This is a confession. Pornography as an issue confuses me. I’ve been trying over the last few days to write a post on it, after being involved in a public debate over Hustler. But I keep losing track of my point.
One of the things I am sure of is that there’s a problem, that misogyny and objectification are prevalent and arguably becoming ever more prevalent. But to what extent, and in what ways, does misogyny in porn relate to wider social problems? As cause or effect? The empirical evidence is confused and contradictory – but what sorts of effects should we be looking at? Extreme sexual violence, low-level sexual violence, discrimination, or something else?
Similarly, I’m fairly confident that it makes sense and is useful to challenge and draw attention to the misogyny that’s widespread in a lot of porn (not to mention racism), such as that with which Hustler drips. But beyond that, questions of what to do about it confuse me. Is a legal ban really the right sort of measure? Would it do more harm than good? How can the ‘right’ subset of pornography be defined and picked out, without targetting things that don’t need it and leaving legitimate targets untouched?
I’ve been reading various views on the matter from different camps of feminist, but they leave me still roughly in the middle. Anti-porn radfems are persuasive, pro-porn sex-positives are persuasive, so, blah.
So this post doesn’t have a point or an answer. What it does have is some rather disjointed reflections.
Part of the problem, it seems to me, is something like this:
On the one hand, in the abstract, pornography is very indefinite. What is pornography? How is it different from erotica, from exhibitionism, etc.? How are homosexual and heterosexual pornography different, if at all (and what about homosexual pornography made for heterosexuals?)? And if some particuarly egregious subset is picked out, ‘degrading’ pornography or ‘violent pornography’, how is it to be defined? Is showing a woman being tied up degrading in all circumstances? What about showing a man tied up? Etc.
Yet on the other hand, in the concrete, pornography as a social phenomenon is much more definite. Though there are many subgenres and ‘fringes’, the dominant centre is consistently degrading to women, consistently misogynistic in many of its aspects. It caters to heterosexual men and it seeks to appeal to them by showing greater and greater dehumanisation of women.
So I think there’s a reasonable desire, based on perceiving that ‘centre of gravity’, to kick it as hard as possible. But there’s also a reasonable desire, based on focusing on the wavier more varied bits around the edge, to want to resist anything at all authoritarian. How to do justice to both seems like the million-dollar question.
I’m not quite happy with the suggestion that we can define a subset of pornography that will be the misogynistic cancer and leave everything else out. My main concern here is about context. What is obected to in misogynistic pornography is that it functions as “hate speech”, in the sense of legitimising violence and aggression by presenting sexualised aggression as normal and healthy. But no image can do that on its own. A picture of a dead Asian man illustrating a news report about his recent murder isn’t hate speech; the same picture, illustrated with a jokey caption in that week’s National Socialist newsletter, is.
Similarly, as long as misogynistic attitudes are widespread, almost any image can be perceived as degrading to women. If sex is understood as the conquest of a woman by a man, then just showing sex can be degrading (same for nudity).
Similarly similarly, the content of any single image, story, or video, will be understood relative to the context provided by every other image, story, and video. If only 1 in a 1000 images of sex contain cues to suggest non-consent (expression, posture, background, or explicit captioning and storylining), then it makes more sense to defend it as ‘a weird fetish’ than if 1 in 10 do, because in the latter case the overall relative frequencies of things, but not any one single image, will send the message that being turned on by rape is normal and unremarkable, a conclusion which is then more likely to influence people’s attitudes towards actual rape. (For comparison: a picture of a woman in her underwear, in absolute isolation? Neutral. 100 pictures of women in underwear for each picture of a man in underwear? Sending a message.)
The area where I see this as being most problematic is around the issue of context for depictions of violence. It is clearly not impossible in principle for a magazine or website, by showing frequent, unremarked on, eroticised violence (whether mild or extreme), to give people the impression that ‘this is what human sexuality looks like – men abuse women, women love it’. But it’s also not impossible in principle for the same images to be presented in a context that gives people the impression that ‘this is a distinctive subset of human sexuality, which appeals to a minority of people, who will probably tell you if it is them.’ (To some extent people will interpret things in different ways, of course, but there can still be a dominant message)
But the difference? Hard to specify. And if context is so important, then it seems misplaced to argue for approaches which have to focus in on the images themselves. Similarly it seems like if there are tricky judgement calls, maybe don’t argue for approaches which will find themselves endlessly wrestling with the grey areas (both of these seem to apply to legal bans, but not to, say, civil society activism).
So final thought is this: activism and legal bans are both approaches that come to porn from the outside. What sort of measures would change it internally, by shifting the dynamics involved?
One idea, which I’ve discussed before, is inalienable image self-ownership: i.e. you cannot sell a video or photo of yourself naked or having sex, because even if you sell it, if you later decide to demand it be withdrawn, people have to comply – just as you cannot sell yourself into slavery because you always have the right to annul that contract. This would adjust the power relations between models/actors and producers – it would make it very economically risky to pay to produce such photos and images, because you have no idea how long you’ll be able to use them for. It strengthens self-produced pornography (images of me, provided by me) at the expense of other-produced.
At the same time, this leaves a lot of things untouched. Structures that involve payment by the minute, like webcamera work, would remain. So would cartoons and other drawn images.
Another, fairly obvious, issue would be the unionisation and empowerment of sex workers. This would make it harder to extract really large profits out of them, but again, wouldn’t undermine the industry itself as a whole, because unions typically don’t want to undermine the industry they work in.
A third possibility would be to undermine profit-seeking pornography by flooding it out. If the means of creating and distributing high-quality sexually explicit material (on the internet I imagine would be easiest) were taken out of the market and provided to everyone, then we would be flooded with a huge quantity of ‘pornography’ (in quotes because the definition may include a monetary incentive) that would reflect actual diversity of people. This would make it harder for capitalists to enter the market, because they would have to charge for a product that everyone else is giving away free and creating with access to the same equipment, the same techniques, the same expertise, etc. as they have.
Why this seems significant to me is that if we weaken or sweep away profit-making as a reason to produce ‘porn’, we remove a lot of the consumer-oriented nature of it – the need to look for what people want to see, and instead focus on what people want to produce. That desire to meet demand is problematic because it in turn reinforces that demand and thus becomes a self-reinforcing system of entrenched ideas.
In conclusion, I have no conclusion. I did however laugh slightly when reading on wikipedia that a period of intense debate and acrimony between sex-positive and anti-pornography feminists during the early 1980s is often referred to as the “Feminist Sex Wars”. They’re supposed to have ended in the 80s?