I love when people say feminism is a monolithic dogma with a specific party-line that must be towed. It’s hilarious. Obviously they’ve never been around more than one feminist at a time when the subject of sex work or pornography comes up.
It’s pretty much an instant debate, really. You step in one direction and you’re slut-shaming. Step another direction and you’re genital-essentializing. Take another step and you’re sex-negative. Another and you’re supporting objectification and rape culture. Etc.
I don’t want to prop up the myth of the “hyper-sensitive” feminist and her hair-trigger temper, but it does get a bit frustrating how easily people’s positions on the matter get straw-manned, misinterpreted or used as a basis on which to make a litany of assumptions about what they think on a hundred disparate issues pertaining to sexuality and such. It’s often hard to find a chance to actually outline your position before someone has gone ahead and projected one onto you.
The reason for that, I find, is that the question of pornography and sex work involves a number of extremely important questions held in tension and conflict. It’s a loaded issue not only in terms of a particular set of implications for women’s rights, gender, sexual rights, etc. but several, spanning different considerations that may or may not be prioritized the same way by one feminist or another.
There’s the question of bodily autonomy I talked about yesterday, and what it implies to have an abstract state telling a woman she must not use her body in a particular way. There’s the question of representation, and what this means in terms of our cultural conception of what a woman’s role (sexual or otherwise) “ought” to be. There’s the question of the degree to which our perceptions on the issue are being muddied by outdated codes of sexual morality. There’s the question of how often a woman involved in such work actually is making a true and genuine choice, versus being forced (in varying degrees) into the sex industry through socio-economic circumstances or even outright coercion. There’s the question of slut-shaming and the intense degree of stigmatization attached to sex work that is almost certainly filtering our ideas of what sex work is and means through a heavy cultural bias. There’s the ways that pornographic representation plays into issues of intersectionality, and cultural concepts not only of male sexuality and female sexuality, but also how we understand race, disability, gender variance, homosexuality, and many other concepts through a lens of sexuality, and the immense potential for exploitation and othering.
And there’s probably a whole textbook worth of other issues I just totally overlooked.
Working through those concepts to end up arriving at some kind of definitive, comprehensive position on sex work and pornography is virtually impossible. There’s just WAY too many variables and implications to take into consideration to make any kind of grand sweeping general statement. But yet, the intense degree of cultural baggage attached to the issue ends up sort of insisting on that. I keep finding myself backed into corners where I need to proclaim myself definitively pro-legalization of sex work, or against the sex trade, or in sex-positive and in favour of pornography, or totally against the sexualization of women in media. Every time I have to make such a proclamation in order to spare myself the hassle of people projecting some OTHER definitive generalized position onto me (one they disagree with), I’m, at best, telling a half-truth. I wonder how many feminists are doing the same.
Do ANY of us actually have a definitive, all-encompassing position on any of this?
When you work through the individual considerations, what you arrive at is an ever-expanding set of complications and interlocking ambiguities. In so far as I have a position, it’s based on questions, not answers.
To give an idea of what I mean, let’s take a walk through the exciting, magical world of pornography and erotica (not that there’s exactly a meaningful difference between those two terms). One thing I’ve found almost as predictable as “it will rain in Vancouver some time this week” is the fact that if I’m on the internet and I mention demeaning and/or sexist pornography, someone will chime in with “but not all porn is like that! There’s feminist porn!” or “there’s porn that portrays lesbian intimacy in a non-objectifying way!” or “there’s porn that portrays trans women without demeaning them!”, etc. Let me make this clear: I know. I know that porn is not by nature sexist, misogynist, demeaning, othering, etc. I know that not all porn producers and performers are greedy, shallow, predatory, exploitative, desperate or sell-outs. I know that porn can be made in socially conscious ways, and still be sexy, fun and awesome (generally even more so). I know, I know, I know. When I refer to “demeaning pornography” or “sexist pornography”, I mean the demeaning and sexist kinds, respectively. You know, like I said.
The fact that porn is not necessarily a harmful thing, and that there’s nothing problematic about it as a…um… genre? Medium? What would you call it, exactly? Well… whatever it’s called, that’s not the problem. But that does not mean that how it is done is not typically highly problematic.
One of the arguments often made against the anti-porn types is that they are holding porn as apart from other types of media, and looking at through a specially negative lens. This may often indeed be the case. Our sexual moralities lead a lot of people to assume a negative bias towards things associated with open sexuality, like porn, and to hold them to a particularly high standard in order to prove themselves worthy of existing.
But that’s not necessarily what everyone is always doing when they make a point about the problematic nature of certain types of porn. In fact, the inverse often ends up being the case: sex-positive feminists will also hold porn to a different standard than that to which they hold other media and will give it special exemptions, as they perhaps over-zealously work to avoid giving it special criticism.
What I mean by this is that feminists who will, say, enthusiastically offer (legitimate) criticism of the way that women are represented in non-porn media like the Michael Bay Tranformers movies, or Sherlock, or Sucker Punch, or Madea Gets A Job, or whatever, will consider critique of the way that women are represented in pornography to suddenly not be worthy of the same questions.
The premise driving feminist critique of media is that our overall cultural conception of women (and of femininity, masculinity, gender roles, and gender as a big crazy multi-stuff thinky-brainy thing) is largely constructed and maintained through media like film, television, literature, etc. This therefore makes media complicit in whatever consequences arise from our cultural attitudes about gender.
So if we accept this premise as true in the case of non-pornographic media, why would it non be true in the case of pornography? There is a trend from the opposite direction where people will overstate the influence of pornography on cultural attitudes (and on the individual) where the idea is that porn directly mediates / affects / determines the sexuality or attitudes of the consumer. Sex-positive feminism I think rightfully debunks that assumption (which if I remember correctly has also been debunked by science as well… I kind of recall there being studies concluding that consumption of porn does not have a significant impact on a man’s attitudes towards women or his sexuality. Anyone have any links? Am I getting this wrong?). But that’s not what I’m suggesting. I don’t think porn has any kind of special influence on attitudes about gender and sex, only that it holds to assume it probably has more or less at least the same kind of influence that other media does.
So it doesn’t really hold for me that we should grant pornography special exemptions and consider it off limits in terms of critique of how it presents things. I sort of feel we ought to just throw it in with the stack of media as a general thing and consider its weight there. Sort of like how I’m not an atheist because I have any special problem with the idea of God, but because I hold that idea to the same standard of critique I hold all ideas.
Like… let’s take the way trans women are represented in most media. We’ve got the occasional documentaries, where you can kill your liver playing The Trans Documentary Drinking Game. We’ve got the typically horribly written and poorly researched newspaper articles that make me want to shove a drill into my left tempero-parietal region and Broca’s Area. We’ve got the various web-comics and fan-fics and stuff, most of which function as sublimated sexual fantasy or wish-fulfillment scenarios. We’ve got the one or two feature films that come out each year, which while maintaining a veneer of sensitivity usually have a pretty significant set of problems (and always fail my adapted Bechdel Test). Then there’s the couple dozen genuinely great books, and the little trans blogosphere, that do a fantastic job of actually articulating trans experience and perspectives but almost no one actually reads. And then there’s the porn. Lots of it.
If the “shemale” and “chicks-with-dicks” porn and the “hot asian shemale traps” and “submissive thai ladyboys” and “DDD trannies with big tits and bigger cocks!” sites (I’m just typing these examples to get a boost in traffic, really) are a significant portion of the representation of trans women in our culture, and what constitutes people’s perceptions of that, why shouldn’t we question it, and think about what that means, what the potential consequences are?
Posing such questions is not the same thing as demonizing pornography itself anymore than saying that Megan Fox’s character in Transformers was a highly problematic look into Hollywood’s stagnant way of writing and representing female characters is some kind of indictment of cinema as a medium. Yes, there have been fantastically feminist films, and fantastic films that weren’t specifically feminist but still did a terrific job or writing women, and fantastic films that may not have included women at all but were still terrific masterpieces of the medium. But we still can look at specific instances of sexism in film, and still talk about what that means. Likewise pornography. The presence of good, high-quality, feminist and queer-friendly and trans-friendly and non-coercive and non-demeaning pornography doesn’t erase the problems with the rest of it.
(also please stop acting like you’re the only person in the world whose ever heard of socially conscious porn, and that we’ll totally instantly agree with you about whatever once we discover it exists… it’s kind of annoying in the same way those “have you heard of our saviour Jesus Christ?” people are)
And the truth is that pornography, and critique of it, is something we often need to talk about. It’s impossible, for instance, to discuss the problems of race in the gay community without looking at the representation of men of colour in gay pornography. It’s impossible to discuss the different way homophobia operates in relation to gay men compared to how it operates in relation to lesbians without looking at representations of “lesbians” in pornography meant for consumption by straight men. And in all instances, pornography provides an extremely important touchstone for how any given group or element of identity is culturally conceptualized, particularly in relation to gender and sexuality- disability, size, amputation, tattoos, race, intersexuality, etc. When we silence this discourse by labeling it “sex-negative”, we’ve lost something vital.
But of course, silencing the discourse about the ways in which pornography can be a healthy expression of sexuality, or the discourse about the rights and dignity of those who produce or perform in pornography, is likewise to lose something vital. As much as these tensions are understandable given the degree to which our culture has weighted anything connected to sexuality, we can’t allow those tensions to snap and leave us unable to think about, or discuss, these issues.
What we’re left with is the complexity. Which leads us to a point where the only viable way to talk about pornography is in terms of specific instances, specific types, specific situations, specific representations, specific critiques.
This is more or less the same position we end up in regards to the question of sex work. As much as we make legitimate generalized statements, such as that legalization or decriminalization is the only way to offer sex workers proper protection and safety, or that a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body and sexuality needs to be protected even if many would “disapprove” of her choices, or that it’s pointless to criminalize it anyway since it will always continue to exist, we will always end up having complications pop up- how much is it really her choice? What impact would decriminalization have on sex trafficking and human slavery, and our ability to locate and combat it?
The thing is, yes, absolutely I think legalization or decriminalization is the proper decision, and the one that would lead to the best conditions for sex workers. I don’t think there’s any good, fully justified argument against it. But I take that position in awareness of the complexity, and largely because of it. Because we CAN’T universally say that all sex workers are coerced, or aren’t legitimately choosing to do sex work, or are only choosing it because of their circumstances, or that all professional sex acts are an act of unequal sexual domination without fair equitable consent (the money introducing an imbalance into the legitimacy of the consent, such as authority or threat does), or that the sex trade as a general thing contributes to misogyny or rape culture, etc. Therefore we need to accommodate the possibility and existence of mature, reasonable, respectful, safe, fully informed and consensual sexual acts done in a context of business.
I’ve got a couple friends who run cam-sites. I have a friend who is quite successful in feature porn films. And I have two friends who do sex work, one of whom makes an enormous amount of money as a high-track “specialty” escort. All of these women did genuinely choose to do this. For none of them was it a “no other choice” situation. They’re all happy with the work they do, are not ashamed of it, and it’s hard for me to imagine why anyone would think they need to be stopped from doing it “for their own good”. And I’ve honestly considered it myself on occasion. Seriously. Sometimes I get tired of ramen and peanut butter toast.
It’s because of women like that that sex work ought to be legal, because that’s what sex work can be. Not because of ignorance of the other horrible circumstances under which sex work does occur. As such, it’s awareness that there’s not a particular universal narrative or universally “dehumanizing” / “demeaning” way that this kind of work happens that leads me to supporting legalization / decriminalization (well… that and the whole dramatic improvement in safety thing… and the bodily autonomy thing too… actually there’s lots of reasons…).
However, none of that means we need to turn a blind eye to the existence of human trafficking and slavery, coercion, socio-economic influences, survival sex work, intersectionality with issues of race or poverty or transgenderism, the influence of sex work on cultural ideas about sexuality and gender and overlapping issues of identity, and so forth. We can consider a range of possibilities involved in what the sex trade is, what it means, and how it operates (and chiefly how what it is and means and how is something that can shift dramatically from circumstance to circumstance) and keep the cultural dialogue open. Discuss the facts, possibilities, risks, implications… talk. Think. Come up with ideas and possibly solutions or harm reduction strategies.
The problem here is that entrenched concepts of both our old biases about sexual morality AND the imposed dichotomy of “sex-positive” / “sex-negative” present an oversimplified comprehension of an intensely complex element of human life and society. Under both we’ve got pressures influencing us to prematurely shut down dialogue and thought, or assume a particular over-arching positi0n on something that may work completely differently under different circumstances. What is of primary importance, I believe, rather than championing such positions is simply being able to foster a healthy discussion of these issues. Jumping too quickly to slut-shaming or accusations of “sex-negativity” or otherwise reprimanding someone just for trying to think or talk about an issue related to the sex industry prevents us from being able to ever arrive at a meaningful discourse about it.
Right now, when it comes to sex work and pornography, we do not need to have conclusions and answers and positions (much less those that can be condensed into pithy sound-bytes or identities or isms), and shouldn’t really have them demanded of us. We’re not there yet. What we need to be working towards right now is just being able to ask the right questions, and have the right conversations.