Porn and Feminism: Looking at the Feminist Divide & Their Arguments.

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Image Credit: HuffPost, Janelle McCarthy, 2015.

Feminist writers and scholars don’t agree on everything, and thus so their views of pornography range (1). Some outright condemn it due to its violence and subjugation of women both on an individual level as well as collectively against women as a group. Many others, as we will see, embrace pornography or at least some forms of pornography, and in fact argue that pornography benefits women in many ways. It is thus the case that pornography, among a number of other sexual acts and services such as prostitution and so on, is of particular concern and interest to feminists and feminist philosophers. It is our goal and intent here to examine a few of these divergent feminist voices.

There is much condemnation of pornography within both contemporary as well as historical feminism. Condemnation of pornography is arguably the predominant view within feminism; pro-sex feminist Wendy McElroy explains that “The most common one [view] – at least, in academia – is that pornography is an expression of male culture through which women are commodified and exploited” (2). Such a view no doubt has historical precedent. Second wave feminists, for example, were known to be against violence and sexist popular media (3). However, towards the late 1980s the feminist anti-pornography movement largely fell into disarray, and sex-positive feminism has evolved ever since. Yet, many prominent feminists, such as Catharine MacKinnon, Diana Russel, Robin Morgan, Gail Dines and others still today contend that pornography is harmful to women. They argue that it is harmful in the sense that it constitutes a strong causality or facilitation of violence against women.

For example, MacKinnon believes that pornography treats women as mere instruments at the hands of men in order to satisfy the man’s sexual desires. She contends that this fails to see women as free and equal persons. It also dehumanizes them and encourages victimization, “In pornography women exist to the end of male pleasure” (4). Philosopher Helen Longino, well-known for being one of the earliest of feminists critical of pornography, agrees, “What’s wrong with pornography, then, is its degrading and dehumanizing portrayal of women, and not its sexual content. Pornography, by its very nature, requires that women be subordinate to men and mere instruments for the fulfillment of male fantasies” (5). She sees pornography to not only nourish sexism but also disrespect women in such as way as to violate their basic moral and civil rights (6).

Anne Eaton likewise sees pornography as damaging and argues that it shows the subordination of women to be sexually pleasurable. As a result pornography is able to shape both the viewers’ attitudes and desires (7). Pornography also reinforces what she terms “mechanisms, norms, and myths” that nurture women’s unequal social status (8). This is because it trains society to be sexually aroused at images that show women to be social inferiors. Other feminists, such as Catharine McKinnon, look at the actual performers. She contends that engaging in pornography as a career results in the psychological and physical abuse of women, “Sex forced on real women so that it can be sold at a profit to be forced on other real women; women’s bodies trussed and maimed and raped and made into things to be hurt and obtained and accessed, and this presented as the nature of women; the coercion that is visible and the coercion that has become invisible – this and more grounds the feminist concern with pornography” (9).

One of the interesting notions that feminist philosophers have come up with and discussed is the Master-Slave dialectic (10). This is to say that someone treats a woman as merely a body for personal use without recognizing that she is also a subject with desires. This is essentially to treat someone as a slave, and view another person as merely subhuman or as no more than an object. Thus, the Master-Slave dialectic demonstrates how the dignity of a woman as a human being is violated. According to Alison Assiter “the Master-Slave dialectic seems to capture the relation between people in pornographic eroticism. In much pornography, people, usually women, become objects for another” (11). Moreover, some feminists have argued that pornography has been widely accessed by convicted rapists and that there might be a causal link between pornography and rape (12); others, however, contest this saying that the correlation between pornography and sexual aggression is slim and often exaggerated (13).

But not all feminists and feminist philosophers agree with the above critiques of pornography.

Some see pornography as an avenue for women’s sexual expression over and above something restrictive and abusive. One reason being is because women also take pleasure in looking at images and depictions of sex. They believe that pornography counters several traditional ideas and stereotypes about women, these being that women enjoy sex only within a relational context, and that women do not like sex generally (14). Pornography also sometimes shows women in sexually dominant roles which challenges the idea that they are always necessarily victims or objects to be trampled on. Several porn actresses, notably Nina Hartley, former actress Sasha Grey, Ovidie, Madison Young, and others, view themselves as sex-positive feminists. They do not view themselves as victims of sexism, and say that their performance in pornography is that of their own free choice, and that what they do on set is an expression of their sexuality. Hartley, for instance, believes that porn can be something that two people do together as equals. This embodies and promotes positive attitudes about sexuality and she hopes that this is where porn can one-day go as it can“change men’s and women’s attitudes at their deepest neurobiological level” (15). Pro-sex feminist McElroy observes this new and up-and-coming trend, “Over the past decade, a growing number of feminists — labeled ‘pro-sex’ — have defended a woman’s choice to participate in and to consume pornography. Some of these women, such as Nina Hartley, are current or ex sex workers who know first-hand that posing for pornography is an uncoerced choice which can be enriching” (16).

McElroy seeks out to not only dispute the arguments presented by many of the feminist voices above, but then to also make the case that pornography is, in fact, beneficial to women “both personally and politically.” This includes the ability for pornography to provide women with a broader view of the world’s sexual possibilities. It allows women to “safely” experience sexual alternatives as well as to satisfy sexual curiosity, as it allows them to experiment in the privacy of their own bedrooms where it is safe. Pornography takes away the emotional confusion that often surrounds real world sex. Here women are able to enjoy scenes and situations that would be anathema to them in real life, and McElroy makes reference to the alleged rape fantasy of many women in support of her argument. Pornography also breaks cultural and political stereotypes. Often women are told to be ashamed about their urges and pornography instead tells them to accept and enjoy them. McElroy further contends that pornography provides a much needed sexual outlet for women who have no sexual partner. She also observes that couples can use pornography to enhance their relationship by watching videos and exploring their reactions together.

Politically, pornography is take to be free speech and free speech must also be applied to the sexual realm. This is necessary given that women’s sexuality has been controlled by censorship through the centuries. Though McElroy doesn’t state it as a fact, she says that the viewing of pornography might “well have a cathartic effect on men who have violent urges toward women.” If this is true then she alleges that censoring pornography could potentially remove a protective barrier between women and abuse. McElroy does not seem to provide any academic sources in support of her claim. She charges that sex workers are stigmatized by society, and that by legitimizing pornography this stigma can be challenges. McElroy closes saying that she arrives “at this [pro-sex] position after years of interviewing hundreds of sex workers.” However, her views have been deemed controversial by other feminist writers (17) (18) (19).

References.

1. Cosslett, R. 2015. Can porn empower women? Available.

2. McElroy, W. A Feminist Overview of Pornography, Ending in a Defense Thereof. Available.

3. Dines, G. & Jensen, R. 2009. Pornography, Feminist Debates on. Available.

4. MacKinnon, C. 1987. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. p. 158.

5. Eaton, A. 2007. “A Sensible Antiporn Feminism,” in Ethics. p. 117: 680.

6. Longino, H. 1980. “Pornography, Oppression, and Freedom: A Closer Look,” in Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. p. 54.

7. Eaton, A. 2007. Ibid. p. 680

8. Eaton, A. 2007. Ibid. p. 679

9. MacKinnon, C. 1987. Ibid. p. 147.

10. Assiter, A. 1988. “Autonomy and Pornography,” in Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy. p. 65.

11. Assiter, A. 1988. Ibid. p. 65.

12. Scully, D. 1990. Understanding Sexual Violence: A Study of Convicted Rapists. p. 154.

13. Ferguson, C. & Hartley, R. 2009. “The Pleasure is Momentary…The Expense Damnable? The Influence of Pornography on Rape and Sexual Assault,” in Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14: 323–29.

14. Thorn, C. 2011. Interview with a sex-positive feminist. Available.

15. O’Connor, R. 2013. What Does Feminist Porn Look Like? Available.

16. McElroy, W. Ibid.

17. Radical Feminism. 2014. Wendy McElroy doing a terrible job of defending pornography. Available.

18. Strub, W. 2010. Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right. p. 267.

19. Radical Feminism. 2013. Wendy McElroy: “pornography is liberatory.” Available.

 

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One response to “Porn and Feminism: Looking at the Feminist Divide & Their Arguments.

  1. I would like to see an article on why supporters of “feminism” choose to ignore the demeaning, degrading and dehumanising of Muslim women by the draconian, and unconstitutional, imposition of Sharia Law which is now operating in dozens of areas in the UK and throughout the Western world.

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