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"All sex is rape." Remember that famous quip by feminist Catherine McKinnon? It got everybody's hackles up—even lots of women's.

Well, according to the website Snopes.com, McKinnon never said it.  Playboy attributed the quote to her in an attempt to undermine her credibility. But McKinnon did attack pornography as male-centric and dehumanizing, and so did Andrea Dworkin and other feminist scholars of the 1960’s. And, really, who could argue with them?  It was.

But porn isn’t that way any more—at least not in Norway. Well, at least not in all of the ways all of the time. In Norway.

Not according to three researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, who trained a team of assistants to evaluate porn images from Norway, the United States, and Japan. They chose the three countries because of the disparate ratings they had received on a measure developed by the UN to assess gender equality. Of 93 countries evaluated, Norway had been ranked #1, indicating that women there face relatively few disadvantages. By comparison, the United States received a rank of only #15. Japan had been ranked a lowly #54.

As research assistants sat down to page through the pornographic images collected from popular magazines, the researchers predicted that countries ranking higher on the gender equality measure would prove to have produced pornography showing empowered women. Those ranking lower on the measure would have produced pornography of—well, of the other kind.

The researchers had developed a 21-point scale so that the assistants could objectively code "yes" and "no" answers to questions asking, for example, whether the woman pictured was wearing a dog collar, whether she was restrained, whether she was overly young, whether the image focused exclusively on her genitals, whether she was positioned in a way that might provide her pleasure, and whether she had a surgically enhanced body. Hour by hour by hour by hour the assistants rated porn....

... And the envelope please….

In January 2012 the International Journal of Cultural Relations published "Are Variations in Gender Equality Evident in Pornography? A Cross Cultural Study." As expected, the assistants had scored Norwegian pornography as the most egalitarian, featuring a variety of body types, ages, and physical positions, and in general showing everyday women actually enjoying themselves. U.S. and Japanese porn, on the other hand, generally portrayed young, ideal bodies posed in ways that couldn’t be expected to be comfortable, much less fun for the women.

But apparently something is still rotten in Scandanavia. For as egalitarian as the assistants found Norwegian porn to be, they still judged it to be "demeaning" to the women portrayed.

Ah, but maybe not. The report concluded by acknowledging that "demeaning" was a subjective judgment, whereas the yes/no answers on the 21-point scale had been objective. Worse, before allowing their assistants to make that judgment, the researchers had not screened them for their biases about porn or sex.

One other big error: The researchers didn't factor into their statistical calculus the impact of a country’s porn laws on the porn it produced. This means that Japan's scores, for example, might be out of whack. There it is a crime to picture a vagina—and that renders meaningless any survey question about whether a Japanese picture focuses on a woman's genitalia.

Even given these drawbacks, the study seems to have produced evidence that at least one country with relative gender equality produces porn that is somewhat egalitarian. The really good news may be that, as the status of women rises country by country, women may find porn fun and enlivening. It may even put a twinkle back in the eyes of the sex-weary. The runaway success of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which tells a racy story from the point of view of a likable young woman with awakening desire, certainly indicates that there's a market for the "I'm OK with this if you're OK with this" stuff.

But come to think of it, Fifty Shades of Grey doesn't have pictures.  Any pictures.

With the 2008 election of Barack Obama we at last began to welcome the idea of a government that looks like America. I like to think that we're egalitarian enough to be ready for porn stars who do. But for some reason I'm not yet convinced.

About the Author

Rebecca Coffey

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and broadcast commentator with Vermont Public Radio. 

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