What’s the Deal on Feminism and Pornography

In advertising, it is common knowledge that sex sells. Whether the product is a car, makeup, alcohol or clothing, it’s usually a woman’s body being used to sell it—sociologist Erving Goffman was one of the first to analyze and discuss in detail the prevalence of gender in advertising and how the use of gender perpetuated stereotypes of women as weak, dependent, and sensual. But what happens when sex itself is the product? If, as Goffman said, images of women in advertising promote “ritualization of subordination,” then what does pornography promote?

This question—or perhaps ‘debate’ is a more fitting term—was raised in the late 70s and early 80s, as second-wave feminism was progressing. On one side were the ‘sex-positive’ feminists, like Gayle Rubin, who supported pornography as a recognition and celebration of female sexual pleasure. On the other were feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin who saw pornography as part of the larger picture of male sexual dominance, responsible for the oppression of women, and thought it should therefore be outlawed.

Since then, the pornography industry has grown exponentially, partially due to the Internet, which moved pornography from the public to private sphere and made it cheaper and more accessible. On average, 70% of men between the ages of 18 and 34 will watch porn. That’s not to say the audience comprises only of adult men—90% of children aged 8 to 16 have watched porn, and a reported 1 in 3 women watch porn.

The problem that initiated the so-called “sex wars” in the 70s and 80s was the content of mainstream pornography. In one study, cited in the documentary The Price of Pleasure, 89.9% of pornography contains verbal or physical aggression, 94.4% of which is targeted at women. Pornography, then, tells men that not only is violence against women okay, but that they like it—it turns them on. Violence becomes a part of sex, thus rendering the violence invisible.

According to research by anti-pornography campaigner and author Gail Dines, these violent images, as Dworkin and MacKinnon originally argued, do have a significant effect on men’s expectations and perceptions of sex. “I am not saying that a man reads [or watches] porn and goes out to rape,” she told The Guardian, “but what I do know is that porn gives permission to its consumers to treat women as they are treated in porn.” For example, in a comment thread on Jezebel.com in 2007, several women said they had experienced partners ejaculating on their face without permission—the “money shot” so common in porn.

At a TED conference in 2009, Cindy Gallop gave a brief presentation on how she had personally experienced the effects of pornography on men. As Gallop mentions, the porn industry is made by and targeted at straight men. Some sociologists describe it as homosocial; that is, pornography has become a mode for men communicate with each other. Through pornography, men can tell other men what they should want from women. What women want. What sex should look like, feel like, be like.

Dines also argues that this process can result in women themselves believing that being verbally or physically abused is a part of sex, and that society at large is influenced by this idea. “The more porn images filter into mainstream culture, the more girls and women are stripped of full human status and reduced to sex objects,” she told The Guardian.

However, there is a part of the story that is frequently ignored in this conversation. As Alison Lee, writer and manager of Good for Her, said at the Feminist Porn Awards:

A lot of people don’t understand that they have a choice when it comes to porn. They think that the mainstream, big porn machine is all that exists, and there was nobody in the mainstream porn industry who was recognizing that not all porn was the same. Showing the world that there’s a lot of different porn out there that can actually be really interesting and empowering is an important goal of the awards.

An example of interesting pornography is Beautiful Agony, created in 2003 by Richard Lawrence and Lauren Olney. The website features videos submitted by people of themselves, from the neck up, having an orgasm. The catch, as with most independent porn, is that a subscription to the website must be paid for, making it less accessible to the public.

Of course, this new genre of so-called feminist porn has sparked a new debate, as many argue that there can be no such thing. In her book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, Dines writes that “anyone willing to feed off women’s bodies and use them as raw materials to make a profit has no right to call themselves feminists,” while creator of the Feminist Porn Awards, Carlyle Jansen argues the opposite, that “some women are turned on by being submissive. We need to respect that their choice for themselves is not degrading or sexist.”

Further Reading: MakeLoveNotPorn.com, Feminist Porn for a Male Audience, Feminist Porn: Sex, Consent and Getting Off (includes a list of feminist porn sites),  What’s all the Fuss about ‘Feminist’ Porn Star James Deen?


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