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Yeshe Schepers

Yeshe Schepers

By Yeshe Schepers

The mainstreaming of pornography has brought on the feminist debate around the function of pornography in our society and gender relations. The main focus of feminist criticisms is not necessarily directed at the explicit nature of pornographic images but rather at the sexism, misogyny and harms that are present in pornography. Feminists have questioned the decensoring of pornography along with the normalization of the sex industry worldwide. Particular attention has been given to women in pornography, how they are (mis)treated and potentially harmed in the process. Feminists have criticized how women are (mis)represented in pornography in terms of sexual desire and agency, and that it is the fantasy of (heterosexual) men and not women themselves that is depicted in pornographic imagery. However, there is disagreement amongst feminists within this debate. Some claim that the decensoring of pornography has liberated women from being sexually repressed and controlled, and that pornography is a way in which female sexuality is expressed, while others maintain that the decensorship of pornography has contributed to the failure to deal with violence against women in the sex industry in general.

Anti-pornography feminists claim that pornography objectifies women through specific representations of female sexuality that depict the subordination of women and the dominance of men. The process of objectification through pornography, which is often linked to images of men perpetrating violence against women, is seen as an act of violence in and of itself. Anti-pornography feminist also condemn the violence and exploitation that many female performers experience behind the scenes, including a number of bodily as well as psychological harms. Some of these harms are as a direct result of physical coercion and sexual abuse while others may include contracting sexually transmitted infections, drug addiction, and the ‘wear and tear’ on women’s bodies.

On the other side of the debate, anti-censorship feminists say that it is possible to be both a feminist that question the representations of female desire and sexuality in pornography as well as a woman/man who enjoys watching pornography. They claim that the censorship of pornography has impacted on many women’s sexuality as something to feel shame, guilt and confusion around. Therefore, censoring pornography promotes a new kind of oppression of women who, for example, do enjoy pornography or sadomasochistic practices and are denied this sexual pleasure. Likewise, anti-censorship feminists argue that the oppressive roles women usually take up in pornography are not to be taken literally and also represent many women’s fantasies and that objectification only becomes problematic when it ignores other aspects of a person. When women’s sexuality, own desires, needs and agency are included in pornography, it can be a form of sex entertainment for both women and men.

That is not to say that the current images in pornography do not further exacerbate or contribute to the problem of violence against women. It is important to critically assess the ways in which the harms of and in pornography are constructed in favour of an industry that represents a male dominated capitalist society. Pornography today is a business with profits high enough to call it an economy itself.  It remains embedded in a patriarchal system where men are still for the most part the producers and beneficiaries of the pornography industry. The question whether sex is just another commodity then becomes an important one. Sex may be the oldest form of ‘work’ and because of this, its exploitative character, from the perspective that bodies are not just objects, is overlooked. There is still a lot of misogyny and sexism present in pornography and it is intolerable to negotiate the harms of pornography for the enjoyments of pornography. Another concern is that it seems that many (men), even those who do not exploit women in their lives, are sexually aroused by the exploitation of women in pornography.

What allows the pornography industry and those that consume it to enjoy watching women being exploited is the construction of the female ‘porn star’. This woman usually has a history of sexual abuse and therefore is ‘used to it’ or somehow able to cope with the harms of pornography. She ‘chooses’ to enter the porn industry whereby allowing more abuse as though it is something that she has brought on herself. Indicative of this is that even though the harms of pornography are visible, women who partake in pornography enjoy it. Thus, the harms of pornography are constructed, by the pornography industry, the consumers, and the performers themselves, as “not abuse”. Women in pornography are also often constructed as victims. It is not my intention to use this idea of victim to deny women’s agency and ability to resist oppressive structures, but rather to use the word “victim” in the sense that as long as patriarchy dominates our views on gender and sexuality, women will be on the continuum of ‘victim’ and have only a certain degree of ‘freedom’ to reject a prescribed sexuality and come up with alternatives. It is therefore important to remain critical of the liberalism offered by anti-censorship feminists who justify women’s desire for and pleasure of pornography on this basis of ‘choice’.

Therefore, it is not a question about women’s ‘choice’ and ‘enjoyment’ of exploitation, even in the instances where female performers do enjoy and choose pornography. It is about connecting the personal and the political and looking at the ways in which pornography as an industry legitimizes the ongoing violence against women. The failure to deal with violence against women is a direct result of the failure to acknowledge these acts of violence as abuse.

Failing to understand the context of a patriarchal society that legitimates the oppression of women also puts the responsibility of the exploitation of women in the hands of a ‘culture’ such as pornography. Censoring one aspect in which these particular representations of gender and sexuality exist does not lead to the extinction of patriarchal gender hierarchies. Therefore the problem is not pornography itself but the ideologies of a male dominated society that it represents.

For the full text of Yeshe’s paper, click the link below!

Yeshe Schepers – Women in Pornography fulltext

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12 thoughts on “Women in Pornography: Freedom or Oppression?

  1. “What allows the pornography industry and those that consume it to enjoy watching women being exploited is the construction of the female ‘porn star’. This woman usually has a history of sexual abuse and therefore is ‘used to it’ or somehow able to cope with the harms of pornography. She ‘chooses’ to enter the porn industry whereby allowing more abuse as though it is something that she has brought on herself.”

    Ok now this:

    http://www.alternet.org/sex-amp-relationships/study-porn-stars-arent-damaged-their-profession

    Opinions?

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  2. “Therefore the problem is not pornography itself but the ideologies of a male dominated society that it represents.”

    Would you argue ”feminist porn” is a worthwhile aim? And have you read much of Catharine MacKinnon’s work? Where she argues BDSM, pr0n and ”regular sex” share a continuum of violence.

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    • Although feminist porn is a good start by offering an alternative to mainstream pornogrpahy, it still falls within a system of patriarchy and again in a particular kind of industry. I think it’s easy to think that “feminist” would be representative of female sexuality etc and exclude any exploitative harms, but I’m not sure that is always true. What I’m getting at is the ways in which pornography is just another form in which particular unequal gender relations and violence against women are so noticeable and even acknowledged by pornographers themselves yet it continues to proliferate.

      I haven’t read much of her work but some of it resonates and other things I find extreme. The ‘problem’ of pornography is a lot more complex than good or bad, censorship or no censorship, because not every woman experiences oppression in the same way. BUT I do think that we see too much of one type of woman in pornography and usually she is depicted in a subordinate way.

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  3. I’m not sure I’m following your argument, Yeshe. Either pr0n is bad, or it’s good. Do we want ”organic, fairtrade” prostitutes, or do we want to abolish prostitution?

    You talk about ”not every women experiences oppression in the same way…” That’s irrelevant and is a straw argument. Fact is ALL women experience oppression. No feminist, especially no radical feminist, is arguing that all women experience the same type of oppression.

    We can say that pr0n harms women and that freedom of expression shouldn’t shield pimps and Johns. Cause at the end of the day, under The Rule of Men, they’re the only ones with freedom of expression. Women have none. We can’t use ”freedom of expression” to cause harm.

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    • Is there a reason that you are spelling porn prOn?

      I think that we must explore the diverse ways that women experience feelings of empowerment. I don’t think it is ever as simple as something is good or bad. We must speak with the women who participate.

      Your arguments suggest that in a patriarchy no woman can make choices or experience sex as a pleasurable act. I don’t think that’s the case.

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  4. ”I think that we must explore the diverse ways that women experience feelings of empowerment.”

    What’s empowerfulising about prostitution? Was — is — the goal of feminism not to stop women’s oppression? Lisa Blanks, an ex-funfem, wrote an amazing note on how she views feminism. You’d need to be her fb friend to see the note. But the gist of it is that ”feminism isn’t about me. It’s about WE”.

    What if a woman feels empowerfulising by kicking another woman in the teeth? Is that OK? Or what if I feel empowerfulised by robbing another woman? Why make ‘individual empowerment’ the focus at all? Should we not try to find solutions to rape and unwanted abortion, among others, instead of donning our hooker heels and going off to make ”feminist porn”?

    ”I don’t think it is ever as simple as something is good or bad. We must speak with the women who participate.”

    It is as simple as something is good or bad. Porn’s bad because it makes inequality between the sexes, ie female domination look sexay. There’s no middle ground. And whose voices should we listen to? Because I do listen. I listen to exited women. They’re my IRL friends and they’re my fb friends. Rebecca Mott, for example. Read her stuff. Read what the radfems say who were prostituted women. It bugs me that the loudest voices are those of pimps and Johns.

    ”Your arguments suggest that in a patriarchy no woman can make choices or experience sex as a pleasurable act. I don’t think that’s the case.”

    Why does the woman experience Penis-In-Vagina as pleasurable? Might it be because the entire society we’ve constructed says PIV is so much fun? Is it because men have defined what’s fun and what’s sexy and what’s pleasurable? Would that same woman find PIV pleasurable if we put her in a vacuum? With no influences from anywhere?

    And then we’ve only touched on the funness or unfunness of PIV. We haven’t even discussed the potential harm to the female body — unwanted pregnancy is one of them. STDs is another. Having to use birth control is yet another. Having the sole responsibility for birth control because Mr Dude won’t do it, nor would we trust him to use a male hormonal birth control.

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    • I hear your arguments. Personally I think having sex for money (whether that is prostitution or pornography) violates my sense of bodily integrity. I also find it hard to imagine that someone (man or woman) would be comfortable doing that. I don’t think there is something wrong with the individual that pursues prostitution or pornorgraphy but I do think that the decision is by and large fueled by society. (Maybe erotica is a way forward? Without the actual act of sex but the pretense of it, like we see in many movies. What do you think?)

      Beyond that is the fact that these practices are harmful (phyisically and psychologically )for those that participate (although some say it is not). And even beyond that it represents the same patriarchal views where women are subordinate and men are dominant, which is harmful for women specifically but also for men and masculinities. So the reproduction of ONLY these ideas are not okay. But what if there were different expressions of female and male sexuality where sometimes there are those positions of subordination and dominance and other times there are not. At the moment that seems impossible because it is not how a patriarchal society functions. Now, every time we see a woman in prostitution or pornography, it is exploitative.

      I think what makes these kind of arguments so “unclear cut” is that we can’t see what the alternative may be because there is no alternative. Then doing away with pornography and prostitution seems the only way forward. And maybe it is or maybe there is a place for the “organic, fairtrade” side. But not while patriarchy is the norm.

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