By Rebecca Whisnant
On the cover of a porn DVD, a young white woman clad only in skimpy underpants kneels and smiles coyly over her shoulder at the camera. Her name is Jamie, we’re told. In her hand is a glass containing a milky substance. The tagline reads “Watch hot sluts drink spooge out of their asses!” The copy on the back cover gleefully clarifies the mechanics: “Nut in her butt and watch her push it out and swallow!” The film is entitled “Anal Cumsumption #4.”
What has happened to this woman, to Jamie? Many things, no doubt, but prominent among them is that she has been humiliated. But what does that mean?
In ordinary conversation, the concept is often used interchangeably with that of embarrassment. “I was so humiliated,” one says, “when my child had a tantrum at the grocery store,” or “when I realized I’d had spinach in my teeth during my presentation.” The notion of unwelcome public exposure is central to both concepts.
The distinctive core of the concept of humiliation, however, is captured in its dictionary definition. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to humiliate is “to make low or humble in position, condition, or feeling.” The term’s etymological root is the Latin humilis, meaning low. Merriam Webster echoes this emphasis: “to reduce to a lower position in one’s own eyes or others’ eyes: mortify.” Jamie has indeed been made low—in others’ eyes, at least, and very likely in her own. This in turn illuminates the OED’s second definition for humiliate: “to lower or depress the dignity or self-respect of.”
This latter theme looms large in philosophical discussions. As Daniel Statman observes, “Humiliation is seen as first and foremost an injury to the dignity of its victims, an injury usually described in figurative language: in humiliation, one ‘is stripped of one’s dignity’, one is ‘robbed of’ dignity, or simply ‘loses’ it.” Avishai Margalit, who makes non-humiliation the centerpiece of his concept of a “decent society,” defines humiliation as “any sort of behavior or condition that constitutes a sound reason for a person to consider his or her self-respect injured.”
That much will have to do for now, definition-wise. You’ll also have to take my word that the “Anal Cumsumption” example is not an outlier—that in fact, the humiliation of women is a virtual constant in contemporary mainstream pornography. Here a woman crawls on hands and knees; there a penis is shoved in her mouth sideways, distending the face, so that she looks ridiculous; and everywhere, she intones “I’m such a filthy little whore.” Over 40% of the best-selling porn titles analyzed in a recent study contained “ass to mouth” scenes, in which a man removes his penis from a woman’s anus and puts it directly, without cleaning, into her mouth or the mouth of another woman. A more total humiliation is difficult to conceive.
So what? Why does this matter? It matters, first of all, for the women who perform in pornography. What is the impact of humiliating performance on those from whom such performance is extracted?
When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004, many noted that, while some of the Iraqi prisoners were physically harmed, the horror of the abuse lay at least equally in their humiliation. Men were made to crawl on the floor wearing leashes, to wear panties on their heads, to masturbate for the camera, to have other men urinate in their mouths, to climb naked onto a pyramid, all so that pictures could be taken and passed around and crowed over.
Many survivors of torture, in fact, report that the worst element was not the pain but the humiliation. Pain ends, but one remains haunted by the image of oneself exposed, soiled, splayed, begging, in abject passivity and shame. Indeed, David Luban points out that humiliation is central to the evil of pain itself—in general, and especially when the pain is humanly inflicted and watched by others: “acute pain is itself degrading because it collapses our world and reduces us to mere prisoners of our bodies. . . . when it happens in front of spectators, the experience is doubly shameful and humiliating.” The humiliation tactics used against War on Terror detainees, he observes, “were ‘Ego Down’ and ‘Futility’ tactics—the Army’s names for tactics designed to break the detainees by making them feel worthless and filling them with despair.” It should not surprise us, then, that (again according to Luban), “a recent medical study found absolutely no difference between the traumatic psychological after-effects of physical torture and humiliation.”
So in some contexts, we recognize easily that being humiliated is terrible and traumatic—indeed, a violation of human rights. What, then, of humiliation in pornography? Oh, we say, well, that’s totally different you see . . . because unlike the Abu Ghraib prisoners, the women in porn are consenting, and that makes it all better. See, here is the form where she signed on the dotted line, all grown up at 19 or 21. Big girl, knows what she’s doing, next topic.
But this gets it exactly wrong, missing just what is so destructive about humiliation in pornography. The presence of consent does not make the humiliation here better; it makes it worse—not worse all things considered, but worse in a particular and important respect.
If anything, consent exacerbates the shame for the woman herself. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: what we see in the picture or film is not that this low and dirty thing was done to her, but that she did it. The pornography thus purports to reveal some essential truth about her, not about someone else’s wrongdoing.
Think back to Jamie: No one else is in the frame, handing her the glass of ejaculate or encouraging her to drink it, let alone making her do so. She drinks ejaculate out of her own rectum all on her own, apparently, because that’s just the kind of girl she is.
And what kind of girl is that? What are we left to think of Jamie and all the others like her who populate this multi-billion dollar “empire of images”?
The women’s consent—whether actual or merely apparent—leaves us grasping for explanations. The most readily available such explanations make it seem that the women are not really being degraded after all, but simply treated in ways congruent with their own nature and will.
These women humiliate themselves willingly—perhaps because they place little value on their own personal dignity, or perhaps because they are too stupid even to realize that they’re being insulted and degraded. Almost certainly, they are economically desperate (in a culture that sees such desperation, especially in women, as an occasion for contempt rather than empathy and help). Take your pick, mix and match: at the end of the day, they are just whores, and we all know what whores deserve.
We cringe at the Abu Ghraib images because in them we see people who have personal dignity to take away, who are being wrongfully “brought low.” By contrast, Jamie, for instance, is not being “brought low”—she just IS low. We can tell, because she does it all willingly. She reaches for the glass of ejaculate, she smiles, she guzzles. What would degrade others does not degrade her; rather it simply reflects and gratifies her nature. She is not a human being, she is only a woman.
In discussions about pornography, well-meaning people often aver that, however distasteful it may be, we must accept pornography so long as it depicts only “consenting adults.” That is, the absence of consent is assumed to demarcate the boundaries of the harmful and unacceptable. My brief analysis here, however, points to the damaging poverty of this approach. Images of women accepting and even welcoming their own debasement and humiliation are profoundly destructive, not only for the particular women so depicted, but for women generally. After all, pornography purports to reveal the down-and-dirty truth, not about men, or capitalism, or patriarchy, but about women—who we are and what we are for. And like all propaganda, it uses individuals as stand-ins for entire targeted groups.
Thus, at the level of ideology, Jamie is not just a woman, but Woman. In the world of pornography, and in the world pornography has helped to make, Jamie’s willing humiliation shows that she has no human dignity to lose, that she is only a woman after all.
Bridges, Ana et. al., “Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-Selling Pornography Videos: A Content Analysis Update.” Violence Against Women 16:10, 2010.
Luban, David. “Human dignity, humiliation, and torture.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 19:3, 2009.
Margalit, Avishai. The decent society. Harvard University Press, 1998.
Statman, Daniel. “Humiliation, dignity, and self-respect.”
Philosophical Psychology 13:4, 2000.
Coming Sunday: Trish Oliver says Fight for your Beloved, and Lierre Keith on the Girls and the Grasses.