Last week, when the Danish amateur engineer Peter Madsen was found guilty of the premeditated killing, sexual assault, and dismemberment of the Swedish journalist Kim Wall, his life sentence marked the close of the most macabre crime investigation in recent Scandinavian history.
The state prosecutor, Jakob Buch-Jepsen, in his closing remarks, argued that some of the “most damning” evidence against Madsen came from the death porn found by police on his hard drives. But, although Madsen’s deep involvement in hardcore sex films and snuff movies—as a consumer and, allegedly, as an actor and a would-be producer and director—played a key role in his conviction, the Madsen verdict has yet to open a wider conversation: the most disturbing reaches of a global industry in which Denmark once played the role of pioneer.
From the perspective of the Internet age, with PornHub downloads and the dark Net catering to all extremes of taste, the early days of legalized porn seem more like a hundred years ago than fifty. Porn wasn’t invented in Denmark, but, in the late sixties, the tiny Nordic nation was the first to legitimize it. When, in October, 1969, the world’s first porn fair, Sex 69, opened its doors in Copenhagen, the atmosphere was one of excitement and celebration. Special buses made the trip from Germany, charter flights arrived from Tunisia and Egypt, and American tourists eschewed the art galleries of southern Europe in favor of the new, sensational pleasures of the north. Held in K. B. Hallen, a vast, modernist sports hall designed by Hans Hansen in the Bauhaus tradition, the four-day event featured stripteases, live sex shows, and stalls selling porn magazines and sex toys. The Danish artist and provocateur Jens Jørgen Thorsen, in his opening speech, claimed Sex 69 as a victory for freedom of expression. Despite the fact that ninety per cent of the event’s fifty thousand visitors were male, there were no significant protests from Danish feminists: at the time, many perceived the legalization of porn as the triumphant, liberating end to generations of sexual repression and taboo.
Meanwhile, those concerned that freely available porn would lead to more sex crimes were soon assuaged: the Danish criminologist Berl Kutchinsky, in his 1970 report for the U.S. President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, “Pornography and Sex Crimes in Denmark,” demonstrated how the legalization of porn had actually led to a decrease in child molestation, voyeurism, and minor sexual offenses, though rape figures stayed the same. In 1971, Sweden followed Denmark’s lead in legalizing porn, and soon the porn industry in these countries was booming, leading to a conception—still held among baby boomers—of Denmark and Sweden as “sexy countries,” though neither has been a large-scale porn producer in decades.
It’s always disappointing when mainstream journalists don’t do their research properly, Kutchinski has rejected his conclusion that porn was harmless, as reported in Transforming a Rape Culture:
But the industry had its dark side, even in the early days. Child porn was not criminalized in Denmark until as late as 1980, and the industry’s second wave included films depicting violence against women, such as Jørgen Hallum’s “Englene” (“Angels”), from 1973: in one scene, bikers storm a confirmation service, crucify the priest, and rape young girls in front of the altar. The burgeoning women’s movement became uneasy; what feminists had initially perceived as empowering was beginning to look very much like the opposite. In a 1978 anthology, “Back in the Sixties,” the leading Danish feminist Bente Hansen reflected on the “pioneer” era of porn: “We had second thoughts about this so-called liberation. What exactly had been liberated and who reaped all the benefits?”
For many of the health professionals who were observing Madsen’s trial, the submarines carried clear Freudian symbolism. “For Madsen, the submarine is like a womb, a place of regression, where he can withdraw and protect himself against the world of failures and betrayals,” Bo Møhl, a professor of clinical psychology at Aalborg University, said. “He’s in another element, in which he is omnipotent. He can breathe underwater. All his needs are satisfied.”
Madsen liked to take women out in his submarines—and his fame gave him plenty to choose from. His pattern, the court learned, was to have a regular girlfriend (and later, at the time of Wall’s murder, a wife) and seek out “crazy ladies” on the side. Former lovers and friends told of how he would sometimes appear at fetish parties in a naval uniform and cap, scouting for women with whom to experiment sexually. He began to stage his fantasies, seeking out porn stars and, according to one witness, acting in two porn films, one shot in Denmark and the other in Germany. He loaned two submarines to the producers of “Thunderpussy,” a porn film from 2007 about a woman running amok with a libido-unleashing drug. Most significant, he had also—as far back as 2010, but possibly long before—been downloading videos of women being tortured and killed.
The prosecution argued that Madsen may have been actively planning to shoot his own snuff video when he invited Wall to visit his submarine on August 10th: on July 26th, he’d carried out Internet searches for “executions” and “dismemberment,” and, on August 4th, he exchanged texts with a friend and former lover who had asked him to “scare” her, writing that he would take out his utility knife and check out her jugular, and that he wanted to tie her up and “impale her on a roasting spit.” The night before he murdered Wall, he ran Internet searches for “beheading,” “girl,” and “agony.”
Some of the videos and animations of the torture and beheadings of women that the police found on Madsen’s hard drives were shown during the trial, including footage of what were purportedly Mexican-cartel members slitting a woman’s throat. It is not illegal to download death porn in Denmark, or to have it on your computer, so Madsen was not breaking any law. Wall’s parents, the public, and the press were not subjected to the screen images of what the police believe is a real snuff movie, but the judges watched them with the audio on. The sounds of a tortured woman’s cries turned the austere, neoclassical courtroom into a death chamber for several minutes, reducing some to tears. When the presiding judge called for a recess, and then asked the prosecutor to spare the court any further evidence from Madsen’s hard drives, the relief in the courtroom was palpable.
In Denmark, a life sentence averages sixteen to seventeen years, but Madsen can theoretically be released on parole after twelve years. His defense lawyer, Betina Hald Engmark, says Madsen is appealing his sentence to the Eastern High Court, but, because a mental assessment by the Danish Medico-Legal Council has deemed Madsen a narcissistic psychopath who poses a “severe threat to others,” he will remain in prison until the judgment. Madsen, who spent much of his adult life building womblike capsules, will now inhabit another closed environment: a cell.
If, as the prosecution suggested during the trial, Madsen’s intention was to make a snuff movie starring Kim Wall, then she is, for now, the most high-profile victim of a sick genre. As long as there are humans such as Madsen with deadly fantasies, innocent people will be tortured, mutilated, and murdered, and there will be a tiny, repulsive corner of the porn world dedicated to serving their needs.
I don’t like the films of Quentin Tarantino. I think Woody Allen’s work is rubbish, and Brett Easton Ellis’s books suck. Am I allowed to admit to this now?
For so long, I’ve been held back by the sexist male genius paradox, which decrees that any failure to appreciate the genius of a sexist male artist must be down to one’s own failure to rise above the sexism. It’s a problem many women have, though we’re only finding out about it today.
I know that to some this will sound terribly unsophisticated, but there is a relationship between misogyny in art and misogyny in real life. It’s a complex one, as female writers have been outlining in recent discussions around thrillers and true crime, and it’s obviously not the case that artistic description equates to real-life prescription. Nonetheless, when male artists produce works which consistently prioritise the inner lives and/or fantasies of men, something has gone wrong. There’s a limit to how much women should have to transpose art in order to see a world in which they, too, are human. How good is a book or film when it demands so much on-the-spot correction from the reader or viewer?
Like so many women of my generation, I’ve spent years pretending to laugh at “ironic” sexism, refusing to “stigmatise” extreme pornography and bestowing serious, straight-faced analysis on the useless art of self-styled genius men. Why have I done this? Because I want to be thought of as someone who has a sense of humour, someone who’s open-minded, someone who’s intelligent. I want to be seen as someone who “gets it”, even when I don’t.
Deciding a work of art is irreparably flawed just because the entire worldview underpinning it, the characterisation, the narrative drive, the humour, the whole lot relies on the assumption that women are not fully human – well, that’s a bit naïve, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I be able to get over that?
Well, no. No, I can’t and I won’t. I’ve struggled with this “hang on, is it just me?” feeling ever since I watched my first James Bond film at eight years old and concluded that rape, in some circumstances, must be OK. From now on I will be the little boy in the crowd pointing out that the misogyny-in-art Emperor is stark bollock naked.
Just as the “best” postmodern theory tends to be appallingly written in order to fool us that the difficulty is in the ideas, the nihilism and misogyny of the “best” male directors is so glaringly obvious we end up assuming we’ve missed the hidden message (so we use “hyper-reality” as a posh way of describing unimaginative exaggeration). The real creativity isn’t in Manhattan or Inglourious Basterds; it’s in the imaginative contortions critics have gone through to make these films seem more than the sum of their parts.
There’s nothing unsophisticated in recognising that an industry mired in sexism will produce art that is tainted by sexist beliefs. There’s nothing childish or bourgeois about calling time on representations of the human condition which fail to accommodate half the human race. For too long genius has been defined as male, far removed from such petty concerns as granting consideration to the female gaze. This isn’t just unfair; it’s dull.
“You just didn’t get the irony/humour/bathos/[add your own technique]” is the male critic’s version of that lesson girls are taught from the first time they’re groped in the playground: abuse is flattery. We just haven’t learned to read it correctly. From now on I suggest we don’t even try.
QotD: Miss Peru 2018 turned violence against women into morbid entertainment, not a ‘feminist protest’
Although the so-called protest was reported as being a contestant-driven initiative, the pageant’s organizers and hosts made clear that the “theme” this year was violence against women, repeatedly explaining that the entire pageant was dedicated to “respecting women and violence prevention.”
This is no coincidence. In recent years, feminism in Latin America and the Caribbean has explicitly centered the issue of violence against women. Last October, over 100,000 people took to the streets in Argentina (where a woman is murdered every 36 hours) to protest the gruesome femicide of Lucia Perez Montero. Similar protests were replicated throughout the continent on what was called “Black Wednesday.”
It was a sly move by the organizers of Miss Peru to feature a parade of women listing decontextualized facts about violence against women, and present the event itself as part of the movement against the epidemic. This move ensured the pageant would go viral and seem modern, despite the whole spectacle being inextricably rooted in women’s subordination and subservience.
As Spanish writer Barbijaputa argues at El Diario, stating facts about violence against women in a beauty pageant doesn’t change anyone’s attitude about that violence or about women’s rights. She writes:
The vast majority of society still thinks that the motive [for violence] is biology: that men can’t control their ‘sexual instincts’ and women can’t defend themselves because they are weaker. Stating facts about violence against us makes it seem as if this is inevitable: ‘It’s just the way it is,’ ‘men are crazy,’ ‘I wish it didn’t happen but we can’t fight nature.’
In other words, without understanding why men commit violence against women and without addressing the system that excuses and normalizes male dominance, we cannot successfully combat male violence.
A truly subversive act might have been for contestants to make statements that challenge the objectification of women. Barbijaputa suggests some alternate scripts for pageant contestants:
“I am Miss Tarapoto, and girls and women don’t die; each one of them had a man who killed them. Men are educated to think of themselves as superior to us, while we are being measured by our hips.”
Or perhaps, “I am Miss Cuzco and coming out here in a bathing suit so that men can judge whether or not I am beautiful is sexism and sexism kills.”
Instead, what Miss Peru came up with was little more than a marketing strategy that, in the end, still serves patriarchy. The event’s organizers and Latina, the TV channel that aired and sponsored the pageant, don’t have to pretend to care about women’s rights or liberation any other day of the year.
Peruvian writer Lara Salvatierra points out that Latina has “a misogynist editorial line” and routinely airs content that demeans and objectifies women, “including a TV show which ridicules Indigenous women and girls.”
The fact that it went viral speaks to the guidelines of a patriarchal system: a woman may demand justice, as long as she doesn’t try to escape the mold and the gender roles that the system has approved for her. Patriarchy will always search for ways to naturalize its existence. There is nothing empowering in modeling in a bikini to entertain the same misogynists who then violate us, commercialize us, and kill us.
In a beauty pageant, women are presented to be ogled and enjoyed for an hour or two, as pretty objects. Once objectified, they are put through a process in which, one by one, they are eliminated from the competition. In other words, beauty pageants present women as intrinsically disposable. This is the same thought process that legitimizes the discarding of women under patriarchy, through male violence.
What is an audience meant to feel or think as they read, “Man strangles woman with a cord,” while a young woman parades across the stage in a bikini, desperately seeking male approval and adhering to patriarchal standards of beauty and complacency?
How this capitalist marketing ploy could be interpreted as empowering or liberating is beyond me. But, as Salvatierra points out, this type of “feminist protest” is the kind of activism that a patriarchal system favours the most: one in which women voice opposition to their oppression, but do it within the bounds of the role the system constructed for them.
QotD: “Action against sexual harassment in schools is more about protecting the male orgasm than girls”
How much pain and suffering is the male orgasm worth? Is there ever a time when a man’s right to access hardcore pornography is outweighed by the rights of young women to feel safe?
I am wondering this in light of today’s Women and Equalities Committee Report into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. The way in which young men see their female peers is tainted, poisoned by broader cultural narratives about what female bodies are for. Boys are not born with a need to hurt and humiliate for pleasure, but they are acquiring it, and fast.
The findings of the report are dismaying, if not altogether surprising. It states: “A number of large scale surveys find girls and young women consistently reporting high levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in school.”
Data published in September 2015 found that over 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over the course of three years, including 600 rapes. Almost a third of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching in school, while 41 per cent of girls aged 14 to 17 in intimate relationships reported experiencing sexual violence from their partner. Sexual harassment starts in primary school, with lifting up skirts and pulling down pants, driving some girls to wearing shorts under their school skirts.
One obvious conclusion to draw might be that boys do not like girls very much. They see them as objects to sneer at, flesh to grab at, holes to penetrate. They don’t see them as people, at least not in the way that they see themselves.
The report claims that, “boys and young men . . . are adversely impacted themselves by a culture of internet pornography that has become so prevalent amongst young people”. The images they are seeing distort their beliefs not just about what women want, but what women are.
Of course, it’s not as though sexism and rape culture are products of the internet. They have been with us for millennia. We tell ourselves that we are making progress. Eventually – not in my lifetime, though, nor even in my children’s – such things should not exist. Yet it seems that as soon as one channel for hate disappears, another emerges. The report posits “a correlation between children’s regular viewing of pornography and harmful behaviours”:
“The type of pornography many children are exposed to is often more extreme than adults realise . . . The government should immediately update its guidance on SRE [sex and relationship education] to include teaching about pornography. The new guidance should offer advice to schools about how to approach this topic in an age-appropriate way. It should also include suggestions of how schools can work in partnership with parents to address the impact of pornography on children’s perceptions of sex, relationships and consent.”
While I don’t disagree with any of these recommendations in particular, there’s something about the whole enterprise that makes my heart sink. It’s as though pornography is a natural disaster, something terrible that cannot be avoided, or some strange, dark offshoot of youth culture – a modern version of painting your walls black while listening to Joy Division – around which the grown-ups must tiptoe and fret.
You’d never think it was something created, paid for and used by men of all ages and classes, as part of the way they systematically dehumanise, objectify and exploit female bodies. You’d never think it was a multibillion pound leisure industry in its own right. You’d never think that violent, abusive pornography only exists because huge numbers of men want it to.
I understand the arguments. It’s here now and there’s nothing we can do about it (other than make more of it, harder, faster, crueller, the lines between consent and coercion increasingly blurred). The only thing we can do now is hope that SRE (sex and relationship education) lessons at school – followed up by consent lessons for those in higher education – will counteract the worst effects.
It’s as though misogyny itself is not something to be eradicated, but something young men must learn to enjoy in moderation. Grown men can handle it, we tell ourselves (after all, it’s not as though they’re sexually harassing and raping anyone, is it?). It’s the young ones you’ve got to worry about. They just don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. Unlike the punter who can magically tell whether the person he is penetrating has been coerced, or the viewer with a sixth sense that informs him whether the rape he is watching is real or fake. We’re genuinely meant to think it’s only children who are at risk of not seeing the humanity in others.
I am tired of this. I do not want my sons to grow up in a world where watching violent pornography and paying to penetrate the body of someone poorer than you are seen as a perfectly acceptable recreational activities as long as one is over 18. Where watching scenes of choking, beating and rape – without knowing how much is acted, how much is real – is justified on the basis that nothing that gives you an orgasm ought to be stigmatised.
I do not want my sons to attend the “sensible, grounded sex education” lessons being proposed by Women and Equalities Committee chair Maria Miller if all they learn is how not to be too “laddish”, how to keep their misogyny at an acceptable level for polite society, how to pretend women and girls are human without truly seeing them as such. Because then this is not about equality at all. This is about etiquette. The gentrification of misogyny: down with lad culture (so vulgar!), up with hardcore porn on the quiet. No rapes until home time, this is a serious establishment.
It’s not good enough. Girls are suffering, horrendously. Their self-esteem – their very sense of self, their belief that their bodies are their own – are being destroyed. What if the cost of ending their suffering would be to say “Enough. The male orgasm is not sacrosanct”? There is nothing liberal or enlightened about promoting an age-old system of exploitation via the cum shot. Men – adult men – could end this if they wanted to. Surely a first step would be to stop pretending otherwise.
Walker has come up against a fair amount of hostility while promoting Dietland. During a live radio interview in Australia, the novelist Will Self, also a guest on the show, went full werewolf on her. “He basically derailed my whole interview,” Walker says, with an upset sort of laugh. He didn’t just trot out the usual “fat is unhealthy” stuff, but helpfully mansplained that humans are evolutionarily programmed to find fat people ugly. Self was being so abrasive, Walker recalls, that after the interview another guest asked if she was OK.
The run-in wasn’t the first time Walker faced overt abuse from a Brit. She lived in the UK for seven years, on and off, and says: “London was the most fat-shaming place I’ve been in my entire life. It was on a scale like nothing I’ve ever experienced.” In the US, Walker says, fatphobia would manifest itself in subtle ways: she’d find herself excluded from things. In London, however, strangers would say horrible things to her face. “I’ve lived in New York, Paris, Boston and the western US – and that just doesn’t happen.”
One reason, Walker suggests, is that “women’s bodies were on display in London like I’ve never seen. In the phonebooths with those pictures of naked women, and on Page 3, and in those tabloid newspapers with half-naked women on the cover. It was like the whole city was a red-light district.” She contrasts this to her native US, where “we have fashion magazines with scantily clad women but you don’t see those kind of porny images in public as much. I felt part of the reason I got harassed in London was because there were messages everywhere that women’s bodies are public property.”
Walker channelled her London experience into a chapter of Dietland in which Jennifer forces British tabloids to feature naked men on their covers. “London was being renovated,” writes the author, “and the wallpaper covering every surface of the city was no longer decorated with women.”
Hello! I’m Anita Sarkeesian. In 2012, I launched a modest Kickstarter campaign to fund a small video series deconstructing representations of women. In an astounding, humbling turn of events, Tropes vs Women in Video Games drew international attention—both positive and negative—and Feminist Frequency raised over twenty-five times the amount we sought. We put it to good use: in the four years since, Feminist Frequency has transformed into a non-profit organization devoted to critically engaging with media. Our videos have focused on examining the way women are represented in popular culture, and reimagining the world of video games as a more inclusive place.
Starting today, we’re doing something new: a video series called Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History.
Rather than heroes, leaders and innovators, women are often depicted and treated as secondary characters in history, objects of affections, damsels to be rescued, or merely the wives, mothers and assistants to the men who achieved important things. Instead, we’re taking a look back at the amazing women throughout history who defied gender stereotypes and changed the world, to remind us that the stories we tell about women—in TV shows, comic books, video games and in real life—often reflect the limitations placed on them, rather than the world-changing feats they’ve already achieved.
With your help, we can bring their stories to life and give these incredible women the attention they deserve.
The fantasy of porn is not fully depicted, it is not identical with the ‘content’ of representation, it is to be completed by the active subject, the viewer-hero of the representation.
The pleasure is more fully realizable under the sole control of the subject, through the total objectification of the ‘object’
Kappeler, S. 1986, “Subjects, Objects and Equal Opportunities”, The Pornography of Representation, Polity Press, Cambridge, pp.48-60 (digital edition)
QotD: “A feminist analysis of pornography must include a content analysis and a representational analysis”
A feminist analysis of pornography must include a content analysis and a representational analysis. While there is rightful outrage at the ever-increasing violence depicted in pornography, few have examined what pornography itself is trying to say. Experts might argue that real life violence is not pornography, but this is a lie. As Kappeler (1986) points out, the law deals in fact and representation related to fact and the arts deal with (almost) exclusively fiction; however, when the subject is pornography both parties claim to be experts while distancing themselves from it. When it becomes ‘real’ violence, the arts proclaim that it is not theirs and the law proclaims it is not real violence/not real pornography. But as Dworkin (1981) articulates, pornography is real and it happens to women.
Liberals are for it because it is ‘liberating’ and conservatives are against it out of concern for public morality, and feminists are forced to fit into this dichotomy (Kappeler, 1986). And so the rights of men (read: human rights) are pitted against the rights of women. Some fauxminists may claim that they are against the censorship of pornography out of concern for ‘free speech’. Some conservatives may claim they are against pornography, they use it in secret out of their allegiance to patriarchy.