Feminism and PornographyFeature

The area of sexual representation has long been a battleground for feminists. In this piece I will be looking at the traditional feminist objections to pornography and some of the arguments against them, to which end I have elected to base my discussion quite loosely around Kathy Myers' piece entitled "Towards a Feminist Erotica", because I believe this to be a useful piece in that it not only sets out the different perspectives but also offers some realistic strategies for change.

First I would like to define my terms. "Pornography" has always been a bit of a dirty word, conjuring up sleazy images of degradation and furtiveness, while "erotica" has altogether classier connotations. I would tend to reject this division as being entirely subjective - if we like an image we call it erotica, if we don't like it we call it porn, and the distinction is based wholly upon our own personal tastes, preferences and responses, which are wildly diverse. As both "porn" and "erotica" are terms used to describe sexually explicit images that are designed to arouse, throughout this essay I will be using both terms in an interchangeable sense with no particular value-judgements attached to either.

There has long been a split within the women's movement between the view set out by Andrea Dworkin in her highly influential book "Pornography - Men Possessing Women" , a view which has been espoused by Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), that all sexual representations of women degrade and objectify and are the result of patriarchal power structures, as opposed to feminists who find a problem with the predominant content and mode of production of pornographic material that is currently available but would be happy to see a pornography based on feminist principles. The main points of the Dworkin/WAVAW argument rest on three principles:- objectification, in that "women's gender and social status are reduced to the level of a commodity which may be possessed and exchanged by men" (Myers); fetishisation, meaning that women are reduced to disembodied parts of their anatomy,for instance breasts, which are taken to represent female sexuality; and violation - the belief that pornography either leads directly to sexual violence against women or that it creates an ideological climate where such crimes are inevitable.

There are several problems which are raised by this stance. Firstly, it can be said that ALL images objectify, whether of men or women, sexual or not, all images present their subject as an object to be looked at. The link between pornography and violence has never been proven, and the insistence that porn always exploits women, that women can never truly consent to participation in erotica because they are the victims of false consciousness brought about by patriarchal pressures presents a weak, negative view of women. This argument denies that women have any powerful sexuality of their own and negates the possibility of women working towards any erotic representation based on feminist philosophy.

WAVAW make a distinction between "real" relationships and the world of fantasy and imagination. They tend to blame "fantasy" for leading directly to violent actions against women. But "there is a difference between criticising the social discourses which structure the form and content of the imagination and blaming fantasy and imagination themselves" (Myers). The challenge presented here is that we need to understand the forces that determine the content of fantasy and work towards restructuring them. Myers draws heavily upon the work of Michel Foucault when she argues that sexuality does not exist in a vacuum, but is produced by and dependant upon the dominant ideology - some forms of sexuality are condoned and legitimated, like heterosexual marriage, because it reinforces society as we know it.

In direct opposition to the WAVAW perspective is the libertarian tradition, which claims that all porn is essentially liberating to everyone because it is outside the law, and therefore challenges the dominant ideology. This is an "anything goes" philosophy which is not very helpful to feminists as the insistence that all porn liberates ignores the fact that women are frequently exploited by the sex industry as it operates now, and the predominance of heterosexual, penetrative imagery reinforces rather than disrupts notions of acceptable sexuality. Contained in this view is a tendency to see power as repressive to sexuality, but Foucault presents a view of power as a positive force in producing sexual discourses. Myers: "What is required is a shift in the location of power, not a denial of its existence". The full potential of a feminist erotica would be "to reappraise the ways in which versions of female sexuality have been produced, and to use this as a springboard to develop new dimensions and meanings for female sexuality".

Myers rightly asserts that to focus on the content of porn is a red herring for feminists. Attention should rather be paid to the conditions under which it is produced, who it is produced for, where it will be seen , how it will be distributed. Most of the work on this has so far been done by Lesbian feminists who found that the only Lesbian erotic imagery available to them was produced by men for a male audience. Susie Bright states that the first Lesbian erotica she saw was David Hamilton's "Sisters". Bright discusses how shocking it was, even to feminists, when the first woman-produced examples of Lesbian porn began to appear: "Unfortunately sexual frankness in women is still thought of as startling at best, and disillusioning as a rule". When "Coming to Power" was published, not only was it the first book to graphically document Lesbian sado-masochism, it also sparked off a major debate within the women's movement. Many women complained that it was pornographic and unfeminist. While Lesbian erotic fiction was more acceptable to women because it dwelt entirely in the realm of the imagination, visual representations of Lesbian sexuality were much more disturbing because they were so undeniably real. "On Our Backs: Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian" first appeared in 1984, and although many women's bookshops refused to stock it, it definitely started something as three other Lesbian sex magazines appeared within six months.

The Lesbian tendency has gone from strength to strength since that time, so that now there is a thriving, strong tradition of Lesbian-defined and -produced erotica and exploration of the potential of Lesbian S/M and other forms of sexual expression which have been traditionally seen as "deviant" by feminists and non-feminists alike. While this is all very positive and exciting, as a heterosexual woman all I can really do is stand back and observe, feeling envious and excluded. I have not yet seen any feminist erotic material that addresses my own sexuality, so I and other women of my persuasion are left with a stark choice - either we look at the standard heterosexual fare on offer, or we exclude pornography from our lives altogether.

Now we need to address the question of what straight women would like to see. Kirsty Milne rightly points out that male pin-ups of the variety seen in "Playgirl" tend to border on the ridiculous, and that "women artists and photographers who try to produce erotic images of men find themselves working in a cultural vacuum" as there is no tradition in representation of women looking at men to correspond with the dominant notion of the male gaze. Milne argues that to compensate for the lack of visual imagery addressed to women, the concept of Romantic fiction has developed, and that it could be argued that literature such as Mills and Boon fulfils a similar function for women to that which pornography caters to for men. She suggests that one of the reasons why visual erotica for women is so underdeveloped is that "women's sexuality is more diffuse than men's....We simply aren't socialised to respond to direct stimuli in the same way that men are", and that traditionally women have not been seen as carnal or sexually motivated, but "more interested in relationships" (Milne). However a dip into one of Nancy Friday's collections of women's sexual fantasies would illustrate that this is very much not the case, that the content of heterosexual women' s imaginings closely mirrors that of men's. Take this example from "Women on Top": "As I suck on his nipples, scraping them lightly with my teeth, he lies down on me, and I can feel his by now fully erect, hard cock pressing into my stomach....I move my hips back and forth, feeling his dick head against my swollen clit....He flips me over to where my pussy is in direct contact with his swollen, ready love tool...." Compare this scenario with the pages of hard-core magazines such as "Private" and you will find very little difference. So if it is not the content of pornography that needs to be changed, just what is the problem with it ?

The problem for me goes back to the points that Kathy Myers makes concerning the intended audience and the methods of production. Consider these truths.

Fact: the women in hard- and software porn are consistently more attractive than the men, who can be strikingly rough-looking. This is largely because it is produced for an assumed male audience, but there may also be practical points to consider. Women are much easier to recruit into the sex industry than man, and are more highly paid. There are more specific physical requirements relating to men in that not only do they have to be sufficiently well-endowed, they also have to be willing and able to "perform" to order. Not all men are capable of this, and a man who loses his erection in front of the camera is anathema to the pornographic image. Women have infinitely more potential for faking it, while a man's failure is obvious. Economic factors have meant that traditionally it has been more difficult for women to find lucrative employment than for men, so the sex industry offers a better-paid alternative than some of the other occupations that are open to under-qualified women such as shop work, cleaning and catering. Thus the producers of pornography are able to be more selective with regard to women performers than to men.

Fact: the sex industry as we know it tends to exploit the workers in it, largely because its clandestine nature means that sex workers do not have recourse to the kinds of protection available to workers in other industries. If hard-core pornography was legalised and the women performers were then able to unionise effectively, great advances could be made with regard to the legal rights of workers, a code of practice could be introduced stipulating rates of pay, hours of work, employment protection, health and sanitation codes, maternity leave and all the other factors that most workers in other industries take for granted. Being a porn star does not necessarily have to mean force, degradation and humiliation. For every Linda Marciano there is a Tabitha Cash or a Ciccialina, assertive women who have done very well for themselves out of the sex industry and continue to stand by everything in their past.

I would not support any attempt to lay down rules concerning the content of an acceptable pornographic image. Censorship is still censorship whether it is based on feminist principles or not and I do not believe anybody has the right to dictate the content of someone else's fantasy, and in the final analysis porn is, after all, a realm of fantasy. The sex acts in hard-core porn may be real enough, but we are not seeing real, spontaneous encounters. The participants are acting.

What I would like to see is a situation where women sex workers are accorded the respect that is their due, and a legitimated sex industry organised along socialist/feminist/humanitarian lines. There would then be much more scope for women to become involved at the production end, and therefore greater potential for women's various sexualities to be fully represented.

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A problem for anti-porn feminists#1

Feminists sometimes allege that pornography incites violence (incl.rape) towards women. So they argue either for censorship or for direct action, ie, smashing up sex shops,etc. But tell any feminist, or most women, that when a woman gets raped she has brought it on herself: that is clearly sexist. But if porn is to blame for inciting men to rape women, then if a Page 3 girl gets raped, is it her own fault? No! Rape is the responsibility solely of men. Pornography is no excuse for rape: there is no good reason to allege it necessarily leads to rape.

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Pornorgraphy alone cannot be responisible for all rape. Some may be further motivated by pornography, however these people must have already had some urge to do so. Some women do in fact promote themselves as rape victims through dress and attitidue, not to say that all rape victims are to blame for being victims.

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Pronography and rape#3

No matter how you look at it, it is everybody´s right to say 'NO'
Rape victims are not victims of pornography, but wictims of individuals who do not respect other peoples rights.

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Ponography Rapes the Mind#4

This billion dollar corporate business is destroying so many people. Men, Women, Children, Whole families.


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