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!