The video on the porn site was called "Big Ass on The Bus". In many respects it was quite nondescript, just one of thousands and thousands of videos on the site. I watched, a bit bored and not really interested in what was happening after my own annoying day. The scene was a woman on a bus, standing up. She was young and attractive. Beside her stood a man, openly slavering over her. The man spoke in words unrecognisable to me probably due to the video being of Japanese origin from what I could ascertain. At first the video started off with the girl being touched up by the man, brushing his hand against her bum as the bus rolled along. Then the man began to pester the girl, he clearly wanted more from her. He did not take her apparent protestations to the contrary as reason to stop. His pestering escalated to molestation as he pulled at the girl’s clothing and tried to force his hands into intimate places. He bared her bottom, invading her underwear with unwelcome hands. Inevitably, after a few minutes, molestation escalated further to rape as the girl, now less convincingly, mimed her protestations. All the while the camera had lingered and enjoyed her being forced and coerced. It seemed to have rooted her to the spot as well. The whole thing took eleven minutes, twenty four seconds of video. The rest of the passengers on the bus, most seated, had done nothing but be passive witnesses.
I mention all this because, as the video unfolded, I had moments of realisation and revulsion. Here was a video in which the sexual assault and rape of a woman, in public, was being shown for entertainment. It doesn’t matter to me if you come at me now with arguments about it being a fantasy performed by consenting actors in which no one really got hurt. All that is likely true. But it doesn’t change the basic fact that that is what it was. And this time there was something deeply, seriously wrong with that. My mind went back to a blog I had read last year, written by my ex-girlfriend, about the then breaking phenomenon of #MeToo in which she wrote of random stray hands that would brush against her bum or her breasts when using public transport of different types. She told of how she struggled with this mentally, imagining it must be accidental in the cramped spaces such transportation sometimes provides. It came across as if she was trying really hard to convince herself it was accidental because she did not want to have to confront the reality that it might have been deliberate hands trying to steal their pleasure from her. She further mentioned incidents in clubs in which less than eloquent men would say her breasts (which are larger than those of many women) were making them hard which would make her feel sick and run away. Finally, and most distressingly, she told of an occasion when she got into a taxi and the driver, as the car was moving, reached across to squeeze those same breasts without warning as she returned home after a night out. As response, she had had to forcefully elbow him in the ribs which caused the car to swerve violently. I, in my privileged manhood, had always used to think that I didn’t know any women who had such experiences. I, thus, regarded them as distressing but comfortingly rare. Yet here I was reading them written by someone who had once been my own girlfriend. I felt sick and watching this video I had felt sick too that a woman’s assault and rape, even if acted out, was entertainment.
My girlfriend, in her own reasoned, polite way (she is now both a political activist and works as a political educator) had tried to minimise her own experiences in her blog. But I don’t think she should have. Here it is absolutely not a matter of “size matters”. Her own person had likely been assaulted on numerous occasions by any number of anonymous and not so anonymous men who, seeing her clothed body in numerous public scenarios, just thought it was theirs to enjoy vicariously. Without consent. Without even the most minimal amount of common human decency. But her blog wasn’t just about public humiliations. It also discussed private pressures women feel to give sex when it is requested, to not appear, in the context of a modern, highly sexualised society, as someone frigid or cold. There is pressure, so she related, to appear sexy and sexual, even if you don’t feel in the mood or you are not at all aroused and the sex hurts. Big Ass on The Bus comes to mind again, a woman minding her business yet who is wanted by a man for sexual gratification and so must comply, must be coerced to comply, must eventually be forced to comply. As we watch. For fun. Consent not required. The narrative in video after video like these is that women are available because they are there. To be present is to be available, willing or unwilling. As I watched, it struck home, getting through the blindness my maleness had imposed upon me. No one is ever likely to sexually harass me. No one will think I am a piece of meat to be pawed, someone to touch to get someone else hard. But my ex-girlfriend might be. Your wife, sister, daughter or mother might be. Because they are women too. That makes them available in the worldview of Big Ass on The Bus.
Under the video others were suggested. Big Ass on The Bus could be followed by Pretty Girl on The Bus, Oiled Ass on The Bus, Girl Molested on The Bus, Unwilling Girl Fucked Hard on The Bus and Girl Swallows My Cum on The Bus. All the videos were of the same kind and followed a similar script of sexual assault and violent, physical coercion. It is a trope. Then there was the one with the woman who forgot her bus ticket. Naturally, she was forced to give sex as recompense because in this kind of entertainment the punchline is always the woman losing her knickers and spreading her legs, forcibly if necessary. Sexual subjugation is the constant theme either by violence, trickery or manipulation. Women are always available even if they have to be made that way and their defences broken down. Without being prudish about it, I feel a bit ashamed about this. I feel ashamed that this is apparently what entertains men. I start to see it from the side of women on public transport who know these things exist and who feel hands touching them. They do not know why they have been touched, as my ex-girlfriend’s blog testified to. They do not know if they are being violated or if its an accident. They don’t know what pushing the hand away or moving to avoid being touched might lead to. Should they simply put up with it as the lesser evil so as not to provoke something worse? What a horrible position to be in.
You will say that a video is a video, that its not real. But there are real women and real buses. There are real women and real trams. There are real women and real trains. There are, as my ex-girlfriend unfortunately had to find out, real women and real taxis. And there are real women who are touched, abused and violated. Is it ok? Should we brush over it? Does it matter if daily millions watch any number of videos in which women are coerced to sex? Does that make not the slightest dent on the ideology and psychology of those watching? Do sexual assaults, minor or major makes no difference, ever really occur? OF COURSE THEY DO. And, OF COURSE, so very, very much of mainstream pornography is violent coercion of women for sex. FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES. In an essay a year or two ago I even researched this and found across numerous of the most popular “free” porn sites that coercion of women, often violent, was the dominant theme of the majority of videos. All those in a taxi videos, fake this and that videos, pick up sex for money videos, etc., etc., etc. Its all about getting one over on a woman, dominating her and demonstrating her subjugation by penetration or worse. And it can get a lot worse. Doesn’t that make you feel just a little bit sick when you step back and realise what it is you are watching, when you watch it with the blinkers of fantasy removed? Can you, like I did, stand back and realise that here you are just casually watching the coercion of women as if it were like any other video?
Yet my argument here is not a moral one, at least in the sense that I am not here to tell you what you are or are not allowed to watch and enjoy. I do not think, like some, that my tastes should dictate your tastes. Instead, I ask for some self-awareness and some awareness of what it is you are watching in the context of wider society. I ask for an active personal responsibility. I want to ask if there is a problem with how heterosexual men see women. I want to ask if a tide of such pornography seeps into our social psychology and affects us accordingly. I have to say, somewhat to my embarrassed shame in the light of this essay, that I have some experience of this. My several years of research do not yield good or uplifting results. It is very easy, watching video after video, to assimilate the notion that women’s sexuality is something for men to control and to command at their whim. And, even if you may argue that in real life moral brakes are in place that are not necessary when watching a fantasy video, it is, I think, not so easy to separate fantasy from reality. In several essays in this book I have already made the point several times that fantasy and reality, the artificial and the real, fiction and truth, are not so completely separate as many people like to believe. Some may call such questions, and a desire for such a personal responsibility, naive. A tide of feminist led moral censoriousness does sometimes sweep the land. Perhaps they are right. But I don’t apologise for that. Policing ourselves and asking about the consequences of our own actions is, or should be, the first duty of any human being. It is certainly where I see any moral conversation beginning, with what our own personal ethics are. If we all did police ourselves appropriately then there would be no social problems. It is because we don’t that we have such things.
Yet this particular short essay is only a personal view and I am not trying to tell others what I am sure has been obvious to them for a very long time. I suddenly saw a video I was watching from another, theoretically female, point of view and what i saw was completely different to what the man that is me normally sees. I had the privilege of imagining I was a woman and imagining how I would feel in that situation in distinction to actually being a woman who was in the position of realising that someone else might watch the same video and imagine it was them being molested and raped. And I saw, yes, that that is a matter of my male privilege in the feminist sense. I can view from the outside and think nothing of such a video because it is taking place from my point of view and for the gratification of people like me. It is people like me in such a video who are in control. But were I a woman would I feel the same way? No. I think I’d feel targeted and victimised. I’d wonder if people think of me that way. I’d worry about it happening if someone should brush past me and press on my breasts or my bum a little too much. I’d have the thoughts my ex-girlfriend actually reported having herself numerous times, the anxiety and worry that perhaps I was being targeted. That is because these are real world issues and not merely effete academic questions to be discussed in informal essays like this one. These are feelings, thoughts and situations real women have to negotiate every day.
In the end it all comes down to a very simple ethic for me, one that I feel will anticipate the message of the closing essay of this book that follows this one: love your neighbour as yourself. Here questions of the rights and wrongs of viewing pornography or the details of fantasy versus reality do not matter: love your neighbour as yourself. This not a difficult ethic to understand. Neither is it difficult to actualise for we can all put ourselves in another person’s shoes if we really choose to and imagine how we, and so they, would feel. I think that such an ethic is key to any society if it is to be based in communal good will and polity. Of course, we can always choose another path, one that is destructive and abusive, and the wreckage will be all around us accordingly. Too often and in too many ways people choose selfish, gratificatory paths and find that there is little stopping them. I must admit that this often seems to be true and it disturbs me considerably. But those of us who think differently must keep teaching and educating about a better way, a different way, one that revolves around respect of others and for self and that is fundamentally based in a cultured self-discipline. We must keep teaching the benefits of community and solidarity and good will towards others lest they permanently fall into disrepute and society finally shatters into the bellum omnium contra omnes.
The first draft of this essay finished there but I was disturbed by that because I felt like it was not enough. It felt like, as is the privilege of my gender, I could just briefly for a moment imagine what it was like for someone else and then go back to being myself, someone who didn’t have to worry about being touched up or worse on buses. But then I recalled yet another of these sorts of videos. It was still Japanese in origin but in this one the woman was white. Does that make a difference? Well, the ones with Japanese women in had hundreds of thousands of views and the one with the white woman being molested and raped (this time by multiple train passengers rather than just one) had over 23 million views. Even accounting for when these videos were put up that is a huge disparity and, whilst loathe to jump to too many conclusions, I did begin to wonder if most porn viewers are white and if there is some notion that most people watching want to see things done to people like them, people of their experience. Pornography is a hotch potch of unpalatable and disreputable ideas and it would not surprise me to learn that this was one of them. After all, this is why people watch porn and then imagine its somebody they know.
The further reason this essay didn’t stop two paragraphs back is that I became angry with myself overnight thinking about what I had written in the first draft. Where was the outrage, where was the anger, the disgust? This is a hallmark of some reaction to pornography, and to various types of it specifically, and I wanted to feel that way too. I was concerned that my maleness had blinded me to it and I didn’t like (or want) that. Now, writing again, I ask myself if a society that values women would allow millions of videos to be published openly and publicly which show their degradation, molestation, rape and all round coercion? It is, surely, a huge black mark against our “liberal” societies in general? Here I will brook no whataboutery about this, that there are other kinds of video too or that they are about people’s fantasies that they enjoy in private and that never break out into the real world. Even if it were true (which I doubt), its irrelevant. For as I made sure to document throughout this essay, this is something real world women have to walk the gauntlet of EVERY DAY. Women are attacked and assaulted on public transport all over the world all the time from the stray (but deliberate) touch of the bum or breasts to a more deliberate squeeze to things even more sinister. As much as you might want to, you can’t simply assign such things to videos and fantasy. Its reality.
And we need to say it is reality. Women (and their family and friends and good citizens generally) need to make a fuss whenever such incidents occur, no matter how minor, because its not harmless and it won’t just go away for those suffering such assaults. Men who might act in such ways need to be challenged and reeducated no matter how minor it might be imagined their indiscretions have been. Society can allow no room for ideologies which victimize women or see them as random, gratificatory sex objects, those who can be made willing or used as real life sexbots if only we care to pester and harass them enough. We cannot accept such dehumanisation of half the human population. We also need to question the narrative of coercion that is broad and wide throughout pornography. Pornography is now a widely accepted phenomenon and its often not treated in a very sophisticated way. Consensual sex between two people is lumped in with forced gangrapes and all kinds of other pornographic extremities. On most porn sites things such as beastiality and pedophilia are completely banned and in many countries they are thoroughly illegal. But why is physical violence against women, in most countries also illegal, in that case acceptable in hundreds of thousands of videos? If you want to know the scale of the problem go to porn sites and look at the video listings. You’ll find multiple examples on the front page of any of the free tube sites. I guarantee it. So these problems are apparent, both in video and in society. They both, in my view, play into an oppressive view of women as sexual prey, fantasy or real doesn’t really matter if its going on in the head of a real person. They give rise to fallacious and degrading ideas such as that any woman is available for sex if only you will pay her enough or that if some man finds a woman attractive and wants to have sex with her then she should feel grateful. In fact, she should probably let him ejaculate into or onto her and be thankful that it was her the man found worthy of such a thing. Such pornography is usually given a free pass because “its just porn” but, having now seen as I do, I find that the excuse of someone who doesn’t want to see a problem. Yet while there are women in the world, and there always will be, society in general must stand up and combat narratives which denigrate, degrade and abuse them.
In closing, I would say that my eyes are a little more open today. I don’t like what I see. But you can only change the world by acknowledging it as it is. And, if this is how the world is, then change it we must.
This essay is one of 21 from a soon to be published collection of blogs and essays I've written over the last two years called Sound and Fury. The book, which covers everything from suicide and truth to justice and personality theory, will be out before the end of the year.