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Pornography and Society

February 10th, 2004 · post by natalie · Make a comment

We live in a world where Americans buy nine million copies of Penthouse, Hustler and Playboy a month, where sex tourism is widespread, where across the internet pornographic images of any kind can be found, where English school boys will see, for many, their first glimpses of naked women and information about sex via magazines and videos traded in the playgrounds and locker rooms, where women every day appear on page three, work as dancers in nightclubs or on the streets as prostitutes. We also live in a world where millions of women have been sexually harassed at work or beaten at home and where in American one in five women have been raped. Although the links between sexual abuse and porn have not been proven and in any case they are unlikely to be because society operates in much more complex ways than just cause and effect it seems that the ways in which women are viewed, the ways in which they are treated and the ways in which they themselves behave are connected. It is possible to take issue with porn not because of the fact that they depict naked people but because the industry and institutions they are made within can be exploitative and oppressive or that they are indicative of larger problems. Mainstream porn is filled with images that play up to what are perceived to be male fantasies of sexual domination, control, power and pleasure with images many would argue are degrading to women rather than exploring the possibilities of alternatives, female sexual pleasure, or for gay and lesbian people. Does this mean then that we should seek to ban pornography out right, or rather try to change the framework it exists within or the society that is producing and consuming them, because derogatory images of women can be found everywhere, not just in pornos.

Throughout the history of the porn debate emotions and the strength of feeling has run high, perhaps because it is still a subject of embarrassment or taboo for many and sexuality in general is not often openly discussed. Some reflex knee jerk like reactions have been thrown up, such as to propose bans on it. Andrea Dworkin in her book ‘Pornography, Men Possessing Women,’ is one such person. She thinks that since ‘male sexual power is the substance of culture,’ seeing it in reference to gendered power relations suggesting that domination and violence in real life and in porn are produced by the same value systems and fulfil the same purposes of male desire, in short that ‘pornography is violence against women.’ Gail Dines has also made the point that ‘porn is one of the key sites in which these values are mediated and normalized in contemporary culture’ instilling ideas about the ‘sexual and social subordination of women’ into their viewers becoming the ideologies that exist about sex. However is this to deny the fact that men may not necessarily wish to control women, and that sexual relations frequently exist outside of these so called dominant mainstream representations. The further danger is also present in the placing women in the often problematic position of victim, perhaps rendering them helpless to aid themselves? What about porn intended for use by couples, women or gay people?

So when Robin Morgan proclaimed that ‘Pornography is the theory – rape is the practice’ a bold statement was made, connecting sexual violence with sexual images, but it failed to address the issue of why these separate instances exist in the first place and how people understand them and the culture that produces them in the first place.

However these people and many others have made the, what to me seems, illogical step of suggesting that to ban pornography would eliminate the problem. Dworkin states ‘we will know that we are free when the pornography no longer exists. As long as it does exist, we must understand that we are the women in it.’ When she and Catherine Mackinnon attempted to bring about a change in American law, in Minneapolis and Idianapolis where they campaigned, arguing that porn should be censored because it caused her harm and it was a form of discrimination against women, laws were passed until shortly after the American Supreme Court found them unconstitutional. Sure you can weed a garden by pulling them out but unless you get the roots or eliminate the seeds altogether the problem will just grow back. Porn can be viewed as a manifestation of what’s going on in the soil or very substance of humanity. If society is sexist then the images that filter through will be too, but if people are not oppressed then it is unlikely than oppressive images would ever be made in the first place or consumed as readily as the ones which we do have. And that applies to all forms of oppression, not just gender as it cuts so visibly across race, class, age, sexuality and culture for example.

Various movements against censorship have expressed their concern at the separation of the issue from the wider scale. The UK based Feminists Against Censorship stated that they ‘didn’t want the same oppressive culture without the pornography’ and ‘pornography may mirror the sexism of society but did not create it’ wishing to challenge the central socially constructed assumptions of sexuality and ideology. Censorship also creates problems for those wishing to support freedom of speech and the civil liberties of the individual. They also point out that can be easy to drum up public support for censorship, especially amongst conservative politicians and religious figures ‘but for reasons that are very foreign to feminism,’ with their own agendas of focusing on the ‘nuclear family’ or notions of decency and morality. For many feminists this was a step too far as it stigmatized women within the industry rather than supporting them and worked with those reinforcing patriarchal structures they had been working so hard to critique. Perhaps the biggest irony of all that the censorship laws called for were used against certain material but not the kind they had intended, but lesbian and gay items and even on Dworkin’s book herself at Canadian borders.

What then of pornography that exists that does not fit into the traditional packaging? Women that have been involved in the sex industry have written about their personal experiences with frankness and openness. Candida Royalle suggests that she never felt exploited when she appeared in porn movies, entering it of her own free will. Now owning her own production company that produces films specifically geared towards couples and women focusing on mutual pleasure and sensuality, she has found that it is only when trying to enter the world of business she finds people really trying to fuck her over. Perhaps this holds common for many women. Why work a shitty job where you get less pay than your male colleagues, harassment and discrimination on the basis of your sex and sexuality. Although she does recognise the dangers of exploitation that are out there, included in these is the non openness of the public to this arena, stigmatising the women for life. The hypocrisies of sex are all too self evident. If porn can be made outside the confines of male domination and control and be appealing to various types of people then surely that it something to be celebrated?

But I don’t feel like I in the least have all the answers, if any. If women are freely choosing to be involved in the porn industry then does that eradicate the problem or should we try and take yet another step back asking why it is that women can so easily cater to this role or live in a society where this might offer more lucrative financial rewards than many other careers open to the average woman? It was back in 1874 that Victoria Woodhull wrote that sexual freedom ‘means the emancipation of women from sexual slavery and her coming into ownership and control of her own body…so that she may never ever seemingly have to procure whatever she may desire or need by sexual favours.’ Whilst a framework for society can be conceived of as oppressive and gendered should we be focusing more on changing those structures first and foremost? All too often women can slip easily into the role of being sexualised as this is something that has been internalised into girls from the earliest of ages. If the only recognition women can gain is through the bodies and if those are seen by them to be one of limited vehicles of power doesn’t that suggest a wider problem still?

So where does this leave the idea of porn and things like the Suicide Girls? Is it just the same thing except that these girls have tats, piercings and dyed hair or are they able to find satisfaction, empowerment and liberation for themselves? It would be hard for me to comment for I have never met a Suicide Girl or even someone who is a ‘user’ of the site but when I am presented with flyers advertising ‘alternative’ club nights or gigs at places like the Electrowerks in London, incidentally playing music more commonly associated with men and male audiences that advertise pole dancers, suspended cages and Suicide Girls I cant help feel that my heart sinks a little. Even when girls do try and do something different business can’t seem to stop themselves from rubbing their hands together in glee as they anticipate the lure this may have for their demographics and squeeze whatever they were attempting or achieving into their own rigid containers. A similar thing may be seen with the way in which lesbian scenes are seen. As long as they cater to the male gaze and fantasy they are fine but when they shift away from this they are no longer tolerated or must be jerked back.

Rather than focusing on how to solve the problem of pornography I think it is much more important to consider the wider field. After all thousand of images exist within society just in magazines, fashion, advertisements and television for example that can be just as damaging, if not more to the way gender operates in society since they are much more subtle at keeping things in their place. It is only by tackling that, that porn can become truly free and liberated.

Drucilla Cornell
Feminism and Pornography, 2000
+ Porn in the USA in Candida Royalle
Lynn Chancer
Reconcilable Differences – Confronting Beauty, Pornography, and the Future of Feminism, 1998
Andrea Dworkin
Pornography, Men Possessing Women, 1981
Victoria Woodhull
Tried As By Fire; or the true and the false, socially 1874 in Dworkin
Gillian Rodgerson and Elizabeth Wilson
Pornography and Feminism – The case against censorship. by feminists against censorship, 1991
Robin Morgan
in above
Alison Assiter
Pornography, feminism and the individual, 1989
Gail Dines, Robert Jensen, Ann Russo
Pornography. The production and consumption of inequality, 1998

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