Feminism, Pornography, and Sex Wars

A Collective Culpability

A few months ago, Meghan Murphy (founder and editor of Canada’s leading feminist website, “Feminist Current”) wrote an editorial for Al Jazeera Online in which she criticized ‘feminist’ politicians for not backing up their words with political action. Though most of Murphy’s arguments targeted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his position on Canada’s current prostitution laws, at one point she opened her sights and blasted all male feminists who watched pornography as being culpable for a culture of misogyny, rampant sexual harassment, and sexual abuse.

Setting aside the remarkable notion of wholesale male culpability, lets assume, for the sake of argument, that Murphy’s conclusion is correct and that pornography is partly responsible for rampant misogyny in today’s culture. What then does that imply about women working in the porn industry? Are women like Ceara Lynch just as culpable for enabling a culture of sin against women?

Since Murphy is a unapologetic dyed-in-the-wool feminist, I felt confident that modern day feminism would offer some insight on the matter. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that feminist arguments against pornography revolve around the notion of objectification. What was surprising is how messy the arguments became when the notion of female sexuality was introduced. It turns out that pornography has been one of the most divisive issues in all of feminism, pitting open expression of female sexuality against its concomitant sexual objectification.

The Sex Wars

In the late 1970’s, feminist theory was being developed as part of the emerging gender studies programs then being created at universities and colleges throughout the country. During that time, much of the internal academic debate centered around female sexuality and a number of other sexuality related-issues (including pornography, erotica, prostitution, lesbianism, the role of trans-women in the lesbian community, and sadomasochism.) But pornography took center stage in 1980 when the National Organization for Women declared that pornography was about exploitation and violence and not about sexual expression. With that declaration, battle lines between sex-positive feminists and their anti-porn counterparts were drawn.

Two years later full fledged war broke out at the Barnard Conference on Sexuality. The Conference, held 24 April 1982 at Barnard College in New York City, intended to advance feminist thought “beyond debates about violence and pornography and to focus on sexuality apart from reproduction.” Anti-pornography feminists were excluded from the events planning committee, so they staged rallies outside the Conference to voice their disapproval of the agenda. During and following those rallies, anti-porn feminists made some salacious accusations about the sexual practices of individual sex-positive women involved in the conference. Academic arguments had given way to personal attacks and the publicity surrounding the event took on a far more titillating aspect. The internal feminist debate about female sexuality and porn had moved out of the academic lecture halls and onto the front page of the national press.

Following the Barnard Conference, the two sides continued to clash over a number of issues, resulting in intense debates held both in person and in various media. The feminist movement was deeply divided as a result of these debates. At their core, the arguments for and against pornography were (and still are) about sexual objectification versus a free and open expression of female sexuality.

Pornography And Objectification

By most standards, pornography is defined as the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal. However, noted anti-pornography feminist academic Catherine MacKinnon defined pornography quite differently, and in so doing, argued why pornography consumption is, in fact, an act of female sexual objectification.

According to MacKinnon, pornography is “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women though pictures or words” and that pornography defines women’s role as sexual objects available for men’s consumption. Within this definition and framework, feminist opponents of pornography argue that pornography is harmful to women, and constitutes strong causality or facilitation of violence against women (most famously described as “pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice” by radical feminist Robin Morgan.)

But when it comes to feminism and pornography, things aren’t quite that simple. For example, the view that pornography has this amount of influence over men and plays such a central role in women’s objectification received criticism. In their book, “The Lust to Kill: A Feminist Investigation of Sexual Murder”, Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer question the idea that men are conditioned to behave in certain ways as a consequence of pornography consumption. What is problematic with this idea, according to them, is that men are presented as incapable of critically interpreting pornographic materials, and as simply imitating what they see in pornography.

As feminist theorists grappled with the pornography versus sexuality issue, another unexpected but important disagreement emerged. Feminism had difficulty defining what constitutes objectification.

Objectification is the central notion of feminist theory. Feminist theory identifies sexual objectification of women as a driving and perpetuating component of gender oppression, systemic sexism, sexual harassment, and violence against women. However, what constitutes sexual objectification is hardly a settled question within feminist academia. All agree that, depending on context and to varying degrees, the objectified person is identified with their body and appearance, and is treated less as a human being and more as a tool lacking autonomy, agency, and self-determination. Where disagreement occurs is whether sexual objectification includes both how a person is seen and treated, or something less broad in which only behavior is considered.

In the case of pornography consumption, the nuance between these two definitions is important. Given the broader definition as including both thought and deed, MacKinnon argues that pornography consumption constitutes objectification. Her argument goes as follows: pornography involves sex between people and things, human beings and pieces of paper, real men and unreal women. As a result, in the consumers mind, the woman becomes a thing and a man’s consumption of pornography therefore constitutes female objectification. However, if objectification is considered exclusively a behavior, then pornography consumption is not objectification but rather anthropomorphism in which pornographic objects are treated as sexual partners. In a paper published in the journal Hypatia in 2006, Jennifer M. Saul examined these conflicting views. The article, entitled “On Treating Things as People: Objectification, Pornography, and the History of the Vibrator” did little to reconcile the two perspectives, however it is worth reading nonetheless if only for the historical case study presented.

Anyway, at the core of their argument, anti-porn feminists charge that the production of pornography entails physical, psychological, and/or economic coercion of the women who perform and model in it; and that much of what is shown in pornography is abusive by its very nature. They also argue that the consumption of pornography is an enticement to sexual violence against women, provides a distorted view of the human body and sexuality, and fosters hatred of women. In short, feminist theory links gender inequality to the objectification of women, which is created and sustained by men’s consumption of pornography. Thus Meaghan Murphy’s collective culpability pronouncement in the opening paragraph of this essay.

Overlooking that pornography is being defined to conform to a particular brand of feminist theory, what can be made of these arguments? Are the consequences of pornographic consumption as dire as feminist argue? Does pornography consumption promote violence and/or foster hatred against women? Is pornography a tool for promoting male sexuality at the expense of female sexuality expression? Does the consumption of pornography create, promote and sustain gender inequality? These questions have been studied and to a certain extent answered. And, as you might expect, some study results are quite definitive; in others, results are mixed and inconclusive.

Pornography And Violence Against Women

With regards to the most serious accusation against pornography – that it incites sexual aggression – rape statistics and controlled studies suggest otherwise.

US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics data show the rates of reported rapes and sexual assault in the U.S. are at their lowest levels since the 1960s. This same goes for other countries. As access to pornography grew in once restrictive Japan, China and Denmark in the past 40 years, rape statistics plummeted. Within the U.S., the states with the least Internet access between 1980 and 2000—and therefore the least access to Internet pornography—experienced a 53 percent increase in reported rape incidence, whereas the states with the most access experienced a 27 percent drop in the number of reported rapes. It is important to note that these associations are just that—associations. They do not prove that pornography is the cause of the observed crime reductions. Nevertheless, the trends just don’t fit with the theory that rape and sexual assault are in part influenced by pornography.

A 2014 controlled study by Jae Woong Shim of Sookmyung Women’s University and Bryant M. Paul of Indiana University did show that exposure to sexually explicit material, coupled with feelings of anonymity, could lead male participants’ to harsher sexist attitudes toward women. But the study did not show that these same participants are more likely to act out those desires and attitudes toward women. And there’s the rub. The study implies that, at least when it comes to pornography-inspired sexist attitudes, how you view women may not be linked to how you treat women.

Repression also seems to figure prominently into the puzzle of pornography. In 2009 Michael P. Twohig, a psychologist at Utah State University, asked 299 undergraduate students whether they considered their pornography consumption problematic; for example, causing intrusive sexual thoughts or difficulty finding like-minded sex partners. Then he assessed the students with an eye to understanding the root causes of their issues. It turns out that among porn viewers, the amount of porn each subject consumed had nothing to do with his or her mental state. What mattered most was whether the subjects tried to control their sexual thoughts and desires. The more they tried to clamp down on their urge for sex or porn, the more likely they were to consider their own pornography use a problem. The findings suggest that suppressing the desire to view pornography, for example, for moral or religious reasons, might actually strengthen the urge for it and exacerbate sexual problems. It’s all about “personal views and personal values,” Twohig says. In other words, the effects of pornography have little to do with the medium itself and everything to do with the person viewing it.

Sex-Positive Feminist Views on Pornography

For sex-positive feminists, pornography is seen as a medium for women’s sexual expression. Sex-positive feminists see many anti-pornography feminist views on sexuality and pornography as being equally oppressive as those of patriarchal religions and ideologies, and argue that anti-pornography feminist discourse ignores and trivializes women’s sexual agency. Ellen Willis (who coined the term “pro-sex feminism”) states “As we saw it, the claim that ‘pornography is violence against women’ was code for the neo-Victorian idea that men want sex and women endure it.”

Sex-positive feminists take a variety of views towards existing pornography. Many of these feminists see pornography as subverting many traditional ideas about women that they oppose, such as ideas that women do not like sex generally, only enjoy sex in a relational context, or that women only enjoy vanilla sex. They also argue that pornography sometimes shows women in sexually dominant roles and presents women with a greater variety of body types than are typical of mainstream entertainment and fashion, and that women’s participation in these roles allows for a fulfillment of their sexual identity and free expression.

Feminist Pornography

Pornography produced by and with feminist women is a small, but growing segment of the porn industry. According to Tristan Taormino, “Feminist porn both responds to typical images with alternative ones and creates its own iconography.”

In 2002, Becky Goldberg produced the documentary “Hot and Bothered: Feminist Pornography,” a look at women who direct, produce, and sell feminist porn. According to Goldberg, feminist pornography is whenever the women is in control of the sexual situation, and as such, she is in control of what is being done to her. As Goldberg explains, feminist pornography is about women enjoying sex.

Some pornographic producers such as Nina Hartley, Ovidie, Madison Young, and Sasha Grey are self-described sex-positive feminists. They do not see themselves as victims of sexism, but rather defend their decision to work in pornography as freely chosen and argue that much of what they do on and behind the camera is an expression of their sexuality. It has also been pointed out that in pornography, women generally earn more than their male counterparts

Erotica versus Pornography

Seeking to find a middle ground, a number of anti-pornography feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Page Mellish make a distinction between “pornography” and “erotica”, the former emphasizing dominance and the latter emphasizing mutuality. Steinem holds that, “These two sorts of images are as different as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation, as partnership is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain.” Feminists who subscribe to this view hold that erotica promotes positive and pro-woman sexual values and does not carry the harmful effects of pornography. However, more ardent anti-pornography feminists are skeptical about this distinction, holding that all sexual materials produced in a patriarchal system are expressions of male dominance. Andrea Dworkin wrote, “erotica is simply high-class pornography: better produced, better conceived, better executed, better packaged, designed for a better class of consumer.”

Still others find the distinction manufactured and thus problematic. Ellen Willis holds that the term ‘erotica’ is needlessly vague and euphemistic, and appeals to an idealized version of what kind of sex people should want rather than what arouses the sexual feelings people actually have. She also emphasizes the subjectivity of the distinction, stating, “In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably comes down to ‘What turns me on is erotica; what turns you on is pornographic.'”

The Sex Wars and Third Wave Feminism

Third wave feminism promotes personal, individualized views on those gender-related issues (such as prostitution, pornography and sadomasochism) that drove the second wave sex wars. In particular, the third-wave view of pornography is that there is no greater meaning other than which the actor or consumer gives it. Items such as sex objects and porn, identified by some second-wave feminists as instruments of oppression are now no longer being exclusively used by men but also by women. Feminist critic Teresa de Lauretis sees the sex wars not in terms of polarized sides but as reflecting a feminism that inherently embodying difference, which may include conflicting and competing drives.

Meanwhile, critic Jana Sawicki rejects both the polarized positions, seeking a third way that is neither morally dogmatic or uncritically libertarian. She offers the idea that what is needed is a theory of sexuality separate from feminism. And it is in that intellectual space where sexuality is divorced from feminism that Ceara Lynch thrives.  Whether as an example of emerging feminist theory or just as a matter of practicality, Ceara Lynch seems to have found an unambiguous ease with her sexuality independent of those feminist issues most important to her.

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