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Whose Porn, Whose Feminism?

“Feminist porn” is not compatible with feminism.

In recent years, a trend known as “feminist porn” has gained visibility. Including films and even an annual Feminist Porn Awards ceremony, an increasing number of women are embracing the idea that porn, if done right, is compatible with feminism.

Lies about anti-porn feminists – that we’re in bed with the religious Right (we aren’t), that we snub our noses at the women in pornography (we don’t), or that we support censorship (also not) – have painted the feminist anti-porn movement as something rigid, outdated, and anti-sex. Feminist defenders of pornography claim to be defying traditional sexual mores, paving the way for everyone to explore sexuality in a new and daring way.

Bottom of the Barrel

Lost in the emphatic “hurrahs!” about freedom and empowerment is any honest discussion about what happens in porn, how women get into it, or how it impacts women outside the industry.

“I never met any woman that had a professional career and left it to go into porn just for fun,” recounts Vanessa Belmond, an industry veteran turned anti-porn activist. “Many got into it because of financial desperation. Many also had abusive childhoods. I had a roommate who had been on the streets, prostituting herself since the age of 14, and by the time she got into porn at 18, it was all she knew.”

That women in porn are usually there because they lack other options is a well-known fact – one that even pro-porn feminists don't deny. In a documentary called After Porn Ends, pornography apologist Nina Hartley admits: “They don’t know how to do anything else. They don’t know how to do retail; they don’t know how to do Excel spreadsheets. Many people [in] adult entertainment… are not suited for nine-to-five work.”

Instead of asking why some women are so disenfranchised, pro-porn feminists seem happy to leave these women where they are – at the bottom of the barrel.

Something Individual

Beginning in the Thatcher and Reagan-dominated 1980s and continuing to this day, the rise of pro-porn feminism has accompanied a general shift within feminism in which individualism has replaced what was once a collective struggle. In a typical statement, Jennifer Baumgardener wrote in 2000: “Feminism is something individual to each feminist.”

It's as if every choice that a woman makes is feminist, simply because she makes it. The fact that her “choice” may have been limited by sexist, racist, or other social structures is conveniently ignored, and the impact that her choice might have on other women is never questioned.

But unequal social structures do exist, and they often limit choices and alternatives available to women. In Canada and the US, women continue to earn 25-30 percent less than men. Like all averages, this number is subject to variation, so that middle- and upper-class white women earn more (in absolute terms and relative to white men) than do women of color, for example.

For an educated white woman who can afford to produce her own pornography and write books about how “empowering” it all is, the pay gap can be brushed off as a minor inconvenience. For a woman of color without a college education, like Belmond, this gap can mean the difference between having to sell her body vs working long hours to make ends meet.

“I thought it would be glamorous and exciting to be in porn,” Belmond explains. “I thought it would be this thrilling lifestyle. I’d read books about porn, like biographies, and I thought if I could just avoid some of the bad things, I’d be able to make all this money. But like almost all of the women in porn, I left with nothing. And now my pictures and videos are on the internet forever, for everyone to see and for the industry to keep making money off of.”

Unthinkable

For younger women who have grown up with the internet, opposing all pornography may sound unthinkable. We have grown up in an environment so saturated with pornography, that we can barely imagine sex without it.

For women of all ages, learning to love and accept our bodies is a challenge. Throughout history, male-dominated societies have often set strict rules around sex. The punishments for breaking these rules have often been solely or disproportionately doled out to women, effectively making it impossible for us to have sex on our own terms. No doubt the idea of “feminist porn” appeals to our desire for a taste of sexual freedom.

But is “sexual freedom” really just reducible to more sex, no matter the circumstances?

“I did coke occasionally, but I was mostly a drinker. And then I got into painkillers – those are really popular in the industry, especially for women that do a lot of anal. And I smoked a whole lot of weed, too. I wouldn’t have been able to do [porn] otherwise. You can’t do that stuff sober,” Belmond recalls.

This is not a picture of a sexually liberated woman. It is, in fact, the picture of a woman who must lay back and think of England in order to “endure” sex. Those who denounce anti-porn feminism as “puritanical” have ignored the fact that pornographers do exactly what the Puritans did: deny women sexual self-determination.

 “Female Sex Slave Sketching”

The word “pornography”comes from the Greek porne, meaning “female sex slave” and graphos, meaning “writing” or “sketching.” In Ancient Greece, porne referred the lowest class of prostitutes, one that was considered utterly vile and there for the taking.

The word “pornography” literally refers to “the depiction of women as vile whores.” If pornography is often assumed to neutrally represent sex, it is only because there is an already widespread perception of women’s bodies as filthy and available for male use and abuse. The violence in pornography may be extreme, but the hatred of women depicted in it could not be more common.

It is this fusing of sex with cruelty that defines pornography as a genre. And it is the reason why pornography is so effective at changing men’s attitudes towards women and sex for the worse.

In an early study conducted by psychologist Neil Malamuth, healthy men with no criminal history were exposed to ten minutes of hardcore pornography. After the exposure, they were asked to answer questions about whether or not women ever “deserved” or enjoyed rape. The men who had watched the pornography overwhelmingly agreed with rape myths in a way that the control group did not.

Countless studies have since shown that exposure to pornography desensitizes men to violence against women, often shaping their sexuality in such a way that they become unable to experience arousal without some element of dominance or violence. The evidence has been so damning that, at times, universities have refused to allow further research on the topic. When a study shows detrimental effects that cannot be reversed, ethics boards will often refuse similar studies to go on. This has happened repeatedly with research on the effects of pornography.

In fact, Ed Donnerstein, a researcher at the University of Arizona, concludes: “Good colleagues of mine would argue that the relationship between… [pornography] and subsequent aggression and changes in… attitudes toward women is much stronger statistically than the relationship between smoking and [lung] cancer.”

Sanctuary for Families, a shelter for abused women and their children in New York, is one of many women’s shelters that has spoken out about the effects of pornography on battered women. One attorney working for the shelter, Amairis Peña-Chavez, explains: “In about 70 percent of the cases… [of] sexual abuse with my clients, pornography is involved. Either that he’s watching it and then wanting to recreate it; or he’s making her watch it and then wanting to film and have a movie of his own.”

Another attorney working with Sanctuary for Families, Hilary Sunghee Seo, emphasizes: “This is a pattern that these women find particularly degrading and humiliating… it makes them turn red, cry, freeze up when they’re recounting these stories.”

What will it take for these women to matter to a “feminist” movement that is supposed to be fighting for their lives? How loud must a woman scream in order to be heard?

Boundaries of Sexual Representation

“Feminist porn” is an odd concept. By definition, it implies that mainstream porn is not feminist, even as pro-porn feminists have spent decades claiming – and still do claim – that there is nothing wrong with pornography in general. Is this at last an admission that something is rotten in the state of pornland?

The Feminist Porn Awards, an awards ceremony that takes place ever year in Toronto, lists three criteria that can qualify a film as “feminist” — a woman and/or traditionally marginalized person had a hand in the production, writing, direction, etc of the work; it depicts genuine female pleasure; it expands the boundaries of sexual representation on film; and challenges stereotypes that are often found in mainstream porn.

How “feminist porn” expands the boundaries of sexual representation is unclear, given that the 2012 nominees included films like Submissive Slut and Babes in Bondage 4. But a woman having a hand in the writing, production, or direction of a film? By that standard, even some of the mainstream porn industry could be considered “feminist.”

In fact, the introduction to The Feminist Porn Book makes clear that: “Feminist porn is also produced within the mainstream adult industry by feminists whose work is funded and distributed by large companies such as Vivid Entertainment, Adam and Eve, and Evil Angel Productions.”

If “feminist porn” only meant small, independent studios making queer pornography, it still wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of mitigating the harms of a $100 billion a year misogynist industry. But so-called “feminist pornographers” partnering with the mainstream industry shows what this is all about: money.

Definitions of Freedom

No radical questions are being asked about sex – for example, why do we need pornography in the first place? Although sexual pleasure is healthy and desirable, is anyone really entitled to buy someone else’s body for sex (in person or via video)? Instead, pro-porn feminists define “equality” as “equal opportunity exploitation,” seeking to give (mostly white and middle-class) women the right to profit from others’ suffering every bit as much as men already profit from it.

Women like Belmond – those who are hurt in the making of pornography, or as a result of it – are notably absent from this definition of freedom.

“I just wish that [the consumers] would stop it with this: ‘Well, she chose it to be in it, so I don’t feel guilty watching it,’” Belmond pleads. “Yes, I know I chose to be in it, I know other women chose to be in it. But a lot of these women have been abused horribly when they were younger, they’ve gone through a lot, [and] they have drug issues… just because they made that choice doesn’t mean that it’s OK to watch their pain.”

Since leaving the industry, Belmond has had to work long hours at minimum wage to barely scrape by. AntiPornography.org, a human rights organization for which she does volunteer work, has helped her as much as they can. In the future, Belmond says that she would like to work full-time as Director of Youth and Sex Industry Outreach (a paid position for which they are currently seeking funding) to help other women leave the industry.

Meanwhile, how many other women will have their pain turned into someone else’s entertainment? How many women will be raped or beaten in part because their partners learned about sex from porne-graphos, from the depiction of women as vile whores? And what will it take for pro-porn feminists to care?

Feminists need to re-open the debate around pornography – not as a theoretical issue, but as the life or death issue that it really is. Most of us are not survivors of the industry; we have not suffered their specific injuries. But as women, we all live within the same sexist system. Every single one of us is shaped by it and suffers at least some of its consequences. If we refuse to stop an industry that hurts women for public entertainment, then we are refusing to stop sexism itself.

Whatever solutions we come up with must work for women like Belmond, or they will not work for any of us.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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