Is Porn Just a Pawn?

Oh porn, the bane of feminist existence, the ultimate conundrum. Is it the liberation of female sexuality or the systematic rape of women? It seems as if the opposing sides were far from settling on an agreement last weekend as a group of self-claimed feminists from Stop Porn Culture held a conference in London to organise together in their fight against the porn industry. The conference was, in turn, picketed by The English Collective of Prostitutes, also a group of self-claimed feminists, campaigning in defence of pornography. Both groups claimed to be protecting the rights of women.

pornprotest

Photo credit: The Independent

You may be wondering, fellow feminist, “where does that leave me?” I certainly am. As a freshly graduated 20-something, I am still trying to negotiate my way around what constitutes as feminist and empowering and what constitutes as misogynistic and degrading, all the while trying to mediate my own sexuality and desires in the process. Phew. I have swung upon the porn pendulum*, back and forth, from full-blown support of pornography to being absolutely against it, more times than I care to remember. It is a feminist minefield and I am trying to tiptoe across it.

My own turbulent relationship with porn began at 17-years-old when an older boyfriend introduced me to it. I remember watching, slightly icked out, and yet morbidly fascinated. Later, as a more sexually mature student introduced to the concept of female sexual liberation, I would proudly declare that I watched porn in an attempt to re-appropriate a typically male sexual pursuit as my own. I believed I was owning my sexuality; that I have the right to watch porn because I, too, can be physically stimulated by viewing  sexually explicit images. Today, I’m not so sure, and because of my uncertainty, I found this article very difficult to write. I started, as any Oxford girl would, with a dictionary:

Porn (n.) Printed or visual media containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.

So porn is printed or visual media. I looked up ‘media’:

Media (n.) The main means of mass communication (television, radio, and newspapers) regarded collectively.

I seemed to be getting somewhere. Porn is media and therefore a form of communication, and communication is the act of conveying messages. So what exactly is the common porn message? I logged on to pornhub to find out.

Video titles popped up, describing the women in them as being: “drilled,” “destroyed,” “sodomised,” and “sluts.”

The porn message seemed clear: “Sex is a violent act against women” and “sex is about male territory over a woman’s body.”

Now, I am aware that some women’s sexual desires and fantasies include elements of subordination and rough sex — and that’s ok. However, when indulging in BDSM and humiliation play, boundaries should be set and consent continuously and clearly negotiated. But the thing with violent, rape fantasy-esque porn is that even if there is a discussion between the sexual participants about their boundaries, it isn’t viewed or shown on camera. Instead, the 14-year-old boy (or girl) masturbating in his (her) room only sees a women being thrown around, slapped, suffocated, and ejaculated on with little or no context. Personally, I have seen only one porn film in which the actors face the camera and declare that everyone is OK with the oncoming scene. In all others, no consent is shown and in some, women have actually been asking the man to stop. I can only hope to god that it was scripted.

Not that scripting in rape fantasy scenes would be a particularly good thing either. I’m aware of the argument that people are able to separate fantasy and practice, which I wholeheartedly defended until I read the news of a 12-year-old boy raping his 7-year-old sister after being exposed to hardcore porn. Perhaps this is simply a case of needing tighter child-protection limits on porn, but the story was not the only thing that has stopped me in my pro-porn tracks recently.

The second was a video I stumbled across on a site called Efukted. It was a compilation video entitled “Breaking Points” and featured scene after scene of porn outtakes where the female performer breaks down in tears after an unpleasant sex act. The video is featured under “entertainment.” I have since found hundreds of similar videos. For the first time, I found myself agreeing with a statement by Gail Dines, an anti-sex work campaigner, who was present at the conference this weekend and with whom I have always previously disagreed: “In [porn] nothing else is [men’s] hatred of us quite clear.”

Suddenly it clicked with me that porn isn’t just videos of sex or documentation of sexuality. More often than not, it is depictions of malicious and violent acts towards women. I would watch the videos whose titles include the words “destroy”, “ruin”, and “smash” and tell myself that it’s okay, it’s all scripted, but the “Breaking Points” video has proven otherwise.  The entire site has threads dedicated to sharing vile and disturbing acts being done to women. It is not “just about sex”, it’s about humiliation.

Of course, and I reiterate, there are women with subordination fetishes and women who enjoy rough sex and that’s fine. But I have increasingly  found myself struggling to maintain a balancing act of respecting my diverse sisters’ lifestyle choices whilst simultaneously trying to eliminate patriarchal norms. Perhaps my stomach wouldn’t sink so far if pornographic content was more varied (aside from loosely labelled “female friendly” porn, which is practically the same types of videos, minus the cliche “face shots”). I know that feminist porn exists but the porn industry, as a whole, is largely male run.

It’s not shocking that the porn industry is run and dominated by men when every other industry is. Generally speaking, the media industry focuses exclusively on an aggressive version of heteronormative male sexuality, especially the mainstream music and fashion industries. I’m beginning to wonder if violent, misogynistic porn is just another element within a bigger, overarching sexist narrative. So then, is it really porn we need to tackle? Or patriarchal media as a whole? Because regardless of whether there is an explicit shot of genitialia, the message that is it okay to violently and sexually degrade women is still being spread. Girl Talk HQ and PolicyMic have summarised just a fraction of the female focused sexual violence featured in media and advertising that exist independent from any industrial porn affiliations.

Banning porn is not only removing a sexual resource** for a lot of people but it also will not fix anything. I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with watching sex, but there is a “hella lotta” wrong with the way most sex is portrayed both in pornography and other media outlets.

Perhaps like my 17-year-old self, some people are icked out at the idea of porn, but we must accept that many of us have a deep set animalistic sexual desire which watching (and for some, making) porn satisfies. And if this desire is intrinsic, let us create safeguards for the activity, rather than forcing it underground and therefore more dangerous.

Think of it as such: trying to get people to eat more healthily would not work by banning food consumption, but by regulating unhealthy fast foods and promoting healthy, nutritious foods. I understand now what Gloria Steinem meant when she spoke about the differences between porn and erotica. Sexual depictions are not the gender inequality problem. One only needs to look at the Egyptians’ Turin Erotic Papyrus and  the equal rights enjoyed by women in Egyptian society at the time to understand that depictions of sex do not create a patriarchy, but a patriarchy is created when these sexual depictions are used as a force of violence.

Many people have many concerns around pornography, and tackling porn seems an appropriate place to start. However, dangerous violent sexual messages are everywhere, and it’s an entire cultural attitude that we, as feminists, must change instead of just one, surreptitious manifestation of it.

*my new favourite term

**my new second favourite term

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Categories: POP

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5 replies

  1. Thanks for writing this, I found it very enlightening. Re: the paragraph about rape fantasy porn, while I agree that the majority of such content is woefully lacking in on-camera context clarifying the “fantasy” aspect, I’d also recommend some of the professional producers like Kink.com. Every single one of their videos begins with an interview with the participants before the scene is shot, during which their preferences and boundaries are discussed in detail. Additionally, each video ends with another, post-shoot interview recapping the scene and discussing how the performers felt about the different activities.

    I feel that practices like this are an important step in dismantling some of the negative aspects of the porn industry. While I agree that it’s important to stop perpetuating the often violent and male-domination norms that porn so often supports, I’m also loath to condemn sexual acts between consenting adults, including ones that I find distasteful. I don’t want the public at large to think that sex is synonymous with degrading women, but I also don’t want to slut-shame people who enjoy participating in activities that seem degrading to me as an outside observer. I think that by making it clear that (1) the portrayed rape fantasy is definitely only fantasy, and (2) there are some people who enjoy participating in such fantasies, we can at least move in the right direction.

    Obviously we can’t expect every porn producer to be as mindful as we would hope and include such disclaimers (particularly in a world of so much amateur-produced porn). However, encouraging open discussion about the reality vs. fantasy of porn can only help people understand the difference between performers’ behavior on camera and the way that people should treat each other in the real world. As you say, pushes to ban porn or cast it as inherently shameful only causes more problems; it stifles discussion and leads people to confuse the fantasy on screen with reality, which only furthers the negative influences of porn. The solution is to give people more information, not to inhibit their access to it.

    • Your mention of kink.com and its practices with interviews pre- and post-scene is problematic because you don’t mention that there is a financial incentive to “like” what you’ll be filming, whether or not you actually like it. One of the scenes in that “Breaking Points” compilation mentioned in the post is from kink.com, not sure who the performer is but the link provided on the page is to a kink.com page. There’s also the whole Nicki Blue ‘deflowering’ event where she was going to lose her ‘virginity’ (still had a hymen) and it was so obviously unpleasant and painful for her (and uncomfortable for anyone who was watching I bet) that they had to take an ‘intermission.’

      I mean, some people don’t make a whole lot out the ‘economic incentive/coercion’ angle as being a problem with pornography, but I think it’s probably not coincidental that porn stars rarely publicly criticize the industry as abusive and horrible until after they retire (at most they might criticize certain producers or studios).

  2. Reblogged this on Leftstream.

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