Porn and Sexual Liberation

This is the finished essay of the talk given by Joy as part of the ARF workshop at the Anarchist Bookfair.

Cross-posted at Autonomous Radical Feminists blog

Porn and Sexual Liberation

I’m told that porn is all about choice; the choice to make porn and the choice to use it. I can understand that – we’d all love to have plenty of choice in our sex lives. And I can see there’s plenty of choice involved in porn: business choice for the pornographers, economic choice for the multi-national porn industry, consumer choice for porn users. Pornographers, the porn industry, the johns, all exercise their choice to profit from the sale and use of women’s, children’s and men’s bodies. The former three have the greater choices (if what the latter are left with can be said to even constitute a choice at all).

I’m told that porn is just fantasy, not to be taken seriously. But porn is not fantasy, the pictures and recordings are of real live human beings just like you and me but, instead of being portrayed as individuals, as human beings, they are treated as fragmented body parts; women, men and children are depicted and used as holes, cunts, living sex aids, receptacles for the depositing of waste fluids, just so you and I can have our sexual freedom, and the porn industry can count its profits.

The porn industry: A multi-national multi-billion currency industry. ‘Industry’ sounds respectable – it’s only work – but we know from other multi-national industrialists that work isn’t necessarily respectable. Tears fall, quite rightly, when we hear of the exploitation of sweat-shop workers, but when it’s the blood, sweat, tears and other bodily fluids of people in porn at issue, we get told that it’s not exploitation it’s sexual freedom. Whose sexual freedom? Economic freedom for the porn industry, sexual and economic exploitation for the workers.

I’ve been told that people in the porn industry love it. It’s their sexual freedom. If only. If only. If it were true, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this paper, I’d be off doing something else. This blog, and others like it, wouldn’t be necessary. If people were having a great time, and the porn represented sexual liberation, this blog would hold links and podcasts and whatever else our boffins could come up with, accessing nothing but porn. If people were being filmed having sex, or trainspotting, or collecting badges, or reading, or doing whatever else turns them on, I wouldn’t be protesting, I’d be cheering! But they’re not. The vast majority of porn is a documentary of survival, of what people have to do to get by, to pay the rent, to get the bank manager or other heavy off their back. Porn is not sexual liberation, it’s not freedom. But it looks like it. We view the photos and films, we masturbate to them, we have an orgasm. That’s sex, isn’t it? By definition, yes. But it’s not sexual freedom, it’s not sexual liberation, it’s not freedom of choice. Not for the people in the films. They are acting. When they smile, they act. When they scream, they may be doing it for real.

I’m told that some people who appear in porn do enjoy it; they do it because for them it is sexual freedom. I say, as I say about when we use the porn ourselves, does that make it OK? Just because I get off on porn, just because some porn stars say they get off on porn, does that justify the existence of the multi-billion currency international porn industry? In fact, never mind the industry, the industry is just a concept, an abstraction, an entity, and I’m not concerned about that. I’m concerned about human beings. Am I justified to expect a whole class of human beings to be set aside as sub-humans to perform for the camera, so that I can exercise my sexual freedom? And the same goes for performers – if I enjoy performing in the industry, or if I make a lot of money (don’t worry, it won’t be for long, once I’ve been in the industry a while they’ll dump me unless I can perform things I’ve not previously performed in public, ie they’ll expect me to ‘progress’ towards things I don’t want to do) am I justified in accepting that a whole section of human beings will be exploited to facilitate my career? Can I profit from the trade in the purchase, sale and use of human beings? I say that sets up a hierarchy, a power differential which puts my needs above someone else’s. Sexual liberation cannot come from the continuation of adherence to hierarchies, attention to status, abuse of power.

Leaving aside the fact that during the Civil War in America, certain of the slaves ‘chose’ to remain in slavery and did not want to be freed, and leaving aside the fact that certain spouses beaten by their partners choose to stay with their abuser, and leaving aside the fact of Stockholm syndrome, and further leaving aside this remark of Catharine A MacKinnon, ‘When material conditions preclude 99% of your options, it is not meaningful to call the remaining 1% – what you are doing – your choice,’ let us just say, for the sake of argument, that we manage to fix it so that only those who really choose to appear as performers in porn actually do so. What then? Power structures would not disappear. My idea of freedom is along the lines of, ‘the freedom to swing my arm, ends where your nose begins.’ With porn, I can’t ‘swing my arm’ without bashing you on the nose. Viewing porn – the very act of looking at another human being who is not being treated as a human being, but only an object there for the use of – changes my perception of that whole ‘class’ of human beings. My attitudes to women, children and men change after viewing porn. I no longer see the women and children (or the men who are being ‘treated like’ women and children) as human beings. I no longer need to consider they have needs, desires and views of their own. After all, they are not human like me, they are commodities I have bought and I’m entitled to do whatever I want with them. Not only that but, as a side effect, my attitude towards people I meet outside of porn changes also. It becomes easier to carry the superior feeling I get, when I own another human being, out into the ‘real’ world. Since it is mostly women and children who are used in porn, and men who are the users, porn replicates the patriarchal society on-screen. This applies both in the scenarios of the photos and films themselves (whether it is women, children or other men that the men are using) and for the purchasers and users of the finished product. The sexual hierarchy which persists today in society is replicated and sold back to us as sex. It’s not sex, it’s hierarchy, abuse of power, normalisation of power abuse, patriarchal propaganda, hate speech, and promotes the idea not only that violence is sexy, but that violence is sex. Yet those who point this out are labelled anti-sex, not anti-violence or pro-justice.

During WWII, Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, including caricatures, misrepresented Jewish people and portrayed them as deserving of contempt. We now recognise that when a whole people is misrepresented, and portrayed as non-human or sub-human, people who view that portrayal begin to believe the lies and their attitude changes as they come to think that those portrayed are not worthy of respect and that they, the viewers or readers of the propaganda, are superior. We recognise such acts of propaganda as hate speech. But when will we recognise as hate speech the gross misrepresentation of women? When will we recognise as violence against women, the depiction of women as having no needs or rights of their own, whether sexual or otherwise, which don’t magically coincide with whatever WE want to do to them or whatever WE want them to do to us? In other words, porn depicts women as a class of beings to be used by us purely for our own sexual satisfaction. Making porn, selling porn, using porn, it’s all exercising our right to practice hate speech, to make our point of view count for more than the human rights of that section of society being used in porn. And those in the ‘real’ world who puff themselves up after watching porn, believing they are superior, transmit that hate speech into hate acts, hate attitudes, towards those that remind them of the human beings to whose subjection they have climaxed. In this way, to deal in porn is not a ‘private’ matter of choice for those people in the porn productions, those in the porn industry, those consumers of porn, because it affects all those producers’ and viewers’ and users’ attitudes towards people in the broader world, who are in a similar position in society as those portrayed on screen in the one-down (or ‘bottom’) position. These negative attitudes impact on people detrimentally. One real-life example is what happened to Joey Stefano, a famous porn star who, just because he was in the ‘bottom’ position in his films (ie in the traditional ‘female role’ of being used by and/or servicing a man), he lost status in the ‘real’ world. The more his co-star ‘tops’ gained in status and income – simply as a result of the things they did to him and got him to do to them – the more Joey lost status; and, the more daring his acts became, the more reviled he was by his viewers.

It’s been said that condemning porn affects the civil liberties of porn users. Well how about asking whether the proliferation, promotion and use of porn and prostitution infringes women’s civil liberties, human rights, social freedom, opportunities, peace of mind and status as a human being – not an object for the use of others!

I’ve heard that if I condemn porn, I’m ‘matronising’ the people who appear in porn and that I’m denying their own agency and labelling them victims. I do not believe the two things equate. I can be active and still be a victim. I can be a victim without being passive. Again, the Holocaust was a witness to that. Slavery is a witness to that. Many people tried to escape both conditions but the system of power abuse was too great. To come back to porn, why is it that if someone says they choose to work in porn, defenders of porn recognise their agency, but when someone says they worked hard to escape from porn or prostitution, suddenly the defenders of porn do not recognise the agency of these women? It is far harder for someone to go against what is considered the norm (currently porn is equated with sex, and therefore good) than to go along with the mainstream view and say they chose to act in porn.

Let’s talk about sex. Sex activities shown in porn are mostly reactions against traditional prohibitions. Old patriarchal attitudes in the West originated in the monotheistic rules in the Bible, that forbade intercourse during a woman’s period because she was ‘dirty,’ likewise a week before and a week afterwards, also outside of marriage, also any sex act which wasn’t sexual intercourse. As Shere Hite pointed out, it is no coincidence that – supposed questions of hygiene notwithstanding – the only times and acts which were allowed were those that maximised conception and maintained control over who would be a father, and that arranged that the father could be as certain of his parenthood as possible. All very useful in a tribe just starting out and trying to maximise population numbers, promote social cohesion, control and discipline, and engender obedience to the Patriarchs and, through them, to the State. These prohibitions, which were not in force when the Jewish people were just another Semitic tribe hardly distinguishable from their neighbours, passed down through tradition to today. Because, as I pointed out earlier, we have orgasms when we use porn, we mistakenly think we are enjoying sexual freedom. We overlook that the sex industry is selling back to us their knee-jerk reaction to Patriarchal prohibitions. Anything that criticises the porn industry can be attacked as just being a throwback to religious indoctrination that sex is wrong but, since I don’t agree that porn is sex, I don’t accept this argument as valid. I criticise porn as a human rights issue, as well as being anti-porn for sexual liberation issues.

What do the people who star in porn look like? What do they do in porn? How do they feel when they make the porn? They look the way the producer wants them to look and, if that includes labioplasty, that’s what they’ll do. They do what the producer wants them to do. I can’t say how they feel, but how would you feel if you lived your sexuality not (as I hope you do now – when and if you feel like it, alone, or with others who are into the same things as you) but as someone else told you to do. As a performance. Doing as you’re told, performing when you’re told to. And acting like it’s what you want. However bland or extreme. Or else lose your job (or your life). And no, I’m not scaremongering, I’m stating the reality as it is for some people. After all, if as a producer you need a certain film for a certain market, you need to get that film made, one way or another.

As I said, they (the people performing porn) do what the producer wants. No matter that that particular actor never does that in their private life, no matter that the majority of men or women prefer to do something different in real life. Take thrusting. In porn films, there’s a lot of thrusting being done by males. Again, I take this to be a reflection and reproduction of our Patriarchal society and its mainstream attitudes. ‘The man has to be active and the woman passive’ (unless he’s paying her to be a dominatrix, for example). Well, in a male supremacist society, as a man, you can’t afford to be anything but what a man is meant to be. Yet Hite’s extensive research shows that the majority of men, when alone (ie when masturbating), prefer covering the penis and moving something backwards and forwards over it, rather than thrusting their hips and pushing their penis into and out of something. Well, who knew?! You’d certainly never learn that from watching porn. And that’s all I’m going to say about porn being a great educator about sex. Not!

I mentioned labioplasty. Well, it’s just trimming, isn’t it? To make the genitals neat and tidy. Labioplasty is surgery to remove a part of the inner labia (women’s or girl’s genital lips) which might hang down and look unsightly. Unsightly? To whom? Again, I say why should a whole class of people be set aside to undergo a harmful cultural practice, namely having their labia removed, so that we can have a photo or film which we think gives us a better orgasm? Removing part of the labia interferes with the nerve endings. All that section of flesh that is removed will, by definition, never give pleasure to that particular woman again. Due to damage to the nerve endings, however, the remaining stumps may well give pain or a sickening ‘dead’ feeling to the area. Furthermore, if that woman was one of those women who find their labia facilitates their own orgasm during sexual intercourse (by causing traction between the clitoral hood and the clitoris as the labia cover and uncover the penis), another source of pleasure is dead to her after labioplasty.

Similarly, the undergoing of breast surgery results in nerve damage, not just temporary post-surgery pain. Removing the nipples and replacing them in a more ‘suitable’ place on the breast after ‘enhancement’ (few euphemisms are as cruel) or reduction of the breasts, means much pleasurable sensation is lost to the woman. Again, in the case of a woman with sensitive nipples, who has formerly achieved orgasm by their stimulation alone, the loss is immeasurable to her.

To close, when we hear about how porn is liberating, how is treating performers in porn as flavour of the month, as consumables rather than human beings, liberation for them? The view of women as being on earth just to service men is not progressive or liberal, it is just a repetition of our present hierarchical society and the old Patriarachal attitude that women are either breeders or sex objects; Madonnas or whores. Is it ok that a whole section of society can be set aside to be used by the rest of us to relieve ourselves over or in, to be simply sex fluid receptacles, comparable to spitoons? For the avoidance of doubt, I am not against masturbation (or self-love, rather) I am just making the point that this is a solitary exercise, rather than designed to give mutual satisfaction, so I’m kidding myself if I think that, when I get off, I am giving them pleasure too. When we watch porn and find that we don’t have a 10-inch dick or a porn-industry standard body, how is it liberating that there are plenty of commercial organisations that will sell us what we feel we lack? And, furthermore, what’s liberating about having a porn-acceptable body that’s been mutilated out of pleasurable feeling, or living a porn-life that isn’t my life? A porn-sexuality that isn’t my sexuality? Pre-sexual liberation of the 1960s, when women were at risk of pregnancy and loss of reputation if they did it, men could often only get sex if they married or if they paid for it; now they can only get what Hef and Bob and Larry & Co say is ‘real’ sex. They can still only get sex under prescribed circumstances. Where’s the freedom in that? Post-porn proliferation, women are encouraged to view themselves as potential porn stars, even to the extent of undergoing ‘cosmetic’ surgery – the harmful cultural practice of Western ‘civilisation’ (as Gandhi said apropos of Western civilisation, it would be a good idea). Women, are you Hot, or Not? We used to have a double standard around sex; one for men, one for women. Now we’ve only got one standard for both sexes: Porn industry sex. I can call porn sexual freedom, I can call it sexual liberation, but it will never be that whilst one section of humanity is relieving itself over a portion of the rest of humanity. I can argue that it is sexual freedom for the former, but where’s the sexual liberation for the latter?

Bibliography

Hite, Shere ‘The Hite Report on Men and Male Sexuality’ (1981)

Hite, Shere ‘Oedipus Revisited. Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male Today’ (2005)

Leidholdt, Dorchen and Raymond, Janice G ‘The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism’ (1990)

Stark, Christine and Whisnant, Rebecca (eds) ‘Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography’ (2004)

9 responses

  1. Hear, hear. This is excellent stuff, specififying the damage (particularly surgical damange) done to females in the name of ‘freedom’ that belies the (generally very vague) arguments for. Good research.
    x T

  2. Fantastic piece.

    x Ali

  3. Brilliant! Well done Joy!

  4. Dear,There is a new anti pornwebsite from Belgium.This site is under construction and there is a lot of work to do.Please tell it to other people you know ( or mail),this is a Big Fight! http://www.por-no.be Greetings from Belgium, Christian

  5. WOW, absolutely BRILLIANT article! All of it. So bang on, informative, & so full of HUMANITY (the opposite of pro-porn perspectives). A few of my fave gems:

    “Sexual liberation cannot come from the continuation of adherence to hierarchies, attention to status, abuse of power.”

    “porn replicates the patriarchal society on-screen.”

    “It’s not sex, it’s hierarchy, abuse of power, normalisation of power abuse, patriarchal propaganda, hate speech, and promotes the idea not only that violence is sexy, but that violence is sex. Yet those who point this out are labelled anti-sex, not anti-violence or pro-justice.”

    “why is it that if someone says they choose to work in porn, defenders of porn recognise their agency, but when someone says they worked hard to escape from porn or prostitution, suddenly the defenders of porn do not recognise the agency of these women? It is far harder for someone to go against what is considered the norm (currently porn is equated with sex, and therefore good) than to go along with the mainstream view and say they chose to act in porn.”

    You are doing WONDERFUL work here!!

  6. Every man and woman should read this amazing-passionate writing. (Especially MEN). You have broken down all excuses for men to say while sticking up for their disgusting love of “porn.” I wonder if your writing would move their soul like it did mine. I wonder if the men would think twice before downloading a heinous “hardcore” video or calling up an escort service. Once I asked a guy why he goes to strip clubs. I said “what about the girl’s feelings?” He said “Who cares about their feelings.” I have never forgotten that comment to this day. As they say- “a hard cock has no conscience.” Once a male is aroused, anything could go. Why do you think they pay so much $ for an escort or 20.00 to rape a streetwalker? No hearts…

  7. While this is a great essay, there’s a small error: “monotheistic rules in the Bible, that forbade…any sex act which wasn’t sexual intercourse”. This is untrue. There is no prohibition on heterosexual married couples engaging in acts other than intercourse in the scriptures.

  8. Ok, I’m no Bible scholar, so I can’t argue what is and isn’t in the Old or New Testament, or how well or poorly it’s been translated and/or interpreted over the ages. There are prohibitions on menstruating women in the Old Testament, and until relatively recently in the US, many states had blanket laws against ‘sodomy’ (some states may still have such laws), which included anything that wasn’t penis in vagina sex, and those would have been justified by interpretations of the Bible. So, even if the ‘right’ interpretation of the Bible (and whose interpretation is that?) says het blow-jobs are ok, the majority of Christians in the world haven’t believed that to be the case.

    Do you remember what I said before about nit-picking?

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