Our Liberation, Not Your Porn – Shattering myths about pro-porn feminism

“We need another perspective in pornography; we definitely need the female gaze.” said liberal feminist and pro-porn activist Erika Lust. Pro-porn feminism started when a group of women distanced themselves from radical anti-porn feminists in the second wave and soon led to what is now called ‘sex positive’ feminism. Such views have now become mainstream, and unfortunately, often, the only kind of feminism many women get to know of. Where pornography is freedom, radical feminists are said to be moralistic prudes. This article will bust such myths, and explain how pornography is oppression, and radical feminists are the only ones on the side of women.

 

MYTH #1 – Pornography as a means of sexual expression and liberation

One of the central arguments liberal feminists make in support of pornography is that pornography is a means for women to sexually express themselves. So they argue that by banning pornography, we are restricting women from their freedom of sexual expression, making the movement counterproductive and anti-feminist. However, it is well-known that the porn industry is male dominated and therefore has a predominantly male perspective. The directors are usually men, and most of it is made for men. What this means is that a woman is simply forced to fit into this narrative as the object that delivers male pleasure, and she is portrayed as if her own sexual desire is also to be subordinated. Where then, is the ‘female expression’ and ‘female sexual freedom’ in this? In fact, women rarely have a choice in the situations they are placed in and are forced to perform acts they otherwise wouldn’t want to. Pornography is the last place where a woman’s sexual freedom or preference is given a priority.

 

MYTH #2 – Pornography as a means of Sex Education

In her TED talk, Olivia Tarplin argues that almost all individuals today haven’t learnt about sex and received ‘sex education’ from their schools or parents, but rather from explicit magazines and “hardcore” porn. She proclaims therefore that as pornography helps people explore their sexuality and navigate people throughout their sexual experiences, porn should be looked at, and considered as a medium of sex education. While exposure to pornography is widespread among young people with no exposure to other information about sex, the real question is, what kind of education does it really provide? Pornography doesn’t give an accurate picture of what healthy sex is like; they cut out things like their use of condoms and other means of protection. Therefore, it doesn’t convey any understanding about what ‘safe sex’ is and how to practice healthy sex. In fact, it’s claimed that porn watchers tend to engage in riskier kinds of sex that put them at greater risk of getting sexually transmitted infections and diseases.  Porn gives men an unrealistic view of women and the sexual act; most pornographic videos do not practice consent, which makes men end up believing that all women enjoy giving oral sex, like rough intercourse, enjoy being hit, and achieve orgasm without the slightest bit of foreplay, and emotional connection. Additionally, a team of researchers studied the most popular porn films that year and analyzed them. It was found that 88% contained physical violence, almost always toward the woman. On top of that, 49% contained verbal aggression. This teaches men that it is not only completely okay and normal to practice violence, but in a lot of ways this violence is also ‘sexy’. Moreover, when women watch the same things, they end up believing that if they don’t perform like a porn star there is something wrong with them. It teacher her that it doesn’t matter if a woman doesn’t want him to orgasm on her face, or be taken forcefully, or perhaps smacked around in bed due to “passion”, all that matters is that their male counterpart is satisfied. Porn also instills in women an unrealistic idea that ALL sex is always enjoyable, and that if they don’t enjoy it, something is wrong with them. With the absence of right information and presence of the wrong one, porn is nothing but the most counterproductive means of sex education.

 

MYTH #3 – Feminist Porn

Despite the harsh truths about how the current pornographic industry violates and oppresses women, liberal feminists continue to staunchly believe that to erase and get rid of all these issues, the porn industry merely needs to be ‘tweaked’ a little, and abolishing the porn industry altogether is ‘too extreme’. The solution to this misogyny according to them is – Feminist Porn. According to Alison Lee, manager of Good for Her in Toronto, any porn qualifies as ‘feminist’ porn when “a woman has been involved in the production, writing, or direction of the work; or the work must convey genuine female pleasure; or the piece must expand the boundaries of sexual representation and challenge mainstream porn stereotypes”. Does merely following these guidelines make the porn ‘feminist’? A few liberal feminists, headed by Lee and her foundation have recently begun with Feminist Porn Awards . It is considered as the ultimate standard of feminist porn and most liberal feminists and pro-porn activists are in agreement with its functioning. Surprisingly (or not), this award show consists of categories like “Best BDSM (Bondade, dominanation/discipline, submission/sadisim and masochism) act” which is essentially deep rooted in subordination, objectification and therefore misogyny. A few screenshots from their website, highlighting the winning porno movies are as follows:

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Everything that this points to is that so-called feminist porn ALSO has its roots in objectification of women. Not only does this kind of porn not challenge the ‘male gaze’ and abuse of women, but by its own propaganda, furthers it.

Raffaëla Anderson, a former pornography performer, who has now become a nonfiction writer gave the readers an insightful look into her experience in her book, ‘Hard’. Here is an excerpt:

“Imagine a girl with no experience, not speaking the [same] language, far away from her home, sleeping at a hotel or on the set. She’s got to do a double penetration, a vaginal fisting, along with an anal fisting, sometimes both at the same time, a hand up her ass, sometimes two. At the end, you’ve got a girl in tears who’s pissing blood because of lesions, and who generally shits herself because nobody explained to her that she needed to have an enema.[…] After the scene which they are not allowed to interrupt, and anyway nobody listens to them, the girls get two hours to rest. They get back on the set […]. The director and the producer encourage those practices […] because the consumer asks for them.”

 

An extremely important connection that liberal feminism fails to recognise and understand is this link between Feminist pornography and mainstream pornography. Despite all the different criterias that feminists claim ‘differentiates’ their porn from the rest, it is undeniable that they still essentially function under the exact same industry that encourages this level of trauma and female oppression. Feminist porn and mainstream porn are posted on the same websites, they are more or less viewed by the exact same people, they have the same actors, they are funded by the exact same industry, and they feed into the SAME demands of the same market. The same demands that lead to such horrific experiences in the first place. Consider, as an example, that the “BDSM Winner” of the feminist porn awards becomes really popular, that not only women but men also somehow really enjoy it. What this would then do is generate more demand for similar kind of porn. And since mainstream and feminist porn exist in the same industry, ‘feminists’ wouldn’t be the only ones to recreate that porn. The demand could also very well be met by other mainstream porn directors and producers who are in it to make profit (yes, capitalism!). It is clear and obvious that these men would refuse to follow the same ‘guidelines’ and ‘ethics’, since at the end of the day, all they really care about, is that similar porn is present in the market for consumption. The consumers who create the demand too, couldn’t care less about how the porn was made. What role is feminist porn playing then? Isn’t it making the situation 100 times worse for women by creating more demand for porn? Does such feminism fail to realise that once women are brought into this industry, even if it is for feminist porn, they become a part of it and then aren’t limited to just feminist porn but are made available to be abused by mainstream pornography? By making something as brutal and absolutely horrific as pornography ‘feminist’, liberal feminism has done an excellent job of giving pornography an ‘ethical’ stamp. It has given the world, and most importantly men, a glorious excuse to continue to not critically evaluate their actions. It has given men a sexual liberation of women that serves their interests. It has given men a method of oppression that cannot be criticised in the name of freedom anymore.

 

More importantly, liberal feminism fails to understand that the core issue with pornography is the objectification of women- not how badly they are objectified. The essence of the porn industry is the commodification of sex, which happens no matter how ‘soft’ or ‘ethical’ or ‘feminist’ the pornographers claim that commodification to be. Liberal feminism refuses to understand and acknowledge the fact that there is no binary between feminist and non-feminist porn. The very act of ‘filming’ pornography for consumption and profit emphasises that ALL porn is a pretence. That all porn, no matter its contents, is faked, filmed, and distributed for profit. The very fact that each actress is ‘paid’ for her pretence and for the act she puts up in both ‘feminist’ and non-feminist pornographic films, clearly outlines lack of consent. The sole reason behind her putting up with this pretence is not her willingness to explore her sexual being on camera for thousands of people, but rather primarily because she is being paid for it. The lack of consent then means that ALL pornography, by its nature of being a pretense being paid for, is nothing but filmed prostitution – a global, multi billion dollar industry, based on the commodification of filmed rape. For instance, the truth of this gruesome industry is well explained by the recent case in Jharkhand, where 5 women representing an NGO were kidnapped, and gangraped by men who then forced them to drink urine. ALL of this, while being done to them was also filmed by these men. Why would they feel the need to film this, where do you think they got the idea to film such a horrific act in the first place? Where would they post it if not on these pornography websites? This does nothing but reveal and emphasises how closely pornography is linked to the filming of actual crimes. No porn can ever be ‘feminist’ simply and solely by its virtue of being porn in the first place.

As feminists, should our goal be to take what men have in the pornographic industry, to break off a corner piece, and try to mould it into something marginally less male-centric? Must we exploit other women the way men have exploited us? Are we so unwilling to imagine something different than simply “more porn!”? Perhaps the unnecessary stress on creating feminist porn reveals the anxiety of liberal feminists to find for themselves a liberation that does not alienate male approval, or go against the larger liberal agenda. As Jindi Mehat writes in her article, “There are real and dangerous consequences when women do misogyny while thinking they’re doing feminism.” It is time they realise that “liberal feminism demands nothing of women. Instead, it replaces painful self-reflection and bold action with mantras and buzzwords that allow women to avoid the sanctions. Women who choose liberal feminism aren’t choosing to fight patriarchy and break all women out of oppression’s cage ALL they’re  doing is choosing to make that cage more comfortable for themselves.”

Why “Sex Work” Is Not Work

This article is a response to a series of articles published by Feminism in India, titled “Why is Sex Work Not Seen As Work? – Part 1” and “Why is Sex Work Not Work? Lessons Learnt From Sex Workers’ Rights Movement – Part 2”

Earlier this year, a panel of survivors of prostitution spoke at the launch of Julie Bindel’s book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. One of them was Sabrina Valisce, from New Zealand, a woman who had exited the sex-trade. Rahila Gupta, covering the event for the Feminist Current, wrote,

“During the panel, Valisce explained that she rejects the term, “sex worker,” because it glosses over the “sucking and fucking” she had to do. She described her daily routine of standing around for 12-17 hour shifts, wearing only lingerie and six-inch heels, waiting to be chosen by men who would come in bellowing, “Which one of you cunts wants to suck my dick?” This was in New Zealand, where prostitution has been decriminalized since 2003, and is held up as a model of good practice by the pro-prostitution lobby, even though women continue to be killed by johns and pimps.”

FII defines sex work as adult consensual provision of sexual services for money. Consent, understood as passive permission, is in itself a concept which plays into unequal gender relations. Feminists have instead proposed the idea of ‘enthusiastic consent’. The monetary exchange required in prostitution makes the sexual activity inherently coercive and creates a power dynamic which makes ‘consent’ meaningless. What happens in prostitution is that a buyer (statistically almost always a man) pays a person (statistically likely to be a woman) to gain unrestricted access to her body. He is not paying for a service, but rather, renting her body. Although some women in certain sections of the industry may be able to decline to take part in certain acts, most women in the industry are not able to do so. Further, the man is also paying for the woman to pretend to enjoy the act, which if she is not convincing about, can lead to him becoming extremely violent. Attitudes of buyers demonstrate that prostitution is not an equal exchange by any means. The men do not care if the exchange is consensual, they do not care about the woman’s boundaries, and they do not care that the woman is doing it for the money. In fact, prostitution involves the man’s right to treat the woman as he pleases, say what he pleases, be in control as he pleases, and to have her give him the reaction he wants the entire time. The consequences of this are that women face immense psychological trauma and are forced to dissociate themselves from their experiences of disgust and pain- leading to PTSD and forcing them to turn to drug abuse or alcoholism.

The need to recognise sex work as work, claims FII, comes from the fact that the stigma attached to prostitution is the root cause of all violence against them and is also the reason for prostituted women not having access to their rights. In doing so, FII deliberately conflates moral arguments with radical (which they use interchangeably with conservative) feminist perspectives- a conflation that has been used to disregard feminists from time immemorial. The reason radical feminists have rejected the term ‘sex work’ is not to take away from the dignity of prostituted women but to refuse the normalisation of prostitution as an employment option. The logical conclusion of that normalisation in terms of policy would be, not decriminalisation, but rather, legalisation. That legalisation does not remove stigma is clear from accounts of prostituted women in countries which have adopted that policy. The stigma inherent in prostitution is not because of the public/private divide or the binary of good and bad woman, as FII claims. Rather, the sex industry very much depends on that binary. The existence of a ‘bad’ or a ‘public’ woman is what justifies the unrestricted access to her body in return for money or the entitlement to her body as a product. Prostitution relies on the existence of a class of women to bear the brunt of male entitlement to women’s bodies. Further, the stigma in prostitution often arises from the secrecy that is essential for a business that routinely abuses women. Jaquelline Gwynne who worked as a receptionist in a high end brothel in Victoria, Australia, writes,

“The women are still ostracised and marginalised, and most of them live a double life where they keep their life within the sex trade secret – to the extent that many cut themselves off from family and friends outside of the industry. Some don’t tell their partners and pretend they are working as a night cleaner or packing shelves, or they invent an elaborate identity as an entrepreneur, complete with fake business cards and a website. The stigma exists because prostitution is degrading and no regulation can change that.”

Further, we contest the claim that the removal of stigma or the acceptance of prostitution as a ‘normal job’ is in any way good for women. What this does is effectively erase the right of women to not choose prostitution. For instance, in Germany, where prostitution has been legalised, women run the risk of having their employment benefits cut if they choose to be unemployed rather than start working as a prostitute. Sara Torosdagi, a woman from Germany, recently wrote in a facebook post,

“The problem with Germany’s policy on prostitution is not just the fact that it has increased trafficking and criminal gang involvement, and STDs in the general population, nor that it has made the sale of sex so competitive that many women only get a few euros per fuck. The biggest problem is that it harms the status of all women. Johns are emboldened to ask a woman offering childcare if she’ll suck their dick because hey it’s just a job and money is money, right?

All women suffer in a culture that treats us as things, objects, marketable commodities. And women will never be equal as long as we pretend that prostitution is work rather than exploitation.”

What is essentially being justified when ‘sex work’ is normalised as ‘work’ is the availability of a women as things that can be bought or sold. In the same way that the existence of slavery meant that there could be no equal relations between a white person and a black person, as long as a class of women exists to account for male entitlement to female bodies, women as a class cannot be part of equal sexual relations with men.

The sex work lobby would perhaps claim that the analogy between prostitution and slavery is faulty. They claim that women may choose to be in the sex industry and this framework effectively takes away their right to do so. Radical feminist ideology does not deny that there may be a small but vocal minority of women which, in fact, does choose to be a part of the sex industry. However, choices are never isolated from the larger context they are made in. Not only are countless women forced to ‘choose’ to be in prostitution because of economic and social vulnerabilities, but many privileged women may also choose to be a part of the sex industry, under a context of unequal gender relations. Even when the women are economically empowered to call the shots in their profession, it cannot be denied that they are part of a larger industry where it is impossible for all women to claim that kind of ‘empowerment’ and which inherently supports a system of oppression.

FII claims that the violence against prostituted women is ignored because prostitution is conflated with trafficking which is seen as inherently violent, again deliberately conflating feminist perspectives with conservative ones. The disregard for violence against women comes from a perspective which seeks to criminalise prostituted women for taking part in what it deems to be an immoral activity. The conflation of prostitution with trafficking comes from a radical feminist perspective which acknowledges that the boundaries between the safe, sanitised, sex industry that many claim will exist after decriminalisation/legalisation and the unsafe, coercive trafficking industry are murky to say the least. As many radical feminists have pointed out, trafficking as an industry is driven by the demand created by the prostitution industry. The demand for prostituted women is such that there are never enough women who opt for it by choice, and as a result, women and children have to be trafficked from across the world to create a supply. It is almost impossible to seperate the two, and as Meghan Murphy writes, “Prostituted children become adults, trafficked women work in “legal” massage parlours and in the windows of the red light district of cities like Amsterdam, and illegal prostitution is rife in places that have legalized or fully decriminalized the industry.”

The approach taken by FII is that of harm-reduction, of accepting prostitution as an inevitability, as what it calls “a way of life”. It prioritizes the right of certain women to be in the industry, or to not be rehabilitated, over the right of thousands of women to not be coerced into selling their bodies. In doing so it frames radical feminist perspectives as restrictive and moralist. It stresses multiple times on the fact that these have been derived from a sex worker’s rights movement, and tries to say that the sex work lobby is the only one which listens to prostituted women. This blatantly disregards the fact that abolitionists have been working with victims of prostitution to help them access their rights not from a perspective that merely makes their work less dangerous but which helps them increase their choices and exit the sex industry. Various accounts from prostituted women and girls such as in magazines like The Red Light Dispatch are testimony to the violence inherent in the industry. The fact that ‘sex workers’ by definition include pimps and brothel owners has raised questions about the legitimacy of this kind of discourse in the West.

In India, TARSHI, the organisation which first published this series, says on its website, “We work on sexual and reproductive health and rights, without restricting it to a disease-prevention, violence against women or sexual minorities framework, but rather approaching issues of sexuality from a broader and an affirmative, rights-based perspective.” The notion that a ‘violence against women’ perspective is restrictive to sexuality perhaps suggests that there is something violent against women in that sexuality. That a feminist media house would endorse such a perspective is extremely disappointing and as Dorchen Leidholdt wrote in When Women Defend Pornography about this “restrictive framework” that we call feminism,

“If you understand that sex is socially constructed— which we do— and if you see that male supremacy does the constructing— which we see— and if the sex in question is the sex men use to establish their dominance over women, then yes, we’re against it.”