As sex trade survivor and activist Rachel Moran said, "There is not now, nor has there ever been, a feminist case for the commodification of females."
This should be a no-brainer, that as feminists - supporters of a social and political movement to liberate women from male oppression - we're not on board with media and institutions that brutalise women for the enjoyment of men. It shouldn't be super controversial to say this. But these days, feminists who are critical of pornography are met with a fairly standard response: "Why? What's your problem with sex?"
That any objection to pornographic material is characterised as anti-sex puritanism illustrates just how effective the porn industry has been in aligning its product with sexual liberation rather than sexual exploitation. Pornographers have successfully taken acts of dominance, cruelty and abuse and called it sex. The industry has so thoroughly permeated our notions of sex and sexuality that even some self-identified feminists embrace pornography as empowering.
Back in the 1970s and 80s, second-wave feminists clearly identified pornography as the objectification and sexual subordination of women, rallying against pimps and pornographers. Only decades later, liberal feminists promote porn as progressive, liberating and a woman's choice. Critical analysis of pornography in popular feminist media outlets is largely limited to "hey, whatever floats your boat", with women encouraged to incorporate pornography into their intimate relationships and pat themselves on the back for being so cool and open-minded.
What is notably absent, however, is any meaningful analysis of the impacts of pornography on women as a whole and how women are harmed in both the production and consumption of pornography - like what it means for women collectively in terms of intimate relationships, opportunities for women and achieving gender equality, when the dominant form of sexual education portrays us as a mere set of holes for men to use?
Is this supposed to be progress?
An article in Cosmopolitan magazine promoting anal sex to women (Image supplied by author).
It's impossible to consider the realities of porn and conclude it advances the status of women. Mainstream pornography is dominated by acts of sexual violence, primarily by men against women. Staple sex acts in pornography include fellatio inducing gagging, heterosexual anal sex, ejaculation on women's faces and breasts and multiple penetrations. Women are lovingly referred to as bitches, whores, sluts and 'cumdumpsters' by men who violate their bodies for the enjoyment of men watching at home.
Pornography says that women exist for men's sexual use, that it's okay for women to be treated like sluts, to be degraded and abused, and that both men and women find pleasure in the sexual degradation of women. What possible justification can there be for this treatment of women?
Defenders of pornography assert that women choose to participate in the filmed sexual abuse that is pornography, and therefore, if women consent to sexual violence, or are paid for it, it can no longer be acknowledged as sexual violence. On these terms, men can continue to profit from or find sexual excitement in the sexualised abuse and humiliation of women without having to feel icky about it. As Robert Jensen argues in The End of Patriarchy, the 'choice' defence allows men and some women to avoid asking any uncomfortable questions of themselves, "derail[ing] any call for critical self-reflection about their use of pornography."
However, even concepts of choice and consent (if they exist in a significant way) do not magically render critical analysis unnecessary. They do not transform an industry built on human suffering into an ethical enterprise. Should we accept the argument that exploitation in sweatshops is a non-issue because some people with very limited options 'choose' to work in them? Or that the institution of slavery has merit because not all slaves felt exploited? That there are women who simply deserve or choose to be raped?
The deliberate conflation of pornography with sexual liberation allows those who use or profit from pornography to silence dissenting voices. If pornography represents sexual freedom, then opposition must be regarded as an argument for sexual repression. Liberal feminists who support pornography have bought into this lie, confusing sexual liberation with female liberation. As Sheila Jeffreys pointed out, complete sexual freedom for men to dominate and abuse women under the guise of 'sex' has not been liberating for women.
In any other medium, violent, sexist and racist content that is typical of mainstream pornography would warrant outrage, but in pornography, such content gets a free pass because any examination or analysis of sexual practices is equated with repression. Women who do speak about the realities of pornography are openly mocked and derided by liberal feminists who are unwittingly doing the work of pornographers for them. I've witnessed it countless times, and been on the receiving end of it myself. While it's disheartening, I can't say I'm overly surprised when it's men defending pornography. But when it's women, 'sex positive' feminists who tell us we "just need a good ****", it's soul destroying.
Andrea Dworkin had some strong words for these women:
"Whoever they are, whatever they think they are doing, the outstanding fact about them is that they are ignoring the women who have been hurt in order to help the pimps who do the hurting. They are collaborators, not feminists...
"Surely the freedom of women must mean more to us than the freedom of pimps."