So today I'm wading into the seething morass that is the debate around pornography, both as an industry and as an increasing presence in our day to day lives (hint: they're related! Gasp!). Just to clear a few things up first: Pornography is prostitution. It’s the sale of sex in which the customer purchases a video of the sale of the body, instead of the body itself, which some have argued makes it infinite prostitution, prostitution that lives on after the performer is no longer a performer, or even no longer alive. Secondly, while heterosexual porn for male consumption is certainly not the only form of porn, it is the overwhelming majority of what is consumed, and so much of my language, though I try to be inclusive, will reflect that. Many of the studies in the book Big Porn, Inc, which was the impetus for this show, deliberately access the most mainstream selections as chosen by the Adult Video News’ bestselling and most-rented lists (So I can't access or link to AVN from my computer because I'm writing from work, and it won't let me at porn sites. Obv. But I could access CNBC, which has a slideshow of the top selling adult videos of all time. CNBC! If that's not an example of pornification, damned if I know what is). So no complaining that sometimes the woman is the dom and the man’s the sub; that’s true, but it’s not what most people are watching.
Also, this is not a discussion about sexual morality, it is about human rights. And for that reason, this isn’t about being sex-positive or sex-negative, those are nonsense terms that are used to often to silence or undermine arguments against prostitution. No one is suggesting that sex is bad, or that women shouldn’t be sexually liberated; this isn’t about sex, it’s about power and violence and poverty, and the conception of women’s sexuality as a commodity. The third largest illegal trade in the world after arms and drugs is the sale of women (if you include all human trafficking, it becomes the second largest), and the legal trade in women, the global porn industry, was worth $96 billion in 2006 (1). Apparently that legal trade is seen as being valuable enough to the global economy - which it is, at 96 billion - that the US government gave its domestic porn industry a 5 billion dollar bailout in 2008-9. For real. That’s the argument against prostitution and pornography, that the sale of women’s bodies is something we should be talking about ending, which involves having some uncomfortable conversations about the socio-economic circumstances that encourage women into prostitution, which includes pornography.
Also, Occupy Vancouver just released a list of demands which included, at #39, the legalization and regulation of prostitution, like in New Zealand, which is specifically mentioned. And though it’s too big a topic to cover in one show, I will at some point talk about exactly why the legalization model we have here doesn’t meet the needs of the women in the industry, and in fact can do much more harm than good - in the meantime, read everything by Meghan Murphy at the F Word. But I can see why demanding the legalization of prostitution, as an unexamined presence, would have made it onto a socially progressive wish list. Porn and prostitution seem like the kinds of thing that should be legalized, you know, like drugs – like it’s the kind of thing you can’t prevent people from doing and any attempts to regulate it seem like religious moralizing at worst, and at best, an infringement on the rights of free speech. I have two things to say about that: the first is that when we talk about decriminalizing drugs, our concern is with the health of the users of the drugs, not the drugs themselves. With porn and prostitution, what’s being sold isn’t a substance, they are human bodies, usually female human bodies, and that makes it qualitatively different than talking about the needless regulation of substances. And accordingly, much of the legislation to date is, primarily, concerned with the patrons of sex workers, not the workers themselves.
And secondly, let’s just talk about free speech for a second. I’ve for sure fallen for this argument before, that it’s the rights of free speech to make porn, but maybe free speech doesn’t mean the right to say whatever you want whenever with no consequences, just like freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever you want with no consequences. And I think – or rather, I agree with Betty McLellan, who also thinks – that it would be more useful to think of free speech in the same way we talk about free trade, and that fair speech, like fair trade, is a more worthwhile goal. Because free speech, like free trade, favours the powerful, entrenches inequality, focuses on the individual, and ignores quality of life. Conversely, fair speech, like fair trade, means not oppressing anyone, it decentralizes power, focuses on the common good, and fosters justice and respect (2). Applying the laws of free speech to the creation of porn ignores the fact that “those with more power in society have much greater access to speech than those with less power, and that the powerful can subordinate and exploit the powerless with impunity in the name of free speech” (3). Basically, the right to film, distribute, and watch the exploitation of actual women trumps their right to not be exploited.
Because I'm pretty sure it's impossible to disagree with anything Noam Chomsky says:
Defending pornography as a choice made by consenting adults simply expressing their sexuality is a justification which ignores the fact that for many women, the poverty they face is so great, and their options are so limited, that the sale of their bodies becomes their only recourse for survival. Also, let’s pretend for a minute that getting into prostitution is a genuine choice, even within the context of a culture which presents sexual exploitation as power and liberation. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be raped, that you can’t be abused, within the industry itself. You sign up have sex for money, to take naked photographs, whatever; this does not automatically mean you sign up for being abused, humiliated, degraded, beaten, choked, slapped, raped – it’s a contiguous industry, you don’t step right into hardcore or gonzo porn. You start out stripping, you’re recruited into porn, which starts out pretty vanilla, but the money’s not as good as you thought, and it’s presented like a promotion, and so you lower your boundaries more and more. Various studies have put the number of porn stars and sex workers with post-traumatic stress between 75 and 90%. Ever seen Deep Throat? I have, a lot of people have. But the actress, Linda Lovelace, has been quoted as saying that she was forced, often at gunpoint, to perform in porn, and that anytime someone watched Deep Throat they are very literally watching her being raped. She’s not an isolated case, either; a huge number of sex workers were sexually abused as children, they are horribly physically abused; they suffer from dissociative disorders, drug and alcohol addiction, and a higher than average suicide and murder rate (see this chart again). But it is commonly expressed in studies of mostly men’s response to prostitution and pornography that once you have purchased the body, you have free reign to perform on it whatever acts you like, as though a woman is a couch or a table. That once money has been exchanged there cease to be any boundaries that would make an action abusive or violent. They just dissolve. We don’t treat animals that way, and yet here we are.
In addition to the economic pressures that might make prostitution of some kind seem like an attractive option for some women, we face social pressures which insist that we are in a post-feminist world in which women are now completely enfranchised, and in fact, have significant power over men, who are completely at the mercy of their sexual desires. Obviously no genders are fairly represented in this paradigm, but it is there, and it is loud. In the same way that women bought into the idea that their sexiness was empowering as long as it looked like pornography, so society bought the idea that pornographic sexiness is sexual liberation, when really it’s just another form of sexual oppression. And sexual liberation does not only mean that you love sex and think it’s great and want to have it all the time; it’s about the freedom to figure out your own sexuality without constraints from social scripts which validate one form of sexuality at the expense of others. In our case, porn sexuality is validated and sold as empowerment, but in order to access that power you must be sexy in this one particular way which often includes breast implants, bleached hair, and high heels.
This is what is meant by the pornification of society: shirts with porn star on them in sparkly letters, padded bras and thongs in children’s sizes, playboy bunny logos on everything from jewelry to car seat covers, that ten-year-old French model. The undertone of pornsex is very strong, and it is telling girls and women that empowerment is looking like a porn star, that being a porn star is glamourous. Later in the interview Abigail will refer to it as the “gentrification of sex work”, which I think is a marvelous turn of phrase, but whatever you want to call it, more and more women are drawn or coerced or enticed or convinced into the porn industry. It often starts through ‘glamour modeling’ or stripping, and those women are often completely shocked by how degrading the work turns out to be. It’s not fun and glamourous; for most, it’s humiliating.
And because our regular, not-porn lives are becoming more and more porny, porn itself has to become more and more extreme to offer the same experience. The whole genre of Gonzo porn, which is a type of porn which is exclusively violent and degrading acts committed by men against women, things like choking and triple penetration. There’s a whole series of violent throat-fucking called “gag factor”, which has won porn awards for best oral series and has spawned a whole genre of copycats (4). Almost all the porn directors interviewed for these essays agreed with this guy, Joe Gallant, who said “the future of american porn is violence. I see signs of it already … the culture is becoming much more accepting of gang rape and abuse movies” (5). Compared to equivalent studies conducted in the 80s and 90s, the study conducted for this article “revealed that pornography has become uch more aggressive in both frequency and type of act” (6). She cites all kinds of stats like the percentage of scenes which feature verbal aggression like name-calling (almost half), the percentage of scenes which feature physical aggression (almost 90%, with only 3% directed against the men involved), the violent gagging which is so hot right now had not been recorded in previous studies but now comprises 28% of the scenes.
We talk a little bit, Abigail and I, about the involvement of children in pornography, as viewers and targets. She makes a valid point about the cultural narrative being very significant; just the fact of kids seeing two people having sex, live or filmed, is going to make them hate women or view themselves as sexual objects. I have a great deal of faith in children’s capacity for critical thought, certainly much greater capacity than they are given credit for. But the narratives presented in the pornography that kids have access to are enforced and echoed by hypersexuality in the world around them, and us. It’s impossible not to internalize some of those ideas, which can “lower their inhibitions, discourages empathy towards other, and reshapes their sexual aspirations and expression often in risky, violent, or unhelpful ways” (7). If porn becomes the place you learn about sex, of course you’re not going to learn anything about intimacy, about complexity, about safety or respect. What you’ll learn is that it’s awesome to come on a woman’s face, and that she loves it too. This lack of awareness of boundaries is evident in things like the fact that children are now sexually assaulting other children. One of the contributors to the book, Maggie Hamilton, interviews counselling professionals who say that the number of primary-school children who experience sexual assault has shot up, and that many of those assaults are being perpetuated not by older boys or men, as is usually the case, but by their classmates (8). So children are learning how sex works by watching porn, which explicitly positions women and girls as sexual objects who enjoy being degraded, and they believe what they’re told and act on it. That’s what kids do; that’s why grownups are supposed to teach them stuff.
This social phenomenon is paralleled by an aspect of porn called pseudo-child pornography. For me the biggest, problem, as I said to Dr. Bray, is not that we can’t trust the pornographers to tell the truth about the age of their performers, or that 18-year-old women aren't still vulnerable, though that’s certainly true. It’s that it encourages us to look at children as sexy. It breaks down the cultural taboos which instruct us that children are not for having sex with. It sort of shifts our ideas of when it’s appropriate for children to start being sexy.. There’s a huge amount of porn that does this, too, it’s extremely mainstream to see young-looking teenagers made to look younger with like knee socks, pigtails and, most importantly, no pubic hair. That’s a convention that started in the subgenre of ‘teen porn’ and has since spread completely, it’s totally normal not to have pubic hair. It’s more normal than having pubic hair. So subtly, little by little, each website that emphasizes the performer’s innocence, her cuteness, her slightness, her youth, the more time spent in a place where the “norms and values that circulate in society and define adult-child sex as deviant and abusive are wholly absent” (9), the more we are told that kids are totally sexy. And the more we believe it.
I ask her about her navigation of the pornography debate: she’s of course right that the debate has not always been between radical feminists and neoliberal sex workers, there are whole political and religious aspects that I’ve not dealt with at all, because I absolutely do not want to equate this discussion in any way with religious or moralistic viewpoints. I'm not against porn because I think it’s dirty or that sex is shameful, it’s because the industry is abusive. So I just want to clarify the contemporary debate as best as I can to sort of provide some context here – I try to be very careful with my language, but these are tricky subjects, so just know that I’m trying to be inclusive and respectful: it’s not necessarily that some sex workers hold neoliberal beliefs about the value of their own empowerment and that feminists deny this is relevant. It’s more about the feeling on the part of some sex workers that the tendency of radical feminists to speak about prostitution in a way that depicts the women involved as being brainwashed by the patriarchy and unable to make informed decisions. Some sex workers feel that the denial of their ability to make a choice is itself degrading and offensive, and that using the term “prostituted women”, instead of “sex worker”, itself makes women sexual objects by undermining their personhood. The position taken by some radical feminists is that we cannot deny the influence of our cultural narrative, we are all socialized, it’s how we exist as social beings, and that to account for the pervasiveness and the extraordinary influence of our society is not the same as denying personhood, intelligence, or agency. For this reason even if a woman feels genuinely empowered in her sex work – which again, some do but they are very few, and are by no means representative – the cost of that individual empowerment is the reinforcement of a continuing cultural narrative that sees women as salable goods, as sexual objects that can be purchased.
But of course the debate is not nearly so binary or distinct, because feminism and sex have a complex history. Initially, as I pointed out in the interview, female sexual liberation was a highly inflammatory political idea; political enfranchisement and sexual enfranchisement were mutually reinforcing. If the personal is political, which I think it is, then you can see how taking control and ownership of your own sexuality can feel like an embodiment of political resistance against a culture which represses your sexuality. Like the young Egyptian blogger who posted a naked photo of herself as a protest – sexuality is a very powerful thing. But, as Dr. Bray points out, we are now inundated with female sexuality, we are saturated with it, you can’t look around without seeing some reference to it. Because porn is everywhere, now we don’t need porn. And anyway, just like with children, porn is not a good place to learn about sex.
I agree that sexual liberation is a red herring for feminist issues, but I don’t like the way she frames it, that this issue is more important, so what are you bothering to talk about this thing for ("how can a woman be sexually liberated when she doesn't have a job?"). That argument is used a lot to silence feminists (for example: because some women have to wear a burqa, no woman who doesn’t is allowed to talk about sexism). We can only ever be talking about the absolute worst thing, as though all those big things aren’t made up of a thousand little things. But I don’t think that’s what she’s trying to do, and she’s right to bring poverty into the conversation, as very few sex workers are wealthy heiresses amusing themselves by allowing powerful men to spend scandalous amounts of money for the pleasure of pleasuring her (we should entertain the idea that these women are, entirely, a myth). Most sex workers get into it because they are in bad economic circumstances, and they saw it as the surest way of supporting themselves. Talking about sex work in the context of liberation overlooks the poverty that almost always accompanies prostitution and erases the struggle of the women engaged in it.
I don't know what I would advocate here: I don't think criminalizing pornography is necessarily an option, because, of course, of the internet. It's a tricky subject because the real answer is to address ten thousand years of gender inequality and women-as-sex-object, and at the same time (again: they're related!) undo three hundred years of capitalist philosophy which contributes to women having considerably less economic power and forces some into occupations which are deeply harmful and degrading. In the meantime, I guess we just keep talking.
(1) Hawthorne, Susan. "Capital and the Crimes of Pornographers: Free to Lynch, Exploit, Rape and Torture." 107 - 117 in Abigail Bray and Melinda Tankard Reist, Eds. Big Porn, Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry. Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2011.
(2) McLellan, Betty. "Pornography as Free Speech: But is it Fair?" Summary by Susan Hawthorne in Bray, Big Porn Inc, 113.
(2) McLellan, Betty, in Bray Big Porn Inc, 250.
(4) Sun, Chyng. "Investigating Pornography: The Journey of a Filmmaker and Researcher". In Bray, Big Porn Inc, 171 - 181.
(5) Sun in Bray, 174.
(6) Sun in Bray, 173.
(7) Hamilton, Maggie. "Groomed to Consume Porn: How Sexualised Marketing Targets Children". In Bray, 16 - 24. Ref. page 17.
(8) Hamilton in Bray, 21.
(9) Dines, Gail. "The New Lolita: Pornography and the Sexualization of Childhood". In Bray, 3 - 8. Ref. page 7.