A while ago I wrote a post entitled “I Don’t Really Know What I Think About Pornography“, in which I explained my uncertain fence-sitting on the issue of whether pornography is a bad thing from a feminist point of view. Thinking recently, I realised that my views had actually become more settled, and that I wasn’t particularly interested in being ‘against porn’ in any meaningful sense. So I figured I might as well explain a bit about how I’ve reached that view.
To be clear: I’m talking about the consumption of porn, not about its production and the people involved. That’s certainly a big issue – probably a bigger issue. But it’s not the same issue – it’s an issue of consent, employment, exploitation, etc. rather than an issue of cultural images and messages. As can be seen by observing that a lot of porn isn’t produced using any models, such as comics, stories, or computer animations.
The first thing to note is that it’s often claimed by anti-porn feminists that, in some vague sense, the meaning of our actions and statements isn’t something we can completely control – we can’t, for example depict a black person as a monkey without inadvertantly drawing on a history of racist images and actions. We carry cultural baggage and whatever we put out into society carries that baggage with it.
This is used to argue against attempts to trivialise pornographic images that, say, show women being raped and loving it – regardless of how they are intended, it is claimed, these draw upon a history of trivialising rape and ignoring women’s refusals.
But this has to work both ways.
Anti-porn feminists aren’t themselves exempt from this – their activism too carries cultural baggage. And in particular, it seem to me that if they apply standards to pornography that they don’t apply elsewhere, so as to condemn pornography more strongly, they draw on a history of treating sex and whatever is sexually explicit as a special case, something specially suspect, something about which people should be ashamed and defensive. And that’s not something that feminists should be happy to be drawing on.
So do anti-porn activists apply a double-standard to sexually-explicit material that they don’t apply to other material? It seems to me that often they do – I’m not making any blanket claims, simply reporting my own experience. Perhaps I’m shadow-boxing and discussing only the more extreme parts of a broader grouping, but it’s what I’m doing. Indeed, from the comments on my last post I don’t think I have many anti-porn readers so perhaps I’m shadow-boxing to the choir as well.
Firstly, there’s a double standard in that criticism of a cultural product is turned into criticism of the consumption of that product. This is something we would never do with non-porn culture. We criticise the Iliad and the Oddessey for being sexist (and whatever else) but we wouldn’t then recommend to people that they not read them. We might criticise the Guardian, but that doesn’t imply criticism of buying or reading articles in it. We might think that the artistic canon is horribly male-dominated in its themes, but not therefore advocate that people not go to art galleries.
Or at least, if we did we would swiftly become very annoying. But I’ve definitely seen anti-porn feminists go from a critique of pornography itself, to an explicit or implicit recommendation not to consume porn, or even a criticism of people who do.
Secondly, there’s a double standard about generality. Something like ‘television drama’ is considered a sufficiently open-ended category that observing bad television drama would rarely lead to conclusions about ‘television drama’ in general. Nobody would read an awful novel and draw a conclusion about ‘novels’ or about ‘literature’. Even if we read a lot of bad ones, we would be cautious about what might turn up next, leaving open the possibility of good novels. But it’s quite possible to find anti-porn feminists observing some, larger or smaller, sample of porn and reaching conclusions about an entity called ‘porn’.
How I would sum up these points is that in dealing with culture that isn’t sexually explicit, feminists tend to accept the principle that ‘it’s not what you consume, it’s how you consume’. Don’t stop reading; read critically. In relation to porn though, it sometimes seems that it is what you consume after all.
To put it another way: there were no ‘literature wars’ between pro-literature and anti-literature feminists. There were no ‘thriller wars’ nor any ‘romance film wars’. There were, however, ‘porn wars’. This only makes sense if there’s a definitional difference between ‘porn’ and ‘cultural products that are sexually explicit or aim to sexually excite’. But most attempts to produce such a definition tend to seem awkward or question-begging.
So we come back to the original point: in a determinate culture, the meaning that your campaigns take on draws on what’s already culturally present. Declaiming against ‘porn’ will be heard, 90%+ of the time, as declaiming against consuming anything that’s sexually explicit, and it will draw on the feeling that sex is something to be defensive about and something to keep quite separate from the rest of one’s personality.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that there’s nothing to criticise. Let criticism flow like a mighty river. In particular, recognising that porn isn’t a case apart from the rest of culture in terms of promoting sexist narratives shouldn’t stop us from insisting that there is a time and a place for porn, and having it ubiquitous, every day, every where, effectively impossible to avoid, is not a good idea. But let’s extend the common-sense principle that ‘it’s not what you consume, it’s how you consume’ to include sexually explicit materials.