they buy sex from women. We think it is a “normal” and “natural” aspect of masculinity and even of male bonding (exhibit A: the bachelor party). And then we act surprised when the men responsible, supposedly, for protecting us prioritize their pleasure over the safety of women?

Time to start making some connections.


Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Hari B.

    Thanks for this Meghan–well said, as usual. Yes, it’s “time to start making connections”–or maybe even well past time.

  • Will you please suggest means to me to advise people that allowing unfettered pornography in public libraries is not in best interests of their communities? Or write about this yourselves?

    Most people know porn should not be in public libraries. Even a US Supreme Court case notes most oppose porn in public libraries and that Internet filters are the most effective means to keep out porn, and filters are legal.

    Yet the American Library Association [ALA] works very hard to convince local libraries not to filter out porn, claiming it is “information” to which people have a “First Amendment right.” As a result, librarians, adult patrons, and worse, children, form a steady stream of victims of porn in libraries that would have been filtered from porn but for the advocacy efforts of the ALA.

    Would you please consider looking into this matter and making a public statement on it. Please contact me at any time, if you wish.

  • Hecuba

    It is very easy to dehumanise differing human groups and of course male supremacist systems have for centuries engaged in propaganda claiming that women are non-human and hence cannot be harmed. Given most societies are male supremacist wherein men’s views/ideas are considered to be default human ones and that male-centric views of women and their experiences are also considered to be ‘default definitions’ of women’s realities, we shouldn’t be surprised many male police officers internalise same misogynistic views.

    Racial feminists have been saying and naming this for decades and yet male supremacist systems continue to deny reality because if they were to do so then their carefully created lies would indeed be seen as lies and propaganda – not as supposed truths.

    In other words it is enforcement of male domination and male control over women and children which is the problem and now pornography is the latest propaganda tool male supremacist system uses to reinforce its lies that default human is male, whereas women and girls exist only to be men’s disposable masturbatory aids. After all men cannot harm females since they are not human according to male supremacist system.

  • marv wheale

    Pornography should be a matter of deep concern to any social justice minded person. There is immeasurable need for Meghan’s ‘root and branch’ appraisal of the substance and form of porn. Current mainstream approaches are based on managing porn and its impacts on community values and morals – an obscenity outlook. They frame the problem as striving for a balance between protecting both moral purity and free speech in society. Canadians (especially men) are unaware of the pervasive harm of porn to women’s bodily integrity. Instead people are generally fixated on what they perceive as lewd conduct and on where to set the boundaries of trangressiveness. The F Word is one of the few discussion fields that analyzes porn as a practice of sex discrimination, a violation of women’s right to sexual equality – the truth of reality.

    In the 1980s and early 1990s Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin established pornography public hearings in some U.S. cities as a constructive way to engage citizens and governing officials in the sexual politics of porn. It was the first time in history (though not in herstory) that those who are most heavily affected by porn, namely women, were allowed to testify about their experiences of it in a live public forum. Out of these discourses emerged the idea to enact laws to allow victims of porn to launch lawsuits against pornographers and its users for the injuries caused by porn. Lamentably male imperialist free speech absolutists prevented the participants from succeeding in the implementation of these laws. Anyway the account of this landmark inquiry is documented in Catharine’s and Andrea’s outstanding book, In Harm’s Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings. Perhaps there are some ideas there on how to abolish pornography today to halt its “steady stream of victims”.

  • Memory

    I’m not sure if my comment is directed at the article itself, or at the other comments…

    I would like to know your definition of “porn”.

    Is it anything that would be in an “adult” section? Is it anything that is “sexually explicit”? Is it only sexually explicit material that “dehumanizes”? Do mainstream movies that show “sex scenes” count as pornography?

    If the goal is to “abolish” (and thus criminalize) pornography, then we need to know very clearly what it is, and think seriously about the consequences of this criminalization, for women as well as for men.

    This issue has been positively explosive within feminist debates for a long time, but I think that posing the problem in black and white terms of “pornography (definition unclear) = dehumanization, violence, rape, death…” versus “free speech” (which I think is also a misguided approach) does not solve anything. I think we really need to engage with the gray areas here because as long as we continue to frame the argument in binary terms, we will only succeed in polarized arguments that do not address the “reality” that goes on in the middle.

    • Meghan Murphy

      My definition is somewhere within the realm of Dworkin-MacKinnon’s, so “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and words.” The word “pornography” comes from the word “porne” – it means “the graphic depiction of whores”. I wouldn’t say that my goal is to criminalize pornography, necessarily, I mean, we aren’t even able, as a culture, to have a conversation about pornography that includes a gender analysis. That said, I think the argument around free speech / censorship is a funny one – we are ok with censoring all sorts of things in our culture – child pornography, for example, but suddenly when anyone criticizes pornography people start getting all freaked out about “censorship” as though we, as a culture are not ok with censoring certain material. We aren’t talking about small-time feminist erotica (or whatever you want to call that) or naked ladies or anything that is visually stimulating necessarily (thought this is all up for debate – feminists tend to have varying perspectives on solutions, I believe), but rather we are talking about mainstream porn – so, the porn that men watch (I’m referencing Robert Jensen here, in part). Which doesn’t tend to exist in any “grey area” – it is sexist, it is degrading, and it does objectify women.

      • Memory

        Thank you very much for your reply. When I talk about “grey areas” I mean something like the following.

        First, as far as mainstream porn being “porn that men watch” – I think men watch all kinds of porn that is extremely diverse. I think it is very reductive to say that there is one kind of porn that men watch (the sexist, objectifying, and degrading kind), and then there is “feminist erotica” (the good, or at least okay, kind) that women like.

        Take, for example, some mainstream porn of two people having pretty basic sex (whatever that is). Nothing rough or aggressive, just two people doing it who both seem to be having fun. Something simple like camera angle can shift the dynamics here. To me, this could arguably be called sexist or objectifying if the camera angle is entirely from the male perspective. But what about if the camera angle is “neutral”, or directed at the man? Is it then no longer sexist and degrading? Or is it objectifying/degrading men? Or is it “feminist”? What about lesbian porn (I’ve seen some pretty “hard” lesbian porn, and I’m not talking about the kind that is actually intended for men)? What about gay porn? What makes “erotica” feminist? Should it be “loving”? Does it require a “story” so that we can see that they are “whole people”?

        So, although I can see where you are coming from, vast grey areas remain for me, and always will.

        If you would like to reply, feel free. I will probably stop here, because… well, it would probably go on forever otherwise. Again, I appreciate your thoughtful response above.

        • Meghan Murphy

          I hear you around the “grey areas” but it simply isn’t true that men are watching all sorts of diverse porn. Look at the mainstream porn industry, look at how big it is, look at how many people are watching. Mainstream porn is sexist and often violent. There is no argument in that. Whether or not a few odd men are watching porn that you might argue is not sexist is hardly relevant within this conversation…. I find that it derails the conversation to pretend as though the porn men watch isn’t sexist. Do you know men who watch porn? I do. It’s just regular old mainstream sexist porn. It may or may not vary on the scale of overt violence, but that isn’t to say that it doesn’t objectify women. I would also not argue that whatever “feminsit erotica” is is necessarily good, I only mention the term because it can be a way of differentiating between sexual imagery that doesn’t degrade women and reinforce male power. The male gaze is very difficult to subvert and usually isn’t when it comes to filming the female body. I also don’t believe that men can be objectified and degraded on film in the same way that women can / are because of an already existing context of inequity and power imbalances. Drawing lines between what is “good” and “bad” isn’t necessarily possible or useful. It is a complex conversation that feminist film theorists have been having for decades and is certainly interesting but within the context of this conversation, the porn men watch at large and the porn we can fairly assume the VPD was watching, on the job, I think it’s fair to say with much certainty that it does not promote equality or female humanity.

          Thanks for your thoughts and your efforts at civil, intelligent debate/conversation.

      • marv wheale

        Belatedly, two clarifications here. The pornography inquest did not propose ciminalizing pornographers nor did it advocate a ban on porn. The participants supported a civil remedy for the harms of porn not a criminal one. Victims could sue for damages. No jail sentences would be assigned or any kind of unpardonable (or pardonable) record. The ordinance was truly modest in its goals, not scary, idealistic or comprehensive. It did not even include all sexually explicit materials of men dominating women. Please read In Harm’s Way rather than rely on my cursory rendition of it which appears to have mislead others. In my view, which isn’t very relevant, turning women (as well as men) into things via pictures and words for male ogling is a crime against humanity and therefore should be criminalized. But that is just me. I am not politically sophisticated. No sarcasm or apology intended.

        In response to Memory’s “grey” matters argument, this line of reasoning is wearisome and unintelligible. To imply that a substantial amount of porn is not necessarily sexist but is in the grey zone – meaning fairly harmless I guess – is outlandish. It is like fretting about saving our favourite dishes in the midst of nuclear war. We can deny the overwhelming omnipresence of sexist porn in life but that doesn’t mean we are seeing reality for what it is. It indicates we are fictional thinkers, imposing our own constructions on the subjugated. Nero is still fiddling while Rome is burning. Oh well I might simply keep banging my head to dull the pain of hearing endless appeals to ‘grey frames of illusion’ until my brain is soothed. Call me uncivilized and foolish I guess.

        • Meghan Murphy

          The “grey areas” argument is, indeed, the most popular way to derail this conversation. It’s almost as though people don’t want to admit to / see the horrible reality of pornography, what men are actually watching, and the impacts on women in all this. And thank you for your clarification around Dworkin – MacKinnon’s anti-pornography ordinance. An important clarification.

    • The “diverse porn” argument would make a lot more sense if there wasn’t a study that found that 88.6% of the most popular porn contains violence, overwhelmingly against women.

      Maybe better porn does exist and could exist. But it’s not what men are watching or want to see.

  • It frightens me to think that the police are watching porn on the job. What happens after they’ve been viewing this type of material and a woman comes in who has been sexually assaulted? What does that do to their view of her and her ordeal?

    • Hari B.

      ElkBallet: here is what happened in Milwaukee, WI, awhile back. Whether or not the officer/s involved had been watching porn on the job was not mentioned/implicated. With this example I’m only pointing out what can happen to womyn seeking police help. Knowing that some cops watch porn onduty gives this story another and more chilling question:

      The short story is that a young single mom called the police when a gang of teens was trying to kick down her door. Upon arrival of some officers, one took her aside alone (in a back room of her apt) and raped her. Read the article linked for more details; apparently a federal case is pending against the officer/s, the rapist was fired but never charged w/a crime. No one can tell me that porn has no impact on behavior; at this point I think it probably has the most impact on people like police who are already so steeped in violence and control.

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