Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Porn Wars and Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality

Yes, I know that's a scary post title.

Today I'm writing about an exercise in stretching my brain and my opinions on porn. That's important to do, and books like Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality by Gail Dines, Robert Jensen, and Ann Russo are the background for dialogues about porn and sex work today.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit I read this book for a research project I'm doing for my Women's Studies honors thesis. I'll be examining "feminist" porn and the tactics it uses to address critiques like the ones brought up in Pornography. I'm starting by reading a whole slew of books written by anti-porn feminists so that I can be fluent in their criticisms of porn.

One of the things that was striking to me in reading this book was the way the authors framed their arguments in relation to sex-positive feminists who they called "sexual liberals." The first couple of chapters were devoted to naming and disputing "sexually liberal" criticisms of anti-pornography feminism. As the book went on it got a little more nuanced, but the first two chapters set the tone for the narratives about porn.

I'm probably not going to make myself popular with people on either side by saying this, but I have a huge problem with the divisiveness we see surrounding the issue of porn in feminism. It's a problem on both sides, and I think it's really unproductive.

I agree with the anti-porn feminists that a lot of porn does represent and reinforce the patriarchal gender roles of our society. Including a tendency towards violence against women.

I agree with the sex positive feminists that porn can be a very powerful tool for exploring and expressing female sexuality. I think that any consciously navigated choice to be sexual as a woman is an act of rebellion against the stupid virgin/whore complex.

Which, by the way, is hugely at play in the conflict between these groups. The anti-porners basically call the sex pos-ers whores for advocating for what they see as the always patriarchal representations of sex in porn. The sex pos-ers call the anti-porners prudes for criticizing sex and porn and fucked up power dynamics between men and women.

It's a bad show.

I'm having a real "Ack! I've been identifying solely with one side of this argument, but I think the other has solid points too!" kind of moment.

I still think that the sex positive movement has a more productive approach to porn: actually making porn and REconstructing gender roles in it by altering the circumstances of its production and consumption. However, I don't think they'd be much of anywhere without the efforts of the anti-porn movement to highlight the sexual inequalities that are prevalent everywhere.

I think that where the anti-porn movement reacts to a negative sexual situation in our country, the pro-sex movement acts to change it. That's why I'm writing about feminist porn; I want to see how they're doing.

After that long word vomit, back to the book. I did really like the last few chapters where the authors talked more about their personal interactions with porn and how it affected them emotionally. These three closing essays showed, finally, a much more complex view of how to deal with porn.

I think that in the end the three authors are somewhat open to dealing with sex positive types (or "sexual liberals" as they're called in the book). I hope that we can all find a common ground. We're all working towards the same thing anyway: equality between men and women.

Cross posted at Paper Cuts and Plastic.

3 comments:

ruthe said...

Hi ho. I've sworn off feminist blogs because they get me so riled up, but now I'm cheating.

My beef with the "sex-positive" platform is that it doesn't seem to be just proactively making woman-positive porn. I had an online argument with someone last week who thought Larry Flynt was a pioneer (in a good way). And I know from personal experience that a huge percentage of women in the sex industry (porn, stripping, and hooking)are abuse survivors and/or drug addicts. So how much of a choice is it really? I certainly wouldn't have done what I did if I didn't need the cash, and I certainly did not feel empowered. Nor are any other women empowered by some guy being able to hire me to dance in my underwear.

But feminists who identify as "sex positive" will actually ARGUE THAT WOMEN IN THE SEX INDUSTRY ARE NOT OVERWHELMINGLY ABUSE SURVIVORS AND / OR DRUG ADDICTS despite both statistical and anecdotal evidence.

I enjoy sex. I don't care how other people get off. But some of that "sex positive" shit is just disingenuous.

Brianna J said...

It wasn't a word vomit - it was a 'verbose deconstruction' :)

I completely agree with you. The whole ongoing argument divides the community horribly.

I actually feel like both sides can be right simultaneously. At the risk of sounding trite, "porn doesn't exploit people, people exploit people." It seems to me that one person could view a piece of pornography, and get all of the bad effects (they objectify, are made more violent, etc.), while another would see it purely in a positive way. The same goes for the production side of things - the same movie could be made, both by exploiting women, and without exploiting women. It's all about the people involved.

Iamcuriousblue said...

"But feminists who identify as "sex positive" will actually ARGUE THAT WOMEN IN THE SEX INDUSTRY ARE NOT OVERWHELMINGLY ABUSE SURVIVORS AND / OR DRUG ADDICTS despite both statistical and anecdotal evidence."

And you know what? I'd be one of those evol sex positives who would argue precisely that. And I'm not being disingenuous here, because I happen to be fairly well-versed in the social science literature on the subject, and I don't think its been demonstrated that all types of sex workers come from backgrounds of sexual abuse. Yes, you can find some studies of street prostitutes that show an above-average incidence of sexual abuse. But considering that these surveys were done of socially marginalized women, often in the criminal justice system, that's not surprising.

Have similar studies been done of strippers, porn actors, escorts, and other sex workers from less marginalized backgrounds? I don't think so. In fact, I can say definitively, there have been no such studies of women in the porn industry, and that the anti-porn folks simply recycle a lot of (often dubious) statistics about prostitution when describing porn performers.

And as far as anecdotal evidence goes, for every sex worker who tells a story of being a sexual abuse survivor, you can find one who will tell you, no, that's not their background, and please don't project your stereotypes on to me, thank you very much.

So the point that a lot of "disingenuous" sex-pozzes continue to make is that sex work is not a monolith, that some sex work is indeed very oppressive to women trapped in it, but that on the other hand, there are also sex workers for whom sex work is a net positive (or, more often, a complex mix of pros and cons) and who genuinely choose to do that kind of work.

Those of us on the "sex-positive" side of the debate also argue that, whatever the problems of the sex industry, the solutions offered by the radical feminist camp – Swedish-style criminalization of customers, Dworkin and MacKinnon's quasi-censorship strategy, and outright censorship in places like the UK – are cures that are worse than the disease. There are a hell of a lot of harm-reduction strategies that work better than increased criminalization, and without the side effect of eroding at civil liberties.

And if that makes me a hopelessly deluded "sexual liberal", well, I guess I'll wear that badge with pride, really.