#MeToo and Anti-porn Feminism

The title of this article in yesterday’s Guardian is ‘The strange alliance between #MeToo and the anti-porn movement’, but the article isn’t as bad, from a radical feminist point of view, as that title immediately suggests.

There is actually nothing ‘strange’ about feminists being anti-porn, back at the beginning of the second wave of feminism in the 70s, anti-porn was the norm; this was followed by a so-called ‘sex positive’ pro-sex industry back-lash in the 80’s, which started the process of de-radicalising feminism that proceeded through the ‘ladettism’ of the 90’s and the selfish individualism/identity politics of the 00’s to the sorry mess we are in now, where mainstream feminism is in thrall to trans-identified males who get ‘triggered’ by neon pink cat-ears and talk of abortion rights, but absolutely have no problem with vulvas/vaginas when they appear in porn.

Single-issue, cross-party alliances are (or were) the norm in mainstream politics, I have already covered the ‘you’re in league with religious fundamentalists!’ gotcha! here, but it’s worth pointing out again, that to genuinely be ‘in league’ with religious fundamentalists, radical feminist would have to be doing something for them in return, like opposing abortion rights, and that simply is not happening.

No other political movement is held up to the same level of scrutiny/purity as radical feminism is by its opponents; Christians are the back-bone of the anti-poverty and nuclear disarmament movements, but nobody accuses those movements of being ‘in league with religious fundamentalists’.

Sex industry advocates and trans activists will work with right-wing governments and religious organisations when it suits their purposes – the demand for ‘purity’ is a demand for no mainstream political action at all.

Radical feminism is a political movement for all women (whether they identify as radical feminists or not), and being an effective political movement (rather than an esoteric, on-line ghetto) means using all the resources available to us, which includes single-issue political alliances with people who, on other issues, we would be opponents to.

The #MeToo movement means many things to many people, but for anti-porn activists it’s the ultimate vindication.

The moment has been a long time coming for religious conservatives at war with what they see as America’s culture of sexual objectification. Many see social media-fueled outpouring as a much-needed referendum on a culture that reduces a woman’s worth to her sex appeal.

Fighting porn in the age of ubiquitous internet isn’t easy, but nevertheless the mood was upbeat this week as hundreds of activists gathered near Washington to share stories, talk strategy, and canvass lawmakers on their agenda at a conference organized by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), which recently notched up a major PR victory in getting Walmart to ban Cosmopolitan magazine from checkout counters.

“This is what real change looks like in our #MeToo culture,” said Dawn Hawkins, the group’s executive director.

The anti-pornography movement has always been an unusual coalition of religious conservatives and radical feminists, dating back to Andrea Dworkin, the feminist icon who wrote Pornography: Men Possessing Women.

But in the Trump era, defined by pussy hats and pussy-grabbing, the Dworkin-meet-Mike-Pence alliance is a whole new level of weird. It’s also supercharged. With both feminism and the Christian right in the ascendent thanks to the divisive Trump White House, the anti-porn movement has gotten a new jolt of energy.

The alliance has finessed a politically tricky situation by drawing on the values of both sides and using the language of #MeToo and modern feminism to cast the widest possible net.

Of course, Americans have always been much better at denouncing porn than abstaining from watching it.

Porn viewership is likely at an all-time high, though reliable statistics are hard to come by. In 2017 Pornhub alone averaged 81 million visitors per day, and viewership is notably growing among women, some of whom are giving porn a second look through a sex-positive lens.

‘Sex positive’ is a meaningless term, another thought-terminating cliché designed to shut down debate and critical thinking. That women want to be porn consumers like men is seen as ‘progress’ only shows how meaningless a concept ‘equality’ is – once women are just as porn-sick and abusive as men are we will have achieved ‘equality’ with men, we will have our own slice of the rotten pie, but nobody will have been liberated from the status quo

But at what might be described as CPAC for the anti-porn movement this week, there was no such thing as healthy engagement with pornography.

As activists saw it, porn and sexual assault were but different points on a single continuum of sexual violence. The key difference was that there was an entrenched financial interest behind pornography – and to a lesser extent prostitution.

“The difference between prostitution and battery, incest and rape is that there’s nothing like the money in pornography and prostitution,” said Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and the founder of the San Francisco-based Prostitution Research and Education, who spoke on a panel at the conference.

Porn has been cast as empowering by some feminists. But Farley and other like-minded activists say that misses the “choicelessness” of the vast majority of women who work in the industry, many of whom are forced into it by economic necessity or other circumstance.

What’s worse, they say, is that assuming sex workers have a choice in their profession implies they signed up for the abuse and other mistreatments to which they are often exposed.

“Slaves have been blamed for their own enslavement, children have been blamed for provoking their own sexual abuse,” said Farley, “and women in prostitution have been blamed.”

Liberal advocates of the #MeToo movement have said the spotlight on sexual abuses must be expanded to include all victims, especially those on the fringes of society, beyond famous actresses in Hollywood.

Farley argues that, by logical extension, #MeToo must include prostitutes and porn actresses. “Our worst nightmares are their daily experiences,” she wrote in a recent piece, “given that the nature of their work constantly puts them at risk for harassment, unwanted sexual advances and rape.”

Valiant Richey, a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office in Washington’s King County, which includes Seattle, contrasted the vulnerable nature of people who go into the sex trade – typically poor, minority women with a history of addiction, neglect and abuse – with the relatively privileged makeup of sex buyers, who are often white, male, and financially comfortable.

It’s a “system of inequality perpetuated by race, economics and gender,” Richey said. “We should be talking about demand [for sex] as a system of oppression on its own.”

Such language might seem surprising coming from a group of social conservatives. But it was everywhere at this conference, which sought to capitalize on the current groundswell of growing gender consciousness.

Iceland, which is consistently ranked as among the best places in the world to be a woman, considered a countrywide ban on pornography in 2013. And in the United Kingdom, an age-requirement for all pornographic websites will be introduced this year.

But calling for a crackdown on the “public health crisis of pornography” puts the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, founded as Morality in Media in the 1960s by a group of clergymen, somewhat on the fringes in the US.

Early concerns that pornography would lead to rising levels of rape, first raised by anti-porn advocates a generation ago, have proven unfounded. Overall rape and assault numbers have fallen precipitously in recent years, even as pornography viewership has ballooned.

If you actually follow through on the link in that last paragraph, you will find that rape rates have fallen at the same rate as all other violent crime in the same period, and that the author of the article attributes this to a drop in lead pollution from car exhausts.

If rape rates fell at the same rate as other violent crimes over the same period, that fall then cannot be attributed to an increase in porn consumption.

This also means that we can’t, from that source, assign any rise in sexual violence to increased porn consumption.

Patriarchy pre-dates internet pornography, patriarchy is not a monolith, it varies and adapts across time and across cultures, pornography is just the latest iteration of male supremacy.

Back when rape within marriage was legal, wives would not report that they had been raped; ‘real rape’, a stranger jumping out of the bushes, is not the most common form of rape. Coercive sex has become normalised under porn-culture, but most victims (and some perpetrators) won’t even call it rape. Young women now see coercive sex as an inevitability, and such ‘bad sex’ is unlikely to ever be recorded as a rape statistic, either reported to the police or recorded in a crime survey.

But the Council’s arguments are not completely outside the American mainstream. Writing recently in The New York Times, the popular conservative columnist Ross Douthat said of porn that “the belief that it cannot be censored is a superstition”.

Such confidence was behind the Council’s seemingly radical – and surprisingly successful – campaign to get Wal-Mart to remove Cosmopolitan, which they argue demeans women with cheap sex tips and the like, from its checkout aisles.

Following that victory, the NCOSE’s vice-president of advocacy and outreach, Haley Halverson, told the Guardian the group would be reaching out to Target and Walgreens with similar requests. They also have designs for online ads.

And conference attendees buzzed over the recent passage of a bill in Congress that will crack down on ads for sex posted on websites like Craigslist and Backpage.com. Sex industry advocates say the bill could expose legal sex workers to undue legal jeopardy.

It’s a strange thing to be headed to the desk of Donald Trump for a signature, as the president faces down a high-profile lawsuit from Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who says she was paid to keep quiet about their affair.

Indeed Trump – and the numerous accusations of sexual harassment and assault against him – was the elephant in the room at conference devoted to stamping out sexual exploitation.

But Matt Aujero, who came to the conference from the University of Maryland where he works for the Catholic Student Center, said he found the lack of Trump talk refreshing. “I like how it’s not overly politicized,” he said.

The silence was also likely strategic. As the NCOSE put it shortly after Trump’s election in 2016: “We understand how the Trump victory has caused many to have unsettling feelings about the new administration, but we, of course, must look for every opportunity to advance our cause of ending exploitation … Many within Trump’s transition team are social conservatives for whom issues of sexual exploitation are already of great concern.”

But Gail Dines, an academic and founder of the anti-pornography group Culture Reframed, saw the newly-energized movement as a fitting response to Trump’s “pussy grabbing” boasts.

“Trump got women pissed, really pissed,” she said.

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